Piety in action

Jun 17th, 2009 9:40 am | By

Time has passed. Clocks have ticked. The sun has set and then risen again. Meals have been eaten and digested, tv shows have been watched, teeth have been brushed, dogs have scratched, water has flowed under the bridge. Time has passed and people have urged Madeleine Bunting to answer the many criticisms her article has received. No answer has been forthcoming.

All this really is quite interesting. I knew Bunting was a determined apologist for religion and that she was not very good at making her case – but that was all I knew. It has now been forced on my attention that she’s really a fairly unpleasant character. She is, at least, willing to call someone a long string of harsh names on a public forum and then refuse to reply to dissenters. She has sunk herself in my esteem. She has not behaved well. She is not a good ambassador for her religion.

Bunting expands on her point

Jun 16th, 2009 12:25 pm | By

Madeleine Bunting returns to her claim that I am strident, adding a good deal more abuse for good measure.

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar.

No, it isn’t. It isn’t peculiar at all. I think theism and theistic ways of thinking do real and terrible harm. I think it’s Bunting’s blindness or indifference to that which is really peculiar. In order to be so mystified by my intensity, she has to simply ignore or disbelieve the horrors in the book which are explicitly and avowedly done in the name of a god. She has read the book, apparently, since she quotes some bits that she considers ‘strident’ – so she can’t claim that she was unaware of the incidents. To take just one – the one that leads up to the bits she quotes – there is the stoning to death of a 13-year-old girl who said three men had raped her, in Kismayu, Somalia, last October.

A witness told the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme that the girl had been crying, pleading for her life, and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning.

“When she came out she said: ‘What do you want from me?'”

“They said: ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. She said: ‘I’m not going, I’m not going. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’

“A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.”

The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was “awful”.

So – in light of the fact that the executioners said ”We will do what Allah has instructed us,’ what exactly is it that Bunting finds peculiar? How would she like people to react to that? Casually? Ironically? Temperately?

I don’t know. I don’t understand Madeleine Bunting. I don’t understand her show of incomprehension. I don’t understand what she’s playing at.

But the most extraordinary claim was “religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion which backs them up”. Really? Surely the “last great prop” is overstating it? Injustice is rife all over the world and much of it makes no reference to religion. Take North Korea: where’s the religion there? Or Burma last autumn: there, religion, in the form of hundreds of Buddhist monks were leading the protests against the rule of the Burmese generals. It was precisely the opposite of what Benson is claiming: religion proved the most effective inspiration to resist arbitrary injustice. And that has been true of many other places in the world – does Benson not study her history books? – how can she make sense of the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Archbishop Desmond Tutu without the religions which inspired them to campaign against arbitrary injustice? I simply don’t understand how someone can claim to be a serious philosopher (as Benson does) and who writes books on subjects such as Why the truth matters can make such preposterous statements.

It would help if she had kept in mind the sentences that immediately precede the one she quotes –

It is true, of course, that sometimes good things are done in the name of religion. There were religious motivations for opposing the slave trade (although that required ignoring many instructions in the Bible, New Testament as well as Old), and no doubt people get something out of going to church once in a while…Nevertheless, religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion that backs them up.

In other words we make exactly the point she accuses me (us) of failing to make immediately before the passage she takes exception to. I simply can’t understand how someone can claim to be whatever it is that Bunting claims to be and still distort a quotation in such a flagrant manner. I especially can’t understand how someone can do that in the process of defending the indefensible.

She misunderstands what is being claimed in the guilty sentence. It’s the ‘prop and stay’ bit and the ‘arbitrary’ bit. The sentence doesn’t say ‘religion remains the last great example of injustices’ – it says it remains the last great prop and stay of them. The Burmese generals don’t have any such prop and stay; all they have is naked power. North Korea has a kind of ghost of Marxism, but it doesn’t convince anyone. Religion convinces people. That’s the difference. The book is full of reeking examples of people convinced by religion that it is okay for them to do horrible things. Bunting should re-read the story of Rand Abdel-Qader.

Are religions corrupted by their patriarchal history – yes of course, as I’ve written on this site before. Does much of that patriarchy still survive – yes, in many places but in many others it is being challenged. Does it sometimes become misogyny – yes. So there is much common ground between Benson and I. It’s just that I would argue that the root of this problem is men – and they have used religious traditions to restrict the freedom of women.

Yes…that is rather the point. I won’t say more, since Bunting’s failure to get the point is obvious enough. (I will say it should be ‘between Benson and me’ though.)

In the debate, Benson didn’t sound as hysterical as her prose but it’s odd listening to someone who has created a caricature of religion and then pours her scorn on it. She talks about the nature of God a lot with a confidence that is bizarre – as if she had inside knowledge yet she is an atheist so all she is really talking about is her image, her understanding of God. And this is where I heartily agree with her final sentence “That is the God who hates women. That God has to go”. Hear, hear Benson.

I didn’t, actually. I don’t (of course) think ‘God’ has a nature. What I talked about was the fact that God is not available or accountable and that therefore God’s laws are fundamentally arbitrary in a way that secular laws are not. This isn’t my image or understanding of God – when’s the last time the pope reported God chatting with him about the new encyclical?

There’s another, less substantive aspect to this. Bunting in general presents herself, I think it’s fair to say, as a consciously ‘nice’ gentle ‘feminine’ kind of person – but in practice, at least in this case, she’s been strikingly aggressive. At one point on Night Waves she interrupted me in the middle of a sentence and the middle of a thought – when she had already done a lot more talking than I had, and Rana had cued me to go ahead, and I fairly obviously had a point I wanted to make – and she didn’t just say one thing and then let me go on, she simply grabbed the conversation away from me and kept on talking. I could have followed suit, but I hate shouting heads discussions; I’m willing to break in during pauses, but I’m not willing to cut people off in the middle of a sentence. But Bunting is – despite the sweetly girly voice and despite the conspicuous Christianity, she’s perfectly willing to cut people off. And she’s also willing to use quite strong language. ‘Strident…preposterous…crudeness and lack of insight…profoundly intellectually dishonest…hysterical…bizarre.’

I find that interesting.

Say anything

Jun 15th, 2009 11:17 am | By

James Hannam re-states his case in a comment on It’s not a majority vote issue.

[L]ooking back, a clear lesson seems to be that the accommodationists got things done. So even if Coyne and Myers are right (and of course, I don’t think they are) about the incompatibility of religion and evolution, prior experience suggests that they should nonetheless respect differences and even hold their noses for the good of science. No one would expect them to hide their views. But at the moment, they give the impression that they are partisans for atheism rather than for evolution.

The first question is: what things did accommodationists get done, and what connection did the accommodationism have with the getting things done? What exactly is the claim here? That accommodationists got things done that they would not have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? And that the things they got done were more important or valuable than any other things they might have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? In other words, there are a lot of variables here, and a lot of counter-factuals, and it’s simply not clear that ‘the accommodationists got things done’ says anything as clear-cut or useful as Hannam thinks it does (or rather, perhaps, hopes it does). In other other words it’s a very loose, vague claim, which does not justify that ‘So’ in the next sentence. No, prior experience does not suggest that they should ‘respect differences,’ much less that they should ‘hold their noses for the good of science’ – which in this context has to mean ‘hold their noses and conceal what they take to be the truth for the good of science.’

Of course, one can’t make one’s whole case every time one says anything – but one can avoid making large empty claims such as ‘the accommodationists got things done’ in order to back up a further claim that scientists should conceal what they take to be the truth. One can be more careful than that.

Here’s the problem: You have a group of people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs. You have a mission to educate these people. Do you:

a) explain that many of their learned co-believers have thought carefully about this issue and don’t think there is a contradiction;
b) say nothing to these people and let the likes of Coyne, Dawkins and Myers convince them that they are right to be scared through other channels.

Now, if you care about evolution, this looks like a no-brainer to me.

Well, that’s because you haven’t thought about it carefully enough. One, the ‘mission to educate these people’ is not the only mission. There are a lot of ‘missions’ in play; educating people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs is only one of them; it is not self-evident that that one ‘mission’ should trump all the others; it is in any case not self-evident that the only or best way to ‘educate these people’ is by concealing what one takes to be the truth.

Two, a) and b) represent a false dilemma. There are (as so often) more than two possibilities here, and a) and b) are very crude tendentious versions even of the two possibilities they purport to represent. One can, for instance, do a) and do other things too, one of which would be to explain why there is a contradiction, or, if you want to hedge, why many other people think there is a contradiction.

There is a whole range of possibilities, and narrowing it down to 1) talk soothing communitarian wool about what lots of learned people have thought or 2) let those pesky fundamentalist atheists scare everyone into church school, is neither productive nor interesting.

The fundamental blankness behind this way of arguing seems to be a complete blindness to the fact that some people prefer trying to get at the truth to trying to manipulate other people. Over and over we keep coming back to this ‘whatever you think the truth is, you should say that science and religion are perfectly compatible, for purely instrumental short-term reasons’ idea. It’s depressing. It’s tawdry. It’s as if all of life were an endless US presidential campaign, where the only goal is to win and no lie is too gross if only it might win West Virginia.

It’s not a majority vote issue

Jun 14th, 2009 12:42 pm | By

James Hannam is confused about accommodationism.

As the battle between creationism and evolution heats up, some atheists, like Jerry Coyne, have been insisting that it is really a battle between religion and science. Coyne resists any accommodation between religious and non-religious scientists…In order for his position to make sense, he needs to show that there is some sort of existential conflict between religion and science. So it is unfortunate for him that the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship.

No, that’s not right. It would perfectly possible for the historical record to show that and for the accommodation still to be philosophically incoherent. Coyne’s claim is not that accommodation has never happened but that it is not coherent.

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind…The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

What has happened in the past is fundamentally irrelevant to what Coyne is arguing, in the same way that a contemporary opinion poll would be. The historical record makes essentially the same claim as an opinion poll could make: lots of people think or have thought that science and religion can be reconciled. Coyne already knows that, and has stipulated that they can be reconciled in the trivial sense that a person can do both. His point is that the reconciliation is not coherent. Majority opinion, now or in the past, can’t decide that question.

Unfortunately for him, Hannam’s entire article rests on this irrelevant claim about the history of the conflict, which just isn’t what Coyne is talking about. Oh well.

Catholic thinking is rather different…

Jun 14th, 2009 12:10 pm | By

This is what I’m saying.

Tony Blair made much of becoming a Roman Catholic six months after he left 10 Downing Street, but senior figures in the Church appear reluctant to sign up to his fan club…Blair used an interview with Attitude, a magazine for homosexuals, to criticise the approach of the Pope towards gay rights. He argued that religious leaders must start “rethinking” the issue, but the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, said Catholic thinking was “rather different” from the kind promoted by Blair.

Precisely. Of course it is. So what does Madeleine Bunting mean by claiming she doesn’t understand when people point out that laws handed down by an unavailable unaccountable god are different from negotiable secular laws? Eh? Eh? What does she mean by it? If the new archbish of Westminster gets it (when defending his ‘thinking’ of course, as opposed to agreeing with secularist criticism of his ‘thinking’), why doesn’t she? Merely because it’s not convenient? Surely not…

Madeleine Bunting please note

Jun 13th, 2009 5:24 pm | By

Ha – eat your heart out, Maddy – here’s someone who understands what we mean by asking if God hates women. She understands it perfectly, and has been there.

An article from the UK’s Guardian, God is merciful, but only if you’re a man, reminded me of the subservient role women played in the fundamentalist Christian churches I came to know as a believer…[T]he church would make me shed bitter tears for my inability to be sweet, submissive, and sheeplike. Religious circles just aren’t friendly to a woman who thinks herself an equal. The Guardian’s article brought back the awful church memories. In those days and during my earlier de-conversion phase, I was just angry and couldn’t understand why fellow Christian women would often tell me, “You shouldn’t say that,” or “You shouldn’t do that.”…Is it any wonder that at some point during my Christian life I started to feel as if God hated me?

Told you so, Madders.

Read the whole thing, and the comments; it’s stirring stuff. Sing it, Lorena!

A pervasive climate of fear

Jun 13th, 2009 11:14 am | By

I’ve been reading the Goldenbridge chapter of the Ryan report again. (Reading the whole report will be the work of months, if not years.) One thing (among others) struck me anew…

Sr Alida recalls her early years in religious life as being dominated by fear. On reflection she cannot understand how she accepted so many demands and pressures without protest. (7.219)

Exactly. This is how authoritarian religions work, after all, and Catholicism is nothing if not authoritarian – still, now, let alone in Ireland in the 1940s. Sister ‘Alida’ was trained by fear and she passed it on to the children she was in charge of.

The religious sisters who subsequently held management responsibility lived in a tightly controlled and authoritarian world. Questioning was defined as arrogance and led to blaming of the individual…No distinction appears to have been made between being a ‘good’ religious and being a ‘good’ childcare worker. The characteristics that were valued appear to have been obedience and dedication…The unsafe world of Goldenbridge developed a very particular culture which could not meet the needs of children. Very powerless people had enormous and immediate power over troubled and troublesome children. The abuse of the power and powerlessness was almost inevitable. (7.224)

In other words, a recipe for a disastrous way to take care of desolate children: fear, control, authoritarianism, slavishness, sadism, all gathered together into ‘enormous and immediate power’: the perfect nightmare.

Overall, there was a high level of severe corporal punishment in Goldenbridge, resulting in a pervasive climate of fear in the Institution. (7.232)

Yes but not just a pervasive climate of fear…Along with that climate, and inseparable from it, was a pervasive climate of unlove, of hostility, of anger…of hatred.

This is perhaps too obvious to point out, but a pervasive climate of fear created by a harshly punitive regime is inevitably also a pervasive climate of unlove – and that’s what was truly corrosive about Goldenbridge (and the other industrial schools). Reading the report, you just can’t escape that; it jumps off every page. There was no love there, and there was abundant fury and violence and frank hatred. The witnesses all say the same thing – they all felt utterly alone there, they had no one to turn to, that was the worst thing.

Hatred needs to be recognized as such. The pervasive climate of fear at Goldenbridge wasn’t just a matter of excessively harsh discipline. It’s possible to be both loving and strict, even ‘strict’ in the sense of using some corporal punishment…but there is a cut-off point. There is a point at which quantity becomes quality, and the corporal punishment is no longer compatible with anything that can be called love. This applies, mutatis mutandis, to ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage too. Whether God hates women or not, some of God’s fans certainly do hate women, and act accordingly. That needs to be acknowledged.

You may think our rules are crap, but that’s tough

Jun 12th, 2009 5:39 pm | By

How obliging of Simon Sarmiento, right on the heels of Bunting’s incomprehension at my claim that laws handed down by an unaccountable god can be oppressive and difficult to change.

Anglican and RC church representatives, giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, were very concerned that a new definition of “the purposes of an organised religion” would curtail their own existing right to discriminate against lay people for reasons other than religious belief.

Oh were they. And yet I thought ‘that in any religious tradition there is interpretation’ and ‘the way Christian teaching has changed over two thousand years is enormous and it continues to change’ so surely there can’t be a problem with Christian teaching not having changed enough, because if there were such a problem then Bunting would have understood what I was talking about, and she said she didn’t, so there must not be a problem. Right? Or perhaps not.

Fittall said: “You might believe that some of our rules and disciplines are wrong, but our view is that that is a matter of religious liberty – a matter for the Church of England, Roman Catholics, the Jews or whoever.”

Right, and that’s how you get away with it – you talk pious boilerplate about ‘religious liberty’ so that you can go on treating people unequally. Well – this is what I was saying. Religious laws are very hard to change because religions get this kind of special dispensation called ‘religious liberty’ and because the rule-giver does not answer requests for judicial review. That’s not an unmixed blessing.

And whaddya know – a colleague of Humera Khan’s has a lot more sense than Humera Khan seems to have –

There also seemed to be little support for the churches from their religious colleagues on the witness panel. Indeed Maleiha Malik, speaking for the Muslim Women’s Network said:

“I do not think that there is any evidence that there is a narrowing, but, like the British Humanist Association, we would very much welcome and strongly support any narrowing of the exemptions, for the following reason. The way the exemptions strike the balance between the rights of organised religion to discriminate and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination is deeply unfair. It gives too much power to organised religions to police their internal members.”

Well said Maleiha Malik.

Strident and shrill

Jun 12th, 2009 11:32 am | By

A note or two on Night Waves.

I think the most striking thing about both Bunting and Khan is the callous frivolity of their claims. This is probably inevitable when religious apologists are invited to defend religions from charges of injustice and cruelty – but then that’s what’s wrong with religious apologetics, isn’t it.

Bunting for instance started by saying, in a tone of well-feigned bewilderment, that she just really didn’t quite understand what I was talking about, because it seemed to her that in any religious tradition there is interpretation, and ‘the way the way Christian teaching has changed over two thousand years is enormous and it continues to change.’ But she must know perfectly well – how could she not? – that ‘Christian teaching’ hasn’t changed so thoroughly that it has managed to catch up to secular liberal thinking on human rights or women’s rights or gay rights. She must know perfectly well that Catholic bishops are currently insisting precisely on the difference between ‘Church teachings’ and gay rights and demanding that the former be allowed to trump the latter – so what does she mean by saying she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about? I don’t think she means anything, I think she’s just mouthing. And that’s what I mean by callous frivolity. She shouldn’t do that – she should be honest about the subject. This isn’t a game, this is stuff that fucks up people’s lives.

Khan was just as frivolous, talking dismissively about ‘what we call in the Muslim community call “Sheikh google”‘ – which apparently means something like ‘track down news items about various incidents of religious brutality around the world.’ Well look – the incidents are there – they’re real – they happen to real people – so what does it mean to shrug them off in that contemptuous way? Khan may have even had that thought herself, because she promptly added that we’d collected a lot of stuff, but then on third thought she said it was nothing new. No, it’s not new, we never said it was new; the point is not its novelty but that it happens at all. Khan said nothing whatsoever to palliate that – which is not surprising, because what could palliate it? In fact later she said something quite remarkable about ‘the things that aren’t quite working, the violence…’ Ah yes, the violence, which is ‘things not quite working.’

She also talked about the upside of patriarchy, and how if you redefine patriarchy so that it doesn’t mean patriarchy then it’s quite a good thing; she talked about tribes in Indonesia that are an example of matriarchy in Islam; she talked about Eurocentrism. Bunting agreed that there is patriarchy but then shouted that to go from that to the accusation that God hates women is an absurd illogical jump and why not ask do men hate women and how daft that is, there are lots of nice men, it’s a banal argument. Well yes it is a banal argument but it’s not our argument so that takes care of that anyway. Then by way of flourish she interrupted me to tell me the tone of the book is strident and shrill. I would call it, rather, indignant, or heated, or impassioned, in places. That’s because the stuff we talk about is bad – cruel, oppressive, unjust; bad. It’s not something to be callously frivolous about. It’s not something to shrug off with palaver about the Anglican church ordinating women or little pockets of Islamic matriarchy. It’s more serious than that.

The law of the Brothers

Jun 10th, 2009 12:10 pm | By

Hitchens too sees flaws in Obama’s Cairo speech.

Take the single case in which our president touched upon the best-known fact about the Islamic “world”: its tendency to make women second-class citizens. He mentioned this only to say that “Western countries” were discriminating against Muslim women! And how is this discrimination imposed? By limiting the wearing of the head scarf or hijab…The clear implication was an attack on the French law that prohibits the display of religious garb or symbols in state schools.

He then quotes ‘from an excellent commentary by an Algerian-American visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School, Karima Bennoune, who says’

I have just published research conducted among the many people of Muslim, Arab and North African descent in France who support that country’s 2004 law banning religious symbols in public schools which they see as a necessary deployment of the “law of the republic” to counter the “law of the Brothers,” an informal rule imposed undemocratically on many women and girls in neighborhoods and at home and by fundamentalists.

This is what people who are horrified by bans on wearing the hijab so often neglect to mention, what they so often in fact obscure by calling the hijab a free choice which simply ignores the fact that in some places women are beaten or murdered for not wearing it. That’s an important fact and it shouldn’t be ignored.

One of me, two of them

Jun 9th, 2009 10:25 am | By

This will amuse you – I’m going to be on Nightwaves on Thursday. A ‘debate’ – more or less about the book, as I understand it. The Other Side will be represented by two people – which perhaps hints at where the BBC’s sympathies lie.

I won’t tell you who the other people are now, because I prefer to tell you later.

The transparency project

Jun 9th, 2009 10:12 am | By

One reason religion is not good for women.

God represents an absent, unknown, unknowable, unaccountable, arbitrary power – which makes God a tyrant. To quote from the book, it’s a bad principle to expect humans to obey a putative god that is inaccessible and unknowable, just as it
would be to expect us to obey human legislators who were equally
hidden and unknowable and unaccountable. The God of most believers is a God that no one has
ever seen, that does not make appearances, that sends no messages;
this God is hidden, secretive, permanently and inviolably locked away
from all living people; this fact alone is enough to disqualify it as a source of laws or morality.

It’s surprising, in a way, that so many people are happy to take orders from an unavailable unaccountable God; it’s especially suprising in the case of people who are consigned to inferior status by that unavailable unaccountable God. Habit, custom, training, and inertia explain a lot, but it’s still surprising.

Tolerance and the dignity of all human beings

Jun 8th, 2009 11:48 am | By

Muriel Gray points out some sad realities.

What new creative solutions were on offer to reconcile the directly opposing ideologies that are obedience to Islam and progressive Western democracy? No big thinking of any kind. Actually, worse than that…Obama informed us that throughout history, “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality”. Hasn’t it just? Darfur was all a silly misunderstanding, and Sunni and Shia Muslims tolerate each other magnificently. Islam also, the president assured us, overlaps and shares common principles with America, namely the “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Many of these can currently be seen on view in Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan, to name but a very few.

One possible reply is that what Obama said was aspirational – meant to inspire people to live up to the flattering description, not to say how things really are. But…it’s not a very satisfactory or convincing reply, given the vastness of the gap between the flattering description and how things really are. Since Islam as it is really practiced in the real world in places where it has state power is conspicuously bad at tolerance and the dignity of all human beings, it seems foolhardy to say otherwise. (Would Obama be happy to see an adult Malia living in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Pakistan? If not…maybe he should hesitate before talking about shared principles of the dignity of all human beings. [If the answer is yes, he’s nuts – but I strongly doubt that the answer is yes.])

By far the greatest disappointment was Obama’s “dealing” with women’s rights as lowly point number six in his speech. In a few short sentences he referred, rightly, to the importance of educating Muslim women, then bizarrely to the importance of keeping American citizens in their hijabs…No mention of the shameful atrocities being carried out worldwide in Islamic countries every single day; nothing of injustice and hopelessness, of the drudgery, powerlessness and virtual enslavement suffered by millions of women and girls in the name of an invented deity. To so sure-footedly ignore what is happening to women right now is nothing short of a disgrace, and his appeasement of this outrage is on a par with appeasing apartheid.

Right. He needs a copy of the book.

Possible is one thing, reasonable is another

Jun 6th, 2009 12:21 pm | By

Jason Rosenhouse looks at this natural v supernatural problem.

If you hold views about a supernatural realm that have absolutely no empirical consequences whatsoever then you have nothing to fear from science. There are even certain religious systems that posit such a realm. But that is not the sort of faith held by most Christians.

True; so the business about what is ‘beyond’ nature becomes irrelevant.

So long as we are talking about a divine creator in the abstract then there is no conflict with evolution. Deism is not threatened by evolution.

But Deists aren’t the people who freak out about evolution, so they’re not actually the people Mooney is talking about, so again, they are irrelevant.

One more time, science can not rule out the existence of a supernatural realm, but it can certainly make certain ideas about how the supernatural realm interacts with our earthly realm seem highly implausible.

Just so. If it’s entirely beyond and outside, nobody knows, so you can believe anything you want to, but don’t expect anyone to agree with you; if it’s not beyond and outside, then science can investigate it, so the ‘this is where science stops’ claim doesn’t apply.

The clear distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism is mostly irrelevant to the question of whether science and religion are compatible, since religion typically claims far more than the mere existence of a supernatural realm…Different people can draw different metaphysical conclusions from the same empirical data. The argument is over whether it is reasonable to accept both evolution and traditional Christianity, not over whether it is possible to accept both.

Yes that’s what I meant by the more long-winded “It’s perfectly possible to know that one can’t know X and still believe X. It’s a constant battle, to be sure, and there’s no guarantee that atheists and naturalists won’t always be saying ‘But there’s no good reason to believe that’ – but that’s life as a grown-up, isn’t it.” It’s possible, and that’s all you get. We can’t give you reasonable too, and it’s unreasonable to expect it.

Ontology or epistemology

Jun 5th, 2009 5:09 pm | By

Chris Mooney says why compatibilism matters via a discussion of Robert Pennock’s testimony at the Kitzmiller trial and Judge Jones’s decision.

Jones and Pennock describe science, and its “ground rule” of methodological naturalism, as an inquiry into the workings of the natural world–one assuming the existence of natural laws that we can discern, and naturalistic processes that we can measure and describe. But, they add, there science basically ends. Is there a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature? Science just can’t say.

Why can’t science say? Because a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature is by definition beyond or outside anything we can meaningfully inquire into: ‘meaningfully’ in the sense of being able to get real results. The reasons science can’t say are the reasons no one can say. It’s not as if science can’t say but some other kind of inquiry or investigation or examination can. There is no discipline or branch of knowledge that can say. That which is outside or beyond is outside or beyond – so we know nothing about it. That means all of us – not just scientists, but all of us.

People can of course believe anything they want to about that which is outside or beyond – but that’s not the same thing as being able to say. I think people who say ‘science can’t say’ often tend to blur that distinction, whether deliberately or not. I think saying ‘science can’t say’ leaves an impression that non-science can say, which is mistaken.

Pennock’s testimony, a key basis for all this, draws a core distinction between such methodological naturalism on the one hand, and “philosophical naturalism” (or atheism) on the other. The latter is a stronger view, and goes beyond the limits of science to claim that the natural is all there is, period. This view may well be true; indeed, I personally believe it to be true. But it is a philosophical view, not a scientific one.

Not exactly. Atheism doesn’t necessarily or always claim that the natural is all there is; atheism doesn’t even necessarily or always claim that there is no God; atheism can be and often is just non-theism, which needn’t say anything so definite as that the natural is all there is. Furthermore, even more assertive atheism, or ‘strong’ atheism, doesn’t necessarily claim that the natural is all there is; it often contents itself with pointing out that the natural is all we can know anything about.

In truth I’m not really sure how philosophical naturalism fits here – I’m not sure whether or not it’s true that philosophical naturalism does necessarily say as a matter of definition that the natural is all there is, period, or whether it says simply that we (humans, stuck here in nature) don’t and can’t know anything about the non-natural. I don’t know if its claims are ontological or epistemological. But frankly I’m a little skeptical that many people are philosophical naturalists of the type who say the natural is all there is, period. I suspect that the vast majority say simply that no one knows, and perhaps further that, by definition, no one can know.

Does it matter? Yes, I think so. I think it’s at least possible that if Chris and other accommodationists could take it on board that most atheists and philosophical naturalists don’t actually claim that the natural is all there is, period, but rather that anything beyond nature is beyond us so we simply can’t know anything about it – then there might be less worry about strategy. Because the next bit of Chris’s argument goes:

Crucially, such logic suggests that it is most emphatically possible to accept the results of science’s naturalistic methodology, and yet also retain supernatural beliefs that science cannot touch.

But that’s still true with philosophical naturalism if it is as I have described it. It’s perfectly possible to know that one can’t know X and still believe X. It’s a constant battle, to be sure, and there’s no guarantee that atheists and naturalists won’t always be saying ‘But there’s no good reason to believe that’ – but that’s life as a grown-up, isn’t it.

Religion is a very private matter except when it isn’t

Jun 4th, 2009 11:58 am | By

The disagreement between incompatibilists and accommodationists goes on. I’m on the incompatibilist side (surprise surprise). One thing in particular that Chris Mooney said stood out for me:

Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

But religion is not a very private matter in the sense of being that to the exclusion of being a very public matter. It’s a private matter in the sense of being internal, personal, sometimes bashful, and the like, but that does not mean that it is always and everywhere exclusively private. That’s obvious from Chris’s Mooney’s post itself –

In a recent New Republic book review, [Jerry] Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, [Barbara] Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Why? Because they wrote books on the subject, that’s why. The New Republic commissioned him to review the books, so he reviewed them. This involved disagreeing with some of their claims. But the point is – their claims were not ‘a very private matter,’ they were a very public matter in published books that were out in public for the public to read. It’s just incoherent to claim that Jerry Coyne is being naughty to ‘criticize’ Miller and Giberson for their ‘very private’ religion when what he in fact did was dispute public claims in their published books. He didn’t go poking into their minds, he read their books and then reviewed them for a magazine. Why is anyone asking why he did that? The question is absurd.

Tariq tells Barack what’s what

Jun 4th, 2009 10:58 am | By

The arrogance of Tariq Ramadan is truly breathtaking.

What we expect from the new president is effective and necessary action as well as a change in attitude. Humility is a key factor…Islam is a great civilisation and Barack Obama should bring a message of true and deep respect by announcing that we all have to learn from each other and that he will commit himself to spreading knowledge of cultural and religious diversity in the United States itself. Humility means we all have to learn from one another and America should be ready to learn from Islam and Muslims as well as from the Hindus or the Buddhists.

Islam is not a civilization at all, just as Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism are not civilizations; they are all religions, not civilizations. Treating the two as interchangeable is a typically Ramadanesque bullying tactic. The peremptory demands for humility and true and deep respect are…pathetic, if you think about the kind of true and deep respect for other religions (and civilizations) that is on offer in, say, Saudi Arabia. I would urge Tariq Ramadan to learn a little humility himself and stop barking out orders in the name of ‘Muslims’ as if he spoke for all Muslims everywhere.

According to the law of God

Jun 3rd, 2009 5:09 pm | By

Religion has nothing to offer to morality, because religion as such adds nothing to moral reasoning. Religion as such is an obstacle to moral reasoning, because it injects elements that are irrelevant and false – irrelevant because they are false. Randall Terry on abortion for instance.

George Tiller was a mass-murderer…Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name: murder. Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the law of God.

Randall Terry has no idea what ‘the law of God’ might be, and neither does anyone else. Billions of people think they do, but in fact no one does. No one has any reliable knowledge of what the law of God might be, or if it is something human beings could and should endorse or not. For all Randall Terry knows God is a vicious sadist who loves watching animals torn apart screaming and people swept away in floods. But Terry thinks he does know, and he thinks God thinks what Terry thinks, and so Terry approves the murder of a doctor.

This is why religion is so inimical to women and to anyone else who is not born to one of the top spots in the hierarchy. Once people become convinced that they know what the holy law is, then that law becomes difficult or impossible (depending on the numbers and the ferocity) to change. If enough people are firmly enough convinced that God wants women to be the property of men and shut up and do what they’re told, then women are essentially slaves, and that’s that. If enough people are convinced that the foetus is far more important than the woman carrying it, then women of child-bearing age can never really own their own lives. That’s the law of God for you.

A sense of virtue

Jun 2nd, 2009 4:41 pm | By

Clerics will say anything, and they’re allowed to; that’s their job. In some jobs you have to try to get things right and then report them truthfully; in others you’re allowed and indeed encouraged to just make things up. Archbishops are firmly in the second camp.

Many Catholics see in the dismay over MPs’ expenses and the behaviour of the financial markets, a growing public conviction that all is not well in the moral life of the nation. They believe it presents a rare opportunity for the Church to make its voice heard, and see in the archbishop a forceful and articulate spokesman…[The archbish] said the revelations about expenses and the activities of the markets showed rules alone could not make a society work. He insisted they showed that some sense of “virtue” – such as that offered by Christianity – was also needed.

From an obvious truism to a ridiculous non sequitur. Of course ‘rules alone’ can’t make a society work, but who ever said they could? What’s that got to do with anything? Nothing, apart from the automatic slandering of all things secular. ‘Those pesky unbelievers – they think rules alone can make a society work – how shallow and uninformed and clueless can you get? Typical godless.’ Nobody said rules alone can make a society work, and in any case, why is the only other option ‘some some sense of “virtue” such as that offered by Christianity’? It isn’t, of course, the archbishop just felt like saying it is, and his job description says he’s totally allowed to do that.

So – what would this ‘sense of virtue’ be? Especially this ‘sense of virtue’ offered by Christianity? Think hard now. Hmmm. Is it anything like the virtue of
the religious congregations in Ireland? No, probably not. What then? Oh…humility, turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, that kind of thing. Unless you’re in charge of an industrial school, of course, in which case humility and turning the other cheek and loving your enemy is quite the wrong kind of thing. So that must not be what’s meant by a sense of virtue then? So what is? Hmmm. Not getting hitched to someone of the same sex? Yes, perfect! But then – that’s just a rule, right?

Well, the archbishop probably did have something in mind, but I’ll be damned if I can guess what it might be.

The truth is that religion has nothing to offer to morality. It may have some utility as a morality-assistant, but it’s worthless at moral reasoning. That’s not to say that no religious people can engage in moral reasoning, it’s just to say that the religious part doesn’t add anything to the reasoning. Well it doesn’t. Moral reasoning is secular, and religion either gets it dead wrong, or muddies the issues, or simply applauds what everyone knows anyway.

This is why I won’t be applying for any archbishop jobs soon.

Good news for automatons

Jun 2nd, 2009 11:29 am | By

Finally, people who can’t think for themselves have an easy way to get instructions.

A telephone help-line offering advice about the true teaching of Islam is being launched in the UK today. Callers to the Islamic Hotline will get answers to their questions within 48 hours, from scholars trained at one of the world’s principal Islamic universities…The Islamic Hotline believes it has good news for British Muslims – keeping the laws of Islam is not as difficult as you thought.

How nice – submitting to the authority of reactionary outdated self-serving androcentric laws dating from fourteen centuries ago is not as difficult as you thought. It’s still a ridiculous pathetic slavish way to live and to make others live, but it’s not as difficult as you thought.

Prof Aboshady provides callers with a sense of the varying interpretations of Islamic law and then recommends one in their particular case. “We are not sticking to one view, or one school of law,” he says. “What we present is what we believe is suitable to people in different times and places and let them choose which is suitable to them. This gives Islamic law some flexibility, so we are not changing the religion or creating new religion, but simply give people the chance to choose which is suitable to them.”

So there’s a kind of gloss of flexibility, an appearance of being sensible and reasonable, but in an eviscerated form. You get a choice of a few views or schools of law, but all of them are imprisoned within the one religion, so there is ‘some flexibility,’ but no actual freedom. It’s like a bigger, airier prison with more privileges and better facilities – but it’s still a prison. It’s nothing to boast of.

Hanaa Ismail called the line about what she calls “issues in the family, about the relations between a man and his wife, what a wife’s duties are…She might be abused by a man for a long while and yet she could get embarrassed to talk about it. This has been… an Arab tradition. With this helpline she can ask for help without any embarrassment, and [the scholar] won’t know who she is, and she can ask about all the details.”

Right – but what she can’t do is say ‘the hell with this, I’m leaving.’ She can’t decide for herself that she has no duty to be beaten by her husband and no desire to tie her life to someone who wants to beat her – she has to ask a ‘scholar’ what the rules are. If he says the rules are that she has to stay with the guy who beats her, that’s that.

She should look elsewhere for advice.