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.
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.
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?
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.
The following is a conversation that I had recently over at whyevolutionistrue.com, beginning with my comment, here, in response to Jerry Coyne’s post “Critical Mail of the Week”, here. I do not record it as purporting to show that my response is more correct or more able than those of my interlocutors. I record it as what is currently on my mind. I have found myself, over the last year or two, distancing myself more and more from the new atheism, although I was, I think, once associated more closely to it. Part of the reason for this was the anger I felt towards the churches (an anger I still feel) because of their intransigent approach to issues of assisted dying, an approach which made my wife Elizabeth’s torment more tormenting than it need have been, and which, in the end, I believe, dramatically shortened her life. I do not think that a reasoned theological argument can be produced for opposing assisted dying, and I hold Christianity and other religions largely to blame for the way in which my wife was forced to live in fear and torment, as well as for the way that she was forced to go to Switzerland in order to bring her increasingly intolerable quality of life to and end before she need have done had assisted dying been readily available in Canada. So, I adopted a very negative and angry response to religion, and expressed this anger in what I hope were often reasoned posts on this blog, 900 of which I have archived for my own use, but are no longer available here. I may repost some of them in the days ahead.
However, as time went on I found myself at loggerheads with much that sailed under the banner of the New Atheism, finding its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw. Of course, it does apply to the fundamentalists and some evangelicals (two separate points of view), but some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical. Some of that theology may simply be composed of what have come to be known as “deepities”, though that classification seems to me to have arisen because of the unwillingness of atheists to engage with what theologians and other religious believers have to say in defence of their worldview. And that it is an opposition of worldviews is, I think, something that has been lost sight of.
I think some of this comes out in the following conversation. There seems to be a belief that theology must simply be delusional, because there is no objective supernatural existent corresponding to the word ‘god’ — or at least that no “slam-dunk” arguments can be produced for such an existent. Consequently, it has become fairly normative to believe that religion has to do with “confected” entities, and religious thought itself not only delusional but even pathological. (Boghossian — in his book on making atheists — repeats the accusation that faith is pathological in his book so often that one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.) I do not think this is true, even though I dissent from much that is said in defence of Christianity. Empirical science is not the only source of truth or understanding. Indeed, I believe that the new atheism is quickly attaching itself to beliefs that are as dogmatic and irrational as many religious dogmas, and to a kind of ideological certitude that may be as dangerous as the ideologies of the past that caused so much harm in the course of what Robert Conquest has called The Ravaged Century.
With that introduction, here is the conversation. It is hard to present it in such a way as to be always in sequence, but I am sure that you will be able to find your way. I have not asked permission of those who participated in this conversation for its reposting here, but since it is a matter of public record, beginning with my own comment (you can click on the permalinks to access the conversation in sequence and in their original context, if you wish), that I beg their indulgence in using it as a way of expressing some of my concerns about the new atheism. (In addition to this post I suggest you read the defence of Massimo Pigliucci at aRemonstrant’sRamblings, and follow some of the links in or after that post. In some instances I have edited the following conversation for spelling and added quotation marks to indicate quotations, where this helps to make the bones of the conversation more clear):
In a recent Globe and Mail op-ed — perhaps published in the full knowledge that the Globe intended (within a few days) to publish an editorial which goes clean contrary to Somerville’s point of view — Margaret Somerville repeats her reasons “Why euthanasia and assisted suicide must remain legally prohibited“. They basically boil down to the view, repeated ad nauseam by the Vatican and its supporters, that respect for life demands an absolute prohibition of any decision regarding the termination of life from conception to what they call “natural” death. The belief is that if we do not control the entrances and exits of life with draconian absolutism and totalitarian prescription we will lose our respect for life. The repetition of this claim is tiresome. Of course, no one is suggesting for a moment that we should not take care that assisted dying not become a free for all in which innocent people who do not want to die are sent on their way regardless. But one such protection might reasonably be held to include permission for those in great pain, or suffering what they consider to be an intolerable quality of life, to end their lives if they competently wish to do so. And since it is much harder to kill oneself than many people believe, and since many of the options for killing oneself are horrific and barbarous (such as hanging, drowning, shooting oneself, or jumping from an extreme height), assistance for people to end their lives ought to be provided so that society can at once protect life (because all those expressing a wish to die may be helped to find meaning in their lives after all), and make the departure of those who feel that continuing in life will mean a net loss of goodness for lives already lived, not only more peaceable, but able to be carried out in the company of those they love and by whom they are loved in return.
Somerville’s basic mistake, and it is something she borrows mindlessly from her church, is a play on the ambiguity of the idea of dignity. The belief that human life has inherent dignity is a strange one, on the face of it, since the basis for ascriptions of dignity, even in the Christian tradition, lies in rationality and the ability of humans to make choices for themselves and thus to live morally. To say, of any entity, before it has this capacity, that dignity inheres in it, as in a foetus, or an embryo, is simply to misunderstand the idea of dignity. In Roman Catholic parlance today, the word ‘dignity’ often stands proxy for the word ‘sanctity’, and it should not need pointing out that these terms are not equivalent. Because of this ambiguity, which arises from the frequent conjunction of dignity and sanctity in Catholic moral theology, the aspect of dignity which consists in the ability to make decisions for oneself, and to carry them out, is simply lost sight of. The consequence is that Roman Catholic moral theology tends to downplay the importance of autonomy as well as human rights. This is evident wherever the Roman Catholic Church is in the ascendency; but it should not be permitted to claim the moral high ground on the basis of this bait and switch approach to the issue of assisted dying. For what they are saying is that no one should have the right, for what seem to them good reasons, to bring their lives to an end because of intolerable suffering or the expectation of it. This is a straight denial of human autonomy, and the right of people to determine how their lives will go.