X-Message-Number: 20029
From: "Mark Plus" <>
Subject: Re: Religion and Secularism
Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2002 15:45:09 -0700

In Message #20023, Mike Perry writes,

>As for Tom Paine and other founding fathers, some of the most prominent,
including Washington, Jefferson, and Paine himself, were not atheists but
Deists, while I'm not aware of any who could be said to be atheist or
non-religious. As Paine makes clear in *The Age of Reason*, he believed in
no revealed scripture (hence his opposition to the Bible) but did believe
in a God, and also a resurrection and an afterlife.

Deism illustrates how one generation's reasonable inference can become a 
future generation's non sequitur.

Deists assumed that "revealed" religions, including Christianity, are human 
inventions, which almost anyone could think up and present as genuine. In 
other contexts such an activity would be called "lying."  (Today we have far 
more examples of made-up religions than educated Europeans knew about in the 
18th Century. Apparently starting a new religion isn't all that difficult. I 
couldn't do it, because I don't have the right sort of personality. But 
there are plenty of people in the world who do.)

By contrast, humans couldn't make living organisms, and it wasn't obvious 
how organisms originally came about or how they worked, though their 
functioning could be analogized to watches, which were the high-tech gadgets 
of the 18th Century. (We don't find watches in nature, however, so maybe god 
can't make watches.) Therefore, the Deists concluded, revealed religions 
don't prove the existence of a god, but the existence of life does imply the 
existence of a god, because no other "explanation" for life was plausible 
given the knowledge of the time.

Darwin certainly changes the look of things. Now that we understand how 
evolution works, and we are increasingly able to control the biochemical 
structure of life, the Deists' assumption about biology seems untenable. 
When humans are able to do things once attributed to a god, it's 
increasingly hard to argue that biological complexity has to point to a 
supernatural designer. If we can learn to reverse aging and resuscitate 
people from some kinds of "death," then that would seem to make the god 
conjecture superfluous, at least regarding biology. (Some day I'd like to 
work into a conversation: "Of course scientists can create life! What do you 
think life is -- some kind of miracle?")

Deism was certainly an enormous improvement over the dogmatisms of its era, 
and it allied itself with the right progressive social and political causes 
like freedom of expression, religious disestablishment and republican 
government. Today it's mainly worth studying for its historical interest.

In light of Deism's career, you have to wonder how people will view 
Transhumanism some day. If progress stagnates, as seems likely unless we can 
find alternatives to petroleum in the next few years, then Transhumanism may 
be remembered, if at all, as a crank obsession that seemed plausible during 
the last flush of economic growth before the end of the fossil fuels age.

Mark Plus
It's not "religious" or "science fictional" if you can do it.

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