Category Archives: Christianity
Like my wife Elizabeth, I have deep regrets that the institution that brought us together, and provided the context within which we could have a rich and rewarding life together for nearly twenty years until her death in Switzerland, should now be one that I find it difficult to speak of with respect. But that is, not to put too fine a point on it, very much the case. I used to think that, as an Anglican, I could largely disregard what other Christians believed, and could, thus, separate myself from beliefs and practices which I then regarded as clearly immoral expressions of intolerance and hatred. But I was naive then, and thought that this was not characteristic of Anglicanism as I had come to know it. It is true that I began that way, holding, in a very conservative way, beliefs and attachment to traditions which effectively excluded from the church all but those who could understand Christianity according to a fairly narrow, Anglo-Catholic interpretation of what constituted true Catholicity and therefore true belonging in the church; but I gradually lost those hard edges, and, while still inveterately Anglican, began to think of Christianity as, at its best, a broad house in which believers and unbelievers, as well as adherents of other religions, could find a place of peace where they could explore their humanity together without prejudice.
When I had come to the end of my active ministry I was not all that far from being an unbeliever myself. I could no longer take seriously the central Christian affirmations of the supernatural birth of Jesus — well, from childhood I had never really accepted that — or his death and resurrection, or his miracles and bodily ascension into heaven (which makes no sense, of course, in terms of scientific cosmology). Nor could I make any sense of the claim that Jesus was both God and man. This became more and more unintelligible to me, especially when, considering the gospel narrative of the life, teachings and acts of Jesus, he came to seem to me not only not in any relevant sense a perfect man, but someone of his time and place whose claim to superior morality came to seem, almost daily, less and less convincing. While he never came to seem to me as morally reprobate as Muhammad, his moral failings are too prominent — especially his teachings regarding a place of eternal punishment, where the fire is never quenched and the worm never dies — to accord him even approbation as a good man. What is unique to him — say, his prescription that we should love our enemies — seems untenable, and what is worthy in his moral teaching is almost entirely borrowed from Jewish sources. I make no judgement, and do not intend to, regarding Jesus’ historical existence, for it seems obvious to me that the gospel Jesus is not a figure of history, whatever historical reality may lie behind it. The historical questions seems to me largely uninteresting. If gods do not come to earth as Jesus is said to have done, then the gospel Jesus cannot be an historical figure.
Veronica Abbass has very kindly referred me, via her comment at the Canadian Atheist site, to the “religion experts” of the Ottawa Citizen where, this week, they address the question: “What is the greatest obstacle to faith? ” Kevin Flynn, an Anglican priest and director of the Anglican Studies programme at St. Paul University — a Catholic school which, according to its website offers “degrees in Philosophy, Theology, Human Sciences and Canon Law” — in other words, not a university at all — suggests that science itself is not an obstacle to faith; rather, he says,
the greatest obstacle to faith in our culture is the notion — widely held but little examined — that science has made religious faith absurd and untenable. This is not science, but “scientism.”
Now, I have gone of record as suggesting that scientism is, in fact, a misunderstanding of the status and scope of science. The belief that all that we know can, in the end, be reduced to the statements of science is, I believe, an imperialist gesture by some scientists who cannot conceive of knowing what is not, at base, scientific. This is very clearly stated by Jerry Coyne in a recent piece about Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos, where, countering Nagel’s claims about reductionism, he says this (he is referring to this review of Nagel’s book, by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, in The Nation):
Here all three academics (Weisberg is a philosopher; Leiter a professor of law) make a mistake: the view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics, which is materialism, is not identical to an attempt to reduce all sciences to physics. The former must be true unless you’re religious, while the latter is a tactical problem that will be solved to some degree as we understand more about physics and biology, but is unlikely in our lifetime to give a complete explanation for higher-level phenomena. Remember, though, that “emergent phenomena” must be consistent with the laws of physics, even those laws may not be useful for explaining things like natural selection.
And then, a bit later, he simply denies that there are moral truths, for this would contradict his claim that all that we can know can be reduced to the propositions of science. Now, I haven’t made a study of reductionism, and what it is possible to say regarding the reduction of one science to another, but it strikes me that saying, as Coyne does, that “‘emergent phenomena’ must be consistent with the laws of physics” does not, in fact, contradict the claim, made by Nagel, Weisberg and Leiter, that such reductions are or at least may not be possible. Whether it is or is not possible to carry out successive reductions of science that do in fact account for higher level phenomena, so that science is truly unified, is not something that can be based on the claim, which is obviously correct, that higher level phenomena must be consistent with the laws of physics. The question is — and it has not so far been answered, all attempts at producing a unified science to the contrary — whether the laws of physics can explain higher level phenomena. In other words, doubts about the in principle reduction of all sciences to the laws of physics is not clearly only an option for a religious believer, because there is no inconsistency in the belief that higher level phenomena may be only explicable at that higher level, even though such phenomena are consistent with the laws of physics. That seems to me almost trivially true, although I acknowledge that I have not studied the logical conundrums at the heart of concepts of reduction, emergent phenomena, and so on.
In a mad dash the other day, just before I had to go out for Thanksgiving Dinner — we do things differently in Canada — I quickly put up a post about the compatibility of religion and politics. Some people have pointed out that the incompatibility here, if there even is one, is very different to the incompatibility between religion and science, which really do conflict. One commentator on that post put it this way:
Eric, your premise rests on this: “The point is this. Governance, just like science, should be based on reason and evidence, and not just on one’s personal prejudices, because one’s personal prejudices have no place in the making of laws, which should be blind to religious belief.”
And it fails because of one word: “should”. Science is so based. But politics is not based on that ideal. Democracy, politics and governance all are based as much on lies, distortions, half-truths, spin, greed, hero worship, concentrations of power, manipulating people, false advertising, character assassination, etc., etc., etc.
In this sense, there is not a definite outcome, as in science, for religion to be compatible or incompatible with.
And, of course, in this sense, I agree, but I would ask you to notice that science also suffers to a considerable degree from distortions, half-truths, spin, greed, hero-worship and concentrations of power. There’s a considerable dose of false accusation and character assassination around as well. Science is not all bright and shiny compared to the tawdriness and lack-lustre world of politics. Many people still think that Rosalind Franklin, for example, was unfairly treated, since her contribution to the discovery of the structure and function of DNA was considerable. Her work was shown to Watson without her knowledge or approval, and without it, Watson and Crick may not have had the evidence they needed to confirm their theory. The biological world was abuzz at the time with the race to discover the building blocks of life, and Franklin’s contribution has never been adequately or appropriately recognised. Science is a far messier world than is often acknowledged, and religion can find a resting place there too, as a number of accommodationists have shown. Certainly, the straight denial that religion and science are somehow compatible is difficult to establish, and probably has only a minority following amongst scientists (though not amongst senior scientists, perhaps). Of course, I don’t think religion has a place in science either, but it’s not a slam dunk when it comes to showing why not.
I have just finished reading a short HuffPo piece by Victor Stenger on the incompatibility of science and religion, but it’s hard to miss the fact that democracy and religion are really incompatible too. This is not often mentioned, because obviously politics is simply drenched in religion practically everywhere you look. What would American politics look like without religion? What would the Malaysian government do without Jews to hate? What would the Tory party in Britain do without its religious nut-cases like Jeremy Hunt, who has the audacity to set back, by decades, the rights of women, and then to say that it has nothing to do with his Christianity, which, he adds, simperingly, he does not broadcast? But just as you can be a scientist and go on believing in sky fairies without apparent conflict, even though religion and science really are incompatible, you can also be a politician and proclaim your religion from the housetops, even though religion and politics, at least politics that regards human rights with any respect, are really incompatible.
The point is this. Governance, just like science, should be based on reason and evidence, and not just on one’s personal prejudices, because one’s personal prejudices have no place in the making of laws, which should be blind to religious belief. If they’re not, this means that laws are being made that are supported only be those who have the current religious beliefs, and that’s not politics, that’s tyranny. Why is it becoming increasingly acceptable for people to voice their religious opinions in the public square, and seek to base laws upon those opinions, when it can be known, simply by a survey, that either a majority, or a significant minority, of constituents do not hold the religious opinions upon which so many members of legislatures are quite prepared to base their lawmaking? How is this different from simply flipping a coin, and deciding for laws based on a simple rule of “heads” for the passing of laws, and “tails” for their defeat?
Just consider, once again (I promise, I’ll let him go soon), Jeremy Hunt’s proposal that the limits for abortion on the United Kingdom should be lowered to 12 weeks gestation (the first trimester, as they say). There is absolutely no scientific basis for this change, as the experts have been quick to point out, wondering where on earth the Health secretary, who has just taken over the role, gets his information. Not only is there no evidence in favour of such a move, there is plenty of evidence that it would be nothing short of a catastrophe for many women. But Hunt doesn’t care a fig about women or women’s rights. This should be amply clear by now. He doesn’t care about women. He doesn’t care about their lives. He has no interest in them at all. All he’s thinking of, even though he claims not to be doing so, is his religious revulsion at the thought of abortion itself, and that’s all he needs to make an arbitrary declaration that the cut off for legal abortions should be the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. See — just like flipping a coin! And then, of course — you can see it coming, can’t you? — others will say 20 weeks, and people will think they’re making a compromise, even though there is no more reason for drawing this line either, but at least popes and archbishops will approve.
Yesterday I put up a post on the issue of abortion, and where the line should be drawn. I don’t think there should be a line at all. A woman’s body is hers, and no one should have the right to tell her what to do with it. Most women, of course, who become pregnant, will act responsibly, but the fact that some may not does not give governments the right to intrude into women’s privacy, and to limit their freedoms. That it’s mainly a Christian issue is made clear by the Health Secretary’s claim that
[t]here’s an incredibly difficult question about the moment we should deem life to start. [see the Guardian here]
Hunt, just new to the health portfolio, since last month’s cabinet shuffle, has kept quiet about this until now, and though he says it has nothing to do with his Christian faith, there is reason to doubt the sincerity of the claim. Speaking to the Times (behind a paywall here) Hunt said
he had reached the conclusion after studying the evidence and denied that his stance was a consequence of his Christian belief.
In the Times interview he said:
It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.
But his claim about evidence found no backing from health professionals:
Dr Kate Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, questioned the basis for Hunt’s reference to making his decision after looking at evidence. “What evidence is he thinking of? I can’t think of anything.”
Which just shows how dependent Hunt’s views are on his Christian prejudices, and how endangered women’s reproductive freedoms are when faced by the idiocies of Christian meddling.
Lately, a trend has developed of urging people to refer to certain events as political rather than religious. To take an example where this might easily be done, take the recent outbreak of anti-Buddhist violence in Bangladesh, apparently over a Facebook image thought to be insulting to the Muslim prophet. It’s irrelevant what caused the violence, it might be said, because in nearby Myanmar (Burma), Muslims have suffered grievously at the hands of Buddhists, who went on a rampage over the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl. So, it might be thought, the violence in Bangladesh, and the destruction of Buddhist temples and homes, may be just a tit-for-tat response to the violence visited upon the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. So, is the violence not more political than religious in origin and nature, and the claimed insult an excuse rather than a reason?
This distinction is often made with the implication that, if it is political, it is not religious, and vice versa, as though religion can be let off the hook simply by bringing up the political dimension of the violence. On the other hand, as is claimed in the Wikipedia article on religious violence,
[t]he invention of the concept of “religious violence” helps the West reinforce superiority of Western social orders to “nonsecular” social orders, namely Muslims at the time of publication.
It is hard to see how this is true, especially since so much of the violence in the arc of countries running from Egypt to Pakistan, though often represented as secular, has been given a deeply religious hue by American fundamentalists, most particularly by President Bush, who claimed God’s commandment as his motivation for attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. A contemporary report states:
President George Bush has claimed he was told by God to invade Iraq and attack Osama bin Laden’s stronghold of Afghanistan as part of a divine mission to bring peace to the Middle East, security for Israel, and a state for the Palestinians.
So a strong religious colouring clearly marks both sides in the ongoing conflict in the region. While not so public as Bush in claiming a religious rationale for going to war, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, believed that God wanted him to go to war to fight evil. It is hard to find much purchase here for the moral superiority of the West, based on the West’s secularity as opposed to the supposed blinkered religionism of the East. So, it is not simply a matter of (innocent) secular states against blinkered (guilty) religion.
The problem is that, whenever a nonbeliever speaks in a critical way about offended Muslims rioting, or Christians in Britain making exaggerated claims about persecution, or Muslims denouncing Islamophobia whenever someone criticises any aspect of their religion, the response is so often that religion is not at the centre of these events; instead, we are to understand, the issues are political, or racial, or cultural, or something other than religious. Islamophobia, for instance, is often thought of as racist, even though Muslims are not identifiable by race, except, of course, insofar as many people, even Muslims, tend to identify Islam with the Arab world, when, of course, it is not that simple, for there are Russian Muslims, Chinese Muslims, Indonesian Muslims, Indian Muslims, and white European (American, Canadian, Australian, etc.) Muslims. So a criticism of Islam is the criticism of a religion, not of a race, or even of a particular ethnic grouping — though of course, in local circumstances, it may be directed at a specific ethnic enclave, and may then be identified more precisely as racial, ethnic or cultural in tone and effect.
This post is now available in Polish translation at Racjonalista. Thanks once more to Malgorzata.
It is only fair to point out, as Tim Harris said in a comment the other day, that there are some people, at least in Libya, who are protesting against Muslim violence, and are opposed to terrorism. Of course, I had no doubt that there were, but there have been public demonstrations to this effect, and Elizabeth Reeve, over at The Atlantic, has reported on them. There are pictures too.