Monthly Archives: May 2012
Over the last week or two I have been writing posts which some people have responded to with the claim to know that something is a revelation from a god. This is a baseless claim, as I said in a recent comment, and it is time to address it straight on, because this claim is at the root of most of the evil of which religion is a source — an amount that is not small. In a fairly well-known essay, Richard Rorty once pointed out that religion is a conversation stopper. As soon as God is introduced into a conversation, there is nothing more to be said. In a comment on the last post, Bob Wheeler has this to say:
The human race cannot simply go on, century after century, ignoring God’s Law and exploiting each other for our own selfish purposes, and expect that nothing will happen to us. The fact that God is a God of love does not mean that He simply ignores evil. At the end of the day someone has to pay the piper.
You see? Conversation over! All it takes is the claim that there is a law that we are ignoring, and that there is a price to be paid for this ignorance, and what more can be said? It is as if Bob is sitting on the papal throne, and he is speaking ex cathedra. He knows, and so he gets to tell us all what is true, period, end of story.
What possible basis could he give for making this claim? He would have to refer immediately to a tradition in which such a claim might be made, a tradition which, in turn, would be countered by someone from a different tradition, who has received a different law, and walks humbly with a different god. What could either possibly say to the other which would be convincing? The Muslim refers to the Qu’ran, a book which is largely a pastiche of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian sayings, only partly assimilated, and often poorly understood. The Jew refers to the Tanach, but especially to the Torah, and its commandments, a loose assemblage of different writings spanning centuries, or, as Tom Thompson suggests, is a very late collection deliberately used to define a people who were to occupy Palestine for Persian colonial interests, no doubt incorporating local myths and stories to add plausibility. The Christian then refers us to Jesus, and to the words and stories about him contained in the New Testament, a book which has that name because of the Christian belief that the Jewish covenant (or testament) is now null and void — though it is plausible to think that Christians misunderstood their Jewish predecessors (as well as their contemporaries) very badly. And try as they might, Christians cannot simply expunge that meaning from their sacred text. And the stories about Jesus are so worked over that they only doubtfully refer to an historical person, even if there was someone at the begining of the story-telling around which the stories cystallised. So, limiting ourselves to these three monotheisms, we have first, the Jews, to whom God’s promises were made; we have, second, the Christians, who hold themselves to have received God’s new promises in Christ, and who also hold that those promises were sealed in the blood of God’s son, Jesus Christ, whom, by their perfidy, the Jews killed; and then we have, third, the Muslims, who believe that they have received a final revelation from God, and that God’s word to Jews and Christians is no longer a living word of the only god, whether or not this is the same god who encountered the Christians and the Jews.
The most salient difference between science and religion is that science comes to (relatively) unambiguous conclusions, whereas religion is left swimming around in a slough of imprecise and fatally ambiguous promissory notes as to what its devotees are to believe and hold to be true. We have recently been blessed with a signal example of this in the person of one of the commentators here on choiceindying,com — one David Roemer, whose blog, New Evangelist, is something of a paradigm case of religion’s failure to make sense. For example, Roemer writes this (on the linked page):
Richard Dawkins in his latest book said evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics because of the sun. He must have gotten this idea from a peer-reviewed article published in the American Journal of Physics. Catholic Truth in England just published my explanation of why the article is absurd.
The trouble with people like Roemer is that he imagines that things that he has read are also determinative for the positions of others. The article in the American Journal of Physics to which he refers was published recently (2009), and one may be assured that Dawkins was saying that evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics long before this. Indeed, the second law only applies to closed systems, which the earth patently is not, so even if you don’t understand the math of the article, it is plain that, if evolution defies the second law, it must be because there is another energy source which militates against increased entropy here on earth (in select instances), and that that source provides the energy needed to defeat the suggestion that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.
Editorial | Published: May 27, 2012
Thirteen Roman Catholic dioceses and some Catholic-related groups scattered lawsuits across a dozen federal courts last week claiming that President Obama was violating their religious freedom by including contraceptives in basic health care coverage for female employees. It was a dramatic stunt, full of indignation but built on air.Mr. Obama’s contraception-coverage mandate specifically exempts houses of worship. If he had ordered all other organizations affiliated with a religion to pay for their employees’ contraception coverage, that policy could probably be justified under Supreme Court precedent, including a 1990 opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia.But that argument does not have to be made in court, because Mr. Obama very publicly backed down from his original position and gave those groups a way around the contraception-coverage requirement.
Following is a short clip from the North Carolina Christian “pastor” fulminating against gay and lesbian people. If you haven’t seen or heard Pastor Charles “Let Them Fry or Die” Worley speaking about his “final solution to the homosexual problem,” then this is for you.
And then, just to show that ”pastors” have an effect on their parishioners, even though they do not understand, and would rather stand somewhere else, here’s a clip from an Anderson Cooper interview with a woman from Worley’s congregation — loyal as a puppy dog, but obviously conflicted, more humane than her pastor, but corrupted by Christianity.
The key is in the Bible, but fundamentally the foundation of the key to this attitude is to be found in disgust — like this:
Poor Pastor Worley! The problem is that he can imagine kissing some man and the imagination revolts and disgusts him, and because of that revulsion he thinks a good solution is to intern all homosexuals behind electrified fences, drop food supplies to them, and let the die off.
Carl Sagan played an important part in my retreat from faith. His book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was one of the first books of scientific critique of religion and superstition that I read in my years as a priest. Though I had read Bertrand Russell and other freethinkers long before, it was in the context of participating in religion and its practices at a professional level, when I had begun questioning practically everything about the church and its teachings, that Sagan’s work played a central role in slowly turning the mortar of faith into sand, and the whole structure began to totter. Indeed, soon after reading the book Elizabeth designed a book-plate for me (printing it on her press) which included one of the epigraphs from Sagan’s book: Ubi dubium, ibi libertas — “Where (there is) doubt, there (is) liberty.” Other books which played the same role were Darwin’s Origin of Species and Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. By the time that I read these books, I had already moved quite far from the centre of faith as the church understood and taught it. My mentor during this earlier period was Don Cupitt, whose works still are pregnant with meaning for me. Elizabeth and I met him at a Sea of Faith conference at Leicester University, when we were on our honeymoon in the UK in 1990.
Later I read other books by Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions, for one, and Pale Blue Dot, for another. The question of Sagan’s stridency did not occur to me at all until it was mentioned in a guest post on Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, “Was Carl Sagan a Militant Atheist?” by JJE, who was working his way through Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, which is now available on Youtube. The first episode is here:
If you are interested, this will lead you to the rest. The answer to the question that JJE asks is, of course, yes. Carl Sagan was every bit as militant an atheist Richard Dawkins, and yet his militancy and stridency did not cause the kind of emotional response that has been prompted by today’s militant atheists. Indeed, Cosmos was a hit. What explains the difference in the response? After all, the things that Sagan says about god and religion are just as dismissive as anything the new atheists have to say, yet churchmen did not issue their fatwas as readily as the pope and other church leaders now do against the new atheism. What gives?
I’ve been listening to some of Peter Boghossian’s public lectures about the nature of faith. Here are a couple of examples, and they’re worth watching straight through. Here’s the first — entitled “Jesus, The Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say No!”
That is quite long, and there is a shorter version, dealing with roughly the same things, accessible here — entitled “Faith: Pretending to know things you don’t know”
Now, as most of you will know, when philosophers and others begin to criticise faith as believing things, people of faith will immediately turn round and claim that faith has nothing to do with believing. They will begin, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did with Richard Dawkins, talking in poetic language, which, no matter how you read it, simply cannot be understood as belief about things “out there,” but become, instead, about things “in here” — “in my head,” “conformable to my feelings,” and so on.
We are puzzled along with Dawkins. What could Rowan Williams actually mean by nature “opening itself up to its own depths”? But by slipping off into poetic language it seems as if he is no longer talking about things “out there,” and so the language of faith seems to escape the epistemic conditions necessary for us to be talking about “the same thing,” about something that could claimed with justice to be true.
Just a preface by way of explanation. I’m sorry to be so unproductive over the last few days. It is Spring here, and I have my usual spring-time allergies, but this year they are affecting me particularly seriously. When that happens, stringing words together to make a sentence, let alone a post, is a struggle. This post took longer to write than almost any other, not because of its complexity or length, but because of what might be called thought-block. Bear with me. This Spring too will pass.
Maureen Dowd has an interesting piece in the New York Times for Saturday (19th May 2012). Entitled Here Comes Nobody it is an attack on the Roman Catholic Church’s growing tendency to control its message, and to marginalise those who differ. It also expresses concern over the increasingly popular political idea that public policy should be governed by the religious beliefs of elected officials and members of legislatures, a growing tendency which is going to land us in serious political trouble if we are not careful. The telltale signs are increasing. Muslims, pretending that their religion is not political, are practically everywhere insisting that Islamic principles should govern everything from finances to women’s dress, and a host of things in between, all designed to normalise Islamic oppression in democratic contexts. The Roman Catholic Church is playing exactly the same game, by condemning liberal democratic establishments as radically secular and anti-Catholic, going so far as to tell women religious in the United States where the emphasis of their ministry must lie — not in the direction of social justice, but in an emphasis on the “pro-life” agenda of the Vatican, something that is governed by rigorously orthodox teaching. The sign of weakness lies in the increasingly narrow focus of religious practice. When religions are strong they are diversified, expansive, and encompass societies. When they are weak, they become narrow, intolerant and self-centred; brand loyalty becomes a central concern, and emphasis is placed on things which arouse deep emotions. During the 18th century Enlightenment this was known, in Britain at least, as “enthusiasm,” and was shunned by people who considered themselves intellectually sophisticated, and who had felt the winds of change blowing.
Religions tend to be static, because they depend upon the loyalty of ordinary people whose lives are marked by a fair degree of stasis, and for whom change is threatening. When religions go through a period when they feel themselves at risk, they tend to shorten their defence perimeter, choosing easily identifiable features of their internal landscape to defend. This also has the virtue of making their enemies and opponents more easily identifiable. In Dowd’s essay this tendency is clearly identified. Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, was invited to give the commencement address at Georgetown University, which, because of her role in the insurance kerfuffle that the USCCB has made such a circus of, made her an easy target. As Dowd says: