Thursday, 26 January 2012

Can't We Enjoy the Best Bits?

Alain de Botton has a handsome new book out called Religion for Atheists, and he has launched  a little website puffing it. I've never been too keen on de Botton's writing, but his heart is often in the right place. This book gets a stinking review from the rather pusillanimous accommodationist Terry Eagleton, who says:
What the book does, in short, is hijack other people's beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal.
From Eagleton's description of the book, I find myself agreeing with him on de Botton's project, which is a pretty sorry state of affairs, given Eagleton's daft opinions on matters of faith. The ad campaign for the book is particularly patronising. Consider these:

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St Botolph's
The straw man de Botton is railing against is that atheists cannot enjoy the cultural aspects of religion because we, I suppose, are blinded by our hatred of all things religious. This doesn't apply to me. I'm quite happy rambling around the countryside visiting old churches; I attend the occasional service without heckling the vicar; I have theist friends; I sing carols and celebrate Christmas. Atheists cannot operate in most countries without participating in many religious events, and inevitably enjoy some of them. It's a bizarre misrepresentation of them that they do not enjoy the 'best bits'. Even arch new atheist Richard Dawkins makes it clear he likes certain manifestations of religious life:
I actually love most of the genuine Christmas carols. I can't bear Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and you might think from that that I was religious, that I can't bear the ones that make no mention of religion. But I just think they are dreadful tunes and even more dreadful words. I like the traditional Christmas carols.
And he seems to have a soft spot for the King James bible too. So de Botton's target is close to non-existent. It appears that de Botton pats the religious on the head and says: 'There, there; you're completely mistaken, but carry on because we have no way of producing awe-inspiring songs, architecture or rituals without believing something that is untrue, so have at it; the more untrue things you believe the more inspired you'll be, and the more I'll have to enjoy!'.

But even if it were true that atheists were humbugging their way through the festive season and studiously ignoring all ecclesiastical architecture, would this make de Botton's case any more sound? His point is that, regardless of an ideology's truth, we can encourage it, or at least condone it, because of the good things it gives us. I really don't think that will wash. For example, would pictures from this ad campaign justify National Socialism?

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Now, just to be clear about this: I'm not comparing religion with Nazism here. I'm simply pointing out that there are more important matters at stake than simply enjoying some of the side effects of a particular phenomenon. In fact, it's crass to reduce such an important world-changing phenomenon to a sideshow of amusements, particularly when that phenomenon is causing the harm it is.

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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Are Atheists Bullies?

The recent kerfuffle at UCL prompted by overly sensitive religious sentiment has caused a number of folk to say that atheists are bullies, often comparing them to religious fundamentalists. At RichardDawkins.NET there was a rather incoherent poster called Griswold Grim who made the 'bullying' claim, but he never substantiated it, beyond railing against ridicule.

I witnessed a Twitter spat (which I want to call Twat, but had better not) between P.Z. Myers and a statistician called Andrew Dalby. P.Z. had posted a video depicting dreadful intimidation of Irshad Manji by Muslim fundamentalists, pointing out the deep distinction between militant theists and militant atheists. Incredibly, blind to the evidence of his own eyes, Dalby tweeted this:

Once again, my gast is flabbered by someone in the ongoing debate between believers and non-believers. Displaying breathtaking bigotry against a whole raft of people, Dalby says that P.Z.'s post shows that 'the atheists are just the same sort of bullies as the fundamentalists'. So that post is the equivalent of instigating a riot, or demanding someone be executed, or demanding that a book be banned. It's a remarkable claim, and Dalby doesn't appear to be a theist, so much as someone who thinks he's found a way to be superior to both atheists and theists. P.Z. called his lack of critical assessment stupid, to which he replied:

...which made me giggle. Never a good thing to proclaim one's own genius, I find. Or perhaps that's just me, since my inability to 'out intellectual' and 'out science' people has been proved regularly! He followed up with this gem:

That deserves a ROFL. Does he mean lecturers in statistics at Oxford University are automatically correct in any discussion, regardless of the subject? I mean, sure, in a discussion on statistics, P.Z. should probably defer, but in this discussion? It's not clear what relevance this factoid has to Muslim fundamentalism, or handbagging for that matter! Anyway, back to the Twitter spat, and Dalby offers:

So apparently Santayana (and only Santayana?) is foundational to humanist principles? Santayana is all well and good, and wrote much that modern day atheists would agree with, but he was famously sympathetic to Catholicism (presumably because of his background) and few modern day atheists would agree with him on that score. Of course, many theist thinkers would disagree with him on that score too! A pointless appeal to bogus philosophical authority, then. Toleration of religious belief does not entail its immunity from criticism.

I wasn't sure what had upset Dalby so much about P.Z.'s post, but it became clear in his follow up tweets:

The bit that Dalby does not like appears to be this:
...there might be much to admire in her [Manji's] work, as she’s another theist who has taken a step away from the dogma and tribalism of fundamentalism, but she hasn’t yet had the courage or intellectual integrity to take another step and free herself of the folly of faith.

So the accusation of a lack of courage and intellectual integrity is beyond the Pale, Dalby thinks, and it's wrong to tell people what to believe and that they are inferior or wrong. You will notice that he is pragmatically self-refuting here, since, among other things, he is telling P.Z. it's wrong to tell people they're wrong. Of course it's not, and we would not have morality if it were, since our morals not only guide us in our behaviour but we also feel they have a prescriptive effect on others, as Dalby demonstrates. It then becomes clear how this muddle headed thinking arises:

Oh dear; radical scepticism rears its ugly head and we're heading for the barren plains of relativism, where no-one is right and no-one is wrong. Because he's not sure what's true, nothing is true. This would be a strange philosophy if anyone lived by it, but of course no-one does.

Well, obviously objectivism exists as much as any idea does - he presumably means there is no objective truth. An unsustainable pomo position, as the exchange demonstrates, since his own entreaties would have no weight, if it were true. A tweeter called Austin Cline calls him out:

To which, of course, he has no answer, other than 'thinking is always bad for us'! It's lucky we're not all lecturers in statistics at Oxford University, else none of us would think. The ultimate source of his anger is clear, I think, from this tweet:

If there's one thing that new atheists have achieved, it's a wider acceptance that religion and faith are not privileged over other beliefs. Folk such as Dalby demonstrate that even many non-believers cling to an unthinking acceptance of this privilege that religion and faith demand. Of course we tell each other what to think about many things, and there is no good reason to exclude religion and faith from that list of things.

But finally, the outrageous equating of good faith criticism from atheists with genuinely extreme religious bullying has to be called out for the bogus comparison it is. When these sorts of befuddled accusations stop, then it might be that we're getting somewhere in reducing religious privilege.

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Monday, 16 January 2012


This has really got to stop, says Eric Macdonald, about believers arguing for particular views without admitting their real, religious based, grounding. This is something I've noticed frequently; believers will say they are arguing on prudential grounds, for example, when arguing for abstinence in combating AIDS. It's legitimate to point out these arguments, but by using them believers are not arguing in good faith if they don't make it clear that those arguments do not bind them. Since, if the prudential argument went against them, they would not change their mind, because of their moral (religious) views. Eric also mentions Andrew Brown's latest humiliation, after a particular clueless article, denying the pope was being homophobic in a recent speech which was reported as anti-gay.

Brown's original piece said that the pope "didn't say gay marriage threatens humanity". This was in response to some reporting of the speech, in which the pope said:
In addition to a clear goal, that of leading young people to a full knowledge of reality and thus of truth, education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.
Now, to me, and surely anyone with half an eye on modern mores and the ways of the Catholic Church, this is clearly linking gay marriage to a threat to human dignity and the future of humanity itself, so Philip Pullella's headline is not an unreasonable contraction. Despite this, Brown insisted, about Pullella's headline:
So far as I can see, Pope Benedict just didn't [say gay marriage threatens humanity]. He did speak in favour of the family "based on the marriage of a man and woman". He did say that "policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself". But there was no suggestion that gay marriage was the most important of these and he didn't mention it at all, whereas he did take up several other sexual issues.
The pope has to actually say "gay marriage" for Andrew Brown to consider it a mention of gay marriage, presumably. In fact, he practically confirms this in a comment:
But the point is that there are lots of things which the Vatican regards as being "an attack on the family" and Benedict deliberately mentioned two, neither of which had anything to do with gay people, or with marriage. He also mentions the economic crisis as damaging to families. That was all. And when you're dealing with a rather Kremlin-esque bureaucracy like the Vatican, these shifts of emphasis really matter. The Pope's speeches are an expression of coherent policy. And, if this one means anything, it means a shift away from seeing gay marriage as a threat comparable to all the ones he did mention.
Yikes; he thinks the pope is saying practically the opposite of what he is in fact saying. Commenters were unimpressed. Muscleguy said:
For goodness sake Andrew, do you have to be so dense and obtuse? If he was so unconcerned with the gay marriage issue then why did he feel the need to insert the apparently redundant words "between a man and a woman" into the bit about marriage? Since the church recognises no other forms of marriage, it would normally have not been necessary to define something twice.
By using that phrasing he is dog whistling to the faithful while trying desperately to Jesuitically claim that 'he said nothing about gays'. I never took you for a Jesuit Andrew, I may now have to reassess that.
If you truly do not understand about dog whistle politics then you are too clueless to be a journalist, so I can only conclude that you are being deliberately obtuse. To what end I'm not sure. I would have thought that as an avowed agnostic you would not hold a candle for pontifical bigotry, but I may be wrong.
Of course it's obvious to non-believers and, more importantly, believers, what the pope means when he says "between a man and a woman". Anthropoid Ape said:
This is an unambiguous reference to gay marriage. What other policy undermining "the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman" could have been exercising the pope's religiously demented brain here, i.e. other than the current world-wide trend to legalise gay marriage which the Vatican has been resolutely opposing? Are you seriously suggesting that the pope was not intending to allude to gay marriage as one of the policies undermining "the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman"?
Quite. AB responded:
No. He does believe that it is one of the policies which threaten the family. But I don't think he is such a fool as to suppose it is the most important threat, and nor was it one he selected for explicit mention. I might be wrong about this. Perhaps he does lie awake at night thinking that the elimination of gay rights is a necessary step on the way to setting everything else right that's wrong in the world. But I doubt it.
Yes, the pope is famously philanthropic and not at all concerned with Catholic dogma! We should be grateful that at least Brown shows some doubt in his own judgement here, but he still is not conceding the obvious, and he didn't in his remaining comments on the thread, despite many people pointing out what was staring him in the face.

Now, suddenly, when Philip Pullella himself writes to him and points out the obvious, the penny drops, sort of: he titles the piece "Why I shouldn't have been upset about the reporting on the pope's speech", but offers no apology for his apologetics. Pullella simply states what most the commenters said:
As one of your own readers (metalvendetta) points out in one of the comments ("Seems pretty clear to me"), when the Vatican uses the phrase "marriage based on the union between a man and a woman" it refers to gay marriage. It has used it many, many times before, particularly in cases where countries were preparing legislation allowing gay marriage (Spain, the Netherlands). Otherwise, it would have just said marriage is under threat, and the connotation there would have been heterosexual cohabitation or divorce.
Brown has admitted he was wrong (good), but not apologised for the bone-headedness of his original piece (bad!). Why does he misrepresent the pope to his readers? Perhaps because he is in denial about what the pope really believes and preaches? He cannot be ignorant of it, surely.

We must all examine our motives, but the motives that lead decent human beings, believers and non-believers like Brown, to cover up the evils of the Catholic Church really need to be exposed. Some self-examination of AB's motives might help us all to understand this damaging notpologetic phenomenon.

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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A Blog Post Concerning John Locke

In John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) he presents two minor arguments for religious toleration, and one major one.

The 'Unchristian' argument
If the gospel and apostle may be credited no man can be a Christian without charity, and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love.
His argument goes something like this:
Premise 1 No one can be a true Christian unless they are charitable.

Premise 2 Religious persecutors aren’t charitable.

Conclusion Therefore religious persecutors aren’t true Christians.
It's valid, but P2 doesn't convince; if a persecutor thinks he is doing the persecution to help the persecutee achieve eternal life, that would surely be consistent with charitable principles.

The 'Inconsistency' argument
For if it be out of a principle of charity, as they pretend, and love to men’s souls, that they deprive them of their estates, maim them with corporal punishments, starve and torment them in noisome prisons, and in the end even take away their lives; I say, if all this be done merely to make men Christians, and procure their salvation, why then do they suffer ‘whoredom, fraud, malice, and such like enormities’ which, according to the apostle, manifestly relish of heathenish corruption, to predominate so much and abound amongst their flocks and people?
The suggestion is that persecutors are insincere in their charity; else they would address themselves to those with more obvious moral failings than heretics. But most Christian doctrine allows that simple belief in Christ is sufficient for salvation, not moral probity, so a persecutor could easily sidestep this argument.

The 'Irrationality' argument
…penalties are no ways capable to produce such belief. It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men’s opinions; and that light can in no way proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.
This is Locke's major argument. The state can legislate to affect our actions, but not our beliefs. Beliefs are not the sort of thing that we can simply adopt at will (‘To believe this or that to be true is not within the scope of the will’). This is because we think our beliefs are true. If we think something is false, we cannot will ourselves to believe it. The link between belief and reality would be broken.

If beliefs cannot be adopted at will then there is no point in trying to force them. Torture could change what we say, but not what we believe.
Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God ... . In vain, therefore, do princes compel their subjects to come into their church communion, under pretence of saving their souls. If they believe, they will come of their own accord; if they believe not, their coming will nothing avail them.
The argument goes like this:
Premise 1 Magistrates’ only sanction is physical force.

Premise 2 Physical force cannot alter religious beliefs.

Conclusion So magistrates cannot alter religious beliefs.
It's valid, and at first blush, the premises appear true. But note that if someone does not understand that belief cannot be coerced, then he wouldn’t be irrational. But if he knows that beliefs cannot be coerced, it is plainly irrational to persecute, per this argument.

Locke did allow a couple of exceptions to toleration: anyone whose religious beliefs threaten society. He cites atheists and those whose beliefs would put them in thrall to a foreign power. Atheists, because they could not be trusted to keep their word since they think there is no divine judgement! 
Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.
A daft thought, as if morality is simply something that operates only through a celestial CCTV, but indicative of the contempt for atheism at the time.

Jeremy Waldron presents a counter-argument to Locke, by distinguishing between coercion by direct and indirect means, and reveals that the situation is more complicated than Locke assumed; a point first made by his contemporary Jonas Proast. The environment could be directed towards the desired end by the magistrate; for example, restricting reading material and discourse for a prisoner, thus achieving a gradual, indirect conversion.
Since coercion may therefore be applied to religious ends by this indirect means, it can no longer be condemned as in all circumstances irrational.
Waldron’s claim is that by curtailing individual freedom of speech, and freedom to read what you want to read, the population’s religious beliefs could be controlled. This casts doubt on P2. Locke has overlooked the rather complex way we come to our beliefs about reality. But Locke’s argument may still apply to direct coercion, although the existence of victims of brain-washing suggest that even this coercion can be effective over time.

Susan Mendus responds to Waldron's response thus:
...the irrationality of coercing belief, even indirectly, is akin to the irrationality of brainwashing; it can certainly be done but it does not generate the right kind of belief or, more precisely, it does not generate a belief which is held in the right way.
Such a belief would still not guarantee one's salvation because, ultimately, one was pushed into acquiring it. Waldron had anticipated this objection and counters that the manner in which one is led to form a belief does not alter the content of that belief. Also, consistency would demand that most of our beliefs are ruled out too, since “In most cases (not just a few), the selection of sensory input for our understanding is a matter of upbringing, influence, accident or constraint”, so an absurd conclusion follows.

Mendus's point makes sense, I think, if we are in the business of judging the 'truthiness' of beliefs; someone whose reading has been restricted to just one book is likely to have different beliefs to someone who has read widely - and it's reasonable to conclude that the more widely-read person is more likely to have true beliefs. This would not be a genetic fallacy because the sources and methodologies being considered do cast a shadow on the beliefs. 

Nevertheless, Waldron’s argument hits home, because he's only concerned with what someone truly believes, not what true things someone believes. So, in light of Waldron's objection, Locke’s irrationality argument fails, although could perhaps be moderated to account for the complex way we come to acquire beliefs.


Warburton, N. (2002) Arguments for Freedom , Milton Keynes, The Open University

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Ronald Searle, 1920-2011

A little diversion, to celebrate the wonderful drawings of Ronald Searle. He illustrated Geoffrey Willlans's  Molesworth books, which struck a chord with me at my slightly archaic grammar school. Here are his grips and tortures for masters, which seem to have been studied well by some of mine (particularly the plain blip).

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The Tall Tales of Hoffmann

I'm not sure if this Hoffmann's first love was Olympia, the automaton, (or was it Ophelia? She's certainly no automaton.) or if his further loves were Antonia and Giulietta, but there is more than a whiff of the old Hoffmann about this New Oxonian. It's as if some gnu atheist Lindorff has gone off with his Stella,  leaving him drunk in the tavern crying into his beer, "Muse whom I love, I am yours!". I've been that drunk too, though in humbler company than Hoffmann. He certainly loves the Muse, but perhaps he has spent too long musing while nimbler, more successful courtiers of Stellar Street have taken the plaudits and bouquets. That seems to be part of the complaint (h/t Screechy Monkey):
Part of that has to do with (as I suggested) a record that goes back long before most Americans had heard of Richard Dawkins. Some of us older and old atheists remember what a lonely battle that was. Many who came to the movement since 2000 will not. And that is precisely the pojnt. Without saying jealousy is involved, there are many (not just me) who know that the Dawkins revolution could not have taken place without th almost invisible work of many of my associates in and out of the academy over many many years. On the one hand, we need to be grateful that the New Atheists have been successful in garnering support; on the other hand, and I know this from experience, nothing ensured the death of a book in this country before 1995 like putting the word atheism or humanism in the title. So, there were laborers in the trenches.
But in his latest offering he is far from a-musing, letting off at every gnu he can think of, like a drunk sending texts to former lovers. He starts off with the usual suspects and regurgitates well-worn non-arguments against the Four Horsemen (three of whom he might call Gnu Oxonians?). Interesting that he seems to admire Hitchens the most ("the only true intellectual and by far the best-read of the group"), since Hitch's arguments were always the worst of the four, even if his polemics were the best. More ire is aimed at the gnu bloggers who dare to offer an opinion on religion that has not been informed by years of study in the Divinity School at Harvard. He starts with Jerry Coyne, quoting him comparing religion to leprechauns in their compatibility with science, to which he responds:
Just a flash: While leprauchauns didn’t copy the books that were turned into the books that led to the science Dr Coyne eventually studied, monks and rabbis did. Why does the perfectly reasonable opposition to religious craziness have to descend to this caricaturing of the history of religion?
Strange, isn't it, that religion has morphed into the history of religion? What a befuddled argument. It's difficult to know what Hoffman's point is here. Is it that a deep and complex history justifies an ontology? But Coyne doesn't deny religion's history. It's as if he thinks the involvement of religious people in the history of science invalidates the Conflict Thesis, but none could be that dumb. Leprechauns don't exist so they couldn't have copied early science books, so Hoffmann's comparison doesn't work. Coyne, on the other hand, is pointing out that religion is a superstition, like leprechauns, not that religion doesn't exist, or, even more foolishly, that the history of religion doesn't exist or isn't complex. Hoffmann's argument wouldn't pass muster at infant school, sadly, let alone any philosophy department.

A Gish Gallop of mud-flinging follows, aimed at PZ Myers ("If ever atheism got dumber and less impressive, it is in the work of this dissolute insult- monger"), Greta Christina ("She sees everything as a weird sexual joke"), Ophelia Benson ("...has turned her once-interesting website (I used to contribute regularly) into a chat room for neo-atheist spleen"), Eric MacDonald ("doesn’t seem to know bloody anything about the academic study of religion") and Jason Rosenhouse ("I sometimes wonder why people whose only contribution to blogdom consists of sentences like “Most religious rituals leave me beyond cold,” find themselves titillating?"). Like one or two other misguided critics of new atheism, Hoffmann is often pragmatically self-refuting!

But Hoffmann has an illustrious history, if not an illustrious future, so I do wonder what has got under his skin so much about people who aren't guilty of the things he thinks they're guilty of. Apart from the self-confessed jealousy above, he gives a clue to one of his concerns in a comment below his latest rant:
The new atheists don’t oppose the study of religion. Not true: in fact the famous “Pinker Intervention” at Harvard in 2006 prevented religion from becoming a part of Harvard’s core curriculum, on the premise there was no difference between theology and religion-studies, though Harvard was the first university in America to introduce such study in the 1930′s, apart from its Divinity School. Read all about it here: Stephen Pinker (who is far more considerate of religion in general) is not the issue here, btw; a number of the newbies have gone on record as saying that the study of theology does not belong in a university, though in some places like Harvard, Yale, and Chicago, this would mean closing down their divinity schools where the study of religion is alive and well. That’s half the problem: the other half is that rank amateurs like the newbies have already pronounced their verdict on such study by mixing up the objectives. Frankly if this confusion is any indication of the state of their information, they’d better hold off on the God thing for a few years. If you want to see the nadir of this imbecilic conversation, here you go:

Interesting. The New Statesman piece compares religion to knitting, which is presumably what upsets Hoffmann, but this is nothing more than Myers's view of what religion's status should be in society, not a judgement of its historic worth, I think. Despite people like Dawkins and Hitchens regularly supporting the study of religion, he genuinely believes they don't, and his evidence is the "Pinker Intervention" and a throw away remark from one of the more strident new atheists. I'm not familiar with the background to the Pinker story, so it would be good to hear some more about this other than what Hoffmann's written, cloaked in dense references as it is ("Pinker Intervention" throws up just one link on Google, to Hoffmann's piece).

So maybe his concern is that divinity schools should not be closed down? But opposition to divinity schools is not opposition to the study of religion, so it's still not clear why he is so exercised about this. In the piece he links to, about the study of religion at Harvard, he says:
In short, all the wrong reasons for studying religion—because it is popular, widespread, and personally significant—triumph over the good reasons for studying it.
I confess, though, that I'm not clear from the piece what the good reasons are for studying it. I could guess at a few. Hoffmann does say earlier:
But religion puts itself forward as something that ought to be studied in its own right, not because in doing so the student learns to value its influence or validate its claims, but so that the student will be able to evaluate it within a particular analytical frame of reference. And it is in providing that context that Harvard excels.
This may be true, but it does not go any way to justifying separate divinity schools - religion can still be studied in its own right without that - so I'm still left struggling to understand the nature of Hoffmann's complaint, once again. Unless he thinks that the only frame of reference that is sufficient for good religious study is in divinity schools? Maybe, but he would have to be clear why he thinks this, or it's just special pleading for religion; something that new atheists are (obviously) against.

I dare say he has other complaints; if only he could write clearly, without so many distracting straw men and errors of fact, then we might have a better chance of understanding them. Maybe one day he'll sober up and tell us fellow drunkards what he means.

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Monday, 2 January 2012

Rhyme or Reason?

Richard Dawkins suggests that Rowan Williams and other sophisticated theologians are being poetic about their beliefs - perhaps that they are metaphorical. I'm pretty sure that Williams thinks, however poetic he gets, that there is an underlying real truth behind what he says. And this is surely true of most senior Anglicans, despite the suspicion some have (or had, like Julian Baggini?) that they don't really believe in the unlikely things they say they believe in. Consider this, from Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, in the Daily Telegraph:
The proper relation of religion to science is also vital. Young people must be taught to appreciate both the experimental methods of science and the ultimate values which religion offers. Such a conversation must take place in the classroom if we are not to continue being divided by “scientistic” and religious fundamentalists.
Mr Cameron reminded us that inalienable human dignity is founded on the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God. But to whom does this extend? And are there circumstances when a person might lose such dignity?
Nazir-Ali implies that we have sources of reliable knowledge other than science, with his false opposition between scientism and fundamentalism, then notes that human dignity is based on 'the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God'. This is very debatable, of course, but, further, is 'made in the image of God' a literal truth or a poetic metaphor? Science shows that we are inextricably a part of the animal kingdom with no need for such a notion, so should we not conclude a contradiction between science and religion here? I think we should, but liberal theists might say that I am being too scientistic and literal in my interpretation of the teaching; lacking poetry, perhaps? 

As an aside, read Russell Blackford's discussion of scientism, and other things, here, which explains well how the charge of scientism lacks teeth - anyone who appeals to a worldview based on reason and evidence  (practically everyone, I should think) is automatically not scientistic; but that does not allow anyone to claim truths in opposition to science.

Nevertheless, Nazir-Ali clearly wants public policy based on this 'idea', linking it to the 'special nature of the human embryo' which suggests he, at least, thinks it's a literal truth that we are created in the image of God, in opposition to the huge weight of scientific evidence:
It was for these reasons that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act recognised the special nature of the human embryo and established an authority to regulate scientific work involving embryos. I support the Coalition’s desire to trim the quangos, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is not perfect. But we need a body, perhaps modelled on the US President’s Council, that can consider the moral implications of developments in bioethics.
If he doesn't think it's a literal truth, should we base such decisions on ancient metaphors? I think metaphors could be useful if they highlighted an underlying truth revealed by our explorations of reality, but the image of God and the special nature of the human embryo would need to be connected by something more than a biblical idea, since biblical ideas have a wretched record in the marketplace of ideas and, in any case, they should not be grounds for public policy in a secular, multi-cultural world, unless they can be supported by secular, multi-cultural arguments and evidence. Even good poetic reasons would not suffice, in my opinion.

The moral implications of developments in bioethics should be considered, but, like all morality, they should be considered by us all, in a mature group negotiation that considers all the facts as we understand them, in concert with mutually acceptable values.

Bizarrely, Nazir-Ali also says:
As Mr Cameron reminded us, the value of equality comes from the biblical teaching, confirmed by science, of the common origin of all humans.
He appears to blind himself to the evolutionary view which shows our common origin with other animals, and to ignore biblical teachings such as descent from Adam and Eve and the massacre of the Canaanites, which suggest that some humans are more equal than others.

The Commission on Assisted Dying will be reporting this week, and it has taken on board evidence from Robin Gill, an advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury, that the current status quo should be maintained, preferring to limit patient choice to a denial of treatment, with all the potential for pain and suffering that that entails. This stems from another supposed truth (poetic or otherwise) that human life is a gift from God and thus not our own:
10. The sanctity of human life: This principle is crucial to Christians. It encapsulates their belief that life is in and of itself sacred because it is given by God. Life has an inherent value, not just a conditional one. The principle is enshrined in law in the form of an absolute prohibition on the intentional killing of innocent human beings. It is not normally taken to mean that any life ought to be preserved at all costs. But it does ‘protect each one of us impartially, embodying the belief that all are equal’ (quoted by the Archbishop and the Cardinal from the 1994 Select Committee’s report, included in Appendix I).
11. For a Christian, this principle also encapsulates the simple belief that God owns my life, not I, and I have, therefore, no right to end it.
(from the Church of England briefing paper to the Lords Select Committee on Assisted Dying)
The consequence of such literal beliefs is Anglican opposition to humane measures which recognise each individual's autonomy. But, it's a logical corollary to the view that our lives are not our own. Let us hope that the Commission recognises the evil nature of such warping ideas, poetic metaphor or not, since these beliefs have neither rhyme nor reason to my ears.

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