Notes and Comment Blog

The word is out

Nov 22nd, 2006 8:35 pm | By

Excellent. Word is out at last. Via Hari Kunzru.

Somehow the idea of culture has got very confused in the UK. Multicultural politics once provided a light in the post-imperial gloom…However, as biological racism has faded away, a form of cultural racism is taking its place, often propagated by left-liberals who consider themelves, um, whiter than white on issues of diversity. Underlying much of the current hot air about “respect” and “offence” we find implicit the idea that as BME’s…we’re somehow more determined by our culture than our flexible white co-Britons…Our more serious conversation has to be with the communitarian politicians who feel happiest when dealing with us in groups. Instead of asking us as individual British citizens what we think or feel about contentious issues, our views are too often inferred from a dialogue conducted with so-called “community leaders”, who are frequently self-appointed, and almost always cultural conservatives, with every incentive to take offence on our behalf in order to preserve their own access to funding and influence. This odd coupling of white liberals and brown conservatives has produced a form of multiculturalism in which culture appears as fixed and fragile as a dried flower…This ossified form of multiculturalism creates casualties within the ethnic minority communities its proponents believe they are protecting. Women, homosexuals, religious, social or political dissidents and artists must all contend with a political environment in which their freedoms are considered less important than the “representative” power of community leaders, who will zealously wield the weapon of offence when their authority is challenged.

Via Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Too many wretched years have been wasted under communal political management which skilfully divided and relabelled black and Asian Britons to disable progressive politics…I can’t remember when unelected religious and community leaders, politicians and institutions decided the religious identity was primary and that the broad black political movement was dead as was any claim to multiple identities and complicated allegiances. But they did and it was without our consent. Once human rights and equality activists mobilised to stand up for all victims of racism and the internal oppressions within groups, particularly violence against women and children. Our compassion and action were not rationed, colour-coded or preserved for our own kind…We believed in universal standards and rights which are enshrined in the UN Human Rights charter. Citizens were autonomous individuals with not creatures owned and controlled by rigid traditions…Today the enemy of equality, freedom and justice is as likely to be within. Broken up into simple tribes which compete for attention and resources (who is the most oppressed of us all?), commonalities are negated, differences fetishised. Religionists – Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Protestant- want not parity but special and exceptional treatment and unacceptable influence over policies. The responses of Salma Yaqoob and the Muslim Council of Britain to our manifesto make those demands without a blush.

And of course via the New Generation Manifesto and via Sunny Hundal.

During the past decade, a group of self-appointed representatives has sprung up, including the Hindu Council UK and Hindu Forum of Britain; the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Sikh Federation and Sikh Human Rights Group; and the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Association of Britain, all claiming to speak on behalf of all Hindu, Sikh and Muslim citizens…For a start, there are problems specific to the structure of these organisations. They tend to reflect a narrow range of predominantly conservative opinion. They generally ignore non-religious, liberal or progressive opinions and yet claim to represent everyone of their particular faith. Any criticism, from the outside or within, is portrayed as an attack on the religion itself, making it more difficult to hold the groups to account. Worse, they largely consist of first-generation, middle-aged men who are out of touch with second- and third-generation Britons.

And women. Well – excellent that the word is out. Good voyage to you.

God is both p and not-p, okay?

Nov 21st, 2006 11:26 pm | By

So I’m not the only one who found Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins’s book more than slightly incoherent, especially the ‘God is not a person God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO but then again God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it God is the condition of possibility’ stuff. Others have had the same reaction. Good. A C Grayling for instance.

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises…Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

James Wood for another instance.

One doesn’t need to have Richard Dawkins’s level of certainty to find Terry Eagleton’s Catholic sermon utterly incoherent. On the one hand, according to Eagleton, God is transcendent, invisible, not a principle nor an entity, not even ‘existent’: indeed, ‘in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.’ This God is neither inside nor outside the universe, but is mysteriously ‘the condition of possibility’. On the other hand, Eagleton just happens to know that this God chose to reveal himself in Jesus Christ, that he created the world ‘out of love rather than need’, and because this act was gratuitous God is ‘an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it’.

Well exactly. What I said. How does he know all this? Divine insertion, or what?

Eagleton mocks Dawkins’s mockery of ‘a personal God’ (‘some kind of chap’), but how is this gratuitously loving and unneurotic but possibly rather cross and murderously neurotic modernist artist who speaks to us via Jesus not a personal God? It would not be obnoxious of Richard Dawkins to ask how Eagleton knows these things. The reply, I think, would be threefold: Eagleton was brought up a Catholic and is reverting to his roots; God or Christ has somehow ‘spoken’ to Eagleton at some point in his life; and Eagleton just has ‘faith’ that his assertions are true. These are all forms of irrationality, however understandable or even magnificent we find them, and it is not overweening for rational atheism to expose this irrationality, as it always has done.

I don’t find them magnificent, especially not in the sneering-dogmatic form Eagelton presented them in, and I don’t really even find them all that understandable, coming from someone with Eagleton’s pretensions to insight and general all-round cleverness.

Fifth Column

Nov 21st, 2006 12:01 am | By

Another interesting discussion here and later here. It starts from the idea that I contradict myself by “saying that disgust is worthless as a moral compass” and yet using the word “disgusting” to express strong disapprobation quite often and consistently. I argue that it’s not inconsistent because my claim is only that disgust is worthless as a guide to morals on its own, not that disgust itself is morally worthless. On the contrary – I think it’s often called for, and that’s why I resort to the word. (I had noticed that I use it fairly often, when I’m feeling particularly…outraged, vehement…disgusted.) Brandon doesn’t agree, so the discussion has continued. I think he’s underestimating the degree to which judgment and reasons influence both the triggering of disgust and the decisions and actions that flow from it; but if the discussion goes on maybe he’ll convince me otherwise.

And then there’s another discussion of Theo Hobson. It quotes from comments here – it’s fun when our comments are interesting enough to get quoted!

“”But atheism is perfectly compatible with agnosticism, may indeed be the same thing. I (still) don’t see why not being a theist necessarily proceeds from any beliefs about the cosmos. Not being a socialist or a Friedmanite doesn’t necessarily proceed from any beliefs about economics; and so on. Are you claiming that theist belief is so natural that its absence requires prior beliefs?” I would call it an epiphany were I that way inclined, but this is exactly the point – to a theist, theism is that natural that there is some horror that others cannot see their truth…Every time I see Grayling or Dawkins poke their heads above the parapets, I sit and hope that it is to people like Hobson that the papers turn to for a refutation.

And so often it is. Maybe there’s an atheist spy handing out assignments at Comment is Free. It seems oddly plausible, now that it’s been suggested…

Ritual and art

Nov 20th, 2006 11:45 pm | By

So now we’re talking about ritual, partly via what Julian said in that interview (‘And also you have rituals of gratitude. A religious person can say grace, they can pray. Now, you can try to create these little rituals in atheist settings if you like, but I tend to think they wouldn’t work.’) and partly via what JS said in that other interview (‘You have the thought that the rituals that go along with religious practice are desirable, and so on. However, there’s a lot of research that suggests that people get seduced by ritual…’). This is connected, it seems to me, with a post of Nigel Warburton’s the other day, which is also about something I ponder sometimes.

Many of the great works of visual art are religious. But when an atheist like me looks at, say Duccio’s painting in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery of the ‘miracle’ of Jesus healing a blindman, I do not believe in the literal truth of what is depicted (David Hume, for example gave excellent reasons for being sceptical about believing reports that such miracles have occurred).Nor do I believe that Jesus was the son of God (nor that there is such an entity as God). Does this mean that I can’t adequately appreciate this picture?

I think no, it doesn’t, although it may mean that you (and I) can’t appreciate it in exactly the same way that a thoroughgoing believer can. I brought up Rembrandt’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ as another example. It seems to me it’s not necessary to believe Jesus came back from the dead to find that painting moving. One can think one’s way into it; one can imagine believing it; one can imagine being the disciples in the painting; one can imagine being a 17th century Dutch viewer of the painting; one can imagine that it is true, and what that would feel like; one can imagine half-believing and half-hoping, or all hoping. I don’t think we’re (always, necessarily) reduced to mere aestheticism in response to religious art.

Instrumentalist theology

Nov 20th, 2006 7:38 pm | By

So yesterday I asked, with reference to Theo Hobson’s argument, ‘how do you go about seeing god as the source of all goodness, all life if you don’t believe god exists? How can god’s existence be a non-question if you’re going to have gratitude to that god for being the source of all goodness, all life?’ and Jerry S answered ‘A lot of people in the non-realist tradition think something like this. I think Robin LaPoidevin makes this kind of argument, for example (check out my interview with him in New British Philosophy)’ – so I did. He asked an interesting question in that interview.

Robin Le Poidevin had said this about instrumentalist theology as opposed to the realist variety:

Presumably an atheist could see theological discourse as being fictional, but it would be a fiction that we can do without. Theological instrumentalists, on the other hand, would say that the fiction has a crucial point…[T]heological discourse and practices enable us to lead better lives, even though they are fictional.

JS asks if there isn’t a danger for non-realist theism that despite the claims of its advocates that it’s a fictional discourse, it is in fact almost invariably taken as comprising truth-claims? (Just what I’m always saying.) Then he adds that ‘this is worrying both if you have a commitment to the value of truth* and also because a lot of awful things are done in the name of religious belief.’ Le Poidevin answers the awful things part rather than the first part, then there’s the interesting question.

But if you’re an instrumentalist, you’re doing more than simply articulating a philosophical position. You have the thought that the rituals that go along with religious practice are desirable, and so on. However, there’s a lot of research that suggests that people get seduced by ritual, so whatever might be claimed about the status of religious language, people won’t be able to avoid believing and acting as if the fictions they espouse are actually statements about matters of fact. And religious discourses are frequently predicated on exclusionary relations – they often divide up the world into the righteous and the unrighteous. Surely, whatever the status ascribed to religious language by non-realist theorists, this is a worry?

Le Poidevin says that’s a very interesting argument, but gives what I think is a rather unconvincing answer: he agrees that people get caught up in and even lost in fictions, but then concludes with:

But it would be surprising if someone, without actually losing contact with the thought that this is just a fiction, became intolerant of people who didn’t want to join in.

Well, I don’t think it would be at all surprising. We hear the instrumentalist case all the time. We don’t usually hear it from people who say at the outset that ‘this is just a fiction,’ but we do hear the instrumentalist argument all on its own, with the question of the truth of the central proposition left entirely unaddressed, as if it were either irrelevant or somehow settled precisely by the instrumentalist case – you know: belief in god makes you good therefore god exists. So I don’t think it would be surprising.

JS tactfully changed the subject at that point.

*Little did he imagine when he asked that question that in a few short years he would be writing a book on that very commitment to that very value in collaboration with some Yank woman he’d never so much as heard of at the time, any more than she’d ever heard of him at the time. Little did she imagine either, but then she wasn’t the one asking Robin Le Poidevin a lot of questions, was she. Well exactly.


Nov 19th, 2006 8:58 pm | By

Tom Freeman at Fisking Central also disputed with Theo Hobson and his rather idiosyncratic account of what atheism is. He points out that Hobson isn’t altogether consistent.

This atheist, believing that religious claims are factually untrue, is naturally likely to prefer others to reject these untruths. It is also possible, though, for an atheist to believe that (some) religion can (in some circumstances) have (some) social or cultural benefits. And Hobson knows this: less than a week ago, he wrote about the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who “agrees that dogmatic atheism is unattractive: ‘to think there is nothing to be learned from religion is extremely arrogant,’ he says. And he acknowledges the appeal of religion, even to a hardened atheist.” If Hobson still accepts – as he did a few days ago – that Baggini is an atheist, then this rather undermines his current argument that atheism is a matter of intolerant zealotry.

He wrote about the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini? thought I. He did? I was unaware. I was also amused. ‘The atheist philosopher Julian Baggini’ – mmph – that’s no the atheist philosopher, that’s just Julian. No no, no no, I don’t mean it (Julian doesn’t read this, fortunately, so I can tease a little); I know he is the atheist philosopher really; it just sounds funny. It’s the ‘the,’ I suppose.*

So I was inspired to read Hobson’s post. Here’s the bit he quotes from an interview of Julian in a Christian magazine:

For example, there are certain things that I think are quite valuable which the religious mindset finds easier to accommodate. I’d call them ‘religious attitudes’. Thankfulness is one example. I think it’s very good to have a sense of gratitude – for being alive, for being well. I think that the lack of it lies at the root of a lot of modern dissatisfaction. People no longer feel a sense of gratitude, they feel a sense of entitlement, and so they’re always unhappier about what they don’t have than they are thankful for what they do … I think [thankfulness] comes more naturally in a religious mindset. For a start, you have an object of gratitude. There’s nothing for me to feel thankful to. And also you have rituals of gratitude. A religious person can say grace, they can pray. Now, you can try to create these little rituals in atheist settings if you like, but I tend to think they wouldn’t work.

I agree with most of that, and I’ve been thinking about it lately. I have this idea about a possible connection between irrational or arational belief or faith, and certain qualities like generosity and compassion. I think there may be a sense in which irrationality can be a kind of virtue – because it may be better at selflessness, at not being calculating and cautious, at just going all out for other people. That could be considered a religious attitude. I want to jaw about that some time; meanwhile, I completely agree with the part about ritual, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said that here. I think the ritual problem is really regrettable.

But once we get off Julian and back onto Hobson, things don’t go so well.

Baggini is right to move the discussion away from the tired philosophical argument over the existence of God, and to think about the attitudes that define faith. For faith in God is not a matter of believing certain unlikely propositions about the universe. The question of whether or not he exists is a massive category error. It is the supreme non-question. In practice, to have faith in him is to be involved in a certain way of speaking and feeling. And gratitude is a key aspect of this rhetorical tradition. The believer learns to feel indebted, grateful, dependent. He or she learns to see God as the source of all goodness, all life, and to see him or herself as infinitely lucky.

Uh…how do you go about seeing god as the source of all goodness, all life if you don’t believe god exists? How can god’s existence be a non-question if you’re going to have gratitude to that god for being the source of all goodness, all life? Sorry, but I don’t quite follow.

*Oh honestly. I no sooner type that than I read a comment on my previous post on Hobson, which takes a jokey comment I made on Julian’s comment with deadly seriousness and tells me to hold off on the snark, so I guess I should spell out that that stuff is [loudly] jokey. No doubt it’s all very unbecoming of me to make jokes about atheist philosophers and everything, but dang, it’s just Notes and Comment, it’s not the front page of the Times. I make the odd joke now and then. I mean no disrespect. I deeply respect all philosophers without exception, I promise.

It depends

Nov 19th, 2006 7:17 pm | By

Canada’s talking about it too.

In recent weeks, the debate in Britain over the wearing of the niqab or face veil has crossed the north Atlantic to Canada. It came on the heels of claims that the leaders of the large Indo-Canadian population in British Columbia were turning a blind eye to widespread domestic violence. Last year saw an acrimonious dispute in Ontario over whether Muslims could use Islamic sharia courts to settle family disputes.

Notice what all three of those examples have in common.

In themselves, fights over cultural practices and symbols are nothing new in Canada…What is new about the latest arguments is an underlying tension between some cultural practices of recent immigrants and the mainstream values of Canadian liberal democracy, such as sex equality.

It’s too bad pols and journalists so often frame the issue that way. It seems to me the point isn’t that the values are mainstream or that they’re Canadian (or British, or Dutch, or German, or French, or Italian), but that they’re egalitarian, universalist, justice-based, and the like. ‘Mainstream’ is the wrong word to invoke, because sex inequality is mainstream in many other places, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing in those places. It’s funny how popular those coercive conformist majoritarian words tend to be – as if no one had ever heard or known of a case where the majority was simply wrong. Majorities can get the facts wrong, and they can be morally wrong; ‘majority’ isn’t an inherently moral term. I suppose it’s natural for everyone to get confused about this in democracies, because it is the case that we are all subject to majority will; but the fact remains that number of votes doesn’t equate to accuracy on the one hand or justice on the other.

Multiculturalism has since sunk deep roots in government, reflected in everything from broadcasting to education policy…Almost half believe that immigrants should be free to maintain their cultural and religious practices. But a poll published this week reflected the new disquiet: when asked whether those practices should be tolerated if they infringe women’s rights, a large majority said No.

Well, there you go. Exactly. Free to maintain cultural and religious practices, good, but if they infringe women’s rights, not so good. That’s why it’s so misleading for people to keep churning out bromides about tolerance and cultural yakyak – because it depends. It depends on which cultural and religious practices we’re talking about, obviously, so blanket ‘yes lovely all should be permitted Kumbaya’ is not helpful. That awareness is starting to sink in, which is good. Maybe somebody should write a really good book about religious and cultural practices and how they affect women.

No fundamentalist optimists here

Nov 18th, 2006 8:21 pm | By

An excellent look at the Theo Hobson-Mark Vernon school of argument from Obscene Desserts.

He then suddenly changes direction and – accompanied by the wrenching sounds of screeching, overloaded gears and, moreover, ignoring Grayling’s definition of atheism – alleges that atheism

>>entails a certain narrative about historical progress: we can move to a new and better age once we have dispensed with superstition. Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. (Empahsis added)

Huh? Really? Atheism entails (‘to have, impose, or require as a necessary accompaniment or consequence’) a certain narrative about historical progress? All atheists have the same view of history without which atheism would be impossible? Gosh. I’m an atheist. I’m also a historian who – like most of my colleagues – holds to a quite different narrative of history than the ‘it’s getting better all the time’ version which Hobson imagines. Does this make me a logical impossibility? Or, perhaps not a ‘true’ atheist (on the ‘no true Scot’ model). Or perhaps I’m not a ‘true’ historian. Which would be worrying…if this whole argument weren’t so obviously ridiculous.

Indeed. Ridiculous and yet all too familiar – the ever-popular ‘define atheism as any old thing you feel like and then triumphantly explain why that atheism is all wrong and silly and besides it’s a “faith” itself so ha’ trick. It’s one of those things that is so drearily familiar, so endlessly recycled however often it is shown to be wrong and self-serving and tendentious, that it should have its own ‘foul’ flag that we could just wave whenever it turns up. ‘Foul!’ Ten years of silence while you contemplate your sins.

J Carter Wood then goes on to Hobson’s (also familiar) claim that ‘atheism itself is the product, not as you might expect of the Enlightenment or the development of science, but rather of….protestantism.’

Now, it’s true that no idea comes from nowhere and, thus, ‘derives from’ something else; however, there seem to be several major intellectual steps missing between Christianity and ‘the atheist narrative’ (what, only one?) which Hobson decries. The Reformation was certainly an important precursor to the Enlightenment (and even after that a lot of ostensibly secularist thinking has remain influenced by religious assumptions or frameworks), but Hobson’s relentless effort to detach atheism from science and link it with a blind, naive optimism about the human condition is bizarre…Hobson’s argument here relies rather heavily, and awkwardly, on the history of Positivism – which did certainly have a startlingly teleological and progressive view of history – which Gray presented in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern. By casting all secularists into that bizarre mould (which is a mistake which Gray himself – for all his worth as a thinker – all too often makes…while all positivists might have been atheists, the equation doesn’t work equally well in the opposite direction), Hobson is confusing two very different things: the scientific, secular worldview and a very specific (though in its time influential) intellectual movement which did, at times, develop certain cult-like trappings…If anything, it is a skeptical, secular and scientific outlook which tends against most kinds of fundamentalist optimism.

Read the whole thing.

A counter-Leavisite snack

Nov 18th, 2006 7:35 pm | By

Some quotables in Hitchens’s review of Clive James’s memoir.

James’s strenuous test of the De Vriesian proposition was to try to demonstrate that one could be simultaneously cerebral and on television…I can only say, as someone who doesn’t watch much television, that when Clive James invited me on to one of his shows…I did actually feel that I wasn’t under orders to be stupider than I really am.

It’s irksome, being under such orders. There’s always (or often) that lurking dread when writing books, that some faceless publisher or editor or agent will swear that no no a thousand times no, this book will never make it past your poxy little computer unless you make it readily understandable to the pearly-cheeked virginal four-year-old. (There is also of course the corresponding but rather different dread that one will be under orders to be cleverer than one in fact is. Happily those orders are impossible to fulfill, so there is no conflict; one simply falls on one’s sword. So I imagine, at any rate.)

Of a certain Friday lunchtime group, which now threatens to become a pseudo-legend on an almost Bloomsbury-like scale…, James makes the correct observation that it started out as a self-consciously counter-Leavisite snack, where little if any career-smoothing or back-scratching could even have been attempted. One of the “stars” of that snack, Martin Amis, once rebuked someone for being in want of a sense of humour, and added that by saying this he meant very deliberately to impugn the man’s seriousness.

There – if I’m not mistaken, there is the ‘no truly intelligent’ thing again. To ruin an epigram by explaining it, I would suggest that Amis meant something like what I’ve been claiming: that the want of a sense of humour constitutes such a serious and disabling blind spot that it really is incompatible with (proper, full, complete) intelligence.

Anyway, it’s a great line.

Women are tools

Nov 18th, 2006 6:26 pm | By

Misogyny wins another round.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos has signed into law a ban on all abortions, even in cases when a woman’s life is judged to be at risk. Previous legislation from a century ago allowed an abortion if three doctors certified that the woman was in danger…President-elect Daniel Ortega once favoured abortion rights but changed stance after re-embracing Catholicism. Mr Bolanos signed the law in the presence of Roman Catholic bishops and Protestant evangelist leaders.

All of them agreeing, apparently, that a foetus is more valuable than the woman who is carrying it.

Rosemary, Lavender, Coffee, Cedar

Nov 17th, 2006 8:26 pm | By

I liked this article on the sense of smell. It made me think, as the saying goes.

Mine is a mediocre specimen of a post-lapsarian nose. As a fallen daughter of Eve—or, more accurately, a fallen granddaughter of a sharp-nosed chimpanzee—I am conscious of smell only a few times each day…But for most of the day, it is unusual for me to notice any particular smells. I do eat food, of course, but with the illusory impression that I am tasting rather than smelling the myriad different flavours that make up even an ordinary meal.

Yes, same here, I suppose; but I do value smells, I thought to myself. Then later in the day when I was outside, I thought of the article and began sniffing, trying to see if I could exercise my sense of smell. It was interesting – interesting to find how little I could really smell.

It was a perfect day for it. It’s officially the wettest November on record in Seattle, and the month only half over; it rained heavily and non-stop all day Wednesday and it was also very windy, then it cleared overnight, so yesterday the air was as clean as it can possibly get, plus the ground is saturated, so you would think one would be able to smell it. But I couldn’t, really. I tried, but I couldn’t. Sniff sniff sniff – what am I smelling? Nothing, really – very clean damp air; it’s lovely, it’s a joy to sniff, but it doesn’t really have any specific content that I could name. That seemed odd. I looked around (I was walking) – there was, not surprisingly, wet fallen vegetation everywhere, gently decaying; wouldn’t you think we’d be able to smell that? But I couldn’t. Once or twice I thought I perhaps got a faint hint of wet earth and leaves, but I wasn’t at all sure. Maybe I could have in a forest; maybe the ratio of concrete to earth and grass and leaves in an urban neighborhood makes the organic segment more difficult to smell. I thought about farms, the ocean, eucalyptus groves, other smelly places. Gorillas – gorillas have a very strong, pungent smell; orang utans don’t. That’s interesting. Dogs smell bad; cats smell good; why is that?

The Two Stooges

Nov 17th, 2006 7:33 pm | By

That pope – he’s always walking into these things. He’s like one of those physical comedy types whose schtick is all tripping over the furniture and sitting on the cat.

Apparently there was this fuss in Italy the other day ‘when the daily newspaper of the Italian Roman Catholic church criticised a string of recent satirical acts’ about this same pope. The pope’s private secretary explained to a journalist what the papal crowd was thinking.

“I am aware of the controversy and I hope that broadcasts of this kind stop,” Father Genswein said. “Satire is fine. But these things do not have any intellectual quality and offend men of the church. They are not acceptable.”

That’s fun, isn’t it? Satire is fine – fine, I tell you, fine, we love the stuff, it’s meat and drink to us, we can’t get enough – but these particular ones right here that we’re talking about ain’t clever enough and besides they offend – well, you know, us. Therefore, it must follow as the night the day, They Are Not Acceptable.

That’s what’s so funny. Pure walking into a door. Sheer tripping and falling into the soup tureen. Here’s where you went wrong, papa Genswein; here’s where you made your fatal error; here’s what you don’t want to do: it really doesn’t work to say ‘Satire is fine unless it’s about me.’ See what I’m getting at here? It’s just no good saying ‘Satire is fine as long as it’s about other people, any other people, really, let a thousand flowers bloom, it’s liberty hall, anyone, except me.’ You see the problem? It looks like special pleading. It looks just a tiny bit self-interested. I’ll give you an example. Suppose you said ‘Hitting people with heavy wooden sporting implements is fine’ and then added ‘except when we’re the people being hit’ – you see, disinterested onlookers would think you were happy to see everyone else mocked or pummeled but wanted immunity for your own special self alone. Tragically, and riotously, the result is not persuasion but shouts of laughter. Sorry, Father G.

Not so fast

Nov 17th, 2006 12:27 am | By

Something from an essay by Richard Rorty – ‘Globalization, the Politics of Identity and Social Hope,’ in Philosophy and Social Hope (1996). See what you think.

As I see it, the emergence of feminism, gay liberation, various sorts of ethnic separatism, aboriginal rights, and the like, simply add further concreteness to sketches of the good old egalitarian utopia…In that society, people who wanted to think of themselves as Basque first, or black first, or women first, and citizens of their countries or a global cooperative commonwealth second, would have little trouble doing so. For the institutions of that commonwealth would be regulated by John Stuart Mill’s dictum that everybody gets to do what they like as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s doing the same.

Well – it was 1996, which probably helps to explain it, but that passage strikes me as way too easy. Basque first, women first – right; but what if it’s Saudi first, or men first? What if you pick the hard examples instead of the easy ones? What happens then? Is it just an accident that he chose easy examples? I don’t know – but I can’t help thinking that he should have realized that ‘women first’ necessarily implies ‘men first’ and that then should lead to the thought that ‘men first’ could very easily include ‘men who define maleness as superiority to and dominance of women’ among the men who want to think of themselves as men first; and that that puts the whole easy formula in question. That’s one of the rocks we keep tripping over in this identity thing – for some people, it is the case that their identity is closely involved with the right or ability to subordinate other people, and/or to deny them the ability to think of themselves as whatever they like first. And the emergence of, for instance, ‘ethnic separatism, aboriginal rights, and the like’ does not necessarily work toward a more egalitarian utopia; it can work for the opposite. What if part of the ‘ethnic’ in ethnic separatism consists largely of the segregation and subordination of women? I bet we can – right now, all by ourselves, with no help – think of some ethnic separatisms of which that is the case. I can. Can you? I knew you could.

So – it’s too easy. And he wrote it in such a way that it’s too easy – he wrote it in such a way that it slides neatly around the hard part. Objection, Your Honor.

Another untrue Scot

Nov 15th, 2006 8:34 pm | By

And more again.

Consider the typical skirmish between secular and religious protagonists (AC Grayling provides a good case in point with his blog). They lead, at best, up a cul-de-sac because their arguments only go round and round in circles. They are, at worst, dangerous because in forcing people to take sides, they nurture extremes – whether religious or secular. This rides roughshod over the 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 and the fundamentalist believer alike try to rubbish such engagement because it offends their faith that science or religion can and should say it all.

One, I would say Theo Hobson provides a much better case in point, and that in any case it’s hard to see why Grayling provides a good case in point of both protagonists of that skirmish. Two, what places are there where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet? And what’s so fascinating and enriching about them? Unless he just means subjects on which everyone’s understanding is incomplete so everyone can have a good indeterminate discussion? (But then how do discussions of that kind differ from arguments that ‘only go round and round in circles’? Don’t they have a good deal in common? But if so, that’s not particularly a place where science and religion meet, it’s just a place where humans don’t know much. You can meet anyone there. Lepidopterists, mountaineers, anyone.) And three (loud sigh) very few even militant atheists believe (let alone have ‘faith’) that science can and should say it all. I’ve never spoken to or read a single scientist who thinks science can and should say it all – I’d like to challenge all these enemies of militant atheism to cite one who does, with illustrative quotations. Meanwhile I’ll think that’s a canard, a straw man, a red herring, a magenta halibut. As is (loud sigh) the faith accusation. I wish Gordon Brown would make that illegal, if only on grounds of deep boredom.

For example, a typical atheistic line of attack is to accuse religious people of being inherently intolerant because they believe in a monotheistic God. The supposition here is that God is a divine monarch who admits no diversity of views and who legitimates a quasi-totalitarian approach to social and political issues. What the atheist misses is that monotheism, properly understood, makes everything that the believer tries to say of God provisional, since a monotheistic God is transcendent.

Ha! Another ‘no true Scotsman’ move. Monotheism properly understood – which, funnily enough, it so very seldom is. But since monotheism improperly understood is ubiquitous and noisy and demanding, why are atheists debarred from disputing it merely because it’s improperly understood? Since monotheism properly understood is vanishingly rare, especially in the public realm, what is the relevance of the properly understood kind? And who decides how it is properly understood anyway?

To be fair, Vernon goes on to say as much. But he had to get in the inaccurate shots at atheists along the way – atheists improperly understood, I would say.

More from Humpty Dumpty

Nov 15th, 2006 12:11 am | By

More of the old let’s redefine atheism so that we can declare it illegitimate ploy. This one just runs and runs and runs.

In practice, it is possible to reject religion with a reforming, missionary zeal. This of course is [Grayling’s] position, and that of Dawkins. There is indeed a faith dimension to their non-belief. By contrast it is possible to reject religious belief in a less ardent way: this is known as agnosticism. What distinguishes the atheist from the agnostic is his belief that religion ought to be eliminated, that the world would be radically better off without it. Atheism entails a certain narrative about historical progress: we can move to a new and better age once we have dispensed with superstition. The prospect of a future without religion is good news. The atheist is an evangelist, a communicator of the true cause that will set humanity free. By contrast the agnostic is reluctant to condemn religion as intrinsically bad; he sees it as too complex and contradictory to generalize about.

Yes, certainly. And cucumbers are heavy orange rectangular things that are useful for building walls or heaving through atheists’ windows, and sailboats are fiercely hot little green things you can put in beans or stew or atheists’ eyes, and winter is that very stocky bald guy in the red jumpsuit over there who might be an atheist by the looks of him. In other words, what a ridiculous display of free-association. All those things fit the description of some atheists and agnostics, no doubt, but they’re certainly not part of the meanings of the words. Back to argument school for Theo Hobson.

The no true Scot move

Nov 13th, 2006 11:32 pm | By

Nigel Warburton has a new blog. This post grabbed my attention the other day. It’s something I’ve wondered about often, I think. Is Anthony Grayling right to say that no truly intelligent mind can lack a sense of humour?

This sounds like a case of what Anthony Flew in his book Thinking About Thinking labelled ‘The No True Scotsman Move’. If someone says ‘No Scotsman could commit a gruesome murder’ and then is confronted with evidence that someone who was born in Scotland had committed such a murder, they explalin ‘Ah, but if they committed a murder like that, they’re not a true Scotsman’. Similarly if I manage to dig up some examples of very intelligent people who completely lack a sense of humour, no doubt Anthony Grayling will tell me they are not ‘truly intelligent’. Isn’t it wishful thinking to believe that a sense of humour should be a necessary constituent of intelligence?

Yes, maybe, and yet – and yet I think there’s something in the idea, even if the ‘no truly’ move isn’t quite the right one. No completely or no thoroughly might be a better one. People can be intelligent and yet curiously dense in certain areas – and that does (surely) tend to be part of our notion of their intelligence. A ‘yes but’ kind of thing. Yes but dang she is deaf to social nuances, sort of thing. So with a sense of humour, I think. There is something obtuse about no sense of humour – something, as I said there, dim, point-missing, obtuse, shuttered, blinkered, unobservant. Just not getting it. It’s still possible to be intelligent, but it is a flawed and incomplete kind of intelligence – even, I would claim, more flawed and incomplete than all intelligence naturally is. It’s a conspicuous cognitive flaw in an otherwise intelligent person. Wouldn’t you say? I’m not certain of this, it’s an intuition, but it seems right. Answers on a postcard.

Job schemes

Nov 12th, 2006 11:25 pm | By

The ‘religious big cheese guys say religion is good and important and necessary‘ thing again. It occurs to me that I forgot to say well they would, wouldn’t they. I mean it’s a pretty funny story and headline, if you think about it. ‘Leaders back faith in public life’ the BBC has it – presumably because it would look too silly to say ‘Clerics back faith in public life’ and lead to a deafeningly raucous chorus of ‘No, really?!’ You might as well have a news headline saying ‘Shoe sellers back shoes on public feet’ or ‘Car makers back cars on public highways’. I mean what else would a couple of topp clerics say? ‘Clerics declare religion a waste of time and attention’? So they made it ‘leaders’ in order to fool people, also perhaps to reinforce the hidden assumption that clerics are in fact leaders.

Really when you come right down to it the whole exercise is just an unsubtle bit of job-protection. It’s like tobacco company executives earnestly assuring Congress that as far as they know and to the very best of their knowledge and understanding, tobacco is not addictive no indeed uh uh nope. It’s like the sugar people saying that sugar gets a bad rap. It’s like PR people doing PR for the PR industry. Archbishops moaning about atheism is like queens moaning about republicanism or doctors wishing more people would get sick. It carries just a faint, tiny, barely detectable whiff of self-interest about it. And if you look at it that way, of course, they are the very last people anyone should listen to on the subject. They’re wheeled out as experts, but what if they’re not so much experts as people with a vested interest? What if they’re simply guys who want to hang onto their posh jobs? At the very least it discredits their line of patter.

Alun at Archaeoastronomy has an amusing post on the Archbishop of York’s latest grumblings at atheists and secularism.

One thought too many

Nov 12th, 2006 8:07 pm | By

No. Wrong. Quite, quite wrong.

Brown responded to the BNP verdict by saying Griffin’s description of Islam as a ‘wicked, vicious faith’ would offend ‘mainstream opinion in this country’. He said: ‘If there is something that needs to be done to look at the law, then I think we will have to do that.’

Brown may have said more than that; the Observer may be being unfair to him; but all the same, that selection from what he did say is somewhat alarmingly (if you’ll forgive a foreigner for saying so) wrong if it is meant as a justification for the selection that follows. If it’s just a statement of fact, it may or may not be accurate but it’s not very alarming; but if the two parts of that passage go together, it’s a mess. “Offend’ and ‘mainstream’ and ‘opinion’ are three of the best words he could possibly have chosen not to cite as reasons for ‘looking at,’ i.e. changing, the law. In other words, liberal democracies aren’t supposed to be in the business of crafting laws to criminalize speech that would ‘offend mainstream opinion.’ Really they’re not. Really. Promise. Believe it or not, speech that ‘offends mainstream opinion’ and causes no other harm is precisely, but precisely, the kind of speech that is meant to be protected in liberal democracies; protected, not criminalized; protected, in fact, exactly from these fretful impulses to make them illegal that trouble the sleep of governments. I realize you guys don’t have the actual slip of paper that spells that out in so many words, but you do have the idea. But some of the people who make the laws apparently don’t, quite. Apparently they actually do think that saying things that would offend mainstream opinion really ought to be illegal. But (a whisper in your shell-like) mainstream opinion can sometimes be wrong. It has been known. So outlawing all speech that would offend mainstream opinion could have some perverse effects. And then, what of all these hymns to richness and diversity? Hm? If we’re going to rejoice at richness and diversity, we can’t very well with the next breath declare that mainstream opinion should have veto power over speech, can we.

That’s not to say that I think threatening speech should be protected. I have mixed opinions about that. But it sure is to say that offensive is not the same thing as threatening, and that the distinction is important.


Nov 11th, 2006 11:52 pm | By

Anthony Grayling replies to the archbishops.

In the foreword to the confused document produced by the religious thinktank Theos this week the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster…iterate the claim that “atheism is itself a faith position”. This is a weary old canard to be set alongside the efforts of the faithful to characterise those who robustly express their attitude towards religious belief as “fundamentalist atheists”…We understand that the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation, through the swirls of which it is hard to see anything clearly, so a simple lesson in semantics might help to clear the air for them on the meanings of “secular”, “humanist” and “atheist”. Once they have succeeded in understanding these terms they will grasp that none of them imply “faith” in anything, and that it is not possible to be a “fundamentalist” with respect to any of them.

An inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation – that’s not bad. Made me snicker anyway.

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a “faith” in “the non-existence of X” (where X is “fairies” or “goblins” or “gods”); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions…”Faith” – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing…for faith at its quickly-reached limit is the negation of thought.

Well, yes. It’s considered bad form to say so, but that is after all what the word means. It’s sometimes a good thing in personal relations and in social and political commitments, but it’s never a good thing in epistemology.

Even some on my own side of the argument here make the mistake of thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false. Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational. To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes, is exactly the same kind of serious irrationality.

So – never go out without your umbrella, and be careful in the inspissated gloaming.

Life’s shifting pageant

Nov 10th, 2006 5:47 pm | By

Listening to the World Service on the gay pride rally in Jerusalem very early this morning, I heard one peculiarly silly remark, to the effect that the conservative religious ‘communities’ that were making such a fuss about the rally are part of the ‘richness and diversity’ of Jerusalem. That was immediately followed by a ‘but,’ because the person who said it was defending gay rights against religious opposition, and yet – the starting point was richness and diversity. Well – you can call it richness and diversity, of course; you can call it jelly beans and dancing and flowers and anything you like. It’s always possible to dress things up in pretty language to make everyone feel cheerful. But all the same it can seem fairly contrariwise to call angry irrational narrow religious bigotry that wants to stop things and ban things ‘richness and diversity.’ You can call anything anything, but if you do it by backwards pretty soon everyone will forget how to say things the right way up. If religious tyrants are richness and diversity, then what would fit the description of poverty and narrowness?

In other words, no, in the normal understanding of the words, religious bigotry that wants to ban things for no real reason it can point to other than a Holy Book is not richness and diversity, it’s the opposite. It’s not just off at an angle, it’s the opposite: it’s a force for smallness and sameness and uniformity and obedience, and there’s nothing rich or diverse about it. (Except maybe the embroidery.) Yet people think there is – that’s the odd thing. Well – in a mostly or partly secular society, it may be unfamiliar, it may seem to have a whiff of the exotic (which would dissipate in about fifteen minutes if you had to live with it), it may look quaint and eccentric and exciting; but it’s not rich and diverse in itself. There’s a difference. Novelty is one thing, and richness is another. It might be as well if more people had a firmer grasp of that distinction, lest they get too infatuated with this idea that fundamentalist patriarchal bullies are attractive merely because they’re different from the crowd at Starbucks.

One reason the Vatican and the mufti of Jerusalem and ultra-orthodox Jews (all of whom opposed the gay pride rally) are not about richness and diversity is because they don’t want richness and diversity themselves, and if they could, they would eliminate them. They’re not fans of cosmopolitanism and patchwork and hodge podge and salad bowls. That’s not their schtick. They’re fans of monochrome – black, usually. They’re not shining ambassadors for richness and diversity for the same sort of reason that Nazis weren’t. Nazis had a pretty clear idea of what kind of thing was okay and what wasn’t; the first category was quite small, and the second was a candidate for steady methodical culling. That’s what zealots want for all of us: not richness and diversity but obedience and uniformity. Call them strawberries or butterflies or rainbows all you like, it won’t change that.