Tag Archives: religion

Franklin’s Defense of Religion

I’m not a religious person, but I am interested in history and especially in how ideas play out in history.

I came across this today. In it, Benjamin Franklin responds to one of Thomas Paine’s essays against there being any sort of providence.

It’s well-known that many of the founding fathers were deists and were skeptical of religion. Jefferson, for instance, edited his own bible. Paine took the idea of questioning to its logical extreme and advocated atheism.

Franklin was quite a character — he made a lot of money on preaching various forms of common sense morality but was also quite a bit of a party animal, especially when he got to France.

So it’s interesting to see folks from the age that founded my country discuss the role of religion in social affairs.

TO THOMAS PAINE.

[Date uncertain.]

DEAR SIR,

I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,

B. Franklin

Paine, of course, went on to author The Age of Reason, which totally skewered religion. Then he went to France — which was fertile ground for the kind of meals Paine was dishing up. Franklin was known for his prominent role science in the colonies, the almanac, bifocals, the harmonica, the Franklin Stove, and so forth. The flamethrower, over-the-top rhetoric of Paine led to him personally attacking George Washington, conspiring with Napoleon on how to invade England, and widespread hatred from his fellow Americans when he returned home, just as Franklin had predicted.

The letter is a very interesting insight into how Franklin’s mind worked.

But still, perhaps Paine got the better end of the argument.

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Sucky Things You’d Rather Not Think About

Steve Martin with balloons on his head

Steve Martin used to say “I learned enough philosophy in college to mess me up for the rest of my life.”


There’s a bit of truth to that. Philosophy — the real stuff, not the stuff you learn mostly in college today — makes you deal with a lot of things you’d rather not.

Your death is imminent. No way around that. In the big scheme of things, you’re not even an ant. In fact, you exist for such a vanishingly-small amount of time and have such a tiny impact on anything that for all intents and purposes you don’t exist at all. The question shouldn’t be “How can I really know the rest of the universe exists?” The real question is more like “How does the universe really know I exist?”

Science is just a bunch of guesses. Yes, we’ve gotten really good at guessing, but for all we know we’re just getting better at describing the workings of the computer simulation we all live inside of. We can do amazing things by empirically observing things, noting patterns, creating possible rules, and testing those rules. Science rocks. But there’s always the chance we didn’t observe enough, that our model is lacking fidelity and we just don’t know. There were no black swans — until somebody saw a black swan. Newton’s laws worked awesomely well — until they stopped working. Induction, the idea that if we see something over and over again we can infer a general pattern, works until it does not work. The turkey thinks the farmer is a friend and always brings food — until the day he shows up with a hatchet. Mars had canals, hell they were empirically observed by multiple scientists, until we realized we were just looking at the backs of our own eyeballs.

Everything really cool is always going to be 20 years away — right up until the day you die. Twenty years is about the size of something that looks possible, yet has so many problems we’re not really sure how long it will take. So when people ask experts how long it’s going to be until some super-cool new thing comes out, the answer more than likely will be “20 years.” One day you’ll be dying of disease X and read that a cure for disease X is only 20 years off. That’s probably going to suck a lot.

Trans-humanism is going to take a lot longer than people think. On one hand, we’re already at the singularity: people are integrated with machines to a point right now where only twenty years ago it would have been a miracle. The folks from twenty years ago could not have predicted how all the technology is starting to interact with each other. On the other hand we can get carried away with this very easily. To take the idea of a singularity to it’s most extreme level, to say that some mystical far-out world will come into existence where literally everything will be possible? Not so much. Even if the technology races ahead, we are in for a long struggle as the human side of the changing world adapts. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. Odds are we end up with a machine in a few decades that has the horsepower of a human mind; and then we abuse it or fight over it for years afterwards. We have no history of welcoming new intelligent species with open arms. Don’t expect that to change.

Science will never be able to transfer your mind into a machine. Yes, maybe one day in the distant future some miracle will happen where all of your mind can be analyzed and copied, but that will only be a copy. The “real” you will die. There will just be a twin that’s born with everything about you. You won’t magically pop over from one head to the other. Yes, “you” might continue, but only in the sense that a new person begins that’s just like you — a super twin — while you die. Not a pleasant thing to look forward to. However the future works out, the wetware that exists inside your skull is subject to the limitations of being a biological device. Not going to change. Ever.

The religious people were right all along. Given all this uncertainty and almost pointless nature of existence, the only rational course of action is to creatively speculate on what values you want for your life and why. Then make decisions every day based on that creative speculation. Remember that the driver of all religions is each individual having to make value decisions based on incomplete information. This is a good thing and, in fact, the only thing you really have. Don’t confuse that with religion in the sense of an organized social structure. I’m not saying join a church, or start believing in a deity (although many religions have rather vague deities which sound a lot more like “the universe” or “nature” than anything else.) The existentialists argue that any formal, self-consistent religious structure is necessarily broken — God is dead — not that the essence of religion, finding meaning by artistically living an authentic life, doesn’t work. Living life is an art, based in your own creative speculative imaginings of what the universe expects of you. You can start with somebody else’s imagination of how it all fits together, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to take ownership of this — complete with all of the doubts that you might have made the wrong choice.

While these things are indeed sucky, they are also reality, which means we might as well get used to them. After all, there are some pretty good things too. You live at the pinnacle of modern thought. Billions of years of evolution has happened to put you exactly where you are today. Nobody else has lived in a time where lifespan is so extended, living is so easy, and people from all over the world are so connected. The poorest person in the United States has things that Louis XIV could have never imagined.

But you can’t experience the total awesomeness of life unless you own the bad parts too. It’s been my experience that you have to absorb these sucky things — take them in and let them wash over you — in order to truly move past them and enjoy life. Otherwise they always seem to be nagging at your heels. You can live in total denial of reality, or you can push through these sucky things to the other side. Being in the middle is unpleasant. Yeah, college can screw you up for the rest of your life. You can end up thinking nothing is true and everything is pointless. But that should only be a pit-stop on the way to the “dancing above the void” that marks a truly meaningful and enjoyed life.

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DGE Review 3: Atheist Delusions, by David Bentley Hart

(This is the third in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

“The problem with those Christians,” my friend told me one night, “is that they want to run all of our lives. I’m gay, and they even want to tell me I can’t get married!”

I’ve had this discussion, or ones like it, many times before. There’s usually some initial charge that involves current politics, like opposition to gay marriage, or abortion. Then “the list” comes out. We all know “the list” by now: the crusades, burning of the Pagan temples, the Thirty Year’s War, trials for witchcraft and sorcery, and my favorite, The Inquisition (which Mel Brooks made into a wonderful musical, by the way)


This video is much too silly for this article,
but the song is stuck in my head. Now it can be stuck in yours!

The conclusion is then “Christianity brings out the worst in people” or better yet “religion is a meme”. It seems very fashionable among modern authors to go down the list, often at great length, in order to draw the conclusion that all religion is a sort of evolutionary hangover that mankind suffers from. Once we completely free ourselves from such superstitious silliness, only then will we able to move forward together.

David Bentley Hart is having none of it.

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DGE Review 1: “Why I Became an Atheist”, by John W. Loftus

(This is the first in my “Does God Exist” series of reviews. There will be six or seven books on whether God exists or not. I’ll read them for you, give a recap here, and then try to draw it all into some conclusions at the end. This is not meant as a religious discussion, more of an examination of the way smart people argue about really tough subjects.)

John Loftus is a passionate guy. You have to be a passionate guy to spend so much of your time preaching and arguing about God. As a former minister, Loftus spent a lot of time being a Christian Apologist. (An apologist is not somebody who apologizes, although the root words are the same. An apologist is somebody who defends something)

John just knew that God existed, and he was willing to tell and argue with anybody that he was right. He went through all of the classic pro-God and anti-God argument points.

Then John lost his faith. Don’t ask me why, that’s a question for him, but best as I can gather, people in the church let him down (severely!) and he had a big problem with why God would allow evil and suffering in the world. So he decided to become an atheist. And, as a result, decided to write this book.

Which is where we begin.

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