Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Weinberg on Religious Liberals

July 20th, 2009 by Bruce Nielson

I am reading a book called The Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler and came across this quote from famous Physicist Steven Weinberg. I wanted to see other people’s thoughts on this.

Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least the conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe in because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy. Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs ‘work for them.’ This one believe in… heaven and hell, [that one] believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as long as everyone gets a satisfying spiritual, rush from what they believe… [W]e are surrounded by ‘piety without content.’… I happen to think that the religious conservatives are wrong in what they believe, but at least they have not forgotten what it means to really believe in something. The religious liberals seem to me to be not even wrong.

On the one hand, it stikes me as correct — nail on the head correct — in understanding the incoherence of the liberal religious position.

On the other hand, it’s almost like Weinberg doesn’t see that a statment like his is based on the assumption that truth matters, and thus should have established why the truth matters before it was stated. The liberal religious position here being attacked makes perfect sense if you are starting with the assumption that the truth has no significance.

Comments (14)
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July 20th, 2009 14:58:48
14 comments

Agellius
July 20, 2009

I have been arguing with an atheist, and one of my arguments was that science assumes that objective truth may be known. In fact that’s the main boast of the atheist scientist: That he is dealing with reality whereas the religious man deals in fantasy or wish fulfillment.

So I think truth is important to the scientist in that sense: That truth is the whole point of the scientific endeavor. If reality can’t be objectively known then science is pointless, and the man who looks to science to learn what is real and true is every bit as deluded as one who looks to religion.

Thus the liberal attitude to truth is incompatible with science.


Vader
July 20, 2009

I agree with everything Weinberg says, except the part about religious conservatives being wrong. And I agree with your observation: Weinberg assumes it is obvious that truth matters.

But why does it matter? The truth that, if you step into traffic, you stand a good chance of getting hit by half a ton or more of metal, has obvious practical value that I think liberals acknowledge. So I’m tempted to say that truth matters because it is practical. When I am out of harmony with the truth, I lose the companionship of the Holy Spirit, and this makes me unhappy. In the long run, if I remain out of harmony with the truth, I face eternal damnation.

But there is an impractical aspect: I love the truth. I ache to learn more. That’s not a thing that is amenable to rational analysis, or it would simply be a variation on truth as a practical means towards happiness.

I think most scientists love the truth also, although their conception of it is not always the same as the believer’s. (Obviously some scientists are believers; I would like to count myself in that crowd.) I don’t think religious liberals have the same love of the truth, or they would not treat it like a ball of Play-Do.

So I am tempted to say to the religious liberals, paraphrasing Christ’s words to the Pharisees: “Mormons and scientists will enter into Heaven before you.”


Bruce Nielson
July 20, 2009

Agellius, thanks for the clarifications. Yes, that is what I really meant.

Clearly religious liberalness is incompatible with science. But then why should science matter? You might answer “because of progress.” But then I’d just ask “why does progress matter if we will all die anyhow?” etc.

The point being that your atheist friend claiming a religious man is dealing with fantasy says it like it’s a bad thing. But if he’s right (i.e. there is no God and thus no meaning to life) then it’s arguably a good thing to not face the truth because the truth had no value to begin with. The fantasy wish fulfilment is probably superior to truth in this case. (Or at least we have no objective measure of better and worse by which to claim facing reality is better.)

But if *that* is the case, then it hardly matters what you believe. Thus the religious liberal is actually more correct then the scientist in my opinion.


Bruce Nielson
July 20, 2009

“I don’t think religious liberals have the same love of the truth, or they would not treat it like a ball of Play-Do.”

Hmm… facinating. It seems like the only answer.

Yet, I’m not sure I can fully buy this either. My experience suggests that religious liberals *do* love “truth” (i.e. what they believe to be true) when it fits within certain categories but not in others. It seems selective to me.

Ironically, I believe the whole basis for religious liberalism seems to be rejection of religious conservatism because it’s not true.


Bruce Nielson
July 20, 2009

(I meant “not true in their opinion.”)


Agellius
July 21, 2009

Wow Bruce, that’s an excellent point, which didn’t sink in until I read your comment: Why care about truth if truth has no ultimate value? The atheist might say, “I want to live in the real world”, but if the real world is meaningless who cares whether or not one lives in it? And what ground is there for saying that it’s “better”, i.e. more good, to live in it, if there’s no objective “good”?


Bruce Nielson
July 21, 2009

This is a prefect example of what we might call “failure to accept all logical consquences of one’s own beliefs.”

Atheists that are arguing that “it’s better to live in the real world” are — by definition — contradicting their own beliefs. They are literally both believing in a valuable ultimate truth (i.e. believing in a God so to speak) AND not believing in a valuable ultimate truth. Their argument makes no sense if they don’t simultaneously accept both positions at once.


Vader
July 21, 2009

I think some atheists see the contradiction, and reply that it pleases them to live in the real world, and that pleasure is all the reason needed. Truth for its practical value again.

To put it bluntly, there seems to be a divide between those for whom Truth is a lover and those for whom Truth is a whore.


Bruce Nielson
July 21, 2009

If you are an atheist, can see the contradiction, and admit it, then why are you discussing your beliefs with a theist in the first place?

The logical ramification of being an atheist and living in the real world because it pleases you is to keep your atheism to yourself (you don’t want to spoil it for others and of course you realize that atheism “just isn’t for everyone”) and to never talk about it for fear of converting people to a belief system that doesn’t please them.

But if you argue that living in the real world *does please everyone* then, of course, you are assuming the existence of an ultimate truth of universal value. Which means you are contradicting youself.

And round and round the logic goes.


Adam G.
July 22, 2009

“Those for whom Truth is a lover and those for whom Truth is a whore.”

brilliant.


Adam G.
July 22, 2009

to be fair, there are atheists who believe in truth, beauty, and so on as ultimate and objective absolutes, but who refuse to believe that these absolutes are found in an Absolute Person.


Vader
July 22, 2009

[deep bow]

Adam, there is a spectrum from theists to nontheists to atheists. I have a number of nontheist friends, but I only have one or two atheist friends.

I wonder if those who believe in any form of absolute truth can really be described as atheists.


Bruce Nielson
July 22, 2009

“I wonder if those who believe in any form of absolute truth can really be described as atheists.”

On the one hand, I don’t believe “atheist” is a good word to describe someone that believes in a valuable absolute. (i.e. as opposed to a meaningless absolute.) On the other hand, if there were such a person as one that didn’t believe in a valuable absolute, I’d imagine they’d be dead or in an asylum.

Thus, I must conclude, there are no (sane) atheists.

Which means the term is not very useful if defined that way.

So then what is an atheist? Perhaps a militant nontheist? But then that would make atheists extreme more absolute versions of nontheists.


Bruce Nielson
July 22, 2009

“to be fair, there are atheists who believe in truth, beauty, and so on as ultimate and objective absolutes, but who refuse to believe that these absolutes are found in an Absolute Person.”

If the word “God” refers specifically to a higher power that is a person, then such a person does not believe in God.

But if the word “God” *includes* any belief in a higher power, then such a person believes in “God.”

It just depends on how you define the terms.

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