Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Completely Unfunny Posting

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.




Phil Masters writes: Andrew recognises that the question of "Who is going to decide what's a reasonable compromise?" is difficult, but (being British) gets around this by making jokes about it.


So, three clergymen of different faiths are discussing the problem of evangelism. They agree that converting human beings to their respective credo is far too easy, and, by way of a challenge, they are going to preach to the animals, after the fashion of St Francis of Assisi. First, the Catholic goes out into the forest. He comes back terrible claw-marks on his face. "Sure, and that was a mighty difficult thing," he says."The first animal I met was a wild bear, to be sure, to be sure, and when I started to talk to it about the true faith, it jumped on me and started to maul me, so he did, to be sure." Did I mention that he was an Italian? "So I prayed to the blessed Virgin and all the saints not excluding Saint Theresa, and sure, the bear came and laid his head in my lap. We had a little talk, and he made an oral confession of his sin, and he has asked for instruction in the catholic faith." Next, it is the turn of the Baptist. He too goes into the forest, and he comes back with claw marks on his face, blood on his shirt, and tooth marks on his right arm. "Hallelujah!" he explains "Praise the Lord! He led me also unto a wild bear, and when I started to explain the doctrine of total depravity and the need for repentance unto the Lord, it leapt on me and started to maul me. But I laid my hands on its head, and ordered the spirit of disobedience to leave it. And the bear was convicted of sin there and then, and when it had finished speaking in tongues, we had an all night prayer meeting, and it is going to be baptised at the gospel meeting next Sunday." So finally the Rabbi goes out into the forest, only he doesn't come back at all. The other two wait and wait, and eventually they get a call from the hospital. They rush right over, and find the Rabbi with his leg in a cast, claw marks all over his face, plugged into a drip and a heart monitor. When he sees the Pastor and the Priest he opens one eye and murmurs "Have you ever tried circumcising one of those beasties?"


Which is as much as to say, being interpreted, sorry for attempting to inject levity into the subject of multi-cultural education in a post nine one one world. Because obviously, the readers of this website, all seventeen of them (well, eighteen if you count Eric; but I always feel he looketh and looketh and undestandeth not) come here primarily because of the value of my gnomic wisdom and not at all because they find it amusing. God knows, there are few enough places to read about religion and politics on the web.



Is gnomic wisdom the sort of wisdom that spends all day in the garden with a fishing rod in its hand, do you think? Or is it just very small wisdom? I may be straying from the point. The Archdruid thinks that there should be more laughter during Lent, apparently.


At any rate, I shall try to be as unfunny as possible.


"Andrew also slips into the complacent assumption that children have religions and beliefs of their own. I'm not sure that this is true, for practical purposes; at the risk of sounding D*wk*ns**n, parents have religions and beliefs, which they tend to want schools to inculcate. And there has to come a point where schools, being run primarily for the good of the children and partly for the good of society, may have to say "No, we won't help you brainwash your offspring, and we won't help you shield your offspring from contrary opinions to yours".


I am seriously – and not at all jokingly or complacently – considering announcing that if anyone uses the D-word, I shall consider all threads in this forum to have been Godwinned. Unless and until I get around to actually writing a review of his ruddy book, but I guess in fairness I'd have to read it first. (It's on my Amazon wish-list if anyone thinks this would add to measurably to the sum of human merriment.)


I also wonder, in an unfunny and not at all complacent way, whether the otherwise inexplicable lack of outrage that the fascist Daily Express engenders is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (Have I got that right? "My father's son" is me, so if "That man's father" is "my father's son" then that man's father is me so that man is my son. But it doesn't work if the barber is a woman. I'm wandering again.) So, for example, members of the Blairite junta may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are stirring up hatred towards and fear of Muslims, and the more people hate and fear Muslims, the easier it will be for us to bring in identity cards, increase surveillance, go to war with Iran, abolish Magna Carta, etc." And equally, members of the Dawkinsite cabal may say "We can't help feeling a little sympathy for the fascist Daily Express. After all, they are slagging off god botherers."


If I've understood this properly, then I have a large number of tiny little midichlorians in my head; and when I think I'm expressing an opinion or a point of view, what is actually happening is the little midichlorians are telling me what to think. (Or maybe there is no actual "me" at all; just a sort of sock puppet that the midichlorians live in. I seem to think that Descartes addressed this kind of problem as well, but presumably, what I mistook for the cogito is actually the midichlorians whispering sweet nothings to me.) I realise it's nothing personal: everyone is controlled by their midichlorians. Except Richard Dawkins, oddly.


I wasn't going to mention this -- the suspicion that some people may tolerate anti-Muslim writing because Islam is a religion and they don't like religions -- but I felt that Phil's use of the term "brainwashing" implies that we aren't using the Queensbury rules any more. "You gave yourself away very carelessly just then," as Frodo said to Gollum. Come to think of it, the "Noldor" were originally called "Gnomes", so perhaps it means "Elvish wisdom"?


Some people – the Archbishop of York, for example – have suspected for a while that people who are reluctant to accommodate Muslims in state schools have a hidden agenda: they would really like to use the state education system to further their agenda of suppressing the open expression of religion of any kind, which is presumably the first part of pincer movement with a view to suppressing religion altogether. I don't say that Phil has gone this far. I merely point out that there is an interesting slippage from "I would like my child to be excused from cross-country runs, because cross-country runs are taboo in my religion" to "Parents want schools to inculcate their beliefs" and from "We will not necessarily accommodate your religious prohibitions under all circumstances: it depends on on how important the "no cross-country" taboo is to members of the First Church of Christ, Smoker, and how essential cross-country runs are to our educational objectives" to "Schools are run for the good of society and won't help parents brainwash their children."


Oh, and the buried assumption that "run for the benefit of the child" and "inculcating their parents religious beliefs" are necessarily in conflict.

We could, at this point, discuss whether "sport" is in fact an essential part of "education"; and even if it is, whether "sport" necessarily involves taking group showers; and even if it does, whether gym teachers have to be recruited only from among the paedophile community. But we aren't going to.


Dawkins major fallacy – one of Dawkins major fallacies – one of Dawkins many major fallacies – is his belief that "religion" is primarily an opinion; indeed, that it is primarily an opinion about the process by which different species arose on earth. If this were correct, then it would follow that no-one under the age of, say, nine and three-quarters could have an informed and valid opinion, and therefore that it is meaningless to talk about a "Christian Child", a "Darwinist Child" or a "Jewish Child." A child isn't quite a person in the required sense, but more a sort of squidgy pool of potential personhood: an hommlette as Lacan so memorably put it. (That's a French joke, and not funny, so it doesn't count.) The specifics I am unclear about: do we give children no information about life on earth, or indeed Life on Earth before their tenth birthdays, and then give them unbiased accounts of Darwinism and Young Earth Creationism, let them make up their own minds, and then ship them off to the Granny Goodness Home For Philosopher Kings? Or is the idea that if you meticulously shield them from the midichlorians they will spontaneously become Darwinists without anyone needing to teach them? (Come to think of it Pascal worked out Euclid from first principles in his bedroom, having been been banned from studying geometry by his father for presumably good reasons, but then Pascal was infested with the mind virus and doesn't count.) I mean, I'm taking it as red that teaching young children about Darwinism --or indeed anything else-- would be a form of child abuse? I think I've wandered off the point again.


Five minutes of actual thought would demonstrate that we use terms like "Christian", and "Jewish" in a variety of different ways. "Jewish cooking" doesn't mean cooking which is descended from Abraham down the maternal line. "A Christian action" isn't necessarily one in accordance with the idea that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Christian art isn't necessarily art which has a tendency to facilitate the feeding of the sick, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of those in prison and which ever one I've forgotten. If I say "I think you should arrange your time table so that Muslim children can pray at Muslim prayer times", and "I think you should arrange your canteen so that there is something that Jewish children are allowed to eat"; then "Jewish child" is a shorter way of spelling "child who is being raised in accordance with Jewish traditions."



We could ask interesting philosophical questions about what it means for a small child to have "beliefs" of any kind. A child might say that she believed in Santa, and be very, very sad if she were not allowed to hang her stocking up (to the extent that taking the stocking away would constitute mental cruelty); but if you pressed her, she would probably not think that Santa has the same ontological qualities that Mummy and Daddy do. She might also have a belief that there is such a place as New York, even though her reasons for believing it may be philosophically weak. Road to Larissa and all that.



Even in an adult "being Jewish" or "being C of E" may be very important, but not actually imply the existence of a philosophical or theological opinion. One quite often meets people who say "No, I don't really believe that there is such a person as YHWH; but that doesn't mean that I'm going to allow any son of mine to have a foreskin." The archbishop of Canterbury appears to be in this category. (About God, I mean, not foreskins.)


We could have an interesting discussion about whether doctors ought to perform irreversible cosmetic surgery on young children even if their parents think it is very important. But we aren't going to.


In practical terms, we don't need to bring Nobdaddy or Galactus into the equation at all. I am, by conviction, a vegetarian. My five year old, by hypothesis, has no convictions one way or the other, although he has habits and expectations, and might be very, very sad if he though he was eating baa-lambs and moo-cows. I hand my child over to The State for part of each day: is it reasonable of me to say "I require that my son be given no meat, because that is my conviction and it will make him very very sad." I used to naively think that everyone thought the answer was "Yes, provided it isn't actually harming the kid or making it impossible for us to educate him." It appears that a reasonable body of opinion now thinks: "If you are going to live in England, you must live exclusively according to a English customs, which have always included the consumption of large ammounts of roast beef." (Well, they have.) And just possibly a less reasonable body which says "Provided you dislike meat in a secular way, then we are prepared to give your baby lentil stew; but if you think that a Supreme Being agrees with your opinions, then we are giving the brat turkey twizzlers."


Granted, some people think that any kind of religious belief whatsoever is "harming" children; and any kind of religious belief whatsoever makes education impossible. I don't propose to have the argument all over again. I merely point out that actively using schools as tool to suppress religious belief is just as much an ideological decision as using them to promote a particular religion and, in my view, wrong for the same reasons. Perhaps ideologically neutral schools are, in fact, impossible and "state education" necessarily implies "the abolition of the church." But I haven't heard anyone making this case.



(NOTE: To say that "suppressing religious" and "promoting religious" are both ideological positions is not the same as saying "atheism is a faith position". The latter is a rhetorical device sometimes used by Christians; very entertaining if you like watching secularists foam at the mouth with rage, but not actually true.)


Actually, the difficult question isn't "What if the children don't have opinions and beliefs?" but "What if they do?" What if the parent wants the child to be given veggie food, but the kid wants beefburgers? What if the parents have a philosophical objection to corporal punishment but the kid would just as soon be slapped and get it over with? How does a child with a relatively limited vocabularly put his ideological opinion across to adults in authority? Would we pay any attention to him if he did? Should we?


"There's also the problem that accommodating one group's rules and beliefs could be offensive or harmful to another, in a very practical way. For example, we're lucky in Britain in that - I think - most people recognise that creationism is a bit silly, and would say that Young Earth creationism is goofy to the point of justifying vulgar abuse. However, there are places in the rest of the world where people take these things seriously, and not only claim the right to withdraw their sprogs from lessons in which Darwin is mentioned (which is close enough to abuse in my book), but want creationism taught in schools. Whereas, if I had children, I'd regard any school which so much as mentioned the bloody idea in science classes as flatly unacceptable for them. That makes it impossible for any school to act in a way that's acceptable to both sets of people; one lot regards science lessons without creationism as immoral, and one lot has the exact opposite position. And merely permitting parents to withdraw their offspring from specific science lessons isn't going to work, because (a) it generates problems about the nature of truth, and more importantly (b) it generates problems when exams come around with questions about what was taught during the previous term."


I don't see what you've done here except demonstrate that as well as hard cases, there are very easy ones. "On non-essential matters, parents have a right to have their religious beliefs respected. It is impossible to teach biology without teaching evolution. Therefore, the teaching of evolution is not a non-essential matter. Therefore, the religious opinions of parents are in this case irrelevant."


To summarize.


I have a position which involves the belief in non-subjective morality, a personal God, and the mythology of the Incarnation. I wish to encourage people to believe in that position, because I happen to think – oh dear I am beginning to sound like Tony – because I happen to think that it is true. But I have -- what many people seem to lack and some even find hard to conceive of -- a meta-position. My meta-position says says "Not everyone agrees with me; and I would sooner find ways of accommodating the people who don't agree with me than go for some kind of Hegelian absolutism where the person with the biggest stick decides what is true that week."



I also note that a lot of what we are talking about are not so much ideologies or beliefs but taboos, cultural practices, customs; traditions. I know that it can be very painful when someone makes me break one of my taboos. So I think we should be very, very careful about forcing other people to break theirs.



And the most important point is this. If we excuse religious kids from P.E lessons and let them keep their knickers on in the shower, it will really piss off all the P.E teachers. Which is surely the most important test for any educational policy?



But, of course, I'm infected with midichlorians so there is no reason to listen to anything I say.


You've been a wonderful audience. Thank you and good night.

31 comments:

Louise H said...

I'm completely confused about what it is we are allowed to be discussing now. Liked the joke though.

One brief thought.

Parent to teacher. "Please do not allow my daughter to go swimming as I do not want her to swallow water during Ramadan."

Parent to teacher. "Please do not allow my daughter to go into the school canteen with her friends as I do not want her to eat anything during daylight hours during Ramadan."

Parent to teacher. "Please do not allow my daughter to talk to boys during break-time as our religion considers this behaviour immoral."

Discuss.

And all the vegetarians I know with children let them eat meat as soon as they are old enough to choose what to eat. Which is one difference between a moral principle and a religious conviction.

SK said...

'Do not allow'? All Andrew has been talking about is 'please do not force my child to go swimming' and 'please do not force my child to eat meat' (for example by not providing a vegetarian alternative).

How do you jump from 'please do not force' to 'please do not allow'?

Andrew Stevens said...

And all the vegetarians I know with children let them eat meat as soon as they are old enough to choose what to eat. Which is one difference between a moral principle and a religious conviction.

When I reached the age of twelve or thirteen, my mother allowed me to drop out of confirmation classes and so I never got confirmed in my Congregational Church. Maybe this isn't saying much since Congregationalism, though descended from Puritanism, is now not much more than a social club (in New England anyway). However, my experience is not entirely atypical. I had friends who were Catholics and other religions who stopped going to church when they reached some reasonable age. I suspect that it depends on just how strong one's religious convictions actually are. Do you believe that your kid will go to Hell if he stops attending church?

Another objection I have to this analogy is simply that most vegetarians I meet, Mr. Rilstone probably excepted assuming he is a vegetarian for moral reasons, do not have moral principles in the sense that the Christian Mr. Rilstone and my atheist self believe in. They would instead say that vegetarianism is "true for them" and have no firm convictions on what other people ought to do. I also think you will find that people who belong to PETA, assuming they have children (usually not - for some reason, vegetarianism is highly correlated with a zero population growth ideology), do not allow meat in their houses, at the very least, and might very well excommunicate a child who started eating meat.

Your vegetarian friends may allow their children to eat meat, but they likely don't provide it in the house freezer as an option. If they do, they are probably not vegetarians for moral reasons at all, but for health or some other reason. I'm sure there are exceptions, of course. The human continuum of opinion is vast and incomprehensible.

Andrew Rilstone said...

F.Y.I: I am not in fact a vegetarian, and I do not in fact have a five year old daughter. I was using the rhertoical "I". I do have three very cute godchildren, though.

Phil Masters said...

At any rate, I shall try to be as unfunny as possible.

Shame. Being British, I was all set to carry on.

I also wonder, in an unfunny and not at all complacent way, whether the otherwise inexplicable lack of outrage that the fascist Daily Express engenders is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Partly, I suspect. I'm guessing that the bigger factor that the rest of us never actually look at the damned thing. Which is probably morally irresponsible of us, but is also better for our blood pressures.

But yes, life would be a lot simpler if nasty people only ever said things that the rest of us could completely and cheerfully disagree with. When I started reading the post that triggered all this, I thought (a) The Muslim Council are pushing it a bit there, frankly; (b) Ah, but that's not what Andrew's talking about here, is it? and (c) What are the odds that any discussion will wander off the subject of the Express?

If I've understood this properly, then I have a large number of tiny little midichlorians in my head; and when I think I'm expressing an opinion or a point of view, what is actually happening is the little midichlorians are telling me what to think. (Or maybe there is no actual "me" at all; just a sort of sock puppet that the midichlorians live in. I seem to think that Descartes addressed this kind of problem as well, but presumably, what I mistook for the cogito is actually the midichlorians whispering sweet nothings to me.) I realise it's nothing personal: everyone is controlled by their midichlorians. Except Richard Dawkins, oddly.

Ah, memetics. I think that someone once said that RD's biggest problem is his gift for metaphor (which is of course what makes him a brilliant popular science writer); like a lot of people, he gets captured by his own verbal imagery. And memetics may be the extreme case in point. It started out as a speculative idea at the end of a substantial (and interesting) book about biology, and gets taken up by a couple of other academics and a lot of geeks. (And winds up appearing in, among other places, an RPG setting which I get to write about. But that's beside the point.) Whether it's a very sound idea (and/or just an Anglo-Saxon version of structuralism with better jargon) rather gets lost by the wayside.

But yes, you're absolutely right to say that, if "memetics" means anything, then its enthusiasts have to accept that they are every bit as susceptible to memes as anyone else. In fact, the theory would seem to be that human minds are more or less nothing but a cluster of memes. Memes (if they "exist") aren't akin to viruses; they're akin to DNA. And as with DNA, there's no point in complaining about the fact that we're all their slaves.

On the other hand, anyone who wants to let any old DNA into their system is welcome to explain his open-mindedness to a disease virus.

I wasn't going to mention this -- the suspicion that some people may tolerate anti-Muslim writing because Islam is a religion and they don't like religions -- but I felt that Phil's use of the term "brainwashing" implies that we aren't using the Queensbury rules any more.

Ah... I was going to say "calm down", but this is really my fault for being insufficiently clear. When I used the term "brainwashing", I didn't particularly mean "propagating a religion"; I meant "propagating ideas by dubious methods such as those which specifically destroy the target's ability to contradict them". And for sure, not all religious teaching is brainwashing, and not all brainwashing is religious teaching, by any means.

Oh, and the buried assumption that "run for the benefit of the child" and "inculcating their parents religious beliefs" are necessarily in conflict.

Aren't necessarily. Sometimes are. Which is why all this is an issue.

We could, at this point, discuss whether "sport" is in fact an essential part of "education"; and even if it is, whether "sport" necessarily involves taking group showers; and even if it does, whether gym teachers have to be recruited only from among the paedophile community. But we aren't going to.

(Personally, I'd have been happy at the time if PE and sport had been completely excluded from my school's curriculum. In retrospect, I'd have been better off if the PE part had actually been designed for my benefit, as a way to help and encourage me to remain physically fitter throughout my life, rather than as a way to select those who could win the damn school some silverware while allowing the oiks to push the swots around. But maybe PE lessons are better designed these days. And anyway, I digress.)

Dawkins major fallacy – one of Dawkins major fallacies – one of Dawkins many major fallacies – is his belief that "religion" is primarily an opinion; indeed, that it is primarily an opinion about the process by which different species arose on earth.

Okay, so he's wrong, and "religion" is primarily a matter of cultural identity. However, (a) cultural identities can be bad things too (list of examples available on request), and (b) cultural identities more or less invariably end up encoding a bunch of factual opinions, and when those facts are contradicted, the culture has a problem and tends to turn nasty.

Arguably, since the Enlightenment, mainstream Christian culture has been tending to minimise its claims to authority on matters of fact. However, on that basis, the Enlightenment hasn't reached all of Christianity yet, let alone other religions.

(Anyway, equating Christianity to a cultural identity leaves people in some danger of, well, agreeing with the Daily Express, doesn't it?)

I don't see what you've done here except demonstrate that as well as hard cases, there are very easy ones. "On non-essential matters, parents have a right to have their religious beliefs respected. It is impossible to teach biology without teaching evolution. Therefore, the teaching of evolution is not a non-essential matter. Therefore, the religious opinions of parents are in this case irrelevant."

Ah, but this is only a very easy case to you and me and a few others. To someone who devoutly believes that Darwinism is a creation of the Devil, specifically intended to destroy the true faith, or simply that the idea of evolution promotes an amoral approach to life, and hence ought to be kept away from impressionable children, there's nothing easy about it; or rather, the easy and right decision is not to teach evolution.

Now, we can say that you, me, the government, and a few million other people think that's wrong, in an essential way that permits us to override parental wishes - but I thought that we were supposed to be thinking that the tyranny of the majority was a bad thing. And in cany case, there are places where the majority opinion on this point is far from certain.

If we excuse religious kids from P.E lessons and let them keep their knickers on in the shower, it will really piss off all the P.E teachers. Which is surely the most important test for any educational policy?

Absolutely.

Though maybe PE teachers have improved since my day...

SK said...

anyone who wants to let any old DNA into their system is welcome to explain his open-mindedness to a disease virus.

Surely 'anyone whose memes cause him to...'?

Louise H said...

How do you jump from 'please do not force' to 'please do not allow'?

When it comes to school children very easily. Because they aren't making choices most of the time.

Swimming lesson- does the teacher say "Who wants to go swimming today? Who would like to be excused on religious grounds?"

No, she says "Time for swimming, everyone. X, Y and Z, I have notes from your parents. Right, here's your alternative activity."

She's not interested in establishing their views about it, any more than she's interested in establishing that A, B and C don't want to go swimming because they think their legs are fat and hairy.

No note- swim. Note- don't swim. It's the way schools work.

Andrew Rilstone said...

No note- swim. Note- don't swim. It's the way schools work.

And that is, of course, the nub of my gist.

Andrew Stevens said...

F.Y.I: I am not in fact a vegetarian, and I do not in fact have a five year old daughter. I was using the rhertoical "I". I do have three very cute godchildren, though.

Ah, sorry, I misunderstood. You confused me because after stating you were a vegetarian by conviction, you then mentioned your five year-old "by hypothesis." Had you not included that phrase with the child, I would have known the whole thing was hypothetical since I've read your site enough to know you don't have children. By including it, I assumed the child was hypothetical and the vegetarianism was not. Mea culpa. Glad to hear about the godchildren, though. I hope they're doing well.

I would like to have a brief go at memetics. Richard Dawkins reminds me a great deal of Stephen Jay Gould, an American paleontologist who was also a celebrated Darwinian (now dead, alas). Gould, like Dawkins, was a great writer, a much greater writer than he was a scientist. In fact, Dawkins himself once wrote "if only Gould could think as clearly as he writes." Gould was celebrated, as a scientist, for the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Dawkins is one of its firm opponents, and rightly so. Gould's theory is probably false in any way in which it is interesting. Dawkins's career path has been nearly identical. As a writer and popularizer of science, Dawkins is right up there with Gould. He's one of the great ones. His celebrated theory however, memetics, is probably false in any way in which it is interesting. The idea that ideas "evolve" and that bad ideas (ideas that don't help us) die while good ideas survive is hardly original with Dawkins and is probably true. Dawkins's contribution was to analogize memes to genes. As Phil points out, some academics (and a great many Internet geeks) ran with this. The result has been almost total failure. The Journal of Memetics closed down due to a lack of interesting scholarship. Assuming it can be made to work, it so far hasn't been helpful as a model to explain anything at all that cultural evolutionists weren't already explaining very well without the concept. Because Dawkins coined a pretentious terminology, most laymen seem to think he invented the idea of cultural evolution, which actually predates his birth.

So, that's my analogy between Gould and Dawkins. Both were great writers and only decent scientists. Gould was a worse scientist than Dawkins, because he would write all these books about subjects outside his field where he had reached an ideologically-based conclusion long before he had done any actual research and would then fudge his research to fit his preconceived conclusions. It is not my sense that Dawkins has ever done this, though he might be starting to now that he's got a serious bee in his bonnet about religion. (His statement that atheists in America are treated as badly as homosexuals 50 years ago, for example, is simply factually false. I'm an American atheist; almost nobody cares and I live in a Red state. It is quite possible that Americans treat Richard Dawkins worse than homosexuals 50 years ago, but Dawkins should really consider whether there might be other reasons for this. For example, the fact that he's fantastically rude.) On Gould's side, he has two major advantages. 1) He appears to have been a very pleasant and affable man, in sharp contrast to Dawkins. 2) He was a big baseball fan in an intellectual way. As a big baseball fan myself, I cannot help but think the man must have had a great many good points.

DMSO said...

..[Dawkins'] celebrated theory .. memetics

Although he is indeed well known for-coining the term, his main field of interest is Darwinian genetic evolution (scientifically anyway; he does seem to have turned his religion-baiting hobby into something of a professional concern in recent years); his notable contributions to the field being Selfish Gene theory, and the concept of the extended phenotype.

Also, as a good friend of the late Douglas Adams, the gentleman can't be all bad...

Phil Masters said...

Dawkins and Gould had a series of academic run-ins - though the sadly incomplete exchange of letters between them that appears in A Devil's Chaplain doesn't show any signs of personal animosity. Gould seems to have made something of a habit of the cuddly-old-uncle pose, and kept trying to find reasons not to argue with religious people without considering whether they were likely to cooperate, whereas Dawkins goes for the throat from the start.

But I find Dawkins a better science writer, frankly. Gould was too fond of the clever little essay - partly no doubt because he was writing to length for a magazine, but it ends up looking like he's showing off his writing technique, especially over a full anthology. (And yes, he does sometimes seem to be writing to fit his personal ideology, too, though at least said ideology is immaculately and and admirably liberal.) And I guess, as an amateur, I'm more convinced by Dawkinsian rolling gene-level selection than Gould's punctuated equilibria and hints of group selection.

Plus, all the bloody baseball references bore the hell out of me. As it's a fetish I don't and can't begin to share, it ends up sounding to me like an obsessive bore wittering on about his armchair hobby.

Still, Gould could be very good when he avoided his pet pitfalls. He knew his stuff, and he could write.

Dawkins doubtless comes across as rude - he clearly likes the "rottweiler" tag - but his friends seem to like him a lot. Nobody who can get on with both Douglas Adams and Michael Bywater can be all intolerable. Incidentally, he holds the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford - so he probably considers religion-baiting part of his job description, even if it isn't, strictly speaking.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phil, I agree with most of your points. (I never meant to imply that Gould and Dawkins weren't friendly, for example.) I realize the baseball stuff must be incredibly boring for non-Americans (and, frankly, for most Americans as well, many of whom don't seem to enjoy the game, perhaps due to some form of brain damage). As for Gould's ideology, I have no use for people with blinders on. My acid test of a thinker is, if I know your opinion on five different subjects of controversy, can I now guess your opinion on everything else with 95% or greater confidence? With Gould, the answer was clearly yes. He acquired his ideology early in life from his father, and never seriously questioned it. This is an extremely common failing and it doesn't make him a bad person (Dawkins might disagree). Indeed, as far as I know, Gould seems to have been wholly admirable and there are few people I'd rather sit down and talk baseball or Darwinism with (were he still alive). But I stop looking for original thoughts in such people and their conversation or writing on any subject of controversy rapidly becomes tedious. You know in advance they're not going to change their opinion no matter what the evidence might say. Great writer, good man, pedestrian thinker.

As for Dawkins, I am sure he is kind to his friends and pets. The test of a person's worth is how he treats people who disagree with him or cannot possibly do him any good. Both Adams and Bywater were atheists. Somebody name a good friend of Dawkins who is religious. I cannot think of a more effective way of narrowing one's thoughts than to surround oneself entirely with people who already agree with you. I suspect Dawkins has no other choice since he has never learned to disagree with people in a respectful manner.

Iorwerth Owain said...

"Somebody name a good friend of Dawkins who is religious."

The Bishop of Oxford, apparently. Though he wasn't very happy with how he was portrayed on 'The Root of All Evil', from what I hear.

Dawkins, I gather, is very courteous in person; it's just that when he writes, he tends to get carried away.

Andrew Stevens said...

The Bishop of Oxford, apparently. Though he wasn't very happy with how he was portrayed on 'The Root of All Evil', from what I hear.

Dawkins, I gather, is very courteous in person; it's just that when he writes, he tends to get carried away.


That may be right. I've seen him interact in person on videos like The Root of All Evil? and I've been appalled. However, those are video polemics, so he might be applying the same rules as his written polemics.

However, are you quite sure the Bishop of Oxford believes in God? It's hardly a requirement for a bishop of the C of E after all.

Iorwerth Owain said...

Well, I suspect he believes in God more than the previous Bishop of Durham and Bishop Spong do (not that that's hard) -- that is to say yes he does, but he probably has difficulty expressing it in easy to understand terms (rather like the Archdruid, in fact).

Phil Masters said...

As I understood it, that previous Bishop of Durham believed in God to a quite spectacular extent, if you asked him. It was just cheap miracles that he didn't believe in.

Phil Masters said...

(Footnote; A quick check suggests that David Jenkins is still alive. So change past to present tense in the above.)

Iorwerth Owain said...

You're quite right. But he is the guy who tends to come foremost in my mind, however unfairly, when the matter is raised.

I'll try to avoid doing so in future, and confine myself to mocking Spong (a simply wonderful name, btw), because he really *is* the exemplar of the unbelieving bishop, despite being ECUSA, not CofE.

Andrew Rilstone said...

In an internet cafe in Camden town.

Ian Hislopp once remarked:

"Peter Tatchell thinks the English don't like homosexuals. The English are fine with homosexuals. They just don't like Peter Tatchell."


Patrick Stewart's "Tempest" is full of eskimos.

Tom O'Bedlam said...

I think the issue is that secularism is just as much a philosophy as Christianity, or Islam. Its not a 'basic fact of nature' like evolution, its a statement about whats important.

While evolution is essential to learning biology, secularism isn't essential to learning biology.

In short, in most of Britain at least, people's religious belief isn't so silly as to affect a child's education. And although we must educate our children, this doesn't mean indoctrinating them in secularist philosophy by the back door - stealing away the authority of religion in unreasonable areas, and denying the liberty of parents to raise their kids largely how they see fit.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Catching up....

Louise H: Parent to teacher. "Please do not allow my daughter to go swimming as I do not want her to swallow water during Ramadan."

Parent to teacher. "Please do not allow my daughter to go into the school canteen with her friends as I do not want her to eat anything during daylight hours during Ramadan."

Parent to teacher. "Please do not allow my daughter to talk to boys during break-time as our religion considers this behaviour immoral."

Discuss.


Your point is that "not swimming" is an inconsequential request; "not talking to boys" is plainly wrong; and "not going into the school canteen" is somewhere in between -- correct?

My mother points out that when she was at grammar school, sometime in Cretaceous, the normal thing was for boys and girls to have a separate playgrounds, sit on different sides of the classroom, and have separate P.E classes. Yet England set the world ablaze in good King George's glorious days...

Some people think that (from an academic standpoint) single gender schools or single gender classes within mixed schools work better (and to the advantage of the girls, on the whole) than doing everything in mixed groups.

At moments like this, C.S Lewis was wont to misquote Aristotle and ask "Is democratic education the kind of education which democrats like, or the kind of education that will preserve democracy?"

If the only way we can get the Infidel Hoards to send their womenfolk to school and learn English is to segregate the genders slightly more than we are used to, then some people might think that that isn't too Faustian a bargain to consider.

That probably isn't the point, though.

The point may be: "If you agree to the inconsequential request, then before very long the they will be requesting things which are plainly wrong. Give people an inch and they'll take two point five centimetres. Best agree to nothing at all." This is Ye Olde Slippery Slope argument, sometimes summarized as "Nothing should ever be done for the first time."

Some people think that you should sometimes accede to religious requests; does anyone argue that you should always accede to religious requests? Certainly, I began by saying that personal taboos should override convenience and the sense that "we've always done it this away" on non-essential matters. That you have come up with a good example of a non-non-essential matter doesn't, I think, materially effect this idea.

So I'm assuming that the point is the "do not allow" bit, and that what you are saying is: "It is one thing to admit and accommodate people's individual taboos, but you can't expect school teachers to police them." With which I am entirely in agreement. Provided we say "Schools (and hospitals, and the army, and prisons, and the civil service: everything run directly by the state, and as many private things as we can manage) will be the kinds of institutions in which no-one is ever required or forced to break their individual taboos" then I'm happy. Don't schedule lessons at prayer times and designate a quite room for prayer; whether anyone actually uses it or not is their own business. I imagine some will and some won't,depending on what their siblings and the cool kids in the sixth form are doing.

Louise H also said ....She's not interested in establishing their views about [swimming], any more than she's interested in establishing that A, B and C don't want to go swimming because they think their legs are fat and hairy. No note- swim. Note- don't swim. It's the way schools work.

And this is the point, of course. Schools are repressive institutions.

Actually, scrub "repressive": schools are institutions, and institutions don't tolerate dissent, or difference, or individuality. They work on the principal that everything not forbidden is compulsory. Optional means "either you do it always, or never."

Is this a necessary part of the concept of "education"? Could we both teach maths and give children a choice about whether they go swimming or not, what colour socks they wear, and how often they go to the toilet? I think we could. I'm told that schools today are less repressive than the ones we went to; I'm told that our schools were more liberal than the ones our parents went to. And still, civilisation staggers on.

Of course, in 1970, the institutionalisation of children wasn't so much of a problem. Everyone in the UK was C of E, so R.E lessons weren't an issue. Everyone liked football (or netball, depending on their chromosomes)and everyone was used to bathing in front of the fire in a tin bath, so P.E wasn't an issue either. There were no Jews, so it didn't matter what was served for school dinners (there certainly wasn't ever a choice, after all, they were starving in Ethiopia). There were only a few token black people and everyone agreed that the British empire was a good thing, so history and politics weren't a problem. There were no homosexuals, (and indeed, hardly any sex) so sex education could limit itself to explaining what would happen to the birds and the bees if they played with themselves.

The arrival of the Muslim Hoard has forced even P.E teachers to notice that not all children are, in fact, identical, and it is sometimes quite hard to force them to pretend that they are. When one kid says he doesn't want to go swimming because he finds it embarrassing, he was forced to conform. When an easily identifiable and reasonably large group called "Muslims" tear pages out of text books, stand on their desks, and insist on their right to be different, people start to take notice. Liberals say "Well, we'd better drop compulsory swimming, then." Conservatives says "Well, we'd better stamp out Islam, them." Richard Dawkins says "We'd better stamp out religion."

And my inner Marxist adds: "The stamping out of all traces of individuality is point of schools. Teaching maths is just a pretext. The real point is to get them into the habit of jumping into a swimming pool when a person in authority tells them to when their very young. Do that, and they'll be much more likely to advance into German machine gun fire when a person in authority tells them to when their older. If we want schools to stay the way they are, we'll have to stamp out Islam. If we want Muslims and normal people to co-exist, then we'll have change schools a bit. The one thing you can't do is tolerate difference within a repressive institution. That's the real reason people find Muslims so threatening. Why do you think they make the kids wear school uniforms rather than school diverses?"

Lots of things which used to be "just the way schools are" now aren't. The school day begins with a hymn and prayer. It just does. Because it always has done, okay? No-one apart from religious nutters even thinks about it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sorry, it just occurred to me.

Is the point that there is a distinction between "I don't want to swallow chlorine because it's Ramadan and "I don't want to talk to boys because it's immoral ". The former, being a taboo, is not open to discussion; the latter, being a statement about how things are for everybody, is something which anyone can have an opinion on. I can't say "Don't be silly, eating meat in Ramdan is quite all right": I can say "No, of course talking to boys isn't immoral."

This would, I think, lead to counter-intuitive results, If someone says "I am not prepared to go to work on Good Friday, because, as a Christian, I am obliged to fast, go to church, and watch Jesus Christ Superstar on BBC 2", we would have to say, "OK, right you are Sir.". But if someone says "I am not prepared to go to Iraq and kill people, becasue, as a Christian, I think it is immoral to kill my fellow man", we would have to say "Your beliefs about the matter are irrelevant. We have consulted our midichlorians, and they say that killing in a just cause is not only permitted, but compulsery." This would sort of be consistent with the widespread belief in "choice uber alles". It is good and admirable to make any kind of personal choice that one likes; but it is wrong to suggest that any kind of choice is better than any other (because "better" implies moral value, and moral value is an illusion created by the midichlorians.)

I think I may be onto something here.

Andrew Stevens said...

It is good and admirable to make any kind of personal choice that one likes; but it is wrong to suggest that any kind of choice is better than any other (because "better" implies moral value, and moral value is an illusion created by the midichlorians.)

This belief, of course, does not stop its supporters from claiming that that view is better than contrary views. Sorry I keep harping on this, but subjective morality is simply shot through with contradictions and inconsistencies and it really chaps me that its supporters grasp for themselves the mantle of Reason. It might be possible to consistently and reasonably claim a moral subjectivist position and make no moral assertions, but I've never met anyone who is able to do so. Usually, moral subjectivists use moral subjectivity to justify behaviors (like adultery) that they don't want to be wrong, but realize they can't actually defend, and then quickly become moral objectivists in order to condemn those people who condemn adultery. I agree that the supporters of moral subjectivity do not generally believe that "anything goes" (virtually all of them support laws against murder, theft, etc.), but this is only and solely because they are inconsistent. The justification for such laws makes no sense within the moral subjectivist framework. (I have previously refuted all "higher goal" theories, e.g. that such laws are necessary to an orderly society, the survival of the species, etc., since those are themselves moral positions.)

As I've probably said before, David Hume's belief that moral sentiments were irrational, but nevertheless were, and ought to be, superior to reason, is one of the only escapes available. I admit that I am unable to refute this belief and it is quite possible that my opposition to it is irrational, based on unhappiness with the idea that moral disputes are irresolvable in principle. (I agree that many seem to be irresolvable in practice.) However, I do think, empirically, that Hume is wrong. I have occasionally been able to convince people that their moral beliefs were in error through rational argumentation and I have been convinced that my (first-order) moral beliefs were in error many, many times. I think Hume's philosophy has great difficulty explaining how this is even possible, while my philosophy predicts it. This does not, however, amount to a refutation of Hume's position.

Phil Masters said...

I don't think that you can really distinguish between "morality" and "taboo" for any kind of practical public purposes. Yes, I'm sure that you can distiguish between them philosophically, and maybe even use the distinction to guide your decisions about your own morality - but the fact is, everyone is probably going to end up drawing the line in different places, and so any attempt to determine any kind of public policy on this basis is going to end up in eternal, circular, irresolvable arguments.

In the case quoted, someone who, say, believes that the Koran is divinely inspired will say that breaking prohibitions derived from it is immoral; somebody who doesn't may well see them as taboos. (And that's before you get into arguments about whether a given prohibition is or isn't Koranic. When those start, you also get arguments about who's entitled even to discuss the matter.) And some people will say that society shouldn't force people to violate those taboos because it's impolite, but others will say that society shouldn't force people to behave in ways that are immoral, because, well, it's wrong - and any amount of argument may not get them to change their moral codes, in which case if you try to force them to break those rules they'll refuse, and, well, it's probably simpler at that point to redefine the issue as one of taboo...

Then, some societies have amazingly complex taboos about interactions between men and women - but I'll bet a lot of them see those rules as moral imperatives. And some groups have taboos about the discussion of morality, or at least certain aspects of morality. (Most do, actually. Western society certainly does.) And so on.

I really don't think this one will fly.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Phil: Is you idea that there is, in principle, no difference between statenents like "You shouldn't kill, except perhaps in self defence" or "You should always keep solemn promise" and statements like "Men and women should dress and and undress in seperate changing rooms" or "Don't serve roast cat at your dinner party"?

Andrew Stevens said...

Curiously, the two of you seem to be in agreement. Mr. Rilstone was arguing that it seems silly to acknowledge people's taboos, but override their moral convictions, and Mr. Masters was arguing that we shouldn't distinguish between taboos and moral convictions at all. Yet you were both talking as if you disagreed with each other.

I think Mr. Rilstone is onto something. I think there are a great many people who are unwilling to override taboos, but are more than willing, even anxious, to override other people's moral convictions. I suspect that the basis of this is because differing morality is seen as threatening while differing taboos are not (because it lacks the implied threat that the person believing it would like to impose it involuntarily). Not very many people are worried that if Jews became powerful enough that they would prohibit eating pork for Gentiles. Many people are worried that if certain types of Christians became powerful enough that they would prohibit abortion. So we are quite willing, even eager, to preemptively impose our own morality on them first. (Of course, many people refuse to call it morality, but it is.)

Phil Masters said...

I'm not actually saying that there is no difference between taboo and morality; actually, I think that there is, though this is clearly a complex issue which can generate hours of technical discussion, and I have some sneaking sympathy for the sort of radical materialist position which says that there's no difference, or at least that any difference is purely in our minds. But I won't argue here with anyone who thinks that there's a strong and crucial difference.

What I am saying is that different people place the distinction between "taboo" and "morality" in different places on different issues, and often have very strong opinions on the importance of either. So until you can get the entire human race thinking the same way, there's not much point in appealing to the difference when setting any sort of policy. Because what you say will rarely be what other people hear.

Incidentally, one difference between taboos and morals, in most people's eyes, would probably be that taboos are socially determined, while morals are somehow objectively determined or absolute. Okay, so some people will say that their religious taboos are determined by their god, and hence have an objective or absolute element - but at that point, for them, the taboo becomes a point of morality. (Or rather, "This taboo is unchangeable by humanity and must always be obeyed" becomes a moral statement. Whether or not a god can change what's moral, he can presumably change what's taboo if he chooses, without raising deep theological issues of consistency.) But if a taboo is socially determined, society can presumably override it, by a democratic vote or whatever - and more important (possibly moral) concerns can also overcome the taboo. "Nudity in front of strangers" is often taboo, but taking your clothes off for an important medical examination, or to jump into a lake to save a drowning swimmer, is generally acceptable, because the (moral) value of human life is stronger than the taboo.

Morals, on the other hand, are assumed to have this objective element, which is stronger than any social consensus or democratic vote. People designing democratic systems often go to some trouble to protect moral principles against the misguided vote of the majority, and quite a few fictional heroes defend moral principles in defiance of the majority. In modern Western fiction at least, the character who stands by a taboo in defiance of the majority is just a twit, while standing by a moral principle whatever is heroic.

(This may not be a universal fictional trope, mind. Some cultures may attach a much stronger moral value to obedience to convention and taboo. I don't know much about, say, Confucianism, so this might be a gross slander, but I wouldn't be surprised if Confucian parables were full of people who obeyed taboos to the death.)

The point here would be that, if somebody recognises that some ideal is just a taboo, you have a fair chance of arguing them out of it, or persuading them to relax it a bit in the face of social pressure. It's going to be hard, because people tend to be attached to their taboos, but it should be possible. However, once they define it in terms of morality, then if society thinks different, it has to either accommodate them, persuade them that they're wrong (which is usually a huge and difficult task), or in the extreme case, force them to violate their own moral code and face the consequences in terms of their bitterness and radical sense of violation. Which is unfortunate if most of society feels that there's an urgent moral imperative directly opposed to the minority's moral ideas.

The other problem is that some people (and cultures) don't draw this distinction, and treat every petty taboo as an immutable moral issue. Bad enough having to persuade some individuals that, say, female genital mutilation is wrong if the see it as a fine custom; if they think that morality demands it, you may just have to lock the bastards up.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"This taboo was determined by God" and "This taboo is absolute" don't necessarily go together. Your example of "of course we can break the nudity taboo in matters of life and death" is more or less exactly what the Jews says about their purity rules: you can and should eat unclean animals rather than starve to death; the modern science of organ transplantation over-rides the taboo against mutilating corpses. I am pretty sure Islam says the same. Pork = unclean. The valves of the heart of a pig translplanted into the human body to save someone's life = OK.

It is a well-known fact that the English don't have a national dress or an accent. It may be that in the same way, we don't have any taboos. When a man took off his hat in the presence of a lady, he wasn't following a rule or obeying a taboo. It was just intuitively obvious that you don't keep your hat on in the presence of a lady.

Phil Masters said...

Yes, mainstream religions tend to be quite sensible about their taboos. No point in killing off too many of your devotees, or deterring relatively casual followers who might think that numerous strong taboos were just silly or implausible.

The problems tend to be with fringe cults who use taboos as a mark of distinctiveness, or even as a way of detaching members from mainstream society - and with individual devotees of mainstream faiths, who use taboos that way out of alienation or over-enthusiasm, enforcing them more strongly than most of their own priests would say was required.

Though sheer legalism is a trap into which any religion can fall from time to time. (A fact from which Terry Pratchett has wrung two books.)

Andrew Stevens said...

The Jehovah's Witnesses' taboo against blood transfusions is so strong that members have died by refusing to accept them. This is becoming a thing of the past as bloodless surgical techniques have become more effective and alternatives which are acceptable to the Witnesses have been developed.

Their theology may not be very good, but they are at least serious about it. They are strong believers in Divine Command theory - they are not impressed with the Euthyphro dilemma. Personally, I don't think this philosophy is logically workable. I think Aquinas's solution to the Euthyphro dilemma, which really just agrees with Natural Law theory, but dresses it up in divine garb, is the only possible theistic solution.

The English philosopher Strawson remarked that the ability to appreciate the Euthyphro dilemma was the mark of a philosophical turn of mind. Mr. Masters is quite correct that many religious people cannot appreciate the dilemma and fall into Divine Command theory by default. Many atheists can't appreciate it either which is why so many of them assume that if God doesn't exist, then morality cannot exist, because they equate morality with Divine Command theory. (However, any theory of mind-dependent morality is susceptible to the Euthyphro dilemma. It is the crux of why I find all mind-dependent theories of morality, including divine ones, to be unworkable.)

Some people have argued, by the way, that the reason why Augustine and Aquinas did not subscribe to Divine Command theory in toto is because it wasn't until the post-medieval period that the emphasis shifted from God's reason to God's will as the source of morality. This is particularly true with the rise of Protestantism. It should be pointed out that the Catholic Church have remained consistent defenders of Natural Law theory, the Thomistic compromise anyway. Anglicanism has historically defended it as well, probably due to the influence of Richard Hooker, though other people can comment on whether the Church continues to defend it. Other Protestants are all over the map, but most seem to subscribe to Divine Command Theory. I imagine this is also true of almost all Muslims, though my ignorance of Muslim theology precludes me from asserting it outright.

Mr. Masters is correct that it is difficult to discuss moral differences with believers of Divine Command Theory be they theistic or atheistic. The latter, usually having no belief in morality at all, cannot be effectively reasoned out of their moral positions either and are, therefore, at least as stubborn as their theistic counterparts. However, I do not subscribe to the theory that it's impossible to reason with these people on morality. It's just difficult and takes a lot of patience.

By the by, we are fortunate that female genital mutilation is a cultural practice which transcends religious boundaries. It is generally agreed by its practicioners that Islam (the dominant religion professed by its practicioners) does not require it. It has become a quasi-divine law by custom, I suppose. The biggest problems with ending the practice is that most of the women in the culture continue to favor it and everyone regards Western attempts to stamp it out as cultural imperialism. Nevertheless, progress is being made and I believe it will come to an end very shortly, though perhaps not in our lifetimes.

Andrew Rilstone said...

THIS ARTICLE STILL GETS MORE HITS THAN ANYTHING ELSE ON THE BLOG... (5 YEARS LATER!!)

COULD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHERE THEY ARE COMING HERE FROM? -- CONFUSED BLOGGER ANDREW