Another Stack of Jumpers

Oh good, more fuzzy-headed nonsense about religion. There does seem to be an inexhaustible supply of it out there. This one is so full of odd, vague, fuzzy statements it’s hard to know where to begin.

One of the highlights of this week’s meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was a discussion on why, although the existing religions do not capture all of what’s out there in the universe, some at least of their endeavours must be taken seriously.

Well what on earth does that mean? ‘Endeavours’? What do you mean endeavours? For that matter, what do you even mean by ‘capture all of what’s out there in the universe’? What do you mean by ‘capture’, what do you mean by ‘all of what’s out there’? Oh never mind. But ‘endeavours’…that could cover a lot of territory. Kindly hand-waving, or telling people they’re damned to hell if they masturbate, or flying planes into tall buildings – the existing religions have had a part in all those ‘endeavours’. Yes I know the planes thing isn’t an official part of the religion in question, but that’s just it, that’s why we need some precision of language here. But vaguest of all – what do you mean ‘must be taken seriously’? I do take religion very seriously indeed, I assure you; I think it can be very dangerous, and I also think it does a lot of more subtle harm even when it’s not actually killing or damning people. But perhaps what is meant by ‘taken seriously’ is ‘believed’. One of those bits of stealth rhetoric like ‘on its own terms’ which we discussed a few weeks ago. Only people don’t want to come right out and say ‘There are some at least parts of religion which must be believed’ because that would seem a bit much. Ever so slightly coercive. So instead there’s just some vague unmeaning rigamarole about taking some (unspecified) endeavours seriously. Well sure, we can all agree to that, right, hon? On account of how we don’t know what it means.

Watson’s and Dawkins’s atheism is rooted at least in part in a mistake. They seem to assume that serious interest in religion must be fundamentalist.

No they don’t. You just assume they do, perhaps because you don’t think anyone can actually disagree with a little harmless theism. But you assume incorrectly. Dawkins is by no means talking only about fundamentalism. He is among other things talking about this line of nonsense:

Religion of course can be discussed from many angles, but the absolute and immediate importance of religion lies in its contribution to morality.

What contribution? What contribution does religion make that philosophy and other kinds of secular thought cannot make? What qualifies religious people to pronounce on morality? The Bible? No, because we pick and choose which bits of the Bible we admire and which we don’t, so clearly we’re using our own judgment on that issue (and besides Tudge has already told us he doesn’t mean fundamentalism, so that lets out Biblical inerrancy). Long practice in thinking about the subject? But moral philosophers can make the same claim, and so can thoughtful amateurs. What then? Just tradition and authority, custom and habit, as far as I can tell. And those aren’t good reasons.

And then there’s this ridiculous assertion:

Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is – as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter – “the art of the soluble”. It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering.

Stealth rhetoric again. ‘Complete.’ Well yes, no doubt (although really I would think people like Tolkien and his many imitators who write those great, thick books full of imaginary worlds would give some stiff competion), but since the narrative isn’t true, why is that such a stunning achievement? Are we all supposed to be little children who just want to be told a Story and let it go at that? There’s a very, very great deal of merit to the art of the soluble – to not offering answers to questions you don’t in fact think you have a chance of answering without resorting to ‘narrative’. There’s something deeply unattractive about trying to persuade people that it’s better to have complete but untrue narratives rather than incomplete but well-supported explanations of soluble questions.

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