Siding with the already strong

Sep 18th, 2010 12:26 pm | By

There’s another thing about Julian Baggini’s rebuke of atheists for ganging up on the pope. It is the fact that it overlooks the gang on the other side. There was the gang that toddled obligingly along to Westminster Hall yesterday to listen deferentially to the pope telling them what’s what.

Pope Benedict tonight used the keynote address of his visit to Britain to protest at “the increasing marginalisation of religion” in public life, maintaining that even the celebration of Christmas was at risk.

In a dense, closely argued speech to an audience that included four former prime ministers, the pope said social consensus alone could not be left to decide policies…

Below him, seated in neat rows that stretched to the back of the vast, 900-year-old hall, were hundreds of parliamentarians and religious leaders.

Among them were Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Sir John Major, Lady Thatcher, William Hague and Nick Clegg.

That gang. The state, basically. There is also the vast majority of the mainstream media. Yet Baggini chooses to characterize atheists and protesters as being too many and too much and too rough.

I am glad that people are protesting on the key issues that the pope has got very wrong. If only a few people were doing so I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition. But when everyone starts piling in, it is perfectly reasonable for others to say it is time to back off before it gets too ugly.

Why is it the people saying “no” who are piling on and likely to get ugly? Why is it not the monarchy and the government and the media who are creating and enforcing a coercive consensus? Why is Baggini treating power, hierarchy and privilege as normal and protest against those things as deviant and excessive? Why is he worrying about “polarising disputes” and “contributing to an atmosphere” and “party lines” and “collateral damage” only in relation to the protesting minority while letting the theocracy-embracing majority entirely off the hook? Why is he blaming us while shielding them?

There are too few of you! Also too many!

Sep 17th, 2010 4:54 pm | By

Julian Baggini says why he declined to add his signature to a letter protesting against the pope’s visit and why he thinks the pope-protest is a bad thing.

Consider for a moment why almost every secular, liberal-minded person thought that Pastor Terry Jones was wrong to plan to burn Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9/11…The main problem is that by burning the holy book of all Muslims, the protest would fail to target jihadist murderers and would be seen as vehemently anti-Islam.

But jihadist murderers are not necessarily the only problem with Islam; it is not necessarily the case that being anti-Islam is self-evidently bad. It could be the case that there are many things wrong with Islam, and that it is reasonable to be critical of Islam and even anti-Islam. One can be anti-libertarian, anti-socialist, anti-Tory, anti-union. Why should one not be anti-Islam?

The kinds of protests against the pope we’re seeing in the UK do not, of course, match the idiocy of Jones’s pyrotechnics. But they too are creating divisions at a time when mutual understanding is already at a low…

But if it is forbidden to “create divisions” then we can never change anything. If it is automatically and self-evidently bad to “create divisions” then we just have to accept whatever the status quo is without a murmur. Baggini is “creating divisions” just by writing this piece. So what? Yes of course protests against the pope “create divisions”; my relationship with the Vatican, for instance, is at an all-time low. But I don’t think that is a reason to stop saying how bad the Vatican is.

Take Britain’s five million Roman Catholics. They are a very disparate bunch. Many despair of their church’s stance on women priests, homosexuality, condoms and child abuse. They would also like to take this trip as an opportunity to let the pontiff know that his British flock cannot be loyal on these issues. A few have even joined the Protest the Pope campaign. But how many more could have found common cause with their secular brethren had not the latter opposed the trip outright. “Nope pope” is not a slogan of a campaign that is doing its best to bring dissatisfied Catholics along with it.

But you can always say that, about anything – if you made your message more anodyne and ingratiating, you could find common cause with more people. Finding common cause with more people is not always the goal; sometimes the goal is to say what one thinks needs to be said.

It strengthens the perception that Britain is under the sway of what Cardinal Walter Kasper called an “aggressive neo-atheism”. It means that when the pope made a comparison between “atheist extremism” and Nazism, far from seeing it as the absurdity it is, many found themselves wondering if he had a point. We atheists can protest about the slur as much as we like, but we ought to realise that the more we engage in polarising disputes, the easier it will be to portray us as contributing to an atmosphere which, at its extreme, leads to assassination plots against religious leaders.

He says, doing his bit to portray us as contributing to an atmosphere which, at its extreme, leads to assassination plots against “religious leaders.” And what are “religious leaders,” anyway? The pope is the only official one in the world, and none of them are leaders in the democratic sense; they’re just men who have reached the top of some clerical hierarchy or other. The rest of us are under no obligation whatsoever to obey them or “respect” them or bend the knee to them in any way. They’re not the bosses of us. They’re not anyone’s leader except maybe the clerics of their own institutions. I trust I can say that without being accused of contributing to an atmosphere which leads to assassination plots against them.

I am glad that people are protesting on the key issues that the pope has got very wrong. If only a few people were doing so I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition. But when everyone starts piling in, it is perfectly reasonable for others to say it is time to back off before it gets too ugly. Party lines are the death of rational, free-thought movements: divided we stand, united we fall.

So…the protest against the pope is very naughty because it doesn’t find common cause with more people, but on the other hand, the protest against the pope is very naughty because it is too big and everyone is piling in and it’s a party line and divided we stand, united we fall.

It’s both of those? At the same time? Srsly?

All right; in that case they cancel each other out and I will feel free to ignore them.

Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged

Sep 17th, 2010 1:43 pm | By

Andrew Brown, for some opaque and never-explained reason, devotes himself to explaining what the pope meant in his “atheists=Nazis” speech. He does a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy act, saying “the pope believes” or “according to the pope” throughout, while in fact saying things that he clearly enjoys saying.

For him, a nation that turns away from God entirely has nothing to keep it from treating people as disposable means, rather than ends in themselves. The liberal appeal to reason, to choice, and to human rights doesn’t go far enough. He believes in all three, but he thinks they must be derived from something else. That something else was once generally understood to be Christianity. If that is no longer true, Benedict believes we are all shrunken and impoverished.

Yes, we know. We know he believes that. That is what we object to – along with the stunning amount of deference that is paid to the guy and to his vicious illiberal beliefs. We know he believes that reason and human rights “must be derived from something else” and that that something else is “God” and that “God” is “God” as understood by the Catholic church, which means one that thinks women should die rather than have abortions, that people should die of Aids rather than use condoms, that child rape by priests is church business only, and that women must never ever be priests on pain of excommunication. We think that’s an imbecilic thing to believe, and also harmful and authoritarian and reactionary. We know the pope believes that “we are all shrunken and impoverished” if we believe that; that’s exactly why we hate him and his church.

The astonishing variety and force of invective thrown at the pope and his church in much of the media over the last week must certainly, some of it, come from people who would like to drive religious faith out of public life. At the same time, it’s hard not to suppose that in some of this the Roman Catholic church is standing as a proxy for Islam, which is certainly a great deal more unpopular.

So…on the one hand it’s the product of evil secularists who don’t want bishops making laws, and on the other hand it’s the product of evil Islamophobes who are just pretending to be Catholocismophobes. Seriously?

Where secularists see religion as a divisive force, and their own beliefs as the self-evident and true base on which a healthy society can be built, Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged.

Here Brown takes the mask off and speaks for himself – and he apparently thinks that a country governed by the Catholic church would be more “healthy” than a secular one. He apparently would prefer 1950s Ireland to contemporary Britian. Of course he’s not a woman, or an impoverished child, but still –


Hello darlings: you’re all Nazis

Sep 16th, 2010 12:25 pm | By

So the pope, feeling somewhat backfooted by all this fuss about a few children being groped or cuddled or raped by priests and bishops, goes on the attack in his friendly pastoral visit to the UK.

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).

That vicious authoritarian theocratic homophobic misogynist hierarchical thug presumes to blame atheists for Nazism when his own fucking church was all but an ally of the Nazis and really was an ally of Mussolini and Franco.

Richard Dawkins is not terribly charmed.

This statement by the pope, on his arrival in Edinburgh, is a despicable outrage. Even if Hitler had been an atheist, his political philosophy was not based upon atheism and had no connection with atheism. Hitler was arguably (and by his own account) a Roman Catholic. In any case he enjoyed the open support of many of the most senior catholic clergy in Germany and the less demonstrative support of Pope Pius XII…

I am incandescent with rage at the sycophantic BBC coverage, and the sight of British toadies bowing and scraping to this odious man. I thought he was bad before. This puts the lid on it.

Quite. It’s simply foul – accusing people whose “crime” is refusal to believe in the invented god of the Catholic or any other church of being on a slippery slope to Nazism. Yet there are the great and the good bending the knee to this horror show. It’s revolting.

The community’s understanding of truth

Sep 15th, 2010 6:02 pm | By

There was also the Presbyterian minister who commented (and replied to comments, in an obliging and patient way) on Jerry’s post yesterday. He’s the liberal kind of minister, which is good in its way (less likely to persecute sinners and doubters, that kind of thing), but not convincing. What he said sounded merely evasive and empty to me (and to others). It sounded like what you would say if you were a liberal minister in an age of science; it sounded more like excuses than like theology.

For instance:

There are lots of priests, pastors and theologians in the Catholic Church and in many other denominations who would describe the resurrection as mystery or metaphor. What is essential in these branches of Christianity is the confession of faith in the resurrection, not a scientific explanation of how it happened.

I can’t make any sense of that. It’s a mystery or metaphor, yet what is essential is the confession of faith in it. What is a confession of faith in a metaphor?

I asked about that, and he politely answered (he really was generous about replying – if it’s the metaphor that makes him like that, well, that’s some points for the metaphor):

As I said, religious claims don’t fit into some kind of universal discourse. They have a peculiar character rooted in the story of each religious community and its story. So I’m sure that this does not make a whole lot of sense to you, any more than other people’s religious claims make much sense to me.

Which amounts to atheism, if you think about it. He thinks it doesn’t, because the story of each religious community makes sense to that community, therefore atheism, but I think it does, because if the other claims don’t make much sense, then there’s precious little reason to think any such claims make sense.

A later iteration:

Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and by true I don’t mean scientifically true, but true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth, which is a kind of truth that is thousands of years older than scientific truth.

But what does that mean? How is that not just empty verbiage? What does “true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth” mean? If Wittgenstein were here I would ask him, but he isn’t, and anyway I probably wouldn’t understand if he explained, and he would probably hit me with the poker rather than explain. Meanwhile I can’t make any sense of it – it just looks like an evasion, and (I apoligize, Rev. Simpson) rather smug about it – smug in the sense of being indifferent to its lack of real meaning. There is something rather smug about allowing oneself to be persuaded by verbiage in that way. Communities don’t get to have their own understandings of truth. They get to have their own stories if they want to, but their own truth? No. They can call it that, but it won’t be


Oley oley olsen freeo

Sep 15th, 2010 3:52 pm | By

I’m an expert on the hidden god, so I’m interested in what Rabbi Alan Lurie has to say about it.

This notion, that God’s presence is hidden, is a significant dilemma for many, and for some is clear proof that God does not exist…Many site the Holocaust, for example, as clear proof of God’s impotence or indifference.

No not proof; evidence; reasons. The notion that God’s presence is hidden is a reason to think god either doesn’t exist or is a nasty trickster.

The first step, then, is to let go of a literal vision of God, and to begin to know that the search for God is more akin to the search for love and connection than the search for a graviton or Big Foot.

In that case, why call it “God”? (I know I’ve said that some ten million times, but they don’t listen, so one just keeps having to say it again.) If you’re searching for a feeling, why call it by the same name as the all-powerful person? Well because that way you can make a living as a cleric. Any other reason?

the true purpose of religion is to help us recognize that we are more than our momentary desires

and that’s why god is hidden. Uh huh.

It takes a lot of time and effort to find god.

We don’t expect…to sleep through school and never open the textbooks and yet miraculously absorb the material.

So why don’t parents make their infants struggle to find them? Why isn’t that considered the best way to raise children?

Then he ends by saying the proofs are not much good and besides they’re useless because the point is the feeling. You have to have the feeling, and then you don’t care about the proofs – or the fact that god is under the currant bush behind the barn ten miles down the road in a distant galaxy.

Those bloodthirsty New Atheists

Sep 14th, 2010 2:21 pm | By

I saw this article by Chris Mooney yesterday but I couldn’t summon the will to comment on it. I waited for Jerry to do so instead. If I had commented I would have said something brisk about the silly word “spirituality,” but mostly I would have pointed out how heavily Mooney always leans on war-language when he talks about overt atheists, and how invidious that is. He leans especially heavily here.

We hear a lot these days about the “conflict” between science and religion — the atheists and the fundamentalists, it seems, are constantly blasting one another. But what’s rarely noted is that even as science-religion warriors clash by night, in the morning they’ll see the battlefield has shifted beneath them.

The old science-religion story goes like this: The so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, uncompromisingly blast faith, even as religiously driven “intelligent design” proponents repeatedly undermine science. And while most of us don’t fit into either of these camps, the extremes also target those in the middle. The New Atheists aim considerable fire toward moderate religious believers who are also top scientists, such as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins. Meanwhile, people like Collins get regular flack from the “intelligent design” crowd as well.

In this schematic, the battle lines may appear drawn, the conflict inescapable. But once spirituality enters the picture, there seems to be common ground after all.

It’s invidious, and it’s also quite sinister. It’s a kind of hate-mongering, done in a climate in which atheists are already abominated. I don’t think Mooney is unaware of that climate, so I don’t think he can be acquitted of being at least irresponsible about this. I think he is more or less deliberately stoking hatred of what he persists in calling “the New Atheists,” and I think that is reprehensible.

Are you calling the pope a witch?

Sep 13th, 2010 6:26 pm | By

The Freethinker tells us of an unusually idiotic outburst even for the Institute of Ideas (which is a refuge for the old Living Marxism gang, who apparently converted from “Revolutionary Communism” to libertarianism as a group and overnight) and Claire Fox. It’s about how the (wait for it) new atheists are demonizing that nice man the pope and (yes really) engaging in a witch hunt.

A New Atheist witch-hunt – in stark contrast to their own professed views on tolerance.

What professed views on tolerance? I, for one, have said many times that I don’t believe in blanket “tolerance”; it depends what is being tolerated and what the tolerance consists in. I don’t profess to tolerate everything. I don’t think most gnu atheists do; so what is Claire Fox referring to? I doubt that she knows; I think it’s just a cliché that right-thinking people profess tolerance and surely gnu atheists think of themselves as right-thinking so surely they must profess tolerance…or something.

But more to the point – what does she mean “witch hunt”? People – including some new atheists – are saying that Ratzinger should be held accountable for his actions and the actions of the organization he heads. That’s not the same thing as hunting witches. It’s nasty and dishonest to pretend it is.

The attempt to proffer God-conscious responses

Sep 13th, 2010 12:26 pm | By

No really, it’s all been a big misunderstanding. Sharia is

  • not just one thing
  • a matter of ideals rather than law
  • a matter of interpretation
  • subject to change
  • not all that much about punishment
  • full of rules about evidence that make punishment notional
  • inspiring

See? Totally reassuring, right? And all those women being whipped or stoned in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and the like are just having some kind of mass hallucination, because sharia is nice so that kind of thing couldn’t happen.

In short, shariah includes the attempt to proffer God-conscious responses to an ever-changing reality. And in this capacity, many of its rules are subject to change with changes in the circumstances to which it seeks to respond.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t, and they aren’t. But always look on the bright side of life, eh?


Sep 12th, 2010 4:30 pm | By

Obama says we are one nation under god. But we’re not. That’s factually incorrect.

  1. Not all of us are under god. I’m not. Lots of people I know are not. We don’t think there is any god to be under; we don’t think there is any good reason to think there is any god to be under; we wouldn’t be under it even if we did think it existed.
  2. The government doesn’t get to order us to be under god. It doesn’t get to enlist us into the party of those under god. It is none of the government’s business whether or not we are under god. We get to not be under god if we want to; that is our right.

So Obama shouldn’t be telling us we are one nation under god. It’s not true, and he has no business trying to make it true by asserting it. He should keep his poxy god to himself.

Notice, by the way, that PBS too, like the BBC, has something it calls “Religion and Ethics.” PBS, like the BBC, stupidly thinks religion and ethics go together, thus perpetuating the stupid and coercive fiction that ethics depends on religion and that non-religious people are unethical, if not downright evil.

A pox on all of them.

Beware of people who want to “make room” for things

Sep 11th, 2010 4:54 pm | By

For yet more illiberal bullying from theists and friends-of-theists, you could do worse than to read the comments on this post at the feminist site The F-Word. The post is about C of E priest Miranda Threllfall-Jones saying gosh darn it Jesus was a big ol’ feminist and anyone who says he wasn’t is just a big poopy-head. Our friend Amy Clare, who has written for the F-Word, wrote the first comment to say 1. there is no evidence that Jesus was a feminist and 2. what does it matter anyway? There was some agreement and some disagreement, and then there was a temper tantrum by an outraged entitled Christian.

I am so fed up of people, mostly atheist thinking that it is their right to make horrible comments about Christianity. I am actually surprised these comments ended up on this site. calling the bible a book of fairytales does not show respect to the many Christian feminists (myself included). If the same comments were made about the Koran I doubt they would be included. i have just turned 18 and i have never in my whole life took the piss out of any kind of religion because it is so disrespectful.

The first sentence is especially choice – imagine, we think it is our right to make “horrible comments” about Christianity! But people say silly things all over the internet; nothing to see here. What is worth noticing though is the near-torrent of supportive bullying that followed, and especially the really nasty bullying that came from the people who run the F-Word.

We can’t get into a situation where any feminist who has religious/spiritual beliefs is constantly challenged to prove her religion is true every time she writes/reports on/ wants to publicise feminist activism in religious/spiritual groups.

In other words, we can’t get into a situation where women are actually challenged about their religious beliefs. Er…why not? What is it about feminism that makes that such a shocking prospect? Is feminism a word for “fragile flower” now? Is it a word for “woman who can’t bear to have to justify her beliefs”?

The F Word has always had (or tried to have) a broad interpretation of feminism and that includes religious/spiritual feminists as well as agnostic/atheist feminists. There is plenty of opportunity elsewhere to debate and argue the existence of God/Jesus etc. for the rest of eternity if you want to. I’m just don’t think that this is the right time and place for it.

In other words, stfu.

This was made even clearer in the final comment.

Amy Clare – The issue raised in this post was gender stereotyping in the Church of English; NOT the truth about whether Jesus actually existed. By bringing this up in the first comment, the opportunity for Christian feminists to potentially discuss this issue has been closed down. Atheists are more than welcome to contribute blog posts and features to TFW that analyse and critique religion as it relates to women’s rights, but we would also like to have some space where religious women can discuss feminism as it relates to their religion, without constantly having to justify their beliefs.

Disputing a claim is closing down an opportunity for believers in that claim to speak. If you disagree (according to this logic) you are shutting down anyone who disagrees with you. Disagreement becomes a form of silencing, and the remedy is to silence the person who disagreed. So that’s what “the collective” at the F-Word is going to be doing.

I was merely trying to explain why I think we need to make room for religious/spiritual beliefs within feminism, no matter whether you or I or anyone else views them as being sufficiently rooted in evidence.I will not be publishing any further comments on this thread, unless they relate to the post itself i.e. the issue of gender stereotyping in the Church and whether Jesus can be viewed as a feminist within the teachings of Christianity.

The collective will be amending our charter and/or comments policy in the near future to take the issues raised in this thread (and previously) into account.

If that’s feminism, what am I?

But, fortunately, that’s not feminism. It’s clearly a variant of it, but it’s not the thing itself. Feminism doesn’t think women need to be infantilized; on the contrary, feminism thinks women need to be treated like adults, and that they also need to act like adults. They don’t need to be coddled, and they don’t need to be encouraged to act like frangible fractious babies.

Bend the knee or else

Sep 11th, 2010 1:13 pm | By

Yet more astonishingly illiberal bilge, this time from the “rabbinical adviser” of the Jewish Society at Yale – at Yale, generally considered a liberal university in all senses of the word. Yet here is what he has to say:

The president of the United States, like all citizens of this great country, has the right to follow the religion of his or her heart and conscience. As long as our leader pursues peace and justice through faith in the one G-d of us all, a believing president should not only be tolerated but welcomed.

Oh. So if “our leader” fails to have “faith in the one G-d of us all” then an unbelieving president should not be tolerated, let alone welcomed; is that it? Well obviously that is it; that’s the logic of the sentence. So Shmully Hecht really does think we do and should live in a theocracy.

Faithlessness and nihilism are the greatest threats to humanity, and a leader who believes in nothing, or establishes a religion to serve himself or his state, becomes Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot; who together murdered and starved over one hundred million human beings.

That’s an extraordinarily outrageous thing to say. The guy is simply asserting that any head of state who does not believe in “God” inevitably becomes a Hitler or Pol Pot – inevitably becomes the kind of person who murders and starves people by the millions. And this revolting, sinister crap is published by the Washington Post – not the Washington Times, but the Post.

Freedom of religion…was not established to advance secularism, as is sometimes implied, but rather to allow diverse faith to flourish unhindered.

That’s a slightly more elevated way of saying “freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion,” a favorite of Joe Lieberman’s among others, and it is of course complete crap. Freedom of religion decidedly does include the freedom to have no religion, and secularism is precisely the medium in which diverse religions can flourish.

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower, who was born a Jehovah’s Witness and baptized as a Presbyterian, reaffirmed the importance of faith in this country when he oversaw the addition to our Pledge of Allegiance the crucial words “under G-d.”

Well, no, the words were “under God”; but anyway, so the fuck what? It was 1954, the height of brainless anti-communism and reactive patriotheism, so there was a surge of state-sponsored theism which should have been ruled unconstitutional. We’re not required to collapse in awe at the idea now.

And people wonder why gnu atheists are so gnu. It’s because of guys like this one.

On a sermon at Duke University chapel

Sep 11th, 2010 12:12 pm | By

Guest post by Eric MacDonald

Take the point that he makes just at the end, where he speaks of Jeremiah’s idea of god making constant adaptations. He speaks of the vessel broken in the potter’s hands, and then he says this:

This is the story of Israel: the vessel was broken, the covenant was spoiled, and God made something beautiful by fashioning it into a pot shaped around the Jew named Jesus.

Notice how he simply runs the Jewish scriptures and the Christian Jesus together, without acknowledging the theft, without even acknowledging that Jesus has nothing to do with Jeremiah’s potter, nor with the story of Israel. That was a Christian structure built on Jewish foundations, a clear act of plagiarism.

But then he goes on in the same arrogant vein to say:

This is your story. Your life was spoiled, your pot was cracked, your hopes were broken, your plans were ruined; and God the potter made something that could never have been out of something that should never have been.

No, I can tell Dr. Wells my story. My story is of a life that was spoiled and hopes that were broken and plans ruined, not by acts of sinfulness, but by the capriciousness of life, the contigency of our brief and uncertain stay. And if a god is in charge of this, then he made something that should never have been out of something that could have been.

Just one more quote:

In science Christians can find a pattern, and a logic, with analogies and parallels to the very purpose of God. They can see depth, and complexity, and diversity, and simplicity, that together reflect the activity and character of God.

This is all fantasy, of course. But let me respond to these words with the anguished words of C.S. Lewis. Not many people quote these words, because they believe that Lewis took them all back at the end of the book. But you can’t take words like these back. Of course, he does wave his magic wand around, and supposes that he has solved the problem, but you can’t solve problems like this with magic wands. There is no magic, and Lewis was not a magician, despite The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The book is A Grief Observed. Lewis’ wife had just died in great pain. She had cancer of the bone. He asks himself the question:

Why should the separation [of lover and beloved] … which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs? ¶ ‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God.

It’s Epicurus’ old conundrum, of course. But Lewis doesn’t solve it. He makes it clearer. If pain here is consistent with God’s love, then there can be no guarantee that, if we go to be with God, there will be no more pain there. God’s goodness is consistent with it after all. That’s the way that evidence works. That’s the way that science uses evidence. Dr. Wells doesn’t get to use it in a different way. If the character of God is shown, as Wells says, in the world that science reveals to us, then God is as cruel and capricious as the world is. It’s just that simple, and if he can’t see that, then he doesn’t understand it either.

In fact, the world without science is crueller and much more uncertain. It was not God’s intervention that made things better. Things only started to get better, and then, of course, only relatively better, when science began to unlock the secrets of the natural world. To suppose that there is any useful relationship between religion and science is a simple dream, a theological fantasy.

That’s why Wells’ comment about the arts and philosophy is so silly. Whereas theology certainly has no foundation, philosophy and literature and the arts do. Wells simply misunderstands the scientific critique of religion. Science doesn’t dismiss the arts or philosophy or so many other things that enrich human life. These things can be dealt with critically. We can seek to understand how and why music or literature or poetry moves us and makes us more fully human, and there are critical disciplines which address themselves to these questions. But religion is the one thing that has no critical basis, nothing that we can point to, nothing that we can use to give it determinate shape and meaning. Religious literature or music or architecture can be enjoyed. We can analyse it and assess its value and profundity. But religion itself is mere froth on the surface of the beautiful things that religious people have created. They are human things, like novels and poems, plays and movies, symphonies and concertos, and they play a part in the cultural life of human beings.

But the religious part of religion is empty. There is no god, and no gods. These were just imaginary beings created to account for the wonder of being alive in the flesh and conscious. So, Wells is right. We do want to expose religion’s pretences and its follies. It has no place at the university, except in so far as it can be studied scientifically, as a comparative anthropological or historical study, or in so much as it can be explained by psychology and cognitive science. Anyone who preaches such nonsense at a university should expect to be exposed for the charlatan that he so obviously is.

Sadly, it’s not that simple

Sep 10th, 2010 6:00 pm | By

A guest post by Peter Beattie

Alom Shaha, of Why Science is Important fame, has a new piece in the Guardian, arguing that “angry atheists” are too quick to hurt the feelings of believers by implying they are stupid and should be more aware that they are capable of holding irrational beliefs too. Empathy, and how we say things, may be more important than what we say.

Superficially, it would be very hard to disagree with all this, and in fact none of the usual suspects in the “‘angry atheist’ brigade“–and I won’t even go there, nor into the tired “fanatical atheism can be as ugly as religious fanaticism” bit–to my knowledge ever have disagreed with it. Of course no one advocates calling people stupid, hurting their feelings, or being oblivious to one’s own fallibility. It’s just not as simple as Alom paints it.

First, the implication of stupidity. Two things: calling an idea stupid does not equal calling a person stupid; and even with the assertion that ‘Person A is stupid’, in most cases there is the clear implication that Person A is stupid for doing/saying/believing a specific thing, quite analogously to the Forrest Gump principle of ‘stupid is as stupid does’. All of us violate that principle at least once a day, but we still recognise that this doesn’t define us as a person.

Second, the hurt feelings. Again, two things: some people will be offended, no matter how mildly the opposition to their ideas is worded; and of course nobody offends  gratuitously, but it may serve a purpose if it is complemented by an explanation, i.e. an opportunity for an audience, and an invitation to them, to raise their intellectual game, in Richard Dawkins’s phrase. Say about PZ Myers, for example, what you will, but he always builds that bridge and extends that hand.

Third, the fallibility. A fair look at the most high-profile outspoken atheists will show you that one of the things that defines them (in this role) is their honest questioning: in his documentaries, Richard Dawkins tries to be understanding to a fault; Jerry Coyne’s discussions of other people’s arguments are as fair-minded and scrupulous as they come; Dan Dennett has taken the ‘principle of charity’ to new heights; and PZ, too, is open to have his mind changed—but only, and of course only, with good reason.

What this issue boils down to, I think, is that we’re looking at the problem the wrong side up. Granting people the right to be offended because they had their feelings hurt by an attack on their ideas opens the door to all manner of infringements upon free speech. If we actually want to raise our (and other people’s) intellectual game—and in a progressive society, how can we not want that?—we will have to show, educate people about, and advocate a different approach towards contentious issues. PZ just now put it best when he said that such issues would simply go away “if a few people learned to shrug their shoulders and react rationally instead”.

So let’s try and be teachers about this instead of potential self-censors. And by all means, make the message as nice as you can while keeping it effective. But also keep this in mind: “Good experiences aren’t necessarily pleasant.

Where are we going?

Sep 10th, 2010 11:59 am | By

I lifted this sermon preached at Duke last Sunday from Jerry. I’m always lifting items from Jerry. What can I tell you? He finds interesting stuff. There’s a lot of irritating nonsense in the sermon, so there are leftovers for me to work on.

It’s nice to have an actual sermon, as opposed to something written for a media outlet. It’s nice to get confirmation that clerics really do talk nonsense in their sermons without having to go to church to listen to them do it.

The last six years have witnessed the publication of a series of books, from a variety of authors, attacking religion with a virulence not seen for a long time. This movement has been called “The New Atheism.” It believes religion should no longer be tolerated but should be exposed, challenged and refuted at every opportunity, with a conviction founded on scientific certainty.

That’s not a leftover, but I have a couple of things to say about it. One, it’s offensively obtuse and partial and entitled. This “virulent” “series of books” amounts to about ten on a generous counting; the number of books attacking atheism with “virulence” is much much much greater than ten, yet this Reverend Sam Wells thinks the atheist books are an outrage while the anti-atheist books aren’t even worth noticing. In other words he has a blatant double standard (as do pretty much all the gnu atheist-haters). He simply assumes that a flood of religious and anti-secular books is perfectly routine and acceptable, while a tiny (though popular) blip of atheist books is something he gets to complain about.

Two, he is wrong and stupid and illiberal to claim that tolerance of religion excludes exposing and challenging it. He is wrong and stupid and illiberal to imply that tolerance of religion rules out exposing and challenging it. He is illiberal and rather bad to try to persuade other people of that.

The prophet Jeremiah describes God as a potter, handling and cherishing the clay, and making something beautiful out of clay that has been deformed or damaged. The Christian life begins when we realize that we are that clay.

But we aren’t that clay. We can’t “realize” we are that clay, because we aren’t. We aren’t clay at all, and we have no reason to think we are something that was handled and cherished by someone named “God.” That’s clearly supposed to pass as some kind of quasi-metaphoric claim but also as a quasi-factual one – otherwise the bit about the “Christian life” just makes no sense. We’re always being told that liberal believers don’t believe in the goddy version of “God” – but what else is God as a potter making us? It’s more literal than it sounds to people who have been trained to hear such things with an indulgent ear.

 The relationship between science and theology is like clay: it’s moist and full of potential, and if cherished should become something beautiful. But currently this clay is spoiled in our hands.

How could a (much less “the”) relationship between science and theology become something beautiful? What kind of something? They always say things like that, but they never spell out what they mean. What can theology offer to science?

It’s fascinating to ask, “Where do we come from?” – but isn’t it at least as interesting, and perhaps more urgent, to ask, “Where are we going?” Theologians at this point hold no naïve optimism that as a species or as a universe we’re intrinsically heading for candyland. We’re sinners, as much as we’ve ever been, and we’re no better or worse than our forebears or descendants. But Christian theology is committed to the notion of sudden, final intervention of God in history that brings time to an end and inaugurates an era of glory and fulfilment.

And candyland.

So, that’s what theology can offer to science, and that’s why science manages to curb its enthusiasm.

This fixation on matters ‘spiritual’

Sep 9th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

Paula Kirby says she was, at first, impressed by the pope’s letter to the Irish about the child-rape problem.

How many politicians or corporations have been able to bring themselves to say, ‘You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry’? I was impressed. (On reflection, perhaps more impressed than I should have been, given that statements of contrition trip lightly off the tongues of those who repeat them daily in Mass or in the Confessional, and are told that repentance is all that is required to release them from guilt.)

Exact, as they say in Sweden. The contrition sounded entirely empty and in fact insulting, to me, for that very reason, but then I’ve been soaked in the malfeasance of the Irish Catholic church for a few years now. Anyway Paula got over it as soon as she read further.

Yet this was offset by what followed, a bewildering ramble blaming the problem on the growing secularisation of Irish society and the resulting failure of Catholics to observe practices such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats. It tried to suggest that the sense of betrayal should be directed towards the church authorities in Ireland – creating the entirely misleading impression that those authorities had somehow acted off their own bat and had not simply been following instructions from the Vatican itself.

Didn’t it though. In sort it did what it always does; it failed to admit that the church itself as an institution had behaved criminally and sadistically, full stop. Reading Geoffrey Robertson QC’s The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse made sense of all that for Paula:

The answer, it turns out, is simple. The Vatican is not interested in crime. The Vatican is only interested in sin.

Sin is an offence against God: the victims are God, the church, and the soul of the sinner.

Just so, and this is why Karen Armstrong’s claim that compassion is at the heart of every great religion is such nonsense. No it isn’t. God is at the heart of every “great” religion (making Hinduism and Buddhism something other than “great,” which in this case is probably a compliment). God is at the heart, not compassion, and that means that what humans are supposed to be is above all obedient, not compassionate. It’s not an accident that “islam” means submission; it’s just surprising that it took so long.

This fixation on matters ‘spiritual’, this obsession with religious dogma and ‘sin’ rather than suffering and crime, and with ‘penance’ and ‘redemption’ rather than justice and concern for the victims, is deeply, inherently immoral. For how can there be morality without empathy? How can there be justice without redress for the victim? Under canon law, the law of the Vatican, which the Pope still insists is the only law that may be applied to his child-rapists, the perceived abuse of a wafer counts for more than the actual abuse of real, human, flesh and blood.

And they mean it. This isn’t some aberration, some temporary bit of reaction; this is what the Catholic church is.

Zeal of the X syndrome

Sep 8th, 2010 1:03 pm | By

I googled zeal of the convert syndrome, out of curiosity, even though it’s pretty self-explanatory. The meaning is pretty self-explanatory, but I was curious about what and whom it’s applied to. The answer is: lots of things. Islam, Zionism, Bush/Fox News/Palin derangement, Stockholm syndrome, Yvonne Ridley syndrome (funny that one syndrome refers to others, but apparently it is so).

So anyway, does new atheism fit? Sure, probably. Clearly a lot of things fit, so why wouldn’t gnu atheism? It has aspects of “a movement,” it is in some ways political, so sure, it probably has aspects of zeal of the convert syndrome too.

But I don’t think that’s the source of my “zeal,” at least (assuming for the sake of argument that I have zeal – that zeal is the right word for what I have). I’m not a convert, for one thing…at least not to atheism, though I may be a convert of sorts to a more overt or active atheism. But even that dates back to the mid-90s, and I don’t think a mere “conversion” from quieter atheism to noisier atheism counts as much of a conversion for the purposes of syndrome-ascription.

So I’m not really a convert in the relevant sense, so my zeal, if such it is, isn’t really that of the convert. What is it then? I think it’s the zeal of the person who is chronically surprised at the malice and mendacity of the (for want of a better term) other side. I think what keeps me interested in this, and commenting on it, is the steady stream of dishonest enraged polemic issuing from the people who detest gnu atheism. Without that – I just wouldn’t keep commenting on the subject, because what would there be to say?

So we have a perpetual motion machine here. The other side keeps offering up its fury and scorn and misrepresentation, so people like me keep pointing out the disproportionate fury and the misrepresentation, so the other side does what it does some more, and so on, ad infinitum. Ironic, innit.

The smugness files

Sep 8th, 2010 12:30 pm | By

The Telegraph is rubbing its nasty hands in glee (yes I know newspapers don’t actually have hands – they have gills) about yet another scientist saying ew ick about yet another scientist who missed an opportunity to credit god for making something out of nothing.

[Susan Greenfield]  criticised the “smugness” of scientists who claim to “have all the answers”… in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme discussion about [Stephen] Hawking’s views. Last week he angered many religious believers by saying science “can explain the universe without the need for a creator”.

Says the Telegraph, self-righteously and bullyingly – and in fact smugly. The Telegraph smugly assumes that scientists and others are not supposed to “anger religious believers” by attempting to describe the world as it is. The Telegraph smugly reports the putative “anger” of religious believers as if it were important, and deplorable, and someone’s fault. There’s something more than a little Talibanish about that – ironically enough.

Greenfield said: “Science can often suffer from a certain smugness and complacency…What we need to preserve in science is a curiosity and an open-mindedness rather than a complacency and a sort of arrogance where we attack people who come at the big truths and the big questions albeit using different strategies.”

Meaning what? That scientists shouldn’t point out (which is apparently the sort of thing Greenfield means by “attack”) that certain strategies for getting at “the big truths” (as well as the small ones) are bad strategies because they don’t get at any actual truth? That seems to be what she means, but she’s dressed it up in the usual cozy patronizing PR-speak that disguises the frank anti-inquiry purport of claims like that.

Asked whether she was uncomfortable about scientists making comments about God, she said: “Yes I am. Of course they can make whatever comments they like but when they assume, rather in a Taliban-like way, that they have all the answers then I do feel uncomfortable. I think that doesn’t necessarily do science a service.”

Oh yes? Does she have the same sort of concern about popes and priests and mullahs? They generally assume they have all the answers, in a much more Taliban-like way than scientists do, so is that a problem too? If it is, the Telegraph doesn’t report the fact.

[Greenfield] added that his statement that God was not needed was “surprising”.She said: “All science is provisional and therefore to claim to have the definitive answer to anything is a hardline view. It would be very great shame if young people think that to be a scientist you must be an atheist.”

But it isn’t surprising at all, it’s utterly routine, and she must know that perfectly well. It’s also not the case that he claimed “to have the definitive answer,” and she probably knows that too. The whole thing is just yet more of the predictable party line, and it’s as inaccurate as the party line pretty much always is. It’s also as one-sided as it almost always is – telling off scientists for making claims but never telling off clerics for doing so with much less to back the claims up.

Her remarks are likely to be interpreted as a criticism of Professor Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion who helped to pay for buses emblazoned with adverts declaring “there’s probably no God”.

Says the Telegraph pruriently, shit-stirring for no obvious reason except that it can.

What about evidence?

Sep 6th, 2010 5:23 pm | By

I don’t understand what Tim Crane is trying to say. Maybe it’s just the usual (the ingredients of which are present): religion isn’t science, it’s about meaning; the end. Maybe, but Crane says more than that, and some of what he says doesn’t go well with “religion isn’t science, it’s about meaning.”

Atheists, he says, ask for evidence for religious claims, and reject the claims when the evidence is not forthcoming. Yes that’s right. Then he says in their view those claims are

a bit like scientific hypotheses. In other words, they are claims — like the claim that God created the world — that are supported by evidence, that are proved by arguments and tested against our experience of the world.

Yes, but it’s not just scientific hypotheses that match that description. Crane at one point admits this.

It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science.

But it doesn’t need to be “a kind of proto-science,” whatever that may mean; but it is still a matter of evidence. Factual, historical claims depend on evidence, and if the evidence is not there, then the claims are just bogus. If the evidence is disputed, the claims are disputed. If the evidence has been faked, the claims are blown out of the water and the claimant may be disgraced, or may just be suspended for a year with pay. At any rate the evidence matters, and without it, all you have is stories. This is an important point, and Crane has put it at the center of what he’s saying, but he never actually makes it again. I don’t understand why.

He turns the whole thing into a false choice between science on the one hand and religion on the other, ignoring the great swath of empirical inquiry that’s not science but nevertheless depends on evidence. Why does he? I really don’t know.

It is true, as I have just said, that Christianity does place certain historical events at the heart of their conception of the world, and to that extent, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that these events happened. Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses.

But they don’t have to be; you still reject them, when there is no evidence, for reasons. You reject these claims – don’t you? – because you think they are bad hypotheses in a broader sense, and you think that because there is no evidence to back them up…don’t you? You say it is because you reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that you consider yourself an atheist, and you reject the factual basis of the doctrines because there is no evidence for them – don’t you? So why make such a point of the “scientific” aspect while not mentioning the lack of evidence?

Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

Maybe so, but the claims are false (in the sense that there is no evidence for them) and so, according to Crane, the religions fail. Saying the commitment to meaningfulness is what is central doesn’t change that.

So, I don’t understand what he’s getting at.

52 victim cards per deck

Sep 6th, 2010 12:59 pm | By

The Catholic church is pitching another fit, this time complaining that the BBC is anti-Christian and liberal and secular when it should be pro-Catholic and reactionary and theocratic like – well like the Catholic church.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien said the BBC’s news coverage is contaminated by “a radically secular and socially liberal mindset”…

“Senior news managers have admitted to the Catholic church that a radically secular and socially liberal mindset pervades their newsrooms. This sadly taints BBC news and current affairs coverage of religious issues, particularly matters of Christian beliefs.”

They certainly do think they’re owed a great deal of deference and air time, don’t they, especially for people who are mired in an institutional scandal about pervasive child-rape and obstruction of justice. Perhaps they would like the BBC to spend more time on that subject?