What is nature

Oct 15th, 2010 11:57 am | By

In the introduction to God and the New Atheism, the theologian John Haught says [p x]

The belief system that Dennett and the other new atheists subscribe to is known as “scientific naturalism.” Its central dogma is that only nature, including humans and our creations, is real; that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality.

That’s not how I would put it. I think naturalism means that all there is is all there is. There is what there is. The theists’ claim of God seems to include the idea that it has to be mysterian.

Why not just think of it as part of what there is, and then ask how to figure it out – how to find it or argue for it or show how it is explanatory or necessary (having first carefully defined it)? Why not give it a less tendentious and more descriptive name?

The idea that there is nature, and then there is something else, or more, or outside nature, or supernature, or metaphysic, is a religious idea. Without it, one just thinks there is whatever there is, and we certainly don’t know all there is to know about it.

To us it doesn’t make sense to say there is what there is, and then there is something above or “beyond” that. How could there be? There is what there is. Maybe it includes some cosmic intelligence or design-force – but if it does, it is part of what there is.

We don’t think of nature as some closed boundaried thing with special attributes that distinguish it from some other thing on the other side of it. We just think of it as what there is. Not what we know there is – not what we’ve discovered of what there is – just what there is. So if you think god is, god has to be part of that.

Throw physic to the dogs

Oct 14th, 2010 12:33 pm | By

There’s a funny little sub-group of gnu atheist-hating atheists, who claim to find gnu atheists stupid and worthless and contemptible beyond belief, yet can’t stop talking about them. I’ve started making bets with myself. “She says this is enough about the gnu atheists for now…but I bet she won’t be able to ignore that post by Jason Rosenhouse.” I’ve been winning all my bets. The sub-group is very predictable. They’re like “You’re Not Helping” that way – after awhile I knew what YNH was going to be talking about next, and YNH always obliged.

They hate hate hate certain gnu atheists – and oh man do they hate the “gnu atheists” joke – yet those very gnu atheists set their agenda. Day in and day out – Jerry Coyne this, PZ Myers that, Ophelia Benson the other – except for the ones who have made a solemn vow Never to Mention My Name, in which case it’s Jerry Coyne this, PZ Myers that, and a blog I will not name the other.

It’s as if there are no other gnu atheists – yet there are lots. But somehow the Myers-Coyne (and sometimes Benson) axis has become the throbbing heart of noo atheist horribleness, which has to be monitored and anathematized hour by hour.

It becomes especially funny when it consists of tutting about bitterness and hatred. Yes really – obsessively bitter haters fretting about the bitterness and hatred of The Enemy.

It’s very unkind of me to say this, of course, because since I know that they obsessively monitor the Evil Cabal, I know they will see this little taunt, and their bitterness and hatred will only deepen. But then I’ve never claimed to be a Nice Person.

Creeping theocracy

Oct 13th, 2010 5:47 pm | By

Two thirds of the Supreme Court is Catholic: six of the nine. And they’re not kidding. Joe Biden and five justices attended the “Red Mass” the day before the new term of the court.

The mass is a Catholic service, but power brokers of other faiths are asked to attend the invitation-only event. Critics have called the attendance of leading decision-makers, including members of the highest court in the land, inappropriate.

Oh, what’s the harm – it’s just a bit of incense and some pious mumbling.

A Vatican archbishop told the VP and 5 of the 9 justices

that laws are based upon certain principles: “the pursuit of the common good through respect for the natural law, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of innocent life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage, justice for the poor, protection of minors, and so on.”Di Noia later decried a trend toward “exclusive humanism” and said, “That innocent human life is now so broadly under threat has seemed to many of us one of the signs of this growing peril.”

So…….involuntary pregnancy, no divorce, no gay marriage, no rights for women……..

Well, at least Ginzburg can see what’s going on.

One member of the court who no longer attends is Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, like Breyer and Kagan, is Jewish. Ginsburg has said she grew tired of being lectured by Catholic officials.

“I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion,” Ginsburg said in the book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews talk About Being Jewish” by author Abigail Pogrebin.

But Catholic officials go right ahead and lecture the other justices and the vice president, of what is supposed to be a secular country.


How to change the zeitgeist

Oct 13th, 2010 12:31 pm | By

Jason Rosenhouse has done the perfect, brilliant reply to Josh Rosenau’s latest on Hau too Hellp and on howtohelping in general. I would love to have written it myself, but I’m not clever enough.

Turns out people tend to mistrust information that comes from people they don’t like. Who knew?

Heh. Yes, we knew, and we also knew that’s not quite all there is to it. We know for instance that there are not just two participants in every conversation. We know that liking or not liking are not the only two possibilities. We know that information is not the only product of discussion.

Atheist spirituality, such as it is, has almost nothing in common with traditional religion. So far as I can tell, it refers simply to the notion that atheists, no less than theists, can look at nature and be impressed. To suggest that this represents a point of contact between the religious and the nonreligious, which was, after all, the point of Mooney’s original USA Today article and was the issue raised by Jerry in his post, trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous. People with religious concerns about science are not worried that if they accept evolution they will no longer be able to feel things deeply.

Well some of them are, or pretend to be. Josh is one of them, in fact – he did a post awhile back saying that if religion were kept out of science then baseball and ice skating would disappear – or something like that. It was that random. Cathy Grossman pretended to think that Jerry Coyne, being an atheist, is incapable of appreciating a sunset – Jerry Coyne, who gave us a picture of a rabbit at dawn on the U of Chicago campus recently. But the larger point is right: no, religion is not just a matter of landscape-plus-emotion (Wordsworth notwithstanding).

Josh acts as though it is a problem of poor marketing that people think evolution and religion conflict. That, I believe, is a misapprehension of the issue. They see a conflict because they are thinking clearly. You can tell them they are not, and you can point out the folks who manage to reconcile the two, but in the end all of the slick marketing in the world cannot change the basic facts.

Exactly. What I would have said if only I had thought of it.

I am far more interested in changing the religious values themselves.
The big problem that needs fixing is not so much that people reject evolution. It is that people’s religious values are teaching them to be mistrustful of atheists…if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist. It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.


In defense of the New Atheist strategy of creating tension and making atheism visible we have a body of research on advertising that shows that repetition and ubiquity are essential for mainstreaming an idea. We have the historical examples of social movements that changed the zeitgeist by ignoring the people urging caution, and by working around the people whose value systems put them in opposition to their goals…

Against this Josh has a few papers breathlessly reporting that people don’t like it when you offend them. It is on this basis that he gives smug lectures about communications strategies.

I am underwhelmed.

The unerring source

Oct 13th, 2010 11:36 am | By

A bit of good news for once – the US Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by the Association of Christian Schools International against the University of California for refusing to grant college-prep credit for courses with religious viewpoints. UC says the schools use textbooks that replace science with the Bible.

So…there’s a problem with that? But science and religion are supposed to be in harmony, aren’t they? So why is it a problem if schools use textbooks that replace science with the Bible?

Oh don’t be silly, the religion&science people snap; you know perfectly well we don’t mean, when we say religion&science go together like ham&eggs, that the Bible should be used as a biology textbook. We mean the right kind of religion, not the wrong kind.

Yes, we snap back, but our claim is that that distinction is neither so clear nor so easy to maintain as you like to claim. Our claim is that the distinction that matters in this context is the one between science on the one hand and religion on the other, not the one between biblical religion on the one hand and liberal religion ‘n’ science on the other.

The association’s 800 high schools in California teach “standard course content” and “add a religious viewpoint in each subject … as an integral part of their reason for existence,” the group’s lawyers said in their Supreme Court appeal.

But a federal judge said experts testifying for the university refuted those claims in reviewing textbooks.

Biology texts, one professor concluded, teach students to reject any scientific evidence that contradicted the Bible. A history text declared the Bible to be the “unerring source for analysis” of past events, in the view of another expert…

See? That’s where the conflict is, and there is no reliable, consistent way to stipulate a brand of religion that never does that – that never rejects scientific evidence that contradicts a particular religious belief – in such a way that religion and science can be made to seem inherently and entirely not-in-conflict.


Oct 12th, 2010 3:19 pm | By

A few more telling items from Science and Religion (Ferngren ed). Chapter 10, “Causation,” p 136 [“occasionalism” is the idea that god intervenes to keep the universe going from minute to minute as opposed to starting it and then leaving it alone]:

The fullest system of occasionalism was developed by Nicholas de Malebranche (1638-1715), who was driven by his own religious commitments to push Cartesianism in a theocentric direction.

Er…right. This is what we mean. This is the kind of thing. This is why there is an epistemic conflict. Those commitments that drive people to push things in a particular direction? That’s a problem.

A similar item on the next page. Al the great and Aquinas

undertook to interpret the whole of Aristotelian philosophy, correcting it where necessary, supplementing it from other sources where possible, and, in the process, attempting to define the proper relationship between the new learning and Christian theology.

Um…there it is again. That “proper relationship” thing – that’s one of those items that can drive people to push things here rather than there, for reasons that are extraneous to trying to figure out the truth.

In chapter 5, “Medieval Science and Religion,” there’s a real admission [p 57]:

The warfare thesis has retained a following throughout the twentieth century, at both a scholarly and a popular level, but it has also elicited strong opposition from scholars (some with a religious agenda)…

Aha! Just as I thought – helpful of David C Lindberg to spell it out.


Oct 12th, 2010 10:29 am | By

I’m offended. I’m offended by the sheer stupidity, the voluntary stupidity – the non-thought, the hostility to thought, the chosen crudity. It’s from a reporter called Cathy Lynn Grossman, who is responsible for the “Faith and Reason” blog at USA Today. She is also a Templeton Fellow 2010, which makes her a classmate of Chris Mooney’s. was also a Templeton fellow in 2005 – the inaugural class.

She was of course reacting to Jerry Coyne’s piece declaring that science and religion are not friends. “Reacting” is all she did.

Move over Richard Dawkins. Yet another scientist is weighing in on science vs. religion and wheeling out his most outrageous language for his point

She tells Dawkins to move over then says “yet another” scientist is joining in – is more than one really “yet another”? Is two such a vast number that a reporter gets to roll her eyes at the exhausting flood? She probably had more than one in mind, but then it was stupid to tell Dawkins to move over as if he had been in solitary possession, wasn’t it. It’s just lazy cliché-mongering without actually thinking about the meaning.

And then what is so outrageous about a scientist “weighing in” on science v religion? It’s a subject that scientists have a stake in, surely, so why shouldn’t they write about it? No reason – Grossman just wants to convey an impression of impertinent intrusion without the bother of actually arguing for it. And then how does one “wheel out” langugage? And what is so “outrageous” about Coyne’s language, anyway?

Well it’s that unlike Chris Mooney (whom Grossman praises without mentioning the shared Templetonian history), Coyne “sees no reconciliation.” I suppose that could be because he doesn’t particularly want to share his lab with the theology department.

Coyne, whose latest book is Why Evolution is True, takes the Monday USA TODAY op-ed Forum spot to blast faith as an enemy of truth, an oppressive social force and the impetus of all evil rather than evil’s nemesis.

Notice all the veiled accusations of aggression – Coyne “takes” the op-ed spot, as if he had seized it by force. (How? Did he recruit his grad students to storm the building and tie up the editors?) And then there’s that favorite verb of Mooney’s to describe what enemies are doing – Coyne “blasts” faith. That’s faith-speak for “criticize.” And as for “evil’s nemesis” – tell that to generations of children raped by priests, tell it to the women whipped for showing a bit of hair or stoned to death for talking to a man, tell it to the women and children tortured to death as “witches.”

Coyne argues we must clear vision from the fog of belief and religious structures that nourish communities of faith. No common awe for the dazzling sunrise here.

Oh really – no awe for the glaciers on Denali? No awe for the Galapagos, for the Mojave, for the sunrise over Lake Michigan?

She’s a good example of the harm faith can do to the mind.


Oct 11th, 2010 5:42 pm | By

I’m listening to the PZ-Mooney Point of Inquiry. I expect to be highly irritated, since everyone says Jennifer Michael Hecht forgot to be the interviewer and instead acted as a third party to the debate, and took Mooney’s side.

Update: Uh, yeah. Ten minutes in and she just starts arguing away as if she’s a participant and not the interviwer. A few minutes later she just plain interrupts PZ to say what she wants to say – the interviewer! She reminds me of Alex Tsakiris.

Strenuous efforts

Oct 11th, 2010 12:25 pm | By

From Science and Religion: a historical introduction Gary B Fergren ed.

Chapter 1, “The Conflict of Science and Religion” by Colin Russell, which is an overview of the “conflict thesis” and how it has been displaced by the “complexity thesis.” Page 8:

…the conflict thesis ignores the many documented examples of science and religion operating in close alliance…[He lists examples from 17th century.] Since then, a continuous history of noted individuals making strenuous efforts to integrate their science and religion has testified to the poverty of a conflict model.

Wait. The mask slipped a bit there.

If it took strenuous efforts to integrate their science and religion, then it wasn’t easy, right? It wasn’t just a natural combination. So maybe it’s not quite right to say that such strenuous efforts are evidence of the poverty of a conflict model.

“Strenuous efforts” sounds like the kind of thing Karl Giberson engages in now, and his efforts are not all that convincing. That’s not to say that complexity is not a much better way to describe the relations between science and religion in the past than conflict pure and simple, but it is to say that the more strenuous the efforts are, the more they indicate a difficulty. If the “integration” of science and religion is difficult and strenuous, then maybe there are reasons for that, real reasons, to do with methodology as well as ontology.

Jerry Coyne is totally Helping

Oct 11th, 2010 11:13 am | By

He’s Helping by having a frankly and unapologetically atheist article in the mainstreamyest of mainstream newspapers in the US, USA Today. He’s Helping by writing a lively, interesting, readable piece. He’s Helping by writing a piece that is one of the five most popular on the site today – an atheist piece! He’s Helping by getting a lot of favorable comments there.

One of the more irritating aspects of the “but how is this Helping?” brigade is their assumption that As things are now, So shall they ever be. Here’s a newsflash about the world and people and stuff: change happens. Change happens a lot, and it often happens quite fast. Sure, it’s naïve to think that Progress is Inevitable, but it’s equally naïve to think Progress is Impossible. Stuff happens. Things move back and forth. People change their minds, for good or ill.

It’s happening now. You’d better start swimmin’ if you can’t lend a hand.

Yet more science-n-religion

Oct 9th, 2010 5:26 pm | By

The more you look at this science-and-religion thing, the more Templeton you find. In fact, I wonder if there is any science-and-religion that has nothing to do with Templeton. So consider that a challenge: if you know of any, or find any, let me know.

Mark Jones did a really good post on the subject a few days ago, and he turned up lots of intersections of s-and-r and Templeton. He skipped one though.

 Dixon’s also contributed to Science and Religion, New Historical Perspectives, with fellow ISSR members Geoffrey Cantor and Stephen Pumfrey, which has this blurb:

The idea of an inevitable conflict between science and religion was decisively challenged by John Hedley Brooke in his classic Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991).

He forgot to check John Hedley Brooke, so I did it. Well what do you know. He’s the current president of the ISSR, and he

held the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science & Religion and Directorship of the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford from 1999 to 2006…With Margaret Osler and Jitse Van der Meer, he edited Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions.

The (Templetonian) Ian Ramsey Centre tells us

He has lectured at many universities in America, Europe, Australia and the Far East. He has also lectured at Templeton workshops in Adelaide, Berkeley, Manchester, and Toronto. In 1998 he joined the Templeton Oxford Seminars Steering Committee…

The guy is Templetonian up to his eyeballs. There seems to be no one in this “field” who is not.

Thomas Dixon replied again yesterday, which was generous and helpful of him. I think, though, that his work is more theologically-inflected than he wants to say here. Or maybe theologically-inflected isn’t the right way to put it, but it does seem to be part of this overall agenda to make a case that religion and science are “in harmony” and not in conflict – not in conflict in any way. I think they are in epistemic conflict, and Dr Dixon so far has not addressed that aspect of the issue.

It appears to be the case that all the people who are arguing this are from faculties of theology and/or Templeton-funded centres and institutes and the like, and are arguing for a particular conclusion, which is that religion and science are in harmony. I think that conclusion would be convenient for theology and religion, and not at all convenient for science. I think this agenda, if it is an agenda, should be open and public.

Eric MacDonald quoted us a bit from Dr Dixon’s Science and Religion: a Very Short Introduction.

I find it hard not to see it as a piece of religious apologetic, to be quite frank, although its author is an agnostic. I didn’t find the kind of detachment from the religious point of view that I would have expected, and I found it almost pervasive. So, when the Galileo issue was being discussed, there is a lot about realism and anti-realism, and about religion, like science, also wanting to provide knowledge about realities that lie behind the appearances of things. Take this quote, for instance:

In the religious case, what intervenes between the light hitting your retina and your thoughts about the glory of God is the lengthy history of a particular sacred text, and its reading and interpretation within a succession of human communities. …. Religious teachers, as much as scientific ones, try to show their pupils that there is an unseen world behind the observed one. (Locations 325-31)

There is a similar claim in Dr Dixon’s BBC article:

Science and religion have had the kind of close and troubled relationship you would expect between siblings or even spouses. They share not only wonder at the majesty of the world we can see, but also a desire to find out what’s behind it that we can’t.

Like Eric, I think that sounds like religious apologetics. It doesn’t sound like straightforward secular history. It’s flattering to religion. Religion does not have the same kind of desire to find out what’s behind the world we can see that science has. Religion doesn’t find things out; it transmits doctrine, and the doctrine itself is not a product of finding out, but of something more like legislation mixed with mythology.

I think Templeton and the ISSR and the other outfits are working very hard to inject this idea into the broader culture in the US and the UK (and no doubt elsewhere too, but we have names and places for some of the anglophone ones), and I think we should try to shine a strong light on this project.

Not Helping what?

Oct 9th, 2010 12:14 pm | By

I’m left with one question in particular about Chris Mooney’s position at the Secular Humanism bash yesterday. He kept saying various versions of “you’re not helping!” That’s not helping; I still wonder how that’s helping; I can’t see how that’s helping.

Here’s my question.

Helping what? What are we supposed to be helping with? What is this giant X that Mooney is so familiar with but I am not, that we are all supposed to join hands and help with?

Sometimes it seems to be science education in the US; sometimes it seems to be some kind of peace treaty with science; sometimes it seems to have to do with climate change…but most of the time it’s not even as definite as that, it’s just Unity For Its Own Sake.

But why?

Why are we supposed to be totally united at all times? Why are we under such relentless pressure not to have opinions that the majority does not share? Why are we assumed to have some vast overarching Project that requires unity and will Not Be Helped if we refuse to be drafted into that unity?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know why Mooney’s reaction, when PZ calls Francis Collins a clown, is to cry out in agitation that that is Not Helping. Not Helping what? What is it that PZ is supposed to want to do that will be Not Helped if (say) Francis Collins becomes annoyed with PZ? Or is the idea that PZ’s calling Collins a clown will Not Help some larger project that we all want to Help because Collins will abandon or sabotage that project out of annoyance at PZ? If so, 1) what is that project? and 2) if it’s that large, why would Collins abandon or sabotage it out of annoyance at PZ?

Really – Mooney seems to have this very easily-triggered terror that a critical comment from one person about one other person will cause some terrible, general, societal harm. But is the structure really that fragile? Are cascades that easy to set off? PZ calls Collins a clown and, whammo, children flee biology class, and Congress passes laws making fuel economy a felony, and the glaciers melt and everybody dies.

I just don’t get what the mechanism is supposed to be, and I don’t get what One Thing we are all supposed to be doing or working for or supporting that will be in jeopardy if too many gnu atheists say boisterous things about people who see the trinity in a waterfall.

I’m not doing One Thing. (Yes I know it looks that way a lot of the time, but even there, it’s really a lot of things, and besides, it only looks that way.) I have a lot of projects. We all do. We can get together with people for one project and then separate for some other project. We don’t have to all agree about everything in order to work together for some particular project. We don’t want to know. We don’t issue criteria for working on Project Q; we just work on it.

So what exactly is it that we’re Not Helping?

Oh if only we could learn to doubt

Oct 8th, 2010 10:55 am | By

More dopy mindless generalization about “New Atheism” at Comment is Free Belief, this batch courtesy of Ed Halliwell.

Almost two weeks on from the After New Atheism event at the RSA and the trail seems to have gone cold. It sounded so promising – the setup from a humanist writer professing his boredom with the stagnancy of debate…And yet it didn’t quite happen. As Mark Vernon reported, the evening itself was a bit of a damp squib, and normal service has been resumed on comment threads, with Caspar Melville – the aforementioned humanist – understandably crying foul at the pummelling he received for daring to call for more listening and less braying.

Yes, but as we know, Caspar Melville did more than just cry foul; he also invited me to write a dissenting article in reply to his profession of boredom, and then didn’t wait for the next issue of the New Humanist but posted the article online. He’s far from firmly in the “Let’s everybody hate New Atheists” camp, in fact he’s not really in that camp at all.

Now for the mindless generalizations.

[A] way through has been hinted at, including at the event itself. Marilynne Robinson pointed to it when she said that “New Atheism doesn’t acknowledge the centrality of consciousness“…

Oh really? All of “New Atheism” doesn’t do that? Including Dan Dennett? Including Sam Harris? And of course all other vocal atheists? And Marilynne Robinson knows that how, exactly?

Whether it’s fixation on belief in God or fixation on the absence of evidence for God, whenever we project our crystallised concepts onto the world and call them real, we are falling into a kind of theism – creating gods out of our own ideas and making ourselves “right”. We all do it, of course, and it usually ends in the kind of unproductive fight that has characterised the New Atheist debate in recent years.

Whereas…what – the old theist non-debate is quite productive and sensible and good? It’s unproductive for atheists to tell theists “you don’t know what you claim to know” but it’s productive for theists to go on forever claiming to know what they don’t know? In short, why single out “the New Atheist debate” as an example of projecting crystallized concepts onto the world?

So wouldn’t it be more interesting to reframe all this as a psychological rather than scientific or religious inquiry and practise becoming familiar with how our minds work before we try to work out what, if anything, created them? There is a cost – we’d have to let go of being “right”, and instead embrace a deep kind of doubt, one that accepts that the conceptual and perceptual tools we use to explore the world are limited and may be faulty.

But what the fuck makes this beezer think explicit atheists don’t do that? What else is all this about? Atheists are the ones who know we don’t have a special magic faculty that feeds us reliable knowledge about supernatural beings, so what’s he telling us to embrace doubt for?

And by encouraging humility through recognition of our fallibility, we could perhaps move beyond the theism of New Atheism in a way that allows us to be a bit kinder to those with whom we disagree. How about it?

How about what? How about agreeing with the unexamined assumption that “New Atheism” is especially unkind to those it disagrees with? How about blaming explicit atheists for everything while letting theists off any possible hook? No thanks.

More on the Science-n-religion question

Oct 7th, 2010 11:29 am | By

Thomas Dixon commented on one of the recent posts on this issue, and I thought it only fair to make his comment more visible, since that post is now oldish, and I also hope he will comment further.

Dixon’s comment:

I’ve been dismayed by some of the misinformation going around in the wake of the recent BBC Four programme I presented and a related online article I wrote for the BBC News magazine. Just for the record, I am a historian, not a theologian (although my first degree was indeed in Theology and Religious Studies), and membership of ISSR is open to anyone who has made a scholarly study of relations between science and religion, as I have. As I explain in the Preface to my ‘Very Short Introduction’, my aim is to use the history and philosophy of science to shed light on this topic, and not to try to persuade anyone to become either religious or atheistic. My own approach is entirely agnostic.

I hope I didn’t give any misinformation; I don’t think I did. I quoted the OUP page that said Dixon is a Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London, which I assumed would imply that he’s a historian, not a theologian. I further quoted that page that said he is a member of ISSR, and I then went on to give further information about what ISSR is. I think ISSR is a bit of a stealth organization in the usual Templeton fashion, but that doesn’t mean that its members are necessarily tainted or to blame or anything like that – that’s part of the point of the stealth: people don’t always know what agendas may be in play. People may also be aware of the agenda and simply think it’s harmless, and/or an ordinary academic agenda like any other.

In case Thomas Dixon would like to comment again, here’s the question I would like to ask. I never thought the goal was to persuade anyone to become either religious or atheistic; I think Templeton’s goal is to persuade more or less everyone that there is no conflict between religion and science. Is your approach to that entirely agnostic?

Bonjour, canard

Oct 6th, 2010 11:04 am | By

It’s kind of the friendly people at the “Battle of Ideas” (some of whom are also the people at the Institute of Ideas, some of whom are also the people at Spiked, some of whom are also the people who used to be Living Marxism and the Revolutionary Communist Party) to offer up a neat example of the backlash against gnu atheism just when the New Humanist posts online the article I wrote for the next issue, on that very subject. Caspar Melville invited me to write it in reply to his article on the new atheism at Comment is Free. Honorable!

As for David Bowden of the Battle of Ideas…well, he’s all too typical of that backlash.

Claims of heresy, iconoclasm and blasphemy in days gone by have now given way to the language of offence, with both sides equally guilty. Everything from cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed to ice cream adverts depicting pregnant nuns get censored, often pre-emptively, for fear of offending religious groups; yet militant secularists call for the Pope to be refused entry to the country on the grounds he offends victims of child abuse, sexism and homophobia.

Bullshit. Secularists and others call for the pope not to be invited on a state visit on the grounds that he is a criminal for being one of the Vatican officials who protected child-raping priests from the police. Secularists and others strongly criticize the pope for his illiberal anti-egalitarian views and pronouncements on women and gays as well as for his lethal pronouncements on condom use and his church’s ruthlessly lethal policy on abortion (better a woman should die than that a fetus should be aborted). That goes way beyond being “offended,” and Bowden probably knows it. This “both sides equally guilty” crap is just formulaic and lazy.

In their perceived role as guardians of European secular liberalism against the growth of Muslim communities across Europe, it seems that many New Atheists are now compromising the very principles of religious tolerance fundamental [to] this tradition. Secularism should be about allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference.

Bullshit, again. Secularism should not be about “allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values” without any qualifications at all. If the “values” in question include child marriage, or no education for girls, or no medical treatment for illness or injury, or mass suicide, for example, communities should not be allowed to live by them, and adult individuals should not be allowed to impose them on their children.

However what we are now seeing is the bizarre rise of illiberal liberals, where so-called “liberals” assert their right to micro-manage every aspect of individuals’ lives, from the clothes and symbols people wear, to the talks they choose to attend.

No we’re not. We are now seeing lots of people, of different views and allegiances, confronting some of the difficulties of simply “allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference.” We see few if any liberals asserting their right to micro-manage every aspect of individuals’ lives. That’s a canard, and as such, it’s satisfyingly typical of the backlash.

Appropriate decorum

Oct 5th, 2010 12:11 pm | By

A guy called Erich Vieth did a useful interview with Paul Kurtz the other day. There are some odd things in it, which could shed some oblique light on the PK-CFI quarrel.

PK says he left voluntarily but under great duress, which is useful to know. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. Then they talk about why no explanation of his resignation appeared in Free Inquiry, and he said it was because it was censored. Vieth said isn’t that at odds with free inquiry?

PK: It is similar to thought police. Alas! They refused to publish three of my editorials, and they refused to publish my statement regarding my resignation. What a contradiction. Even though I am the founder of the organizations, their position essentially was that I had no right to publicly express my concerns about the direction of the organization or the new management practices adopted under the current leadership — both of which I have grave reservations about. I consider this as similar to a Board of Bishops seeking to control its Founder.

Look closely at that last sentence. Look at the capital F on Founder. He’s saying it’s like bishops trying to control Jesus, and he’s Jesus.

PK: I have been censored and members of the staff have been instructed not to reveal any information about CFI to me. Barry Karr said that since I resigned, I have no right to be made aware of internal matters within the organization. I asked, “What about my moral authority? I said, “This is similar to what happened to Galileo when placed under house arrest.”

Except for the part about being placed under house arrest, and the part about Galileo.

PK: I never intended for the organization to mock religion…

EV: Are you suggesting that it is improper for anyone to ridicule religion?

PK: No, others in society can and should do so, but not Free Inquiry and CFI. As I just pointed out, I have always considered these organizations to be important philosophic and scientific forums requiring appropriate decorum.

But Free Inquiry published the Motoons – it was the only magazine in the US that did. Jesus Galileo seems to be moving the goalposts here.

Don’t I feel special

Oct 4th, 2010 5:37 pm | By

I skimmed The Observer’s profile of Karen Armstrong yesterday, but I must have done a sloppy job of it, because I failed to notice something that if I’d really been properly skimming, would have jumped out at me. I never would have known about it if Nicholas Lawrence hadn’t told me.

But like Kissinger, Armstrong has enemies. Many devout Catholics quietly accuse her of treachery, while professional theologians despise her for emphasising the opposition between rationality and faith. Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom have accused her of being a religious apologist who covers up inconvenient texts to bolster the idea there is no conflict between modern morality and religion in matters, for instance, of gender and sexuality.

Well now I call that handsome! I should send Vanessa Thorpe a box of chocolates. Really – many devout Catholics, and professional theologians, and JS and me. Pretty select company, do admit. The sum total of Karen Armstrong’s enemies (by which is meant, people who think Karen Armstrong is wrong about some or many things), and I get to be in that august company. I even get to be named. I think that’s pretty exciting.

Mind you, she could have plugged the book while she was at it, but one can’t have everything.

More on CFI, with some actual information for a change

Oct 4th, 2010 10:32 am | By

I’ve said more than once that I don’t have a firm opinion about who is more right (or wrong) in the dispute between the Center for Inquiry and its founder and former director Paul Kurtz. I still don’t, but one thing I do think is that when the dispute gets into a major media outlet, the reporting is incomplete.

I have an opportunity to rectify that a little, because I saw something Barry Karr said on Facebook this morning that clarified or expanded a couple of points. I got his permission to quote him, and asked two questions of my own. Karr is the Chief Financial Officer of CFI and Executive Director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Here is the Facebook comment:

PK can be in the building M-F 9-5 anytime he wants and for any events. He is quite aware of this. In fact he was in here Friday afternoon, in his office, talking on the phone, chatting with employees, etc. He was in here Wednesday and Thursday as well. And this was AFTER his allegedly being barred from the buidling. He wasn’t, not true, and he knows it. I find it amazing actually that you think he should have unfettered access during weekend and non business hours. Regardless of what you think of his new organization, he is actively contacting CFI donors asking these people to give to his new organization. And he should have free reign of the building? Huh? that would be irresponsible of us to say the very least.

And here are my questions and Barry’s replies:

OB: Is CFI worried that PK’s solicitation of funding could be in competition with CFI’s?

BK: I think there is some concern. On one hand, if you are doing your job well, you count on the donors to want to support your efforts and activities. We have a great many projects and programs originating with the Center and we believe we are offering our donors many good reasons to continue to support these efforts. We feel our donors are aware of the good things we do and will want to continue to support us. On the other hand, given these difficult economic times, and the constant pressures from multiple sides, there is the possibility of donor fatigue from requests from an increasing number of worthy groups and foundations.

OB: Do you think the Times did an adequate job of seeking out all the relevant facts and of presenting them?

BK: I was a bit disappointed. I think the reporter should have taken the opportunity to talk to Ron about Kurtz’s comments regarding the Center allegedly changing the direction of its mission. It hasn’t. It also strikes me as a bit odd that the reporter could travel up here to visit Paul at his home, but was unable to find the time to visit the Center itself.


There. All fair points, I think, and points that the Times really should have been able to find for itself.

Update October 5: Ron Lindsay posted this comment at WEIT:

Let me comment briefly on the key issue. I must say I find it perplexing that some appear troubled that CFI management would not issue a key to Paul Kurtz after we decided to change the exterior locks. (The locks were not changed primarily because of Kurtz, but that’s another issue.)

Paul Kurtz resigned from all his positions with the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates in May, 2010. Since then he has launched a competing organization, solicited CFI donors, repeatedly sought access to confidential information by questioning our staff, and worked with others to denigrate CFI. Were I to allow unrestricted after-hours access to our facilities to such an individual, then the board of directors should terminate me for incompetence.

And it is worth emphasizing that unrestricted after-hours access is the only privilege that Kurtz does not now have. He can visit CFI’s facilities any time there is a staff person there with whom he wishes to talk. Not only that, CFI allows him to use his former office and his reserved parking spot—the only person to have such a parking spot.

Rather than wondering why CFI has not issued Kurtz a key, I think a more pertinent question is why Kurtz is so bothered that he can no longer be in the building when no staff member is present.

The New York Times could have done a better job of providing that view of the matter, I think.

Update 2: October 5: This is a comment on PK’s Facebook page, last Saturday, by Ed Beck.

Dr. Kurtz is allowed into the building during normal hours, just like anyone else. I, an intern there, let him in twice on Thursday, personally. If it’s what you’re referring to, he staged his photo-op during a return trip later in the day, before anyone knew he was at the door (he didn’t ring the buzzer that time). I opened it as soon as I saw him — although I quickly realized he was posing, not trying to enter.

The first comment on that thread (which is on the Times article, linked by Paul) is also quite…interesting.

Is-ought and all that

Oct 3rd, 2010 5:48 pm | By

Anthony Appiah says something in his review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape that I don’t get – it looks wrong to me, but Appiah’s a philosopher and I’m not, so help me out here. Maybe he spoke in haste, or maybe a sub changed his wording, or maybe I’m just wrong.

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science…

I thought the point was that facts can’t, as a matter of logic, get you to values. That doesn’t make values not susceptible of rational investigation, surely. Does it? It makes them not straightforwardly susceptible of empirical falsification, perhaps, but there are other ways of rationally investigating things – aren’t there?

Answers on a postcard.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

Oct 3rd, 2010 11:22 am | By

To re-cap: we have The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, edited by Peter Harrison, director of  The Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford, a Templeton-funded outfit whose previous director won the Templeton Prize. Harrison says in his introduction that this Companion gives short shrift to the view that science and religion are in fact incompatible.

We also have a BBC article by Thomas Dixon saying, in a roundabout sort of way, that science and religion are compatible. Dixon wrote the Oxford University Press Science and Religion: a very short introduction. Under “About the author” on that page we learn that

Thomas Dixon is Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London. A member of the International Society for Science and Religion and an expert on modern intellectual history…

So, all agog, we look into what the International Society for Science and Religion might be – and we find out.

 the Society has now grown to over 140 members, including many of the leading scholars in the science and religion field. Indeed the last two presidents, George Ellis, a theoretical cosmologist and Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, and John Polkinghorne, are both recipients of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities – the world’s best-known religion prize, awarded each year to a living person to encourage and honour those who advance spiritual matters.

We find that it’s really about Religion and science, not Science and Religion; that it’s by and for and about theism and theists trying to connect their theism to science; that it’s nothing to do with scientists as scientists trying to connect to religion. We find that it’s what looks very much like a stealth Templeton outfit giving an appearance of an extra splash of prestige to authors who write books about Religion and science.

If we dig around a little more we find one of Templeton’s grants to the International Society for Science and Religion:

Through this project, the International Society for Science and Religion will select an essential reference library for the field of science and religion. Upon selecting some 250 books, a companion volume will be prepared with short summaries and critical evaluations of each book. The project will distribute approximately 150 sets of these books through a competitive program to establish new science and religion libraries throughout the world, particularly in India, China, and Eastern Europe.

Why – that sounds like missionary work, or like cold war propaganda, or both. It certainly sounds like yet another brick in the edifice of this new discipline “Science and Religion” which, thanks largely to Templeton, is eeling its way into major universities in the UK and the US.