Notes and Comment Blog

Young people are not as naïve as some adults think

Sep 14th, 2007 12:18 pm | By

A new course on ‘Islamophobia’

There are clear parallels in the prejudices, stereotypes and misconceptions of Islamophobia and sectarianism, says Mr Gray. But there are also important differences…“One thing I try to get across to young people is that terrorists are not truly Islamic,” he says. “The word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace’, and if you read the Qur’an it has a message of peace on almost every page. The idea of murder is utterly against its teachings. Any text is open to interpretation, but the fundamental truth of the Qur’an is submission to the will of God, who demands that Muslims are seen to be peaceful people.”

The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission,’ and if you read the Qur’an it has different messages in different places.

This distinction between Muslims and Islamists is one that pupils on the course it is designed for (S1-2) are able to appreciate, he says. “In my experience, young people are sympathetic to Islam and are not as naïve as some adults think. They can listen to stories on the news, for instance, and say, ‘Hold on, I’ve studied Islam at school and I know that’s not true’.”

Or they can say, ‘Hold on, I’ve studied Islamophobia at school and I know what I was taught in that course’ – which could itself be thoroughly naïve. Mr Gray sounds somewhat naïve himself.

Besides imparting knowledge and developing understanding, a key aim of the course is to foster this kind of questioning among young people. “We have to challenge ideas and guide pupils to becoming independent learners and critical thinkers. That’s very important,” says Mr Gray.

Provided, of course, they question and challenge in the way Mr Gray has taught them to; provided they become independent learners and critical thinkers who reach the conclusions Mr Gray wants them to reach. It doesn’t sound very much as if he wants them to question Islam, or challenge the ‘fundamental truth of the Qur’an’ or become critical thinkers about Islam. It sounds as if Mr Gray wants them to learn that ‘terrorists are not truly Islamic’ and that Islam means peace and that ‘Islamophobia’ is a bad thing. It doesn’t sound as if he’ll be assigning them any books by Ayaan Hirsi Ali or my friend Ibn Warraq. Questioning is as questioning does.

Questioning the faith of the million

Sep 14th, 2007 11:59 am | By

If a scientific investigation says one thing and an ancient epic says another, who ya gonna believe? Well duh – the epic, obviously.

There was a proposed shipping canal project, but

Hindu hardliners say the project will destroy what they say is a bridge built by Ram and his army of monkeys. Scientists and archaeologists say the Ram Setu (Lord Ram’s bridge)…is a natural formation of sand and stones. In their report submitted to the court, the government and the Archaeological Survey of India questioned the belief, saying it was solely based on the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana. They said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real. Hindu activists say the bridge was built by Lord Ram’s monkey army to travel to Sri Lanka and has religious significance. In the last two days, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched a scathing attack on the government for questioning the “faith of the million”.

Well exactly. If the million, or the billion, choose to believe that Lord Ram’s monkey army and Donald Duck and his three nephews and the infamous worm squadrons of Aphrodite teamed up to build the Atlantic Ocean which thus has religious significance and therefore no one can step in it or fly over it or ride on it in a boat or a laundry tub – then no one must question that belief and no poxy scientists may submit any poxy reports saying there’s no evidence supporting that belief. Even in secular India. Tra la la, the world gets stupider every day.

Keep your purity

Sep 13th, 2007 11:07 am | By

I got Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis out of the library yesterday. It’s interesting but in places it’s also revolting. Jean Kazez talks about the main problem in an article in Philosophy Now and on her blog.

Haidt gives the example of a Hindu Brahmin relishing food that’s been offered to the gods, purifying himself in the Ganges, and feeling a socially sanctioned repulsion toward people of lower castes. That’s an ideal to strive for?

Apparently, yes. I read the passage in question this morning and…was revolted. He suggests we suppose we grow up as a Brahmin in Bhubaneswar (pp. 228-9).

Every day of your life you have to respect the invisible lines separating pure from profane spaces, and you have to keep track of people’s fluctuating levels of purity before you can touch them or take anything from their hands…Hinduism structures your social space through a caste system based on the purity and pollution of various occupations…The experience of meaningfulness just happens…In contrast, think about the last empty ritual you took part in.

Wrong contrast, bub. In contrast, think about someone in that situation who is not a Brahmin! Think about being one of the people whose ‘fluctuating levels of purity’ the Brahmin ‘has to’ keep track of, or one of the people whose pollution is inborn and permanent – then drool about the experience of meaningfulness. Think about being a dalit or a woman or both and then talk crap about meaningfulness versus empty rituals.

There’s a related passage on 190-1. It’s interesting, but it also goes off the rails in the same blind way. He says that some people he talked to in Bhubaneswar saw the rituals related to purity and pollution as just rules, what you did, but others saw them as ‘means to an end: spiritual and moral advancement, or moving up on the third dimension.’

Purity is not just about the body, it is about the soul. If you know that you have divinity within you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well…you will come back in your next life at a higher level…If you lose sight of your divinity, you will give in to your baser motives…and in your next incarnation you will return at a lower level as an animal or a demon.

Or a woman or a dalit. Yet he doesn’t say that – he skips right over the nastiest aspect of Hinduism, the caste system, and all this hooey about purity and pollution. He just ignores that whole aspect. He should have remembered Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance. He seems for some inexplicable reason to be identifying himself solely with Brahmins and ignoring the fact that most people don’t get to be Brahmins. He wraps the whole nasty mess of that passage up by saying, roundly and utterly incorrectly, that ‘Emerson said exactly the same thing’ and then quoting this:

He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God.

Boy is that ever not exactly the same thing. A Brahmin checking on his own purity is not the same thing as someone doing a good deed. Hello? Good deeds have to be other-regarding in order to be good deeds? Haidt is just seriously blind or confused or both, here. It’s just nonsense to say that purity is about the soul and connect that to saying ‘if you know that you have divinity within you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well’ – because Brahmins don’t treat people well. Rules that treat some people as inherently or even temporarily polluted are not about treating people well. Dang – isn’t that obvious?


Sep 13th, 2007 9:24 am | By

I have some questions here.

A picture of Jesus can remain on the wall at a south Louisiana courthouse because it is now just one among many portraits of legal icons, a federal judge ruled Sept. 7.

What’s a picture of Jesus? Is it a picture of a guy wearing, like, a sweatshirt with ‘Jesus’ across the front? Because if it’s not, how does anyone know it’s Jesus? It’s not as if there’s a stash of photographs of the guy somewhere you know. There’s not even a stash of sketches; there’s not even one sketch. There’s nothing. There’s also no physical description. Mark doesn’t tell us he was balding and short. John doesn’t tell us he had red hair and a squint. Nobody tells us anything. So what is a picture of Jesus?

The picture is now shown with 15 other people in legal history through the ages. They include Mohammed, who is shown holding the Koran, Charlemagne, Napoleon and King Louis IX of France.

Couple of things here. One, Mohammed has the same problem – nobody knows what he looked like, so what does it mean to have a picture of him along with a picture of Napoleon (who as we all know looked like Marlon Brando)? And two – uh – I hate to be the one to bring it up, but does no one remember what got shouted so much in February 2006? [whispers] We’re not allowed to make or have or display pictures of Mohammed. It’s forbidden – not just to Muslims, but by Muslims to all other people. Be very very careful down there in Slidell County, because you might get solemn visits from ambassadors from ‘Muslim countries’ who will want you to apologize and crawl around on the floor for awhile and throw seven or eight people in jail. So mind how you go.

The former judge who bought the picture said in a sworn statement that he had no idea that it had any religious significance. “To me at the time it appeared to be a depiction of a lawgiver,” retired Judge James R. Strain Jr. said. Lemelle, who noted several times during the hearing that the picture showed someone with a halo, said he wasn’t questioning Strain’s veracity. “But it’s a halo. You can tell him I said that,” he told Johnson.

Ah, a halo – so are they quite sure it’s not a picture of Moses, or Paul, or Constantine? And if they are quite sure – how did they get that way?

It’s not 50/50

Sep 12th, 2007 4:04 pm | By

Another point. To resume with page 51 (which is where we stopped yesterday) – farther down Dawkins points out that

it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap from the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that [its] existence and [its] non-existence are equiprobable.

This is obvious, he goes on, with more unfamiliar and absurd assertions whose non-existence also can’t be proved, such as Russell’s orbiting teapot or the FSM; Russell’s teapot ‘stands for an infinite number of things whose existence is conceivable and cannot be disproved.’ The fact that we can’t disprove them does not mean that the matter is 50/50.

The point of all these way-out examples is that they are undisprovable; yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence.

And it’s the same with the God hypothesis.

That’s probably one reason so many people are claiming so crossly and repetitively that Dawkins is dogmatic. But that’s not dogmatic. Given the knowledge we have and the evidence we have, there are myriad reasons to think God doesn’t exist and few reasons to think it does. It could be that God does exist and has been carefully hiding the evidence all this time – but we remain exactly where we were: there is no good reason to think so. It’s not dogmatic to think that or to say it; it’s just using the faculties we have. What else are we supposed to do – use faculties we don’t have?

It’s all myth, you see

Sep 12th, 2007 11:30 am | By

This is a gleaming example of bad thinking. Alex Stein on Hitchens on God. He quotes the very passage on the guy who believes the story about the graves opening in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, and the occupants walking the streets, that I commented on last month – and then he gets it completely wrong.

“He replies that as a Christian he does believe it, though as a historian he has his doubts. I realise that I am limited here: I can usually think myself into an opponent’s position, but this is something I can’t imagine myself saying let alone thinking.” This inability to imagine fatally flaws much of Hitchens’ thesis. The argument presented by the reverend may seem incoherent. But it doesn’t take much effort to understand that he is presenting a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the world…The reverend accepts that it is almost impossible to prove the historicity of the story Hitchens refers to. To be less kind, it simply didn’t happen. But he doesn’t need to shape his moral universe according to what did or didn’t happen. Instead, he does this as a mythologian, in this case, as a purveyor of Christian myths. For him, the accuracy of the events recorded is insignificant when compared with the contribution the myth makes to the Christian view of the world.

The only problem with that is that it’s not what the reverend said. The reverend could have said that, but he didn’t. He said something genuinely different, and it doesn’t just seem incoherent, it is incoherent, and it is certainly not a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the world. Why does Alex Stein – apparently not a believer himself – feel compelled to translate what the reverend said into something less contradictory and absurd? It is not reasonable to believe something as a Christian while having doubts as a historian. If the historian’s doubts are rational and reasonable (as they of course are, since there’s a notable lack of genuine evidence that dead people have ever walked any streets), they should apply across the board; to have different epistemic rules ‘as a Christian’ is not reasonable, it’s the opposite of reasonable, and Alex Stein is being unreasonable in pretending otherwise.

[I]s the reverend’s position really so far from Hitchens’ own? However much he might protest to the contrary, it would be a mistake to define Hitchens as an ultra-rationalist. For Hitchens has frequently and vigorously promoted the idea that religion has been replaced, not by science, but by literature…Literature is as antithetical to science as is religion.

No it isn’t. Literature is literature, it is avowedly an invention, a fiction. Religion makes truth claims about the world that we are expected (often commanded) to believe. Literature is not in the least antithetical to science, because it genuinely doesn’t make competing (and absurd) claims; religion does, even though some of its defenders pretend it doesn’t as long as the spotlight of skeptical inquiry is on it.

Is the Guardian running a contest for who can write the silliest article defending religion and attacking atheism? If so, what for? What’s its point? That clarity of thought is dangerous while confusion and muddle are like vitamins?

The Fifth

Sep 11th, 2007 4:23 pm | By

And another thing. It’s B&W’s birthday again. This year I’m only one day late – last year I was four days late. But never mind that – the point is, dear little B&W is five years old. Isn’t that staggering? Half a decade. Half a decade of what Julian so elegantly calls sitting at a computer in my underwear. (It’s not underwear. It’s jeans and a blue T shirt with [appropriately] a large butterfly on the front.) Anyway – happy birthday, B&W. Pass the cake.

One through seven

Sep 11th, 2007 4:05 pm | By

Okay more on agnosticism and doubt and certainty and ‘faith’ and dogmatism or fundamentalism. Dawkins has a good discussion of agnosticism in The God Delusion. Page 46:

There is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack evidence one way or the other.

He cites Carl Sagan on the question of the existence (or not) of extraterrestrial life.

…we lack the evidence to do more than shade the probabilities one way or the other. Agnosticism, of a kind, is an appropriate response on many scientific questions, such as what caused the end-Permian extinction.

He draws a distinction between two kinds of agnosticism: temporary-in practice, and permanent-in principle. The first kind is legitimate where there is an answer but we lack the evidence to find it. (He doesn’t add, but I would, that there are countless questions which we will always lack the evidence to answer. Who ate what for breakfast in some backwater village in China on some arbitrary date ten thousand years ago for instance – and a pretty much infinite number of questions of that kind.) The second kind is legitimate for questions ‘that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather’; an example is whether you see red as I do.

You can probably see where this is going. Some people think the question of God’s existence belongs in the permanent-in principle file, and they are the ones who are going to think Dawkins is too dogmatic and that he expects science to answer questions that it is unable to answer in the same way it is unable to say whether you see red as I do. Dawkins defends the view that agnosticism about the existence of God belongs in the temporary-in practice file. Either God exists or it doesn’t.

It is a scientific question: one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

People have thought before that various things were beyond the reach of science, sometimes at the very moment when someone was proving them wrong in the lab down the road.

Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other…God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice.

I think that clears a few things up. For one thing, I think it contradicts Mark’s* accusation that Dawkins doesn’t grapple ‘with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light’ – he labels a whole branch of agnosticism just for precisely those areas and gives an example of one. I think there are a lot of reviewers and columnists who think and say that – so if you encounter any, just turn to p. 47 and you’ll be able to show them wrong. (Maybe then they’ll just say ‘But I don’t mean things like whether you see red the way I do, I mean things like love and meaning.’ But you will have tried [and you can just say ‘but the principle is the same.’].)

Then he does the spectrum of probabilities, the 1 through 7 that Jean mentioned. 1. is ‘Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, “I do not believe, I know.”‘ 7. is ‘Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung ‘knows’ there is one.”‘ He would be surprised to meet many people in 7, but includes it ‘for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.’ Good point! And rather amusing.

6 is ‘Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that [it] is not there.”‘

I pondered 6 and 7 for a bit, wondering if I was being intellectually dishonest, if actually I might not be a 7 – but I quickly remembered that I’m not, because I really do have no difficulty with the thought that for all I know the universe is a piece of lint in God’s pocket. I might be close to a 7 on the question of an interventionist God though, a prayer-answering God, a God that gives a crap about humans. I think that God is so very very conspicuous for its absence that it’s very hard to believe it even could exist. I also think it makes a kind of sense to say that unbelief can be a 7 while belief can be a 6. I really, thoroughly don’t believe God exists – but that seems to me to be compatible with agreeing that I don’t know that it doesn’t. Is that coherent? I think it is – if only because belief is one thing and knowledge is another. The idea of God meets a wall of incredulity in me – but that still doesn’t amount to my thinking I know that no God exists. (Or maybe I’m just running the two Gods together here – I really don’t believe the interventionist, personal God exists; but I don’t know that there is no God in some other universe. No…I don’t believe that God exists either – but it’s a different kind of not believing – based in just not knowing. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t believe the local God exists and also that I believe it doesn’t, while I merely don’t believe the non-local God exists.

Dawkins says on p. 51, after his brief discussion of 7:

Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist.

That reminded me of a passage in George Felis’s article ‘What Atheism Isn’t’ in the New Humanist:

Every atheist I’ve ever encountered cares very much about evidence and reasoning and is deeply suspicious of faith. On the whole, atheists lack belief precisely because they find the reasons that religious believers give for believing to be insufficient justification at best…

That’s it you see. We want good reasons for believing things. That’s all. It’s not asking so much.

*I apologized to him for a revoltingly abusive email G Tingey sent him which cited and quoted me, and he answered very kindly, so now I feel repentent for being so, er, rough, myself.

In the face of all reason and experience

Sep 11th, 2007 2:37 pm | By

Anthony Grayling isn’t entirely convinced that expansion of ‘faith’ schools is a good idea. He has one or two mild reservations.

In the face of the failure of multiculturalism, with the awful example of faith-divided schooling in Northern Ireland over decades, with news of Deobandi control of half of British mosques where hostility to the host community is preached, the government is choosing to continue to fly in the face of all reason and experience, and to design and pay for – with our tax money – greater future divisiveness and trouble. It is staggering.

Yes but you see divisiveness and trouble are part of the rich diverse exciting tapestry of life. You get your curry, and your sushi, and your hummus, and your communal wars. It’s all good.

On the news we hear: “At a conference in London, Mr Balls presented a joint policy statement with Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Greek Orthodox and Sikh representatives.” That is, representatives of an active constituency of weekly worshippers of 8% of the British population, all of them votaries of ancient superstitions, all of them with grubby hands rummaging in the pot of public funds, and some of them doing it with the useful background threat of violence and civil unrest unless the rummaging pays off. The spectacle is appalling.

Oh come now, just because secularists had no say in the joint policy statement, that’s no – em – um –

Deliberately provocative?

Sep 11th, 2007 12:49 pm | By

Good luck to them.

The Committee for Ex-Muslims promises to campaign for freedom of religion but has already upset the Islamic and political Establishments for stirring tensions among the million-strong Muslim community in the Netherlands…Similar organisations campaigning for reform of the religion have sprung up across Europe and representatives from Britain and Germany will join the launch in The Hague today. “Sharia schools say that they will kill the ones who leave Islam. In the West people get threatened, thrown out of their family, beaten up,” Mr Jami said. “In Islam you are born Muslim. You do not even choose to be Muslim. We want that to change, so that people are free to choose who they want to be and what they want to believe in.”

That seems fair, doesn’t it? That people should be able to choose what if any religion they believe in and what they don’t? It seems fair to me.

I wonder if it seems fair to the reporter (David Charter). He says some odd things…

The threats are taken seriously after the murder in 2002 of Pim Fortuyn, an antiimmigration politician, and in 2004 of Theo Van Gogh, an antiIslam film-maker…Jami…denied that the choice of September 11 was deliberately provocative towards the Islamic Establishment.

It’s pretty tendentious to call Van Gogh ‘an antiIslam film-maker.’ And what is ‘the Islamic Establishment’? Why is it capitalized? Why is David Charter worried about putative provocations to it? Why does he ask a question that seems to imply that if there is an Islamic Establishment, it ought not to be ‘provoked’ by suggestions that people should be free to leave a religion? Why does he think it provocative, and deliberately provocative at that, to remind this Establishment of September 11? Why does he seem slightly hostile and suspicious toward Jami instead of toward this apparently quite touchy and coercive ‘Islamic Establishment’?

Maybe it’s just good skeptical journalism, but some of the wording does seem a little…warped.

On fundamentalism

Sep 10th, 2007 11:18 am | By

Curious about the latest rash of misrepresentations of Dawkins, I’ve been re-reading The God Delusion in order to compare what he says with what people like John Cornwell and Mark Vernon claim he says.

First of all there’s the ‘he ignores sophisticated theology’ complaint, the ‘God is not an old guy in the sky, God is the ground of all fzzzwrkklppp’ complaint. He says right at the outset that he’s not talking about the more rarefied or ‘sophisticated’ ideas of god. Page 20:

My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists…In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.

That’s what the book is about – so the grandiloquent but empty oratory of Terry Eagleton and Chris Hedges is simply thrown away, because irrelevant.

Then there’s the question of hostility, and the tension between religion and science, and whether it makes sense to call him a ‘fundamentalist atheist.’ Page 284:

As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.

That’s not a fundamentalist thing to say – it’s an inherently and searchingly antifundamentalist thing to say. Fundamentalists are not interested in changing our minds or in wanting to know all possible exciting things that are available to be known. It’s a perversion of meaning and of argument to claim that someone who defends the value of changing our minds and of wanting to know exciting things is a fundamentalist. It’s such a fundamental perversion of meaning that it’s hard not to suspect bad intentions.

Then there’s the issue of ‘moderate’ religion making the world safe for the other kind. Page 286:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

He could have worded that last sentence differently – he could have said ‘But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism to the extent that it teaches children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue’ – and that would have been better, because it may be the case that some ‘sensible’ religion doesn’t teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue. But I think the basic idea is reasonable, and probably right, and well worth pointing out at a time when the word ‘faith’ is valorized all over the damn place.

This is not to say that the book is without flaws; I don’t think it is. I think in the effort to reach a broad audience, Dawkins uses a demotic language which sometimes becomes merely vulgar. But all the same, so far I’ve found quite a few passages that simply say the opposite of what Cornwell and Vernon and Alibhai-Brown claim he says.

Militant tendency

Sep 9th, 2007 4:09 pm | By

Not everyone who reads this page reads comments, so I’ll comment a little on Mark Vernon’s reply to He doubted doubt out here.

Did I ever say that atheists per se can’t do doubt? It’s the militant sort that apparently find uncertainty so offensive in relation to religion – hence, for example, the argument that a liberal faith is a cover for religious terrorism. But since, obviously, you won’t believe me, try Julian Baggini’s Very Short Introduction for a reference on why this matters to the state of atheism, let alone anything else.

I have tried Julian’s book (and have said good things about it here), and I’ve known him to use the modifier ‘militant’ of atheists in other places as well – but I think he shouldn’t: I think that’s a misleading and unfair word to use of atheists who merely make particular arguments (as opposed to setting off bombs or making threats). I told him that when we were in Amherst in July, and he saw my point, I think; he suggested a less pejorative term, but I forget what it was. That addresses the word rather than the larger argument, but I think the word poisons the well. In any case I don’t agree that argumentative atheists (let us call them) do find uncertainty ‘offensive’; I think that’s more misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Similarly, the point about Cornwell having doubted his doubt is that it makes him wholly unlike the Pope et al who too apparently feel that certainty on matters theological is best.

But not all that wholly unlike the pope now, since he’s gone back to being a Catholic, yet Vernon seemed to be making it a virtue that Cornwell ‘doubted doubt.’ That looked to me like classic eating cake and having it. Cornwell is a double-doubter and he has ‘faith’ again. Impressive.

On your previous post: as above, don’t take it from me that Dawkins believes science will one day ask all questions worth asking and provide the best answers…

But that’s not what Vernon said Dawkins said; what he said was ‘Rather than grappling with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light, Dawkins marches blindly behind a banner calling blithely for more and more scientific, atheistic light,’ which is different; it’s more obscurantist and more presumptuous. Are there ‘areas of experience’ on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light? Perhaps that’s just an inflated way of claiming that there are areas of experience that science can’t fully or satisfactorily describe, just a way of saying that we need novels and memoirs and conversation as well as science if we want a rich understanding of experience. But the trouble with that of course is that Dawkins would never disagree with it, so it had to be reworded for the sake of picking a fight.

…take it from him: apart from much in The God Delusion itself, take a look at just one quick reference, the last paragraph of his essay in Is Nothing Sacred? edited by Ben Rogers.

I find that a little annoying. Of course, Vernon is under no obligation to provide quotations, but since he is replying, it seems evasive just to say ‘much in The God Delusion’ without any specific references and then offer a book that I’m not especially likely to have and in fact don’t have. So I’m going to go on thinking that Dawkins doesn’t think what Vernon says he thinks – because I think Vernon has a strong tendency to misrepresent what people say by paraphrasing and rewording it.

And he’s still calling us ‘militant.’

He cuts through militant atheism like a wire through cheese: faith is not deluded it’s human (in the same sense that art and literature is) with the corrolary that calling faith deluded leaves you open to the charge of being inhuman yourself.

It’s morally dubious to call people ‘militant’ when it must be obvious that they’re no such thing. Figurative language is all very well, but calling people murderous or terrorist or militant goes beyond mere metaphor. And his claim there is as obviously absurd as so many of his claims on this subject. Faith is not human ‘in the same sense that art and literature is’ precisely because art and literature do not involve ‘faith’ that invented characters really do exist, while faith in God does. ‘Faith’ and literature are both human, of course, but they’re not human ‘in the same sense’ (not that it’s clear what that means, but it is fairly clear that Vernon intends it to leave the impression that they are the same kind of thinking or belief or suspension of disbelief – and that’s not true).

Even militant agnostics should argue both fairly and reasonably.

Extremes meet – or not

Sep 9th, 2007 12:31 pm | By

As Jean Kazez mentioned in comments, Mark Vernon has an article in TPM about doubt and agnosticism. He does indeed, and I disagree with much of it, in some places quite strongly. I always did, but I kept it to myself.

First he was a priest, then he became an atheist. And then –

I found I was actually becoming an agnostic. Over time, I came to feel that the triumphalism that too often seems to be part and parcel of atheism entails a poverty of spirit that is detrimental to our humanity. It tends to ignore or ridicule the “big” questions of life – those questions of existence that are natural to ask, if never finding conclusive answers – for fear of letting theology in through the back door.

I don’t think that’s true. (Of course, Vernon’s experience of atheists is probably different from mine, and maybe he does know lots of atheists like that – but in terms of public atheists, atheists who write about atheism in books and magazines, I don’t recognize his description.) I think he phrases it (as so often) too sweepingly. What I see atheists ridicule is not the questions themselves but the assumption that the questions have external answers, and that the answers are of a goddy or ‘spiritual’ kind.

I came to think that whether or not God exists is an open question, having pondered the arguments for and against several times over. And that keeping it open, rather than trying to find a knockout blow one way or another, is key.

Too sweeping, again. (Also awkward. I should have rearranged that first sentence, so that the ‘having pondered’ came first. My bad.) In a sense the existence of God is always an open question, because (as theists are always so brightly saying) it can’t be proven one way or the other. But this notion of keeping it open rather than trying to find a ‘knockout blow’ is just a dressed up way of saying the whole subject should be left alone, should be abandoned, should be a matter of ‘faith’ or its absence – should, in short, be immune from rational inquiry. But it shouldn’t. That’s because what we’re trying to find (‘we’ being atheists) is not really a knockout blow and not just whether or not god exists, but whether or not there are any good reasons to think god exists. We’re working on an epistemological issue as well as an ontological one, and I don’t think Mark Vernon has much business telling us we should stop doing that. We live in a world full of people more or less commanding us to believe that god does exist – a world in which Osama bin Laden has just very definitely commanded us to believe that Allah exists and to convert to his religion – and we want to go on asking why we should believe it.

My agnosticism gradually became more committed and passionate. It seemed to me to embody an attitude to life that is severely, even dangerously, lacking in public life. Think of the endless skirmishes between science and religion. They are at best a cul-de-sac, and at worse a risky self-indulgence…They are dangerous because in forcing people to take sides, they are pushed to fundamentalist extremes – whether based on religious or scientific dogma.

This is where Vernon’s way of proceeding becomes markedly strange. He presents himself as a passionate agnostic, yet in service of that he misrepresents both atheism and science, thus making an honest discussion impossible as long as we take his terms at face value. How can we have honest doubt if we’re talking about things that we misunderstand because they’ve been misdescribed? Talking about science in terms of dogma and fundamentalism, and making it an equivalent of religion, is a profound misrepresentation, and it renders everything he says suspect. I’m sorry to say this (especially since he might read it!) but rhetoric of that kind makes it hard for me to believe that he’s arguing in good faith.

This rides roughshod over the intellectual ground that is genuinely fascinating, humanly enriching, and socially essential: the places where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet. The militant atheist, like the fundamentalist believer, tries to rubbish such engagement because it offends their faith that science, or religion, can and should say it all.

More of the same – ‘faith’ that ‘science’ – ‘science, or religion’ as if they were equivalents – and the nonsense about the two reaching the respective limits of their understanding and then meeting. They don’t meet! Religion qua religion has no particular understanding – it incorporates various kinds of human understanding, often even including rational understanding, but not in any distinctively religious way, and to the extent that the ‘understanding’ is distinctively religious, it’s not understanding, it’s error. And the limits of scientific understanding don’t come anywhere near the limits of religious understanding, so ‘meeting’ is out of the question. It sounds cozy and friendly, but it’s bullshit.

He doubted doubt

Sep 8th, 2007 2:06 pm | By

So, my curiosity renewed about Vernon’s much-recycled trope that only theists doubt while atheists are full of certainty, I amble over to his blog and find an even more ridiculous example. He’s praising John Cornwell’s book on Dawkins:

It is a gently written, precision riposte to The God Delusion. Cornwell used to be an agnostic and so appreciates the place of doubt in life. He also ‘doubted his doubt’ and returned to the Catholic faith…

Ah – so he’s a doubly wonderful fella because he doubted not once but twice, thus returning to ‘the Catholic faith’ which of course as is well known is all about doubt and always has been. That’s what the pope is for, that’s what the Vatican is for, that’s what encyclicals are for – to reiterate the value and merit of doubt. Returning to the Catholic faith is admirable, while pointing out the flaws in ‘faith’ as a way of thinking is wicked because it fails to appreciate the place of doubt in life.

This stuff is really beginning to get on my nerves. What next? Rapists are admirable because they appreciate the place of women’s rights in life? Corrupt officials are admirable because they appreciate the place of integrity and duty in life? Why does Mark Vernon – an ex-priest – get to pat himself and his theist buddies on the back for being appreciators of doubt while they all get together to distort and swear at the arguments of atheists? Why is faith doubt while lack of faith is certainty? Why doesn’t someone slap them with a wet mackerel every time they try that trick?

Why can’t you be humble like me you bastard?!

Sep 8th, 2007 1:38 pm | By

Mark Vernon is annoying. Again.

But if you speak to people who believe literally in the six days of Genesis, they do so in part because they fear the moral nihilism they see as implicit in a Dawkins-style Darwinism. Dawkins’ approach is pretty nihilistic because he insists on the meaning-lite doctrine of ‘science as salvation’, as Mary Midgley put it. He will never win the Creationists over. Rather, he is likely to confirm them in their belief.

Notice the complete absence of substantiation for that silly accusation. Notice the failure even to say what it’s supposed to mean – notice the obnoxious combination of the emphatic verb ‘insists’ with the labeling via someone else’s unexplained epithet. Does Dawkins ‘insist’ on ‘the meaning-lite doctrine of “science as salvation”‘? Not that I know of – but then it’s hard to falsify Vernon there, because it’s hard to know what he means. No doubt that’s why he feels free to end with a flourish by recycling the very stale accusation of being an inadvertent ally of Creationism.

Rather than grappling with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light, Dawkins marches blindly behind a banner calling blithely for more and more scientific, atheistic light.

Rather than grappling with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw more light than he has the knowledge or imagination to realize, Mark Vernon marches blindly behind a banner calling blithely for closing down inquiry into areas of experience that he thinks should be immune from rational inquiry and experiment.

Vernon talks endlessly about uncertainty and humility, without ever demonstrating either one. He uses the words as sticks to beat atheists, arrogantly and assertively misrepresenting them in the process. He’s another Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, shouting at atheists for not being humble and uncertain.

“John Cornwell”

Sep 6th, 2007 5:44 pm | By

Richard Dawkins takes an exasperated look at John Cornwell’s throughgoing misrepresentation of his book. In one example, Cornwell takes part of a general discussion of consolation, which includes this passage –

We can also get consolation through discovering a new way of thinking about a situation. A philosopher points out that there is nothing special about the moment when an old man dies. The child that he once was “died’ long ago, not by suddenly ceasing to live but by growing up. Each of the seven ages of man “dies’ by slowly morphing into the next. From this point of view, the moment when the old man finally expires is no different from the slow “deaths’ throughout his life.

and says this about it (the ‘you’ is Dawkins) –

The atheist “philosopher’s” view you cite argues that when an old man dies, “The child that he once was “died’ long ago. . . From this point of view, the moment when the old man finally expires is no different from the slow ‘deaths’ throughout his life.” Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.

The ridiculous scare quotes pissed me off as soon as I saw them, and they pissed me off even more when Dawkins elucidated:

Do you see what Cornwell is up to here? First he puts the word “philosopher” in quotation marks, which can only have been intended sarcastically. In a footnote, I attributed the argument to Derek Parfit, who happens to be an extremely distinguished philosopher, author of the book Reasons and Persons, described by another eminent philosopher, Alan Ryan, as “something close to a work of genius”. Even if Cornwell didn’t see my attribution to Parfit, his sarcastic quotation marks were uncalled-for. How did he know whether I got the argument from a real philosopher that he respects, or not? Why be sarcastic?

Why indeed? Apparently because he’s yet another defender of religion who wants to hurl random abuse rather than say anything even faintly reasonable. Right, the “philosopher” Derek Parfit; well played.

Second, Cornwell describes my “philosopher” as an atheist, although I never said he was an atheist and Parfit’s point would be just as valid whether he is or not. There never was any suggestion that the argument is an atheist argument, put by an atheist philosopher. That wasn’t why I brought it up, not at all. Once again, Cornwell is reading what he expects to see, not what is actually there. Third, as with the Linklater misreading, Cornwell seems to think that I am offering the (Parfit) argument as an atheistic alternative to religious consolation. Why else would he add the gratuitously sour sentence: “Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer . . .” Once again, I was offering the Parfit argument simply as an illustration to clarify the kind of thing that consolation can mean: the consolation we can derive from a new way of thinking about familiar facts.

Apart from all that, it’s good stuff.

But if that is irritating, the following is gratuitously offensive. Cornwell is talking about Dostoevsky’s reading of nineteenth century thinkers. He mentions Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Utopian Marxism, and “a set of ideas that you would have applauded – Social Darwinism.” Does Cornwell seriously imagine that I would applaud Social Darwinism? Nobody nowadays applauds Social Darwinism, and I have been especially outspoken in my condemnation of it (see, for example, the title essay that begins A Devil’s Chaplain).

He’s right you know – I’ve quoted that passage from ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ and from Darwin’s letter which is the source of the phrase, more than once, in response to one misreader or another who gets Dawkins wrong on this. People are convinced that he’s a great naturalistic fallacy fan but he’s not, and he’s said that as clearly and definitely as it’s possible to say it. Natural selection sucks. And I’m not much impressed by John Cornwell, either.

The New Islam project

Sep 4th, 2007 3:08 pm | By

Meet Tahir Aslam Gora.

Tahir Aslam Gora is a Canadian-Pakistani writer, novelist, poet, journalist, editor, translator and publisher…In 2005 Gora translated into Urdu Irshad Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam. He is currently translating Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Gora writes a column for The Hamilton Spectator and is currently working on two manuscripts; one on Canadian multiculturalism, the other on Islam and the need for its transformation into “a humane theology.” In Pakistan he was a noted critic of religious intolerance. He fled to Canada in the spring of 1999 following threats to his life.

A critic of religious intolerance who received threats to his life by people keen to show what religious intolerance really is.

[M]any Muslims have for centuries excluded non-Muslims from their orbit. In addition, the traditional script of the Qur’an exhorts repulsion of ‘others’ much more than acceptance. Many Muslims are unwilling to realise that the Qur’an was written and compiled by the pioneers of Islam through different political stages. Instead, many take the book as the final verdict of God…Now, for many, the whole essence of Islam is repulsion of others.

Hence the popularity of death threats and fatwas, no doubt.

Liberal Muslims are not only silenced by literalist Muslims, but also by those non-Muslims who have developed the hollow pattern of being ‘fair’ and ‘tolerant’ to every religion. The existence of ‘political fairness’ among large circles of non-Muslim activists is actually a much bigger obstacle than extremist Muslims because those non-Muslim activists dominate the media outlets across the world and often ignore genuinely liberal Muslim voices.

Don’t they just. Well, good luck, Tahir Aslam Gora; let me know if I can do anything to help.

Thinking about writing

Sep 4th, 2007 12:35 pm | By

Funny stuff from Jo Wolff.

Why is academic writing so boring? I am impatient by nature, easily irritated, and afflicted with a short attention span. That I ended up in a job where I have to spend half the day blinking my way through artless, contorted prose is a cruel twist of fate. But the upside is that it gives me plenty of opportunity to reflect on why reading academic writing is so often a chore and so rarely a joy…As far as I know there has been little, if any, literary analysis of academic writing…But, by chance, I recently read a short piece of literary theory, and, to use one of the two metaphors academics allow themselves, the scales fell from my eyes. (If you are wondering, the other metaphor is deftly deployed in the following: “In this column I shall view academic writing through the prism of literary theory”.)

I love that last bit because it includes the academically-obligatory and nonacademically-poisonous trope that Julian always cites as what The Philosophers’ Magazine (being a magazine not a journal) doesn’t want – that ‘In this column I shall’ item. Part of my job as deputy editor is telling contributors that we want a magazine style not a journal style, and explaining what that entails (and then sometimes explaining it again when we get a journal style anyway and have to ask for revisions). And in much the same vein, in writing Why Truth Matters we had to combine a decent amount of rigor with a style appropriate for a trade book. There were times when we actually got into quite detailed discussions of that – is this too much? Is this too academicky? Is this not academicky enough? We had disagreements about what we could assume people would understand – we have different starting ideas about that: I tend to think that people don’t like being talked down to too much, don’t like explanations of things they already know, and do like to be asked to reach a little; JS thinks people don’t like being made to feel stupid, and don’t like to be asked to reach too much. We were probably both right – some people fit his version better, some fit mine. We have had plenty of comments to the effect that the book is hard work, including some saying it’s a little too much hard work, or much too much hard work. But we’ve had others saying it was a workout but that that’s enjoyable. It’s worth thinking about this in case we write another book some day – and also just because the subject is interesting. Style is interesting; the question of what is interesting and what is boring is interesting.

The secret, apparently, is that good writing captures its reader by means of creating a tension between the plot and the story. The reader is shown enough of the narrative sequence to get an impression of what is going on, and to whet their appetite for more, but much is hidden. Suspense is created, and the reader is hooked until it is resolved…A very simple and effective technique…[I]t makes perfect sense to me, and also explains why academic writing is generally so much easier to put down than it is to pick up again. At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.

That did make me laugh. And now I think about it…I realize there is a certain amount (a small amount) of tension in WTM. The first chapter doesn’t give the game away – the first chapter is slightly coy – the first chapter sets things up for the last one. I didn’t know that was a literary secret at the time, but I did it that way anyway. I suppose I simply figured I had to leave something for the last chapter to say, or else why have a last chapter?

Anyway – somebody just the other day found it ‘a delight to read’ – which to someone who herself likes to be delighted by what she reads is the kind of comment that makes writing worthwhile, and the attempt to figure out the difference between boring and interesting also worthwhile.

Site of the week

Sep 3rd, 2007 5:54 pm | By

Here’s a fan of Point of Inquiry and also of Butterflies and Wheels. Here’s someone with good taste, in other words.

Oh not that again

Sep 3rd, 2007 3:20 pm | By

And another thing. As long as I’m quarreling with Alibhai-Brown – I get tired of this familiar chunk of doggerel:

Some aspects of our nature are not susceptible to scientific enquiry, cannot be dissected, categorised and validated in terms that would satisfy the “rational” disbelievers, whose intellect is colossal but imagination puny. There are no experiments and tests to explain love, empathy, longing, the agony and ecstasy of the heart, the wild and wonderful creativity of the brain…

That is such kack – yet people go on trotting it out as if it were transcendent and indisputable wisdom. Of course there are experiments and tests to explain love and the rest of it – experiments and tests, theories and evidence, as well as centuries of stories and personal accounts. They’re not a black box, they’re not immune to inquiry and even experiments and tests, and the findings of experiments and tests are highly interesting. It’s not the brash fanatic zealous hysterical atheists who are trying to rule knowledge out of order, it’s obscurantist epithet-hurling Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Give her a zero for the course.