Monthly Archives: November 2011
If something is going wrong — which is dead certainty, since there will always be something going wrong somewhere — then it must be, it seems to Andrew Brown, because of a lack of faith. Which is why, I guess, I despise the man so much, because he is so trite and predictable. This time he argues in his Guardian CiF piece that
The rejection of God by Social Democrats and societal values by neoliberals has left a moral vacuum that will be difficult to fill.
I know nothing at all about Sweden — it is Swedish society he is analysing in his latest CiF Belief column: “Sweden and the Loss of Trust“ – but it’s just like Brown to fill the slot “what’s wrong?” with “the rejection of God”. He starts off by telling us about the leader of the Social Democrats, Håkan Juholt. No sooner had the man been elected, and the public heard that his partner (whom he met on a dating site – Brown just had to add) had been given a suspended sentence for embezzlement from her employer, and that Juholt himself had overcharged on his parliamentary living expenses while staying at her house. Obviously, then, there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Swedish society, mainly due to the rejection of God.
Then there’s the matter of nursing homes, some of which have been privatised, and now that they are meant to be turning a profit the inmates are being neglected, covered with faeces, diapers not changed, etc. So, obviously, this has something to do with the fact that God is no longer at the centre of Swedish society. After all, wherever it came from, there used to be a conformism about Swedish society. Some people thought it came from the top, but Brown doesn’t think this at all. No, no: it worked like this:
The way it really worked was written in gothic script outside the German church in the old town of Stockholm: “Fürchtet Gott! Ehret den König!” – “Fear God and honour the king!”
Warning! This is much longer than it set out to be!
In celebration of World Philosophy Day (of whose existence I was lamentably ignorant!) Wiley-Blackwell sent me a number of free special issues of various journals published by Wiley-Blackwell as well as a selection of various articles published in some other journals published by or related to the Wiley-Blackwell group of companies. One of them was published in New Blackfriars (which I stopped receiving years ago when an editor was sacked because, as I understand it, he was becoming too “liberal” in his theology). It is entitled “The New Atheism: Its Virtues and its Vices.” Of course, it piqued my interest, so I read it, and noticed, once again, how theology plays with words. This is the kind of thing that Jerry Coyne means when he alleges that theology “makes stuff up,” and I think, after considering what Brian Davies, OP, has to say, it will become clear just to what extent this is true.
I want to begin by considering the following.
When it comes [writes Davies] to what makes New Atheism new, the third point I want to note is that its exponents largely seem to write with little reference to the history of theology. They often talk about something called ‘religion’ and (especially in the case of Dawkins and Hitchens), they focus on what they call ‘belief in God’. But, we might ask, ‘Which religion?’ and ‘Whose God?’ My impression is that the fathers of New Atheism have not much studied the fathers of Old Atheism or the fathers of theism in its classical Christian form. 
The questions ‘Whose God?’, ‘Which religion?’ are meant to distract us, just as the similar questions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, are meant to do. One of the problems with religion is that there are so many of them. One of the problems with the concept of god is that there are simply too many of them too. To individuate or identify something as rarefied as a god is not an easy thing to do, and the idea is that we can do it with words. But defining ‘god’ is a bit like defining ‘number’. In Principia Mathematica, Russell and Whitehead, if I remember correctly, define number in terms of the class of all classes that are similar to it. This makes the idea of number very elusive, and the idea of a god is even more elusive. Most of us can count, and count alike, though we might count in tens or twenties or twos or twelves. But with gods it is all over the place, and agreement is hard to reach. Even Christians, who presumably believe in and worship the same god, cannot really agree, and are divided up into thousands of denominations, and then new denomnations, because someone thought there should be just one!
There’s been a flurry of activity over the meaning of the word ‘fact’, and how this little word should be used in either theological or secular/scientific contexts. It all began with Keith Ward’s Guardian article in which he purported to show how “religion answers the factual questions that science neglects.” I responded to Ward on 1 November 2011 with a post entitled “Imaginary Homelands. Keith Ward Struggles with the Facts.” Jerry Coyne responded on the 6th of November with his post “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions, in which he makes the following challenge:
I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.
This challenge was answered, in turn, by Jim Houston in The Philosophy Magazine blog Talking Philosophy, in which he takes Jerry Coyne to task for not having contacted Ward about his challenge, when, in fact, making the “challenge” was obviously rhetorical. To this Jerry Coyne replied with his post “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?” I’m not quite sure why Jerry decided to include philosophy either in his original challenge or in this response to Jim Houston’s Talking Philosophy gig, because yoking philosophy and theology together is really mixing apples with oranges, especially since the kind of thing Jerry is attempting to do here is, quite simply, philosophy, and no doubt he thinks that it has some “factual” content. And, not to leave out another important contribution to the conversation, Ophelia Benson has just posted her take on the issue over at Butterflies and Wheels with the catchy title, “Facts and Beliefs.”
The Farewell Foundation is providing a day-by-day summary of the court case now underway in the British Columbia Supreme Court: Carter et al v. Attorney General of Canada and Attorney General of BC. You can access the commentary here.
In my last post — “The Right to Die and the Religious Fringe” — I decided, quite deliberately, to speak of religion as a fringe activity. In view of the large number of religious believers in Canada, and many other Western countries, this may seem to be a bit of rhetorical grandstanding, but I do not think that it is. Religion is on the fringe of life now. It has been shunted off onto a cultural siding, and that’s where it will continue to reside, because there simply is no way of providing legitimate and respectable support for religious beliefs, and, largely due to the scientific revolution that has been underway since the sixteenth century, the culture of the West, at least, but also of many other countries that are rapidly undergoing cultural change, is a knowledge culture, and no longer a culture of traditional beliefs and practices.
Religions instinctively understand that they must either be in control the culture or they will wither and die. This is why Islam and Roman Catholicism, as well as Protestant evangelicalism, are so insistent that their moral priorities be expressed in the law; for if cultures are not themselves religious cultures, where the source of meaning, purpose and social order is found in religion, then religions atrophy, they become isolated from the mainstream activities of the culture, and increasingly at odds with it. The alternative, of course, is to try to find compatibilities between religion and the culture which it can no longer direct. This expedient, while it seemed to work for awhile — liberal movements within the religions are a testimony to this partial success — is increasingly seen as merely a form of self-deception on the part of the religions, a stop-gap measure which, unless it could find a deep common source of vitality, would soon be seen to be but a temporary refuge from the storm of modernity and the progress of science and knowledge.
One more in Julian Baggini’s series on the new heathenism (although that thought seems to have got left behind as the series has developed). Today (well, yesterday, to be exact — I’ve been fiddling with my computer for the last two or three days, and have finally solved the problem — by buying a new one!), Baggini asks the question:
Does true religion involve belief in mythical beings, or is it really practice not doctrine? To find out we need an empirical approach.
Now, in one sense, one can only cheer. An empirical approach is perhaps always the best. After all, this is what makes science such a powerful methodology for finding the truth. We test our theories by checking what really happens when we do something. We record our findings with great accuracy. We try our best to explain why things happen the way they do. And then we go back and try to falsify what we think we have just shown to be true. If it stands up to our tests, we’re well on the way to having found out the truth about something, but we still have to wait upon the judgement of our peers, who will be invited to check and see that we got things right.
Does this apply to the Enlightenment critique of religion? Or to the later critiques, such as those of the new atheists, whom Baggini has taken to task in earlier CiF articles? And is his present series a kind of mea culpa retraction of some of those earlier criticisms? Some of them seem to be, but the present article, of course, is also an implied criticism of authors like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens, who, we have already been told by Terry Eagleton, have scant knowledge of medieval philosophy — and therefore, presumably, of theology more generally – and probably no very searching understanding of contemporary religious believing either. Isn’t it all a bit of a slap-dash affair, the new atheist critique? Don’t those who set out to criticise religion really need to do some research to find out what religious people really believe? And in the absence of this research, is anything that they have to say likely to have any validity?