The search for life’s ultimate meaning

Jul 22nd, 2010 11:11 am | By

Martha Nussbaum starts her discussion of burqa bans with her version of the justification for the free exercise clause of the US Constitution and freedom of religion in general. It’s a rather sentimental picture.

Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity.  It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect.   But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?

We now add a further premise: that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─  is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity.

The problem with that as a justification for the free exercise clause and for freedom religious practice is that it’s so incomplete. Nussbaum is very very fond of talking about religion as the way “people search for life’s ultimate meaning,” but that’s far from being all that religion is, and Nussbaum’s presenting it that way is misleading, even obfuscatory. Religion is other things too, including a set of rules. A religious set of rules is often reactionary, and it is always “sacred,” which makes it less accountable to human ideas and wishes, and more difficult to change.

Religion is not just about the individual’s search for meaning; religion is social, and often demanding, or frankly coercive. The free exercise of religion often means the freedom to force subordinates to obey religious rules. Nussbaum makes the whole system sound a lot more benevolent than it can be assumed to be.

That’s especially obvious in the case of the burqa. The burqa is not really part of women’s “search for meaning” in the sense people like Nussbaum, and like me, understand it; it’s part of a system of rules forced on people by tradition and custom and authority. Yes it may be that some people “find meaning” by obeying such rules, but the truth is it doesn’t matter if they do or not; the rules are rules, and they have nothing to do with freedom.

Shall I compare thee to a brownie with walnuts?

Jul 21st, 2010 5:08 pm | By

Mona Eltahawy made a compelling point in a discussion of the burqa ban:

What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman’s right to choose to wear a burqa because it’s her natural right. But I often tell them that what they’re doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman’s right to do anything. We’re talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them. And yet there is basically one right that we are fighting for these women to have, and that is the right to cover their faces. To tell you the truth, I’m really outraged that people get into these huge fights and say that as a feminist you must support a women’s right to do this, because it’s basically the only kind of “right” that this ideology wants to give women. Otherwise they get nothing.

Well yes. That’s not a slam-dunk argument for state bans on wearing it, but it is at least part of the picture, which critics of the ban tend not to dwell on.

 I have met Muslim women who have a very elaborate explanation for why they wear the burqa — they say that women are candy or diamond rings or precious stones who have to be hidden away in order to appreciate their worth. And I’m appalled! We should talk about this because if we’re really going to discuss this as feminists, is that something a feminist should be defending? That a woman is a piece of candy?

………..A bowl of ice cream?

Mix information with vitriol

Jul 21st, 2010 4:28 pm | By

People are discussing the uses and abuses of irritation, or anger, or zeal, or dickishness, or baying for blood. This is prompted by a talk Phil Plait gave at The Amaz!ng Meeting a couple of weeks ago. He took an informal poll, Matt D tells us:

Let me ask you a question: how many of you here today used to believe in something — used to, past tense — whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that?…Not everyone is born a skeptic. A lot of you raised your hand. I’d even say most of you, from what I can tell.

Now let me ask you a second question: how many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

Not many hands. But as lots of people have pointed out…so what? Hardly anyone does get in people’s faces, screaming, and call them idiots, brain-damaged, retards. Many people do various things that are well short of that, some of which could be considered alienating to some; excessive; tactless; and so on. But that’s not a very exciting claim. Some people are tactless and alienating. Well yes, how true. And?

Stephanie Zvan notes that sometimes a blast of well-directed anger is exactly what’s needed.

a friend gave me Flim Flam. James Randi told me how people had lied to me under the guise of nonfiction, under the guise of science. He was, in fact, kind of a dick about it. That’s not a very nice book by any definition of the word. It uses name-calling. It sneers.

But oh, it was exactly what I needed. I needed it both for the information it gave me and for the anger and vitriol. Without Randi’s vitriol, I wouldn’t have been able to make the clean break in thinking that I did.

PZ says again that things aren’t as simple as mean bastards v wonderful nice people.

Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school. It’s just not right.

The awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who bay for blood and stomp on small children in Sunday school. Let’s have the complete picture here.

People are free to say what they like but

Jul 21st, 2010 12:45 pm | By

A Cardiff councillor

 is being investigated for allegedly breaching the code of conduct for local authority members which demands they “show respect and consideration for others”.

How? By calling Scientology stupid on Twitter. So showing respect and consideration for others means one is forbidden to call Scientology stupid? Why?

Are we allowed to call astrology stupid? Is it ok to call homeopathy stupid? Can we say belief in alien abductions is stupid?

In other words, does respect and consideration for others cash out to not calling any ideas or ideologies or religions or pseudo-sciences whatsoever “stupid” on the grounds that some people believe in them?

Mr Dixon said: “I don’t see why the Scientologists should have any greater protection from ridicule than I should have as a member of the Liberal Democrats. I can’t believe it has got this far.”

That’s just it. Why, indeed, should they? Just because they call themselves the Church of Scientology?

The Church of Scientology, whose followers include Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, is not recognised as a religion in Britain although it is in the United States.

However, in March last year the Crown Prosecution Service decided that anyone who attacks Scientology can be prosecuted under faith hate laws.

And “attack” of course is defined as “calls stupid” for the purposes of accusing someone of a crime under “faith hate laws.”

Hey, I’ll oblige. I hate “faith” – I hate the word and I hate the thing it nominates. I also hate “faiths”; I also think they’re mostly stupid.

I don’t work for Cardiff council though, so they probably won’t get around to me any time soon. But not for want of ignorant illiberal bedwetters who think people should be forbidden to call unreasonable beliefs stupid.

The complaint was made by John Wood, a member of the Church of Scientology, who lives near the Head Quarters in East Grinstead. He said: “People are free to say what they like but I felt that as a person in a position of public office that he had to be violating some kind of code of conduct.”

People are free to say what they like except they’re not if I can find some pretext to get them into trouble for saying what they like, and fortunately in this case I succeeded in finding one: the guy was violating some kind of code of conduct. So yaboosucks.

No rules in a knife fight

Jul 20th, 2010 4:38 pm | By

I’m getting very tired of this kind of crap. Of foam-at-the-mouth reactionaries faking videos for Fox “News” that get people shut down or fired. They did it with that video that was supposed to show an Acorn guy helping a prostitute and a pimp get gummint funding when in fact the uncut video shows him collecting information which he gave to the police as soon as they left. Now they’ve done it with another fake video that’s supposed to show Shirley Sherrod telling a Georgia chapter of the NAACP that she refused to help a farmer because he was white when in fact she did help him. Sherrod got pushed out of her job with the Department of Agriculture yesterday because some evil windbag called Andrew Breitbart posted the faked video on his pustulent website.

Poisonous. These people are poisonous. I’m sick of them.

Eyes are the windows of the soul, yeh?

Jul 20th, 2010 12:00 pm | By

Martha Nussbaum has been explaining why the burqa is not such a bad thing, as well as explaining why it shouldn’t be banned. She said one thing (in a long post. much of which I skimmed) that froze me in astonishment for a second.

Several readers made the comment that the burqa is objectionable because it portrays women as non-persons.    Is this plausible?  Isn’t our poetic tradition full of the trope that eyes are the windows of the soul?  And I think this is just right: contact with another person, as individual to individual, is made primarily through eyes, not nose or mouth.

Seriously? Contact with another person, as individual to individual, is made through the face – not through the eyes or the nose or the mouth, but the whole face. That’s why men don’t wear burqas: men want to be free to interact with people (that is, in this context, men) in the normal natural way. They also want to be free to breathe, eat, drink, hear, look around – they want to be free to do all the usual things one does with one’s face.

There’s something oddly typical about that ridiculous, sentimental claim. Nussbaum is brilliant, but she also has this strange blindness and tendency to sentimentalize. It could be that having a lot of New York Times readers commenting on her posts will teach her something.

A high risk of swallowing water

Jul 20th, 2010 8:39 am | By

The problem here is not just that state schools shouldn’t be fussing around with particular religions and their rules and fasts, though of course it is that. It’s also, frankly, that state schools (or for that matter any schools) shouldn’t be helping to implement rules and fasts that are fundamentally unhealthy and unsafe. It’s a really bad idea to forbid hydration for extended periods (such as dawn to dusk), so schools should at least abstain. They shouldn’t anxiously help religions to enforce stupid dangerous “rules” of that kind. That’s not their job, and it’s a dereliction of their responsibility for the students’ safety while on the premises.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has issued an 11-page Ramadan guide for schools to help pupils who may be fasting when the school year starts in September.

It said swimming was acceptable to Muslims but posed a high risk of swallowing water that may break a fast.

Schools and city councils shouldn’t be conveying the idea that swallowing water is “a risk.” It’s bad enough that mosques impose that idea; secular institutions should not be helping them.

Ann Widdecombe’s huge bundle of straw

Jul 19th, 2010 11:11 am | By

Ann Widdecombe explains it all to the New Statesman.

 Under the last government we saw a raft of law, principally equality law, which specifically set out to crush religious freedom and to crush freedom of conscience. There is an immense difference between being told that you must not discriminate against something and being told that you must promote it.

Like what, the NS asks. Poofters, of course. Poofter adoptions, poofters in your B&B. Half the population are non-believers, the NS says feebly; not a bit of it, says Widdecombe, most are Christians and what they say goes. No, really, the NS bleats; Widdecombe says not at all.

People may say they’re not religious, and when Richard Dawkins says he’s not religious he actually means it; so would Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. But when people who are shrugging say they’re not religious, they mean they’re not attached to a particular church, they’re not practising at the moment. They may not necessarily mean that they discard the concept of God altogether.

Case closed! Three people really are not religious, but the others are all just shrugging, so we get to count them as believers. And yes, thank you, that does mean we get to force Christianity on everyone.

You can’t get away from the fact that our culture and our heritage is that way, and if we just deny it all and become nothing and everything we shall lose our character. That actually weakens a country: it can weaken a country very, very badly not to have a clearly defined character…So I think there are all manner of reasons for keeping the church at the centre of society, and the established Church in this country is Anglican.

So there. Take it or leave it, liberalism be damned.

And the pope was absolutely right to interfere with UK legislation.

The Vatican is a state, and we all have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It’s not some isolated little cult somewhere, it represents 17.5 per cent of the world’s population. And that’s just the Catholics — there are all the other Christians on top of that.

It’s a state, god damn it! Plus it represents a lot of people. Plus there are all the Christians. Therefore, the pope is pretty much an honorary MP, and it’s just fine if he meddles with lawmaking in the UK.

And the child rape was only 2% of the priests, and teachers and plumbers and florists do it too.

And then there’s that pesky women question.

I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England’s compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn’t care if something is unpopular. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned if it’s true it’s true, and if it’s false it’s false. The issue over women priests was not only that I think it’s theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being “Is this theologically possible?” the debate was “If we don’t do this we won’t be acceptable to the outside world”. To me, that was an abdication of the Church’s role, which is to lead, not to follow.

There speaks the theocratic mind at its purest. It can’t even entertain the possibility that acceptability to what she calls the outside world, by which she means everybody who is not a priest, actually has something to do with morality and justice and equality, and that those are good things and priests should take them into account. No, to her that’s just whoring after popularity instead of buckling down and being dogmatic and authoritarian and keeping women Out.

This is not news, of course; it’s Ann Widdecombe, but it’s interesting…and it’s in the New Statesman. Make of that what you will.


Jul 18th, 2010 5:36 pm | By

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl says it’s not that the church disrespects women. Oh fuck no, said the chair of the US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, the church thinks women are just lovely.

Noting that women hold a variety of church leadership positions in parishes and dioceses, Archbishop Wuerl said, “The church’s gratitude toward women cannot be stated strongly enough.”

“Women offer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosity at the very heart of the Catholic Church,” he said.

They have that there women’s intuition, and they’re so creative with the flowers and the packed lunches and the…the flowers, and the generosity just never quits, they give us all their money and a lot of the time they let us fuck their children. But. When all is said and done, you know, however insightful and creative and generous the dear little things are, they are after all still women. They’re soft in the head, and their crotches are all ew yuck, so they can make lunch all they like, but they can’t be priests. That’s fair. Plus it’s traditional.

But, the archbishop said, “the Catholic Church through its long and constant teaching holds that ordination has been, from the beginning, reserved to men, a fact which cannot be changed despite changing times.”

That’s unanswerable, I’m sure you’ll agree. Ordination has been from the beginning reserved to men, therefore, that is a fact which cannot be changed despite the fact that people have become slightly less stupid and narrow-minded and rigid than they were back at that beginning. No. Yes we realize that some things have changed since “the beginning,” it’s just that the maleness of the clergy isn’t one of them and isn’t going to be one of them.

You may wonder why. It’s like this. It has to do with the fitness of things. Men are better, and that’s why God is always called he, I mean He; if God were called she or She that would sound all weak and bubble-headed and wrong. It’s not that we don’t love you, it’s just that we think you’re not good enough. We love you to bits but you have to be subordinate to us and do what we say and not try to do jobs only we can do, like telling everybody not to use contraception and not to end pregnancies. If we let you share in the rule-making you might start to make rules that would suit you instead of us, and we don’t want that.

“Respecting” faith while “appreciating” science

Jul 17th, 2010 4:32 pm | By

Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project is annoyed at (wait for it) “New Atheists.” He says members of the project have been “relentlessly attacked by “New Atheists.”

The crux of these attacks seems to take two forms. In the first, clergy members are ridiculed simply for having religious faith. In the second, supposedly intelligent people pretend they are unable to distinguish these clergy members from the fundamentalists…

He doesn’t quote or name or link to any “New Atheists” doing this, so it’s hard to know if his description is accurate, but in any case…he seems to have the usual, and socially conventional, blind spot about “religious faith.” He seems, in other words, to be blind to the fact that to people who don’t have it, “religious faith” and fundamentalism aren’t all that different. To non-believers, the important difference is between religious belief and its absence, not degrees of fundamentalism.

Naughty dog bites when attacked

Jul 16th, 2010 4:11 pm | By

Yet another smug unthinking cliché-filled diatribe about zealous fundamentalist literalist evangelist atheism, this time from Reza Aslan. It’s as original as the other nine million.

The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies…

He says, in the very act of marginalizing them himself. Gee, why would we believe we have been marginalized, just because there’s a steady stream of mendacious vituperative horseshit directed at us by hacks like this?

This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (I am not the first to think that the new atheists give atheism a bad name).

Ah, well spotted; you’re not the first to think any of this, sport; you’re not the hundredth to think of it; you’re the latest of a long, long line. You’re recycling. You’re recycling and marginalizing at the same time. You should be embarrassed.

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science.

Yes they do. They don’t stop there, they don’t treat that as a reason to believe all metaphysical claims, but they do admit exactly what you say they don’t. Nice job.

Well the Washington Post has a “faith” column, and it has to fill it somehow.

Yet another squint at Vatican priorities

Jul 16th, 2010 10:59 am | By

Alan Cowell in the New York Times spots a connection between the Bishop of Bruges and Roman Polanski. They both fiddled with children and they have both escaped the long arm of the law.

That question seemed likely to be asked more searchingly this week after the Vatican issued new rules about the handling of priestly abuse, listing pedophilia in a catalog of other supposed grave crimes including “the attempted ordination of women.”

“What I did, supporting the ordination of women, they saw as a serious crime,” said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest excommunicated less than two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women. “But priests who were abusing children, they did not see as a crime. What does that say?”

That they really really really think women are Not Good Enough. Other things too, but that’s a biggy.

“The many artists and intellectuals who haughtily dismissed what Polanski had done on the basis of his talent and achievement” were thinking of his films, Richard Cohen wrote for The Washington Post. “They should have thought of their own daughters.”

Well maybe they too really really think women are Not Good Enough. Maybe they think that partly because of the relentless pressure of the “great” monotheisms. Maybe they just do think that a male artist matters more than a female age 13. They probably don’t realize they think that, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think it, in a buried kind of way.

Blogging philosophy

Jul 16th, 2010 10:21 am | By

This is nice: Ben Nelson has joined Talking Philosophy. He has a post on Realisms, the first of a series. It has only three comments, the first two just introductions and the last just rude. Go comment, get him started. I would, but I’m not allowed, because I’m so eeeeeeevil, so you do it.

Actually even if I could comment I wouldn’t have anything of interest to say, because I don’t know enough. Ben’s clever. Go sharpen your wits on him.

News from elsewhere

Jul 15th, 2010 11:15 am | By

I’ve been commenting on that thread at CFI. The moderators want it to go away, but I think they shouldn’t want that, because the underlying issues are entirely relevant to CFI. They think it’s all personal, but it isn’t. It really isn’t. The truth is I don’t care about Chris Mooney as a person at all. Of course I don’t. I care about what he’s saying and doing; I care about the ideas and their consequences. It’s not personal. (I admit it seems personal, while it’s going on, but when I think about it, I realize it isn’t, at all.)

So here’s some of what I said.

He has still never explained what he thinks Jerry Coyne should have done differently, and by extension, what everyone should do differently.

It’s an important question, especially for people who are fans of inquiry. It’s an important question for anyone who reviews books about religion or religion-and-science or related subjects. I, for instance, wrote a review of such a book for the April/May edition of Free Inquiry. I thought it was a pretty bad book, and I said so. If I had been following Chris Mooney’s advice, presumably I would have done something else – but even if I had wanted to follow his advice, I wouldn’t have known exactly what it was. Pretend I thought the book was good? Refuse the invitation to review it in case I thought it was bad? Decide not to review it after all once I had read it, because I thought it was bad? I don’t know.

Mooney could answer that question right now. He could answer it here, where he is among friends – he works for CFI. It really is a question worth answering. He wants us – us “new” atheists – to be more civil, but he won’t explain exactly what he means by that. I don’t see why not. I also think the unwillingness is an uncomfortable fit with support for free inquiry.

I’m back. Well, I do think that. I also – still, after all this – think it’s odd that CM doesn’t think that. I still think it’s odd that he’s comfortable with this level of silencing and stonewalling, given his other commitments.

Connections between theology and the sciences can be explored

Jul 14th, 2010 11:39 am | By

Mark Vernon explains that John Polkinghorne is not a god of the gaps theist-scientist. He’s a nature is underdetermined theist-scientist. That’s much more sensible, apparently.

…there is a possibility of giving an account of divine action within nature, which is compatible with science. It relies neither upon a God who intervenes outside the usual play of nature, nor seeks low-level causal gaps. Rather, God’s action could be viewed as analogous to top-down, emergent causation – particularly when it implies signs of purpose or intentionality.

He doesn’t explain why “God” is the right name for top-down, emergent causation, or how one is to reconcile that with the familiar “God” of the people who pray to it, but never mind – it’s all worthwhile, because it introduces us to the Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford. I didn’t know there was such a place, and now I do. Guess who has given it money? I bet you can’t.

The Ian Ramsey Centre is part of the Theology Faculty in the University of Oxford. It has the special aim of promoting high quality teaching and research in the exciting field of science and religion. Within the University the Centre runs a regular seminar series, bringing scientists, philosophers and theologians together to explore interests they have in common. The seminars are open to students and informed members of the public. In addition, the Centre sponsors regional conferences to encourage new networks through which connections between theology and the sciences can be explored. International workshops are organised to enhance the quality of courses on science and religion that are taught worldwide.

See, there’s another outfit with global reach.

Bargaining with the holey C

Jul 14th, 2010 11:24 am | By

It seems to me there’s a considerable amount of bullshit in the UK government’s response to the petition urging it to tell the pope on second thought to stay home.

The visit is described as a Papal Visit with the status of a State Visit… 

The Holy See has a global reach and so is a valuable international partner for the UK Government.  Our relationship with the Holy See enables us to address jointly a range of foreign policy and development issues…

As with any bilateral diplomatic relationship, there are issues on which we disagree.

Lots of things have “a global reach”; that doesn’t necessarily make them worth treating as honored guests. Al Qaeda has a global reach; McDonald’s has a global reach; sexual slavery has a global reach. Some global reaches are perncious and tyrannical, and liberal governments should not give them standing by inviting them for state visits.

And talking about the relationship between the government of the UK and “the Holy See” as a bilateral diplomatic relationship just seems absurd. What diplomacy can the Vatican engage in? What point is there in it? What can the Vatican offer any real government that makes it worth treating as if it were a real government too? What is the reward that makes it worth turning a blind eye to “the issues on which we disagree”?

The reality is that the UK government had no obligation at all to treat the Vatican as a real state with a real government and real diplomats and real benefits to offer. So why is it doing it?

The scarecrow of “scientism”

Jul 13th, 2010 5:10 pm | By

A note on Karl Giberson’s Huffington Post piece.

Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is “yes, of course,” for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

But that isn’t the choice. Really, it’s not. Science can’t discover exactly what it feels like to be you, for example, but you know that that feeling is real. The complexity of personal experience alone is enough to keep you busy and happy for many lifetimes, and it has no need of religion at all. Why think the choice is between a traditional belief in God, fundamentalism, or “scientism”? That’s just a scarecrow.

A lot of people think that is the choice though. Why do they? Have they never talked to any godless poets or musicians or birdwatchers or gardeners or mountaineers?

Barbara Forrest on philosophical naturalism

Jul 13th, 2010 11:51 am | By

If you’re tired of hearing people say that science cannot address the supernatural, Barbara Forrest’s “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection” is just what you want to read.

From the abstract:

I conclude that the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.

From page 5

…the methodology of science is the only viable method of acquiring reliable knowledge about the cosmos. Given this fact, if there is no workable method for acquiring knowledge of the supernatural, then it is procedurally impossible to have knowledge of either a supernatural dimension or entity. In the absence of any alternative methodology, the metaphysical claims one is entitled to make are very strictly limited. The philosophical naturalist, without making any metaphysical claims over and above those warranted by science, can demand from supernaturalists the method that legitimizes their metaphysical claims. In the absence of such a method, philosophical naturalists can not only justifiably refuse assent to such claims, but can deny–tentatively, not categorically–the existence of the supernatural, and for the same reason they deny the existence of less exalted supernatural entities like fairies and ghosts: the absence of evidence.

Isn’t that like a nice strong sea breeze after a long stuffy afternoon in an overheated room?

A name change?

Jul 13th, 2010 10:51 am | By

Mooney doesn’t like being called an accommodationist. (Not unlike the way we don’t like being called “the New Atheist noise machine” or “the New Atheist comment machine,” perhaps.) He suggests different words.

I also am tired of the label “accommodationist.” It seems to imply that there is something weak about my view, as if I’m all ready to just cave to some common enemy. On the contrary, I think that I’m being tolerant and pragmatic.

Tolerant of what? Not of overt (explicit, non-apologetic, argumentative, reasoned) atheism, certainly. Tolerant of one side of a dispute that he himself has done a lot to create, so “tolerant” doesn’t really fit. (That’s not a very damning point, in my book – I think the merit of tolerance depends on the merit of what is being tolerated, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a virtue. The self-flattery is a little damning, but only a little.)

And pragmatic about what? That’s the real question. It’s not at all clear what is unpragmatic about explicit atheism. The fact that it annoys people like Mooney? But that’s because Mooney is weirdly phobic about explicit atheism, and it’s not really pragmatic to try to shape one’s thinking to allow for other people’s phobias.

Mooney’s usual way of putting the matter is that explicit atheism is “divisive” and we have to unite in order to tackle important problems. But that’s not adequate, because many things are divisive, and we can’t simply rule them all out in order to unite in tackling important problems. Mooney needs a lot more than that, and he’s never supplied it. So he can’t expect people to call him a pragmatist instead of an accommodationist when we don’t think he’s being particularly pragmatic in campaigning against explicit atheists.

It’s also question-begging. One of the disagreements is about whether there really are compelling pragmatic reasons to 1) hide one’s own atheism and 2) silence atheists in general. If you call yourself a pragmatist on this issue you’re pretending that issue has been decided, in your favor.

What and faith in dialogue?

Jul 11th, 2010 5:50 pm | By

Back when the new round of Toxic Sock-revelations set the felid among the passerines, I was having a quiet good time looking at the strange goings on at BioLogos, home of “science and faith in dialogue.” Now that the passerines are getting bored with Toxic Sock, let’s go back there. Let’s consider Albert Mohler’s sermon. It’s about Why Does the Universe Look So Old? 

He says it’s an important question.

I want to invite you to turn with me to Genesis chapter one. We dare not seek to answer this question without first looking to the Word of God. [Reads Genesis 1, 2:1-3].

Right. This is BioLogos. This is science and faith in dialogue. Remember? That’s what it says. So…what science? Where’s the science part? If we dare not seek to answer this question without first looking to the word of god, how can BioLogos claim to have anything to do with science at all?

I don’t know, and I don’t think it can. BioLogos seems to be going through some kind of crisis. I plan to keep watching.

Update: Darrel Falk, president of BioLogos tells us (see comment 28):

Let me be clear about the reason we at BioLogos posted Dr. Mohler’s talk. We disagree with it! We totally disagree with it. We have three posts showing how strongly we disagree with it and how harmful it is. We transcribed his speech even though he criticized us vehemently, because we wanted our readers to be able to read what he said, so they wouldn’t have to go back and watch the whole speech. Given our three posts and the extremely negative statements he made about us in the post, it never occurred to us that anyone would think we agreed with what his speech.

Not so much agreed with, as considered part of the dialogue, was what I thought; at any rate the clarification is welcome.