Tag Archives: religion

Facts & Sincerely Held Beliefs

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The Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States raised numerous issues including a rather interesting one regarding beliefs and facts. Oversimplifying things for the sake of brevity, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.

As I tell my students in my ethics class, a moral issue often involves three main components. The first consists of the relevant facts. Put very simply, a factual matter is such that the claim being made is true or false regardless of how we think or feel about its truth.  For example, the mass of an object is a factual matter. Factual matters can become rather complicated by the fact that one might need to sort out the key concepts before determining the truth of a factual claim. As such, it should be no surprise that the second consists of the relevant concepts. Sorting out this aspect of a moral dispute involves arguing in defense of the concepts—that is, presenting and defending definitions of the key terms. In the Hobby Lobby case, one of the key concepts is that of abortion. As noted above, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim that certain birth control methods are actually methods of abortion. This seems to be because the Hobby Lobby owners believe that life begins at conception and they seem to reject the notion that pregnancy begins at implantation.  This is, obviously enough, a rather important matter in regards to these methods being abortion or birth control.

If pregnancy begins at implantation (which is the scientific consensus), then the methods in question (specifically those which prevent implantation) do not involve abortion.  As such, the owners of Hobby Lobby would hold factual incorrect beliefs regarding these methods of birth control and this would undercut their moral position. After all, if those methods are not abortion and their moral opposition is based on a factual error, their moral opposition would thus be unfounded.

However, if pregnancy begins at conception (which is not the scientific consensus), then these methods do involve abortion. In this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby would be factually correct. This still leaves open the question of whether their moral claims are correct or not. After all, a person can be right about the facts but be wrong about the morality, which leads to the third component, that of morality.

Obviously enough, a moral issue has a moral component. In this case, the moral issue is whether or not abortion is morally wrong. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to believe this—but belief does not entail that a claim is true. After all, people sincerely believe false claims quite often. Fortunately for the owners of Hobby Lobby, they did not have to even argue that their moral beliefs are correct or even plausible—all that was required was establishing that their religious beliefs are sincere—that is, they believe what they claim to believe. Given the context, this is not unreasonable—after all, the issue addressed by the court was not whether abortion is morally wrong or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby did not even need to argue in defense of their factual claims and their concepts—that is, they did not need to make the case that pregnancy occurs at conception and that the methods in question cause abortions rather than serving as birth control (of the non-abortion sort).   Apparently, they merely needed to establish that they believe what they claim to believe. This raises an interesting general issue that goes beyond the specific Hobby Lobby case: should facts matter when considering cases involving value beliefs (such as religious or moral beliefs)?

On the one hand, it can be argued that the facts should not matter—at least in the sense of requiring that the beliefs in question be proven. This can be based on practicality: religious beliefs would be extremely difficult to prove and this would impose too great a burden on those bringing legal cases involving their values. Also, cases about belief are (as others have argued) not about the truth of the beliefs but about the right to hold said beliefs.

On the other hand, it can be argued that facts do matter—especially when the beliefs have an impact on other people. Returning to the case of Hobby Lobby, the idea is that the owners should not be required to follow the law because they are opposed to abortion and they believe that the birth control methods cause abortions. If it is claimed that it does not matter whether the owners are right or wrong about their factual claims, this establishes the general principle that the truth of the claims does not matter. This raises the question of how far this principle should extend.

In the Hobby Lobby case, to say that the facts are not relevant might not seem so serious. After all, the question of when life begins is one that is disputed and the Hobby Lobby owners could engage in a conceptual dispute over the definition of “abortion” in a plausible way. But, suppose that the principle that the facts do not matter, only the sincerity. This would entail that if the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that paying women the same as men caused abortions, then all that would matter would be the sincerity of their beliefs. The fact that such a claim would be obviously false and absurd would not matter—after all, once the principle that truth is irrelevant is accepted, then truth is irrelevant. As long as the owners could show they sincerely believed that equal pay for women would cause abortions, then the actual facts would not matter. This certainly seems to set a problematic precedent.

 

 

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Splitting Marriage: Love Union

Author: Bagande

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In previous essays I argued in favor of splitting marriage by proposing theological unions (for the religious folks) and civil unions (to cover the legal contract aspect of marriage). However, there does seem to be one aspect of marriage left out, namely the matter of love.

On the one hand, it is sensible to not include the notion of love in marriage. After all, a couple that is getting married does not have to prove that they are in love. People who do not love each other can get married and people who do love each other (in the romantic sense) need not get married.

On the other hand, the notion of marriage for love does have a certain romantic appeal—fueled by literature and movies (if not reality). As such, it seems worthwhile to include a third type of marriage, namely the love union. While the romantic image is appealing, there is also a more substantive basis for the love union.

As noted in another essay, the theological union was proposed to allow people to exercise both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As was noted in the essay after that, the civil union was proposed to handle the legal aspects of marriage. In the case of the love union, the purpose is to allow couples to create their own relationship bond (and rules) apart from that of religion and the state. That is, this is a relationship defined entirely by the couple. While the couple might involve others and have a ceremony, a love union would not be a theological union and would have no legal status.  That is, the rules are only enforced (or not) by the couple. Naturally, a love union can be combined with the other types. A couple could, for example, get a theological union at their mosque, get a civil union from the state, and then have an event with friends to announce their love union.

Given that the love union has no theological status or legal status, it might be wondered what it would actually do. The answer is, of course, that this would vary from union to union. However, the general idea is that the couple would define the aspects of their relationship that are not covered by theology (which might be all of it) and do not fall under the dominion of the state. This sort of definition might be something as simple as a declaration of eternal love to a fairly complex discussion of the nature of the relationship in terms of rights, expectations and responsibilities. While not every couple will want to establish a love union, this does seem like a good idea.

Love is, apparently, the least important aspect of marriage when it comes to the political debates over the matter. This might be a reflection of the reality of marriage (that it is about religion and legal rights) or a sign of misplaced values. Because of this, I thought I would at least give love a chance.

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Being in Uncertainty

Like millions of people I watched Felix Baumgartner’s space jump last Sunday. He leapt from a tiny capsule pulled 24 miles into the sky by a helium balloon. He fell to the ground from the edge of space, breaking the sound barrier, and several records, in the process.

I found his achievement moving and compelling. And this surprised me because quite often I find extreme feats of this sort rather sterile, and perhaps a little bullet-headed.  When someone walks across the Antarctic, or climbs Everest without oxygen, it seems to involve a chest-beating determination to assert oneself against nature. The self-assertion makes it seem a small inward-looking response to the largeness and awesomeness of the world. It reminds me of the character in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin who takes huge pride in surviving against the odds on a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean,  staving his hunger with vile rock-dwelling creatures and sheltering himself by squeezing into a tiny jagged hole. The astonishing twist in that story shows  his pride in that narrow victory to be the very same thing as his failure to see and appreciate something much larger and more beautiful than his deluded and debased survival.

Golding’s novel has a belief in God at its centre. So as an atheist, I read it at arm’s length. I can’t share its central vision.  Some or all of Baumgartner’s jump team are atheists too. That’s the message I took from mission control’s reassurance to Baumgartner that “his guardian angel” was with him. The notion of a guardian angel is so kitsch, so primitive and so not a part of most religious people’s  experience of faith that it seemed to me that these colleagues of Baumgartner were stating their atheism at the same time as they indulged an (entirely understandable) need to supplicate (someone, something) for their friend’s survival.

That these scientists felt drawn to this playful but clumsy invocation of a supernatural entity in which they probably disbelieved gives me a clue about why I found Baumgartner’s jump so moving.

There is an atheist’s plight, I think. Not for all atheists, but for some atheists most of the time, and perhaps even for most atheists some of the time. The plight is this: there is no God, but sometimes invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives.

An atheist invoking God in response to peril can easily be seen as a momentary weakness, a panicked irrationality, so it is not terribly interesting. More interesting is the way an atheist might feel when contemplating the strange empty  infinity and complexity of the universe and the sheer oddness of being a conscious presence within it. We might not be at all tempted to say that the idea of God needs to be invoked to explain the universe. But the idea that God exists and that we humans are in a state of separation from that God can seem like a very vivid way of experiencing our awe in the face of a not-yet-fully-explained universe and also of capturing  some central philosophical problems. The idea of a God from whom we are separated and whom we strive to rejoin (the idea of a fall followed by redemption) has in the past lent philosophy some of its fundamental structure. Hegel’s self-positing spirit, for example, is a version of God coming to self-knowledge through a process which involves first the generation and then the overcoming of separateness.  And even if we eschew Hegelian ways of thinking,  the idea of a God that we must strive to rejoin feels like a rich metaphor for the traditional philosophical project of characterising reality in a manner which makes it both independent of us and yet within our knowledge. The truth (if it is a truth) of the atheist’s claim that there is no God sometimes seems like poor compensation for the loss of the religious worldview –  because that worldview is a very beautiful and metaphorically fertile orientation to the strange condition of being conscious in the world.

So, just as Baumgartner’s colleagues summoned the idea of a guardian angel to fill the space left by their disbelief in God,  I too look around for metaphors to fill the space left by my own disbelief in God. And Baumgartner’s endeavour at the physical margins of our world, the point where it joins the universe, seemed to fit the bill. Where Pincher Martin, in Golding’s novel, squeezes himself into a small hole on a small rock and feels big, Baumgartner took himself to the edge of the largest possible space to (in his own words) “see how small he was.” It was (corny expressions seem unavoidable here) an encounter with the infinite. The symbolism of falling also has poignancy. It speaks of a chosen passivity, a surrender, very different from the assertive striving  of a Pincher Martin, and very resonant with Christian mythology. Finally the sheer pointlessness of jumping from space seems a rather heroic defiance of the meaninglessness that threatens to engulf us when we look at a vast universe empty of mind: it embraces meaninglessness joyfully and colonises it with purpose.

I don’t want to spend too long teasing out the symbolism of the jump. Instead I want to ask a question. It seems from the above that we (or many of us) have a need for what might be called aids to reflection, aids to the contemplation of certain fundamental features of our presence in the world. If a belief in God is not available to us as a supplier of such aids, we look for it elsewhere. What I want to ask is this: Can a religious person endorse this status of religion as being, not the provider of truth but simply a provider of resources for reflection? If we reject every distinctively religious claim (that there is a god, that there is a soul, or an afterlife, or reincarnation …), if we say that religion offers us no truths of its own but only resources for the contemplation of the truths of science and philosophy, and if we say that religion is not even the only supplier of such resources because art and literature and jumping men are also resources, might it still be possible to be religious? Note that I’m not asking  a question about the value of religion, considered from outside the religious perspective. I’m asking whether the religious perspective itself can survive a certain view of its status. In a review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists John Gray quotes  Keats to suggest that “the heart of religion isn’t belief, but something more like what Keats described as negative capability: ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” But can a religious person really and wholeheartedly subscribe to such a view?

I think that this question translates into (at least) three more specific questions (only very roughly formulated here):

(1) Is it really true that a religious practitioner can give an entirely “non-creedal” account of religion, one that does not claim there to be any distinctively religious truths  and states that religion is simply not about belief? Quakerism, for example,  advises us to “remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.” But is it, in fact, possible for a religious person consistently to sustain this religious non-cognitivism?

(2) If religion turns its back on the notion of religious beliefs, can it still maintain a distinctive territory for itself, or does it simply become a part of art and literature? If we contemplate God without asserting his existence, and derive very important lessons from the contemplation, what – if anything – makes this different from contemplating, say, Achilles, or Hamlet, or Dorothea Brooke?

(3) A version of religion which denied the existence of God, and of every single other supernatural phenomenon, would be a very profoundly revisionist one. It might be one that almost every single religious practitioner rejected. Is such extreme religious innovation coherent? Or does religion have to be defined in terms of (certain very general) widely shared features of people’s actual religious practice?

Perhaps these questions seem unmotivated: if one rejects religious belief, why struggle to find common ground with religion? That might very well be a good question. But the extremity of the current antipathy between atheism and faith seems to call for an exploration of different, happier and more mutually enriching forms of interaction between them.  So I’d be grateful for any comments that considered the three questions above. If John Gray and Keats are right, and religion is, not about belief but about “being in uncertainty,” are those questions the right ones for the project of making sense of religion so-conceived? How could they be better formulated? What further questions are there for that project? What direction might the answers take?

 

St Peter’s toes

This summer I visited Rome for the first time. Like most visitors to the city I was keen to anchor my diffuse knowledge of ancient Rome by actually seeing the actual, real remains of the old city. I wanted a direct encounter that book learning could not give me. But as I wandered around the Colosseum and the imperial fora I was disappointed. Although the ruins were so stunningly numerous and rich, so generous in the detail they provided to the onlooker, I didn’t (of course!) find the real ancient Rome there. It seemed to me that it was more convincingly present in books that I had read. And indeed it seemed that “the real Rome” was doomed to be always elsewhere: when I am reading about it, I can imagine it lurking in fallen buildings, and when I finally get to see the fallen buildings, it runs coquettishly away back into the books.  Freud reports a feeling of “derealisation” on seeing the Acropolis, and although he gives his own very characteristic Freudian explanation for this, invoking his personal biography, I suspect that his feeling was very much like mine, and that the kind of disappointment I felt is not at all uncommon.

My disappointment was inevitable because my desire to encounter “the real thing” was inchoate and absurd. Apart from anything else, I was making the physical a kind of talisman for the real. I wanted a broken marble column to present the reality of a lost civilisation to me with an immediacy that a sentence from Pliny, say, can make us yearn for but cannot itself supply. That is a lot to expect from stone.

However ill-defined it might be, this quest for “the real” is pervasive. Tourists are notorious for it. At its most discreditable, it is the quest for the real, authentic culture and traditions of a region, a demand which is profitably supplied by the provision of ersatz, commercially generated resemblances.  But that particular anthropological quest is just one example of something more generic. What we are often trying to get hold of when we travel is “the real” itself. This imperative is made clear when we see tourists crowding around, say, Michelangelo’s Pieta, which can be barely glimpsed beyond its barriers and behind its bulletproof glass. I assume that excellent reproductions afford much better opportunities to explore it. But we want the real thing. The ancient Colosseum, too, can perhaps be better glimpsed in the CGI reconstructions of it that graced the film Gladiator. But we want the real thing.

How do we feel when we confront all this actuality? We are often frustrated. Looking is not enough. We want to have some satisfyingly full experience of the object in question. One of the things we want is to understand it, and looking at just a few of the synonyms for understanding gives a vivid insight into our anxious appetite for the real. To understand something is to comprehend it, and  the archaic meaning of “comprehend,” – “to take together, to unite; include; seize” – meshes nicely with modern idioms: when looking at something with understanding, we “absorb” it; we “take it in.” We want to have it within us. Tourists taking photograph after photograph seem to be anxiously seeking and failing to reassure themselves that they have absorbed into themselves and now truly possess some iconic bit of reality. Just looking thoughtfully at an object has not given them what they need, so they apprehend it in a purely mechanical way, perhaps with some hope that future looking, at the acquired image, will provide the assimilation that has thus far eluded them.

I didn’t bring a camera on holiday with me, so my own attempts to master a sense of separation from the real involved touching. Where signs did not forbid it, I put my hands on things of beauty or interest that I saw in an attempt to “grasp” them – to experience them more fully, to register my encounter with them more securely.

And that brings me to St Peter’s toes. In St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, there is a bronze statue of St Peter, at least 700 years old, possibly much older. He is shown giving a blessing and holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Several of his toes have been worn to flatness by pilgrims over the centuries touching (and kissing) the statue. Pilgrims were the tourists of their day and they are numerous among today’s tourists in Rome. It is interesting to consider the possibility that pilgrims and (other) tourists have a motivation in common. Both groups are seeking a satisfying encounter with “the real.” You could argue that pilgrims are lucky, because they have a relatively clear idea of what this yearned-for absolute is: it is God, conceived as (something like) a universally underlying entity, from whom all particular existences are emanations. And pilgrims have a rich and beautiful set of images and stories that help them to conceptualise an encounter with it. The loss of innocence at the Fall begins our human career as exiles from the presence of the absolute; Christ’s exclamation “Wherefore hast thou deserted me?” is its tragic culmination, and his crucifixion is the means to its transcendence by all of us. The keys held by the bronze St Peter symbolise the possibility of a successful readmission to  the presence of the absolute. When pilgrims touch St Peter’s toes they know what they want: they want him to endorse them and help them in their quest for entry.

Now, regardless of whether it is true or false, that Christian story (of a separation from God and of striving for a redemption that brings a new unity with God) seems to map onto a form of human yearning, a sense of exile and incompleteness that is in some sense prior to religion and can be experienced in a secular fashion. If the Christian story is false (and there is no God, no separation from him, and no reunification either), then pervasive belief in that story cannot be explained by reference to it’s being true, and might well instead be explained in terms of this prior human yearning and sense of exile or separation.

The most plausible explanation for this prior-to-religious sense of a fundamental separation that must be overcome is likely to be a psychological one. But there is one particular manifestation of a secular “yearning for the real” that probably has at least a degree of autonomy from psychological causes. It is our interest in philosophy. Speaking naively, the project of philosophy is to characterise the real, and in particular to give an account of reality that succeeds in overcoming the big mystery that our first forays into philosophy generate: namely, the mystery of how it is that we can have any knowledge of reality at all.

Those first, naive, forays into philosophy occur very naturally to us all, usually in childhood. How do I know if there is anything there at all, really? Am I the only mind? Do you see the same as me when you see something you call “yellow” or feel the same as I do when you feel something you call “pain”? These are intuitively compelling questions that lead us into an equally intuitive and compelling naive philosophical scepticism. As soon as we ask these questions we are cast into a kind of exile from the reality that we had previously been immersed in. Our confidence that we are apprehending reality is shaken. The task of philosophy then becomes the laborious business of rebuilding that confidence, overcoming exile, reuniting us with the real.

It does this either like St Peter by supplying keys of various elaborate sorts that allow passage between our humble consciousnesses and a transcendent reality, or (perhaps more respectably) by providing a critique of the naive questions (together with their naive answers) that prompted our scepticism in the first place. Wittgenstein offers such a critique. When he says that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” he is referring to the fact that just as pilgrims and tourists, on their holy days and holidays, travel far afield to engineer an encounter with the real, philosophers (i.e. all of us, as soon as we ask those first naive questions) take language out of its home territory on a trip of a lifetime which is aimed at finding reality but in fact just problematises it in a way that generates the need for the kind of “therapeutic” philosophy that Wittgenstein practices, which largely involves taking language back home again.

Both religion and philosophy offer us ways of conceptualising and seeking to resolve a profound sense of exile or separation from reality, one that we also seek, rather blindly, to resolve in our daily life  (including, in my case at least, when we travel as tourists). Whatever psychological causes there are for this sense of exile are supplemented by the genuine intellectual concerns that give rise to philosophy. Historically, religion has served both to soothe the psychological sources of perceived exile and to address intellectual concerns about the nature of reality and the place of our consciousness within it. Over the centuries, those intellectual concerns have been inherited by philosophy. But while philosophy is the place to look for answers, religion continues to give us a rich mythology of our quest to apprehend the real. And if the real seems to remain beyond our grasp no matter how hard we study, or how many photographs we take, or how many stones we touch, the Christian story and all of its rich imagery at least gives us the consolation of making our exile a thing of great beauty.

Church & State II: Discrimination

English: Schopfheim: Catholic Church Deutsch: ...

In the United States, the American’s with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on their disabilities. Unless, apparently, the institution doing the discrimination is a church.

A disabled woman who was teaching at a religious school was fired and filed a claim under this act. The rather clever reply by the lawyers was to rely on the ministerial exception clause.

This clause was originally intended to grant religious groups the liberty to discriminate in their hiring (and firing) practices so as to allow them to act in accord with the doctrines of their faith.  To use the obvious example, the Catholic Church is allowed an exemption to practice gender discrimination based on its doctrine that only men can be priests.

On the face of it, it seems blindingly obvious that this exception was not intended to allow religious groups to simply fire people with impunity in regards to the anti-discrimination laws. While the application of the law is certainly a matter of interest, what I find more interesting is the exception itself.

On the one hand, this exception does have a certain appeal. After all, history shows that laws can be used to oppress or otherwise mistreat religious groups and one way to afford protection for religious freedom is to provide such “escape mechanisms” in laws that might be misused. Given that freedom of belief and freedom from oppression seem to be legitimate and worthwhile freedoms, this sort of exception has some merit.

On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that the mere fact that something is a religious belief should not be grounds for allowing an exception to the general law. In the case of this specific law, if churches can simply apply the exception when they fire people, churches would be effectively immune to anti-discrimination laws. This would allow them the freedom to engage in actions that seem to clearly be immoral (such as firing people on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other quality) and otherwise illegal merely because they are religious groups.

It might be countered that religious groups must have the liberty to hire and fire as they wish, otherwise religious freedom is in danger.  However, handing religious groups a license to discriminate hardly seems to be a necessary step in preserving religious liberty and, as such, this sort of broad exception seems to be morally unjustified.

There is also the obvious concern that while the right to religious freedom is worth considering, there are other rights as well. In the case of hiring and firing, it would seem that people have the moral (and legal) right not to be discriminated against and it does not seem obvious that the right to religious freedom should simply trump other rights.

For example, suppose a devout group of Thugee established a church of Kali in the United States and argued that religious freedom gave them the right to be exempt from the laws forbidding murder and theft. This, obviously enough, would be regarded as absurd. After all, the right not to be robbed and murdered outweighs the right of religious freedom.

As another example, suppose that a religious group that practiced polygamy claimed an exception based on religious views. This would, obviously enough, be denied. In fact, polygamy is illegal (although apparently sometimes tolerated). As such, religious freedom would once again not trump the law.

As a third example, suppose that a religious group wanted to hire or fire people in ways that violated  anti-discrimination laws. This, oddly enough, seems to be okay. However, the obvious question must be asked: why should religious groups be given an exception here? The answer seems to be that they should not, unless we wish to allow them the other exceptions.

Another point of concern is, obviously enough, why religious groups should get such exceptions. After all, there are other groups that hold discriminatory views (racist groups, for example) and it would seem to be, well, discrimination not to allow these groups to discriminate based on their beliefs. After all, these people are no doubt as sincere and devoted in their beliefs as religious folk and it seems rather difficult to prove that their is a magical something about religious beliefs that entitle religious groups to special exemptions that are denied to other groups.

Of course, if a religious group could prove that they have got it right when it comes to their desired exemptions, then that would be another matter. For example, if Catholics could prove that just as only women can biologically be mothers only men can be metaphysically priests, then they would be justly exempt from the law regarding gender discrimination in the case of priests.

Doing this should be easy enough. When a religious group claims a special exemption, all that needs to be done is for their deity to show up and sign the appropriate form after establishing his/her/its divine identity. For the religious groups who have the true view, this should present no problem. Naturally, groups whose deity fails to make an appearance (or that fails to send a suitably divine or infernal non-human agent, such as an angel) must be regarded as having gotten things wrong and thus would not be entitled to an exception. After all, a group that cannot prove that its  exemption from the law is justified should not be allowed that exemption. Obviously, referring to made up beliefs does not count as justification.

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Religion for Atheists: An Interview With Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton, co-founder of London’s School of Life and author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has been kind enough to provide an interview for Talking Philosophy about his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Readers are invited to share their thoughts on Atheism 2.0. and what we might usefully take from religion.

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You were brought up as an atheist – could you describe your earlier views on religion and how you came to have a more positive view of religion and religious practices?

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour is more easily overlooked – in other words, that evil becomes less incongruous.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what may be missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely.

In your book you write: ‘God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inacurracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes. ‘ What are those urgent issues?

I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organisational forms, and in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.

The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too: this was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet modern education denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control though to my mind, we are far more desperate than the modern education system recognises.

In a recent review of your book Terry Eagleton wrote that:  “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. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.”

What do you make of this criticism?

My book occupies a curious middle-ground which is easy to shoot at from two sides. The very religious like Eagleton may take offence at the brusque, selective and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. But I disagree. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the after-life? For someone devoid of religious belief, it is no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favourite writers from across the canon.

Atheists of the militant kind could also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha’s identity as a reincarnated rabbit – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.

To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerised by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs.

Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

Update: You can read Alain de Botton’s “Secular Society’s Sacraments” and a response to critics in TPM’s online essays. Responses to those pieces are most welcome here.

Keith Ward & The Jerry Coyne Challenge

Readers of Talking Philosophy will be aware that recent mention has been made of philosopher Keith Ward, a Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, who Russell Blackford thinks ‘goes badly wrong’ when he ‘talks about the limits of science’ in a recent article.

Although Russell is clearly in a different camp to Ward, he does share the latter’s rejection of “the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) …. according to which, religion and science, properly construed, have separate [but non-exhaustive] epistemic territories or areas of authority”. As Ward says: “Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould‘s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.” Ward further argues that “a huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgement. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.“

It is not, perhaps, entirely surprising that an article titled Religion answers the factual questions science neglects did not receive a warm welcome over at New Atheist biologist, Jerry Coyne’s place. Running with the headline “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions”, Coyne objects strongly to what he views as Ward’s overly narrow conception of science. There is always argument about what ‘science’ ‘means’ in cases like the ones Ward mentions, says Coyne: “When trying to deal with factual claims about the universe, I would use the definition of ‘science’ as ‘a combination of empirical investigation and reason.'” Coyne concedes that “not all facts are ‘scientific facts’ in the sense that a) they’re investigated by scientists, b) they’re studied in the laboratory c) there has to be ‘repeatability’ in the scientific sense.” But, he asserts “all ‘facts’ must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified…. To say that human history is ‘not scientifically tractable’ is just about as dumb as saying that evolutionary history is not scientifically tractable…. This kind of denigration of ‘science’—with science defined so narrowly that it comprises only ‘the things that laboratory scientists do’—takes place for only one reason: to justify religion… Ward’s line of analysis is so palpably weak that I’m surprised anybody would accept it…I do not intend to take issue with any of Coyne’s substantial criticisms here. Readers, hopefully will give due consideration to all the current and forthcoming arguments and make up their own minds. What did pique my interest, and prompt this modest piece of reportage, was the manner in which Coyne closed his posting:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

This is indeed an interesting challenge. It seems a difficult one to meet and I doubt anybody could meet it to Dr Coyne’s satisfaction. It is, after all, very much a question of definition. [Indeed as Bob Lane suggests: Coyne’s challenge might appear circular: 'a fact is a condition that obtains and is verifiable empirically – now give an example of a fact that is not'.] In any case, I can offer up no answer of my own. I did attempt to solicit responses. One opined: “That human agents have intrinsic moral worth and should be treated alike in the same situations regardless of sex, religious convictions, and social status.” And from Jeremy Stangroom there was perhaps the more promising suggestion, “that there is something that it is like to be a bat/person”. He also suggested that Dr Coyne really ought to think about Mary’s (Black and White) Room, and that does sound a promising line of inquiry. In any case, if anybody reading feels they can meet The Jerry Coyne Challenge I’d be delighted to hear from you.

As an intellectual exercise it is interesting, but The Jerry Coyne Challenge is interesting for another reason. And that is because it has not really been set as a challenge at all. Reading Dr Coyne’s post, you won’t find anything along the lines of “‘I await Ward’s response with interest” or “Ward has yet to take up my invitation to reply”. I did post a comment asking “Did you email and ask him? It’s just I don’t imagine he reads your blog.” But I never did get a response. I feel that if you actually want to issue a challenge to someone you do rather need to let the other party know. That rather is the point. So I dropped Keith Ward a note and, though he’d never heard of Dr Coyne or his blog, he was perfectly happy to offer a response to ‘the challenge’.  And I’m perfectly happy to print it here. I don’t offer up Professor Ward’s reply up with the claim that it is a resounding refutation of all Dr Coyne’s criticisms. I make no claims for it at all, except that it is philosophically literate and intellectually honest. So here it is, Professor Ward’s unsought reply:

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I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

The possible response that someone could have verified it if they had been there and seen it is one that A. J. Ayer rightly rejected as allowing a similar sort of claim about (e.g.) the resurrection of Jesus. When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.

Jerry Coyne and I seem to have different views about this, but neither of us have access to direct empirical evidence. We both think some empirical claims are relevant to our assessment of such claims. But as Ayer said, the concept of “relevance” is so vague that it does not settle any real argument.



“There it is.” concludes Ward: “It is interesting (and slightly depressing) that readers can exaggerate claims beyond any reasonable limits, so that they become ‘straw men’, easily demolished. Closer attention to exactly what is said, and to the long philosophical series of debates about verification – on which subject Ayer wholly recanted his famous espousal of the verification principle – might prevent such an ‘easy’ way with philosophical questions which are both profound and difficult.”

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Post re-edited 06/01/12

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of God

Why should anyone bother about metaphysical questions? Spending time discussing them may seem speculative and inconsequential. However, while all metaphysical reasoning is speculative, it is far from inconsequential. Taking up a metaphysical stance is both unavoidable and has profound consequences for human life. To take the case of God, there are practical consequences for believers, atheists, agnostics and even those who are indifferent to the whole question of God’s existence. Practical metaphysics brings to our awareness both the nature of metaphysical thinking and the consequences that accompany and flow from it.

The first principle of practical metaphysics is that metaphysical propositions are never conclusively proved. The second is that human beings are obliged to believe at least some metaphysical propositions. The third is that belief in some unavoidable metaphysical propositions bring practical consequences. Metaphysical beliefs come with a price tag, and we do well to be aware of this in adopting one metaphysical stance or another.

A perfect example is the case of God. Does God exist? Can we prove or otherwise know that God exists? Can we know God’s nature? Is God a Supreme Being or Beyond Being? These are weighty questions, and they have been answered at length many times. Different proofs or disproofs have been been offered. Various approaches have arisen in history, been swept away by new arguments, only to resurface later in other forms. For example, Aristotle’s Argument from Design to the operation of an Unmoved Mover has morphed many times over the centuries, with Creationism and Intelligent Design as its latest versions. The ontological argument for God’s existence has also resurfaced since it was laid out by St. Anselm in the 11th Century, particularly by Descartes and Leibniz.

Old metaphysical theories are never totally defeated. Their defenders simply die out. Once people forget that a metaphysical theory has been exploded by argument, it creeps back again, for it is always possible to hold any metaphysical theory, no matter how absurd it may seem to some. For example, I might persist in the belief that I exist in the Matrix, despite the fact that I have no empirical evidence for it, nor does any empirical experience make the hypothesis self-contradictory.

The case of God is perhaps the most urgent issue in practical metaphysics, for the simple reason that religious beliefs have the widest ranging practical implications. Such beliefs involve many aspects of life, including emotional responses and moral judgments. The stance of ‘Righteousness”, for example, is a metaphysical stance for it is founded on the Rock of the Lord. Living up to Divine Commandments is an exercise in practical metaphysics. The same can be said of Kierkegaard’s formula of faith in God: resting transparently in the power that supports you. This idea of resting in God is a powerful one. Life is difficult, troubles mount, and the end is pathetic, if not tragic. It gets to be too much for an individual to bear. What a relief to give up one’s troubles to God.

There is a kind of psychic economy here. I give up my burdens to God, and God buoys me up. This is a widely reported experience. There are many things that are out of an individual’s control. Misfortune is always a possibility, no matter how well you manage what is within your power. It is a real comfort to think that there is a benign power loving and caring for each of us. You may be cut off from the love of family and friends, because they die, while you continue to live a bit longer, but you cannot be cut off from the love of a Divine Father who cares for you as of a child. God plays the role of provider and sustainer, and this metaphysical belief attracts many people. It does so, I would contend, precisely because of the practical benefits that the belief in things unseen brings to the imagination of the confessed believer.

William James adopts this sort of approach in his “Varieties of Religious Experience.” He is not so much interested in logically proving God’s existence as in looking at how human beings describe their religious experiences. He distinguishes between ‘healthy souls’ and ‘sick souls’. So far I have been talking about the practical consequences of religious belief for the ‘healthy’ soul. The healthy soul concentrates on God’s goodness, love, forgiveness and care for us. We have faith that all things will be well in the end. The ‘sick’ soul concentrates more on human sinfulness, particularly its own. Here is Jonathan Edwards’ terrible God who holds us like spiders over the gaping pit of Hell. A perfect example of a sick soul is Stylites, the ascetic spiritual gymnast, who lived atop a pillar in the desert for twenty years to do penance for sins of the flesh. The practical consequences for the body are clear. The ascetic shows disdain for the body and welcomes its destruction in the name of a higher reality. Similarly, those for whom heaven and hell loom large in a post-terrestrial existence, will see life, not as a passing dream, but as a drama that is played out for eternal stakes in the life of each individual.

These are the sort of practical consequences that arise from having beliefs about God. Practical metaphysics helps us to explore them. For example, there are also practical consequences in believing that there is no God, that the existence of God is always in doubt, or that the whole question of God’s existence is nothing to us one way or the other. All these positions have their costs and their benefits. With the last three, one must forgo Divine comfort, a supernatural afterlife, and the belief that everything will come right in the end. On the positive side, non-believers are not troubled by thoughts of hell, the last judgment, or being observed by heavenly scribes. From this perspective, life is a dream, and nothing lasts forever. Living one’s life in either of these ways is, or can be revealed to be, a choice or stance in life that has no other foundation than the metaphysical commitments of the individual.

TPM Contest: Who Said This? About Whom? No. 2

Right, here’s a quiz. I’ll be pretty impressed if people get this right without cheating. You’re not allowed to cheat, by the way. That would be wrong. And you’ll get a severe telling off.

I want to know who said this – and about whom it was said. I expect people to be able to identify the about whom pretty quickly. But the identity of the person who said it will be more difficult, I reckon. Obviously it won’t be more difficult if you Google it, but you won’t do that, because what’s the point, right – and anyway there’s the whole severe telling off thing to worry about. Here’s a clue. The person who wrote this had a famous son.

Others again debated – Whether the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in the shape of a serpent, or a dove, or a man, or of a woman? Did he seem to be young or old? In what dress was he? Was his garment white or of two colours? Was his linen clean or foul? Did he appear in the morning, noon, or evening? What was the colour of the Virgin Mary’s hair? Was she acquainted with the mechanic and liberal arts? Had she a thorough knowledge of the Book of Sentences, and all it contains?… But these are only trifling matters: they also agitated, Whether when during her conception the Virgin was seated, Christ too was seated; and whether when she lay down, Christ also lay down?

That’s it.

(You see this is what happens when one finds religion: one becomes interested in what people have previously said about Christ and the Holy Mother…)

ps., The judge’s decision is final. No correspondence will be entered into. Please allow 28 days for the non-delivery of your non-prize.

The Obsession

Balboa setting his war dogs upon Indian practi...
Image via Wikipedia

While it might be an exaggeration to say that some story involving the matter of homosexuality appears in the American news everyday, it certainly seems to be a popular theme. The usual pattern is that someone will make a remark that is offensive to homosexuals and this will open the floodgates for responses and commentary. Obviously, I am guilty of being caught up in the flood. Mainly I am curious about what seems to be an obsession with the subject.

The easy and obvious answer is that being critical of homosexuality is an easy way for politicians on the right to establish their conservative bona fides. Of course, this sometimes takes a problematic turn for some allegedly anti-gay folks when there is an unfortunate boner find.  On the left, leaping to criticize such remarks is an easy way to polish those liberal bona fides. As such, people obsess about this matter because it is an easy way to score…political points, that is.

Another obvious reason is that it is not uncommon for religious folk to regard homosexuality as  sin, hence the grounds for concern. However, religious texts like the bible are chock full of sins that people are not very concerned about (such as usury and eating unclean foods). As such, the religious answer only pushes the question back since it is sensible to ask why religious folk are often so very concerned about homosexuality. After all, it is not even in the top ten list of what to do/not do (unless one is engaging in adultery).

The easy and not very helpful answer is that people are very interested in sex in general and hence they would be very interested in and critical of homosexuality. Perhaps this arises from curiosity that transforms to guilt and then anger (“I wonder what that would be like…gosh, I feel wicked for thinking that…damn fags!”) in some cases. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence in one’s own sexuality. Or perhaps it is simply a classic case of certain people being afraid of what is different from what they do.

Some people do claim that they are concerned because it is an important moral issue: either it is a wicked thing that must be fought to protect God, Country and The Children or it is a matter of freedom that must be allowed in a free society. Now, if homosexuality is an evil, it hardly seems to be the greatest of evils and it would seem that moral crusaders could better spend their energy addressing matters for more dire and damaging. The other side does seem to have a better case given how homosexuals are often treated and what they are often denied, namely equality.

In my own case, I regard homosexuality as morally neutral: neither good, nor bad. I do believe that people should be free to chose their sexual partners within the limits of informed consent. This requires that those involved be capable of understanding the matter and that they are free from coercion and compulsion. This nicely handles the stock claims that tolerating homosexuality means tolerating bestiality, pedophilia, rape and so on. Obviously enough, animals and children cannot give informed consent. In the case of rape there is, by definition, no consent. Hence, the slippery slope does not even get sliding here.

At this point someone will no doubt be thinking about necrophilia. No, not about committing it but about the claim that tolerating homosexuality entails tolerating necrophilia. The easy way out of this “criticism” is that tolerating homosexuality between consenting parties no more entails tolerating necrophilia than does tolerating people of different faiths or nationalities getting married. At the very least, the burden of proof lies on those who would make such a claim. Also, a corpse cannot give consent.

Naturally, it might be replied that sex toys cannot give consent either, but it would seem acceptable for people to have sex with them. After all, they are just objects so consent does not enter into the matter. So, one might argue, if we are tolerant about homosexuality, then we must tolerate necrophilia since corpses would be functioning as sexual objects. The obvious problem with this argument is that it would not be that tolerance of homosexuality entails tolerance of necrophilia. Rather, it is that tolerance of sex toys would somehow entail tolerance of necrophilia, which certainly does not seem to follow. After all, there is an important moral distinction between a dead person and a mere object.

I’ll close with a question: how concerned should people be about homosexuality?

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