« The Gestalt Primary | Main | Kaus And Affairs »

October 14, 2007

There Is So Much For Us Of Little Faith

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Lee Siegel (yeah, that guy!) writes an LA Times op-ed attacking atheism:

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

Belief and imagination are two very different states of mind, and the norms that apply to them differ dramatically.  To say that belief ought to be based on evidence isn't to say that imagination should be based on evidence.  As an atheist, I'm often happy to imagine that God exists (for example, when reading myths, daydreaming, or considering a philosophical argument).  I just don't think there's sufficient evidence to believe in God.  Lovers of the imagination have nothing to fear from atheism, since atheists are fine with you imagining whatever you want. 

The same confusion appears to be at work here:

You don't have to be a religious person to cherish the idea of faith in the absurd. When artists have an unverifiable, unprovable inspiration, and then seek to convey it in words or images, they take a leap of faith every bit as vertiginous as that of the religious person.

This is a rather odd way to describe the artistic process.  Being struck with an amazing idea that one wants to put into words or sounds or images is a very different state of mind than believing without evidence.  I don't have a worked-out theory of what artistic inspiration comes to, but I'd think that imagining the awesomeness of your future creation is a much bigger part of it than belief is.  (Of course, it's possible that someone who wrote at such length about taking care of his imaginary cat is confused about the nature of imagination and belief.)

Siegel continues:

The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency...

These things either aren't matters of belief, or are things for which we believe with good evidence.  Falling in love with someone is a matter of having one's emotions and desires attach to your beloved, not forming a belief.  (When we talk about 'true love', we mean love that's genuine, not love that correctly describes reality in the way that a true statement or a true belief does.)  Expecting kindness is a genuine belief -- namely, a belief that others will be kind -- but it's usually based on evidence.  That humans have a degree of sympathy and kindness is an empirically verifiable part of human nature, and we often have good evidence for believing that others will be kind to us in the right circumstances.  Sacrificing some of our self-interest, like falling in love, isn't a matter of false belief.  It's a matter of having the kinds of emotions and desires that motivate altruistic behavior. 

Contra Siegel, the existence of truth, beauty, goodness, and decency are easily established.  Open any well-researched book of mathematics or the sciences, and you'll find plenty of true statements right there in front of you.  Read about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or anyone who strove to avert human suffering and help people live better lives, and you'll find evidence for the existence of goodness and decency.  And in a world with sunsets and mountains and so many lovely women, my senses are given ample evidence for the existence of beauty. 

I don't know for sure what motivates the view that all the best things that exist are located far beyond our ability to have knowledge based on evidence, and that faith the only way to encounter them.  But I'm struck by how prevalent it is, when so many wonderful things require no faith at all. 

October 14, 2007 | Permalink


Holy crap -- is he saying that if we don't *actually* believe that an invisible bearded guy determines our fates that we can't imagine, read, or write any impossible things?

Posted by: El Cid | Oct 14, 2007 6:53:26 PM

Yeah, that's what it looks like.

Being a philosopher, when I read stuff like this, I don't know how crazy it seems to normal people.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 14, 2007 7:01:31 PM

If blowing goats is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Leave Mickey Kaus Alone!!!!

Posted by: Ann Coulter | Oct 14, 2007 7:47:44 PM

Is this because our Office of Atheist Initiatives or our many atheist television and radio shows have been demanding that they prove the science behind their beliefs before going to Sunday school? Or is it because our houses of atheism found on many street corners in towns around rural America have signs that demand such proof? Oh I know, its the several national leaders of Atheism that are often found visiting the White House or on the nightly news that have been demanding this proof... yeah that's it.

Posted by: Fr33d0m | Oct 14, 2007 8:22:30 PM

Shorter Ezra:

*Belief* is belief that something is *true*. Not so, imagination.

Posted by: sherifffruitfly | Oct 14, 2007 8:34:53 PM

My cats love me yet don't believe in god. Does this make them disingenuous?

Posted by: spinoza | Oct 14, 2007 8:35:47 PM

Flying. Spaghetti. Monster.

Posted by: db | Oct 14, 2007 8:37:37 PM

Deeply pathetic. Religion needs better defenders than this---not having faith is anti-imagination? I'd think that it would be crippling to think that everything you imagine is real. For instance, most monogamous relationships wouldn't last a week due to faith-based cheating.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Oct 14, 2007 8:39:51 PM

According to the Necrominon, chanting "Lee Siegel" in front of a mirror will summon the Flying Spaghetti Monster and cause Him to molest any evil atheists who might interrupt one's self adulation.

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Oct 14, 2007 8:41:40 PM

"I honestly feel sorry for the guy," said neighbor Michael Eddy, 54, a born-again Christian. "To live in this world not believing in a higher power, doubting that Christ died for our sins—that's such a sad, cynical way to live. I don't know how he gets through his day."

Coworker Donald Cobb, who spends roughly 20 percent of his annual income on telephone psychics and tarot-card readings, similarly extended his compassion for Schaffner.

"Craig is a really great guy," Cobb said. "It's just too bad he's chosen to cut himself off from the world of the paranormal, restricting himself to the limited universe of what can be seen and heard and verified through empirical evidence."


Posted by: mdy | Oct 14, 2007 8:42:36 PM

Lee Siegel is God.

Posted by: porgy tirebiter | Oct 14, 2007 8:47:57 PM

I hear that goatsuckers describe their passion in terms that are almost religious.

Posted by: bleat my little 7th level of suburbia bleat | Oct 14, 2007 8:49:20 PM

I wonder how Lee would react if he ever hung out at a typical science fiction convention. Not only are sf fans, readers, writers and artists among the most imaginative people anywhere, they are also, as a group, the least religiously inclined people I've ever been around.

Posted by: popomo | Oct 14, 2007 8:54:39 PM

It's actually the same bad argument that C.S. Lewis uses in Miracles. He sets up as the only alternative to religious belief a world of strict deterministic mechanics, then goes about to prove that the mere existence of mind refutes that world. Ergo God exists by two falls out of three.
In Lewis's defense, he made this argument around 1947, before quantum indeterminacy and cybernetics had filterred much into everyday thought.

Lee Siegel's only excuse, it seems, is that he listens only to himself.

Posted by: pbg | Oct 14, 2007 9:07:32 PM

Yeah, damn anti-religionists attacking my right to believe in the faery realm, unicorns, banshees and Santa.
And why are they constantly assaulting my faith with their television shows, teevee stations, publishing houses ... and don't get me started on their damn "atheist halls" on every street corner - with the meeting schedules posted in every local paper. Yeah, the atheists have been pushing their undesired agenda on us people of imagination for too long!

Posted by: Robert D2 | Oct 14, 2007 9:08:26 PM

Attacks on one's imagination are the intellectual equivalent of attacks on patriotism - certainly the last refuge of the scoundrel.

I have had my imagination questioned many times when trying to explain simple things like why Steorn's claims of a free energy device are nonsense. The whole point of the attack is to throw you off balance and make you defend yourself, and take your eye off the ball, which is the pure fantasyland most such attackers inhabit.

Posted by: winner | Oct 14, 2007 9:11:27 PM


you expressed your feelings on this subject very beautifully.

lee siegel says, "the attack on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination."

the way religious faith is often practiced, is actually the attack on human imagination.
in this culture, it seems that the attack on the atheist now amounts to an attack on the human imagination, in terms of science and free thought.
soon,atheists may be accused of threatening our homeland security.

...too much conscience, constraint and conventionality can inhibit and wither the creative process, destroy dreams and the freedom to act on them.
organized religion can actually become a tyranny of the spirit.
its dogma and doctrine can be so rigid and demanding, that we can lose touch with our own imaginal and unconscious way of experiencing the world.
that seems to me, to be the real danger for a society.
i think true spirituality and imagination often begins where religion ends.
...as you say, neil, a world that can be perceived without G-d still can be experienced with beauty and mystery and even a theorem.

Posted by: jacqueline | Oct 14, 2007 9:26:03 PM

Here's a thought experiment for Siegel: name the 5 "religionists" in all time who were as imaginative as my top five scientists from the 20th century: Einstein, Hawking, Heisenberg, Feynman and Curie...

Any more questions?

Posted by: z adura | Oct 14, 2007 9:26:34 PM

Oh, like you would know anything about art, a young whipper-snapper like you.

Now stop arguing with your elders, or I'll tell your mommy on you!

Posted by: sprezzatura | Oct 14, 2007 9:30:58 PM

And by the way, Lee Siegel is bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life!

Uh -- I mean -- who I've never met.

Posted by: sprezzatura | Oct 14, 2007 9:33:29 PM

So...is Siegel implicitly arguing for the validity of promulgating an inquisition against anyone who questions the goodness of the works of imagination he likes?

Posted by: Karl Steel | Oct 14, 2007 9:55:35 PM

That's some imagination you've got there, sprezz.

Posted by: sherifffruitfly | Oct 14, 2007 9:56:59 PM

name the 5 "religionists" in all time who were as imaginative as my top five scientists from the 20th century: Einstein, Hawking, Heisenberg, Feynman and Curie

This brings up a point I wanted to touch upon: knowledge of the world as it is expands imagination, rather than contracting it. JRR Tolkein was a world-renowned expert on language when he wrote his books, for instance.

This isn't even a question of "imagination vs empricism" but a question of "imagination grounded in knowledge vs imagination grounded in nothing". The former gets you "Lord of the Rings"; the latter gets you a schizoprenic on the street corner mumbling about the Pope spying on him.

Posted by: Notorious P.A.T. | Oct 14, 2007 9:59:05 PM

Fromm deals with this when he discusses the difference between rational and irrational faith.

As for someone thinking that imagination is the same as belief - well, they need God, because God help them for being such a shit-for-brains.

Posted by: Nim | Oct 14, 2007 10:03:29 PM

Siegel whines of an alleged attack on the "right" to believe in things lacking in believable evidence for their existence. No anti-religionist I know of and no prominently published critic of religion in North America in English advocates stripping anybody's right to do so. The issue is whether belief in evidence-less hypotheses merits intellectual respect as opposed to legal or physical respect.

There are methods of defending religion - even intellectually - without engaging in frantic, compulsive wankery while typing.

Posted by: Bruce | Oct 14, 2007 10:17:35 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.