After much thought, I have decided, for the time being at least, to suspend operations on the blog. The blog posts will remain much as I have left them, although I have deleted some pictures, mainly of Elizabeth. This has been a labour of love, but it is not a permanent memorial to Elizabeth, and was never meant to be. So, for the sake of privacy I have decided not to include pictures of Elizabeth in what remains behind.
I want to thank everyone who has read and followed the blog, and the many who have made the discussions so rich and rewarding. Over the last two years and six months (or so) I have written something over 840 posts. I have backed up all the posts which I wrote myself, including the quotes which were included in them. The words come in total, to 1, 386, 095 words. That is surely enough for now. I do need to do other things, which constant attention to the blog has prevented me from doing, including, if it is still possible for me to do this at my age, to write a book about assisted dying. I have already mentioned my renewed interest in photography, and we will have to see where this leads me. I suspect that the reason that I found my transfer to Freethought Blops so distressing was the fact (although I did not know it at the time) that I was coming to the point where I did not want to be committed in the long term to the blog.
Once again, my thanks to all those faithful readers who have followed the blog over the last couple of years. You have been a great community of people, and have shown yourself to be intelligent, alive to the difficulties facing us in the world today, willing to think passionately and clearly about issues that concerned me, and I am grateful for your participation, without which this would have been a very lonely exercise in talking to myself. I offer you my heartfelt thanks.
I do this with great trepidation, striking off in a completely new direction, and my hands are trembling as I type these words. I feel a great sadness, but I do feel the need, nevertheless, to move on towards an unseen and unknown destination. I would like to thank, especially, Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne for their encouragement and support. In adding the military last post as a closing flourish, I do so full in the knowledge that this is a major ending of sorts in my life. It is remarkable how blogging can define a person. I hope those of you who are disappointed will not feel any sense of betrayal at my decision to move on. Thanks, once again, one and all.
The Last Post
The following is deliberately short, punchy, and unqualified. Perhaps it will help move the discussion along, since it seems to have got bogged down.
On an earlier post two commenters have been duking it out over the argument from design. I do not intend to repeat their arguments and counterarguments here. There is a simple reason for this. The design argument cannot prove what it sets out to prove, and anyone who has thought about it for a moment must know why. According to one of the discussants, Rahman,
There must be a reason why the numbers are precisely aligned for life.
And, of course, no doubt there are — reasons, that is. But there is no obvious reason why we should think that there must be a — that is, just a single, quite overwhelming — reason why the numbers are precisely aligned for life. This is an illegitimate step in the argument.
Take the argument that the other discussant, Paxton, uses, to show that the argument from design is simply irrelevant to an explanation of how things are. AC Grayling uses this argument in his new book, The God Argument, and it basically goes like this. If you go back into the past and try to determine the reasons for things being as they are, you will come upon an entire series of quite contingent events. For instance, why are you here? In order to answer that question you will be taken on a long search though an unimaginably long series of quite contingent events, people being in the right place at the right time, being in the mood (or not) for sex, plus the completely chance occurrence of the sperm that resulted in you being born fertilized the egg instead another of the hundred or so thousand or million that might have, and that perfectly contingent event was in turn dependent upon similar quite contingent events going back, in an unbroken line, to the first denizens of early organic environments.
The problem is, quite simply, that the whole endeavour of a search for roots and reasons wouldn’t have started off unless you were here to set off on it. In other words, you are here. There are reasons why you are here, possibly many millions of them, and all of them quite contingent. You might well not have been here had one of the links in the chain have been slightly different. Someone else, or no one, might have been here in your place, and it would then be that person who would be (or perhaps not, since he or she might have different interests) setting off on the search for the …. Snark — is it?
I have been absent without official leave for the last while, trying to deal with several things, not least was a fall that I took, prompted, I think, by a drug which was prescribed for a chronic condition that has plagued me for some time now. I have in fact debated with myself whether to continue with the blog or not, and the jury is still out on that. But one thing that I did decide to do was to buy some new camera equipment — at the cost of a small car! — and try to get back into photography again. Yesterday I was out trying out one of my new camera bodies — which has so many bells and whistles it’s hard just to take a picture without a degree in photography — a trip which resulted in some of the first scenic pictures I have taken since Elizabeth died, so it was a big move for me. I put a few of them here for those who might be interested. Since I was trying so many new things, and playing with different picture controls, some of them are less than stellar, but they did amuse me, and I hope they will amuse you too. They were all taken along a stretch of Nova Scotia coastline, most of them at Peggy’s Cove (though none of the Peggy’s Cove light), a famous tourist destination for visitors to Nova Scotia, and a place where Elizabeth and I used to go when we were first in love, so it has a special resonance for me. It’s the first time I have gone there by myself since May 2007, when we made a last nostalgic journey shortly before going to Switzerland. (Since I may take up photography more seriously I have attached copyright to the pictures, and will do so more regularly in the future, if I can get myself back into photography again.) The original files are a bit over 100 mb apiece, so these are drastically reduced in size.
As anyone who has read here on choiceindying.com will know, I do not have a great deal of respect for Andrew Brown, who writes for the Guardian. So of course I was not surprised to read his little piece about Katherine Welby’s (the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter) depression. As a small taster, take the following words:
Katherine Welby’s remarkable blog post and interview about her depression rings true to anyone who has ever been ill in this way but it also illuminates the complex ways in which religious belief can twine round the condition, providing either a vine to tangle your feet in or a beanstalk to climb out on.
Now that, gentle reader, is all just puffery, nor is it clear in what way Katherine Welby’s “remarkable” blog post or interview (both linked in the quote from Brown) really does illuminate the complex ways in which religion helps or hinders those with depression. And that, I think, is perhaps the most telling thing about this. I certainly don’t wish Katherine Welby any harm, and hope she gets the help she needs for her depression, and if she finds hope in religion, well and good. But let’s not build this up into something of earth-shaking significance, please!
For the daughter of a priest, then bishop, then archbishop (a man who came to his religious vocation later in life), who herself read theology at university, it should not surprise anyone that Katherine Welby thinks in religious categories when she considers the ins and outs of the depression that has blighted her adult years. Having episodically suffered from depression myself, and even thought seriously about ending my life on several occasions, it does not surprise me that she has sought solace in religion, and in religious community. But the anodyne things that Brown says about Katherine Welby’s way of dealing with her depression — all of them gleaned from her blog – through Bible, faith, and church community, is pathetically shallow. Welby herself says that “the Bible is key,” because, as she justly points out, the Bible isn’t a story of perfect human beings in perfect accord with their lives, who go about praising god all day long. The Bible is unquestionably allzu menschlich, to use Nietzsche’s phrase — all too human. Entirely human in its questioning, doubting, failing, despairing … And to the extent that this can allow people to recognise and accept their humanity without condemnation, that’s all very well, of course. That’s a source of strength for Katherine Welby, as she says, and doubtless it can be.
But she acknowledges another side to this particular coin. If the Bible is all to human, it is also all too religious as well, and so it is not at all surprising that she has met with the shadow side of religion, where the accusing finger points at those who have not been able simply to fall back confidently into the supporting arms of Jesus. And, as Welby notes, this is not something that church people are particularly good at, that is, at being screwed up and depressed, without a rosy disposition and confidence in the future. But she doesn’t seem to see that she does the same thing, and her own words could easily be turned to the same purpose, and to box people in. Listen:
The bible is my key. Reading the psalms (that oh so regularly quoted ‘you can yell at God, look’ book) I find that I don’t need to have hope every second of the day. In my hopelessness I just need to acknowledge that God is bigger than my illness and he will come through – eventually. Not always easy, but always possible.
“He will always come through — eventually.” And that’s simply not so. Just because the book of Job ends up with Job being restored to health and good fortune, with daughters even more beautiful than the ones killed at the beginning of the story, doesn’t mean that Job ever sees a smidgeon of justice. Wealth is not an answer to disaster, nor is the declaration, ”I’m bigger than you — where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” a particularly comforting response to the fact that I am finite, fallible and faulty.
[I apologise for the long silence. My "little" fall seems to have taken more out of me than just my broken rib and its attendant discomfort, and I have been feeling, as a consequence, a general sense of "unwellness". However, here is a post I had almost finished before I decided to "take it easy," which you may find interesting in the mean time. I do not expect to be back "full time" for a little while yet. Thanks for your patience.]
It has been said that a translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an, but an interpretation of the Qur’an. So Pickthall’s “translation” of the Qur’an is called The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation. For that, after all, is all that it can ever be. The Qur’an is in Arabic, which is, in some sense, though Rahman denies it, the language of God. Evangelical Christians often say that the Bible is inerrant in its original text. Both Muslims and Christians, although they acknowledge the existence of both translation and interpretation, deny that it applies to the sacred text in (at least) its sacred meaning, as though text and sacred meaning are somehow miraculously conveyed merely by reading the text in a certain frame of mind.
Some Christians have got themselves into a bind by supposing that the true meaning of scripture is hidden from those who are unworthy. But how is worthiness to be characterised, so that we know who indeed has grasped the true meaning of scripture, the original meaning intended by God, whatever, presumably, its human “authors” thought? This is what I call the “hermeneutic auction,” and it is a defeater for any sense of sacred truth. Why those who believe that God speaks through texts, do not recognise the problem, is itself a problem, for there are clearly dynamics at work that tend to send interpretation spiraling out of control.
Take, for example, issues of ethics in the Roman Catholic Church concerning the end and the beginning of life. Similar things might be said, as well, about Islam and Judaism, since Christians, Jews and Muslims (inclusive) tend to hold that abortion is forbidden, and that suicide is a grave moral error. It is occasionally acknowledged that people who kill themselves sometimes do so because they are mentally disturbed, and so allowance is sometimes made for this possibility. But abortion, which is a conscious choice by someone, is apparently never justified under any circumstances, if the practice of the Roman Catholic Church is anything to go by. Protestants, on the other hand, sometimes provide some latitude for choice in the matter of abortion as well as in the matter of self-deliverance, though it is not quite clear how these exceptions get through the fine mesh of the Protestant moral conscience. Latitude is sometimes allowed as a matter of “compassion,” but it is hard to see how compassion can make a difference. If abortion is contrary to the will of a god, then presumably there is an ultimate, indefeasible prescription which it would be wrong to ignore. Compassion could cover a multitude of sins, and if obedience to a god is the issue, that is obedience to a being than which nothing greater can be thought, whose writ is universal and absolute, where is the room necessary for raising doubts about this or that individual case?
I hate to harry this subject like a dog with a bone, but I think more needs to be said. It has been suggested that I am biased. Rahman wrote, in a comment on an earlier post:
This bias is I’m afraid, reflected in all your opinions – muslims bad, westerners good.
This, however, is not the case. But I would say, without reservation, that the Enlightenment (one of whose principle founders was Benedict de Spinoza (or Baruch de Espinosa), a Dutch Jew of Portuguese stock) is better than Islam and Christianity, or any number of other religions put together. Not only that, but it is worth defending against the incursions of religious beliefs and practices from whatever quarter. What troubles me so much about the growing presence, in the heartland of traditions whose sources lie within the history of the Enlightenment struggle with religion, and its partial liberation from religious prescriptions, of pre-Enlightenment religious traditions which are striving to roll up the Enlightenment and put it back into the box from which it came.
Indeed, I have been at pains to point out, over the last two years and a few months that I have been writing this blog, that not only is the presence of a very conservative Islam putting increasing pressure on what might be called “the Enlightenment settlement” in Western democracies, but, in part, I believe, prompted by this presence, Christianity, in its various forms, but especially in its Roman Catholic and evangelical forms, has been making increasing demands to public recognition in law and cultural practice. The recent signing into law, by the conservative Governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, of a bill that defines life as beginning at fertilisation, is an example of this increasing intrusion of religious belief into the political sphere, which is a direct challenge to the Enlightenment principle of the separation of religion from the political realm. The Governor said, on the occasion of signing the bill into law:
All human life is sacred. It’s beautiful. With this, we continue to build this culture of life in our state.
This is not only a violation of the privacy and liberty rights of women; it is a direct challenge to the Western tradition of Enlightenment values of individual liberty and rational discourse. The sanctity of life principle is essentially religious, and, however valuable we think life is – and it is, in general, justly considered to be a great good – we cannot impose on women an obligation to bring each pregnancy to its “natural” termination, whether in spontaneous abortion or birth; nor may we impose on every person in states that they consider to be conditions of intolerable suffering the duty to live until their “natural” death. Both of these prescriptive attitudes are religious in origin and function, and have no place in liberal democratic jurisdictions.
Enlightenment values have priority, not Western or Eastern, Christian or Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. And the priority of Enlightenment values is such that they should provide protection for the freedom and equality of all. Practices which abridge this freedom and equality should be prohibited, especially when they may be seen as deliberate challenges to the possession of such freedoms and such equality. This is why I believe that the burqa should be banned in all free societies, and why, in general, religiously distinguishing dress, and practices, should be reserved to private space.
Religious imperatives must comport with the secular world, not the secular world with religious imperatives
I have been going back over some of my earlier posts and making an achive of them. I came across an old post from 16 July 2011 that seems relevant to discussions that have been taking place here at choice in dying.com over the last few days. It was originally entitled “On the Side of the Angels?” I’m reposting it, as you can see, under a new title, with a few minor edits, a couple suggested by the comments. No doubt some will take this view as extreme and illiberal, but it seems to me that the danger that religion poses to liberal freedoms is much greater than many suppose. Religion is trying very hard to make a comeback in the West. It is supported in this by increasing numbers of Muslims and people of other faiths which have not gone through the Enlightenment. We should deny them the accommodations they need to make their resurgence more visible. Religion is not a matter that should be given public importance and standing. It should be, and should remain, private.
Michael Ruse has a new piece up at the Chronicle. It’s called “Prayer, Menstruation, and the Toronto District School Board,” and deals with the permission given by the Toronto District School Board to provide opportunities for Muslim children to pray at the right times during the day. Only this time, as Ruse says, people have gone a bit too far. Prayers that are attended by Muslims segregate girls who are menstruating to the back of the room. And Ruse is justly outraged. As he says:
It turns out that girls who are menstruating are not allowed to participate in the prayers. They must sit at the back and watch. This is not a social demand. This is a religious demand.
It is also absolutely outrageous. Let me spell it out. Girls with their periods are not sinful. They are not sick. They are not weak. That anyone would think otherwise in this day and age boggles the mind. It boggles the mind even more that respectable members of the Toronto District School Board should think this treatment of females is something that should be tolerated on school grounds, at any time.
Veronica, over at Canadian Atheist, has given us a peek at the latest religious idiocy that someone is trying to foist on the Canadian people. I’ll let you go over to Veronica’s post to read the details, but some gushing Catholic Member of Parliament has put forward a bill that would make April 2 Pope John Paul II day! This is the man, remember, who effectively turned the church into a criminal conspiracy to conceal the scope of the sexual abuse of children! And we are to set aside a day to honour his memory – quite aside from his having been a foreign head of state and the leader of one religion out of many that despoil the land. Will this idiocy never cease?!
I was alphabetising my library for the last two days, trying to forget, the while, that I had a sore side (having broken or at least cracked a rib in a fall) and groaning through a major rearrangement of my books. In the course of doing so I came across the copy of Darwin’s Origin which, I suspect, set me on the path away from religious belief. One of the reasons for this passage was the fact that Darwin’s scientific empirical modesty is made so plain. Indeed, while I was using the book (published by Gramercy, a cheap imprint of Random House) as a filler, in a spot where books could simply disappear from view, given the way the carpenter built the shelves, I would not have noticed that I had marked a passage in the Introduction, and that I had highlighted (and then later underlined), some very important words, illustrating Darwin’s epistemological modesty, and the epistemic constraints of science. First, he sets forth, in a thumbnail sketch, his theory of evolution, and then he … well, wait for it!
I shall devote the first chapter of this Abstract to Variation under Domestication. We shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible; and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations. I will then pass on to the variability of species in a state of nature; but I shall, unfortunately, be compelled to treat this subject far too briefly, as it can be treated properly only by giving long catalogues of facts. … In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
That’s the theory in a nutshell. However, Darwin was very aware that there were many things he did not know. He acknowledges, for instance, that
The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species … is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so …
Of course, we know much more about this now than was known at the time, though more was known than Darwin realised, because he does not once, to my knowledge, mention Mendel, who had already done crucial experiments on genetics. The point of importance, though, is that Darwin acknowledges his ignorance on this issue right up front, before the reader has but barely begun.