Monthly Archives: September 2011
The “inspiration” for this post – that’s a big word; and I don’t know that what I have to say is inspired or just foolish — and I admit that I’m only flying a kite here — but it struck me immediately I watched the following video, with the associated comments by an animal behaviourist, Steve Pruett-Jones, over at Why Evolution is True. Here’s the video:
You’ve got to admit that it’s simply mind-blowing! Now, the part of the commentary that is really germane to my purposes is this simple statement:
This amazing video illustrates the apparent coordinated movement of individuals in a large school, although in fact the movement of each fish is thought to be independent. How the fish do this remains somewhat of a mystery.
I had just been reading Alisdair McIntyre’s remarks on Homer’s Iliad last night, especially the part where he suggests that individuality is something that is striking by its absence when Achilles decides whether or not to kill Agamemnon for stealing his slave girl (as one of the perks of command), or whether he should behave courageously on the field of battle.
The other day I came upon Jonathan Rée’s piece in The New Humanist: “Varieties of Irreligious Experience.” To a large extent it is written in the popular genre — “the new atheists don’t really understand religion, which is diverse and doesn’t imply belief in anything” — but then it explores a completely new way of looking at things by saying that atheism is the very same, that there are as many forms of irreligious experience as there are religious experiences, and that the new atheism, bound as it is to the old 19th century wheel of blustering against religious belief is nowhere close to addressing the real issues that face us today. Of course, he’s never very clear what new issues face us today. He’s much better — well, he thinks he is — at knocking people down, than in building anything up. But what he’s most keen to do — and here he joins a large and growing club — is to tweak the noses of the new atheists.
However, Rée thinks he’s really put the new atheists in their place at last, because he traces the new atheism back to 17th century, when the phrase ‘le nouvel athéism’ was used “to alert Christians to the threat of Spinozism.” But even here, of course, it did not speak to unbelief, since Spinoza himself believed in something called god, but identified it with the whole of nature, rather, says Rée, than to “a transcendental supernatural agency.” But then, says Rée, when Spinoza was disarmed and identified with some sort of mysticism, ‘new atheism’ was transferred in the 19th century, seriatim, to those who supported the mutability of species, Ausguste Comte, and then secularists like Harriet Martineau and George Holyoake, Spencerian evolutionists, Darwinists, and, finally, Nietzsche. And then, of course, “[n]ew atheism was born again at the beginning of the 21st century, and some people think it has dealt a final blow to religion in all its forms.”
I know that Jerry Coyne has dealt with this already, and I almost simply let it pass by, but then, I thought, this is much too important. Jerry says that Karl Giberson disses the evangelicals at last. I don’t think he does, and I find that worrying. What Giberson does in his HuffPo article is to take evangelicals to task for their failure to accept the conclusions of science, but he still can’t help being on their side. He just doesn’t get their being anti-science. He actually thinks that being anti-science is in conflict with their religion. He thinks American evangelicalism has taken a wrong turning, but he still thinks that evangelicalism itself is true.
Of course, Jerry has the man’s measure. He knows that Giberson hasn’t really dissed evangelicalism. As he says at the end of his post on Uncle Karl’s newest venture into the science-religion wars, Giberson needs to take one step further:
– he doesn’t seem to realize that it’s the business of religion itself to blur the boundaries between real and fake knowledge. If you swallow things like Adam and Eve, the Resurrection, or transubstantiation, then you’re already halfway to denying global warming and evolution. For the faithful, truth is not what’s supported by evidence, but simply what they want to be true.
Of course, it’s not quite this simple. They may want certain things to be true, but they think they have a reason to believe that these things are true. and that is precisely where Uncle Karl fails to oppose them. He still obviously thinks that there is every reason for believing that evangelicalism is true. He just doesn’t think this forces them to cut science adrift. He puts the point with exemplary clarity:
Suffering is a problem for religion, a very big problem. But if religion can somehow corral suffering, so that it doesn’t wander too far off into realms of meaninglessness, then it can somehow claim suffering for itself. But in order to do this, religion has to own it, somehow; it has to take control of it. They have to impose it as a duty, as a meaningful part of being human. But as a result of this, people in positions like the like the pope, the archbishops and bishops, etc., have, as a consequence, little grasp of or sympathy for emotional reality. That’s why the pope can be so heartless when it comes to the real problem of sexual abuse in the church — letting Vatican authorities continue obstructing enquiries, and then flaunting his visits with a few selected victims whenever he visits a country where the abuse has become a problem. If you take possession of suffering, suffering is not only minimised, it becomes a demand. People must suffer. Little girls must have babies, women must die even if abortion could save them, all people must die as nature intended them to.
This is something that resonated with me too late, but it follows my own experience of suffering and the church. Suffering is something that the church has to keep in a little box. Once it gets out of Pandora’s box, the game is up. That’s what the Christian idea that assisted dying is an ultimate abandonment, a “failure of community,” is really all about. Let’s keep this thing called suffering carefully packaged in a box called palliative care, community solicitude, compassion, love, and all the rest, and then we can say that, well, we all have to die, but we’ve got the suffering angle all dealt with, so God is off the hook, and religion is still safe from contradiction — at least for another few years, until the issue comes up again.
I apologise for going AWOL over the last couple days. I’ve been busy writing a research paper, and when I am doing that I tend to be a bit obsessive about it until it is done. Some of you may remember a couple pictures of my apple tree that I posted in the Spring. Here is the same apple tree now. The fruit looks lovely, but I suspect, since I didn’t use any sprays, that they will be infested with worms. What did people do without insecticides? Next year, perhaps.
I’ll be back soon with another post. However, take a look at the grass: I need to mow my lawn!
Yesterday I was busy with a project all day, writing a short article which tries to show that someone writing about assisted dying is full of hot air. One of the first things that I came upon when I went online this morning was Ophelia’s post about Colin Tudge’s “review” of Richard Dawkins new book for children, The Magic of Reality. Since I am just reading the book in the time before I fall asleep each night, it came as quite a surprise that someone should so roundly and contemptuously dismiss Dawkins’ enchanting book. The subtitle of the book is “How we know what’s really true,’ and he spends a reasonable amount of time contrasting what we know scientifically about the world with myths and fairy stories. The last chapter, which I have not reached yet, asks the question, What is a miracle? Appropriately enough, this holds up to examination the claims that people have made about miracles. But it is simply not true, as Tudge alleges, that Dawkins “rails endlessly against fundamentalists.” He doesn’t rail in this book against anything, but he does, in a thoughful and a measured way, contrast what we know to be true with mythical stories from the past. Indeed, in telling the mythical stories he scarcely anywhere holds the stories up to contempt, although when writing about the sun worship of the Aztecs he does remark that it’s too bad they didn’t stop making sacrifices just to see whether the sun would rise the next day, and did not really need to be placated with beating human hearts torn from the breasts of living victims. He also explains elsewhere that the sun’s rising is an illusion based on the earth revolving on its axis, and might have pointed out that it would have made more sense to make offerings to the earth, to keep it spinning, instead of to the sun, to keep it rising. Perhaps some kind of vegetable would have served as an offering to the earth, instead of the thousands of living hearts cut from the breasts of sacrificial victims that were offered to the sun.
Someone suggested the other day that the Guardian keeps Andrew Brown on staff to help spike the number of hits on its CiF blog, since his posts are always so screwy that people gravitate towards Brown’s offerings just to twist his nose. Whether the Guardian’s intentions manage this level of deviousness and ingenuity I am not sure, but lately Brown has been pulling out all the stops on idiocy in a race to the bottom in the intellectual sweepstakes, the diapason of his ignorance rumbling contentedly in the background. This morning, for example, he suggests that “At least creationists have given it some thought,” and then asks, as a subtitle, “Would you rather an indifferent or a passionately wrong child in the science classroom? Let’s not simply sneer at Darwin deniers.”
Clearly Brown has never been in a classroom. It is better to have a teachable child, than one whose mind is so obdurately made up that he won’t even begin to digest what is on the curriculum. An indifferent child can, depending on the skill of the teacher, be turned into a passionately curious child, who can’t wait to learn the next mind-boggling thing. A child who knows better than the teacher, and who hasn’t given a thought — contrary to Brown’s title — to the subject he is supposed to be learning, is simply unteachable, and will be a constant thorn in the teacher’s side, since he will continue to bluster about his certainties even at those critical moments when the whole class is hanging on the teacher’s every word, simply yearning to learn about the wonders that this world provides on every side.
A strange problem is bedevilling attempts by atheists to state their case. Not all that long ago atheists could have simply pointed out that people no longer believe in the resurrection or the incarnation (of Jesus), or no longer believe that there is a god who meddles in human affairs, and we’d be sure to gather some people into the net, and no one would have returned fire with, “Well, really, that’s not what religious “belief” is all about,” as John Gray does in his latest piece of postmodernist chicanery over at the BBC. (Hasn’t he heard? Postmodernism is dead!) Now, whenever an atheist wants to talk about religion they will be given a thousand and one reasons why he or she simply hasn’t managed to characterise theism in a way that theists themselves will acknowledge as even coming close to what they (claim to) believe. Indeed, like Gray, they may say that religion is not really about belief at all. It’s much more important, as Gray says, how you live.
Only Gray has tried to go a bit further than people like Eagleton et co., and asks the question: Can religion tell us more than science? More about what? – one is just burning to ask. Since, as he says at the end of the piece, “What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live,” the title of his piece is almost entirely misleading. He doesn’t think religion tells us anything. He tells the peculiar story of Graham Greene “converting” to Catholicism, but Greene, by his own admission, didn’t really “convert” to anything at all. He simply joined a gang for some inexplicable reason, perhaps having to do with the baroque worship of the Catholic Church, or perhaps because, like Somerset Maugham, as Maugham imagined, in his cranky heart, Greene thought he was returning to the religion of his ancestors, forgetting perhaps that Heraclitus’ saying about not being able to step into the same river twice applies especially to things like cultures and churches.