The essay following the line below is one that I was asked to write for the Canadian Athiest. I want first to thank Veronica Abbas who asked me to write it, and also for Veronica’s careful editing which made it a much better paper than it otherwise would have been.

Since I begin with a rather hyperbolic remark about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, remarking that it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on (or, I might have added, the monitor real estate that it occupies), I want to begin with a quotation from Geoffrey Robertson’s The Case of the Pope, words which I hope will explain (if not excuse) the hyperbole. We sometimes forget that churches are accumulations of power, which is obvious in the case of the Vatican, of course, but we do not often reflect on ways in which this power is used, often to the harm of those who are affected. This blog, for instance, began as an angry response to the Anglican Church, and its stand on assisted dying, a stand which has a greater effect than it ought to have, given the traditional respect that is often paid to churches, and their leaders. Mind you, I would rather have Christianity exercise its influence over those who govern in the West, rather than Islam, which is, despite the oft repeated lie that Islam is a religion of peace, a threat to our freedoms and way of life, no matter how distant that threat may appear to many. Nevertheless, enough of that. Here are the words from Robertson’s The Case of the Pope that I would like you to bear in mind as you read the essay that follows.

The Holy See’s ‘permanent observer statehood’ had first been exploited to wreck an important UN conference on populations and development in Cairo in 1995. Even before the preparatory conference to settle the agenda, the Vatican began a propaganda campaigh over family planning and contraception proposals, alleging that ‘reproductive health’ meant abortion (a ‘heinous evil’) and tolerance of homosexuality (another ‘heinous evil). It forged and unholy alliance with states like Libya and Iran to oppose the projected ‘right to sexual health’. At the all-important ‘prepcons’ (the preparatory conferences which settle the final agenda) the Holy See used its ‘state’ rights to the hilt. Accorded full membership, it objected to over 100 paragraphs of the initial draft which referred to any for of planned parenthood, then it called for special debates on these issues at the conference, to which it dispatched one of the largest delegations (seventeen diplomats) who blocked consensus and enlisted allies from the Catholic countries of Latin America and Africa to water down the languge and avoid any possibility of recogniing that abortion or contraception might in any circumstances [my emphasis] be tolerated or that anything might be done to hlp the victims of botched or backyard abortions. As a result, a conference that should have discussed population policy and international aid was hikjacked by a church masquerading as a state, preventing consensus being reached on any proposal that might possibly challenge the proposition that the only acceptable human genital contact was that between husband and wife for the purpose of procreation. [par 147]

This takes on special poignancy and relevance in connnexion with the headline in the current issue of The Nation:

Women and Girls Raped in Conflict Need Abortion Care—but the US Is Standing in Their Way

Recalling that the US is an obstacle to much needed abortion care for women and girls caught up in wars raging in Africa and the Middle East mainly because of Christian opposition to abortion (which they equate with murder, although in English Common Law neither abortion, nor the killing of infants due to post-partum depression or other causes, have ever been punished as severely as murder) is particularly telling. For this opposition is not lacking in Papa Francisco’s latest encyclical, which, along with a couple other hobby horses that the pope feels he must ride, makes of this encyclical a blatant act of injustice sneaked into print under cover of concern for the environment (which is, or should be, a concern of us all), which makes it that much more insidious and unwelcome. With that introduction, you can turn now to the essay that has been printed in the Canadian Atheist. I have called it “a short critique”, though it rings in at around 2000 words, which is short for me!


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This was a comment by Tim Harris in response to a recent post on Jerry Coyne’s disagreement with Michael Ruse on Accommodationism, as well as to an extended Comment of mine (in the comment stream below re Alex Rosenberg’s New York Times article on whether moral disputes can be resolved.) I thought it deserved to be “elevated” to the status of a Post. This is not intended to belittle others who have made thoughtful comments.


Eric, I’ve been meaning to write & thank you for your recommendations, but have been incredibly busy lecturing on Shakespeare, Yeats & Harold Pinter. I have read & much admired Holloway’s ‘Leaving Alexandria’, and will read his others. Tillich I read – oh, hundreds of years ago, and so will have another look at him. And Cupitt I shall read.

What amuses (it is not quite the right word, but it’ll do) about Rosenberg’s little essay into the ethical thicket is that he ends up in precisely the kind of position that he would, if presented with it, vociferously despise as being merely subjective and post-modern and certainly un-scientific: cultural relativism. Jerry Coyne, too, seems to think that because morality is ‘subjective’ one cannot have any serious discussion about it: I remember him saying once that it would be impossible to have a conversation with a member of ISIS – such as that young British Muslim who was seduced into going to the Middle Eat and was there recently employed as a useful idiot: a suicide bomber. The difficulty of having such a conversation is surely no reason for throwing up one’s hands in despair and proclaiming that it’s all subjective so we can’t do anything about it. All the more reason, I should have thought, to try to have this conversation, to insist upon it, if we are going to find some sort of modus vivendi, and to dissuade young people who may well be good and generous from doing stupid things (I’m not sure whether I was ever good and generous, but when I was seventeen I wanted to go and fight in the Vietnam War – on the Vietnamese side, since I was so infuriated by what seemed to me to be American bullying and injustice). Keeping a conversation going is of the utmost importance.

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It almost looks as though I am carrying out a personal vendetta against Jerry Coyne, but I assure you that that is not my intention. If I respond to Jerry’s posts it is because (1) I read them (though given his recent scolding, perhaps I will no longer bother), and (2) he puts things so clearly, that, as a consequence, his errors tend to be more prominently exposed. First, let me refer you to the article that is at the centre of this particular disagreement, written by Patrick O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy at Nottingham Trent University, and published in Business Insider. The article’s title is: ‘Atheism must be about more than not believing in God.’ Predictably, in his response, I regret to say, Coyne once again expresses his contempt for philosophy, accuses the author of writing poorly, arguing fallaciously, and, in general, presenting us with nothing more than a stupid mess. He begins his attempt at demolition with this sentence:

Dear Lord, why do philosophers, who are supposed to be in the business of thinking analytically, rationally, and deeply, write such stupid stuff about atheism?

However, the main problem with Coyne’s response is that he often does not respond to what O’Connor says (and, implicitly, I think, he knows this). Instead, he jumps to conclusions about what O’Connor is saying, and then tries his best to tear this imagined content to pieces.

Take, for example, O’Connor’s remark that

Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole.

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I have been AWOL for some time now, and do not expect to get back into the stream of regular posting here at Choice in Dying, but I have been increasingly annoyed by what seem to me to be serious failures of thinking by the (so-called) New Atheists, which so bring scepticism into disrepute as to make genuine sceptics steer clear of what has become normative amongst too may sceptical, anti-religious “arguments”. While I have not yet read (and have held off ordering, Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact), I have become so familiar with his argument style that I suspect it contains very little that would appeal to me. Indeed, the title of the book is itself a sample of the thinking that goes into the New Atheism, and it is, in fact (not meaning to pun on the title), simply wrong to think of religion in terms of faith vs. fact, as though religion has set itself up in some sense as a rival of empirical investigation of the Umwelt, and comes off a poor second best at the attempt.

Of course, this is not to say that some religious believers do not understand their “faith” in this way, but it is, by and large, a completely mistaken idea of religious belief, and, while it may have its proponents, especially in the United States, and in some of the colonial offshoots of the Christian religion in the so-called “developing” world, it is not, in any sense, normative religion as this has been understood since the Enlightenment. Some hangovers from the past were still, of course, present, just as normative science often outlives new and challenging discoveries and new paradigms (as Thomas Kuhn pointed out), especially amongst those who deplored things like scholarly biblical criticism, or the development of doctrine (in ways never anticipated by the founders of the religion) – and there are still enough of those still around, expressing their dogmatic certainties in the face of facts that undermine them. However, it does not follow that science has successfully answered all the questions that still press upon us as we live our lives teetering on the very edge of a precipice, questions that simply clamour for an answer, and are still asked, and attempts at answers still made, even by those who disparage religious answers to them. The questions are, for the most part, inescapable, when we start thinking about quite fundamental issues about our lives, and the questioning wonder that these issues leave us with, questions which simply have no scientific answers, and, in a real sense, could not provide them.

Some of these questions were addressed in Michael Ruse’s paper, published in Zygon (June 2015), entitled simply: “Why I am an Accommodationist and Proud of It.” Now, I might approach the paper simply by providing a précis of it, and expressing my view as to the soundness of Ruse’s arguments. Instead, I intend to approach it through Jerry Coyne’s lenses, and suggest why those lenses are distorting. While Dr. Coyne is a recognised expert in his field of evolutionary biology and speciation, he is not a philosopher, yet he continues to believe that he can, without any training in philosophy, provide philosophical arguments of great cogency. I think he is terribly mistaken, and that he should, before he addresses philosophical issues — even those related to science — learn some of the basic principles of philosophical argumentation.

I once, rather shamefully, tried to provide a justification for the amateur philosophy in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but I must say that, in the end, this was done out of party spirit, and not because I thought The God Delusion a good example of philosophical reasoning. Indeed, I tend to agree with Micahel Ruse that this book would deserve little more than than a failing grade in either Philosophy 101 or Religion 101. Dawkins is a great populariser of evolutionary biology, as well as some other areas of science, but he is certainly not a philosopher, and, as E.O. Wilson has rather archly pointed out, he is not even a scientist, but rather more in the nature of a science journalist. As to his grasp of theology, one has to say that he simply missed the boat, and had to make do with little snippets of remembered beliefs from his childhood. If he has ever made any concentrated study of religion it is not evident in what he writes.

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In a recent paper, Kenan Malik (in my view, anyway) makes excuses for Islam which are simply incredible. It’s not only Islam, he says, it’s Christianity and Judaism and all other religions too. Well, yes it is, but, right now, it’s Islam, and, say what you like, more Muslims are reading Islam in a fundamentalist way than in a liberal way, and fundamentalist Islam does not only permit genocide and the barbaric treatment of “conquered” people, but requires it. And Islam itself, on the face of it, demands to be read in a fundamentalist way. And playing the tu quoque game just doesn’t wash in this context. When millions of Muslims around the world are being oppressed by Islamic regimes, and hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities are being oppressed — murdered, tortured, reviled, and enslaved — by jihadist Muslims, following Qur’anic teachings, and the example of the prophet Muhammad, then there is something about Islam that is very very dangerous. Of course, politics plays its role here too, as Malik points out: the Americans armed the Taliban, the Israelis poked the sleeping beast of Islam to stall peace talks with the secular PLO, the invasion of Iraq destabilised Iraqi society, and so on, but this does not serve to change this fact about Islam: that Islam is inherently dangerous. And it is this “inherently dangerous” part that Malik wants to deny.

Let me explain in more detail. There are some Jewish conservatives who consider the Palestinians, in biblical terms, Amalekites (a pre-Israelite people who lived in the “promised land” back in biblical times, say, 1000 or more years BCE), and therefore are taken to be commanded by God to be wiped out. But this is an extreme interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, and not reasonably thought to be applicable to the present day. The biblical narrative is a story of origins of the Jewish people, whether historical or mythical. It does not give commandments about any peoples living today, and cannot be reasonably thought to do so. However, to Islam, all non-believers are kuffar, and thus at war with Islam. Malik will say that this is one interpretation of the Muslim texts, but that there are others. That is true; there may be others. But those others do not have so direct an application to the situation today as the original Muslim texts. Kuffar are kuffar, whether in 7th century Arabia, or in 21st century Britain, and this is made abundantly clear by what it seems is a powerful minority (if not a clear majority) of Muslims who live in Britain today. It’s easy to play with numbers, but the expressions of contempt for non-Muslims by many British Muslims, are not being made sotto voce. A recent sermon by a Muslim in Britain, speaking about how, were Muslims in the majority, they could make the kuffar look ridiculous to their children, so that they would want to be Muslim, is a case in point. If something similar had been said about Muslims, there would have been hell to pay in public discourse, and all but a few non-Muslims, because of the very careful tiptoeing that people like Malik make around Muslim beliefs and their effect on others, have learned to hold their tongue, and have allowed Muslims, virtually in silence, to spread their hateful beliefs about non-believers. It’s a scandal, but it’s true. Malik seems to suggest that Islamophobic sentiment is widespread, but why is it that in Western Europe as a whole there seems to be more anti-Jewish sentiment expressed than anti-Muslim sentiment? Christians are being enslaved, murdered, and oppressed by Muslims around the world, and Christians remain virtually silent. Women are being oppressed by Muslims in Britain itself, and no one is allowed to say that this is contrary to British values, because are not British Muslims British too?

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Wesley J. Smith is a well-known American sophist and “fellow” of the sophistical Discovery Institute. When my wife Elizabeth died in Switzerland — indeed, only a few days after her death — without having ever met her, he made statements that were not only inaccurate, but quite straightforward lies. He lied, because only lies will, in the last analysis, support opposition to assisted dying. I pull no punches on this, because I found his statements then, and find them still, libelous and abusive. The post is entitled “Another Swiss ‘Suicide Tourist’ Proves that the Euthanasia Debate is not about Terminal Illness.” (The link is now corrected, and will take you to the post in question!) It was published on 25th June 2007, two days exactly following the memorial service held for Elizabeth in Middleton, Nova Soctia, where I had been Rector for fourteen years of the Anglican parish, and Elizabeth had had a printing and design business. Mark this carefully: only two days following the memorial service! In that blog post, Smith wrote:

Elizabeth McDonald, age 38, was not terminally ill. She was disabled and depressed. (Depression is caused by MS in some cases.)

Since Smith had never met Elizabeth, and did not know whether or not she was depressed (she wasn’t, although, no doubt, depression is caused by MS in some cases), this is an out and out lie. Not just a misrepresentation, mind, but a lie, for he might have sought the truth and did not bother. Of course, he may believe that no one responsibly seeks death unless they are depressed, but his too is untrue. Then, at the end of his post he writes:

The new attitude seems to be, “If you want to die, go ahead and die. It’s none of my business,” which masks as respect for “choice” but is actually a form of abandonment.

Since his post is about “another ‘suicide tourist’,” namely, my wife Elizabeth, who was offended by the term ‘suicide tourist’, Smith is not only attacking my wife’s good name, he is directly accusing me of abandonment, or what the Anglican Church of Canada calls a “failure of human community.” The suggestion is that I had not only abandoned Elizabeth, but that I had washed my hands of concern for her: “If you want to die, go ahead and die. It’s none of my business.” This is so far from the truth that it is hard to justify this as other than a slanderous and untrue accusation directed to me and my part in Elizabeth’s determination to end her suffering. (I have asked Smith to remove this slanderous post, but to no effect.)

Let’s be very clear about this. No, assisted dying is not (and should not be) only about terminal illness. This is a complete misrepresentation of what assisted dying should concern itself with, and the laws which so limit assisted dying are a standing affront to those, like Tony Nicklinson or Diane Pretty in England, and Sue Rodriguez or Goria Taylor in Canada, and my wife Elizabeth, who were not (or may not have been) terminally ill within the meaning of the law in Oregon, Washington, etc., and would have been left to suffer regardless of the degree of their suffering. I have coined the term “terminal suffering” for those whose suffering is such that only death can bring it to an end. That is why I was opposed to Lord Falconer’s (England and Wales) and Margo Macdonald’s (Scotland) and Francine Lalonde’s (Canada) assisted dying bills. It seems that legislators can’t get it through their heads that years and years of suffering are, if anything, far worse than a few days of intense pain at the end of life. Not only can they not get this through their heads, they set themselves up for the inevitable slippery slope that will arise as soon as people justly point out that assisted dying for the terminally ill is not sufficient to cope with the human suffering caused by the refusal to legalise assisted dying for those whose suffering is terminal (as defined above). This means that the reasonable next step, to allow assisted dying for the terminally suffering, will be construed (as Smith does in the blog post linked here) as a slide down what such people believe is the inevitable slippery slope that will be created by the legalisation of assisted dying.

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Since someone has asked a question about this (in a comment on my last post — from as long ago as March!) I thought it might be worthwhile commenting on what is taking place in England and Wales, where the Falconer Bill on assisted dying is now before the House of Lords, and upon which a decision will be made this Friday (I believe). In the run up to its consideration a former Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his support for the bill and for assisted dying, and has argued (correctly in my view) that Christianity should be able to accommodate assisted dying, since, quite apart from the church’s responsibility of care for the living, it has an equal responsibility to enable the dying to die with some comfort and dignity. This seems so obvious to me that I wonder what it is that keeps Christian leaders in the opposing camp. Indeed, so opposed are they that they are prepared to trundle out any possible argument they can lay their hands on in order to oppose passage of such bills.

The main objection to the bills has to do with the bills’ danger to the so-called vulnerable. This is a red herring, as a brief study of those jurisdictions where assisted dying has been legalised would show. It is surprising that the argument continues to be made nonetheless. The reason that these arguments are being made, I believe, is that the religious know that religious arguments in and of themselves are irrelevant to the consideration of public policy, so they are consigned to using the weakest arguments around, arguments which have been disproved again and again by the practice of assisted dying where assisted dying is legal. One of the things that the Church of England has never faced head on is that the Swiss have had a very permissive law regarding assisted suicide in their Penal Code since 1941, and no one has yet shown that this law has been misused in the way that Church of England clerics continue to argue that even more stringent laws would be abused if the Falconer Bill were passed.

The Falconer Bill is modeled directly on the assisted suicide bill in the state of Oregon in the United States. It would apply only to those who are terminally ill and have (in the opinion of expert medical opinion) at most six months left to live. Of course, such prognostications are highly fallible, and doctors are today usually reluctant to make such claims. Nevertheless, the use of the bill in Oregon has not shown the slightest degree of misuse, whatever its detractors may say, and it is very doubtful whether it will be misused any more in England and Wales than in Oregon. So the constant harping on such possible misuses is simply a misleading way of expressing the religious objection to assisted dying bills tout court.

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