Friday, 24 February 2012

As Good as Gnu

Julian Baggini has complained about new atheists before, saying:
In any case, my [negative] opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.
He goes on to attack new atheism because it is anti-theistic, and parasitic on god-belief, whereas he proffers an atheistic world view. It seems obvious to me that these two are not in conflict with one another, and Baggini is simply mistaking his distaste for new atheism's political goals with a pertinent point. Later he says:
The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.
But those practices are not more important than the belief that the narratives are true, as his own investigations have shown, in a piece called The myth that religion is more about practice than belief:
My own research shows that the vast majority of Christians appear to take the orthodox doctrine at face value.
But now he makes another tone attack on a certain type of atheist, and one can only conclude he means the new atheists, given his form. He cites this article by Jeffrey Myers, to illustrate how atheists protest about being called out for their tone, and then says:
Accusing someone of being aggressive, nasty or shrill can be a neat way of avoiding the meat of the matter while also appearing to occupy the moral high ground. That's true, but tone does matter, and it's often more connected with substance than it might seem.
But the linked piece doesn't say that tone does not matter. It says "Our tone does not matter". This is a vital distinction, and gets to the nub of how very wrong Baggini is on this issue. Myers points out that:
Because the reality is that our tone is NOT the problem. Our tone doesn't matter. Because it doesn't matter how polite we are, how eloquent we are, how articulate or respectful we are. It is not our tone that theists reject - it is our existence.
And Baggini and other accommodationists should know this, because they themselves are regularly accused of the same crimes as the new atheists - just read the comments section to Baggini's attempts to bridge the gap between theism and atheism in The Guardian. In this latest article, Baggini notes:
"Tone" actually crops up in two guises in this debate. It not only refers to the mode of argumentation but also to the alleged way in which many atheists are "tone deaf" to religion.
Fair enough, it is 'alleged'. But is it true that 'atheists' are tone deaf?

(And which ones? Is that a trait that they have as a group? As often when it comes to this sort of accusation, no evidence is linked to support Baggini's position. To be clear, I don't doubt that the occasional atheist might make a tone-deaf pronouncement. I object that atheists are characterised as a group with this clumsy stereotype, and I object that the four horsemen, and gnus, are too)

In fact, the opposite is true, is it not? It is many theists who are tone deaf to atheistic writing because they respond no differently to Julian Baggini's supposedly nuanced approach than they do to Richard Dawkins's supposedly tone-deaf approach. Consider these comments:
Julian Baggini
I think one of the biggest obstacles to progress here is your inability to resist your obsessive-compulsive desire to use space in your own articles to denigrate religious belief and instead use them to propound the primacy of your own atheist ones. A lot of religious people may draw from that that your claims of respectful discussion are somewhat akin to a wolf in sheep's clothing. CatholicAndy
The most troubling thing about this piece is the aggressive idea of 'acceptable' religion; as if giving an ultimatum to all religious believers. Baggini doesn't reveal which authority gave him the right to define how religion should be in the 21st century, nor does he give any consideration to libertarian values, like the freedom of expression or belief.
With this article Baggini, despite all his claims to occuyping a middle ground, has shown himself to be as intolerant and supremacist as the militant atheists he claims to descry. iphedia
And there are many more - there we have it in black and white.

Russell Blackford wrote an excellent piece on this a while back:
The problem is likely to be that a lot of discussion of tone is just not very intelligent - how many reviews of The God Delusion have you read that show a tin ear for Dawkins' control of tone? Many reviews don't show any sensitivity at all for the varied tones: the humour; the quiet thoughtfulness and introspection; or the comical intoxication with language itself in Dawkins' famous denunciation of the Old Testament deity. Generally speaking, the reviewers just don't "get" it. But the cure for that isn't less discussion of Dawkins' tone; it's more intelligent discussion of Dawkins' tone. A hackneyed adjective such as "strident" doesn't cut the mustard.
Spot on. Dawkins's writing and pronouncements are thoughtful and witty and insightful - maybe not as profound as some of our better philosophers, but he's not talking to academia. He's talking to the general public, and his tone is entirely appropriate for that. The cry from gnu atheists is not that tone is unimportant, it's that the tone argument is being used dishonestly and prejudicially against them.

The response to Baggini's own writing shows that to be true. Whether he likes it or not, he's as good as gnu in the eyes of many a theist.

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Friday, 17 February 2012

The Negligence of Anti-Secularism

There's a curious doublethink prevalent in the world today. It calls tolerance intolerant and peace-making militant. It coddles views that are in violent and murderous opposition to each other and calls that constitutional. As Polly Toynbee says, about the faiths:
Each has their own divinely revealed unique truth, often provoking mortal conflict, Muslim v Copt, Catholic v Protestant, Hindu v Muslim or Sunni v Shia. But suddenly the believers are united in defence against the secular, willing to suspend the supremacy of their own prophets to agree that any religion, however alien, from elephant god to son of God, is better than none.
Secularism is the recognition that in a modern multi-cultural society we have these juggernauts of faith motoring around the body politic and, unless measures are taken to avoid it, they will collide. Not they might collide; they will collide. To argue against secularism in these circumstances is to call for a road system without traffic lights, roundabouts and Give Way signs.

Genuine secularism, not militant secularism, which surely doesn't exist, refuses to succumb to the privilege that religion demands, and the response to the Richard Dawkins Foundation Ipsos-MORI poll on Christian beliefs proves that we still have a problem accepting genuine secularism. Dawkins appeared on a couple of shows to talk about the results, which showed that those who self-identified as Christians have a wide-ranging set of beliefs. 49% of Christians polled don't believe that Jesus is the son of god, and 6% of Christians polled don't even believe in god! This means that government should be careful not to accept any lobbying from the religious to support a monolithic view of Christianity. Most importantly, perhaps, is that, of those polled:
Three quarters (74%) strongly agree or tend to agree that religion should not have special influence on public policy, with only one in eight (12%) thinking that it should.
So the majority of self-identified Christians, it would seem, advocates secularism. Some deride it, of course; here's the febrile Cranmer, talking about Trevor Phillips, Equality Tsar, who had the temerity to say that religions are not above the law:
Britain is not a secular state, and it is not for some trumped-up chairman of an over-inflated quango to make it one. All gods are not equal in the pantheon, Mr Phillips; all religions are not equally conducive to the common good; all faith groups are not equally beneficial to society; all beliefs do not equally save.
Here we see the self-righteous indignation which is the hallmark of the religious fanatic from Urban II to Pius XII, from John Calvin to Fred Phelps; the bedrock is their belief in the absolute truth of the revelation that has been granted them; of all people, of course, it has to be them, not the revelation of Johnny Foreigner, from the next village. The idea that their unevidenced belief trumps another's runs entirely contrary to the secularist project, which looks to allow people their beliefs, however wacky, but only allows them traction in the public square as far as they can be defended. No religion has any way of distinguishing its claims from any other, apart from reason and evidence, and reason and evidence shows religion to be a human construct. So the wilder claims and prejudices of the religious are thankfully binned. In so much as religious ideas make it into the mainstream, they are simply pale imitations of ideas that have been far better developed in secular philosophy.

Anyway, back to the response to the RDF poll, and the sclerotic theists and faitheists. The very fact that a poll of Christians is commissioned by Richard Dawkins, arch-atheist, throws them into a lather of risible proportions. Miles Fraser called him the high pope of Darwinism, as if being called a pope was an insult! Stephen Bayley calls him a fanatic disguised as a scientist!
Atheists seem to be very good at dogma. Dawkins seems not to understand that his own zealotry is itself a sort of religious quest.
These half-witted comments are self-defeating; is dogma good or not? If not, then don't be a theist. If it's good, then why accuse atheists of being good at it? Is a religious quest good or not?
Sure, organised religion has caused appalling conflicts. But it has also caused Michelangelo, Milton and Bach.
Bayley's smug complacency is breath-taking. Michelangelo, therefore, millions dead, and more lives blighted, is excusable. It's hard to believe that an educated man has typed this, sat back and looked down on the page with satisfaction. It speaks of a man with no heart, a soulless automaton, incapable of an empathetic response to the suffering and ugliness around him. Perhaps that's it; Bayley can only respond to things that he finds beautiful? Nothing else has value; any suffering is worth the small pleasure he gains from listening to the St. Matthew Passion or gazing at a ceiling. If so, the solipsism of the religiously minded strikes again. If not, well, I don't know what other conclusion we should draw from such a devastatingly insensitive argument.

Andrew Brown regularly posts terminally daft pieces, but nonetheless represents a constituency which wants to cast atheists who defend secularism as faulty in some way. Here he's keen to reinforce this prejudice:
...the militant secularist takes for granted that "the religious" have no access to reason. There can be no reasoning with his opponents. All he can do is to repeat himself more loudly until the idiots understand.
Well, if that's a militant secularist, then there can only be a handful, since many theists are secularists and most atheists have been religious themselves at some time, and I'm sure neither group would regard themselves as having "no access to reason". It is 'mendacious smears' like this, to use the phrase du jour, that show how anti-secularists like Brown fear the tide turning. And be assured that Brown is no secularist; he has fought hard for religious privilege in all his time at the Guardian, despite him self-identifying as an atheist.

And finally the execrable Stephen Pollard, in the Torygraph:
The militant secularists, however, have only one modus operandi – attack. 
The defensiveness is immediately apparent in this straw man, similar to Brown's.
Respect for others’ views seems to be entirely missing from their moral calculus.
Secularism being respect for others' views, and religious belief being the opposite of any such respect! Unless I should somehow conceive that death for apostasy is 'respect' for others' views. The irony of Pollard's statement breaks another meter, but it gets a double hit with the very next sentence, as Pollard continues, oblivious to his own incontinence:
They entirely miss the irony of their position.
You couldn't make it up. He tries to justify this high order idiocy:
Religious leaders who focus solely on a sectarian appeal to their own followers, and who seek to raise their own standing by diminishing the views of others, end up on the margins of serious debate. And as their noise drowns out the quieter, less confrontational majority, they act against their own religion’s interest.
Yes, religious leaders down the centuries have opened the eyes of their followers to the ideas of other religions. This thought, which is whatever the opposite of a truism is, Stephen Pollard thinks the British public will swallow. I shit you not! As Harry Rednapp might say.

That we have seen an hysterical outburst against the mildest defence of reasonable secularism, supported by the beliefs that many Christians themselves hold, shows us that the public square is sick and dysfunctional on this issue. Until such evidence is approached with equanimity, in a mature and reasonable manner, as a community we can't claim to have grown out of harmful magical thinking - the sort of harmful thinking that will inevitably result in fatal collisions if precautions aren't taken.

We will be driving the highways of public policy with no road management in place.

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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Calling Cards

The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is distributing one million cards to 24 dioceses including the Bishopric of the Forces and the ordinariate in order to cultivate evangelisation among Catholics.
So reports the Catholic Herald.

It doesn't seem to reflect all the things that Catholics are called to. Can I suggest an additional one, so the buyer can beware?

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Religious Goggles

Richard Dawkins has written a piece on Salman Rushdie's non-appearance at Jaipur, linking it to Nick Cohen's new book - You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom. The article is excellent, and the last quote from Nick Cohen is bang on the money about the many accommodationists who complain about "Richard Dawkins and his ilk":
The complaints boiled down to a simple and piteous cry: “Why can’t you stop upsetting them?”
Some have compared faith to a drug, and it does seem to me that, just as some people don the beer goggles at the end of an evening in the pub, some set aside their reading glasses and replace them with 'religious goggles' when they read the new atheists. The goggles are available in a variety of styles, for believers and non-believers alike.

Ophelia Benson has been discussing a case which I think illustrates this inability some have to see vocal atheists in a reasonable light because of these goggles; the blogger in question misrepresents the atheist desire for theists to see the error of their ways as an insistence that theists 'convert' to atheism. During the course of his piece he conflates proselytising with forced conversion, and so pronounces it 'evil'. Accommodationists often compare new atheists to religious fundamentalists, which betrays a similar goggle-induced error. I would be surprised if anyone did not want others to agree with them; at least, I'm sure most of us think that, which, seen through some accommodationist goggles, becomes evil proselytising, on a par with the most aggressive religious fundamentalism. But the goggles are only worn, apparently, for religious discourse; similar arguments on political or cultural matters are enthusiastically joined. It's a genuinely barmy misfire of the brain, I think.

It's all the more infuriating because I think some incoherent accommodationist posturing might be coming from a good place. That good place is the value of diversity and a distrust of conformity to some all enveloping 'truth'. Through Mill, Orwell and Isaiah Berlin, for example, the Western tradition has become wary of an authoritarianism which tries to force an idealised truth on people for their own good. All fine and dandy - I value a diversity of opinion and debate too, as a method for uncovering the truth, finding better ways of living and resisting totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean that there are many truths, and we should all be relativists. And, more to the point, no-one is a relativist on most matters under discussion in the public square. It mainly rears its head when people reach for the religious goggles.

Coincidentally another 'accommodationist' of sorts, Julian Baggini, has just had an article published arguing his position against some critics of religion (I think it's safe to say he means 'Dawkins and his ilk'). He doesn't appeal to diversity or multiculturalism, but draws an analogy between religion and the family, to support a softly-softly approach:
I think there is a lesson here for atheist critics of religion. No one wants outsiders trying to break up their families, even when they recognise all its faults. Too often we heathens play the role of over-invasive social services, sometimes quite literally worried about child protection. But if we think a religion is a problem, we might do better to take on the role of family therapists, trying to lead them to see that certain members are behaving in unacceptable ways. Sometimes that does mean challenging false beliefs, but it never means treating doctrines as though they were free-standing claims that can be dissected irrespective of the role they play in the family dynamic. This approach won't necessarily make us the most welcome of guests, but it might mean we at least get a hearing at the table, and find some allies there.
The family analogy seems plausible to me, and goes some way to explain resistance to argument. I'm not sure this is any different to other families, however, such as political or footballing ones, and he wouldn't be shy about arguing with those beliefs, would he?

Leaving that aside, sure, many people don't want outsiders to break up their families. But some do, and for good reason. They're vulnerable and not in a position to assert their autonomy. If such people exist, then it would be our duty to intervene. The problem with disallowing a more vocal expression of disagreement with religion is that you are placing the value of this notional family above the individuals in it. That's not fair on them, in my opinion.

I approve a multi-faceted approach to combating harmful beliefs, and I've yet to read an accommodationist piece that has argued persuasively, with evidence, to make me think that vocal criticism of religion should not be one of those facets.

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