Friday, 27 November 2015

Atran on Coyne

Jerry Coyne recently posted a piece called 'Once again, Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism', complaining about Scott Atran's apparent apology for religion in a recent article in the Guardian. A typical taste of Coyne's complaints:
When I read Atran’s brand of Islamic apologetics, and when I think of the terrorists’ cries of “Allahu Akbar” that accompanied their Kalashnikov fire, and when I ponder why young men out for just “a good time, a cause, and brotherhood” would do these deeds knowing they were surely going to die (and probably believing that, as martyrs, they’d attain Paradise), and when I think of the other deeds they do—the slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, apostates, atheists, and gays, and of the way they treat women like chattel, raping their sex slaves and stoning adulterers—when I think of all this, and the explicitly Islamic motivations the terrorists avow, I have to ask people like Atran: “WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO MAKE YOU ASCRIBE ANY OF THEIR ACTIONS TO ISLAM?”
Perhaps fair enough, although I'm not sure I fully understand Atran's position; this article suggests he does acknowledge that motivations aren't entirely political:
Some officials speaking for Western governments at the East Asia summit in Singapore last April argued that the Caliphate is traditional power politics masquerading as mythology. Research on those drawn to the cause show that this is a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re-emerged as a seductive mobilizing cause in the minds of many Muslims, from the Levant to Western Europe.
Atran appears to have commented on Jerry's piece, saying:
I recommend some of the commentators, as well as the principal author, read some of our scientific papers inScience, PNAS, BBS, and reports of others in Nature, You might also glance at articles and editorials in the NY Times, Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal etc. I never made an argument that “religion” is not a cause of terrorism. “Religion,” in fact, is as empty a notion (scientifically speaking) as “culture.” What I said is that the propositional content of some religious canon is not a principal predictor for may joining Al Qaeda (and now ISIS), and that, the principal predictors have to do with social network factors. Intel and military have used these finding to help break up those networks. Counter canon narratives have done absolutely nothing at all to stop violence or dissuade ISIS volunteers. In other findings, most recently reported in PNAS and NATURE, we detail how commitment to strict sharia of a form practiced by the Islamic State Caliphate, and Identity fusion (a particular type of social formation), although independent (largely uncorrelated) interact to predict costly commitment to costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying.
Mr. Coyne, like Mr. Harris, are not interested in the science, at least on this issue, but in continuing their declamations against “liberal apologetics.” Neither has ever had any dealings with volunteers or fighters from ISIS and Nusra (accepted perhaps reformed ones in safe settings), they have never been to the frontlines of combat zones to see for themselves what motivates fighters. They have never systematically interviewed or psychologically tested volunteers for such movements. And they have never tried, or been asked by those actually fighting ISIS or Al Qaeda to help in the fight because their proposals are, quite frankly, ridiculous. They are like angry children who believe that yelling at the top of their lungs will change the world. Like many politicians and pundits, willful ignorance of the science that bears on this issue is understandable (good argument is, by and large, used for persuasion and victory in social discourse, not discovery of the reason). The sad thing is that their followers believe they have scientific credentials that must give them knowledge ot support their arguments. But even Nobel prize winners have no special insight into social and political affairs, and their views should be scrutinized without passion by their peers (wishful thinking, I know).
It's again difficult to tell what his position is, because he denies that he argues that '“religion” is not a cause of terrorism" (apologies for the double negative) but goes on to describe it as an empty notion (scientifically speaking), and to cite 'social network factors' as the principal predictor of joining 'Al Qaeda (and now ISIS)', which together appear to suggest that he is arguing that religion is not a cause of terrorism. I've posted this comment:
Thanks for making this comment. I assume it’s genuinely Scott Atran! It would be helpful if you could recommend one or two links that you think particularly address the issues raised here. You say that you ‘detail how commitment to strict sharia of a form practiced by the Islamic State Caliphate, and Identity fusion (a particular type of social formation), although independent (largely uncorrelated) interact to predict costly commitment to costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying’. Apologies, but I don’t understand what that means! So bear with an interested bystander for a mo, if you can.
I think as a layman I can appreciate that a frankly perverse organisation like ISIS has multifarious causes; obviously billions of religious people don’t behave that way, so ‘religion’ is not explanatory in that sense, and might be, as you say, an ’empty’ notion. But a similar observation could be made about the term ‘politics’ and yet no-one would deny (or would they?) the political motivations of communism as an important factor in Stalin’s actions, for example. Perhaps the vast majority of communists would not have indulged in purges, so it would be correct to say that there is some other predictor of those particular actions. Nonetheless, the communism played a part, is it reasonable to say?
Furthermore, just about every theist I’ve met would not recognise their religion as an empty notion.
This suggests that saying that ‘religion’ is an empty notion in *some* sense is a weak rejoinder to anyone who argues for or against the effects of religious beliefs, and unlikely to persuade either the irreligious or the religious that religious beliefs should not be criticised (or praised).
So someone who thinks that way can accept your (no doubt firmly supported empirically) view that ‘the principal predictors [for joining Al Qaeda (and now ISIS)] have to do with social network factors’, whilst still decrying the deleterious effects of religious beliefs within the complex matrix of factors that have caused these phenomena.
For example, it seems silly to claim that religious beliefs could be used to predict who would commit acts of terrorism in the Northern Ireland troubles (both Protestants and Catholics did, of course). But it would surely be fair to point out the role that religion played in the underlying complex mix of history and culture that brought those two communities to that point.
For another example, it seems to me that one can differentiate between the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the one on Bataclan by reference to a particular religious doctrine – blasphemy. The CH attack is more obviously religiously motivated than Bataclan, prima facie. You seem to be saying that your research suggests that both attacks are predicted more by social network factors than religious ones, and I bow to your superior knowledge on that. But how could Charlie Hebdo be *singled out* for attack (amongst the enormous Western infidel media pack) if it weren’t for their particularly blasphemous (according to Islam) actions? This is surely an attack where the religious belief is ‘critical’ to the motivations of the terrorists. The Bataclan attack, less so, imo, but still an underlying, important, factor.
It is this sort of specificity of action that, again, to a layman like me, would not occur without the religious doctrine. And you perhaps acknowledge this when you say that the content of religious beliefs aren’t a ‘principal predictor’; are they a secondary one?
So the question from a complete ignoramus like me who wants to understand the differences between you and Coyne is this: Coyne suspects you would not even ‘ascribe any of [the terrorists] actions to Islam’. It’s still not clear from your comment how you respond to his question. Even if the religious doctrines aren’t a principal predictor of *who* acts, do you acknowledge that they do effect the behaviour of jihadists in Syria and in attacks on the West? If you do, and I get the impression you might, then I’m not sure what Coyne is saying that you disagree with. Is it just the emphasis he puts on ‘religion’ when these atrocities occur? He clearly cites other factors – ‘disaffection, the need to feel part of something greater than oneself, innate aggression of young males, and, yes, the mishandling of many Middle Eastern situations by the West’, so he’s not denying those other causes. Just because people bemoan one factor does not mean they discount all others.
If, on the other hand, you don’t think such doctrines have an effect on terrorist behaviour, I should like to see the papers that support that conclusion, in the (perhaps forlorn!) hope that I could understand them.
If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading, and apologies if I misconstrued your position!
It's interesting that Atran says that 'Counter canon narratives have done absolutely nothing at all to stop violence or dissuade ISIS volunteers'. This doesn't counter Coyne's complaints about religious causes, but it does perhaps point to why Atran is frustrated at 'New Atheists'; their complaints are pointless, because attempts to change religious views have not worked, according to whatever metrics Atran has used in his studies.

That may be true in Atran's studies, but the idea that societal progress cannot be made by addressing deleterious religious beliefs seems to deny the last 200 years, from the Enlightenment onwards, which has seen a secular, rational, scientific push-back against such beliefs that has had a civilising effect. Now, to be fair, many religionists would deny that this civilising effect is particularly secular, rational or scientific, but for me the evidence is pretty overwhelming.

I do wonder what 'counter canon narratives' have been attempted, because, as far as I can see, not so much has been done to counter the blasphemy narrative since CH. Indeed some western countries still outlaw it! So a meaningful counter canon narrative would have to be substantial and accord religion a lot less respect than just about every country, including in the west, does currently. Until we see this happening I suspect many of us will still see plenty in religion to complain about.

Read more »

Friday, 6 November 2015

Knowledge, Testimony and Reductionism

Does reductionism - the notion that testimonial evidence simply reduces to facts derived from memory and experience - succeed in explaining how we can know things on the basis of testimony?

I shall consider two problems in reductionism that Jennifer Lackey highlights to show that reductionism does not succeed in explaining how we can know things on the basis of testimony.


To ‘know things’ I take to mean that we have a true belief that is justified in some way. That justification is what reductionism and its alternatives look to provide. For brevity’s sake I will concentrate on one-to-one testimony, although there are many types of testimony (what Lackey calls ‘epistemic heterogeneity’, 2006, p.441). I shall focus on a global reductionist account:
... a hearer must have non-testimonially based positive reasons for believing that testimony is generally reliable. (p.440)

We are told things as children and adults that we rarely investigate. Our parents tell us our name is x and we were born in y. The rule we follow is something like:
If the speaker S asserts that p to the hearer H, then, under normal conditions, it is correct for H to accept (believe) S's assertion, unless H has special reason to object. (Adler, 2015)
Jonathan Adler calls this the default rule (DR) and it plausibly describes our everyday behaviour. But the question is: does simply telling someone something, rather than, for example, showing them, confer knowledge?


Reductionism is commonly identified with David Hume (1711-1776). In Of Miracles he writes:
[O]ur assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.
Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: Were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. (Hume, 1777, p.174)
Hume is claiming that a reasonable person ‘reduces’ testimonial evidence to facts derived from their memory and experience – it is not justifiably knowledge otherwise.

Contrast this with the non-reductionist view from Hume’s contemporary Thomas Reid (1710-1796). He claims there is a principle of veracity (PV), that people tend to tell the truth, and a corresponding principle of credulity, that people tend to believe what they are told. The principle of veracity stems from the connection between thoughts and language; the very purpose of language is to communicate the truth of one’s thoughts, and while some may lie occasionally, even liars tell the truth more than they lie. From this principle we can reasonably assume the truth of testimony in and of itself, unless we are given reason to doubt it.

Reid’s PV doesn’t seem very different from Hume’s appeal to people’s truthfulness (‘had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity’, p.174). But to establish knowledge from testimony a priori Reid needs a justification that is a priori; that is, justified without appealing to evidence, such as the notion that 1+1=2. Hume justifies the truth of testimony a posteriori, by appealing to experience.

Problems with Reductionism

Reid makes some trenchant criticisms of reductionism. In a reductionist world he notes that ‘[s]uch distrust and incredulity would deprive us of the greatest benefits of society’ (Reid, 1764, p.177). But if believing testimony is beneficial to us as social animals it does not follow that it is necessarily knowledge-imparting. A parent could tell their children that there are dragons in the wood across the busy main road nearby, to deter them from crossing the road. This would benefit the children by preventing them from risking their lives on the road, but it does not impart any knowledge to them. The alternative, truthful, method of telling the children of the perils of the road might be less effective. This breaks the a priori connection between thoughts and language to which Reid appeals.

But if we must find reasons in our background knowledge, from perception, memory and inference, for justifiably believing testimony, we need to establish the general rule of testimony’s reliability, and, as Lackey points out (p.440), two issues arise:

1. It’s not clear we can be confident that we have received enough reports to establish the general rule that testimony is reliable (TR).
2. It’s not clear we have sufficient access to the facts of the world to judge a testimony’s truthfulness (TT).

Consider the first instance of testimony a child receives from her parent – say, her mother introduces a man and says, this is your uncle; the child believes it (what else can she do?).

On TR, she has only one record in her testimonial database, so she has nothing to judge her mother’s testimonial reliability by.

On TT, charitably she will know a few facts about the world; teddy bears are warm and fluffy, spoons are cold and hard, for example. But no child can investigate her uncle’s provenance, so, per reductionism, on TR and TT grounds, that the man is her uncle is not knowledge. Nonetheless this belief will be stored as a fact.

Later, the mother introduces another child as her uncle’s son, calling him the child’s cousin. By now, perhaps, the child has a larger testimonial database showing 90% reliability for her mother’s testimony, so the TR issue is somewhat mitigated. But, still, the child only has data for her mother and perhaps a few close family and friends, which can hardly be projected to establish testimony’s general reliability. One might at this stage appeal to a local reductionist approach, that ‘the justification of each particular report or instance of testimony reduces to the justification of instances of sense perception, memory, and inductive inference’ (Lackey, p.440). But this introduces problems of chains of testimony that are insoluble, I think, without an appeal to testimony’s general reliability.

On TT, the child might observe facts about her cousin – that he lives with her uncle, for example – that could give her good empirical evidence that he is her cousin. If we ignore the TR problem above, reductionism then suggests that she knows who her cousin is. But this fact itself is based on a background ‘fact’ that is not knowledge, per reductionism – that her cousin’s father is her uncle. Basing facts on non-facts looks fatal to reductionism as a coherent account of knowledge acquisition.

A reductionist might counter that by extrapolation from our limited datasets we can be justified in our beliefs on both TR and TT grounds; maybe we could confirm background beliefs retrospectively as experience increases. But we are then left with the problem of keeping track of our beliefs and their status. I’m not aware anyone does this; I’m really only aware of background beliefs, not background confirmed facts and unconfirmed ‘facts’.

A couple of anti-reductionist suggestions point to some more issues that an enlightened reductionist account should address.

Testimony to be trusted?

Paul Faulkner draws a distinction between practical testimony, such as the ‘dragons’ example, and epistemological testimony. Echoing Reid’s ‘distrust’ objection, he says that reductionism ignores ‘...the practical dimension of testimony. It misses out on the reasons that trust provides’ (The Open University, 2014, 2:23). Faulkner’s ‘assurance view’ (ibid, 4:22) suggests that by trusting testifiers we can take what they say as knowledge. There does seem to be a trust component to testimony; when that trust is broken, we take it very seriously. One of the ten commandments is not to lie; if journalists are found out telling falsehoods it can end their career; and likewise for scientists who falsify evidence in scientific papers.

But this doesn’t seem to help at all in the ‘dragons’ testimony case; children nearly always trust their mother’s testimony and they are rarely let down. But the mother’s testimony is split between the practical and the epistemological, so there has to be an account that distinguishes the knowledge-imparting from the pragmatic, and trust doesn’t seem to provide it. The children are right to trust their mother, but not because she is imparting knowledge. From a reductionist viewpoint, there can be plentiful evidence available to trust someone, but how could the trust be established in the first place given the problems of TR and TT above?

Testimony as a practice?

Alan Millar says:
...telling is a move in a practice. The practice may be conceived as that of informing through telling, but it should be understood that the practice embraces both informing through telling, understanding acts of telling, and adopting a stance towards what one is being told. (Millar, 2010, p.177-178)
So the testimony must be what Millar calls ‘felicitous’ (p.178). Testimony can be deliberately deceptive, in which case it is not felicitous. This allows us to distinguish the ‘dragons’ testimony from knowledge-imparting testimony; the mother is perhaps engaging in the practice of ‘safeguarding through telling’ rather than ‘informing through telling’.

Millar’s anti-reductionist account appeals to a perceptual-recognition account of knowledge acquisition that stands apart from a perceptual evidence account. He writes:
The crucial point though is that we account for the acquisition of knowledge in these cases in terms of the exercise of an ability to recognize a phenomenon as having a certain significance. It is the ability that is in the driving seat and its possession does not turn on independent support for any generalization that informs it. (p.187)
Generalisations form a large part of our knowledge acquisition skills, but Millar suggests that we can acquire knowledge by recognition; so we can recognise from tracks on a path that deer have been there. While a certain amount of the background knowledge to this judgement is plainly observational, there is, he claims, a recognitional skill that has been learnt that cannot be reduced to perception, memory and inference – ‘...we should also take seriously the idea that our knowledge that p from someone's telling us that p is recognitional as well’ (ibid).

This seems plausible, but would mean that those who haven’t acquired certain recognitional skills are simply incapable of acquiring knowledge. And it’s clear that many children, and I daresay adults, might suffer in this regard. Children who believe that dragons live in the woods nearby and that Santa delivers their Christmas presents are clearly underdeveloped in the perceptual-recognition stakes. But then how are any of their testimonial beliefs knowledge? Millar recognises this problem when he writes:
If early learning is to be conceived as the acquisition of knowledge through being told, as in the straightforward cases, then the knowledge will not meet the conditions I have laid down. (p.192)
And he offers an approach to the acquisition of such knowledge which is reductionist. He says that knowing that Hobart is the capital of Tasmania ‘consists in an ability to recall a publicly available, known fact, which has been gained from repeated encounters with reliable sources of information’ (p.192).

Millar’s non-reductionist suggestion addresses something like Adler’s DR; how we are correct in normal circumstances to accept someone’s testimony, absent reasons not to believe it. But he still posits reductionism for early learning, which leaves his account vulnerable to the same problem for background beliefs of reductionism simpliciter; facts relying on non-facts.


While the two alternatives to a reductionist explanation discussed here don’t work, they highlight some issues that reductionism misses. The assurance view recognises the importance of trust in testimony; perhaps a reductionist account of trust could be worked up to fully integrate this into reductionism. Millar’s approach observes that we learn skills that give us knowledge that resists reduction, and applies this principle to testimony. So, on the issues discussed here, since testimony has not been successfully excluded from a rigorous account of knowledge acquisition, I don’t think reductionism so far succeeds in explaining how we can know things on the basis of testimony.

Adler, J. (2015) ‘Epistemological Problems of Testimony’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Hume, D. (1777) ‘Hume on testimony and experience’ in Price, C. and Chimisso, C. (eds) (2014) Knowledge and Reason (A333 Book 5) , Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Lackey, J. (2006) ‘Knowing from testimony’, Philosophy Compass, vol. 1, no. 5, pp. 432–48.
Millar, A. (2010) ‘Knowing from being told’, in Haddock, A., Millar, A. and Pritchard, D. (eds) Social Epistemology, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Price, C. and Chimisso, C. (2014) Knowledge and Reason (A333 Book 5) , Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Reid, T. (1764) ‘Reid on veracity and credulity’ in Price, C. and Chimisso, C. (eds) (2014) Knowledge and Reason (A333 Book 5) , Milton Keynes, The Open University.
The Open University (2014) ‘Faulkner on testimony (Part 2)’ [Audio clip], A333: Key questions in philosophy. 

Read more »

Saturday, 19 September 2015

CFI UK Debate - Does God Exist?

God and the Bible was the title of an all day event held by CFI UK at the Conway Hall in London.

A morning talk was given by Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou on what she called The Real Religions of the Bible, or The Uncensored Bible. The theme of this talk was those bits of the Bible that are rarely mentioned. Most likely because they are rather priapic, or, at least, that is how it seemed, as the 'penis' references moved into double figures. The God of the Old Testament used to put it about a bit, it seems, and it's not at all clear how immaterial he was. Stavrakopoulou was very articulate and, to every issue raised, thoughtful and nuanced.

In the afternoon Professor Stephen Law and Professor Keith Ward debated whether God exists. This being the CFI, it was clear where the sympathy of the audience lay, and it wasn't with Professor Ward. His presentation was familiar to many of us who have read liberal theologians; his God is a mutable, vague beast that seems to be specially designed to reify the art of goal-posting moving, so that wherever one shoots, one is bound to miss. A couple of things, at least, defined this concept: first, that his God could not do anything he felt was immoral; and second, that his God concept could not run counter to scientific facts. In this way he inoculates his belief from attack, I suppose, because his God is bound to conform to his (Ward's) moral beliefs, so no awkward silences when the Canaanite genocide is mentioned, and if science shows some aspect of his belief to be factually wrong, he will simply change his belief, so no awkward silences when talking snakes are mentioned.

The panel, with some minor celebrity spotting thrown in.

Obviously this means that as Ward's moral sensibilities change during his life, so does his God, and as science changes our view of the universe, so does his God change. I got the impression Ward is distinctly relaxed about this, seeing it as an enlightened approach. I think it is to be encouraged amongst believers, because it seems to be almost the opposite of dogmatic, and comes close to the Humean ideal of proportioning one's belief to the evidence. But I suspect that few Christians would find this Will 'o the Wisp deity satisfying, and, as Stavrakopoulou pointed out, it lacks magic.

Later, in response to the problem of evil, Ward renounced omnipotence as a feature of his God, which puzzled many in the crowd who assumed Ward was a Christian. Someone asked him outright if he were, and his reply was that he was a priest in the Anglican Church. 'Not enough information!', I shouted.

In the end it seems there is something about Ward's experience of the world that renders him a believer; a sense of the noumenal, morals and beauty were mentioned.

Stephen Law did not specifically address Ward's talk, but presented his excellent Evil God challenge, which, briefly, points out the empirical fact that no-one (? Satanists?) believes in an evil god, although practically all (if not all) the arguments for God do not give us any clue to His goodness. If a theist can see that belief in an evil god is ludicrous (and they seem to), they should likewise agree with atheists that belief in God is too, since the arguments for both are effectively the same (although often mirrored).

I think here Ward falls back on his subjective experience; in a discussion of HADD, for example, which Law was citing as a defeater for Ward's belief in a hidden agent, Ward said he thought he had HADD, but it was given to him by God so he could sense Him! How could one argue anyone out of these sorts of beliefs?

An interesting debate, but I think I would have liked to have heard more from Ward about why he doesn't give up his God's benevolence, as well as His omnipotence, given Law's Evil God Challenge (or, indeed, His existence!). Presumably he just has an undeniable intuition that this thing he senses the existence of is good. That may be, but it seems a wholly unsatisfactory response to anyone who does not have that feeling.

Read more »

Monday, 7 September 2015

Craig describes SSM as 'a sort of legal fiction'

William Lane Craig has revealed some homophobia in the latest Q&A on his Reasonable Faith site, as well as recommending some seditious behaviour. In answer to someone questioning the Supreme Court's decision on SSM, and what Christians should do about it, he says:
[Same sex] marriages are a sort of legal fiction which we must respect.
He thinks there is an essence to marriage that resists legal re-definitions, just as horses and chairs could not be re-defined. This shows a curious blindness to the complexity of social institutions, which, by their very nature (one may say 'essence'), are defined by their social milieu. Simply perusing the Wikipedia article on marriage presents a bewildering variety of types, many of which do not feature just one man and one woman (WLC's preferred flavour). Of course, to describe the marriage of two people in love as any sort of fiction is deeply offensive to those involved.

Craig says:
The Supreme Court did not legalize, nor is anyone advocating for, gay marriage. What it legalized was same-sex marriage, regardless of sexual orientation.
...and he is right, strictly speaking. But let's not pretend that Craig is railing against two heterosexual men getting married; it is the homosexuality he is prejudiced against, and his language shows his prejudice:
Suppose you are a baker who is approached to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding or that you are a wedding photographer who is hired to photograph a same-sex ceremony. It’s hard to see how you can justifiably resist legal authority here and refuse to comply, regardless of how distasteful it may be to you, since your activity is not sin on your part.
Craig supposes it may be 'distasteful' to provide a service for a same-sex marriage; why 'distasteful'? Sin is not a matter of taste, after all. Plainly it's the homosexuality that is not to Craig's taste, rather than some contravention of his definition of marriage. If somebody redefined a horse as a chair, no-one would find that 'distasteful'; simply incorrect.

As for government authority, he says:
...we should and must resist authority if it requires us to act contrary to God’s will. 
So, he thinks it's necessary for Christians to impose God's will over and above the law of the land. As at least one study suggests, what God wants tends to be the same as what the individual believer wants. This is a recipe for insurrection, or at least civil disobedience à la Kim Davis, even if one has some sympathy for conscientious objectors in general.

It's nice to see that Craig can see the way the wind is blowing, though:
As our secular culture becomes more and more accommodating to same-sex marriage, the pressure upon Christians to compromise and conform will be heavy and unrelenting.
Yes, the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws delivered legal justice and, as a consequence, generated social pressure on racists to drop their prejudices; so too, now, will the pressure build upon the homophobic to drop their prejudices now that equality before the law has been granted to those of every sexual orientation.

Craig's response reveals the problem with a morality embedded in the aspic of ancient mores; they give the prejudiced ammunition in their fight against overwhelming reason and evidence. Just as many sensible practices and beliefs have arisen through our genetic and cultural history, so too has prejudice. We need the freedom to challenge our practices and beliefs to sort the sensible from the insensible, and religion, amongst other things, hinders that process.

Read more »

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Tim Farron's Illiberal Beliefs

As a LibDem supporter I voted for Norman Lamb, but did not have too many qualms over Tim Farron's election as LibDem leader. Farron made these statements in his leadership election blog and supporting document:
I love this party because in my heart and in my soul I am a liberal.
I believe in a society in which we are all free to make our own choices and live the lives we want. But freedom means very little when the only choices we have to make are whether to feed our children or heat our homes.
Now we must be the voice for the poor and the disadvantaged, the underdog and the despised. We must defend fundamental human rights and freedoms from Tory attack; it falls to us to make the unequivocal economic and moral case for immigration; and I will proudly make the case for Europe in the forthcoming referendum.
Liberalism is about championing the individual against the powerful, that means standing firm for our Human Rights Act, against internet surveillance and illiberal extremism orders. But it’s also about protecting individuals from those giant evils that rob people of their freedom: poverty, poor housing, inequality. 
A free society that glories in diversity is a stronger society.
We believe that everyone is entitled to equal respect, whatever their income, personal characteristics, way of life, beliefs or sexuality.

This is all excellent liberal stuff, and pretty much in line with my left of centre thinking, so there seems little reason to question his position as leader of a national political party.

I was vaguely aware that Farron was a Christian, but that did not worry me; we live in a culturally Christian country where many people adopt some kind of religious belief from their family or community, so it's not front page news that the leader of a political party is a Christian. Even though many Christian beliefs strike me as odd and groundless, it's illiberal to insist on a certain way of thinking, or a certain set of beliefs.

A corollary of that, then, is that it's liberal to maintain a certain level of epistemic humility, and illiberal to display certainty in one's beliefs.

It's disturbing then to read these sorts of comments from Farron:
He thinks God knows everything. ‘Every hair on your head is numbered,’ he says, without blinking. God knows every hair on his head? ‘Yeah.’
He scoffs at the idea of a ‘half-baked distant God – either he created every bloomin’ atom in the entire universe or he didn’t’. He derides those who believe in ‘some kind of part-time, low-wattage God’.Similarly, he believes Heaven and Hell really exist. Heaven is ‘a place where there’s no more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death’.
It exists as a physical entity? ‘Yeah. It’s what the Bible tells me.’
Such certainty strikes me as illiberal. His conversion to Christianity sounds ill-considered:
He became a Christian at 18, when marooned in a house in rainy Singapore on a trip with his mum. ‘There was nothing to blinkin’ read and I read this weird-looking book on God. It was life-changing,’ he explains.
For something so 'life-changing' you would hope that a deep thinker would need more than one book.

As John Sergeant writes, these things suggest a fundamentalism to Farron's Christianity that should disturb any liberal:
There are past statements of his...which strongly suggest he holds fundamentalist views regarding the Christian faith...
Such peculiar but (too?) strongly held views can lead to bizarre political actions. He signed a letter to the ASA saying:
...unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling [that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions] on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.
He subsequently conceded that this was silly, but still maintained the ASA 'really aren’t appointed to be the arbiter of theological matters, I think they’ve overstepped their remit.' and admitted:
As a Christian I believe that prayer helps – although my belief is that God mostly heals through medicine, surgery and human compassion and ingenuity.
So he does believe in prayer-healing, which is pretty daft on evidentiary grounds, and completely daft on scientific grounds.

He said 'the ASA decision offends my Liberalism far more than it bothers me from a Christian perspective'. This appears to be based on his appeal to freedom - 'an organisation that makes a faith based claim that is clearly subjective (in the same way that a political party makes subjective claims) should be able to make those claims within reason.' But prayer-healing is not a subjective claim; it is that prayers heal people ('God can heal people from medical conditions'), not that they make them feel better. It is a statement about reality, not a value judgement.

Farron's religious beliefs have here led him to a confused position. CAP code 12.1 clearly sees medical claims as objective, so there is no sense in which the ASA have overstepped its bounds; instead Farron would have to campaign for a rewrite of the CAP code. Any such rewrite would leave us all open to advertising claims that could not be objectively adjudicated.

Perhaps Farron is appealing to my principle of epistemic humility, arguing that we should never discount the possibility of prayer-healing? Perhaps, but the ASA is not saying that prayer-healing does not work; just asking for justification of any advertising claims to protect consumers in an environment where snake-oil salesmen will exaggerate the efficacy of their products. And would Farron like us to take his statements about the world with a similar pinch of salt? Like this one?
Christianity, I am convinced, is not ‘a bit’ true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else matters … There is no middle way.
...which he apparently made at a National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in 2013.

One would hope that Farron's liberalism would lead him to a more liberal view of  touchstone issues, but fundamental religious beliefs like these, not held lightly or humbly, naturally cause Farron difficulties on the question of SSM and abortion, on which he said:
Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time.
The worry from his response to the prayer-healing debacle is that he will mould his liberalism in the light of his religious beliefs, not mould his religious beliefs in the light of his liberalism. As Catherine Bennett writes:
It seems only fair to ask that, when ethics are debated, [MPs] disclose which supernatural affiliation has dictated their response, along with any penalties for disobedience.
(Photo "Tim Farron 2014" by West Berkshire Liberal Democrats from Newbury, England - IMG_1781. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Read more »

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Greenwald on Charlie Hebdo

As a follow up to The Disgusting 'Buts', a quote from Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is wrong on the Charlie Hebdo affair; he is another who thinks the Western hegemony narrative is the lens through which these murderous events should be viewed. His comments in Salon are rather more guarded than one might expect; perhaps he's mellowing slightly. Nevertheless, this extract clearly betrays his sympathies:
So you have a magazine that became known in the Western world, regardless of what the reality is, for publishing images that are very offensive and upsetting to the Muslim minorities in the West, and whose cartoonists were turned into heroes and martyrs … who were victims of Muslim violence. I think the reason why people are so eager to turn them into martyrs and heap all sorts of praise and awards on them is because it does make us Westerners feel good about ourselves; it tells us that we’re the victims and the people who we’ve been bombing and invading and torturing and pillaging for the last 15 years are actually the evil ones.
It fuels this whole war narrative that has been sustaining a lot of really bad policies in ways that are quite propagandistic and manipulative, because of the heavy emotions involved.
That 'regardless of what the reality is' is telling; Greenwald is talking about his and his confreres' perception of CH as Islamophobic, not the reality of CH, which, as I wrote before (and GG acknowledges), is somewhat different. I agree a lot with his concerns about the war narrative, and it's obvious that Western intervention has been toxic in the Middle East. I certainly don't feel good about it; I presume he means that it feeds some kind of dehumanisation, an othering, of Eastern culture, and I don't doubt there is still a lot of that going on.

But that issue is being clumsily crow-barred into the CH affair. CH have become victims of the chilling effects of totalitarian religion on public discourse - that is the primary lens through which these events should be viewed. They line up alongside other victims of that narrative, such as Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Raif Badawi.

Is it too much to hope that Greenwald might recognise that these threats to free speech override his bete noire? After Snowden, you would think he could see that.


Report from the Washington Post on the Award ceremony:

(Photo "Avijit Roy" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Read more »

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Disgusting 'Buts'

“It is quite right that PEN should honour [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting ‘buts’"

So said Salman Rushdie, referring to the boycott of the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo, and I agree with him. But, and I hope that this is not a disgusting 'but', I want to suggest one reason why the 'shameful six' (and more) see things differently. In short, I see Charlie Hebdo as more a latter day Freethinker whereas they see it as more a latter day Der Stürmer.

The Freethinker magazine was prosecuted in the UK in 1883 for blasphemy, eventually found guilty and its writers and publishers sent to prison. Der Stürmer was published from the 1920s to the end of World War II with no threat from the blasphemy laws, as far as I can tell. George Foote, Freethinker's founder, wrote in Prisoner for Blasphemy:
IN the merry month of May, 1881, I started a paper called the Freethinker, with the avowed object of waging "relentless war against Superstition in general and the Christian Superstition in particular." I stated in the first paragraph of the first number that this new journal would have a new policy; that it would "do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation," and that it would "not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that might be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense."
Julius Streicher expressed no such aim for his Nazi rag.

Here I have a confession: my A-level and poor conversational French is inadequate to judge the contents of Charlie Hebdo. There are resources springing up to help the anglophone and French culture illiterati - see Understanding Charlie Hebdo Cartoons. If it was just down to my viewing of its cartoons, I might think they were racist. In fact, I think it's possible they have published racist cartoons. Nonetheless, from the views of its principals it's clear to me there are significant disanalogies between the Nazi tabloids and this French magazine which means we can celebrate it.

To be fair to the dissenters, let's be clear to what they object: they are happy to defend Charlie Hebdo's freedom of speech. Francine Prose writes:
I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said.
Prose admires their courage too:
...I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire...
Here's her disgusting 'but':
I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor. 
And later she says:
Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.
A Freethinker cartoon
This last comment is reminiscent of The Spectator's comment on the Freethinker blasphemers compared to more illustrious blasphemers, such as Matthew Arnold and W.K. Clifford:
So far as we can judge, the only difference between the language and caricature-pictures of Mr. Foote and the language of se[v]eral of our recent Freethinkers, is that Mr. Foote used the bludgeon, while they used the rapier.
The Speccie was actually defending Foote on the grounds that he was low-born and therefore inveterately crude! But the same patronising attitude to the output of Freethinker and CH is displayed by the Victorian magazine and Prose.

Prose cites 'saying things that need to be said' and 'working actively to tell us the truth' as the things that PEN should be supporting. In fact, of course, it's clear to those of us who support PEN that CH are saying things that need to be said, and it's hard to understand Prose's view that they are not (and perhaps the truth of what they say could be defended too).

Peter Carey said:
All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.
And Teju Cole wrote: recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre. It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try. Even Voltaire, a hero to many who extol free speech, got it wrong. His sparkling and courageous anti-clericalism can be a joy to read, but he was also a committed anti-Semite, whose criticisms of Judaism were accompanied by calumnies about the innate character of Jews.
Cole is clearly wrong to say that 'the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations', as the graphic here indicates. In the last 10 years the vast majority of CH output is political; of the religious satire, ridiculing Christianity and other religions outnumbers attacks on Islam by more than 5 to 1. (It would be interesting to see a similar analysis of the last three years, say, to see if Cole's accusation carries any more bite more recently.) Of course, that CH is racist is not a given either. But the evidence suggests that Cole, and Carey, see CH more as a race hate organ like Der Stürmer than a bastion of free speech pushing against blasphemy, like the Freethinker.

In fact, in the face of violent threats to their free expression CH refused to be cowed; that courage is what PEN should celebrate, regardless of the content. Well, not completely regardless; in my view it is their challenge to blasphemy that specifically qualifies them for this award. Blasphemy is a victimless crime established to defend orthodoxy. Katha Pollitt in an excellent piece in The Nation:
These attacks had nothing to do with supposedly racist insults from privileged white people, and everything to do with perceived deviations from orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is anathema to free thought, and free expression is a vital tool in the spread of free thought. Without free expression, free thought withers; a sort of Millian heterodoxy is the goal of the Freethinker and CH alike, and they want to challenge anything that threatens our ability to express what we think, regardless of orthodoxy. Religious extremism, powered by blasphemy, is therefore a prime target. And note that Islamists more often attack Muslims they consider heretics than they do satirists. The CH murders were not a result of any putative racism on the cartoonists part, but a result of their blasphemy.

One CH journalist said:
We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept,
And Charb told the LA Times:
It's not exactly our drawings that have power, it's our stubbornness — a stubbornness to continue doing what we feel like doing, through drawing.... It comes from the fact that I have nothing else. The only thing we have is our freedom of speech. If we give up on that, we'd need to change fields. Do other things.
Is that not worth celebrating, especially in the light of the price they have paid? CH's work is necessary, contra Prose, especially given how pusillanimous the mainstream press is when it comes to blasphemy. Deference is given to religious sensibilities which is never given to political sensibilities. Another CH contributor, Robert McLiam Wilson, wrote:
Yes, Charlie is tasteless and discomfiting. Have I somehow missed all the gentle, polite satire? That amiable, convenient satire that everybody likes.
That's the point of it, it will offend. And if offendees have established a bogus offence to protect their beliefs, that offence must be exposed as bogus, often, to reduce its power of taboo.

Der Stürmer, on the other hand, was prosecuting a crude anti-semitism descended from centuries of Christian hate crimes. True, it attacked other faiths too, but its primary target were the Jews, including individual Jews. This was not pushing against extremism of all types, nor was it pushing back against blasphemy.

Perhaps the dissenters see the analogy with hate speech in the crude cartoons that CH and Der Stürmer both employ? I think CH's cartoons have been defended successfully, but what if they couldn't be?

In that case, I think their courage in standing up to those who want to impose an orthodoxy by enforcing their blasphemy laws on the rest of us is still worth celebrating (although it might be more muted), especially by an organisation that is set up to defend free speech. Incidentally, Leonard Levy writes in Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie, of Freethinker's G.W. Foote:
Foote relished being vulgar and vicious, and he was every bit as bigoted as the worst of those whom he savaged. (p.480)
Levy's otherwise excellently footnoted book gives no support for this claim, but I bow to his scholarship. Even if Foote was a bigot, he should still be celebrated for his courage in standing up to the blasphemy laws of the time, in defence of the principles of free speech. No such courage could be attributed to the publishers of Nazi tabloids. They had no interest in free thought; they were looking to impose their own orthodoxy.

For standing up, largely alone, against the traducers of free speech, Charlie Hebdo deserves celebration.

Read more »