Further Ruseana

May 6th, 2005 2:14 am | By

More Michael Ruse, I promised you. Very well then. I never forget a promise. There is
this review of Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain
from December 2003. I remember being rude about it at the time, though I can’t find the N&C I was rude in. I remember because my colleague was tiresome enough to disagree with something I said, and to say that Ruse had a point in one of the places I disagreed with him. Well I ask you – that can’t be right. Anyway, Ruse does say some odd things in this review.

But how then does Dawkins respond to the obvious retort of the religious, who have always stressed mystery? Some of the fundamental problems of philosophy are no closer to being solved today than they were at the time of the Greeks: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is this something not something else? What is mind, and are we unique? Perhaps one agrees that traditional religions—Christianity specifically—do not offer the full answers. But what is to stop a nonbeliever like myself from saying that the Christians are asking important questions and that they are right to have a little humility before the unknown?

Uh – yeah, this particular ‘one’ does agree that traditional religions don’t offer full answers. Actually I don’t think religions offer answers at all, not even partial ones. I don’t think the things they offer are answers. Because they’re not based on serious inquiry or investigation or hard thought, they’re based on revelation and a sacred book. ‘The Christians’ aren’t asking important questions, they’re making important assertions that are made up – that’s not the same thing. Of course there are Christians who ask important questions, but Christianity itself doesn’t. That’s not in its job description. It’s way too flattering to pretend otherwise. And what is this crap about humility? What is humble about making up the answers and then pretending they have some kind of weight? That’s not my idea of humility.

Then there is an old N&C on a different Ruse article. In which he said something that really got up my nose. (Something similar to the above comment, really. Yet he’s an atheist. What is it with all these atheists who fall all over themselves to misdescribe religion and give it way more credit than it deserves?)

People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs — and stays within these boundaries.

Sigh. Sure, religion aims, anybody can aim, but – oh never mind. You know what I’m going to say. Here is the article where Ruse said that and more. It’s basically about the compatibility of religion and ‘Darwinism’.

For refreshment, there is Jonathan Miller’s letter to the Guardian on Dylan Evans’ article. (I’m not the only one who was rude about it! Such a relief.)

I can’t speak for my friend Richard Dawkins, but I have no reason to believe that he naively regards science as substitute for religion (Letters, May 5). But instead of visualising it, as Dylan Evans does, as no more than “a means to an end”, Dawkins, like me, visualises the scientific worldview as an increasingly reliable representation of the way things are, and that as such it constitutes an end in itself…Even now I am disconcerted by the fact my intuitive disbelief merits a label, pejorative or otherwise. In fact if it weren’t for the intrusive indignation of those who do believe, it’s unlikely that I’d give the issue a second thought. But this doesn’t mean, as Evans insists, that people such as Dawkins and myself are crudely indifferent to the themes and concerns which religion and art express so differently, or that his supposedly more enlightened atheism puts ours to shame.

Of course it doesn’t. And it’s absurd to think otherwise.

Evans and Wolpert Chat About Atheism

May 5th, 2005 8:46 pm | By

So did you listen to Dylan Evans and Lewis Wolpert argue on ‘Today’ this morning? It was quite entertaining at first, but then they got off onto a not very rewarding tangent about religious art, and ran out of time, so the more interesting issues were left unexplored. Pity.

But there were some interesting things said before the tangent.

DE: I think many atheists behave in a rather adolescent manner, and I think that while emancipating themselves from the older religious culture that surrounds them, they insist on rather sort of showy gestures of aggression towards religion; I think it’s just time the atheists moved on and gave a more balanced view of the older religious culture that surrounds them; you know, there’s a time when we come to look at our parents with more compassion and we see them as human beings like us…

Why adolescent? That’s a trope we’ve heard before. Why? Why is criticism (or ‘showy gestures of aggression,’ which is a highly tendentious way of putting the matter) adolescent? Why isn’t it just reasoned criticism and dissent?

And as for moving on – well I’ll tell you what: I will if they will. And not otherwise. I mean, dang, is it not obvious why we don’t ‘move on’? We don’t ‘move on’ because unfortunately religion is not merely a matter of pretty pictures and pretty music, is it. As Lewis Wolpert pointed out:

But to value religion for its beauty, and to ignore the damage that it does to our society, just take all the stuff about contraception, and AIDS, and stem cells, and things like that, and all the holy wars, and [inaudible] see beauty in it is bizarre beyond words.

And why the parental comparison? Is that to shore up the untenable ‘adolescent’ epithet? Religion isn’t my parent, and I’m not ‘rebelling’ against it like an angry teenager. I don’t want it to loan me the car or wash my clothes or quit nagging me about my hair. Or is it there to stand in for religious people whom we’re supposed to look at with more compassion? But then why not just say that, why bring up parents with their inevitable whiff of Oedipal struggle and general babyishness? I’m all grown up, thanks, and my atheism has nothing whatever to do with adolescent rebellion. That’s a belittling, trivializing, patronizing comparison, as is the bit about showy gestures and adolescent manner. Well – if atheists deserve all this trivialization and belittling, what do theists deserve? Eh?

…so many of my fellow atheists – we can’t seem to get them to move on from the tired old religion-bashing and articulate a more content-full account of the way that they find meaning in a godless universe, and I think that’s important, I think it’s something that atheists are just not living up to really – a positive account of their own view of life…There’s a failure to try and see things from the other person’s point of view, and not even for a minute to try and adopt their perspective even for a second so that one could see what it actually seems like for the religious person, I think that it’s incumbent upon atheists who proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance and – to actually give an example to other people of the kind of tolerance they preach.

Tired old religion-bashing. Well, there again, religion-bashing is not nearly as tired – not within shouting distance of as tired – as religion itself is, not to mention atheism-bashing. And then – why are atheists obliged to ‘articulate a more content-full account of the way that they find meaning in a godless universe’? Why is that our job? Why is anything our job? Why are we supposed to give an account of ourselves? As if – what – theism is the default position, so anyone who isn’t a theist has some explaining to do? As in the Guardian article, Evans is arguing as if atheism is a system, an ideology, a worked-out established wide-ranging doctrine, when in fact it is merely the absence of one. And by the same token – atheists don’t ‘proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance.’ I wouldn’t dream of such a thing, myself. Much less would I ‘preach’ the stuff.

Evans’ whole case seems to rely on a mischaracterization of atheism as simply an inversion of religion, as like religion but turned inside out, but that’s nonsense. I won’t call it adolescent nonsense though. I’m far too polite and tolerant for that.

The Problem is not New

May 4th, 2005 2:12 am | By

We have some allies in the battle against Ruseism and Evansism. PZ at Pharyngula is kind enough to say that I’ve been on a tear lately. Pardon me while I blush and simper. But then who could help being on a tear, with so much provocation around. Anyway PZ is helping with the tearing and shredding, which is good, because my desk is about to collapse under the weight of work I have on hand.

Evans has this idea that religion is a kind of symbolic art, and that atheists are criticizing it as a bad painting, while all the good religious people are sharing his view of it as an elaborate metaphor for life. That is false. Atheists can appreciate the religious music of Bach, the quality of some of the books of the Bible—I even have a favorite book—and that the concentration of wealth in the religious hierarchy has supported a lot of great art and literature and thought. Most atheists are not interested in taking a flamethrower to the next choir singing Handel’s Messiah. Likewise, it is ludicrous to imply that religious people are largely sensible of the metaphorical nature of religion and share his view of it. Face it: most religious people in the western world believe that god is real. Heaven and hell are real. Jesus is god. Etc., etc., etc. They do mistake the art of religion for reality, and as he condescendingly puts it, must be “only a child”.

Indeed they do. If they didn’t (bless their hearts) there wouldn’t be any problem, would there. If everyone agreed that this was all just a story, there would not be any problem! Obviously! There aren’t any campaigns to force schools to teach that Hamlet was King of England from 1555 to 1603. There is no Osama bin Laden-equivalent who wants us all to live according to the morals and manners of The Tale of Genji. There is no Pat Robertson who wants us all to model ourselves on Dorothea Brooke. There is no pope who spends her time issuing edicts and encyclicals about what really happened in Pride and Prejudice. There are no settlers building houses in disputed territory because they think it was promised to them by a character in Little Dorritt. There is no guy in the White House who thinks he doesn’t have to think about anything carefully because King Lear wants him to be where he is and do whatever he decides to do. If the whole mess were art and nothing else – then it wouldn’t always be telling us what to do and peddling ignorance every chance it gets. It wouldn’t be threatened by everyone who doesn’t buy its fantasies.

PZ also commented on the Michael Ruse article. And I did a search at B&W to find some other Ruse material. There’s this review in the LRB of a book of his on the supposed relationship between science and religion. Sounds ghastly, as Marvin would say.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are usually doomed to failure, as in the Radio 4 exchange, because nearly all religions make claims about the real world – the domain of science – that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Faced with these difficulties, advocates resort to circumlocution, sophistry or absurd speculations that offend both scientists and believers. Despite the difficulties involved, however, reconciling science and faith remains a popular project…Michael Ruse’s book is an astonishing contribution to this literature. It astonishes because of the bravado of its thesis. Instead of espousing Gould’s tame view that religion and science are distinct but complementary, Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science, maintains that at least one form of science (Darwinism) and one form of religion (Christianity) are mutually reinforcing. They are reconcilable, he asserts, because virtually every tenet of conservative Christianity, including original sin, the immortality of the soul and moral choice, is immanent within Darwinism and an inevitable result of the evolutionary process.

Hoo-boy. Read the whole thing – it’s interesting. The reviewer is polite but deeply unconvinced.

Perhaps aware of the weakness of his arguments, Ruse makes a final evolutionary plea to sceptics: ‘We are middle-range primates with the adaptations to get down out of the trees, and to live on the plains in social groups. We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown.’ One can only wish that Ruse had heeded his own advice. In the words of the physicist Richard Feynman: ‘I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.’

That’s enough for the moment. There’s a lot more Ruse, but there aren’t a lot more hours in the day. More later.

No Respect

May 4th, 2005 1:16 am | By

I meant to do this sooner but things have been horribly busy. But a correspondent tells me that Oona King needs all the volunteers she can get; the SWP and the MAB will be out in force on election day. I’m 6000 miles from Bow and Bethnal Green, but I know some of you are much closer than that. Her office is 0207 613 4749.

I thought it was just a large watermelon

May 3rd, 2005 5:41 pm | By

Update on the Dylan Evans article. New information. This just in. Your correspondent has learned. In short, my colleague tells me that Dylan Evans has said sensible things at times. For instance in a certain philosophy magazine that my colleague has something to do with.

It’s very confounding, frankly. Because some of the things he says in that there magazine seem diametrically opposed to the things he says in that Guardian article. Are there pod people in his garden, I wonder? Or has he simply had a radical change of mind.

For instance, from a TPM-sponsored public debate on the issues raised by a paper given by Professor John Dupré at the
Mind/ Aristotelian Society Joint Session titled ‘Against Reductionist
Explanations of Human Behaviour’ in which Evans was the other protagonist and the chair was Ian McEwan.

Dylan Evans began by noting that science has always had to face down its
detractors. ‘They sit, Canute like, on the sands of obscurantism, shouting
in vein at the advancing tide of knowledge. “Get back! Come no further!
Leave me this little piece of unexplained territory!” Thankfully, science
takes no notice. The Promethean spirit that animates scientific enquiry,
that terrifying curiosity that inhabits the human soul, always proves
stronger than the fear of knowledge that opposes it.’

The Promethean spirit? That terrifying curiosity? Does that jibe with the hostile and, frankly, inaccurate characterization of science in the Guardian article? Especially with this bit –

But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science – in its depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man’s heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind.

Well. Maybe with some very determined hammering, the two can be made to fit. It depends what he means by ‘transcendent meaning,’ I suppose (but then what does anyone ever mean by that handy, elusive, capacious phrase?). But surely a Promethean spirit of terrifying curiosity is one form of transcendent meaning. (And in fact arguably a far better one than actual, existing religion, as opposed to the wishful religion that Evans has in mind, provides. Religion gives such dull, limited, closed, unexciting answers to the questions humans ask, after all. They’re about as Promethean as a Sunday advertising supplement in the newspaper.) And the Promethean thing, the terrifying curiosity thing – that seems to me to have far more to do with ‘longing’ than religion does. Religion does the opposite of the Promethean, it doesn’t keep looking for more, opening newer doors, it just seals everything off. It’s not really about longing so much as it is about termination. About giving inadequate answers to large questions.

Evans noted that ‘although the
evidence for evolution is overwhelming today, there are still those who
ignore it. Over half the US population still believes in the literal truth
of Genesis. Thankfully, the population in the UK is somewhat more
enlightened on this matter. Few people here seriously doubt that we evolved
from other life forms. But even in the UK, there is still a widespread
reluctance to take this idea to its logical conclusion, namely, that our
minds are just as much the product of evolution as our bodies. This is
Canutism. The new Canutes admit that the tide has come further up the shore.
Science has already claimed the human body as its own, they recognise, but
please don’t let it claim the human mind.’

Evans is taking religion awfully literally there. Why doesn’t he just treat it as a metaphor?

And then from another piece, this one written by Evans, about a public discussion at LSE between Alan Sokal and Bruno Latour.

Latour was clearly the most accomplished
public speaker, often raising hoots of laughter with his quips and
one-liners. Latour’s rhetorical skill, however, was not matched by a
corresponding level of logical rigour. Indeed, many felt that his
entertaining performance was deployed to conceal the lack of clarity in his
argument. Sokal, on the other hand, while not so accomplished an
entertainer, was crystal clear, and made the most incisive arguments. Again
and again he pressed Latour to clarify his position, but to no avail; Latour
gave contradictory responses, first speaking in terms that could only be
construed as highly constructivist, then denying that his position was
relativist when challenged by Sokal. The result was a rather frustrating
debate, in which the speakers never quite managed to make contact. Sokal
tried valiantly to clarify some complex issues, but was defeated by Latour’s
apparently deliberate obfuscation and ambiguity. Some might put this down
simply to a clash between two very different intellectual traditions; those
of Anglo-American philosophy of science and French cultural criticism. This,
however, merely avoids the real issue, which is not merely a question of
cultural differences – the issue of scientific objectivity. Unfortunately,
the debate will not get any further until the Latours of this world learn to
speak and write with greater clarity.

No comment.

Strange, isn’t it? Either there’s a pod in his garden, or he’s just had a radical change of mind. But I have to say, I don’t think the change of mind has done much for the clarity of his writing.

Who Needs an Excuse?

May 3rd, 2005 2:00 am | By

Oh honestly. What was that I said about the unending flood? Here is another break in the dam – more nonsense than I’ve seen in one place for a long time. (Well not all that long. There was that Butlerian review the other day, and that item where paganism meets disability rights and gets spectacularly tangled in its own feet. But a long time if you’re waiting for lunch, anyway.) If you can read this without wanting to be violently sick – then there’s something wrong with your cognitive functioning and I want nothing further to do with you.

There are many species of atheism, just as there are many species of religion. But while many religions still thrive, most of the atheisms that have ever existed are now extinct. The non-religious person today is, therefore, rather like a person who wanders into a shop to buy a breakfast cereal and finds only one variety is for sale. Moreover, this variety isn’t very tasty, because the kind of atheism that flourishes today is old and tired.

Oh for Christ’s sake. Start off with a bang why don’t you. That is so stupid. There aren’t many species of atheism, because atheism isn’t like religion, so it’s no good saying ‘just as there are many species of religion’ as if that made it true. Religion is all about multiplying entities, and about making up stuff to believe; atheism isn’t, it’s just about not believing the stuff other people have made up. It’s not a belief, it’s not a religion, it’s not a mirror-image of religion only with minus signs where the pluses should be. It’s just not believing there is a god, that’s all. It’s not old and tired today because there’s nothing to be old and tired. It’s not a system, not an ideology, not a set of postulates or rules or myths; it’s just non-belief in a deity. It’s no more stale and tired than all the other things we don’t believe, because there’s no bread to get stale. My non-belief in the Great Pumpkin isn’t stale, so why should my non-belief in ‘God’ be? No earthly reason. People just think it sounds deep or wise or shrewd to say so. Well it doesn’t.

Today’s prominent atheists – people such as Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins – hawk around a belief system that reeks of the 19th century, which is not surprising, for that is when it was born. Dawkins is virulently anti-religious, passionately pro-science and artistically illiterate – thus manifesting all three of the main characteristics of the old atheism in a particularly pure form.

[Taking tight grip on temper and speaking through clenched teeth] It is not a belief system! It’s not even an it; it’s the negation of an it. Therefore it wasn’t born in the 19th century, because it wasn’t born. It’s just not believing in god or gods. Not believing is not believing. How else can one say it? Saying ‘I don’t believe X’ is not a belief system, it’s the opposite of a belief system, because it’s the rejection of one. It’s not incompatible with a belief system, or many, of course, but it itself is not a god damn belief system, it’s the refusal of one! Pay attention, dammit, Dylan Evans.

Furthermore, Dawkins is emphatically not artistically illiterate. Dylan Evans can’t have read Unweaving the Rainbow or he wouldn’t have said that.

My kind of atheism takes issue with the old atheism on all three of its main tenets: it values religion; treats science as simply a means to an end; and finds the meaning of life in art. When I say that I value religion, I don’t mean that I see any truth in the stories about gods, devils, souls and saviours. But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science – in its depiction of the long ing for transcendent meaning that lies in man’s heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind.

Garbage. Complete, unadulterated garbage. Wrong and uncomprehending in every word. Wrong about atheism, stupid about science, wrong about religion.

Atheists who attack religions for painting a false picture of the world are as unsophisticated and immature as religious believers, who mistake the picture for reality. The only mature attitude to religion is to see it for what it is – a kind of art, which only a child could mistake for reality, and which only a child would reject for being false.

More nonsense. Atheists attack religions for ‘painting a false picture of the world’ because that’s what religions damn well do! Dylan’s hearts and flowers let’s sniff the buttercups version is very sweet and nice but it’s not religion, is it. It’s not the Vatican banning condoms and telling women how to live, it’s not Islam forbidding people to leave Islam, it’s not creationists trying to get religion taught in biology class. Dylan’s version might be a nice idea. If all believers read his article and decided ‘oh, I see, it’s all a metaphor’ and immediately began living accordingly starting right now today, I would be delighted. But guess what, they’re not going to, are they. That being the case, there is still every reason to ‘attack’ or rather criticise religions for painting a false picture of the world, and one doesn’t have to subscribe to a ‘belief system’ to do so; one can just recognize bullshit when one sees it.

Transcendental Science

May 2nd, 2005 8:53 pm | By

Good. After Michael Ruse it’s a relief to read Dawkins on the same general subject.

You can’t statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you’re still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that’s because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.

And it’s no good pretending otherwise, is it, especially if you simply can’t possibly believe that otherwise. It’s ridiculous to expect it. And then, it’s not as if religion is uniformly and reliably beneficent, or even harmless. That’s worth keeping in mind too, when people get indignant with atheists who actually have the bad taste and lack of tact to say they are atheists. There’s that little matter of the Vatican and condoms, just for instance…

A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent.

Sometimes quietly violent, but nonetheless violent for that. The Vatican doesn’t go into Africa and Latin American with machine guns blazing, but it might as well. It abuses its ridiculous undeserved power, to order people to kill themselves and their relatives for no good reason; it causes the deaths of millions by that abuse of power; that’s pretty violent.

And you see the same problem of the inability of reasoned argument to adjudicate between incompatible beliefs in the case of religious hatred of homosexuality – or sodomy, as I heard some charm-boy call it on C-Span the other day. They can’t for the life of them come up with a good reason for it – but so what? They don’t need to. They are convinced that their invented god hates it, and that’s all they need. Reasoned argument doesn’t come into it. Secularists are always at a disadvantage in that situation, because the believers just brush off the reasoned arguments; they throw up what they ‘know’ as if it were a magic shield – and for them it is.

“Unweaving the Rainbow” specifically attacks the idea that a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic worldview makes life seem meaningless. Quite the contrary, the scientific worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades — before we die forever — in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That’s the kind of privileged century in which we live. That’s what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it’s the only life I’ve got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.

Testify, brother. You rock.

A Subtle Ruse, But It Won’t Do

May 1st, 2005 9:43 pm | By

Michael Ruse. [shakes head] I don’t know, I just don’t know. I simply can’t agree. I think he’s wrong. I think it’s bad (or at least dubious) tactics and I think it’s even worse morality and epistemology.

But those are two different things. I know, I know. Is and ought; facts and values. But lying about the one takes you into questions about the other. Which is a roundabout way of saying that even if it were good tactics I don’t think it’s morally respectable to tell lies about what you take to be the truth for tactical reasons. At least not on the whole; not in general; not as a rule. In life and death situations (a murderer with an axe asks you where the little girl with the dear little puppy is because he wants to sell her life insurance, that kind of thing) it’s different; but as a general principle, we shouldn’t go around saying the stork brings babies and there is a thriving colony of utopian hemp-farmers on a planet behind the Hale-Bopp comet, simply to appease and mollify a lot of damn fools who think so and will get all offended and bent and slit-eyed if we contradict them. Especially, frankly, people who are educators, shouldn’t do that. Especially people who occupy chairs that are actually named ‘for the public understanding of science.’ People like that just have an occupational duty not to pretend to believe in a nice man in the sky who makes all our boo-boos go away simply because a lot of sentimentalists want to go on thinking so forever and ever amen and if we don’t let them then they’ll trash science education. Therefore I find it highly irritating that Ruse keeps telling them they should. I’ve upbraided him about it before, and he’s still at it.

Virtually every prominent Darwinian in recent decades has eschewed social Darwinism, and most believe that evolution itself, while responsible for the increased complexity of organic forms over time, cannot be regarded as a linear process driving toward a particular endpoint. But Ruse asserts that popular contemporary biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also exacerbated the divisions between evolutionists and creationists by directly challenging the validity of religious belief – Dawkins by repeatedly declaring his atheism (”faith,” he once wrote, ”is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”), and Wilson by describing his ”search for objective reality” as a replacement for religious seeking.

But what are they supposed to do? What the hell is wrong with Dawkins’ ‘repeatedly’ declaring his atheism? And what is he supposed to do instead – lie? Shut up? What? And why should he do either one? When theists get to go on the radio and talk everyone else into the ground – why are atheists supposed to zip it? Oh, it makes me tired, this kind of thing. And there’s always more of it. It’s just an unending flood. It’s all the more depressing when people like Ruse join in.

Ruse, a self-identified agnostic, acknowledges the ”thrilling quality” of Dawkins’s writing but says he objects to adamantly anti-religion statements coming from a scientist. ”I don’t have any more belief than Dawkins,” he says. ”But I do think it matters that he is making it very difficult for those of us who care about evolution to put forward a reasonable face to the reasonable portion [of the public] in the middle.”

But there again. That just seems to be saying people should lie either explicitly or by omission, merely for tactical reasons. It’s appeasment, that’s all, and it doesn’t even work. The more people mollify religious zealots, the more the zealots demand. That’s all there is to it. There’s no such thing as satisfying them by just kind of moderating the tone. If you’re not completely on their team, you’re one of the lost, to be turned into pools of unsavory liquid when Jeezis comes back with his ray-gun or whatever it is. And the more they are appeased, the more they go on bullying, and the more likely atheists are to think that they are the only atheists on earth and they’d better not say anything lest they be sliced up with a dull razor.

And then he ends up asking exactly the question I’m asking.

”What am I supposed to do?” he asks in response. ”I’m an academic. I believe in freedom. I believe the most important thing you can do is criticize your own ideas.”

Eh? You’re an academic, you believe in freedom, so you’re spending your energy telling other academics not to say what they think is true, so that they won’t make creationists even angrier than they already are? Does that compute? What are they supposed to do, I keep wanting to know.

And by the way. When are newspapers going to start making their reporters take that course in elementary thinking straight. What’s wrong with this beginning?

In states from Alabama to Pennsylvania, supporters are attempting to restrict the teaching of evolution – and introduce their current favorite theory, Intelligent Design, into the classroom…And such efforts may be having an effect. According to a Gallup survey released last November, only about a third of Americans believe that Darwin’s theory is well supported by the scientific evidence, while nearly half believe that humans were created in more or less their present form 10,000 years ago. What accounts for this revival?

See it? See the problem? What revival? What effect? We can’t tell. We haven’t got a clue. The reporter just gave us one survey; we don’t have anything to compare it to. For all we know the figures ten years ago were 100% One survey is not useful for comparative purposes or for deducing a ‘revival.’

I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found

May 1st, 2005 2:07 am | By

Wow. If you can read this story without getting choked or moved or stirred or some other way shaken, you’re a stronger man than I am, Gunga Din. But then I’m a sucker for resurrection stories.

The spectacular ivory-billed woodpecker, which was declared extinct in 1920, has been found alive in North America, Science magazine reports. The news has stunned ornithologists worldwide, with some comparing the discovery to finding the dodo…The find has ignited hope that other “extinct” birds may be clinging on to survival in isolated places. “This find is so significant that it is really difficult to describe,” Alistair Gammell, of the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told BBC News. “We sadly won’t rediscover the dodo, but it is almost on that level.” Frank Gill, of the US National Audubon Society, added: “This is huge, just huge. It is kind of like finding Elvis.”

I love the idea of ornithologists worldwide being stunned. For once I’m not being sarky, I really do. It’s kind of thrilling. (If you’re not careful I’ll tell you about the time I went along on a zoo field trip to release a couple of rehabilitated [after injury] bald eagles into the wild. That was thrilling, if you like.)

The discovery was first made on 11 February 2004, by Gene Sparling, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, who was kayaking in a reserve in Big Woods. He saw an unusually large red-crested woodpecker fly towards him and land on a nearby tree. He said the creature did not look quite like anything he had seen before, so he contacted Cornell University’s Living Bird magazine. After a team of experts interviewed him, they felt they might be onto something special.

See? The suspense builds. There they are, that team of experts, eyeing each other and thinking ‘…Could it be? It sounds like – but surely – but could it be?’ Quaking with excitement, I’ll bet.

John Fitzpatrick, of Cornell University, headed the search party, which included Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird. Within a month, Dr Gallagher had seen the ivory-billed woodpecker for himself. Describing the moment he first set eyes on it, he said: “Just to think this bird made it into the 21st Century gives me chills. “It’s like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave.”

Laugh at me if you like, but I love that story! Imagine that moment – when he first set eyes on it! I don’t care what you say. It’s thrilling.

Update. There you are. I wrote that before I saw the Telegraph story.

Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama, interviewed Sparling and they were so convinced that they went back to the same bayou. On Feb 27 a large bird flew less than 70ft in front of Gallagher and Harrison, who together cried “ivory-bill!” “When we finished our notes,” Gallagher said, “Bobby sat on a log and began to sob, saying, ‘I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.'” Gallagher said he was too choked with emotion to speak.

‘Ivory-bill!’ I was choked just reading the BBC story; imagine what it would have been like to be there and see it. ‘Ivory-bill!’

Wormwood Scrubs For Me, Thanks

Apr 28th, 2005 9:16 pm | By

Really, it is a wonder that anyone goes into teaching, and even more of one that anyone stays. It sounds a hell of a lot worse than being a prison guard.

‘One of the most important things about Classroom Chaos is that the schools were chosen randomly by Thomas’s supply teacher agencies, and most had been identified by Ofsted as being average or better than average,’ he said.
‘The situation was so constant that we can confidently say anti-social behaviour is an everyday reality in classrooms across Britain,’ he added. ‘It is an appalling situation and one which must not be allowed to continue: education is being strangled.’

Lest you think it’s any better in the US, it’s not. I have friends who’ve gone into teaching and gone right back out again, it was so hellish. I have other friends who’ve stayed, but they live with a lot of frustration.

Thomas estimates that, on average, she failed to teach anything at all in four out of six lessons a day. Experienced teachers to whom she spoke confirmed that they lose around two to three months a year of effective teaching through struggling to control antisocial classroom behaviour…Thomas assumed the fault must lie with her teaching methods until she asked heads of departments to visit her classes and found her efforts were praised. ‘It was when I heard lessons being taught by full-time teachers whose pupils were just as loud as mine, and who were having to shout at them just as much as I was, that I realised the state of my classrooms was normal,’ she said.

Teachers comment on this article, one confirmation after another. It’s a depressing read.

Update: link now added. How absent-minded I am…Probably my teachers’ fault.

Hold the Irony

Apr 27th, 2005 8:07 pm | By

Michael Lynch has a terrific article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed – about liberalism and passion and communitarianism, and truth, commitment, relativism, Rawls and comprehensive liberalism, and the fact that liberals do in fact have actual commitments, that they can argue and defend with passion.

Social conservatives have long argued that progressive liberals, in trumpeting individual rights, ignore traditional communities as a source of value…But as the neocons are well aware, traditional family values frequently clash with liberal values…Some traditional communities are rife with intolerant oppression — precisely the sort of thing that enlightenment liberalism is presumably meant to combat. Surely liberals needn’t tolerate intolerance.
Walzer valiantly attempts to deal with that concern. But in the end, his principle argument is resistible. Consider a hypothetical local religious community that does not value equal education for boys and girls. According to Walzer, if we are to compel our traditional community to educate its girls, we shouldn’t appeal to individual rights; we should appeal to the pragmatic demands of citizenship.

No thanks. I don’t want to defend my right to read any books that men read on the basis that I’m more useful to the state that way, I want to defend it precisely on the basis of individual equal rights. I want to defend it on the same basis I used to defend my rights as the youngest of three children: ‘It’s not fair!’ Fairness, and the sense of it and of its lack, is not some kind of gilding or cake frosting; it’s central to having a reasonably healthy sense of how we fit in the world. If we’re systematically and formally given inferior treatment, we either think we deserve it, or become twisted with rage, or both.*

In my view, the reason that liberals are sometimes perceived as passionless isn’t because liberal values are in need of a communitarian correction. The reason is that some liberals misunderstand, and therefore misrepresent, their own values. In particular, they misunderstand their values in a way that has made them wary of describing their own moral position as true. And that is bad. For once you cease thinking of your values — your fundamental moral beliefs — as objectively true, it is hard to even think of them as values at all. And without political values, there simply is no place for political passion.

The worry is that if you think your values are true you immediately turn into Bob Jones III, or perhaps Pope Rottweiler.

In recoiling from that position, some left-leaning thinkers have argued that liberals need to adopt what the philosopher Richard Rorty calls an “ironic” attitude toward our own liberal principles. If we want to be truly tolerant, the thought goes, we need to stop seeing liberal views about equality and tolerance as objective moral truths. Instead, we should see them as morally neutral. Otherwise, we risk being intolerant about tolerance.

Yeah. I don’t want to be truly tolerant. I have no desire to be tolerant of people who throw petrol bombs at marathons because women are allowed to run in them. I want them to stop doing that, and go away and stop telling women what to do. Sometimes tolerance just isn’t the right tool for the job in hand.

As philosophers like Joseph Raz have argued, liberalism isn’t value-neutral, nor should it be. Liberal values like tolerance and equality are just that — liberal values, neither merely “true for us” nor ethically inert. Rather, they are part of a particularly liberal ideal of the good life — an abstract ideal but an ideal nonetheless.

Yup. Ideals are good things. Funny, I just dug up a quotation a couple of hours ago in which Franz Boas called himself (in a letter to his sister) an ‘unregenerate idealist.’ I like unregenerate idealists. Boas’ idealism led to some unfortunate epistemic consequences in anthropology, but he was a mensch. Not an ironic mensch, just a mensch.

*This doesn’t apply to the treatment I received as the youngest of three children. Such gross injustices as not being allowed to put my feet on the sofa, and not getting to sit in the front seat of the car, when my brother and sister were and did, were gradually rectified over the years. I got over it.

The Struggle Continues

Apr 27th, 2005 7:24 pm | By

Well at least some people are fighting back. I sure do hope they succeed.

Placard-waving women protesting against the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan demonstrated outside the national parliament yesterday after a mob attacked female runners. The attack has spurred worries about the growing influence of Islamic extremists.
A week ago baton-wielding men threw petrol bombs and torched vehicles at a mini-marathon in Gujranwala…

Which was one of the first to allow women to participate. Can’t have that. Women are things, sluts, devils, son-factories, and on all those counts they must not be allowed to – well, do anything, really.

“This has got to stop,” said a protester, Aisha Shaukat, outside parliament yesterday. “These mullahs want us to just stay home, have children and God knows what else.” She stood before a placard that read: “The obscenity is in your mind.” Others handed out leaflets saying: “We the citizens condemn this Talibanisation”. Newspaper columnists and other critics have made frequent comparisons between the social agenda of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a powerful alliance of Islamic political parties spearheading the rise of the religious right in Pakistan, and the Taliban.

God know what else all right: nothing. Stay home, have children, and nothing else. That’s the goal. The plan for women is to make them nothing, and their lives nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. That’s what the black bags are all about: to make them look as much as possible like an ambulatory negation. An absence. A blank.

The Gujranwala race was attacked by supporters of the MMA. Since gaining control of the provincial government in North West Frontier Province two years ago, the MMA has banned music and dancing in public, torn down advertising billboards featuring women, and introduced gender segregation on college campuses…”Marathons are not objectionable – as long as the menfolk and womenfolk run separately,” said Syed Munawar Hassan, a senior MMA leader. “Every society is not an American or western society. We have our own package of values.”

Who’s we, bub? Not all Pakistanis want your package of values. That’s why you’re resorting to petrol bombs.


Apr 26th, 2005 7:18 pm | By

So what is going on here? Why is this issue not on the radar?

David Hadley asks:

…within these oppressive religious regimes – in this case strict Islam – there is a form of sexual apartheid too. Where women don’t even get the luxury of being even second-class citizens. Which makes me wonder why none of the left-wing ‘progressive’ media are calling for sanctions and boycotts of these regimes.

Surely it is a great cause for them to rally behind, isn’t it?

Karl adds:

there’s that post-colonial guilt thing going on. Women’s rights, gay rights, individual rights–they’re all so modern and western. They’re all undermining those fragile traditional cultures and turning everyone into atomized consumers who exist without real purpose in shiny soulless Corporate World. Sympathy is reserved for those proud noble tribesmen who are fighting to preserve their unique cultural heritage.

Karl nailed it, I think. It’s the authenticity thing. I was pondering this the other day – why do right-on people feel slightly (or sometimes more than slightly) uneasy about rationalist atheist feminist people from Third World countries when they don’t feel that way about atheists, rationalists, feminists from First World countries? I think it is a guilt thing. The background idea (generally, I think, not very carefully thought about or examined, as background ideas often aren’t, which is why we call them background ideas, hence one that may be vulnerable to argument, eventually) that rationalism etc are ‘Western’ importations and contaminations; that they are not authentic. I think the background idea behind that background idea is a vague postcolonialist guilt about taking away distant people’s authenticity. This relies, of course, on the still further background idea that irrational and anti-rational ideas are natural and authentic while the other kind are not (or else some even weirder idea that they’re in the DNA of Western people and not that of Third World people). I think this is an easy idea to slide into – I think I used to do it myself, hence this hypothesis is partly an extrapolation from my own lumber room of formless unexamined assumptions. I suppose we have some sort of mental picture of rationalist atheist (that’s inaccurate of course, but that’s just it) thrusting capitalist imperialism from The West injecting itself as if from a giant syringe or sexual organ into the irrationalist theist traditionalist rural homogeneous Nonwest. And of that Nonwest as uniformly and consistently Different – Other, you know – from The West, therefore (by definition) not rationalist or atheist or feminist, because those are all items in the syringe. A mental picture of the Third World as something rather like the way women used to be conceptualised – shapeless, formless, chaotic, swirling, opaque, mysterious, and above all uniformly and everywhere completely different from the invading exploiting uninvited imperialists.

In other words, I think there is a tendency to assume that for instance feminism is an importation from the West and that therefore it is, one, not authentic, and two, a contamination. It’s almost a kind of touristy idea. We don’t go to Bombay or Jakarta to eat at McDonald’s, and we don’t go there to encounter rationalist feminists of the kind we could find on any corner in Camden Town or Cambridge. Nosir. When we go abroad, god damn it, we want our exoticism, we want authentic traditionalism and primitivsm. Well, hey, what could be more primitive than oppression of women? Hah? Not much.

And there’s a feeling that it’s too easy. That’s another outcropping of the postcolonialist guilt thing. It’s too easy for us to prefer our own ideas. What’s difficult is to force ourselves to accept the things that trouble us. It’s easy to eat unfamiliar food, but to accept unfamiliar morality, that’s not so easy. So, people often unfortunately conclude, because this acceptance is difficult, therefore it is the right thing to do. Uh oh. Red flag. Wrong, Wrong, wrong, wrong. Look – the mere fact that it is difficult for us to accept that the oppression of women is okay, does not mean that it is in fact okay. It’s not a useful moral exercise for us to force ourselves to think that cruelty and deprivation are good things. That ‘too easy’ thought is one that should put people on alert. It may be a useful insight, and the starting point for asking ‘why do I think this particular idea or taboo is right?’ but it may also be a disastrous starting point for accepting horrors.

Of course all this is all wrong anyway. It simply assumes that only one kind of thinking, one kind of morality, is ‘authentic,’ and that others are importations and injections. But that’s nonsense. The West has no monopoly on rationalism and feminism (and it could be considered quite arrogant and Eurocentric and ethnocentric to think it does) and the Nonwest has no monopoly on irrationalism and antifeminism. Ideas don’t have DNA, and they don’t have passports. Anybody can think of anything. It’s insulting and ridiculous to think or even assume that atheists and feminists from Iran or Pakistan or anywhere else are the slightest bit less ‘authentic’ than misogynist theists are. So get over it, already. Tariq Ramadan is not more ‘authentic’ than Azam Kamguian, any more than the BJP is more ‘authentic’ than Amartya Sen. The ideas need to be judged on their merits. The oppression and subordination of women does not become more noble or acceptable because it’s enacted by ‘devout’ Muslims, any more than the oppression and subordination of dalits becomes more noble or acceptable because it’s enacted by ‘devout’ Hindus. Authenticity is an idea whose time has gone.

Cultural Highlights

Apr 26th, 2005 2:03 am | By

And a little more again, about that conference at the UN, because Azam sent me the link to this Commission on Human Rights report, and it has more detail than the news articles. You should read it.

Ms. Azam Kamguian from Iran was the first speaker in the session on ‘Infidels and Apostates’. She started by describing her own experience; growing up with an all powerful and pious father. The temptation to subordinate her being to God was very strong but when she was an adolescent she decided that she did not need religion to tell her who she was. “Even though I left Islam, I had to live with it”, she stated.
According to an extremist interpretation of the Sharia Law, the greatest sin is disbelief. Non-believers and atheists do not have the right to life and apostasy is punishable by death. There was a case where a man was executed for having converted his wife. Even in the academic community, discussions of the Koran are considered to be taboo. According to Ms. Kamguian, Islam should be subject to criticism. Currently, if someone criticizes Islam in Iran they face death.

Yep, it’s hard to disagree with the statement that Islam should be subject to criticism, as should any other religion. But…it’s not a news flash that criticism of Islam is not exactly popular in a lot of right-on circles. In fact it’s taboo. So deafening silence greets conferences like this one. Where is the Guardian, eh?

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the “freedom to change religion or belief”. Mr. Ibn Warraq observed the discrepancy between this standard and the situation in Muslim countries. He first described the evolution of Islam in regard to its position on apostates. The Koran prescribes condemnation for apostates only in the next world, but this has evolved to mean those who change religion must be killed. In some countries, such as Sudan and Mauritania, the penal code provides the death penalty for apostasy. Also, Muslim theologians are aware that apostasy can tempt Muslim women to free themselves from Sharia law and they have taken measures to prevent this from happening. In fighting causes of apostasy and bringing changes to the Muslim world, Mr. Warraq sees one solution: “without any post-colonial guilt, we must defend our values. We still have freedom of expression and the right to criticize Islam”. In this sense, publications in the West are very important in helping populations in Islamic countries.

Aren’t they though. So isn’t it too bad they aren’t helping. Because of post-colonial guilt, no doubt. How depressing it is…

Ms. Fourest listed three main reasons why Muslim extremism is more threatening today. First, Muslim movements compete by rejecting and resisting western modernization. This, in turn, encourages them to add extreme elements to their religion, such as the veil or genital mutilation. These used not to be commonplace, but now “the veil has become almost the sixth pillar of Islam”, she stated. Second, the degree of secularization in Muslim states is non-existent. On that point, Ms. Fourest drew a comparison. Jewish women in Mea Shearim may face the same oppression as those of Tehran, but the former have access to justice, whereas the latter will be put in jail by the state itself. The third factor, mostly playing in places where Islam is a minority religion, is cultural relativism. The minority is expected to continue its “cultural” practices, including wearing the veil, genital mutilations or stoning, for the “folklore”, Ms. Fourest said. Indeed, cultural relativism is a real danger and must be addressed first, since it deprives those who are fighting extremism of the support that progressive humanists should grant them.

Exactly. Cultural relativism deprives those who are fighting extremism of the support that progressive humanists should grant them. Indeed it does. It never stops surprising me how completely this subject gets ignored.

Finally, Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, member of the Dutch Parliament and women’s rights activist, recalled all the discriminations and atrocities suffered by Muslim women in the world. These include the need to be granted permission by a man in order to leave the house; the right of men to divorce their wives by repeating ‘I divorce you’ three times; wearing the veil; inheriting less than men and feminine genital mutilations. “The only way out is education. We must stop financing faith based schools in Europe”, Ms. Hirsi Ali said.

And Hirsi Ali has to have police protection, and, if you remember, has to live in hotels away from her desk and books and papers; she can’t work, her life has been trashed. But – hey – that’s their culture.

For Example

Apr 24th, 2005 8:12 pm | By

A little more about that meeting and press conference at the UN last week. It’s interesting that one of the available articles is from the CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – since Canada has some ‘issues’ itself on this stuff, as regular readers of B&W know. Homa Arjomand has been working tirelessly to oppose the introduction of Sharia law in Ontario, but Ontario in its wisdom has not changed its decision. Ontario should have been at the UN last Monday. Ontario needs to pay attention.

Hirsi Ali, a Somali immigrant who has become a prominent women’s advocate in the Dutch parliament, said European countries have to accept that women are more threatened within Muslim communities than in their wider secular societies. Governments must take measures to protect these vulnerable women, even if such action is deemed culturally insensitive to the Islamic community or leads to accusations of anti-Muslim bias, she said. “If you look at the women’s shelters in the Netherlands, the majority of the victims are women from non-Western countries and the majority of them are Muslim women,” she said. “Liberal democratic governments are not interfering because they argue that that’s their culture,” she added.

And if they’re Ontario they go beyond not interfering, and actually help. Not clever. Not even all that culturally sensitive, really. Culturally sensitive toward fundamentalists who want to push women around, but damn insensitive toward the women who don’t want to be pushed. Odd to take the side of the former rather than the latter, isn’t it.

Respecting cultural diversity is really a form of “upside-down racism,” preventing immigrant women from enjoying the same freedom and protection as native European women, said Iranian activist Azam Kamguian. While Europe pays lip service to universal human rights, it is in reality “bribing Islamic countries and Islamists to give up terrorism and then saying the rest is OK,” Kamguian said. By turning a blind eye to Islam’s hostility toward homosexuality and Jews, European governments are buying “a one-way ticket to the Middle Ages,” Hirsi Ali said.

And they don’t even get frequent flier miles. Not clever and not even smart shopping.

Homa gives an example.

In communities where Sharia law interferes with people’s lives, family problems are not simply disagreements between a man and a woman and who gets what. In fact, private matters and religion are closely linked together. To make my point clear, I would like to present one case study I have come across in my social work. I have a client in Toronto who was taken out of school by her parents at the age of 15 and forced to marry a 29 year old man; according to Sharia, she is married whilst under the Canadian legal system she is not. At the age of 16, this young pregnant girl is going through separation because of domestic abuse. In a secular court, the fact that she was forced to marry at a young age is considered a crime and her husband will be charged for assault and child abuse. As for her parents, they too will be charged. The Children’s Aid Society will get involved and if they have any other children younger than 16, all will be moved out to the Aid Society’s care. While in the eyes of the Sharia tribunal no crime has taken place and the matter is a civil one, which can be resolved by the Islamic tribunal, under the modern secular system of Canada, the child will be immediately protected and the abusers prosecuted.

Cultural sensitivity, eh?

Monday in New York

Apr 23rd, 2005 10:33 pm | By

I wish I’d been in New York last Monday. I wish I could have dropped in on the UN. I’d have liked to attend (if they were open to the public) the press conference or the seminar or both. All the more since two of the participants have contributed articles to B&W.

The main global humanist organisation and a group of former Muslims on Monday accused European countries of ignoring violations of human rights in their Islamic communities to preserve “multi-culturalism”…”Yet in Europe many women find themselves subject to domestic violence, undergo forced marriages or are even killed by family members because of some belief that they have tarnished the family honour,” Brown declared. That view was echoed later by three ex-Muslims and self-described atheists — Somali-born Dutch member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Iranian exile rights activist Azam Kamguian and historian of Islam Ibn Warraq — and French sociologist Caroline Fourest.

How I wish I’d been there. In the front row, taking notes, with a video camera, and a tape recorder, and a stenographer.

Hirsi Ali, who fled to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage, told the news conference she condemned “the moral relativism in Europe whereby women from Third World countries do not enjoy the same freedoms as native European women enjoy”…Kamguian, a former political prisoner and women’s activist in Iran, who now lives in London, said this “cultural relativism” in Europe and Canada “was upside-down racism” which denied the universality of human rights, especially for women….Fourest, author of several books on religious extremism, told the seminar on the fringes of the commission that sexism and oppression of women “are the main values shared by fundamentalists of all three monotheist religions.”

Exactly. As the dear Vatican made so unambiguous the other day.

She told the news conference a resolution from Islamic states on “defamation of religion” passed by the commission last week was in line with efforts by the Catholic Church and other faiths to protect religion from criticism.

Oh, perfect – just what the world needs. UN resolutions protecting religion from criticism. For every Azam Kamguian and Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq there are whole football stadiums full of religion-protecters and multiculturalists telling them to shut up or else. This story didn’t exactly receive blanket coverage, one can’t help noticing.


Apr 23rd, 2005 2:40 am | By

So now we find we don’t even know what theology is. Or that maybe we don’t. Or that maybe we know what it is in some places but not in others, and that it may depend on whether the department has changed its name or not.

Names have a lot to do with it, in fact. I’ve always assumed that theology was a different sort of discipline from comparative religion, history of religion, sociology of religion and the like. Atheists and secularists can perfectly well study the latter items, but I’ve always taken it for granted that the first would be something of a bad fit. By definition. That only theists can be theologians. But apparently that’s not a universally accepted fact.

But theology does apparently start from the assumption that there are good reasons for believing in God, for instance the evidence of the natural world. That’s why I say names have a lot to do with it. Because I can see thinking there is at least a question about how the natural world got here, and why there is something rather than nothing; and I can see thinking there must be or should be an X that caused it all (though of course I would then wonder what created the X, and get stuck, as I always do – but never mind that for now). But I have serious difficulties with calling it God. God is a person. God is a guy’s name, and the guy is a character with specific qualities and a particular history. God is a proper name the way Allah is a name and Jhwh is a name and Zeus is a name. God is a local, parochial, familiar kind of fella, quite human but more powerful. He’s not the kind of thing that could create the cosmos – any more than Huckleberry Finn could have created it, or than Emma Woodhouse, or M. Homais, or Werther, or Hedda Gabler could have. We might as well all think our cats created the cosmos. It’s just too local, and too human, and too literary.

But that’s not what’s meant by God, God is the First Cause, or the Unmoved Mover, or another name for the Big Bang. But, one, no he isn’t. You can’t use the same name for two completely different things like that – it causes hopeless confusion. Like an underground map with all the stations put in wrong. You’d be getting out at Turnham Green when you wanted Belsize Park. And, two, if that is what God means, why name it God, why not just stick with the Big Bang, or with ‘whatever made all this happen’? Or X? Since nobody knows the answer to those questions – since whatever explanation is given we can always say something like ‘yes but what about just before that?’ or ‘yes but where did all this happen?’ – what is gained by labeling it God? I really don’t see it.

Especially if there is an X that made it all happen (as in some sense there is, though what that sense is, God only knows – well not him, but X, or gravity, or something) then it’s a pretty, well, exotic X. It’s not our kind of thing. Not friendly, or consoling, or helpful, or something to sing hymns to. Write poetry about, possibly, but sing to, no. It could be just…a lot of code. Probably is. We are, so maybe it is. Just code. Not Mind, not Conscious, certainly not feeling. It doesn’t love us, or anything else. Or it’s just something like gravity or energy. It’s not…a guy. Not even a very very big very very clever one. It just isn’t. And what people think when they hear the word ‘God’ is definitely a person. Not some code. Am I right? Theology doesn’t mean codeology. Theologians don’t think of themselves as students of code or of the Big Bang. So why call it God? So as not to have to make a whole lot of new name tapes, I suppose.

Job Description

Apr 21st, 2005 8:20 pm | By

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Revision is so difficult. I mentioned that the other day, didn’t I. But it is. It’s hard. It’s like…trying to unknit a bit of a sweater and then knit it up again. It’s like trying to pick through a large pot of chili or minestrone, picking out grains of rice of a particular length. It’s like trying to re-weave a broken spider’s web. It’s like trying to take individual crumbs out of a piece of bread without having the piece of bread fall to bits. It’s – it’s – it’s –

Pause for prolonged scream and bout of self-administered hair-pulling.

I’ve been staring at this same paragraph at intervals for an hour or more. I have to re-write it, and somehow I can’t summon the strength. I’m weak, I’m feeble, I’m a poor wandering erring mortal. I think I’ll convert to Catholicism.

Or maybe not.

The one thing the new pope stands for is hierarchy, and the resolute suppression of anything like democracy within the church. In particular, the opinions of educated lay people are to be shunned – a loathing which is heartily reciprocated. The only time I ever saw him, at a lecture he gave in Cambridge, some of the theology faculty boycotted the event in protest against his treatment of inquiry within their discipline.

Of course, the question immediately occurs to me, what kind of ‘inquiry’ goes on in theology? What kind of ‘discipline’ is theology? But maybe that’s a damn-fool ignorant question. Maybe there really is real inquiry. Maybe there is good empirical evidence for theology, and I’ve just never heard of it. To me it sounds like inquiry in Peter Panology, or Spockology, or Dr Whoology. But then I’ve never studied theology. (Though I did once take a course in Church history, when I was at university. Taught by a priest, too. That was odd…) But leaving all that aside, it’s interesting that theologians find Ratzinger anti-inquiry. If they think so, what would the rest of us think, I wonder.

The fear of change can make perfect sense. If you believe that the Catholic church can only maintain its hold on human minds by force and fraud, then electing the man who used to run the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the bureaucratic guarantor of Catholic doctrine – is a natural thing to do. The road to the top in the Kremlin, after all, used to be through the KGB. But to follow the same logic is an odd process for faithful Catholics.

Hmmmyes and no. That’s part of the nature of Catholicism, after all. That’s why Luther ended up knocking it all over instead of just reforming it. It really is about central authority and being told what to believe. That’s not to say it’s not possible to be a Catholic and ignore all that, because of course it is. (Those Catholics feel a bit queasy right now, I gather.) But it does mean that the Vatican is what it is, and not something else. It’s not an anti-hierarchical type organization, pretty much by definition. If it’s anti-hierarchical it might just as well pack up the stoles and incense and break camp. Being anti-hierarchical ain’t what it’s there for.

I wish Ratzinger would drop in to say hi and revise this paragraph for me.

Strange Alliances

Apr 21st, 2005 3:42 am | By

Harry’s Place is always very good value, you know. Each item posted is one you want to know more about. This one is certainly interesting.

At last week’s NUS conference, the AWL reports that the SWP joined the islamist Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) – a Muslim Association of Britain front – in a walkout when guest speaker Houzan Mahmoud addressed the Conference.
Why would the SWP join FOSIS in a walkout?…Her key error appears to have been that she is the UK head of the anti-occupation Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq which is a vocal opponent of Islamism. The fact that she has campaigned to bring human rights abuses by US and UK troops to public attention wasn’t sufficient to save her from the walkout; she evidently blotted her copybook by condemning the Baathist and Islamist terrorists for which the SWP cheerlead.

How repulsive. I wish Trotsky could come back and slap them upside the head. If you want to cheer yourselves up, take a look at the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

Cult Studs

Apr 19th, 2005 11:31 pm | By

Okay, we need a little amusement to cheer us up after hearing the news about the pope. Although some people are pointing out that it’s good news really: that it’s the Vatican shooting itself in the foot, that now people will realize how authoritarian it is after all. But I don’t know – I’m never very convinced by that kind of thing. Partly because it never seems to happen. People seem so happy to say ‘Oh how sweet, a nice authoritarian pope again.’

So we could do with a laugh. I know I could. I’m wrestling with revisions, and I’m finding this patch a struggle. Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, I’m having to drag them out by force, one at a time. I much prefer it when I get an idea and just re-write a page or two in one go. But on the other hand, I can always cheer myself up enormously by reflecting that I’m not having to revise such utter unmitigated bollocks as this:

What I will focus on here is Butler’s critique in Precarious Life of Georgio Agamben’s concept of the “homo sacer,” or “bare life,” which identifies the discursive limits of the Foucauldian concept of power as the sovereign exception over biopolitical life. I will argue that Butler, whose concept of the performative subject presupposes power to be the totalizing ground by which human subjects are made intelligible, perhaps unfairly rejects Agamben’s critique. His critique of power, I will argue, is much more in dialogue with Butler than she seems to allow, and arguably raises the stakes of Butlerian identity politics by illuminating the possibility that certain political subjects can be – in fact are necessarily, according to Agamben – erased entirely from biopower relations, or humanity itself, through what Agamben calls the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life.

Good stuff, don’t you think? Notice, just for one thing, how the hapless reviewer uses the identical emptily pompous phrase – ‘the sovereign exception over biopolitical human life’ – twice in the space of two sentences. (Okay not absolutely identical – he adds a word in the second appearance.) But notice more, oh so much more, the way the vocabulary is used as a little invisible pump to inflate some very obvious ideas into something that is meant to sound – like more than that. Like a great deal more than that. Wouldn’t you think people would eventually stop doing this kind of thing? Because people like me see them doing it and point it out and laugh raucously? Wouldn’t you think they would, some day, finally, embarrass themselves? I would. But they don’t. Why is that?

Judith Butler later clarifies Foucault’s theory of power, expanding upon its merely implied strategies for subjective resistance to dominant technologies of power and making the important intervention that subjectivity is not just an expression of the “top down” subjugation of an “individual” but is intrinsically performative. The performative subject is both inaugurated by power relations and at the same time is constantly recreating its discursive, epistemological law in dangerously supplemental, disruptive ways. Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford UP 1997) explores in depth what she, after Foucault, sees as the total immersion of the subject in power relations without recourse to an originary “individuality” or essentialized political identity who exists prior to the subject’s inauguration into power.

Right? Right.

Butler’s conceptualization of post-structuralist identity politics, like Foucault’s, relies on a presupposition of “power” as the matrix of intelligibility, or ground by and through which biopolitical subjectivity is inaugurated and “exists.” This grounding in power, for Butler, extends to the very body of the subject. Recent criticism of Foucault’s concept of power by Georgio Agamben in his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford 1995), however, convincingly argues that power indeed has an outside – namely its “sovereign exception” over what Agamben calls “bare life,” or the homo sacer.

And so on. It’s all like that. None of it is any different. It’s all the same. It starts like that, and it goes on like that, and it goes on like that some more, and it ends like that. Somebody – a guy named Don Moore, in fact, a nice wholesome name, sounds like a baseball player – wrote it like that, presumably on purpose. Maybe it’s a parody. Only I doubt it, because if it were a parody, it would probably be a lot better, so as not to give the game away. It would be much less repetitive, for one thing. The baseball player is a graduate student in English and ‘Cultural Studies.’ I was just being abusive about the phrase ‘Cultural Studies’ in conversation with my colleague a couple of hours ago, and that was before I read the bottom of this review where it tells us that the writer of it is in ‘Cultural Studies.’ I already hated the very phrase (I have that reaction that Goebbels talked about, you know the one). Now I hate it even more.

I wonder what Ratzinger thinks of Cultural Studies.