Odd Cult Claims

Jan 21st, 2006 11:16 pm | By

Garry Wills says something odd in his review of Jimmy Carter’s new book.

I was surprised when [in 1976] so much was made of his religion as he ran for president. It began when he was asked, while visiting Baptist friends, if he thought of himself as “born again.” He answered yes – not surprisingly, since the Gospel of John (3:5) says that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, and Saint Paul says that baptism is being reborn into Christ (Romans 6:4). Reporters did not know this as a basic belief of Christians – they treated it as an odd cult claim.

Uh – yes. Because, what is the difference? What is the difference between a basic belief about what one has to do to ‘enter’ a nonexistent (or at any rate highly speculative) place, and an odd cult claim? I’ll tell you what the difference is. There isn’t one. I know everyone pretends otherwise. I know we’re supposed to pretend that as long as a religion has been around for some critical number of centuries (five? eight? fourteen? twenty? thirty?) then its basic beliefs are no longer odd cult claims but perfectly normal and routine and reasonable. But guess what – just adding years to a fantasy doesn’t make it any truer. Not even a little bit. Just adding years doesn’t have any effect of that kind at all. Really – the years are quite inert in that respect.

That led to his second-most-famous remark of the 1976 campaign. Carter was asked in a Playboy interview if he thought he was a holier-than-thou person because he was born again. He answered that, no, in fact he had committed lust in his heart – again quoting the New Testament (Matthew 5:28). That did it. For much of the Carter presidency, the line of some in the press (and, as I know well, in the academy) was that he was a religious nut.

Yes, I remember that. Well – same again. He was a religious nut. He was a lot more benign with it than most religious nuts, but that’s not the same thing as not being one at all.

His attendance at church was not announced; we reporters had to ferret that out by ourselves…Unlike most if not all modern presidents, he never had a prayer service in the White House. His problem, back then, was not that he paraded his belief but that he believed. All this can seem quaint now when professing religion is practically a political necessity, whether one believes or not. There is now an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity.

No, it doesn’t seem quaint now, it seems like – a lost paradise. A time when public religiosity in political candidates wasn’t considered either routine or mandatory – when in fact it was greeted with surprise and mirth. Those were the days.

The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers – the great majority of Americans – derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.

That third sentence is a complete non sequitur, and that ‘even’ is an absurdity. Separation of church and state has nothing to do with separation of morality and politics, for the simple and blindingly obvious reason that church and morality are not synonymous, and are in fact independent of one another. Believers may derive most of their moral insights from their beliefs (or think they do, which comes to the same thing), but that’s mostly because the association is so often made. The moral insights don’t in fact depend on the beliefs, or if they do, they’re the ones that need doing away with, because they have no other justification. ‘God wants me to hate gays.’ Hmm – let’s drop that one, shall we?

It’s a good article in other ways though. As Southern Baptists go, I certainly prefer Carter’s kind to Pat Robertson’s kind. But I do miss the quaint old days when religion wasn’t compulsory.

The Tarantella

Jan 20th, 2006 7:09 pm | By

Look what PZ got! A present in the mail. You have to look – I don’t do pictures. Text text text, that’s all I do.

He’s got all these jealous comments. People saying they’re green, they want one, they’re envious, can they hold it, etc.

So I thought I’d say – I’m getting one too! [dances around]

It hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s on the way. As Coturnix said in comments – ‘That is so nice of him.’ Indeed.


Jan 19th, 2006 9:20 pm | By

One or two more thoughts on theistic thinking, and the strange places it leads to.

There are a number of metaphysical ‘why’ questions one can ask. Why something rather than nothing, why this instead of something else, why order instead of chaos, why life instead of no life, why consciousness, why ‘intelligence,’ why humans. There are also a number of ways one can answer, including ‘unknown’. The kind of answer favoured by theists has to do with purpose – design, and therefore purpose. That may be the most basic point of all, at least for some of them – not the personal god, but purpose. Which is understandable. We don’t want to be like mould or dirt or Jehovah’s witnesses – something that just turns up without invitation or plan or intention or anyone thrilled to see it. We want to be here for a reason, and by ‘for a reason’ we mean the kind of reason we can recognize, as opposed to the kind of reason a cosmic law would be able to recognize if cosmic laws had minds. (See what I mean? Strange places.) At least we think we want that, but then if we think further…we may not think so any longer. Which makes one wonder if theists ever do think further, which in turn makes one wonder why they don’t, if they don’t.

Suppose we grant their premise, for the sake of argument. Okay, we’re here for a reason, we’re here for a purpose. Well, what would that be? Good governance? Art? Wisdom? Love? Peace? Mercy? Kindness? Universal happiness?

Does it seem likely? Does it even seem possible? Or, if it does – if we decide yes, that is the purpose, and we’re not there yet, we’re on the road – what of the cost? Do we want to endorse such a distant purpose at such a horrendous cost? Consider how many millions upon millions of lives are miserable and then cut short (just think for one quarter of a second of Congo, Sudan, Kashmir, Aceh) – what purpose can make that all right? Do we – in cold sober truth, without any handwaving about the ineffable and what we speculate will happen a thousand years down the road – want to endorse such a loathsome bargain? If that is the deity that theists imagine – one that causes suffering and loss to countless billions of sentient, conscious, aware, thinking, memory-rich beings for the sake of some distant ‘purpose’ – do we really want to bend the knee to it instead of reviling and disowning it? If we do, then why do we?

Theists dislike the idea of chance, contingency, brute fact; of non-purpose; but they don’t take seriously enough the real nastiness lurking in the idea of purpose. They don’t realize that non-purpose is not the worst possibility. They pretend to, but they don’t. They pretend, in interviews, to agree that the designer could be an evil demon, but they don’t actually mean it – which is quite remarkably stupid.

Think Again

Jan 19th, 2006 2:40 am | By

An old thought for the day from Philip Johnson, from a 1990 essay in Robert Pennock’s anthology Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics – ‘Evolution as Dogma: the Establishment of Naturalism’.

If some powerful conscious being exists outside the natural order, it might use its power to intervene in nature to accomplish some purpose, such as the production of beings having consciousness and free will.

Such as. Such as the production of beings having consciousness and free will – beings like us, I daresay he means. Well, yes, it might. But – is it likely? I mean, seriously. Think about it. Is it likely? At all? Does it seem even remotely plausible? That ‘some powerful conscious being’ (but who? oh, who? who might it be? Rodan? Mighty Mouse?), powerful enough to ‘produce’ perhaps the cosmos and anyway some conscious beings with free will – would create us? I’m serious, here. Why would it create us? Why not something else? And if it is the same powerful conscious being who is suspected (by IDers anyway) of having ‘produced’ the universe, why would it be interested in us? Are we interested in dust? Yes, some of us are, but as a species? Well surely dust is many trillion times more interesting and attractive and likely-looking to us than we could be to Anonymous Powerful Conscious Being Outside the Natural Order. I’m serious. Because that’s the odd thing about ID – they pretend to be all serious, to be grown-up and philosophical and thoughtful. But in that case – the whole thing just seems so glaringly implausible and ridiculous that it falls to pieces. I can sort of see how people can be theists if they just never think about it very hard or directly, but IDers do (in a sense) think about it, in order to do what they do. And if you do that it just frankly seems ludicrous.

And then, besides that, what on earth makes these people so confident about what the being’s purpose is? What makes them so confident that they know what it is, and what makes them so confident that it’s something they want it to be? What can possibly make them so confident that the being produced us because it wanted something that has consciousness and free will? Why not consider the possibility that it wanted something that jumps when you burn it, runs when you send tigers after it, screams when you torture it? Or that it wanted a snack? Or that it wanted a source of methane? Why not consider an infinite array of possibilities, all of them horrible? Why are they so smugly, mindlessly confident that the one possibility out of all the endless branching possibilities is that the being made us in its own ‘image’ and therefore likes us and is concerned about us and hopes we’ll get it together and do well one of these days?

The more I think about this question, the more puzzling I find it.

The Pope Has a Dream Today

Jan 18th, 2006 7:54 pm | By

The Pope, not for the first time, seems to be a little confused. A trifle misguided. At least according to one of his interpreters.

John Allen, a columnist with the National Catholic Reporter and one of the most respected Vatican watchers, said: “The Pope wants to make sure that everything he does is grounded in fundamentals in terms of objective truth.”

Does he? Well he’s in the wrong line of work, isn’t he. Precisely the wrong line of work. He happens to have chosen for himself an avocation that is as distant from fundamentals in terms of objective truth as an avocation could be. It’s funny how muddled people can get, isn’t it? Trying to walk up the down escalator, asking for fried chicken at Starbucks, wearing their underpants on their heads, eating ice cream for lunch. The Pope must be like that. Just back-assward about everything. Sad.

“The encyclical is his attempt at being a compassionate conservative. In his mind, you can’t really be free and happy unless you accept God’s plan for human life.”

See what I mean? Pure underpants on the head, that is. You can’t really be free unless you accept the rules of a reactionary, hidebound, delusional, authoritarian institution which disguises its unfounded whims and prejudices as ‘God’s plan’ – oh yes, that’s freedom all right. Just the way living in a tiny cupboard under the stairs and coming out for exercise once every two years is freedom. Fiat libertas.

The One Forbidden Thing

Jan 17th, 2006 11:20 pm | By

Thought for the Day.

Robert Pennock testifying in Kitzmiller v Dover.

What one expects in science is that one is going to be testing hypotheses against the natural world, and what methodological naturalism does is say we can’t cheat. We can’t just call for quick assistance to some supernatural power. It would certainly make science very easy if we could do that. We’re forced to restrain ourselves to looking for natural regularities. That’s part of what it means to be able to give evidence for something. You’ve undermined that notion of empirical evidence if you start to introduce the supernatural.

You can’t cheat. That’s all there is to it, really. You can’t cheat.


Jan 17th, 2006 10:52 pm | By

Well, quite a good day in a lot of ways. Just for one thing – it’s been raining here almost without cease, all day and all night nearly every day, for about three weeks, and today suddenly (it was raining sideways last night) it’s not only not raining, it’s not only sunny, it’s warm. It’s one of those spring-in-winter days. Balmy, fresh, smelling wonderful, of mud and wet vegetation and clean air. I went for a walk down to the cemetery, and was looking at a bare tree against the blue sky and noticed it had robins perched all over it. They looked like Xmas decorations – they looked festive. I enjoyed that sight for a minute, then realized that the reason they looked so festive was that they were all facing in the same direction – facing the sun, of course. They’re sunbathing, I realized. They’re soaking up the rays after days of rain and dark. Sticking their orange fronts out into the sun, feeling good. I stood and watched them for awhile. That’s your Bird Moment for today.

But on a less parochial note. There’s also the Supreme Court decision on assisted suicide, a rare vote for reason and against the ‘pro-life’ tyrants. There’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf getting to work in Liberia. And, by gum, there’s Michelle Bachelet’s win in Chile. Hurrah.

Michelle Bachelet will be the fourth president from the Concertacion and arguably the most radical. She was politicised by the military coup of September 1973 that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Her father was a general in the Air Force who was opposed to the military government and died in prison. She worked undercover for the Socialist Youth and she was held for weeks with her mother, Angelica, in torture and detention centres before being allowed to flee the country in 1975.

She was locked up, and now she’s the president. Sometimes things do get better.

Open Democracy has articles about Bachelet here and here.

The Uncertainty Principle

Jan 17th, 2006 7:52 pm | By

The Bishop of Motherwell is a funny guy.

The Bishop of Motherwell last night called on the Catholic Church in Scotland to stop “cowering” before the government. The Rt Rev Joseph Devine warned Christians against the “creeping political correctness” that was stifling religious expression. In an address to a Motherwell audience, the bishop said: “The Church needs to rediscover a political voice and stop cowering before the apparatus of government and its politically approved doctrines.”

That’s interesting, don’t you think? The Catholic Church had oughta stop ‘cowering’ before the government – and do what? Set up a rival government? Make the government do the cowering instead? Break the law? Whither religion’s famous humility and uncertainty now, eh?

And there’s ‘to dare to assert that Scotland in a faith context has to be seen as a Christian country’ – that’s a slightly coercive announcement, wouldn’t you say? To ‘assert’ that Scotland ‘has to be seen’ as a Christian country? Or you’ll – what? Punish refuseniks? Expel them? Forcibly convert them, in the manner of Ferdinand and Isabella? Very humble, very uncertain. And people wonder why I’m a little critical of religion. Because it throws its weight around, that’s why; because it demands acquiescence to its demands and respect for its evidence-free beliefs, that’s why. Because Bishops think the ‘politically approved doctrines’ of the government (what the flock else should they be? why shouldn’t government ‘doctrines’ be ‘politically approved’? that beats theocratically approved anyway) should be defied by The Church. Because bishops take failure to agree with their airless retrograde views to amount to ‘stifling religious expression.’ Because, as I keep saying, no amount of ‘respect’ and groveling is ever enough for godbotherers, they’ll always demand more. And they’ll do it in no uncertain terms.

Hag me no Hagiography

Jan 17th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

Hagiography raises a lot of interesting issues.

Waldstreicher falls into a long line of historians who see the other side of Franklin. The wiry, sardonic 39-year-old author is not a fan of rah-rah Franklin books, especially given his view that “Franklin’s anti-slavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated.” He regards Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life as “a good read” with “insightful moments,” but sees Isaacson as “already on the stump, talking about why we should find Franklin inspiring, why he’s better, why he’s neither too far left nor too far right, why he’s so reasonable. It’s been disturbing to see it called the standard biography now,” Waldstreicher says, because “it doesn’t build on any of the scholarship in early American history.”

Rah-rah books about almost anything (except food, perhaps) are suspect enterprises. Perhaps because they start from the desire to say ‘rah-rah’ and then collect the appropriate evidence, rather than starting from the desire to tell the truth and then collecting whatever evidence there is.

The Constitution Center’s exhibition reflects a wave of hagiography in Franklin biography that pooh-poohs criticism of the so-called First American…It marginalizes such longtime lightning rods for Franklin critics as his slave-trade activities, womanizing, hardball politics, and spinmeister shaping of his own image. Waldstreicher’s critique thus comes at a welcome time. It steers attention from the mind-numbing “Benergy” campaign, and lopsided biographies of Franklin that make him a safe adoptable symbol and hero, to a countertradition.

‘Benergy’? Oh, yuk. Oh gawdelpus. And save us all from safe adoptable symbols and heroes. Heroes are okay up to a point, but they can’t be canonized or sanitized – ‘enskied and sainted,’ as Lucio puts it in ‘Measure for Measure’. None of that. That can’t be done without lying; away with it.

Indeed, a voyage through Franklin biographies suggests a near-natural law: The more commercial the project, the more celebratory the tone. The more academic the project, the more evenhanded the view. In Recovering Benjamin Franklin (1999), for instance. philosopher James Campbell flatly finds “much in Franklin’s mindset that is unattractive.”

There’s the real issue. The more commercial, the more celebratory; the more academic, the more analytic or skeptical. So – be skeptical of best-selling biographies.

Art, Poetry, Religion, Uncertainty

Jan 16th, 2006 1:54 am | By

George Szirtes mentioned in a comment on that post Science and Religion that he has a blog, where he commented further on the subject we were discussing there. (It doesn’t have permalinks, so scroll down.) This subject interests me, and I agree with George on most of it. Especially some of it.

My contention is that the experience of listening to, say, Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, strikes some people with the force of truth. It is not some verifiable truth about the existence or otherwise of God. The music doesn’t set itself out as proof of anything. The sense of truth arises because the music seems profoundly true to some element of human experience. In that sense – though not in the ‘grass is green’ verifiable sense – it is experientially true. Art without that notion of truth would indeed be airy-fairy.

Absolutely. Agree completely. Have no trouble whatever agreeing comepletely – am aware of no tension at all between that and my chronic suspicion of the truth-claims of religion – the factual truth-claims, the claims that there is a deity and that the deity is omnipotent and benevolent. I have zero problem being powerfully moved by powerful art – also by certain kinds of landscape, and the quality of the being moved seems to me to be pretty similar. (Eve Garrard has a terrific essay on the way we are transported by landscape and how mysterious that effect can be, in the current [just out] Philosophers’ Magazine.) My paradigm example is ‘Hamlet.’ To some extent I think I know why it moves us the way it does – I’ve dug into it somewhat obsessively, piling up mountains of notes, and I think I know some of how Shaksespeare did it; but only to some extent; for the rest, I just think it’s a kind of magic. Not literal magic, but something that isn’t really completely explicable. Or that is only explicable by saying it seems profoundly true to some element of human experience. Actually that is it, pretty much. Maybe it is explicable. The thing about ‘Hamlet’ is that it seems profoundly true to so many elements of human experience, all packed into three and a half hours – love, loss, regret, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, irony, wit, lying, truth-telling – and an immense amount more. It’s not many plays that can do that. There’s something…exciting, exhilarating, a little alarming about digging into ‘Hamlet,’ because you keep feeling surprised. The more you dig the more you realize Shakespeare wove this web, the tightest most drawn-together web ever woven; that he laid all these little charges, that go off one after another, in every line – and you start to wonder, how the hell did he do that…

So I completely agree with George about that. It’s just that I don’t really think most religion belongs in the same category – because of the truth-claims about the deity. Religion without those truth claims is a whole different ball game, but that’s not what I’ve been talking about here all this time. And it’s not what Dawkins is talking about. (He says that, in one of the essays in A Devil’s Chaplain.)

That, I suspect, is hard for people of a stiffly rational temperament to understand. They look for some verifiable truth claim that they can refute. They think I am making a verifiable truth claim. No. What I am saying is that some truths, certain profound truths to experience, are not easily, if at all, verifiable.

But few if any rationalists that I know of would deny that. They don’t look for verifiable truth claims in everything. They do perhaps point out veiled truth claims that are lurking behind fluffy verbiage, like the kind we keep seeing in those soppy Guardian columns. But that fluffy verbiage is not the kind of thing George is talking about – so I think we don’t disagree all that much.

But we may disagree about the link between religion and uncertainty.

Uncertainty continues to exist: art and the religious instinct, I suggested, proceeded out of uncertainty. The uncertainty principle seems to me humane and ‘true’ in that it corresponds to our experience of life. It behoves even scientists and rationalists to be uncertain about that which they cannot know, because not everything is knowable by scientific method, only that which is verifiable / falsifiable.

But there again – they are. The scientists and rationalists I know are uncertain about that which they cannot know; it’s religious people who claim to know things they don’t and can’t know. And the religious instinct may have proceeded out of uncertainty – that seems quite plausible – but I’m not at all convinced most of it hung onto the uncertainty once it arrived at the religion. Some believers, true, will say that their beliefs are beliefs and that they know they’re not certain; but oh dear, what a lot of believers won’t say any such thing – and what a lot of them get indignant at people who don’t share their beliefs, which seems odd if they’re really uncertain about them.


Jan 15th, 2006 10:10 pm | By

Some brief notices. Daniel Dennett is going to be on Philosophy Talk on January 17 to discuss ‘Intelligent Design’.

Pharyngula has moved to here. Change your bookmarks!

David Luban has a terrific guestpost at Balkinization on what’s wrong (hint: everything) with an article in defense of broad executive power by Harvey Mansfield in the Weekly Standard.

The article is loaded with gravitas, and Mansfield obviously wants to sound deep. But the depth is all on the surface. Read with care, Mansfield’s arguments are profoundly silly.

There’s a lot of that about. People wanting to sound deep, and just being silly instead. A lesson for us all. (Except me, because I never want to sound deep. Rude, hostile, irritating, snide, but not deep.)

Double, Triple, Quadruple Standards

Jan 15th, 2006 6:57 pm | By

Let us now praise famous imams and representatives of various British Muslim organisations – every single one of them male, if I’m not mistaken. What a swell bunch – all two and twenty of them.

In light of the bizarre news that the Metropolitan Police is to “investigate” comments about homosexuality made by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, we, the undersigned, Imams and representatives of various British Muslim organisations, affirm that Sir Iqbal’s views faithfully reflected mainstream Islamic teachings…The practice of homosexuality is regarded as being sinful in Islam.

Yes, and in other religions too, as Ratzinger keeps anxiously pointing out, in case we might confuse him with someone else. So what? Who cares what is regarded as sinful in Islam or any other religion?

Of course the Imams and reps are right that the police investigation is bizarre – but it comes a little oddly from them, frankly. Some of them at least.

All Britons, whether they are in favour of homosexuality or not, should be allowed to freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying. We cannot claim to be a truly free and open society while we are trying to silence dissenting views.

Well, that sounds good, but let’s not forget that Iqbal Sacranie himself remarked that death was too good for Salman Rushdie. Because? Because he had freely expressed his views in a novel. After he did that, an atmosphere not free of intimidation and bullying sprang into being, thanks to Sacranie and others like him. Were they not energetically engaged in trying to silence dissenting views? Has Sacranie ever disavowed that activity? Not that I’m aware of. It was just recently that he expressed the wish that the religious hatred bill could silence dissenting views like Rushdie’s.

Nick Cohen and Evan Harris noted the same irony, or hypocrisy.

The most encouraging reaction to news that the police were investigating Sir Iqbal Sacranie’s foul comments about homosexuality came from gay and secular leaders. Instead of revelling in the discomfiture of the fundamentalist head of the Muslim Council of Britain, they quite properly said that they believed in freedom of speech and that included Sir Iqbal’s freedom to be prejudiced and foolish.

So we did. Okay, okay, I’m not a leader – but I did quite properly say.

As Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, pointed out, the MCB has not returned the compliment. It’s all for freedom of speech when it comes to laying into gays. It also believes that the government has no right to ban the glorification of terrorism. When it comes to freedom of speech about religion, however, it’s a very different matter. At the height of The Satanic Verses affair in 1988, Sacranie said that ‘death was perhaps too easy’ for Salman Rushdie. This did not stop New Labour almost tripping over its feet as it rushed to embrace the MCB when it came to power in 1997. As well as knighting Sacranie, it responded to his lobbying by putting before parliament a law against incitement of religious hatred. In their attempts to keep this unelected homophobe in their big tent, New Labour is prepared to ignore its more liberal supporters – and the conclusively argued opposition of the House of Lords – and force the bill through.

So, we’ll all just have to keep on quite properly saying, over and over again. Monotonous but necessary.

In Poverty Begins Responsibility

Jan 15th, 2006 6:26 pm | By

I know it’s obvious, but this kind of thing gets on my nerves. I know it’s obvious, I know this is The Economist, but still.

When IBM announced an overhaul of its pension plan for employees in America last week, it joined a parade of employers that are shifting more responsibility for saving for retirement on to workers.

Shifting more responsibility. As if those slacker employees have been just flopping around expecting employers to spoon-feed them, because they’re such babies. As if pensions were not simply part of the agreed compensation package, like, you know, wages. If IBM announced an overhaul of its payment plan for employees, which consisted of reducing their salaries by 100%, would that be shifting more responsibility on to workers? Well, yes, that would be one thing to call it, but I can think of other things.

To the extent that this creates and encourages individual choice and responsibility, it is something to welcome rather than to fear.

Excuse me? I beg your pardon? A reduction in pay is something to welcome? A reduction in pay is something to welcome to the extent that it creates and encourages individual choice and responsibility? Is it? But if that’s true, why doesn’t everyone just decide to shift to a zero-pay system, thus creating maximum individual choice and responsibility? Starting with CEOs? They would welcome zero pay and zero pensions and zero stock options, surely – right? And so would people who write for The Economist?

And even leaving that aside, even ignoring the ludicrous and insulting equation of a pay-cut with an encouragement of frontier virtues, there’s another problem with this stupid kind of rhetoric. No matter how responsible one may be, if one works for low wages, one doesn’t necessarily have the spare money to do one’s own saving for retirement. And yes, even responsible people work for low wages; it happens. And since the entire economy depends on people who work for low wages, it’s hypocritical and shameless to blame those very people for working for low wages, and to ignore their existence when equating the absence of pensions with increased responsibility.

Pulling Liberal Rabbits out of Cosmopolitan Hats

Jan 15th, 2006 12:07 am | By

John Gray is often irritating, but this review in The Nation of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is not too bad. It also hooks up with some things we’ve been talking about lately in the discussions on comprehensive liberalism v political liberalism.

In Appiah’s view cosmopolitanism has two intertwined strands: the idea that we have obligations to other human beings above and beyond those to whom we are related by ties of family, kinship or formal citizenship; and an attitude that values others not just as specimens of universal humanity but as having lives whose meaning is bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own.

Hmm. One has to wonder exactly what that means (so one will have to read the book in order to find out, won’t one). I suppose what it means is – it’s not enough to value others just as specimens of universal humanity; in order to value them properly, that is, realistically, one has to acknowledge that they have practices and beliefs that are often different from our own and that matter to them. In other words one has to realize that there may be some difficulty in this process of valuing others. One has to make one’s valuing of other people not conditional on their agreeing with oneself in every particular. That seems to fit, and it’s also worth pointing out. But at the same time – depending on just how much one is expected to value others, and in just what way – such an attitude may be in strong tension with other desirable attitudes or commitments. Others may have lives whose meaning is bound up with accusing children of witchcraft and then torturing them, for instance. We can value those other in the sense of wanting to change their minds, and especially their practice, rather than wanting to torture them back – but we probably don’t simply want to value them and let it go at that. We don’t want to value them as they are, and let them go on doing what they’re doing. So our ‘valuing’ others may be more or less weak, depending on the circumstances.

That’s the same problem we talked about in Respect One and Respect Two. It’s a pre-emptive way of thinking – and as such, it may often be a much worse idea than the merely formal valuing of others as specimens of humanity. We can’t really sign up to a blanket promise to value everyone whose practices and beliefs are different from our own, sight unseen, no matter what the practices and beliefs are. It depends. It depends on just how cruel, unjust, exploitive, violent, arbitrary and the like, the practices are. And since it does depend, the pre-emption implicit in that idea seems to be pretty much ruled out. We can’t really accept that pre-emption, because if we do, we may find ourselves expected to value mass murderers, or slave-owners, or exorcists. The idea seems to be quite similar to political liberalism, and tricky for just the same kind of reasons.

As a position in ethical theory, cosmopolitanism is distinct from relativism and universalism. It affirms the possibility of mutual understanding between adherents to different moralities but without holding out the promise of any ultimate consensus. There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible – and yet these commonalities do not ground anything like a single universally valid morality or way of life. Clearly this is a position that carries within it a certain tension. The idea that we have universal moral obligations is not always easily reconciled with the practices and beliefs that give particular human lives their meaning. Appiah recognizes this tension, and writes: “There will be times when these two ideals – universal concern and respect for legitimate difference – clash. There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”

Just so. Appiah recognizes the tension (not surprisingly). One thing Gray says in that passage strikes me though. ‘There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible.’ Well – no, actually. Not species-wide. Male of the species-wide, but not species-wide. Because one of those beliefs and practices that we don’t all agree on, and a very widespread one, is the practice of not allowing women to take part in communication with the rest of the species at all. There are whole immense cultures where species-wide communication is not remotely a goal – where in fact the very opposite is the goal: where half the humans who make up that species are permanently sequestered and incarcerated and forbidden to talk to male non-relatives ever at all. Species-wide communication is therefore impossible in such cultures; it’s not even an idea or a dream or a goal, it’s more of an abomination. So from that point of view, cosmopolitanism is also not a value there; it can’t be. How can women be cosmopolitan while confined to quarters? They can’t; it’s a contradiction. So unless one is thinking of male cosmopolitanism only – which would be a pretty parochial kind of cosmopolitianism – there is a disabling tension right at the beginning. Real cosmopolitanism seems out of reach until that changes.*

However, human life contains goods and evils that do not depend on our opinions. To be at risk of genocide or subject to torture is an evil for all human beings whatever their beliefs. These evils are not culture-relative, and protection from them is a species-wide good. Once we recognize this, we cannot avoid speaking of universal human values; but this is not the same as having a universal morality…Value-pluralism undercuts the claims of all universal moralities, including liberal morality. Like Berlin in some of his writings, Appiah seems to want to celebrate moral diversity and at the same time endorse the universality of liberal values. The result is that he is constantly pulling liberal rabbits out of cosmopolitan hats.

There you go. It’s just not always possible to celebrate moral diversity and endorse universalism. Sometimes it has to be one or the other but not both.

*Update. Harry points out in comments that I misread that sentence. He reads ‘There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible’ to mean ‘that human beings are alike in fundamental (genetic etc.) ways, and that this universal human nature is what makes species-wide communication possible’ and adds that this is a central pillar in our belief in human rights, and a corrective to postmodern denial of universals. I think his reading is the right one, which means I think mine is the wrong one. Never mind.

Lucretius Knew

Jan 14th, 2006 4:15 am | By

‘Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,’ Lucretius remarked* (that’s one of my few Latin tags. I failed Latin one year. You didn’t fail things in my school, it wasn’t done, but I managed it. I was quite good at failing things when I was fifteen) about what Agamemnon did to his daughter at the behest of a god (he killed her, that’s what, just to get a wind for sailing to Troy). What evil religion can persuade us to. He was right, old Lukers.

There’s this hajj business for instance. Brilliant. Make it a pillar of your religion that if you can make the trip to Mecca, you have to, once in your life. Keep that rule in place when the relgion it’s a pillar of goes from being that of some people in Arabia to being that of many people all over the damn planet, and when the population at issue goes from being – what? a few thousand? – to a billion or two. Then watch the fun. To make sure, arrange some bottlenecks along the way. Millions of people heading for a smallish place, all of them in a hurry – oh, oops, somebody tripped, oops, this fool behind me is pushing, oh shit I’m stepping on someone’s chest, oh hell oh hell oh hell I’m standing on someone’s face, I’m not having an easy time breathing myself –

Very spiritual, isn’t it. Uplifting. Meaningful. Millions of people throw stones at a pillar because ‘the devil’ once appeared there to Abraham – the story goes. Well that’s a good reason for everyone else to go there and throw a stone, and for them to do it on the same day. Yes, very good. Good thinking. And the police can’t do anything about it, because if they tried, there would be an even worse stampede. Well, god forbid anyone should just decide that the hajj is not an obligation after all and end the whole mess. I heard someone gently suggest something similar on the World Service – not even end it, but just maybe spread it out over the year perhaps? No, no, couldn’t do that. But it’s not an actual obligation is it? Yes, it’s an obligation, if you have the capacity, if you have the money and health, it’s an obligation. Oh.

And then there’s this pastor in Tottenahm. He’s very spiritual too.

A London-based pastor has been arrested on suspicion of inciting child cruelty following an investigation into allegations of witchcraft at an evangelical Congolese church in Tottenham. Dr Dieudonne Tukala, 46, from the Church of Christ Mission, is being questioned over claims that he diagnosed several children as “witches”, advising their parents to beat the devil out of them or send them back to the Democratic Republic of Congo so that he could pray for them to be killed…Dr Tukala was accused of telling one couple that their nine-year-old son was possessed. The boy’s father was jailed for five years at Snaresbrook Crown Court in November 2003 after branding his son with a steam iron and forcing chilli powder into his mouth “to drive the devil out”.

Branding his child with an iron. To drive the devil out. People trample other people to death in their eagerness to throw stones at a stone, in the belief that it has something to do with the devil, and other people burn children with irons and beat them, in the belief that they will drive the devil out. There are some things so stupid or so cruel that only religion can persuade people to do them.

Another Guardian Angel

Jan 13th, 2006 2:06 am | By

Now you knew I would have to pitch a fit about this. So here, have a fit.

Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God, which in our political system reads as democracy and equality before the law; and those ideals have often been applied because of religious faith, not in spite of it.

No it doesn’t. Or at least no one knows if it does or not. That’s just that confusion of correlation with causation again. The ‘Christian’ (and not exclusively Christian, and not thoroughly Christian either, given how many exceptions Xianity always managed to find to its supposed ‘view’ over the years) view that all have equal worth before God, and the idea of democracy and equality, just happened to be around in the same part of the world now and then. That doesn’t mean Xianity caused it. And really, is it likely? Has Xianity really been all that egalitarian all this time? Hardly.

The anti-slavery movement had religious motivations of the evangelical persuasion that Buruma fears.

We’re always hearing that – but slavery was justified by Christians in good standing for centuries before the abolitionists even existed, let alone got a foothold. So how much is that supposed to count for? Not all that much, I would say.

Simply bemoaning the fanatics and mourning the demise of liberal democracy gets us nowhere…Faith is important to many.

Yes it does get us somewhere. And anyway what are we supposed to do, applaud the fanatics and cheer the partial retreat (not demise) of secular liberal democracy? And faith is important to many – really?! Who knew? That changes everything.

But Buruma is wrong to regard evangelicals as fundamentalists, because he equates that term with fanaticism and intolerance rather than with trying to apply orthodox Biblical doctrine to today’s world.

Well there’s a distinction without a difference. Trying to apply ‘orthodox Biblical doctrine’ to today’s world is fanaticism and intolerance. What else would it be? Has this guy ever read the dang Bible?

Christianity and Islam – the two faiths Buruma mentions – motivate believers to share their world-views with others. That means they will always want to be in the public square, engaging in the debates of the day.

Yes, we know. Like Iqbal Sacranie, flailing around in his search for a rationalization for his dislike of gays, and falling back on the fact that it is what he learns from his ‘faith’ – as if that makes his nasty nonsense better instead of worse. It’s this wanting to be in the public square arguing for political views that have no justification whatever except the arguers’ ‘faith’ that is so damn dangerous. That, oddly enough, is why secularists oppose religion in the public square.

Yet another to add to the Guardian’s list of slobbering-on-religion articles. And just as lame and vacuous and stale as all the others. I’m beginning to think that people of ‘faith’ just really don’t have anything of value to say on the subject.


Jan 12th, 2006 7:48 pm | By

I listened to the replay of Iqbal Sacranie’s interview on PM yesterday, and it was just as silly and irritating as I expected. He so obviously had nothing relevant to say, he so obviously was simply expressing unthinking dislike, he so obviously was just floundering around looking for rationalizations, it was so obvious how empty they were. Er, they’re harmful, uh, stability, um, society, er, stable, you know, ooh, ah, um – they get diseases! That’s it. They get diseases – that’s scientific, that is. So you see what I mean. It’s obvious. But, er, we have to put up with it, because this is a democracy. But I sure don’t want to! And of course you can see why. It’s obvious. Stability. Harmful. Mutter mutter choke.’ Yes, all very elevating and enlightening.

But. I don’t think it’s a police matter. Sacranie is a damn fool with a narrow mind, but that’s not a police matter either. He ought to wake up and learn to think properly, but I hardly think the police are going to teach him to do that. Not their job, is it. No, that’s our job – his fellow citizens of the world.

His (veiled?) threats against Rushdie are another matter. But those are not why the police were called. But he didn’t utter any threats, not even veiled ones (he said the death penalty was too good for Rushdie, that’s what – not all that veiled). No, his potential crime may have been a violation of section 5 of the Public Order Act. I wasn’t really aware of this act before…it’s rather interesting…

Scotland Yard’s community safety unit, which investigates homophobia and hate crime, is considering whether Sir Iqbal has broken telecommunications laws or the 1986 Public Order Act, which forbids the use of “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress or thereby”.

You guys have an act that forbids the use of insulting words within the hearing of people likely to be caused distress thereby? Holy jumping Jesus! Are you crazy?! Were you all in a coma when that was passed, or what? Didn’t it cross anyone’s mind that those terms might be just ever so slightly broad and sweeping? That they might be just a tiny tiny tiny bit of an impediment to free speech? I mean – don’t you all use words every day, every hour, that are insulting (to something or someone somewhere) enough to cause someone somewhere possible potential distress? And who knows if she’s in earshot or not?! I know I do. I use words of that kind every hour, every moment – they are my life and breath and reason for existing. Imagine my surprise to find that they are illegal.

I must be missing something. There must be some reason this Act isn’t as ridiculous as it looks at first blush. I can’t think of what it is, but there must be. Either that or you were all on an outing to Preston that day, and missed it.

Autonomy v Respect

Jan 12th, 2006 2:33 am | By

Some more on this question of comprehensive v political liberalism, and respect, and what is meant by it. G has been arguing for a more limited reading in comments, but I’m not convinced that the quoted passages fit such a reading.

One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

That seems pretty clear to me. Surely she’s not talking about leaving ‘our private differences over comprehensive conceptions of the good out of political discourse and negotiation, and certainly out of political institutions themselves’ there. Isn’t it pretty unequivocal? Such respect requires, at least in the public sphere, not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false. She doesn’t say ‘in the political sphere at least’ – she says ‘public’. I take that to mean public talking and writing, not purely public political talking and writing – since she says the former and not the latter. Respect requires us not to adopt a public – not political, but public – conception of truth and objectivity according to which the claims of religion are false. Do public sphere and public conception actually mean political sphere and political conception in Rawlsian language? Maybe they do, I don’t know. But the multiculturalism essay was in the Boston Review, which is not a technical journal of philosophy – surely Nussbaum must have intended to use ordinary language there.

The autonomy question – as G said, ‘even this minimal notion of respect has a problem with conceptions of the good that advocate political subordination of others (women, ethnic groups, adherents to other religions, etc.), because respect for individual autonomy is so basic to political liberalism.’ But…

I think it is plausible to read [Okin] as endorsing a form of comprehensive liberalism, in which liberal values of autonomy and dignity pervade the fabric of the body politic…her view resembles the views of John Stuart Mill and Joseph Raz, who see the fostering of personal autonomy in all areas of life as an appropriate goal of the state. Such moral liberals can still recognize the intrinsic worth of religious liberty and thus respect the choices of religious believers – up to a point. But, given their view that autonomous lives are better than hierarchically ordered lives, they are bound to play favorites among the religions, using the state and its persuasive apparatus to wean people away from religions that do not foster personal autonomy – as John Stuart Mill explicitly urges in On Liberty, where he excoriates Calvinism…There can be little doubt that a Millean liberal state will show public disrespect for Calvinism in all sorts of ways and will make frequent pronouncements about human flourishing and human nature that go well beyond the core of the political conception.

So – valuing autonomy will cause the Millean liberal to show public disrespect for Calvinism in all sorts of ways – and surely I’m not reading uncharitably in thinking that Nussbaum is critical of such an outcome. In fact she sounds (to me) unpleasantly like all the would-be censors who are always zipping up and down telling us not to disrespect their cherished beliefs. Very unpleasantly, in fact. This passage (it’s on pages 108-109 of the Okin book) makes me more twitchy every time I read it.

She goes on:

The political liberal, by contrast, begins from the fact of reasonable disagreements in society, and the existence of a reasonable plurality of comprehensive doctrines about the good, prominent among which are the religious conceptions. By calling them reasonable, the political liberal shows respect for them and commits herself to a political course that is as protective of them as it is possible to be, compatibly with a just political structure.

I still don’t see how to read that other than as a condemnation of showing ‘public disrespect’ for religions in public discussions, and as something of a warning about putting autonomy ahead of a certain (rather peculiar) idea of respect.

A Couple of Reviews

Jan 11th, 2006 9:45 pm | By

PZ comments on ‘The Root of All Evil’ at Pharyngula.

Nobody should ever call Dawkins arrogant. On the scale established by American televangelists, by Christians in general, he is a timid model of bashful humility. Pit a man who works for his knowledge, who willingly tests and reviews it continually, against a mob who trusts in revealed knowledge dogmatically, and I’ll tell you who the arrogant ones are.

Well exactly. How it did irritate me, listening to that smug unctuous man telling Dawkins he is arrogant. What a joke! But it works, you know. It works all the time. The Limbaughs and O’Reillys never get enough of that (well they wouldn’t, would they – it works) ploy, calling any failure to submit to religious dogma ‘elitist’ and an ‘attack of people of faith’. So however upside down and backward it is, it just keeps going on and on and on.

There is a review-synopsis of the first show at this new blog, which I see some of you have already found via Pharyngula. I meant to link to it yesterday but [voice rises to shriek] I’ve been busy! But there it is now – with its name derived from Pope, just as (indirectly) B&W’s is.

The naming things is an issue for those that don’t believe there actually is a God or Gods but who don’t want to be seen as going beyond evidence and logic and claiming that there definitely isn’t a God or Gods (if only people would stop thinking atheism means this!), and the arrogance this is seen to entail (for a good little book on atheism, have a look at Julian Baggini’s ‘Atheism: A Very Short Introduction’; it’s cheap and easy to read quickly).

Same here. B&W is cheap and easy to read quickly. I take a lot of pride in that.

Respect One and Respect Two

Jan 10th, 2006 11:25 pm | By

I gather that Brian Leiter is thinking about this subject too.

I am wondering whether any readers know of literature making the case for toleration of religion qua religion. What has struck me in reading the literature is that while religious toleration is often a paradigm case for discussions of toleration, the arguments for it are not specific to religion: arguments from autonomy and well-being would equally well encompass toleration of many other kinds of belief that are not religious in character…What I’m wondering is whether there are other articles that try to argue why religion in particular should be tolerated, arguments that make claims appealing to distinctive features of religious belief and practices. Or as Macklem frames the question: “What is it that distinguished religious beliefs from other beliefs, so as to make them worthy of distinctive, perhaps superior constitutional protection?” That, to my mind, would be an argument for religious toleration.

It looks as if there aren’t very many, and as if those there are aren’t very good. Which won’t surprise us much, I should think. It is apparently just what I’ve been saying for a long time: it’s just an unargued, assumed, longstanding, habitual asymmetry that everyone takes for granted but that doesn’t have much justification. Religion is a special case. Yes, but why? Dunno – it just is.

Let’s consider what Nussbaum says, again. From the earlier comment:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

What does ‘respect’ mean there? What is the mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society, and that requires us not to show up the claims of religion and not to adopt a conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false?

Respect means at least two different things, I take it. One, it means basic civility, politeness, the right way to treat people; decency, good behavior, not shoving people or spitting on them or calling them rude names. It doesn’t require thinking the people are nice people, or interesting, or right about anything – it doesn’t require any opinion of them at all. That’s not the point. The point is that the default mode for how to treat people, unless they’re approaching you at speed with a sharp sword or trying to take your lunch and eat it themselves, is to be civil. That’s respect one; respect two is quite different. It’s cognitive, and substantive, and involves judgment; it has content, it’s about something, it’s earned in some way. That means it can’t possibly be universal, or automatic, or a default mode for how to treat everyone; or mandated, or expected or demanded. But Nussbaum seems to be demanding respect two in addition to or even instead of respect one. Well, that’s ridiculous. And not only ridiculous, but surely a recipe for mental abdication and vacuity. I don’t see how one could even begin to implement such a program without giving up thinking of any kind. Especially given that last terrifying clause – ‘and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false’. Eh? Such respect requires us not to adopt a public (B&W is public) idea of truth in which such claims are false and wrong? Well then respect requires us to adopt no conception of truth at all! To just bag the whole idea!

Respect one is a good thing, but Nussbaum’s expansive idea of universal entitlement to respect two and its entailing the non-disagreement with religion, seems to me to be an intellectual nightmare.