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.


Nov 9th, 2006 8:06 pm | By

One comment I heard more than once in election analysis yesterday was that corruption was a big factor, and that what are (somewhat sickeningly) called ‘values voters’ here had somewhat shifted their concerns from abortion and gay marriage to corruption. Thank you Jack Abramoff. Well about damn well time, is what I thought. That’s been bugging me for years – why are people who consider themselves concerned about ‘values’ so worked up about such comparatively trivial matters (even if you accept their attributions of wickedness) and unconcerned about, you know, massive bribery? Why is gay marriage such a big whopping deal while retail government is just fine? That’s what I was always asking. So I was very pleased to hear that that worm has turned. Now, will anyone do anything about it? That seems highly unlikely, and the Supreme Court seems highly likely to throw out anything that is done. But – who knows.

And another thing. Pombo is out. Brilliant.


Nov 8th, 2006 10:04 pm | By

Yikes again. No wonder those comments are not light reading. I Googled Marie-Therese O’Loughlin – with results.


At some point during her second year in the Regina Coeli hostel, her mother was admitted to hospital with TB…When Marie Therese’s mother was ill in hospital, Marie Therese’s high chair fell into an “open blazing fire”. She sustained injuries that have left her with scars on her face, hand and leg…Marie Therese went to Goldenbridge, a childcare home, when she was five years old. “There was a lot of name-calling (one of the names they called her was “scarface”), children were frightened of me, and deformity was used against me.” During her time in Goldenbridge, Marie Therese made rosary beads: “nobody ever questioned throughout all my years in Goldenbridge [about] my deformity or whether I should or should not be making rosary beads… no child should be making rosary beads but especially not a child with a deformity… as far as I am concerned it did untold damage to the tissue”. She describes her time in Goldenbridge as very lonely and unhappy, “I don’t remember every getting close to anybody, I just can’t remember… it had a cold atmosphere, I don’t ever remember people saying nice things.”…She had grown up believing that her mother was dead as this was what the nuns in Goldenbridge told her. She returned to Dublin to find her mother’s grave. It was then that she discovered that her mother was alive.

Sad, sad stuff.

Ireland’s Past Revisited

Nov 8th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

Yikes. I’ve just accidentally found a couple of comments on a post from August 2005 – one comment last June, the other yesterday. The post was about the tragic mess of what happened to children of single mothers in Ireland; the comments are from one of those children. Because the post is so old, they’ll naturally go unread; so you should have a look. They’re not light reading.

Twelve long years later…

Nov 8th, 2006 7:35 pm | By

Well…that’s better. That was a good one. It’s been a long, long time since I listened to election returns with any pleasure. I’d forgotten what it even feels like.

Nothing like 1992, of course. That was one amazing evening. I was even surprised at how elated and hopeful I felt, and how unfamiliar that feeling was. (I was much less surprised at the disappointment later on.) This wasn’t like that, but it wasn’t bad. Pennsylvania! Go, Santorum! Ohio! Indiana. And so on. I wish Lieberman had lost. And, of course, I wish Webb had a bigger lead in Virginia. Looking down the road, I wish the Dems had much, much better candidates for president. But all the same, that was a good one.

I heard on the news last night that Republicans are much better at getting out the vote than Democrats are, but I have to say – they called me three times in the last couple of hours before the polls closed to urge me to go vote. That’s not too bad, I thought.

Two really revolting regressive state initiatives were roundly defeated here: one repealing the estate tax, and one requiring government to pay compensation to property owners for all regulations that could decrease the property value. Yesssssss. Not just defeated, but thoroughly defeated.

That was a good one.

We’re not even paying close attention

Nov 7th, 2006 6:12 pm | By

Women – they’re old news, right? That battle was won long ago, right? No..

Bride burnings, honor killings, female infanticide, sex trafficking, mass rape as a weapon of war and many other hideous forms of violence against women are documented in a report released last month by the United Nations. The report, a compilation of many studies from around the world, should have been seen as the latest dispatch from that permanent world war — the war against women all over the planet. Instead, the news media greeted its shocking contents with a collective yawn.

Because…? The news media have other things to do? The subject isn’t important? Women don’t matter? Women deserve what they get? Those places are all far away and we’re fine over here? It’s too boring? We don’t care? We have to wash our hair that day?

The litany of serious abuses against women and girls can seem endless: child marriages, forced marriages, kidnapping and forced prostitution, sex slavery. According to the U.N. report, “A study in India estimated that prenatal sex selection and infanticide have accounted for half a million missing girls per year for the past two decades.”

Well, that will help; eventually there won’t be any women to rape or enslave or mutilate or beat up; problem solved.

Not only are we not doing enough to counter this wholesale destruction of the lives of so many women and girls, we’re not even paying close attention. There are women’s movements in even the smallest countries fighting against the violence and other forms of abuse. But they are underfunded and get very little support from those in a position to help…There was a time when activists cried out for our consciousness to be raised. It’s not too late. We can start by recognizing that the systematic subordination and brutalization of women and girls around the world is, in fact, occurring — and that we need to do something about it.

We’re not even paying close attention. When we do pay close attention, snappy observers like Wonkette rush to tell us we’re ‘fixated.’ What is that about? Why don’t we pay attention, why do people consider the subject beneath their notice? I don’t know, but let’s change that. Let’s do what Bob Herbert suggests and start by recognizing that the systematic subordination and brutalization of women and girls around the world is occurring and that we need to do something about it. Ladies, start your engines.

Thanks anyway

Nov 7th, 2006 4:55 pm | By

Oh good, more calls for mandatory religion and against public atheism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, are introducing a new think-tank report that challenges the secular dream of taking Christ out of Christmas or anything else…In a joint foreword, they welcome the conclusion of the report that faith is not just important for human flourishing, but that society can only flourish if faith is “given space” to contribute and challenge.

Really? Is that true? ‘Flourish’ in what sense? According to whom, by what lights, according to which criteria? And what kind of ‘space’ has to be given, and how much of it, and to whom? Can society ‘flourish’ only if, say, Fred Phelps is given space to contribute and challenge? Or does society do a better job of flourishing if Fred Phelps is thoroughly ignored. Can society ‘flourish’ only if the pope and the archbishop of Westminster and Catholic clerics in general tell everyone in the world not to use condoms? Is that ‘flourishing’?

“Many secularist commentators argue that the growing role of faith in society represents a dangerous development,” the archbishops say. “However, they fail to recognise that public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position.”

Could that be because that’s not true? Could these many secular commentators fail to recognise that public atheism is an ‘intolerant faith position’ because it’s not a ‘faith’ or a ‘faith position’ at all and because it’s not inherently intolerant any more than not playing the saxophone or not watching football or not eating pizza?

The report argues against confining faith to the private sphere, and says that religion will play an increasingly significant role because of the return of civil society, research about the role it plays in happiness and the politics of identity.

The politics of identity is one big reason to hope religion won’t ‘play an increasingly significant role’ in the public sphere; the politics of identity is…tricky and often reactionary stuff.

“We should not react with bewilderment when a public figure does ‘do God’. We should be less scared of public figures citing religious texts in mainstream contexts. We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of the liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

No we shouldn’t. Religious texts, like so many things, are only as good as they are; many of them are revolting; the less revolting ones are less revolting for human secular ethical reasons that don’t need religion to ground them; so why should we be encouraging ‘public figures’ (which looks like a tricksy euphemism for political figures) to cite them? And we shouldn’t be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent and reasonable unless they in fact are coherent and reasonable – we shouldn’t be subject to blanket instructions to treat all other value systems as coherent and reasonable. Some are, some aren’t, and they should be evaluated on their merits, not on generalized instructions to accept and respect everything.

So archbish me no archbishops.

Unearned access to the microphone

Nov 7th, 2006 12:11 am | By

Tony’s been teasing Chuck. Excellent.

Tony Blair attacked the “anti-science brigade” yesterday for threatening Britain’s path to the future. He condemned the “outrageous distortion” of campaigners against pioneering technologies, insisting that they had to be defeated. His remarks at the King’s Centre, Oxford, will be taken as a thinly-veiled swipe at the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles has dismissed GM-food trials as unethical…Scientists would have a role in all the “big questions of our time – climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, water supply, biodiversity, terrorism,” said Mr Blair who confessed that he was a science “refusenik” at school. But he stressed the need to win the “irrational public debate” often surrounding scientific research. Without referring to Prince Charles or other campaigners by name, Mr Blair condemned the “powerful and vocal lobby, with access to all the media channels” that opposed technological breakthrough.

Exactly – with access to all the media channels. That’s the part about P. Charles that is so annoying. (Applies to P. Bush, too, as a matter of fact.) He has, because of an accident of birth, access to media channels that scientists (and architects and other assorted victims of P.C.’s whims) can only dream of. If he had any sense, it would occur to him that therefore he ought to take massive care not to abuse the privilege, instead of which he abuses it up one side and down the other. He makes the world a present of his uninformed opinions on technical subjects, instead of realizing that his influence and ability to mouth off are out of all proportion to his merit, his knowledge, his expertise, his insight, his ability to judge – and he does it on subjects with life and death consequences. It’s really quite revolting (as it is in the case of P. Bush, who also has every reason to be modest and careful).

The Christian conscience

Nov 5th, 2006 7:45 pm | By


In a startling warning to the Government, senior church and political figures have backed a report advocating force to protest against policies that are “unbiblical” and “inimical to the Christian faith”.

The Telegraph cites the ‘menacing language’ of the report and says ‘Lord Mawhinney, the Tory peer, Andy Reed, the Labour MP, and the Rt Rev Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester, helped to produce’ it.

The report from the Evangelical Alliance says “violent revolution” should be regarded as a viable response if government legislation encroaches further on basic religious rights. The church is urged to come to a consensus that “at some point there is not only the right but the duty to disobey the state”…Proposals to ban proselytising in publicly-funded Christian projects could ultimately lead to Christians being prevented from teaching others about the Bible. This would “be unambiguously recognised by Christians as perpetrating evil that has to be resisted by deliberate acts of defiance”, the report says.

Interesting, the idea that a ban on proselytizing in publicly-funded Christian projects would be unambiguously recognized by Christians as perpetrating evil. Christians unambiguously recognize it as evil for governments to refuse to fund Christian proselytizing? So Christians think governments are absolutely obliged to fund Christian proselytizing? That’s intriguing, isn’t it? It’s almost American in its presumptuous aggressiveness.

Significantly, it comes from the Evangelical Alliance – a mainstream organisation representing 1.2 million Christians…”If, as most Christians accept, they should be politically involved in democratic processes, many believe this may, where necessary, take the form of active resistance to the state. This may encompass disobedience to law, civil disobedience, involving selective, non-violent resistance or, ultimately, violent revolution.” Mike Morris, the executive director of the Evangelical Alliance, said that the report reflected the breadth of submissions they had received. “It is not as if Christians are going to take to the streets, but we need to be able to stand up to things that are challenging the Christian conscience, regardless of the consequences.”

And the things that are challenging ‘the Christian conscience’ are things like…oh, civil rights for gays, and legal abortion, and female equality. So if people who want those things don’t submit to people in the Evangelical Alliance, well, maybe they’ll start to kill us. Jolly good; something to look forward to. And then people wonder why some of us think secularism is a good idea!

We feel special today

Nov 5th, 2006 6:47 pm | By

More pondering on this question of what is good and for whom. Compassion is an important human virtue, but would it be an important virtue, or a virtue at all, if humans were different kinds of entities? If we were conscious but immortal and perfect, if we never suffered, if we had no vulnerability of any kind (and didn’t know of any entities that did), would compassion be a virtue? Would we see it as a good thing? I tend to doubt it.

I had similar doubts and questions about some things Keith Ward said in a discussion with Anthony Grayling in Prospect last year.

The scientific perception of the cosmos is that it is an intelligible, law-like, mathematically complex structure, which produces intelligent moral agents by a process of increasingly integrated complexity from an initial state of extreme simplicity (the big bang).

Um – is it? I don’t think so, I think Ward stacked the deck a little there, sneaking in that ‘intelligent moral agents’ – I don’t think that is a particularly scientific perception. It’s not a terribly precise description, frankly, and it’s certainly not a complete one. Bipedal language-using primates would be a more precise description – which is not to disagree with Ward that our (inadequate) intelligence and (frighteningly inadequate) moral agency are much the most interesting (at least to us) things about us, but it is to say that’s more a moral perception than a scientific one.

Contemporary religious thought sees the purpose of creating such a cosmos as the production of finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another, take partial responsibility for the world and be fulfilled by knowing the supreme mind of the creator…Is this the best of possible worlds? It is the only one that could have us in it, and while we are not the best of possible beings, we are perhaps – each one of us – of great intrinsic worth.

Well, perhaps, but perhaps not. But I have to say that it strikes me as unpersuasive. Why would the purpose of creating the cosmos be the production of finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another? If it were, why would it take a cosmos like this to do that? Wouldn’t something smaller, simpler, and less expensive have done the job? And also if it were, are we the best, or a very good, example of minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another? If it is, why do we do so much entering into hating relationships with one another?

But the ‘why would that be the purpose of the cosmos’ question is the most basic one, because why would that be anyone or anything’s purpose? Suppose a world (a pre-cosmos world, which is tricky) without any finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another, and a creating entity of some kind (of what kind, we don’t know). Why would it want them? Why would it think they ought to exist, and so have the purpose of creating them when it decided to create the cosmos? That’s not clear, to say the least. So isn’t this kind of thing just more of the same? Just more of the starting from human assumptions and wants and needs and likes, and trying to make them cosmic absolutes? We think compassion is good because we suffer so we need it; we think beings like us are good because we are us and we think we are (sort of, more or less) good. It’s all local, it’s all particular, it’s all about us. It’s intuitively appealing, of course, and it may all be true, but there doesn’t really seem to be any compelling reason to think it’s true. The localism is kind of a giveaway of that.

Whither virtue?

Nov 4th, 2006 10:21 pm | By

I’ve been pondering (off and on, mostly off) this question of suffering and compassion – this idea that you can’t have one without the other, or that the one makes the other worthwhile, or acceptable, or the world that includes it more attractive. Swinburne said, as we saw:

Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes – for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives – allows us to suffer pain and disability. Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering…Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character.

As noted before, I think that’s disgusting, but it’s also true that I see what he’s getting at, especially in the last sentence. But that’s the part I want to question, and perhaps object to. The traditional theodicy view, if you like: that god wants us to have free will and wants us to have (meaningful, free) good (or holy) characters, which will include such virtues as patience and compassion and generosity, and that therefore suffering is necessary.

But the trouble with that is that, if there were no suffering, would patience and compassion and generosity be virtues? Would they be part of a holy or good character? We think they would, of course; we think they are intrinsically good, and attractive; but if we didn’t need them, would they be? I’m not sure they would. If there were no suffering, which would include hunger and deprivation of all kinds, then what would patience and compassion and generosity even be? What would they even mean? We wouldn’t need them, we’d have no use for them, they wouldn’t even have a context that would make them meaningful. Which sounds horrible – a world where we couldn’t be good in ways that we recognize, where there would be no scope for active energetic effortful goodness, sounds like an appalling flat affectless world, a world of cardboard dolls. But then – that’s because this is the one we know, so we’re conditioned to need it and expect it. We do have suffering and deprivation, so we do consider patience and compassion and generosity to be virtues. But if we didn’t, we wouldn’t. Which amounts to saying we would be completely different kinds of entities, and can’t even really imagine what goodness and badness would be in such a world. But that’s just it. What Swinburne is talking about is a very human idea of what a good or holy character is, because it’s one that matches up with our needs and lacks and all-too-familiar miseries. But why assume that if there is a god, that is god’s idea of a good character? What if god has a quite different idea of good character, one that we wouldn’t even recognize or understand, and one that doesn’t depend on suffering to make it either meaningful or possible?

In fact most of our virtues, perhaps all of them, depend on our mortality and other limitations. They wouldn’t be virtues if we weren’t fragile and needy. Courage, kindness, dedication, loyalty – we wouldn’t need them, so wouldn’t see them as virtues.

That’s another objection I have to Swinburne’s take – it’s just too local, too limited. I think it’s more interesting to try to figure out if there are any virtues that don’t depend on our condition, that really are inherent goods, even if we don’t need them. I can’t say I’ve been able to think of any. If there aren’t, we’re left with a circle, it seems to me. We have to have suffering so that people will be compassionate, but we wouldn’t need or even like compassion if we didn’t suffer, so why do we have to have suffering so that people will be compassionate if we wouldn’t want compassion if we didn’t suffer? I can’t say I can see why.

Swinburne Recycled

Nov 2nd, 2006 12:15 am | By

We’ve been having this lively discussion of Swinburne on suffering, so I thought I’d temporarily re-post this old comment from last June.

Richard Swinburne is interesting. I’ve said so before. So has Mark Fournier at Tachyphrenia. And now it’s time to say it some more. Because the things Swinburne says here are truly revolting, and yet they are, of course, what you get if you try to reconcile the omnipotent omnibenevolent God with the existence and abundance of suffering in the world – just what Darwin couldn’t manage to reconcile himself to. There’s an irony of sorts in the fact that it’s Swinburne’s view that is considered by many – by surprisingly many – to be the ‘devout’ and ‘holy’ and therefore (why? why therefore?) ‘good’ one, and Darwin’s that is considered the impious and wicked one. The approval of the deliberate causing and continuance of pain and suffering to billions of sentient beings is considered good, and the disapproval and rejection of that is considered wicked. That’s interesting, and it is, if you ask me, a sign of something badly corrupt at the heart of the whole swindle.

Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes — for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives — allows us to suffer pain and disability.

Good? Good explanations? Good in what sense?

Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering.

Well why stop there? It also provides pharmaceutical companies with the opportunity to develop pain medications, and nurses with the opportunity to apologize for the fact that the pain can’t be alleviated, and vicars and priests with the opportunity to pray that it will be alleviated, and God with the opportunity to refuse to alleviate it, and the funeral people with the opportunity to dispose of the corpse after the victim has committed suicide. Lots and lots of opportunities. Good. So – we should all act accordingly? We should all rush outside with our carving knives and soldering irons and distribute injuries generously around the neighborhood so that there will be further abundance of such opportunities? Suffering is a good thing because it creates these good opportunities so there should be lots more of it so we should all bend every nerve to create more of it?

No. We don’t actually think that’s the case. So why does Swinburne get to claim that it is the case, and that that’s a ‘good’ explanation? Why doesn’t everybody for miles around just tell him ‘That’s disgusting’ until he’s so embarrassed he stops saying it?

That’s a real question. I find it baffling.

Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable.

Oh, godalmighty. That is such crap, and such transparent crap – so carefully arranged to get the conclusion he wants (God is okay really even though it seems to be an awful shit) with that last little escape hatch – for other people, illness not so useful. Give me a break. Swinburne looks at the world: sees that some people get ill and suffer, others don’t; needs to make this harmonize with ‘a good God’; explains that suffering is good for some people and not for others; job done.

An analogy will show that what I have written is not an ad hoc hypothesis postulated to save theism from disconfirmation.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Oh, that’s a good one. He’s not only interesting, he’s also a comedian. A sadistic comedian, but a comedian.

Odious beliefs

Nov 1st, 2006 12:53 am | By

Oh yes – this sounds familiar.

Richard Dawkins once took part in a debate with the distinguished theologian and philosopher Richard Swinburne. The Holocaust, Swinburne suggested, had a positive element because it gave Jews an opportunity to be noble and courageous. Swinburne’s ‘grotesque piece of reasoning’, Dawkins writes in his new book, is ‘damningly typical of the theological mind’, and an attitude that reveals not just the redundancy of religion but also its immorality.

We’ve had a look at Swinburne’s grotesque reasoning before, more than once. Stuff like that gives philosophy of religion a bad name, I should think. David Attenborough is a useful counter to that kind of thing.

People sometimes say to me, “Why don’t you admit that the humming bird, the butterfly, the bird of Paradise are proof of the wonderful things produced by Creation?” And I always say, well, when you say that, you’ve also got to think of a little boy sitting on a river bank, like here, in West Africa, that’s got a little worm, a living organism, in his eye and boring through the eyeball and is slowly turning him blind. The Creator God that you believe in, presumably, also made that little worm.

It’s the devil’s chaplain. Darwin to Hooker: ‘What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of Nature!’

Kenan disagrees with Dawkins about religion as abusive to children though. But I in turn disagree with Kenan.

Parents indoctrinate their children with all manner of odious beliefs. That is the nature of parenting. And the nature of growing up is that young people decide for themselves, often rejecting the views of their parents. Dawkins’s argument seems to reveal less about the nature of religion than about his own pessimistic view of the human capacity for change and independent thought.

Well, no, not all parents, not necessarily, and to the extent that they do, that’s not desirable. One could make a similar sort of generalizing reply – parents beat their children, parents abuse their children, parents deny their children education, parents neglect their children. Some do, but when they do the state sometimes intervenes, and that’s a good thing. That’s not to say the state ought to intervene when parents pass on their odious beliefs, it’s just to say that it’s not necessarily desirable or okay or tolerable simply because it happens. Some children reject the views of their parents, but some don’t; the world is full of people who have odious beliefs, and the rest of us have to live with them. That’s not to say we should all zoom around indoctrinating one another and creeping into one another’s basement windows in order to murmur into the ears of one another’s children – it’s just to say the problem is not so easily dismissed.

Kenan’s amusing though.

Dawkins steamrollers over such complexities. The result, ironically, is that he ends up sounding as naive and unworldly as any happy clappy believer. ‘Imagine with John Lennon a world with no religion,’ he writes.

Hmmm I think I’ll start smaller. A world with no SUVs. That will do for a beginning.