Page Missing

Jun 26th, 2005 11:26 pm | By

Elliott sent me a link to another review of Michael Ruse’s new book. It’s no more convincing than any of the other articles, interviews, or reviews have been. No doubt the book is much much more so – or at least no doubt it makes clear what he means – but I wonder why all the secondary accounts are so unconvincing.

This one just feels as if something vital has been left out.

The crux of Ruse’s argument, however, is that this “religiosity” of zealous Darwinians is not just apparent, but real. Evolutionism (which I define more closely below) is a religion: a secular and godless religion, but a religion nevertheless…Evolutionism includes associated ideas of materialism and naturalism. Like the French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), evolutionists have no need of the hypothesis of God. Evolutionism is also closely associated with the idea of human progress, for all that some evolutionists, notably Stephen Jay Gould, have argued that evolution itself does not imply progress from lower to higher life forms.

And that’s it. That’s all Alan Batten says by way of explaining why ‘evolutionism’ is a religion. Well, I don’t get it – that’s why I wonder if something has been left out. Why on earth does any of that make ‘evolutionism’ a religion? Because it includes associated ideas of materialism and naturalism, has no need of the ‘hypothesis of God,’ and is ‘closely associated with the idea of human progress’ – which isn’t true anyway? Why do those three items make it a religion? And why doesn’t Alan Batten explain why they do? It’s not self-evident, after all! It’s also, frankly, far from self-evident how a religion can be a secular godless religion. That’s kind of a special meaning of the word, surely. Buddhism is godless, yes, but is it secular? Anyway Buddhism is something of a special case. Religion as it is normally used in the Anglophone world (as I’ve stipulated some 900 times now) does mean at least theistic or supernatural or both – if it doesn’t, if we’re talking about something else, then it needs some kind of qualifying adjective to make that clear. Otherwise there’s some kind of cheating or fancy footwork going on.

Such as announcing that ‘evolutionism’ is a religion – without saying what is meant by ‘religion’ – and without properly explaining what qualifies an ism to be a religion. Just – what? – a set of ideas or beliefs or assumptions that are strongly held? Or does it mean rather a set of ideas or beliefs or assumptions that are strongly held in the absence of proper evidence – which is another matter.

Whence do these religions spring? Ruse traces them back to the Enlightenment, when the “Sea of Faith”…began to recede from our Western world. In reaction, many turned to millenarian speculation…Ruse argues that creationism is a form of pre-millenarianism and evolutionism is secularized post-millenarianism.

Because it includes associated ideas of materialism and naturalism, has no need of the ‘hypothesis of God,’ and is ‘closely associated with the idea of human progress’? That makes it secularized post-millenarianism? Why doesn’t that just make it, you know, common or garden science? We’re not told. Maybe the dog ate that page.

Return to Patrick Henry

Jun 25th, 2005 10:35 pm | By

I googled Billy Graham, out of curiosity, to see how keen on hellfire he is. It seems to me I read an article recently that said he was more of a fan than I had (vaguely) thought – but I’m not at all sure. This site certainly doesn’t think so – it thinks Billy is a dang backslidin’ heretic, and it’s pretty pissed about it.

Scripture is not unclear about the fact that Hell is a place of fiery torment (Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 3:12; 5:22; 13:40-42, 49-50; 18:8-9; 25:41; Luke 16: 19-31; John 15:6; Revelation 14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8). Yet, Mr. Graham denies this truth. In an interview with Time Magazine (November 15, 1993), Mr. Graham said this about hell:

“The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God. We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to be hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it’s going to be – not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched.”

First of all, Scripture never depicts or describes hell as “a thirst for God”…Secondly, Graham denies hell fire by saying it is “not fire.” Yet, Scripture is very clear about the fire of hell. In fact, the rich man in “Hades” in Luke 16:24 said, “I am tormented in this flame.”

Good. Lovely. Super. I do like scholarship and accuracy, don’t you? (Although the rich man thing is a bit of a poser, isn’t it. Since those nice people at Patrick Henry College pretty much worship George W, and he’s not famous for being hard on rich men. Oh well, I’d better leave these doctrinal niceties to the scholarly people at PHC and the Washington Times.) It’s good to have it firmly nailed down that the Bible says Hell is a place of fiery torment.

PHC is interesting in a lot of ways. Reading some of the ways, one is tempted to fall to one’s knees and pray that they all become harmless real estate agents rather than going into the government in any capacity whatsoever.

God is a self-existent and transcendent spirit, who is incomprehensibly holy, righteous, good, just, omnipotent, omniscient, wise, omnipresent, loving, gracious and faithful…God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them for His own good pleasure. He has absolute sovereign authority and control over all His creation, and sustains it by His gracious providence.

Okay. Fine. If God is good and just and loving and gracious, and ‘he’ created the earth and everything in it (for his own good pleasure?? what is he, a child?) – then why is there so much pain and fear and loss in it? Okay, Pat Henry – did you see that picture from Zimbabwe the other day? Of the two little orphan boys sitting in the rubble of the market hanging onto each other, the older one cuddling the younger? What’s that for? Is that God’s own good pleasure? If so he’s a miserable shit, isn’t he. Now multiply that picture by, say, 100 billion for recent human miseries, and say 1000 billion for the miseries of other sentient beings. No, don’t give me that ‘incomprehensible’ nonsense – with that you can just argue anything and everything and nothing. What the hell make you think this ‘God’ isn’t incomprehensibly evil, bad, unjust, omnipotent, stupid, omnipresent, hating, sadistic and treacherous? The Bible – well that’s another circular answer, isn’t it – what if the evil hating treacherous sadist wrote it? How do you know that’s not the case? Because the Bible says so. Well it would, wouldn’t it!

Human life begins at conception; it is a gift from the Creator, sustained by His grace and to be taken only upon His authority. Abortion and euthanasia are sins and violations of the public good.

And that’s the end of that subject. Notice anything missing?

The Lord is the author of the union of marriage, made evident when he provided a companion for the first man, Adam…Husbands are the head of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church…

So – all girls who attend PHC have signed on to official, explicit inferiority and subordination.

Any biology, Bible or other courses at PHC dealing with creation will teach creation from the understanding of Scripture that God’s creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days. All faculty for such courses will be chosen on the basis of their personal adherence to this view. PHC expects its faculty in these courses, as in all courses, to expose students to alternate theories and the data, if any, which support those theories. In this context, PHC in particular expects its biology faculty to provide a full exposition of the claims of the theory of Darwinian evolution, intelligent design and other major theories while, in the end, teach creation as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.

Wheee! Talk about the inmates running the asylum…

Private Property. As God’s image-bearers with dominion, and stewardship responsibilities, over the remainder of creation, men and women have the inalienable right to own and manage their own property, subject to government regulation only in the unusual situation where the rights of others are endangered. Government systems such as communism and socialism, which give the government primary control over property, are a violation of God’s creation order.

That’s right. So if some smelly bozo asks you for your shirt, here’s what you do – you don’t hand over your cloak as well, you whip out your cell phone and call the cops. Then you can while away the waiting time by telling smelly bozo what eternal torment is like. Have a nice day.

Conscious Torment

Jun 25th, 2005 2:52 am | By

So religion makes people good, does it. Christianity makes people more kind and compassionate does it. Well, maybe sometimes it does, but all too often it (at least the extreme, narrow version of it that is so popular in the US) makes people – not just not better, but horrifying. Disgusting. So appalling it’s hard to take it in.

Patrick Henry is a Christian university where the students all (shades of Oxbridge and the Thirty Nine Articles) sign a ten-part statement of faith –

agreeing that, among other things, Hell is a place where “all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”

Okay, I know we’re supposed to be all tolerant and respectful, we’re supposed to shut up about people’s pious ‘devout’ beliefs, we’re supposed to refrain from telling them that they’re lost in the fog. But – but there’s a limit. There’s a limit, and with the drooling sadism of the Rapture novels and with ‘statements of faith’ like the above, I reach my limit. That sentence is disgusting! It’s disgusting, disgusting, disgusting, and people who sign up to it and then go cheerily about their business, ironing their hair and not drinking alcohol and interning for Karl Rove – people like that are an abomination. I’m serious. If they sign up to that and seriously literally believe it’s true – what the fuck is the matter with them? Why aren’t they all curled up in little balls sobbing and screaming? Why doesn’t that thought blight their lives? Why doesn’t it give them nightmares? Why doesn’t it torture them so much that they look for a way out and realize it’s all a pack of lies? Why are they happy with the set-up? What is wrong with them? They seriously think that the vast majority of humans alive now and also formerly alive are now or will soon be ‘confined in conscious torment for eternity’? And they don’t mind? They in fact ‘love’ the ‘God’ that arranges this? The God that first creates us and then confines us in conscious torment for eternity?

They’re sick. I’m dead serious. They’re a population of sick bastards. And there they are trundling around thinking they’re good. It’s staggering. It’s also disgusting. It’s always disgusted me in Dante, but he had the excuse that he lived in the 13th century. There’s no excuse for it now. I can accept (up to a point) that the fact that religion is consoling is an excuse for believing it, even though there’s not much other reason. But believing that foul sentence is hardly the same kind of consolation as believing we will all be reunited and there will be no more parting then.

It’s the word ‘conscious’ that pushes me over the edge. There’s something so – oh, determined, refined, thorough about it. An anxious carefulness to nail everything down, to make absolutely sure that not only is there torment and not only is it for eternity, but the outside-of-Christers are awake for it. And along come tripping all these brighteyed fresh-faced home-schooled dimpled little darlings from Idaho and Nebraska, signing right up to that evil piece of shit. And thinking they’re virtuous for doing so – thinking they’re better than the secular crowd.

I don’t understand. I really don’t. It defeats me.

Chemise Ouvert

Jun 23rd, 2005 9:07 pm | By

People seem to be on a mission to entertain us with stories of absurd or preening or egomaniacal men. Yesterday we had Laurie Taylor mocking his younger trendier self, today (because today is when I saw it, not when it came out) we have Kevin Jackson teasing his teenage out of date existentialist self.

If you did happen to be a swot and/or would-be intellectual, Sartre was even harder to avoid—he was one of the few modern gurus who could rival Kafka and Beckett in the bookish adolescent’s pantheon of lugubrious heroes…I look back on all this adolescent Sartreanism with relatively slight embarrassment; everyone, after all, has to start the messy job of growing up with the fodder their culture is offering at the time, and at least I wasn’t gorging my half-formed brain on Tolkien.

Well said. If he had been, his brain would have remained half-formed.

Nevertheless, today, it very nearly goes without saying that my contemporaries and I were being hopelessly old-fashioned in what we mistook for our avant-gardism…To put it mildly, though, his name no longer seems to excite the intelligent young; mainstream British philosophers continue, as they did when he was alive, to contend that what Sartre wrote had little or nothing to do with philosophy, and for every one book published on Sartre and x, there are 60, 70, 100 on Foucault and y. A widely read crib entitled Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers (1994), by John Lechte, devotes whole chapters to fauna such as Le Doeuff and Pateman—Pateman?—but mentions Sartre only in asides.

But he may be making what Hollywood watchers call a ‘comeback.’

Bookshops are laden with his works, newspapers are publishing Sartre supplements, and when I switched on the television in my hotel room, the first thing I saw was Bernard-Henry Levy, the open-shirted media intellectual, recanting his youthful rejection of Sartre and claiming that everything valuable in the maîtres penseurs of the 1960s was already present in Sartre’s thought.

Le pauvre BHL, eh – he might as well make ‘open-shirted’ his middle name.

I interviewed Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, on Sartre the philosopher. To my surprise, since Blackburn works in a tradition that is alien or even hostile to Sartre’s, he expressed sympathy for the early work, citing Nausea as a rare example of a philosophical novel which achieves a convincing union of fiction and ideas, and commended the moments in Being and Nothingness—the famous passage about the over-attentive waiter, which Sartre uses as a parable of bad faith, is a case in point—where Sartre’s novelistic powers animate his train of thought and take imaginative flight. As a philosophical stylist, Blackburn suggested, Sartre might be compared to Kant: in both writers, pages of dry exposition suddenly give way to a flash of dazzling lyricism, wit or incongruity.

Which is interesting – the whole philosophy as a kind of writing thing, and how important style and wit are or are not. Style, wit, and open shirts.

Frye Boots

Jun 23rd, 2005 12:56 am | By

And on a lighter note – also a different note, which is good, since I’ve been stuck in this poke-at-religion groove for days and days now, but I can’t help it, it’s not my fault, so don’t blame me: articles keep turning up, and then comments raise good questions, and the groove just keeps getting dug deeper. I was just about ready to put the back seat under the rear wheels for traction. On a lighter and different note, as I was saying, this piece by Laurie Taylor is very amusing. It caused me to laugh quite noisily more than once.

Yes, I’ve said, with the casual blend of matiness and erudition that distinguishes media sociologists, the Sixties revolution brought about a profound change in our sexual attitudes…As a sociologist I was also in touch with many of the theoretical currents feeding into the sexual revolution. What’s more, I looked the part. I had a casual green velvet suit that put my colleagues’ leather-patched sports jackets to shame, enough uncombed hair to stuff a small sofa, and rarely appeared in public without a cigarette or a cheroot dangling from my lips. You only had to take one look at me to know that I was “into the scene”.

Cool, dude. (I have to say, I like Laurie Taylor. I like ‘Thinking Allowed,’ for one thing – love its casual blend of matiness and erudition, and the topics are quite good too. And then he’s one of the small select band of discerning people who reviewed the Dictionary (available in all good Tescos and Morrisons) – in his case in the THES. He said some unfavourable things about it, but he also quoted some entries and said they were funny, so that’s enough to make me his slave.)

I went to the back bedroom, took down the box file labelled “old photographs” and began for the first time in years to search for pictures of myself that would provide documentary evidence of my status as a fully paid up member of the Sixties revolution…How on earth had I ever come to dress in that manner? What did I think I looked like with hair that long? Why was that unlit cigarette dangling from my lips? Had I been so busy bringing about the collapse of capitalism that I couldn’t find the time to light the damn thing? And who was it who had turned me into this peculiar vainglorious being?

It was Linda.

It was Linda who forced me into absurdly tight jeans and T-shirt, who made me listen to Pink Floyd (“lie back and let it wash over you”), and rolled me my very first joint (“suck, don’t blow”)…From my new reading I learnt about the extraordinary power of the true orgasm. This was apparently nothing at all like the consummations that I had previously encountered in my dark marital bedroom. This was a spontaneous coming together of such power and energy that nobody who experienced it could ever again allow themselves to become subservient to the life-sapping routines of capitalism.

Yup – that’s what it was all right. You betcha. That’s why capitalism went away in 1968 and never came back.

She simply stopped seeing me and started hanging out with an old hippie with bad teeth and so much hair dripping off his face that he looked as if he was peering out of a yak’s arse…I’d not only dressed bizarrely but I’d also entertained some crazy ideas: the notion that sex could ever be natural and spontaneous rather than culturally constructed; the belief that good sex could tell us something about ourselves that was not revealed by such other pursuits as playing poker and eating out.

Especially if it involves humping a guy who looks like the occupant of a yak’s arse. Not worth it.


Jun 22nd, 2005 8:48 pm | By

Stewart notes that a phrase in that Boston Globe article stands out.

Provocatively, Ruse argues that evolutionism has often constituted a ”religion” itself by offering ”a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans,” while its proponents have been ”trying deliberately to do better than Christianity.”

Okay – and why not? Why not try to do better than Christianity? What does Christianity do well? What does it do better than anything else can? Is it even possible to decide or know that? On what grounds?

The one possibility I can think of is consolation. Religion – or Christianity, if you prefer – can do that better of its nature (as opposed to contingently, sociologically, because people already think it can, assume it can, have been told it can) because it is based on consoling fictions. That is the point – it is the fiction that is consoling. Without the fiction, there is no consolation, or it is much less effective. Personal immortality, heaven and reunion, a god who takes care of us. Other kinds of fictions on the whole don’t work that way because they’re not believed in the same way – they are recognized as fictions (except in the case of e.g. New Age, Wicca and the like, but in that case they are functioning as religions). There are two essential ingredients: belief (so novels don’t do it) and fictions (so philosophy and reflection don’t console in this particular way). Religion can console for those who believe it.

But what else? Motivation and commitment are often mentioned – and religion can work that way – but it has no monopoly there. Ideals, political hopes, loyalties, aspirations, dreams – many things can provide and strengthen motivation and commitment.

And there is nothing else. This gets to that overlapping magisteria nonsense that Steve Gould (in Ruseian vein) talked about – that ‘all is well if each sticks to its own territory’ idea. But religion doesn’t have a territory. It has no expertise – no expertise that is unique to religion rather than being held in common with other fields, as when bishops talk about ethics in ways that are obviously thoroughly influenced by contemporary, changing, secular ideas. There is no ‘special’ religious morality that’s different from secular morality. There are some ‘special’ religious rules and taboos, but they either find secular justification, or get widely and rightly ignored.

Some people like to claim that religion has a monopoly on ‘meaning.’ Well…there are two choices. Either that meaning relies on the same fictions that consolation relies on (the loving god, the afterlife), in which case religion does have a monopoly on that, but, again, on condition of believing fictions; or it doesn’t, it just relies on what we all rely on by way of meaning, in which case there is no monopoly.

We ought to draw up a little map of religious monopoly. There would be a blue patch for consolation and a purple patch for fiction-derived ‘meaning’ – and all the rest is open country.

In short the only territory religion gets to fence off and declare its own and off-limits is the fiction-illusion-supernatural-metaphysical area. If that aspect is not in play, then it has no special ‘religious’ expertise or authority or right to say hands off go away get out, at all.

Muddy Waters

Jun 21st, 2005 8:36 pm | By

G in comments brings up the question of how (and if) Michael Ruse defines ‘religion,’ so I’ve gone looking to see if I can find him doing that in articles and interviews (I don’t have his book, so looking there will have to wait). Here are a few relevant remarks.

From a recent interview – he doesn’t define it, but he does say a little about what he means by it in this context, answering the interviewer’s request to explain what he means by saying ‘the Darwin vs. Creation argument is often a battle of two religions’:

I am not saying that Darwinian theory is always religious – it is not. I am saying that often evolutionists use their science to do more than science and to give a world picture – origins, special place for humans at the top, moral directives – that we associate with religion. Creationism I argue flatly is a religion – the religion of biblical literalist, American protestant evangelicals of a right wing persuasion. Creationists deny that their position is purely religious, but I think that they do this to avoid the separation of church and state embedded in the US constitution. I suspect that many Darwinians will take issue with my claim that any part of their theorizing is religious – but I have made my case and rest it.

So what he means by it for the purposes of this discussion (in his book) is ‘to do more than science and to give a world picture – origins, special place for humans at the top, moral directives – that we associate with religion.’ Okay – that helps. Questions and objections immediately suggest themselves. ‘Origins’ is more than science? I would have thought it was science – origin of species kind of thing. And then, tending to associate things with religion – well that’s a whole big set of problems. Just for one thing, it’s often a mistake to do that. Moral directives for example can and should and do have secular justifications; ‘tending’ to associate them with religion tends to be just a bad and stupid and often harmful habit – so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say people are doing religion when they talk about morality simply because some people still ‘tend’ to associate moral directives with religion. Does it. And finally – evolutionists give a world picture with humans at the top? They do? That’s news to me. But, it’s a little unfair to argue with the short version when I haven’t read the book. But then again – more people will see the journalistic simplifications than will read the book; journalism is influential; so in another sense it’s not unfair, or at least it needs to be done, unfair or not.

From an article in the Boston Globe:

Evolution is controversial in large part, he theorizes, because its supporters have often presented it as the basis for self-sufficient philosophies of progress and materialism, which invariably wind up in competition with religion.

Well, yes – but then anything of that kind inevitably winds up in competition with religion, doesn’t it. That’s not the fault of evolution, it’s because religion and religious people often think religion has or should have a monopoly on that kind of thing. Well that’s just too damn bad. They don’t get to have a monopoly; they used to, and they don’t any more.

Provocatively, Ruse argues that evolutionism has often constituted a ”religion” itself by offering ”a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans,” while its proponents have been ”trying deliberately to do better than Christianity.”

Okay – so it appears that at least some of the time he is (implicitly or explicitly? we’ll have to read the book to find out) defining religion as something that offers a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans. Well, that’s a pretty woolly definition of religion, frankly. Yes those things overlap with religion – but on the edges, not at the center; and overlapping is not the same as defining. Creationists and IDers are theists, not just people with a world picture and a story of origins and a place for humans. It just muddies the waters, as Stewart says, to pretend otherwise and then use that pretense to blame the people who don’t make truth-claims about supernatural entities for the hostility between religion and science.

‘Faith’ Not Compatible With Law School

Jun 21st, 2005 1:40 am | By

Good – now by way of relief from the water-muddying of Ruse, let us turn to David Rudenstine, Dean of Cardozo Law School. At last, someone says it!

In a provocative address last week…the dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law warned of a “collision course with democratic order and social unity” as politically outspoken religious leaders wield increasing influence over the nation’s public policy. Dean David Rudenstine…further suggested that U.S. jurisprudence and legal education were “very much on the defensive,” in part because strict secularism as a legal paradigm is seen by the faithful — including some at Christian law schools — as an insufficient context for policy issues such as abortion rights, homosexual marriage, stem-cell research and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mr. Rudenstine said that America’s law schools have a social responsibility, especially at a time of religious fundamentalism, to foster reasoned debate over the facts and science of such controversial matters.

Thank you. Reasoned debate over the facts and science. Precisely.

“Faith challenges the underpinnings of legal education,” Mr. Rudenstine declared. “Faith is a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have.” He added, “Faith does not tolerate opposing views, does not acknowledge inconvenient facts. Law schools stand in fundamental opposition to this.”

Bingo! That’s exactly it – and that’s what you’re not allowed to say. ‘Faith’ is not a virtue, ‘faith’ is not the right basis for discussion of public issues, in fact it’s exactly the wrong basis for discussion of public issues, for exactly that reason – because it’s a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have. And it doesn’t tolerate opposing views and it doesn’t acknowledge inconvenient facts. But how often do people come right out and say that? In public, I mean. Not damn well often enough.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was quick to associate himself with Mr. Rudenstine’s thesis…”No one expects politicians and policy-makers to divorce themselves entirely from the roots of their belief system, but in the United States, our laws have to be based on secular justifications.”

Just so. You can derive your moral views from any belief system you like, but when it comes to making actual laws, you have to give secular justifications, not religious ones. You have to come up with something more (and better) than ‘God said so.’ For one thing, ‘God’ said a lot of things, and some of them are quite disgusting.

Regent Law Dean Jeffrey A. Brauch countered, “I don’t think you can understand the historic development of law in this country if you don’t understand the role that religion has played, the role that faith and the church has played.” Much of the U.S. legal system, he said, comes from British common law, which “has a theological basis. Why is it we believe a king or a government ruler is obliged to some higher authority? It’s because there was a belief that there was a God and a higher law,” he said.

We don’t. We don’t, we don’t, we don’t.

Mr. Brauch said he believes in a “reasonable faith” as opposed to a “blind faith,” and that Regent and other religious law schools simply add spiritual dimension to academic pursuit. “Let’s say we’re talking about family law,” said Mr. Brauch. “Somebody in the class has a strong belief that a family with both a mother and father in a heterosexual marriage is better for children. I would hope that our students wouldn’t merely say, ‘That’s what I believe because it’s what I’ve always been taught,’ but that they’d look at a tremendous amount of empirical research that would show that, and then ask what that could mean for public policy.”

Well exactly, you fool! That’s what we’re saying! [takes deep breath] Look, if you look at empirical research and then ask what it could mean for public policy – that’s all we’re talking about. You’ll notice you forgot to mention your pal God there. This is our point. You don’t need it. It doesn’t add anything. You need the research and the analysis of the research and what it will mean, you don’t need God.

But of course he thinks he does. It’s sad, isn’t it – he sees the basic point, and yet he can’t take it in. Too stuck in that ‘spiritual dimension.’

But let’s hope more people will start doing a Rudenstine, and pointing out the problem with ‘faith.’

Who’s Insisting?

Jun 20th, 2005 6:47 pm | By

More guilt-mongering of non-theism, more default assumptions that there is something wrong or wicked or suspect or in need of a damn good explanation about naturalism. Also more Michael Ruse.

Professor Ruse takes a long look at why opponents of evolution feel so threatened and why evolutionists are so surprised and perplexed at the opposition…Although Darwin’s own work was a model of professional science, a great deal of evolutionary thought before and after him, in Professor Ruse’s judgment, deserves to be termed evolutionism, a kind of secular religion built around an ideology of progress.

Okay, stop right there. A ‘kind of’ secular religion? That’s a weasel-term. Could be the reporter’s rather than Ruse’s – but either way it’s weasel-language. And then, what does ‘secular religion’ mean? And ideology is not the same thing as religion. Ideology can certainly do a lot to distort thinking, but it’s not the same thing as religion, and it just confuses things to talk about it as if it were. An ‘ideology of progress’ does not require any supernatural beliefs whatever; religion does; it’s the supernaturalism that’s at issue; so to conflate an ‘ideology of progress’ with religion in a context where supernaturalism versus naturalism is the subject, is cheating. People who defend or try to protect religion resort to cheating a lot. That’s annoying, and they ought to stop doing it.

From the beginning, evolutionary theory has been drenched in religion. The aggressors in the warfare between theology and science were not just religious believers insisting that their ancient Scriptures were the basis of scientific truths but scientific enthusiasts insisting that evolutionary theory was the basis for conclusions about religion.

More cheating, though of a milder kind. Tendentious language. For one thing, ‘drenched in religion’ turns out to mean pointing out that evolutionary theory doesn’t require religion, or makes religion superfluous. That’s an odd thing for ‘drenched in religion’ to turn out to mean. For another thing – aggressors? Why aggressors? Why is it aggressive to try to explain a naturalistic subject by naturalistic means? And then, more minor rhetoric: there’s ‘enthusiasts’ and ‘insisting’. It’s minor, but it all adds up: it adds up to the usual default assumption that no one has any business pointing out that there is no good evidence for the truth claims religions make, or that religious answers to naturalistic questions are not helpful and are not answers.

But as Professor Ruse notes, as genuine science no less than as pseudoscience, “Darwinian evolutionary theory does impinge on religious thinking.”…Other elements of Darwinism go right to the heart of any belief in a caring, almighty God. The power of strictly natural interactions of random events and reproductive advantage over huge spans of time to explain the emergence of diverse and complex life forms appears to render the guiding role of such a God superfluous. The grim picture of those life forms, including humanity, emerging through a ruthlessly cruel process of natural competition appears to render such a God implausible.

Yes, true. Although problems with the idea of a caring almighty God did not begin in 1859. (Actually it’s a rather depressing reflection on human history that so many people did manage to believe in a caring almighty God for so long. I mean – caring? Caring? How could they possibly have thought that?)

Then there is the debate about the “methodological naturalism” that for purposes of scientific investigation restricts explanations to findings about material nature. Does “methodological naturalism” lead inexorably to a “metaphysical naturalism” holding that material nature is in fact the whole of reality? Professor Ruse says no. But he acknowledges that the slippery slope is there.

There again – the slippery slope. That’s another pejorative. More cheating.

In the end, Professor Ruse’s new book suggests that the religious resistance to evolutionary theory is a lot more understandable and a lot less unreasonable than its opponents recognize.

Well of course it’s understandable: religious believers don’t like having their beliefs challenged. That’s not a secret. But less unreasonable? Well, only if you think it’s reasonable to let wishes determine beliefs about the world, and to let them control what other people write and teach, as well. It’s not self-evident that that is particularly reasonable, frankly.

Endemic Confusion

Jun 19th, 2005 10:29 pm | By

PZ Myers has an excellent post on – broadly speaking – the tension between religion and science. Narrowly speaking it’s on a non-excellent post by the widely over-rated Eugene Volokh (though I gather he’s less over-rated now, ever since that post on what a good thing it is to torture certain criminals to death in front of an enraged crowd). And he makes a point that I’ve made here more than once. It’s a very, very widespread mistake and confusion, even among people who – you would think – really ought to know the difference. It’s pretty ominous and disturbing that the confusion is so pervasive even among educated people like lawyers and journalists. Clearly everyone should be learning the difference in kindergarten and having it reinforced throughout their educations – possibly it ought to be the first thing anyone learns. It’s not really possible to think clearly without it.

Here’s the confusion:

What’s more, how exactly do scientists come to the conclusion that “God had no part in this process”? What’s their proof? That’s the sort of thing that can’t really be proved, it seems to me — which makes it sound as if scientists, despite their protestations of requiring proof rather than faith, make assertions about God that they can’t prove.

It seems to him – what, as if he’s the only one who thinks so? Of course it can’t be proved! And ‘scientists’ know that perfectly well, and they don’t make ‘protestations of requiring proof rather than faith’ – they ask for evidence. Not proof, evidence. There’s a difference – a big difference. It’s so basic, and yet so many people seem to have no clue. That’s alarming.

PZ commented on the confusion:

Scientists don’t talk about “proof”, period. We leave that to the mathematicians. This is something I yell at my freshman biology majors, by the way. I know it’s out of the purview of a scholar of constitutional law, but if he’s going to make claims about science, shouldn’t he know the bare basics of the discipline?

Yeah, he should, especially since the difference between evidence and proof is not just a basic of science, surely – it’s a pretty general basic of epistemology. It has to be – because it’s about the difference between certainty and non-certainty, doubt and no doubt, open questions and closed ones, how and when and if we know what we know. Susan Haack points out that scientific inquiry is continuous with other forms of inquiry, as opposed to being special in some way. Saying ‘there is evidence for X’ a very different thing from saying ‘it is proved that X’ in any empirical field you can think of.

It’s odd, and interesting, and somewhat exasperating, to realize that probably most woolly beliefs rest on exactly this stupid confusion. ‘You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, or that there is no space ship behind the Hale-Bopp comet, or that extra-terrestrials haven’t been abducting and impregnating humans, or that I don’t have a parking angel or a laundry angel or any other kind of angel’ – therefore we might as well believe any of them we want to. That’s probably how the default position works (we’ve been talking about the default position lately – that belief is right and good and it’s non-belief that has to explain itself) – since you can’t prove the belief is nonsense, therefore there is no reason not to believe it. That ‘therefore’ is idiotic, but it’s everywhere.

Brian Leiter makes a similar comment.

What interests me in particular here is what this display tells us about the limited understanding of science and scientific methods even among educated people and scholars. If professional scholars in fields like law have so little understanding of the nature and structure of scientific inquiry, is it any surprise that in the population at large nonsense like creationism and its offshoots, like Intelligent Design, have considerable traction?

Exactly. Discouraging, isn’t it.

Maybe There’s a Paragraph Missing

Jun 18th, 2005 8:25 pm | By

Had lovely fishing trip. Caught a shark, a couple of eels, a sting ray, and an otter that seems to have been dead for some time. All made a very nice bouillabaisse, served with aioli and a hearty pain de compagne and some Chef BoyArDee canned ravioli. That’s the best meal I’ve had in awhile!

But life is not all holiday. Back to the dear old religious hatred bill. Frank Dobson does a not very compelling job of arguing for it in the Guardian, it seems to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

Do you believe that anyone should be allowed to incite hatred against other people on the grounds of their religious belief? I don’t, even though I have no religious belief myself. That’s because I believe that nobody should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of their religious beliefs.

So – Mr Dobson – do you believe that people should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of something other than their religious beliefs? Do you believe that people should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of their fashion sense, or taste in fish soup, or nail-biting? Probably not – am I right? Don’t you just kind of think people shouldn’t suffer assaults, or live in fear, at all? Don’t you generally tend to think that assault and threatening ought to be against the law? Don’t you think they in fact are against the law? If so, what is the force of your question? What is that ‘because’ doing there? You might as well say, ‘Do you believe that people should be robbed at gunpoint because of their opinions on Star Trek? I don’t, even though I have no opinions on Star Trek myself. That’s because I believe that nobody should suffer assaults.’ See – the thing about opinions on Star Trek is completely superfluous. It’s not necessary. You don’t need it. Assault is already illegal, and adding ‘because of their religious beliefs’ to the end of it doesn’t make it any more so.

I’m not saying there is no argument for laws against incitement to hatred. I tend to think there is, especially in view of what happened in for instance the Balkans and Rwanda lately. I’m saying Frank Dobson didn’t make that argument, and doesn’t seem to have noticed that he didn’t make it. He just jumped right over it. He does more jumping.

If the proposed new law were widely drawn, it could in effect extend the blasphemy law. But it isn’t. It is narrowly drawn, confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred. It wouldn’t outlaw The Satanic Verses or Jerry Springer – the Opera, just as the existing protection for Sikhs did not cover the play Behzti in Birmingham.

And that’s that. On to the next item. That is – incredibly enough – all he says about that issue. You may notice a certain emaciation about it, a certain lack of corroborative material, a certain absence of elaboration or explanation. That surplus ‘because’ in the first paragraph would have come in handy in this one, but it isn’t there. The law wouldn’t outlaw The Satanic Verses because – why? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t say! He just says it is so, and leaves it at that. Well – since that’s the very point that’s at issue, that doesn’t really cut it!

Not to mention that blithe assumption that it is obvious what ‘confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred’ means – which it decidedly isn’t. Again, that’s the whole point – so just saying ‘it’s not a problem’ and nothing further is not really adequate, is it. But that’s all he says. Is this really the best they can do?

And that brings us to the next objection – that comedians won’t be able to make religious jokes, and clerics will not be able to promote their beliefs or attack the beliefs, teachings and practices of other religions. This isn’t true either. To fall foul of the law, offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion, or are likely to do so. If threats, abuse and insults alone don’t break the law, jokes certainly shouldn’t. Surely no comedian needs the right to stir up religious hatred. Nor does any cleric.

Here we are again. Err – yes, we know offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion – we know that, because that’s what this whole thing is about. Just keeping on repeating it isn’t going to answer our objections. How do you know when threats, abuse or insults are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion and when they’re not? How do you tell the difference? What are the criteria? And when are you planning to explain them to the people who will be subject to this new law? Ever?

Changes in the law bring about changes in behaviour, partly by acting as a deterrent and partly by declaring that something is wrong. We know the law against incitement to racial hatred has had that effect. Incitement to religious hatred is just as wrong, so the law should declare it wrong. If we fail to change the law, we are declaring that we are prepared to tolerate religious hatred. That can’t be right.

Again – yes, we know. Again, that’s the problem – we don’t want to change our behaviour, we don’t want a deterrent. You seem to be utterly convinced that you know religious hatred when you see it and that it’s not things like jokes or novels or plays, or articles or essays or tracts – but we’re not convinced, noisy disrespectful atheists that we are, and we’re even less convinced now you’ve shown us that you can’t even seem to see that there’s anything to be said on the subject. Nothing but ‘it won’t be a problem because it won’t be a problem.’ Not an encouraging sign, this level of obtusity.

Like an Anglican Clergyman From Central Casting

Jun 17th, 2005 7:40 pm | By

Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

The story of science and religion since the Middle Ages has been one of estrangement rather than conflict. When the Aristotelian synthesis shattered, science and theology drifted apart, becoming at last disconnected universes of discourse.

Quite a good way, if you want to avoid talking about some obvious inconvenient facts. Quite handy to pretend that science and religion are just two ‘universes of discourse’ as opposed to two fundamentally different enterprises. Shifty, though. For one thing, how did we get from science and religion in the first sentence to science and theology in the second? Shifty, shifty. But the crucial move of course is to call science a universe of discourse.

This bit is good too:

Polkinghorne also differs from the other scientist-theologians he discusses in his view of the proper relation between theology and science. Davies, Barbour, and Peacocke are all to some degree “assimilationists” who seek “to achieve a greater merging of the two disciplines.” Polkinghorne sees a danger in this: Christian theology has its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic, so that it risks being denatured if “theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific.”

Well, yeah, there is a danger in that. Definitely. If ‘theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific’ then there is always the danger that it will become apparent that the ‘insights’ of theology rely on imagination as opposed to evidence. That is indeed quite dangerous if you’re trying to make theism (as Barr puts it) ‘persuasive.’ And Christian theology does indeed have its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic (very internal indeed). That’s another useful trope. Disconnected universes, universes of discourse, its own insights and methods. They’re all the same kind of project, you see, each one with its own insights and methods and internal logic – so each one is true inside and just never mind outside. Language games – you know the drill.

Simon Blackburn took on Polkinghorne in The New Republic a few years ago – I linked to it in News when B&W was young. One gathers he is not entirely enamoured of this reconciliation lark.

Sir John Polkinghorne—fellow of the Royal Society, doctor of divinity, sometime professor of particle physics at the University of Cambridge, recipient of this year’s $1 million Templeton Prize in religion—beams out like an Anglican clergyman from central casting, white-haired, wholesome, and radiant: a one-man Ode to Joy. And on reading these volumes, one can see why. It is pretty uplifting to be a scientist-theologian, happy with the universe, confident of the ways of the Lord. It is especially fizzy to be such a figure in Cambridge…

Unless other figures are also lurking there, ready to write articles.

And yet I did end Polkinghorne’s books, with their supreme contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking, in despair about humanity’s desperate self-deceptions and vanities and illusions. Everything will be all right in the end, we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we are blessed, and above all God is on our side. Who could dissent? Fantasy beats reason every time. People believe what they want to believe. I do not know how it is at Princeton, but at Cambridge there are eight established chairs in the Faculty of Divinity, but only two in the Faculty of Philosophy. Hallelujah!

That’s an interesting little fact, isn’t it.

Mill and Russell Speak Up

Jun 16th, 2005 8:45 pm | By

And while we’re on the subject of ‘Intelligent Design’ and the people at the ‘Discovery Institute’ and so on – I just feel like aiming another kick at the design argument. I know I’ve done it before, I’m repeating myself, but – but I’m not sure they get shouted at enough about this.

Okay their big thing is ‘_____ is too complex to have come about without a designer. _____ is irreducibly complex, so a designer must have designed it, because otherwise it wouldn’t be there, being so complex and all.’ Complex things can’t just happen. A hurricane can’t whip through a junkyard and leave a 777 behind. An inebriated chimpanzee can’t shred a pile of old newspapers and end up with a first edition of Tobacco Road. A blizzard can’t produce a snowperson bearing an exact resemblance to Marie Dressler in ‘Dinner at Eight.’ What are the odds that there could be a universe so incredibly carefully calibrated that after some billions of years, what do we find? Us! How likely is that? The odds against it are – there are more numbers in that number than there are atoms in the universe. Therefore, there has to be a designer – that’s the only explanation. Anything else just can’t have happened the way it did.

Okay, so how did the designer get here? If ______ is too complex to have come about without a designer, then obviously whoever or whatever designed _____ has to be pretty complex too, right? So if the first item is inexplicable without a designer, why isn’t the second? Why is the cell too complex to explain without a designer, while the designer itself is not? Why is the designer, in fact, an explanation? Why is it an explanation at all? Why isn’t it more like a bad joke? (Well, it is, actually, it’s the tortoises all the way down joke. But do IDers get it?) It’s like saying ‘how did this chocolate cake get here?’ and being shown for answer – another chocolate cake.

No, the reality is, the argument from design is just a shop window thing. It’s just a pretense. IDers don’t want an explanation (that’s obvious, because if they did, by now they would have taken in the fact that ID isn’t an explanation at all) – they want their God, and they think ID is a respectable way to be able to have it. In fact it’s not respectable, because it’s so silly. An explanation that doesn’t explain anything is silly. But they do get people to listen to them. Maybe if the obvious problem with the designer were more widely noticed, they’d have more trouble.

Bertrand Russell had good blunt things to say about all this, as you might expect. In Why I Am Not a Christian, for instance.

you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

Or in another version, ‘You can’t fool me, young person, it’s tortoises all the way down.’ (It’s a nice touch that it was Mill, because Mill was Russell’s secular ‘godfather.’ I find that a very pleasing small fact.)

Bad Astronomy Speaks Out

Jun 16th, 2005 7:02 pm | By

Okay – so apparently you’re not sick of the sound of my voice even if I am. (Well you wouldn’t be, would you – because if you were, you wouldn’t be here. Unless you’re all a pack of masochists who go out of your way to read stuff that you’re sick of. But that’s not likely either, because in fact if you’re masochistic and want to read stuff you’re sick of, you can find plenty of stuff you’re sicker of than you are of me. I’m quietly confident of that. Really. I happen to know [this is a little-known fact, but I’ll make you a present of it] that there is quite a lot of boring stuff on the Internet, ideal for people who want to read stuff they’re sick of. There is boring, pointless, fatuous, even loony stuff by the yard – whereas here if nothing else you can find interesting links. So this place [sadistically enough] is not the first stop for masochists, or even the second or third. So I think we can safely conclude that if you were sick of it you damn well wouldn’t be reading it.) And if you’re not, I’m not. I’m a sheep, you see, and take all my opinions and reactions and degrees of queasiness and malaise from other people. I don’t have any of my own – I’m a kind of weathervane, or pregnancy test strip – I just react.

So Bad Astronomy has a few words about Creationism and the ‘Discovery Institute.’ In particular he says one thing that made me sit up straight and stop slouching.

Many people like to say that science and religion are compatible. I find that to be a monumentally naive statement. Perhaps science and some religions can be reconciled, but if your religion says that Jupiter is really made of pixie dust, or that the Earth is flat, or that 1+1 =3, then your religion is wrong. It’s really just that simple. The Universe knows what it’s doing, and the reality of it is what science seeks. If your religion cannot be reconciled with that reality, then your religion is wrong…

Exactly. Funny how reluctant many people are to say that, even if it is what they in fact think. Funny how they prefer to hem and haw, or change the subject, or talk about different kinds of reality, instead. That’s why I wrote that In Focus on Science and Religion a couple of years ago: in order to make that point as bluntly as possible. I’ve had some emails about the bluntness, and there are places where I should add a footnote saying something like ‘yes I realize there are arguments that can be made about this’ – but I wanted to get as far away as possible from the ‘different kinds of reality’ line of talk. And the Bad Astronomer has the same kind of idea.

Over the course of time, you’ll be seeing more rebuttals — no, debunking — of creationist claims here. I’ve had enough, and this threat is real. They want to turn our classrooms in a theocratically-controlled anti-science breeding ground, and I’m not going to sit by and watch it happen.



Jun 15th, 2005 9:15 pm | By

I’m sick of the sound of my own voice.

Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?

Jun 14th, 2005 11:45 pm | By

A little from Foucault himself, since it’s available. Some wisdom and insight from M. Discipline and Punish.

One thing must be clear. By “Islamic government,” nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.

Shrewd, ain’t it! Noooo, nobody meant that! Clerics? A role? A role of supervision or control? Oh, hell no! That’s not what anybody meant.

He did go to Iran, right? He wasn’t confused? He didn’t, like, get off the plane a stop or two early? In Marseille or someplace? He didn’t accidentally say ‘Stockholm’ to the ticket clerk when he meant to say ‘Tehran’?

To me, the phrase “Islamic government” seemed to point to two orders of things. “A utopia,” some told me without any pejorative implication. “An ideal,” most of them said to me. At any rate, it is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam.

Very old and also very far into the future – so far that it comes back around and meets itself? Or what. Because that business of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet – well, let me put it this way, I’ve never learned anything about the 7th century in any part of the world that made me want to live then. Really not. So I have to wonder why Foucault thought that sounded ‘luminous’. And then that crap about fidelity rather than obedience. Oh yeah? Tell that to the women who got beaten up for not concealing themselves thoroughly enough. And then to top it all off, like the rotting fish head on top of the ice cream sundae – ‘faith in the creativity of Islam.’ Right. Three hooray-words, three sexual-arousal words, three mental-shutdown words – faith, creativity, and Islam. Bad idea, Foukers – faith not a good way to go, creativity really beside the point here, and Islam – well, not quite what you seem to have thought.

But one dreams also of another movement, which is the inverse and the converse of the first. This is one that would allow the introduction of a spiritual dimension into political life, in order that it would not be, as always, the obstacle to spirituality, but rather its receptacle, its opportunity, and its ferment…I do not feel comfortable speaking of Islamic government as an “idea” or even as an “ideal.” Rather, it impressed me as a form of “political will.” It impressed me in its effort to politicize structures that are inseparably social and religious in response to current problems. It also impressed me in its attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics.

One person’s dream is another person’s nightmare.

He Had Seen the Future and it Worked

Jun 14th, 2005 8:39 pm | By

So Foucault went to Iran in 1979, to see what he could see.

While many liberals and leftists supported the populist uprising that pitted unarmed masses against one of the world’s best-armed regimes, none welcomed the announcement of the growing power of radical Islam with the portentous lyricism that Foucault brought to his brief, and never repeated, foray into journalism…Foucault’s Iranian adventure was a “tragic and farcical error” that fits into a long tradition of ill-informed French intellectuals spouting off about distant revolutions, says James Miller, whose 1993 biography “The Passion of Michel Foucault” contains one of the few previous English-language accounts of the episode. Indeed, Foucault’s search for an alternative that was absolutely other to liberal democracy seems peculiarly reckless in light of political Islam’s subsequent career, and makes for odd reading now as observers search for traditions in Islam that are compatible with liberal democracy.

Yeah. Odd – painful – embarrassing – cringe-making. It’s like watching a putative radical cheering Hitler’s election, or getting misty-eyed while watching ‘Triumph of the Will,’ or putting a lovingly-framed photo of Pol Pot on the wall.

Foucault was virtually alone among Western observers, Anderson and Afary argue, in embracing the specifically Islamist wing of the revolution. Indeed, Foucault pokes fun at the secular leftists who thought they could use the Islamists as a weapon for their own purposes; the Islamists alone, he believed, reflected the “perfectly unified collective will” of the people.

Oh, Christ. How fucking stupid can you get. Especially when you’re someone who’s famous for sniffing out the insidious, non-obvious forms of domination and power. ‘The perfectly unified collective will of the people’ – what the hell would that be? Unless they all happen to be pod people, there is no such thing! You’d think anyone with even the most rudimentary acquaintance with actual human beings, let alone a theorist of power, would be well aware of that. No – what there is is the perfectly unified collective will of some people, which is a terrific instrument for tyrannizing over the rest of the people. The more ‘perfectly unified’ i.e. passionately held, unquestioned and unquestionable, mindless, irrational, fervent it is, the more sharp and thorough an instrument it is. It’s something to be terrified of, not something to rejoice at. Especially – especially (did he miss it because it’s so god damn obvious?) – if the people with the perfectly unified enraged collective will are the stronger part of the people – to wit, the men – the adult men, the straight men, the majority-religion men. Along with the collective will thing, they have sticks and whips and fists.

The Iranian Revolution, Anderson and Afary write, appealed to certain of Foucault’s characteristic preoccupations — with the spontaneous eruption of resistance to established power, the exploration of the limits of rationality, and the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death…In his articles, Foucault compared the Islamists to Savonarola, the Anabaptists, and Cromwell’s militant Puritans. The comparisons were intended to flatter.

Savonarola! And what did he think Savonarola would have thought of someone like him?! The limits of rationality, the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death – oh, hell. He pretty much was getting misty-eyed at ‘Triumph of the Will’ then.

“We think of Foucault as this very cool, unsentimental thinker who would be immune to the revolutionary romanticism that has overtaken intellectuals who covered up Stalin’s atrocities or Mao’s…But in this case, he abandoned much of his critical perspective in his intoxication with what he saw in Iran. Here was a great philosopher of difference who looked around him in Iran and everywhere saw unanimity.”

Saw it, and cheered it on. Very clever. Well done.

Foucault, who died in 1984, refused to engage in public mea culpas, despite the fierce debate that broke out in France over his ideas about Iran…Anderson says that the debate over these 25- year-old writings has relevance when some leftists focus more energy on criticizing an administration they scorn than on speaking against a radical Islamist movement that also violates all their cherished ideals.

But, some people think Foucault’s view had some merit.

Other Foucault scholars also see an enduring value in his turn toward political spirituality. James Bernauer, a Jesuit priest who teaches philosophy at Boston College and has written several books on Foucault and theology, sees in the late Foucault’s embrace of spirituality a resource for thinking about how to integrate politics and religion…”Foucault had an ability to see this, to see past the pervasive secularism of French intellectual life, that was quite remarkable.

Ah, a Jesuit priest! Well in that case. No, I’ll stick with that pervasive secularism deal, thanks. The more pervasive the better.

Blessings Upon Them, and Upon Their Typing Hands

Jun 14th, 2005 2:30 am | By

May the god of the atheists shine its everlasting light on Polly Toynbee. Wait. May the – oh never mind, you know what I mean.

At least she hasn’t swapped her brain for a fleece.

It would be entirely reasonable for secular Labour MPs to plead conscience on this, just as the religious are excused the whip on matters that trespass on their faith. This touches on freedom of thought and ideas, with far-reaching consequences for the values of the Enlightenment that are under growing threat from a collective softening of the brain on faith and superstitions of all kinds.

Yep. And you need to watch out for that collective softening of the brain stuff. It can creep up on you and before you know where you are or can say ‘Look at that tortilla, doesn’t that look like St Aloysius the Uninteresting?’ you’ve got religious zealots running the place. It can happen. Don’t you think it can’t. Listen, the US was not such a god-ridden place thirty years ago – not nearly. Then people absent-mindedly voted a ‘born-again’ Christian into the White House, and things have been getting worse ever since. So don’t let down your guard just because Tony Blair doesn’t keep saying ‘God bless you’ during question time – yet.

it is now illegal to describe an ethnic group as feeble-minded. But under this law I couldn’t call Christian believers similarly intellectually challenged without risk of prosecution. This crystallises the difference between racial and religious abuse. Race is something people cannot choose and it defines nothing about them as people. But beliefs are what people choose to identify with: in the rough and tumble of argument to call people stupid for their beliefs is legitimate (if perhaps unwise), but to brand them stupid on account of their race is a mortal insult. The two cannot be blurred into one – which is why the word Islamophobia is a nonsense. And now the Vatican wants the UN to include Christianophobia in its monitoring of discriminations.

Just so. ‘Race’ can’t possibly be stupid, because it doesn’t have any cognitive content anyway. It’s a complete category mistake. One might as well call a pineapple loyal or a Prada bag dyslexic. But beliefs are all about cognitive content – that’s what they are. Believers are always trying to disguise that, trying to pretend that belief is something else – virtue, or a disposition to kindness, or a talent for keeping your pants on, or marital stability combined with fecundity combined with the ability to hang on to a job – but that’s not what it is. It’s inane and meaningless to call red hair stupid (unless it’s the product of a packet of dye, but that’s a special case, and not relevant), it’s not inane and meaningless to call belief in heaven and hell stupid. Rude, possibly, but not meaningless.

…the religious are already getting their way in more insidious ways. For the chilling effect of this law is here now. There is a new nervousness about criticising, let alone mocking, any religious belief, a jumpiness about challenging Islam or Roman Catholicism. This most secular state in the world, with fewest worshippers at any altars, should be a beacon of secularism in a world beset by religious bloodshed. Instead, our politicians twitch nervously in a lily-livered capitulation to unreason. Why? Because this clever blending between race and faith has tied all tongues. This law springs from a cult of phoney racial/religious respect that makes it harder than it ever was to dare to criticise, let alone mock. There is a new caution about “causing offence”. What kind of offence? Not to people’s race but to ideas in their head.

Remember what Stephen Fry said at Hay about the two words that have taken on creepy overtones lately? Remember what the words were? I knew, I knew before he said them – I said the second one aloud before he got it out of his mouth. Everyone knows; it’s obvious. Respect and offence. ‘I’m offended,’ Fry said in a mincing voice. ‘Well so fucking what?!” Exactly. May the god of the atheists shine its everlasting light on Fry and Toynbee – and Atkinson and Rushdie and Hitchens. Bless all articulate atheists, amen.

As He Pleased

Jun 12th, 2005 8:06 pm | By

I’ve been reading a little Orwell lately – prompted partly by my offhand comment in an email to Norm that Orwell was good but Hitchens is better – which itself was prompted by Philip Dodd’s introduction of Hitchens on ‘Night Waves’ in which he quoted someone (someone unnamed, I think) as writing in a review that Hitchens is as good as Orwell, or almost as good as Orwell, or some such. That annoyed me. It is my considered opinion – despite the offhandedness of the comment alluded to above – that Orwell is over-rated as a writer. Really quite seriously over-rated. That his language is very often decidedly tired and uninspired, even banal, and that there is a lot of commonplace thought in it. Phrases like ‘dirty little scoundrel’ come to mind.

But when Harry at Crooked Timber did a post about Fascinating Hitchens in which he quoted Norm quoting me there was a lot of disagreement (along with some agreement) with my relative estimation of the two – which is why I got Orwell off the shelf to check my impression again. And – I still agree with myself. He’s good, he’s interesting, he’s definitely worth reading, but he is not a great writer or stylist or thinker. He’s not as good as Dwight Macdonald, for instance.

That’s just a flat assertion, obviously. It would take extensive quotation to make my case – because he is good, so I can’t just quote a terrible sentence and leave it at that. But if you read a good chunk of him, the flatness and uninspiredness become increasingly noticeable.

But! As I say – he is good. I’m just saying he’s not the best; but he is good. On religion, for example…

It also appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed…So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumberable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.

Now, is this orthodox Catholic doctrine? My impression is that it is not. I can think of passages in the writings of popular Catholic apologists such as Father Woodlock and Father Ronald Knox in which it is stated in the clearest terms that Christian doctrine means what it appears to mean, and is not to be accepted in some wishy-washy metaphorical sense.

There. So yaboosucks. Exactly what I’m always saying – when people start with that ‘Oh but religion doesn’t mean, you know, literally believing in [trailing off vaguely] – it just means a way of feeling, a way of looking at the world, a framework.’ No it doesn’t! A feeling, a way of looking at the world, a framework, is not a religion, it’s something else. Christian doctrine means what it appears to mean, it doesn’t just mean a fondness for daffodils and clouds. Religions do make truth claims about the real world, so don’t tell me they don’t. It ain’t honest.

If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand…Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables.

Bingo. Exactly. A handy-pandy game for controversial purposes. Parable, nothing. If it’s all just a parable, then what is all the fuss about? If it’s all a parable, atheists and theists are the same thing and can stop arguing – and all those people rioting at theatres, and threatening MPs and writers and BBC producers, and sticking knives in people – they’re all just confused, they’re taking literally what everyone else means metaphorically. Yeah right.

So – I still say Orwell is way down the list of best essayists I know of, but he’s nowhere near the bottom.

That by the way was an As I Please, from 3 March 1944.

Tragedy in Brooklyn

Jun 12th, 2005 4:33 am | By

Katha Pollitt rocks.

So it’s 2005 and this is the academic question that has driven the Daily News and the right-wing New York Sun into apoplectic fits, and caused heartburn all over CUNY: Should Tim Shortell, an atheist, be allowed to assume the chair of the sociology department of Brooklyn College? You know, an atheist–someone who doesn’t believe in God. An anticleric. A disrespecter of religion. A mocker of Christianity.

This is what I’m saying. This is why atheists sometimes use noneuphemistic language. It’s because atheism is viewed and treated and spoken of as a crime and an outrage and something that ought not to be allowed. And that’s why the habit of just bashfully not mentioning the fact that theism is about truth claims that are not true, gets a little tiresome. There is a real problem here. I’ve said it before (so those who are tired of hearing it should leave now and go get an ice-cream soda or something), but I’ll just restate it again. There’s a real problem when the people who don’t say there are invisible supernatural entities (or entity) operating the cosmos are considered reprehensible, while people who do, are considered virtuous. That’s backwards. It’s the wrong way around. It reverses the terms. One might as well give prizes to bullies and sadists and throw kind helpful people in prison (which is exactly what happens in some places, and let’s not go live there).

You might as well say no Southern Baptist should be chair, since someone who believes that women should be subject to their husbands, homosexuality is evil and Jews are doomed to hell won’t be fair to female, gay or Jewish job candidates. Or no Orthodox Jew or Muslim should be chair because religious restrictions on contact with the opposite sex would privilege some job candidates over others. But nobody ever does say that. As long as a believer ascribes his views to his faith, he can say anything he wants and if you don’t like it, you’re the bigot.

Sad to say, she’s right. I’ve been seeing a certain well-known atheist (and self-proclaimed anti-theist) called a ‘bigot’ lately myself. The benefit of the doubt is always with the people of ‘faith’ (despicable word) and always against the people of reason. Well, enough of that. (Though I’m still not going to start calling myself a Bright. There are limits.)