"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Which is True. Christianity or Atheism?- An odd debate...

I've been invited to take part in a debate at the University of Kent with the above premise... I have composed my opening statement for the event so thought I'd share it here.

It may have crossed your minds, because it has mine,  that the terms of this debate are a little odd. Normally when you pitch one thing against another there is some implied equivalence between them even if they are antithetical to each other. But Atheism and Christianity are not at all the same sort of thing. True, they both have something to say about belief in some kind of deity but there I think the similarity ends.
Christianity after all is more than just belief that a deity exists. For one thing it posits a particular kind of god with an interest in and expectations of the human race but also it has acquired throughout its two thousand year history a creed (well several actually) and inculcated itself into the cultural narrative of the western world to such an extraordinary extent that its influence pervades practically every aspect of society.
Atheism however is really nothing more than an ontological opinion. That gods do not exist.

I’m not intending to be provocative when I say gods (plural) because despite whatever ecumenical sentiments proponents of the worlds religions express there are many concepts of god, some of them mutually exclusive and all to some degree incompatible in the way they are supposed to interact with the world. And that’s if they do interact. Some definitions of god are deistic, creator gods yes, but the kind that retire immediately they light the blue touch paper.
So usually if somebody asks me if I believe in God my first response is usually “what do you mean by God?”
Given the usual theistic responses I will then go on to say “no, I don’t believe in that god” because after all I am an A-Theist. Give god an attitude, or claim to know what it wants or insist on your personal relationship with it then I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.
Sophisticated theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and David Bentley Hart will tell you that this is a naive concept of god. They will talk of a “ground of being”, god as the “prime mover” or particularly in Hart’s case as “being , consciousness and bliss”.
Well, maybe but for one thing that’s not the sort of god the average theist believes in and for another it’s hard to determine whether reality would be any different with or without it. Since they are unfalsifiable most Atheists I know remain agnostic about those types of god, as they do about deistic ones although there are good philosophical reasons to assume they also don’t exist.
So, the headline premise for tonight is “Which is True, Christianity or Atheism?” From an atheist point of view this is an easy proposition. There is, and has never been, objective evidence for the existence of any god from any religion and so the burden of proof is not on the atheist to prove that gods don’t exist. Since there is no empirical evidence of them the default assumption is, or should be, that there aren’t any. If it can’t be proved that there are -  then the Christian God disappears along with all the others.
But Christianity has another problem  because it’s not enough to establish the one thing atheism rejects. It also has to establish the truth of the  narrative peculiar to its understanding of god. At a bare minimum evidence God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, and his crucifixion and ascension for the salvation of human kind.
Then,  if you want to go on to argue for the literal and fundamentalist truth of Christianity you’ve also got to prove, against the overwhelming weight of empirical evidence, for the inerrancy of Judeo-Christian scripture.
But let’s hold that thought for now…
Thus far I’ve made no positive claims for atheism, and I may not make that many. In the meantime I can tell you what it’s not – It’s not a worldview, certainly not a religion and only in a vague sense is it a belief. I say that because atheists are rarely walking around consciously disbelieving in gods or especially, actively believing no gods exist. It’s a question that only arises when we’re confronted by the presumption of others that they do.
But, being an atheist does tend to lead to other conclusions about how the world might be.
Almost by definition Atheists are philosophical naturalists, understanding the world through an empirical lens and a broadly defined scientific method. This tends, although not infallibly, to mean that they reject all supernatural explanations of anything along with pseudo-scientific concepts such as homeopathy for example.
Atheism has no political allegiances although atheists on the whole tend to the socially liberal. But you can find them all across the political spectrum from Socialist to Libertarians. Ayn Rand for example was famously atheist.
Atheism has no creed or scripture (No, we don’t walk around clutching copies of “The God Delusion”) Consequently you may think that atheists have no “moral compass” nothing for the individual atheist to hang their ethics on. But in fact they have exactly the same source that religion does, at least for the fundamental principles, which is our shared human nature.
In contrast to the Abrahamic faiths which see humans as fallen from some mythical state of grace, atheists understand we are an evolved highly pro-social species with natural drives to be cooperative, maintain our personal reputations and be empathetic to others. We already possess within us the basis of morality and the more our circle of concern has expanded due to the growth of society the more refined those instincts have become. [# Steven Pinker: The better Angels of Our Nature]
Yes, In pursuit of Sustenance, Security and Sex we’re also capable of acts of cruelty and selfishness but ultimately we need each other. This isn’t a soppy appeal to Rousseau but a fact of our social nature. Moral norms become established as a result of society in general and would emerge with or without religion.
Another thing that Atheism isn’t – an ideology. Nobody campaigns for atheism, no armies march with a capital ‘A’ on their banners, nobody engages in terrorist acts or blows themselves up in the name of atheism. No atheist ever called for the death of an atheist “apostate” or as far as I know disowned a child for daring to be religious.
You will hear people say that atheist regimes have been the most repressive and violent regimes the world has seen but the reality is atheism has nothing to do with the usual examples they cite. Communist Russia under Stalin was exactly that, Communist. Stalin supressed religion because it was a threat to Communism not because he was ideologically wedded to atheism. It’s not even clear if he was personally an atheist. Mao suppressed religion for similar reasons and Pol-Pot set himself up as a god in his own right. Suggestions that Hitler was an atheist and that Nazism was godless are so laughable it is extraordinary the myth persists, perhaps the desire of the Catholic Church to disown their complicity with both has something to do with it.
This is not to suggest that individual atheists can’t be evil, they are as capable of it as anybody is but atheism won’t be their raison d’etre. In fact if you want to find a reason for evil it will be in the dogmatic pursuit of some ideology, it will be done by someone who thinks they are acting for a higher cause a higher power or some ultimate benefit that will outweigh the immediate harm.
Physicist Steven Weinberg famously said “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.”

I would suggest that there are also political ideologies that could be substituted for religion in that quote. Religion can’t be blamed for everything - but atheism  is not such an ideology and indeed, in my view,  not ideological at all.

There have been attempts to construct an “atheist movement” that have largely failed. Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of “The God Delusion” says “Organizing atheists is a bit like herding cats; They are on the whole too intelligent and independent minded to lend themselves to being herded.”
I’ve met Dawkins who does have an unfortunate arrogant streak and I think he could have left out the claim to excessive intelligence  (although there is some correlation between academic qualifications and atheism it’s really only strong in sciences where you might expect to find more atheists anyway), but what is objectively true is that atheism is not by itself a vehicle that builds communities. Ideas such as Atheism plus and Atheism 2.0 have come and gone as mainly on-line fads.

The “Atheist Church” founded in 2013 by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans enjoys some success with some 55 regular venues around the world offering a guaranteed god-free community experience. I’ve attended a couple and they’re fun and informative taking  their cue from the Christian format (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it) but using entirely non-religious music and readings. I’m not sure it constitutes a movement but it serves a human need for society without any necessity for gods.

There is of course Humanism, which does tick all the boxes atheism doesn’t. Humanist are atheists, with a utilitarian ethical worldview that values human flourishing , diversity and happiness, Of course not all atheists are Humanists. I am, and most atheists I associate with are and it is a strong and growing movement. The cohesive factor is not so much atheism as our shared human values and Humanists are pretty reliably socially and community minded. Many people in the general population who class themselves as “nones”, that is having no particular religious affiliation have values that align with Humanism and in the UK they represent around 52% of the population.

So atheism, a mere ontological opinion about the universe we inhabit, does not preclude any of the things we all  value about the human condition. Human competency, Human imagination, Human responsibility and human values are part of our shared evolutionary heritage and in my view overpopulating the universe with supernatural deities only diminishes rather than celebrates that awesome fact.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

On reading "Signature in the Cell"

I was recently prompted to read outside of my methodological naturalist’s bubble and delve into Stephen C Meyer’s argument for intelligent design “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design” . As a general principle if you want to argue against the misconceptions people hold it is not always enough to have mere facts at your disposal, it helps also to mine the source of their misunderstanding and the plausible quasi-scientific arguments of the likes of Meyer and Michael Behe are fundamental to those who would argue against naturalist theories of the origin of life.

The first thing to say about Meyer is that he is an extremely well qualified philosopher of science and there is very little in Signature in the Cell insofar as it relates to the actual molecular biology of DNA and its role in protein synthesis that I would argue with. In fact the opening chapters would make quite a good undergraduate primer on the subject. He correctly points out that a modern living cell is an incredibly complex machine of interrelated systems capable of transcribing information from the genetic code held in DNA and translating it into large functionally specific molecules such as proteins. He also, and equally correctly, observes that many of these proteins are necessary for the very processes of translation and transcription that the cell relies on to create them, in particular Ribosomes , the RNA / Protein complex that “stitches” amino acids together to make other proteins.
This interrelatedness and complexity forms one plank of his assertion that naturalistic processes cannot be responsible for the origin of life since even a minimally functional cell could not arise without a DNA code and the code could not be translated without specific decoding machinery. Then for further support he argues that there is no known mechanism by which a specific and information rich system can arise by chance alone. All such other know systems; computer code, written language etcetera have an intelligent source: us.

From these he builds a long and rather repetitive argument using abductive reasoning to draw an inference to the best explanation for the origin of life and specifically the information carried by DNA. He cites a number of statistical reasons why chemical theories of the origin of life are impossible, why chance cannot produce specified information and debunks the RNA world hypothesis as a precursor to a full blown DNA code. By systematically eliminating all possible natural explanations for life he seeks to establish that intelligent design is the only possible alternative. However, many of the assumptions he makes to suggest that a naturalistic origin of life is impossible are in my view flawed.

For example there is no necessity for a “minimally functional cell” to arise in one fell swoop and there is no necessity either for replication and metabolism to arise simultaneously or in the same place. There are credible metabolism first scenarios in which thermodynamically favourable conditions can allow spontaneous simple metabolic cycles to emerge. It has been postulated that alkaline hydrothermal vents would have been one such favourable environment. Meyer also insists there are no fundamental forces of nature driving systems to self-organise and increase in complexity but in the last couple of years Jeremy England at MIT has developed a thermodynamic theory that suggests entropy actually favours organised and replicating structures as they are more efficient at energy dispersal. Combinations of replicators and metabolisers allows for the possibility of some kind of biological bootstrapping.

Meyer makes something of a schoolboy error when he argues that the active sites that confer the catalytic specificity to enzymes are so specific that a single amino acid out of place would render them useless. This is something like the classic anti evolution argument of “what use is half an eye?” The answer of course is more use than none as long as it performs the function to some extent. This is true of enzymes as long as they are more efficient at facilitating a particular chemical reaction than would be the case if they were absent, then natural selection will do the rest. In fact it is not even correct to say that enzymes are so constrained. In his book “The arrival of the Fittest” evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner concludes that no enzyme is really that special, in fact there are usually an astronomical number of alternatives that work and, interestingly, functional intermediates that allow for enzymes to mutate. He also demonstrates similar functional redundancies in the genetic code itself which added together make the probability of specific information bearing molecules arising randomly much greater than Meyer would have us believe.

It gets worse for Meyer when you consider that as things stand we only have one working model for how life is organised, life on earth. For all we know there could be many ways, with alternative molecules and alternative codes for complex evolving systems to arise. Like a Texas sharpshooter he has drawn a bulls eye around one object out of many and made a miracle out of the fact he’s hit it. Should we ever discover extra-terrestrial life with the same familiar genetic code that would be a real argument against random processes and would bolster the case for intelligent intervention but personally I would bet against it.

A parable that Meyer returns to several times goes like this…
"Imagine a team of researchers who set out to explore a string of remote islands near Antarctica. After many days at sea, they arrive on an icy, windswept shore. Shouldering their packs, the team hikes inland and eventually takes shelter from the bitter cold in a cave. There, by the light of a small campfire built to cook their freeze-dried rations, they notice a curious series of wedgelike markings vaguely reminiscent of Sumerian cuneiform. It occurs to them that perhaps these scratches in the rock constitute some sort of written language, but dating techniques reveal that the markings are more than five hundred thousand years old…"
He concludes that in this situation once all of the other possible natural causes for the information rich markings are exhausted the researchers would reasonably conclude that an intelligent agent was responsible even though the marks predate writing by many millennia. He then equates this with the information rich genetic code and having (he believes) eliminated natural explanations arrives at the same conclusion. But, these two situations are not equivalent. For one thing markings in a cave would show evidence of tool use. The form and disposition of the rock would indicate whether it had been chiselled with bone, stone or metal implements for example and the marks would have had a predetermined meaning. DNA however is both the medium and the message; there are no fingerprints on it to suggest what mechanism was employed by an intelligent designer to forge a molecule that is self-replicating, prone to mutations and contains multiple redundancies in translation. It’s as if the researchers came across rock markings with no evidence of how they were made, which highlights one of the philosophical problems with the whole book. Meyers argument to a best explanation is really no explanation at all. There is no attempt to explain how the designer achieved this feat of molecular engineering, nor why it bothered. Meyer is of course a Christian so for him the answers would be theological, although he is at pains to tell us that intelligent design says nothing about the nature of the designer only that there must be one.

If, as many religiously motivated people are, you were predisposed to distrust naturalistic explanations for the origins of life this book would be convincing. It’s plausible, so if you were not scientifically literate or up to speed with the latest research into biological origins it could easily confirm your preconceptions. But approached sceptically there are many holes and logical non-sequiturs hiding in the narrative particularly in the latter sections where Meyer attempts to defend intelligent design as proper science. But it’s not enough to posit a cause that itself has no explanation. It’s a philosophical dead end unless you can define who or what the intelligent designer was or at least identify a line of enquiry that may expose it. Meyer denies it at length but it’s hard to distinguish “signature in the cell from any other god of the gaps argument.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Is slavery "abhorrent" in Islam?

It's been a while since BBC's Thought for the Day has motivated me to blog about it, but a recent contribution (link above) by Sughra Ahmed, the current president of The Islamic Society of Britain was such a blatant example of scriptural cherry picking that I can’t let it pass without comment.
Muslim Slave Trader
The piece was ostensibly about modern slavery, a very real problem that Prime Minister Theresa May has recently highlighted as a priority for national attention by setting up a cabinet task-force, and Ahmed opens with this thought
” Slavery is a phenomenon I think of as something from long ago and a history I’m ashamed of.”
I waited for the admission that many religions, including Islam, had condoned slavery and that would be the source of her “shame”. But no…
“Slavery has also been a challenge for religious traditions and we know this through the example of prophets and religious texts. Prophet Muhammad, for example, put himself at risk when he freed those who were enslaved by people of the time. It was commonplace for powerful men to own slaves, in fact it was seen as a sign of wealth and stature in their communities. The story of Muhammad freeing the slave Bilal is the most famous and was a clear demonstration to those of the time, and those who read the story today, that slavery is abhorrent in Islam.”
“Slavery is abhorrent in Islam…”. Really? Lets test this glib assertion, based as it is on one cherry picked story about the African slave Bilal Ibn Rabah against several other Quranic verses and Hadiths.
Quran (33:50) - "O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those (slaves) whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee"
Bukhari (52:255) -Volume 4, Book 52, Number 255The Prophet said, "Three persons will get their reward twice. (One is) a person who has a slave girl and he educates her properly and teaches her good manners properly (without violence) and then manumits and marries her. Such a person will get a double reward. (Another is) a believer from the people of the scriptures who has been a true believer and then he believes in the Prophet (Muhammad). Such a person will get a double reward. (The third is) a slave who observes Allah's Rights and Obligations and is sincere to his master."
Bukhari Volume 3, Book 41, Number 598: Narrated Jabir: A man manumitted a slave and he had no other property than that, so the Prophet cancelled the manumission (and sold the slave for him). No'aim bin Al-Nahham bought the slave from him.
These and other examples can be found here .

The best you can say about Islam from a scriptural point of view is that it sees manumitting slaves as a nice thing to do that will likely get you brownie points with Allah (who,as we know, rewards good Muslim men with 72 perpetually virginal sex slaves in heaven) but it certainly doesn’t see it as a priority and by no means is slavery portrayed as “abhorrent”. Like the old testament a thousand years earlier the Quran accepts slavery as a normal part of the human condition and fundamentalists today are convinced they are justified in taking sex slaves from among their enemies.

It does no justice to the victims of modern slavery or any favour to Islam in the west to deny the reality of what scripture teaches. Both the Quran and the bible are flawed texts with little moral authority when read without eisegesis, cherry picking and fallacious appeal to historical context. In the same way they promote discrimination, misogyny and intolerance they condone slavery in clear unambiguous language and Sughra Ahmed’s broadcast seems more an exercise in propaganda for Islam than a genuine attempt to discuss the problem in the modern era.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Accommodating Religious Practice

The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents UK exam boards has recently announced that heavily subscribed GCSE and A level exams will be held a week earlier this year to accommodate Muslim children who may be observing Ramadan and fasting during the main exam period.

This strikes me as a correct and humanistic thing to do primarily because the children and young people affected are at an age when personal, peer and parental pressure to conform will be very strong and their capacity to make well informed pragmatic choices about religion and religious practice may not be fully developed. The system should protect children from their own and their parent’s follies at this critical stage in their education so far as is practicable given fasting is a known and obvious risk factor for reduced performance in this growing minority.

This is not, to my way of thinking, about “creeping sharia” or religious privilege but about maximising the potential of a future generation of productive individuals. But…

…as a society we should be wary about giving the signal that religious practice, that’s any religious practice of any faith tradition, is an inevitable consequence of belonging to a religion. Religion and the practice of it is always a choice in a secular democracy and should not be unquestioningly pandered to in the same way we should accommodate race, gender or disability. Adult believers ought to be expected to accept the consequences of their decisions to impair their performance, career choices, health and opportunities by practicing their religion if that is the result.

It could be argued that as a formerly Christian country, British Christians are privileged in that national holidays are arranged around their festivals and this is true at least to the extent that the pagan and agricultural cycles they usurped still mark the rhythms of this country’s life. But it would make no difference to minority faiths if those holiday seasons were based on any arbitrary calendar that ignored their own traditions and just as Hindu or Muslim countries would not alter their calendars to accommodate Christians there is no reason for the UK to do so.

So, good on the exam boards for helping Muslim children maximise their potential with this small concession that will not adversely impact other children as long as they plan their revision to the timetable given (which they should be doing anyway). But let’s beware of making this a wider principle by privileging religious beliefs with a status they do not merit.

Related Post

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Religion as a Hypothesis

My friend Rob has a “niggle” with the quote from Greta Christina at the top of this blog which says
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"
He doesn’t have a problem with the substantive intent of the quote, which is to point out that religion should not be privileged or protected from criticism, but disagrees with the specific premise that religion is a hypothesis. Like many philosophical debates a lot of this comes down to semantics. If Greta has said religion is a conjecture, an opinion or an idea about the world her intent would have still been clear and to the extent that hypothesis and even theory are used colloquially it seems to me to be largely uncontentious. However it is true that hypothesis has, within science at any rate, a specific meaning. The OED takes as its primary definition
A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation
and as such needs to be open to falsification. Also, it should be said that Greta does not say a hypothesis is all that makes up religion. In fact when asked her response was
"Sigh…I didn't say religions were ONLY a hypothesis. Yes, it has historical resonance, cultural importance, etc. The point is that the thing religions specifically center on -- namely, a belief in supernatural entities or forces with an effect on the natural world -- is a hypothesis. And yes, as such, this hypothesis should be able to be subjected to scrutiny and questioning just like any other, and should not be afforded any special respect or protection.”
So to what extent if any can religion be said to be a scientific hypothesis open to falsification and to what extent would religion retain relevance at all should any part of it be proved false? According to Rob religion cannot be falsified on its own terms.
”[…] I would say that religion is *not* an hypothesis (in the same way that *science* and philosophical naturalism are not hypotheses) as evidence cannot be adduced one way or the other. Furthermore, no one comes to religious belief by considering the so-called empirical claims of religion. All religions are self-contained metaphysical systems which resist in their own terms any falsification on empirical grounds.”
But do we have to accept religion on its own terms? True, if allowed to get away with their own apologetics religions immunise themselves against disproof. Christianity has had two thousand years of practice making God’s intent, ability and mode of operation in the world as inscrutable to investigation as possible and Islam built apophasis into itself from the outset but from an empirical point of view prayer (for example) either works at some statistical level of significance or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t we are entitled to conclude that either the deity it is aimed at doesn’t exist or at any rate does not perform as expected by the petitioner. Rob says
”In one of our FB exchanges you certainly said that issues like petitionary prayer and miracles are where religion intersects with the empirical and so provide us with the ability to evaluate religious claims. If prayer fails and there is no evidence for miracles then, if I understand you correctly, the whole edifice falls for all the assertions of religion are logically founded on the truth of the basic claims---like the claim that there is a supernatural being who is *causing* things to happen in the world.”
Here I think Rob is inferring too much. That we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that miracles and prayer are un-evidenced is only to say that these particular claims of religion do not need to be taken seriously by non-believers. It does not prove that gods do not exist but may suggest the believer may be mistaken about the attitude of the particular god being petitioned. The hypothesis that gods can be swayed by prayer to intervene is falsified and that particular claim should rationally be rejected.
Whether the “whole edifice” of religion should fall based on this depends very much on the store individual believers put on particular claims. I agree that not everyone “comes to religious belief by considering the so-called empirical claims of religion” but some do surely. Does an adult converting either from a religion of birth or from previous agnosticism really ignore the supernatural premise behind their new belief? I doubt it.
For many believers religion is a heuristic device. Shorthand; for moral behaviour, cultural identity and normative values and for these people no amount of hypothesis testing is going to dent their faith, largely because from their point of view it’s irrelevant. But people do lose their religion after putting all their faith in unanswered prayer. They may still believe in a god: Just not one that cares about them.
If you spend a great deal of time, as both Rob and I do, thinking and reading about religion it is easy to become convinced that religious belief is typified by theologians who understand the sophistication and complexity it has evolved over the millennia but a short trawl through Christian blog sites, particularly those found in the US, should be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion that a significant number of the faithful aren’t literalists. This kind of belief is so specific and so rooted in empirically testable claims that to suggest it is not a hypothesis seems to me to be perverse. The six day creation, a global flood, the exodus from Egypt are all factual claims and have all been debunked by cosmology, geology and archaeology. None of that happened and the only way that this kind of belief can be maintained is by denying any agency to science at all which is what many do (while still using smartphones). If these people had to confront their cognitive dissonance by tackling their religion head on I doubt they would retreat into the “self-contained metaphysical system” of question begging that modern theology offers. They would have to abandon their religion wholesale which is why they rarely admit the scientific evidence.
So yes, religion is in part a hypothesis and can in part be falsified even if this depends on the particular truth claims of the specific religions and the extent to which these are held to be truths by individual believers. Religion and religious belief can transcend the empirical by substituting literalism for allegory and understanding ritual as culture not magic and to the extent that some have done this they are impervious to scientific enquiry, although how far they can do this and still be legitimately called a religion may be a discussion for another day.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

John Gray strawmans new atheism...again.

Philosopher and polemicist John Gray has a lengthy piece in the Guardian titled “What Scares The New Atheists” which in his usual straw manning style attempts to argue against his own cartoonish concept of secular humanism.
"The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth. The idea that the human species is striving to achieve any purpose or goal – a universal state of freedom or justice, say – presupposes a pre-Darwinian, teleological way of thinking that has no place in science."
I am certain that Dawkins, arch new atheist and author of the selfish gene, is under no such illusion and neither am I. Humans are moral agents in the sense that we make judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, but we are not striving towards a pre-conceived or pre-ordained evolutionary goal. What humanists do say, in contrast with the monotheisms, is that humanity is not fallen and in need of salvation but rather as an evolved pro-social species we have the resources and disposition to collectively improve our own wellbeing.

Gray, like many New Atheist bashers, also misses the point about our beef with religion.
"Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?"
Apart from the fact that both Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have speculated endlessly about the evolutionary utility of religion and both concede it may have or have had survival value the target for criticism is rarely private faith. New Atheism was spawned for Sam Harris by 9/11 and for Dawkins by the rise of creationism in the U.S and it is the indulgence of religious thinking in the public and political sphere that is the objection. It is true that arguing for secularism and a scientifically informed public policy comes with collateral damage to the privately religious if they cannot live with the resulting cognitive dissonance but this is surely not a new experience for them and the determinedly faithful will continue to be faithful whatever.

A slightly more interesting observation that Gray makes is about the assumption of an inevitable triumph of liberalism
"The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future."
Here at least he is not wrong in his characterisation of humanist thought as most of us do believe that liberal values should prevail which is why we agitate for evidence based thinking and maintain that religious intolerance is irrational. Humanist’s belief that liberal values are worth promoting and arguing for is as integral to our philosophy as homophobia is to a Westboro Baptist and far from thinking success is inevitable we are more than aware of the conflict we face. Stephen Pinker gives some cause for optimism in his well-researched and quantified book The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he charts quite convincingly a general declining trend in conflict and intolerance over millennia of history but even he doesn’t make a teleological case for this continuing without concerted effort.
In fact Gray unintentionally makes the point himself.
"This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning. But there is no hidden liberal struggling to escape from within the killers of the Islamic State and Boko Haram, any more than there was in the torturers who served the Pol Pot regime. To be sure, these are extreme cases. But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional."
Ignoring the first sentence where once again he is attacking a construct of his own imagination the fact that totalitarian ideologies emerge both politically and religiously to supress liberalism is what the culture wars are all about. Of course some people will always think they know better how others should live their lives and nobody thinks they know this better than the religious.
The claim is also made that despite the efforts of secularists religiosity is, in many places, on the rise but I suspect this is cause and effect. As secularism, particularly in the west, has become accepted by liberal religion the faithful at the extremes have become marginalised and much of what we are seeing is a backlash. The fundamentalists are more vocal, more visible and sometimes more violent than previously because their worldview is no longer passively accepted even by the moderates of their own faith. Whether this is a tide that can be turned is debateable but for those of us who do not want to live in theocracies it is worth the attempt.
Yes, humanism has its origins in theism, or at any rate in post enlightenment deism, but that is not where it lives today. Humanism, which incidentally is not as synonymous with the new atheists as Gray would have it, is a secular scientifically literate philosophy with ethical principles founded in a deeply pragmatic utilitarianism. It is no longer concerned with human exceptionalism - we know our evolutionary place better than most – and in fact humanism actively fights attempts by the church to reclaim the term “Christian humanism” since it is contrary to the modern movement entirely. It is entirely possible I suppose that some future scientific discovery could make racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny intellectually justifiable, but frankly I doubt it. Science has no moral arc but facts, at least when viewed through the lens of utilitarianism, do have a liberal bias.

So to Gray’s parting shot
"More than anything else, our unbelievers seek relief from the panic that grips them when they realise their values are rejected by much of humankind. What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them."
One can only assume that he is unaware of the dangers that humanists, secularists and liberals are subjecting themselves to in theocracies around the world. They are being assassinated or arrested, flogged and executed merely for promoting the idea that all people should be treated equally against the prevailing religious dogmas. Even if we would like to think that a liberal view of moral progress is inevitable we know it isn’t. But it’s a rational goal for those who, like Gray himself, understand that “Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending” and surely, if they’re worth defending they are worth expanding.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Free speech in the balance

In a recent survey of 1000 British Muslims conducted on behalf of the BBC it was found that 80% of those asked found cartoon depictions of their Prophet Mohammed “deeply offensive”. Also a substantial minority (27%) thought that violent reprisals for such offense can be justified. A follow-up vox-pop on Radio 4’s Today program featured several Muslim voices from Bradford exclaiming they felt “extremely personally offended” by disrespect to their “beloved prophet” and if we take these statements at face value and allow that sentiment really does run so deep within British Islam we have got a real problem for liberal democracy in this country.
Difficult as it is for someone like me to empathise with personal distress over such abstract offenses as blasphemy and criticism of long dead self-styled “prophets” the fact that a substantial proportion of a growing minority feel that way is not to be ignored. These people are not just going to “get over themselves” any more than the clinically depressed can just “cheer up”. Reverence for Mohammed is integral to their upbringing and psychology and constantly reinforced within their ethnic and religious cultures; change, if any, will be generational and not to be expected short term. So is it up to us as a society to accommodate Muslim sensitivities and if so how can we do so without compromising freedom of expression?
It’s easy to forget that blasphemy was a crime in this country until 2008 and I for one have no desire to revert to any legal suppression of religious criticism. In any event such laws often come with unintended consequences and one person’s blasphemy is another’s sincerely held belief as the abuse of such laws in Pakistan against Christians there illustrates. Neither is it possible to legislate for offense generally as we are all occasionally offended by something.
In the normal way of things very few of us go out of our way to be deliberately offensive unless we feel we have good reason, one of which may be the imposition of another’s taboos in our own space. It is certainly not to be expected that a Christian, Jew, Hindu or atheist should respect Mohammed or any part of Islam that does not inform their own belief system. Islam and all it entails is an idea which in a free society we are entitled to reject and if within it we see inherent dangers we have an obligation, let alone the right, to be critical. When extremists insist that non-Muslims must not portray the prophet and back that injunction with threats of violence the only response is to do that very thing, which is why I fully supported “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” and while it’s unfortunate that as collateral damage a large number of Muslims who may abhor violence are offended I see very few alternatives to this tactic. I don’t think I am unnecessarily victim blaming to suggest that the way for mainstream Islam to avoid Charlie Hebdo style provocation is to rein in their own extremists.
Should we have the freedom to indiscriminately ridicule religion in the public square? Here the answer is categorically yes, but whether we should routinely do so, except as a response to a threat to that freedom I think is a question of taste and good manners. Where I do think such ridicule is perfectly acceptable is in the arts, literature and in our private spaces including our own social media accounts. In order for people to be offended in these places they must be actively seeking offense by choosing to read that blog or book and watch that play or TV show or go to that exhibition. It’s not an imposition or discrimination to say to Muslims that if they don’t like this or that speech they should ignore it. We all avoid exposing our minds to ideas we find offensive and I regularly block social media feeds that I find distasteful due to racism or sexism even though I don’t believe it’s a particularly good thing to exist solely in a bubble of our own beliefs.
It’s a feature of all religions that their adherents demand respect for their beliefs and given the power and opportunity insist that everyone abides by their rules. It took a long time to tame Christianity in this country and put it into its proper place, subservient to law and in the private sphere (mostly). Islam is going to have to learn to occupy those same social spaces and be prepared to be offended on occasion. The more Islam becomes part of the fabric of Britain it will be measured by its ability to withstand satirical criticism; that is the trade-off for living in a democracy. Muslims have the right to protest and voice their anger if they think real boundaries are being crossed because they enjoy the same right to speech as everyone else. They have every right to point out the offense, but no right not to be offended.