Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man is an odd character. Little kids wear Spider-Man tee-shirts and play with Spider-Man toys, but you could hardly imagine a less kid-friendly hero. The comic book is full of angst and misery: Peter Parker's family and friends keep getting murdered, the world thinks he's a baddie – being a Spider-Man has pretty much ruined his life. The movies are just as depressing -- although director Sam Raimi did bottle-out and give Spider-Man 2 a happy ending.

The most depressing thing about Spider-Man 3 is how familiar it all feels. The last time we saw them Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) and his frequently-kidnapped girl friend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) had settled their difficulties and fallen in love -- but someone has pushed the 're-set' button on their relationship. So we have to go through the angst and slush all over again: another scene in a theatre; another break-up in a restaurant, and, once again, M.J running from Peter into the arms of his best mate Harry Osborne (James Franco). This is even more angsty than usual because Harry is moonlighting as the villainous Green Goblin, a role left vacant by his father since the first movie. There are also scenes in which Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) dispenses wise advise, scenes in which newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) loses his cool -- all pretty much encores of the first two films. Marvel Comics has been churning out arachnid adventures on a monthly basis for 40 years, but it seems that, after only three movies, Spider-Man has got tired.

Peter Parker has discovered a snazzy new black spider suit, which turns out to be a parasitic E.T which needs human host. While he is wearing the new suit, he behaves in depressingly un-heroic ways: kissing new girlfriends in front of M.J, mercilessly killing bad guys and, worst of all, doing nerdy dances in night-clubs. But the film can't decide whether it's a morality play about choosing between your dark side and your ... err.... red and blue side, or whether it is a simple horror story in which the hero is possessed by an evil space alien. In the end, Spider-Man doesn't come back to the light because he makes the right moral choice, but simply because he finds a comic-book cop-out which lets him rip the costume off. It then forms a symbiotic relationship with a rival news photographer (Topher Grace) creating a new villain, Venom, who Spider-Man defeats in a big fight. The greatest battle is within? Not really.

The third villain, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), feels like an afterthought. The first two movies gave their bad-guys extensive back-stories -- this one takes it for granted that when escaped convicts wander into nuclear experiments, they turn into a walking, talking piles of sand. Sandman had a hand in killing Peter Parker's uncle, but on the plus side he only turned to crime because of his terminally ill daughter. This feels like a good idea for a story, rather than a properly developed element in the film.

The multi-villain action sequences are as spectacular as you'd expect; and everyone acts a lot, even in the embarrassing slushy bits. But it doesn't have the moral conviction or the emotional heart of the earlier films.

How depressing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Being for the benefit of people who want to link to this kind of thing

A Skeptics Guide to Dawkins

1; Where Dawkins went wrong

2: Some more of Dawkins greatest mistakes


3: Final and clinching proofs

4; Who is this Dawkins person anyway?

5: Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins

Nice Things (2)


Bath Ales Barnstormer is currently my favourite beer. It is one of life's little ironies that weaker beers, like Bath's Spa (geddit?) are sharper and you want to sip them, where your stronger beers like Barnstormer taste sweet and you want to gulp them down, which means you can drink a lot without quite realising it. They do make something called Rare Hare but I find that too strong to be pleasant. The Hare on the Hill is owned by Bath Ales. It is not actually the closest pub to me, but my nearest, the Cadbury, is quite studenty and to my dismay I have reached a point in my life where 'studenty' is a negative point. Although it does have a nice beer garden and serve nachos. So I have adopted the Hare as my local. I have to climb a hill to get to it. Clue's in the name, I suppose. It feels more like a traditional english pub, wooden tables and dart boards and no juke box, where the Cadbury feels more like a cellar. Last time I went into the Hare there was a man singing folk and blues. Despite the countrified traditional name it is just opposite a block of council flats, but that rather adds to the atmosphere. The Bristol Science Fiction group meets there on a Thursday. My favourite pub in Bristol is actually niether the Hare nor the Cadbury but the Port of Call (ah yes, Bristol's nautical history, the non-descript Spyglass is finally capitalizing on the fact that it was probably once owned by Long John Silver, who did not exist) but that's right over the other end of town so I only go there once in a blue moon which is also a good name for a pub. It has different guest ales each week and invariably has something I haven't tried before, and pork scratchings that look as if they came from a local butcher. Some day, I must walk to the Port, stopping off at, say, the Hare, the Bell, the Robin Hood, the Highbury Vaults, and the Pennyfarthing. I would probably not walk back, though.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nice Things (1)


That gooey chocolate cheese cake thing they sell in the cafeteria at Ikea, called a "Dime Gateaux", which is odd because I thought the unit of currency was a krona. And you can have as many cups of coffee as you like. Bad coffee, admittedly, but like the fellow said 'it's better than kosher, it's free.' I quite like the little green marzipan things as well. The only decent size supermarket within walking distance of my hosue is the Tescos (I know, I know) at the Eastgate center, which is on the same industrial carpark thingy as Ikea, so I can sneak in there and have a Dime gateux and read the paper when I do my fortnightly shopping. (And I can drop my plastic in the recycling, so my conscience of clear all round.) If you get there early enough, they sometimes have almond croissant as well although if I want almond croissant I go to the bakery at the bottom of my street, and isn't it nice to be able to type 'bakery at the bottom off my street' in this day and age. It supplies most of the posher local sandwich shops and has graffiti painted on the walls. I think the overall theme here is 'cakes'. On the plus side, I rejoined the gym.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

5: Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins

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.







And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown
           Bob Dylan







When Dawkins talks about 'religion', I think he means simply 'belief in "God" ': the opinion that the universe and everything in it including us was designed and created by a superhuman and supernatural intelligence. Confucianism and Buddhism are not to be regarded as religions because they don't include a 'God'. It's a a perfectly good definition; but it leaves us wanting some other word for all the stories, rituals, ceremonies, ethical teachings, taboos, songs and coffee mornings that account for the majority of what goes on in church.
I suggest that we use the word cultus to refer to religion in this wider sense. 'Cult' sounds too sinister and 'quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.'
Now, you can believe in a supernatural designer without participating in cultus and you can participate in cultus without believing in a designer. You might think that the universe was designed but not feel the slightest inclination to talk to the person who designed it; you might pray to a supernatural being without thinking that he or she designed the universe. Communism has a collection of songs, stories, rituals, heroes, holy days, holy places, a holy book and even holy relics. (So does the Tolkien Society, come to that.) You could reasonably describe communism as a form of cultus; but not as a religion, because it rather emphatically doesn't believe in 'God'.
Once you've spotted this distinction, a lot of Dawkins' hobby-horses begin to look decidedly wobbly. He gets extremely and repeatedly annoyed about the phrase 'Christian child'–how, he invects, can a child possibly know whether or not he's a Christian? And isn't foisting the term on him a form of intellectual child-abuse? (Clue: No.) Dawkins is pretending that he thinks that the phrase 'Christian child' refers to a child's religion–his or her opinion about the existence or lack of existence of a supernatural designer. In fact it almost certainly refers to the cultus in which the child participates. When you ask if a child is Catholic or Jewish you are asking, very innocently, which rituals he feels comfortable with–whether he looks forward to Christmas or Hannukah, whether he says 'Hail Mary Full of Grace!' or 'Hear Oh Israel! The Lord Thy God is One!' when he wakes up, whether feeding him flesh on Friday or pig-flesh on any day would be likely to upset him.
Dawkins also got awfully cross in the newspapers because some guy who played a monster in Doctor Who remarked that he would find it comforting to believe in God. Dawkins fulminated that whether it was comforting or not doesn't make any difference: all that matters is whether it is true and the minute someone showed him some proof he'd change his mind blah-de-blah. But clearly, Peter Kay had meant 'It would be a comfort to me to participate in a cultus,': Dawkins pretended that he thought he meant 'It would be a comfort to me to be convinced of the existence of a superhuman designer.'
Towards the end of the God Delusion, Dawkins reproduces A.A Milne's poem 'Binker' in full. Binker was one of Christopher Robin's 'imaginary friends'. Binker and Christopher Robin go everywhere together, but only Christopher Robin can see him. Many children imagine that they have such friends, and Dawkins is interested in the possibility that they are 'a higher illusion, in a different category from ordinary childhood make believe' and that 'at least some of these normal children who have imaginary friends really do believe they exist, and, in some cases, see them as clear and vivid hallucinations.'
As ever, Dawkins reading of the poem isn't especially sensitive. A.A Milne's 'Binker' isn't something that Christopher Robin really believes in, but a playful fib which he tells the grown-ups. He's no different from Pooh and Piglet in that respect.
So I have to say to people when they offer me a sweet
'Oh Binker wants a chocolate, so could you give me two?'
Then I have to eat it for him cos his teeth are rather new.

'What's twice eleven?' said I to Pooh,
('Twice what?' said Pooh to me.)
'I think it ought to be twenty-two.'
'Just what I think myself,' said Pooh....

Dawkins muses that perhaps people who believe in God have retained their imaginary friends into adult life; or at any rate, that the 'God' phenomenon and the 'Binker' phenomenon could be related.
I'm a lot less offended by this idea than Dawkins presumably intends me to be. When he says that I believe in an invisible man in the sky or a creationist micro-manager, I find myself hurling the book across the coffee shop and saying 'What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion. Why don't you go and talk to some Christians, you insufferably silly little man.' But when he gets to the description of the 'imaginary friend' I have to admit that I said 'Yes. Danged if it isn't a bit like that.'
In the unlikely event of any of Dawkins' groupies reading this far, I'm sure they will rub their knuckles together with glee and say 'Famous god-blothering bogger admits Jesus is a large purple rabbit called Harvey.' I don't, of course. But I concede that 'God is a bit like Binker' is a much more useful statement than 'God is a sky-fairy.'
At the very least, the idea could provide a frame of reference that would allow atheists and normal people to communicate with each other. If I said 'I have to wear this hat, because otherwise my imaginary friend will be very, very sad,' you might think me slightly eccentric (OK, extremely eccentric) but you'd hardly get angry about it. But if I said that the name of my imaginary friend was 'Allah' and not 'Binker' after all, then some people wouldn't just get angry: they'd actually demand parliamentary legislation to ban hats. (Not all hats: just the kinds of hats that Binker likes.) If Binker gave me good advise–if he told me to give money to a good cause, or have a proper rest once a week, you'd probably smile and say 'Good old Binker!' But if Binker told me to do something silly–draw on the wall with my crayons, say, or invade Iraq, you would be more likely to say 'Well, I don't think you can have heard Binker properly'.
Are atheists simply funny people who 'can't see Binker'? Or is it that they can see him, but interpret him differently? Perhaps atheistssay 'I think Binker is a product of my own mind' whereas theists say 'No, I think Binker comes from outside of me,' and add 'We think he's somehow related to the Great Douglas who wrote the universe.' (Well, most of them would. There are people who talk to Binker, who think it's important to talk to Binker, but who think that Binker is something that comes from inside themselves. This approach is particularly popular among serious pagans like Alan Moore. There are also people who say 'Maybe Binker comes from inside me, and maybe he comes from the outside. I don't know and I don't think it matters.' These are known as 'Anglicans'.) I don't see any reason why the friendless minority can't indulgently make space for imaginary bales of hay for Binker's reindeer; while the the rest of us politely explain what Binker thinks to the funny people who can't see him. Most of the time, we'd probably get on reasonably well.
Dawkins says that the phenomenon of the imaginary friend brings him about as close as he can get to understanding what it would be like to have a religion. But I submit that this isn't true.
Consider. On page 117 he quotes an interview with Douglas Adams in which Adams says he was converted from vague agnosticism to atheism as a result of reading The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins exclaims:
Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, wittiest, tallest and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh–though not as much as you made me.
It is, to say the least, suspicious that this is how the poster-boy for militant atheism deals with bereavement. This is unmistakably a prayer: a ritual invocation to an imperceptible being who cannot possibly exist in the empirical universe. I am not (N-O-T) suggesting that Dawkins 'really' believes in life after death or 'really' thinks that Douglas Adams can hear him. He's performing a ritual–playing a lets-pretend game of Douglas still being alive; dealing with the fact that there is no longer a Douglas in the world by talking to the picture of Douglas in his memory. But that's awfully like what people do when they participate in cultus.
So, Professor: believing in God (the God of the Christian cultus, not necessarily the creationist micro-manager) is a bit like having a Binker; which you can identify with, just a little. It's also a bit like talking to your dead best mate, something which you admit to doing. Do we have anything else in common?
Well, there's the matter of religious–that is to say, cultic–art. Dawkins is rather confused on this issue. In the introduction to the book he quotes John Lennon's Imagine and pretends that he thinks that the song is calling for the abolition of cultus in general. (Whenever anyone asked him John Lennon said that the song was a denunciation of denominationalism and sectarianism–not personal faith.) Dawkins asks us to Imagine all the Bad Things which would go away if there was no heaven and no religion too-oo.
Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheading of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it...
Slow down. The Taliban were religious, in the sense that in their opinion, a being called Allah really exists. They were also a cultus in that they believed that you should pray five times a day, study the Koran, fast during Ramadan and so on. It is a matter of record that they had the ancient statues at Bamyan destroyed. But Professor, who put up the statues? Buddhist monks, that's who. Possibly the monks were not religious, in the sense that they didn't necessarily believe in a designer-God but they were certainly part of a cultus and they had lots and lots of supernatural beliefs which you would think were Bad Things. So what you should have said is 'Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues. Imagine no ancient statues for the Taliban to blow up.' This is absolutely emblematic of your confused attitude. When a religious organisation does something which annoys you, you take it for granted that it was Caused By Religion. But when a religious organisation does something which you quite like you don't think that 'religion' had anything to do with it. You hardly spot that there was any religion involved at all.
(The bit about the abuse of women in some Islamic societies is worth pondering, too. Is Dawkins saying that if there were no 'religion' (i.e. if no-one believed in a Designer) then:
  1. There would be no clothing taboos and everyone would walk around naked.



  2. There would still be clothing taboos, but they wouldn't be enforced by law: people might look at you in a funny way if you did walk around naked, but no-one would arrest you.






  3. There would be clothing taboos, and they would be enforcible by law, but they would apply equally to men and women. The situation which prevails in the UK at the present time, where men are allowed to publicly remove their vests but women can be arrested for publicly removing their bras arise because people think the world was created by a supernatural designer.



  4. There would be gender specific clothing taboos, but the legal penalty for breaking them would never involve inflicting physical pain. The situation which prevailed in England up to 1948, where the offence of indecent exposure (which can be committed by a man but not by a woman) was punishable by whipping arose because the people of the time believed that the universe was created by a supernatural designer.



All of this sounds like nonsense; and not very much less like nonsense if you assume he means that Saudi modesty laws are the product of the Moslim cultus and not from the belief in Allah alone. It looks to me as if, without thinking, he has taken the clothing taboos in modern England for granted and assumed that when Johnny Foreigner has different standards of modesty he's going against the natural order of things, presumably as a result of some queer native superstition.)
When he was on Desert Island Discs, Dawkins selected an excerpt from Bach's St Matthew Passion as one of his favourite records. He pretends not to understand why normal people thought this was a bit odd.
The interviewer asked me how I could choose religious music without being religious. You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed.
This is another blustering non sequitur. Emily Bronte believed that Heathcliff was a fictional character and presented her book as a work of fiction. Bach believed Jesus was a real person, and presented his Passion as a retelling of and meditation on events that he thought really happened. Bronte wrote a story which she hoped would surprise and excite and delight her readers; Bach composed a piece of music which he hoped would bring his listeners closer to God. The question of whether a work is presented as fiction or non-fiction as a profound effect on the way we read it. Would Robinson Crusoe be the same book it were discovered to be the real diary of a real castaway? Would you even bother to read The Diary of Anne Frank if it turned out to be a work of fiction? No, the fact that Bach believed Jesus to be a real person doesn't mean that his music can only be enjoyed by people who think the same. There would be nothing at all surprising about someone saying 'The story of Jesus dying and rising again is a beautiful story and I love to listen to it, but unlike Bach, I don't think that it is really true.' People say things of the same kind every day. I myself don't believe in Time was incarnate in a person called Krishna but I might put the Indian language Maharbarata on the short list of Greatest TV Shows Not Featuring a Police Box. But Dawkins doesn't think that the story of the passion of the Christ is a beautiful story. He thinks it is 'sadomasochistic', 'barking mad', 'viciously unpleasant', 'tortuously nasty' and incidentally, that the people who disseminate it are worse than child molesters. What is going on when someone says that a musical celebration of a perverted, insane, vicious, unpleasant, nasty story is the one of eight things he couldn't manage without on a desert island? Dawkins pretends that he thinks that Sue Lawley thinks that it's odd that someone who doesn't believe in Jesus would want to listen to songs about Jesus. I'm sure she doesn't think anything nearly so silly. What she probably thinks is odd is that someone who finds a particular story horrible should want to listen to it over and over again. It's a bit like a noted black man who's campaigned all his life for racial equality saying that Birth of a Nation is his favourite movie. It's possible, of course: maybe he admires the camera work, or finds that it helps him understand how racists think. But he wouldn't come over all wounded if Ms. Lawley asked him why.
Dawkins wants us to think that the 'God' element in cultic art is really incidental. In the past artists had to look for patrons and the church was rich: so naturally, they produced religious art. If the patrons had been different, the art would have been different too. This is another example of Dawkins' 'Heads I win, tails you lose' argument. Religious artists like Bach or Michelangelo were sublime despite the fact that they dealt with religious subjects. If they'd dealt with secular ones, they might have been even better. ('What a shame that we are deprived of Haydan's "Evolution Oratorio."') But a secular artist like Shakespeare was sublime because he was secular; it is 'chilling' to imagine Will with a Church commission because we would have lost his great plays and got something worse in return.
(Of course, it's sheer bloody nonsense to see Shakespeare as purely a secular writer. Merchant of Venice is partly about the difference between Jewish theological conceptions of Law and Christian theological conceptions of Grace; Macbeth is partly about Calvinistic pre-destination; King Lear is partly concerned with the fate of the just pagan and what 'goodness' means in a pre-Christian world; Hamlet is very much about where the dead go now that purgatory has been abolished. Perhaps Dawkins needs to have his consciousness raised by–well, thinking, basically.)
Does Dawkins think that the words are simply irrelevant to Christian music? That if you took the words he wants on his desert island:
Purify yourself, my heart,
I myself will bury Jesus.
For he shall henceforth evermore
sweetly take his rest in me.
World, get out, let Jesus in!


and replaced them with, say:
But it may be asked, what ought we to do,
If it could be proved that one species of kangaroo
Had been produced
By a long course
Of modification, from a bear?

–it wouldn't really make any difference? That Bach isn't using music to convey his emotional response to a sacred story but merely making a pleasing sound. If I thought Dawkins thought that, I would write him off as an alien, or (seriously) conclude that he was mentally ill.
But in truth methinks that Dawkins doth protesteth too much. When he says he thinks that the idea that Jesus died for the world (which is a longer way of spelling 'Christianity') is crazy and kinky he doesn't really mean it–any more than he means that my-friend-the-Bishop-of-Oxford is some kind of spiritual kiddy-fiddler. When he hears the story of the Passion told by a really great artist, he finds it just as moving as the rest of the human race. Bach's music expresses the Christian doctrine of the atonement better than Anselm's theological doctrine of penal substitution. Bach speaks to Dawkins heart better than Anselm speaks to his head. I am not (n-o-t) saying that Dawkins is 'really' a Christian because he is deeply moved by a work of art about Jesus dying for Sin. But he evidently doesn't hate the story nearly as much as he'd like us to think.
Dawkins thinks that religion and morality can both be explained in Darwinian terms. Things we think of as 'moral' often have a clear survival value: we feel that we should take care of our children because it's to our genetic advantage to do so. Other kinds of behaviour may have no survival value in themselves, but be the result of what he calls 'misfiring'. Small monkeys which unquestioningly believe big monkeys when they say 'There are crocodiles in that pool' are more likely to survive than ones which question their elders and conduct experiments. But this might leave them with a genetic predisposition to believe their elders unquestioningly when they talk about God or Patriotism or some other lie. (Dawkins doesn't think this is true, necessarily, but he thinks that it is the kind of thing which might be.)
Much of what we think of as 'moral' behaviour may also be the result of this kind of 'misfiring'. Dawkins uses the example of an infertile couple adopting someone else's child. The desire for a child can be easily explained as a mechanism for passing on our genes, even though in the particular case of adoption, it's being used to preserve someone else's. Or, because you are 'programmed' to help the carrier of your genes, you would willingly die to save your child's life, but this has the knock-on effect of you being prepared to die to save the life of someone else's child. And now comes the bombshell:
We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated to us and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile and otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfiring, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity. Nor of sexual desire...
So: I have the urge to do certain things: adopt an orphan child; help a suffering person; talk to Binker. Some of those urges, like loving my neighbour, are 'blessed, precious and noble' and I should pay attention to them. Others, like talking to Binker, are malign and I need Richard Dawkins to cure me of them.
But, but, but, but, but.... Where did the concepts of sanctity, value and nobility come from?
Well, they evolved: either the belief in nobility has a survival value in itself, or else it is a misfiring of something which does. So apparently, Richard Dawkins has evolved a second-order feeling that tells him that his urge to be kind is noble, but his urge to propagate religion is ignoble. Cool: but suppose I have a second-order feeling that tells me that David Livingstone's urge to go and bring Christianity to Africa was very noble indeed. So how do we judge between my sense of what is noble and Dawkins'? So far as I can see, we appeal to third order feelings: my feeling that feelings about religion are noble are invalid; but my feeling that feelings about altruism are noble are valid. But those third order feelings either have survival value or are Darwinian mis-firings. And when my feelings about feelings about feelings are different from Dawkins' feelings about feelings about feelings we presumably appeal to feelings about feelings about feelings about feelings?
Dawkins hasn't understood this. It doesn't occur to him that it's a problem. He happily says that kindness and altruism are noble and precious because–well, so far as I can see because they are. Because Binker told him so?
Or again: when Binker tells me to make huge statues of him, that's good. But when Binker tells me to pull the statues down that's bad. But how do we know the difference? Did Richard's Binker tell him that the Buddhist Binker was right and the Taliban Binker was wrong? Why trust his Binker any more than any one else's–especially when he whole argument is that you shouldn't pay any attention to any Binker at all?
Yet Dawkins clearly has an absolute conviction that some kinds of behaviour ought to be approved of, and some kinds of behaviour ought not to be. How else can he accuse Catholics of being worse than child molesters or complain that the God of the Bible keeps doing horrible things?
So.
We have a man who is deeply moved by artistic expressions of religious ideas; who believes that the taboos of his nation 'just are' to be obeyed; who thinks that there is a standard called 'nobility' against which we can validly judge our urges; who makes ritual invocations to the dead; who understands what it might be like to have an 'imaginary friend', and who doesn't think that to have such a friend would necessarily be ignoble. In a rather confused way, he even thinks that the collection of stories in the Bible are worth reading and worth passing on.
But Professor: invocations, spiritual guardians, belief in morals and taboos, aesthetic responses to spiritual stories–that is very much the kind of thing which cultus is all about. None of them have any necessary connection with a superhuman and supernatural person who created and designed the universe and everything in it including us, although they often do in practice. Your proof, and I never doubted that it was a good proof, that we can explain why bananas are good to eat without recourse to a banana-designer impacts hardly at all on my urge to pray, to read the Bible or to have copies of the church fathers on my shelf that I'm really going to get around to one of these days. This is why your book is so full of misunderstandings and non-sequiturs. You are trying to prove the non-existence of the wrong God.
So: there is no quarrel and me, Richard and the Archbishop of Canterbury can all go off together and have tea (real or pretend) with Binker and the Fairies? Of course not. Theists say 'It feels to us that there are things that we really should do and things that we really shouldn't do. It feels to us that the great religious stories have special significance. It feels right to make invocations to our dead friends. We feel that we are in contact with a spiritual companion–call him Binker if you want–or else we wish that we were, or else we value the experiences that were written down by people who were, or thought that they were. We think that these feelings come from outside us. We think that they probably come from a Douglas or from something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment who's outside of any universe we can measure. We think that Binker and Douglas are in some way the same and some of think that Douglas once became a person and lived a human life. This is why we sometimes talk as if there are three Douglases and sometimes as if there were only one. But we don't think that feelings are the only things which matter or that 'God' is just a sort of a mood. People who think they have been in touch with something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment or have talked to Binker have tried to make maps and they've built up a fairly good picture, although it has some grey areas in it. But the map isn't the territory: we don't think that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment has a beard, any more than we think that there are green and yellow stripes on the circle line.'
And the sane, good natured atheists–the majority, I expect: Douglas Adams was one–will reply: 'Some of us have some of those feelings to. Some of us respect them. Some of us may even sometimes be happy to come to your churches and enjoy the feelings and see if you are really as good at calling up Binker as you say you are. But we don't think that the feelings have got a source; certainly not a source outside of the empirical universe. We don't. We just don't.'
And we'll reply: 'So we both have the same subjective experience of what it's like to be inside of one of these mind-things, but we interpret that experience in different ways. And that's OK. But please don't think that once you've told us how bananas evolved, we're going to start interpreting subjective experiences of God in a different way. Whatever else the argument is about it, it's not about that."



*



Roald Dahl claims that as a young child he lost his faith in the church as a result of being beaten by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Considered as a syllogism, this is not very convincing:
The argument from the Most Rev. Geoffrey Fisher
There exists at least one cruel Christian.
Therefore, God does not exist.

However, it's emotional force is very convincing indeed: 'If that was how one of God's top salesmen behaved, I thought there must be something very wrong with the whole thing.'
Dawkins pretends that he thinks that some Christians believe in:
The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists
Some scientists, especially in the olden days, believed in God
Therefore God exists.

I think what has actually happened is that atheists have put forward :
The Argument From Science
No scientist believes in God.
Therefore, belief in science is incompatible with the belief in God.
Therefore God does not exist

and Christians have responded by saying
At least one scientist believes in God.
Therefore, science is not incompatible with the belief in God
Therefore, God may or may not exist.

If there is to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists–and I think that there should be, long, in depth, robust argument, far into the night, with much wagging of fingers and stroking of beards–then the non-theists need a better spokesman. Otherwise, Christians will be tempted to adopt:
The argument from despised religious scientists
If there were no God, then the cleverest people would be atheists.
Here is a book about atheism.
The person who wrote it is rather silly.
If the best spokesman atheists can come up with is rather silly, then perhaps there are not many clever atheists.
So perhaps the cleverest people are not atheists after all.
Therefore, perhaps God exists.

The argument from contrariness
If I believe in God, it will irritate Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins deserves to be irritated.
Therefore, God exists.

Or perhaps, at it's simplest:
The argument from Onanism
Richard Dawkins is a tosser.
Therefore, God exists.









He's a blockhead who wants a proof of what he can't percieve
And he's a fool who tries to make such a blockhead believe
William Blake

Thursday, May 10, 2007

'I am a liar' admits lying liar

"Then came the utterly unanticipated and dramatic - September 11th 2001 and the death of 3,000 or more on the streets of New York.

I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally. I did so out of belief.

So Afghanistan and then Iraq - the latter, bitterly controversial.

Removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taleban, was over with relative ease."

Thought for today


Pozzo: I don't seem to be able....to depart.
Estragon: Such is life.

Waiting for Godot

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

4: Who is this Dawkins Person Anyway?


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.





....given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men...

Waiting for Godot



Dawkins defines God as 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.' This is an admirably narrow definition.
If we accept it, we can't call Thor a god because he neither designed nor created the universe. Even if we extend the definition to include 'one or more superhuman, supernatural intelligences' the Norse gods don't really fit the bill. No-one ever said that Thor designed the thunder or even that he deliberately created it. It also stops us from using the word 'God' in a metaphorical sense. Whatever Einstein was thinking about when he imagined God playing dice, it wasn't a supernatural designer.
It is just about possible to come up with beings who fit Dawkins' definition, but who are not gods in any religious sense. A little man in a bowler hat who flies around space on a magic carpet, assembling planets out of flat-packs and making play-dough creatures to inhabit them would not be called God by most theists.
Dawkins himself doesn't quite manage to stick to his definition. He says that the 'problem of evil' is easily solved by postulating a second, bad god: but so far as I know no-one has ever said that Satan designed and created anything. He complains about the tendency of Catholics to drift towards polytheism: but no Pope has ever said that the Virgin Mary designed the universe.
Nevertheless, I think we should accept Dawkins' definition as far as we can. We can then state the substance of his argument in a few lines:
THE ARGUMENT FROM LACK OF DESIGN
Let us define 'God' as 'the designer of the universe'.
The universe was not designed, but emerged through a process of natural selection.
If the universe was not designed, it had no designer.
Therefore 'God' does not exist.

Or, with a difference of emphasis:
THE ARGUMENT FROM PROBABILITY
Let us define 'God' as 'the designer of the universe.'
It is very improbable that anything very complex should exist.
'Designers' are more complex than the things they design.
The universe is very complex.
Therefore, the universe is very improbable.
The designer of the universe must be even more complex than the universe.
Therefore the designer of the universe must be even more improbable than the universe.
To say that something is 'very improbable' is the same as saying that it almost certainly doesn't exist.
Therefore 'God' almost certainly doesn't exist.

Both arguments boil down to:
THE ARGUMENT FROM EVOLUTION
If evolution occurred, 'God' does not exist.
In fact, evolution occurred.
Therefore, 'God' does not exist.

As everyone apart from Dawkins' sees, this is precisely the same argument used by the Creationists.
THE ARGUMENT FROM GOD
If evolution occurred, 'God' does not exist.
In fact, God exists.
Therefore, evolution did not occur.

The Creationists need Dawkins and Dawkins needs the Creationists: both sides mutually reinforce the faulty premises of the other's argument. They are locked in a fatal embrace and with any luck they will soon drag each other into a metaphysical Riechenbach Falls.
The chapters where Dawkins deals with this proof are much less embarrassing than the chapters about religion. He has great fun taking apart people who say that because it is incredibly unlikely that something as complicated as a human being should spontaneously assemble itself, someone must have designed it. Since this is precisely what evolutionists think didn't happen Dawkins isn't terribly impressed by Creationists on this score. He is also quite good at explaining what believers in Intelligent Design mean by 'irreducible complexity' and why they shouldn't.
It must be said that evolution by natural selection is assumed rather than explained throughout the book. I don't think that if an open-minded creationist (if you could imagine such a beast) read this book, he would learn enough to be persuaded. And even in the scientific sections, I often felt that Dawkins had not properly understood the positions he was demolishing. He spends a lot of time with a silly creationist tract that looks at giant redwoods and jellyfish and asks if they can really be the products of blind chance. (Rather charmingly, Dawkins doesn't seem to realise that the Watchtower Tract Society is synonymous with Jehovah's Witnesses.) Is the author of the tract really talking about mathematical odds? Is he really saying that the chance of a lot of molecules suddenly arranging themselves into a giant redwood is less than a billion trillion billion to one and therefore someone must have constructed the tree? I think that their real concern is with the blindness of the forces which scientists say caused the tree to exist. I think that when they look at the tree, they experience certain aesthetic and spiritual emotions and they think that those emotions are appropriate and meaningful and have something to do with the tree. I think that they think that if the tree is only the product of indifferent and impersonal forces then those emotional responses become meaningless. I think that they think that in a purely Darwinian universe, they won't even be allowed to say 'that's a pretty tree' any more. If that is what they think, then a clear explanation of how those blind, indifferent forces work is simply a non sequitur.
That said, if you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection – as everyone sensible does -- Dawkins' proof is entirely valid. I know, of course, that an annoying rump of Creationists are making a lot of noise on both sides of the Atlantic. But I think that the majority of mainstream Jews, Christians, Muslims and very probably Mormons would agree with Dawkins. 'God'–defined as 'a being who deliberately designed and created everything in the universe including us' does not exist.
I have four books of popular apologetics on my shelf. None of them makes the slightest attempt to use the Argument From Design to promote the belief in God.




  • John Young (The Case Against Christ) specifically rules out design as proof of the existence of God, suggesting that instead we look at 'personal experience and history,' by which he means evangelical Jesus-changed-my-life type testimony.








  • Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) talks about the Bible, the figure of Jesus and poached eggs.








  • C.S Lewis (Mere Christianity) puts forward a rather involved version of the argument from morality. (In Miracles he uses a very involved argument from consciousness, but let's not go there.)








  • Roger T Forster (Saturday Night...Monday Morning) does appear at one point to be drifting into Aquinas' 'first cause' argument. 'If the universe has not always existed, then it must have had a beginning...So if there was a beginning, there must have been a beginner in some form or other.' But it turns out that all Forster wants to do is distinguish between 'naturalism' and 'supernaturalism'. Either 'the universe' is all that exists or else 'something else – call it GOD for the moment' exists as well. This matters to Forster because, if 'something else -- call it GOD for the moment' exists, then it is possible to ask teleological questions about The Universe. He doesn't think that 'call-it-GOD-for-the-moment' is necessary to explain how the Universe got into the state we found it in. He thinks that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment caused The Universe but he doesn't necessarily think that it 'deliberately designed everything in it including us.'




(Forster may, incidentally, be to blame for the following well-worn argument. Suppose you ask the question 'Why is that kettle boiling?' Someone might reply: 'Because energy is going into the water in the form of heat, causing the water to vaporise.' And they would be right. But someone else might equally well answer 'Because I want a cup of tea.' And they would be right, too. Forster's point is that you can answer the same question in two different ways, and the second answer ('I want a cup of tea') does not in any sense abolish or contradict the first. So there is no necessary conflict between Religion and Science. If you admit the existence of some reality other than the Universe, then it becomes possible to ask questions which have 'I-want-a-cup-of-tea' type answers -- but that doesn't abolish or invalidate the scientific questions. Christians sometimes use the Cup of Tea metaphor to demonstrate that 'Science asks how; religion asks why'. This is a very good phrase to use, not because it is true, nor because it is what Forster meant, but because it enrages Richard Dawkins.)
Given that vanishingly few people believe in Dawkins version of 'God', the great man has two options:




  • He could say 'I am simply uninterested in any other version of God. I have nothing to say about him, or even Him. John Humphrys can sit in a quiet room with the Archbishop of Canterbury for as long as he wishes; he will hear not one word of complaint from me. Those things whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should shut the hell up about.' This would have made the book very short.








  • He could make a serious attempt to find out what other Gods are on the market. He could find out what kinds of deity are invoked by people who fully accept everything that Dawkins has to say about Galapagos Tortoises but who nevertheless consider themselves to be Theists. This would have involved him in reading some books. Talking to some Christians. Trying to find out what non-creationist-Theists mean when they use the term 'God'. You know. Research.




Instead, he spends the book half-heartedly putting forward arguments which he doesn't understand, don't interest him and don't have any possible bearing on his case.
Here he is waffling on about the the Holy Trinity:
Arius of Alexander, in the the fourth century AD denied that Jesus was consubstantial (of the same substance or essence) with God. What could that possibly mean, you are probably asking. Substance? What substance? What exactly do you mean by essence? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply.
Actually, it meant a great deal: a very great deal. You don't have to believe that God exists to see that a story in which God takes on human form is a very different story from one in which God creates a messenger and tells that messenger to take on human form. The Passion of the Christ is a different movie depending on whether you think the person being eviscerated is God or just some guy. Athanasius thought that it was God who hung on a cross for the world; Arius thought that it was a created being who was not God. This is not very little; this is very big. Granted, the Creeds put it in terms of Aristotelian theories about 'substance' and 'essence': but there isn't much sense in complaining that technical documents are written in technical language if you are not prepared to pick up a standard work and look up what the words mean.
But Dawkins is simply not interested in Christian ideas about God -- and why should he be? If it could be shown that the Nicene Creed made perfect sense, would that bring Dawkins one inch -- or indeed one iota -- closer to a belief in 'a supernatural and superhuman person who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us?' Of course not. The Arian controversy is simplyirrelevant to the case which he is trying to make. So why bring it up in the first place?
A few pages later, he asks the following question about polytheism:
How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate God.
Again, this is easily answered. Aphrodite is a Greek God, Venus is a Roman one and the Romans took it for granted that all nations worshipped the same gods under different names. Caesar saw the Druids praying to the Sun and concluded that they were followers of Apollo. Thor and Wotan are both characters in a single cycle of stories. The Norse Gods are effectively a family of superheroes: the universe is very much a going concern when Wotan arrives on the scene. I don't think that there is ever any suggestion that one is a 'manifestation' of the other.
But the New College Professor of Public Understanding of Science has an even better answer.
Who cares? Life is too short to worry about the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many.
To which one is tempted to say: 'Well, you started it.'
He goes on:
Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect I shall say no more about it.
That pretty much sums up the book: gesturing towards subjects about which he has nothing whatsoever to say.
Would a clear and lucid account of how Hindu Polytheism differs from Norse and Roman systems make Dawkins more inclined to believe in a supernatural intelligence who designed and created everything in the universe, including us? Of course not. So why is the Professor wasting the class's time on it?
Then we get onto proofs of the existence of God. Dawkins rehearses the story of how Bertrand Russell (as an undergraduate) decided that our friend the Ontological Proof was logically sound. Dawkins says that even if the argument was logically sound, Russell had no right to conclude that God exists. He should have just assumed that the Proof was a logical trick, on the level of Zeno's paradox. We may not yet have the logical tools to debunk it, but 'it is too good to be true that grand truths about the cosmos should follow from a mere word game.' Even if it appears to be right, it's wrong. The universe just doesn't work like that.
So no logical proof – even a perfectly sound one -- could possibly establish the existence of God, even in principle. So why waste our time on the specific fallacies of Anselm's proof? Why mention it at all?
He goes on to talk about the 'The Argument from Religious Experience', which he takes to mean 'the argument that "God" must exist because people experience supernatural events which have no other possible explanation'. He goes through several examples of supposedly supernatural events which can be easily 'explained away' – as psychological phenomena, hallucinations or simply as mundane things which the eye of faith mistakes for God. He then admits that he can't explain how 70,000 pilgrims at Fatima can all have seen the sun crash into the earth in 1917. But:
It may seem improbable that 70,000 people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage... But any of these apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit...
So: when a supernatural event can be explained away, that's evidence for the non-existence of 'God'. But when a supernatural event can't be explained away, that's no evidence for the existence of 'God'. We should just assume that there is an explanation which haven't spotted yet. If God walked into Dawkins' study and tapped him on the shoulder, it wouldn't shake Dawkins faith. He'd just go and get his shoulder checked out.
And, again, Dawkins is quite right: if it were established beyond all doubt that every single vision of the Virgin Mary has been perfectly genuine this would leave the question of Dawkins' 'God' precisely where it was. The Virgin Mary may very well be a supernatural and even a superhuman person but the fact that she appears to pious children and heals cripples at Lourdes wouldn't prove that she or anyone else deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us. If we could convince Dawkins that Our Lady of Lourdes was quite real, he'd be quite free to say 'Gosh. So some people have a supernatural guardian. I never expected that. But it doesn't make me doubt the facts of evolution.'
How could it? For Dawkins the theory of evolution by natural selection has the status of a logical axiom. It is self-evidently, necessarily true. A logical proof, a well attested supernatural manifestation, a genuine miracle, a babel fish: these could no more make Dawkins doubt the existence of natural selection than the could make him believe that triangles have four sides.
Dawkins seems to be dimly aware that when people talk about 'God', they do not always mean 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.' At the beginning of chapter 2 he attempts to get his retaliation in first:
This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, on that would otherwise – as sure as night follows day – turn up in a review: 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed the distraction is worse than irrelevant. It's very silliness is designed to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.
This is pure bluster. If I say 'The search for extra-terrestrial civilisation is futile, because it's absurd to imagine grey aliens in flying saucers who abduct cattle and mutilate red-necks,' a SETTI enthusiast might say 'But that's not what we are looking for; we agree with you that those kinds of U.F.O stories are silly.' If I replied 'I knowed you'd say that because that's what peoples like you always says, but it do not matter, because the other kind of alien are just as silly so yah-boo-sucks' I wouldn't be advancing the discussion very far. Dawkins may, in fact, disbelieve in all gods; but the 'particular version' who deliberately designed and created the universe is the only particular version whose particular existence he makes the slightest particular effort to disprove.
Christians don't think that Dawkins thinks that they think that God really has a beard. 'Old man in the sky with a white beard' is a figure of speech – shorthand – which neatly encapsulates various errors which lazy atheists and naive theists sometimes make, for example:
1: They imagine that Christians think that God is a human being of some kind and therefore ask questions like 'What does he eat?' 'If he made the world, what did he stand on?' 'If he doesn't have a beard, how does he shave?' 'How did he evolve?' (Three guesses which of those questions troubles Prof. Dawkins?) Christians don't think that God is an old man. They don't even think he is a man. They probably don't even think he's made of atoms.
2: They confuse symbols with representations: they think that when Michelangelo painted God on the Pope's ceiling, he was making an informed guess about what someone would have see with their eyes if they bumped into God on the Roman metro – as opposed to using pictures to put across theological ideas.
3: They imagine that Christians think that God lives in some particular place in space and time. They may not think that we think that he lives in the sky, but I think that they think that we think that if you had a fast enough spaceship you could eventually track him down. Dawkins doesn't commit himself on the question of God's facial hair; but it is pretty clear that he thinks that God lives in the sky – or at any rate, in some place in the empirical universe.
One of Dawkins' groupies is at this moment -- as surely as night follows day -- composing a comment which runs like this. 'Of course Dawkins thinks that if there's a 'God' he lives in the empirical universe, because that's the only kind of universe which exists. "Not in the empirical universe" means the same as "Nowhere".'
To which I will respond 'That's the exact point we disagree about. Some people believe that the universe is the only thing that exists. Some people believe that there is something else apart from the universe. If you say 'the empirical universe is all that exists' you are pre-supposing your conclusions in your premises, or, to use the technical term, cheating.'
I think a lot of Dawkins' arguments do, in fact, contain this kind of 'cheating'. When he says that the 'argument from design' would create an infinite regress (if 'God' made the universe, then something even cleverer than 'God' must have made 'God', and something even cleverer than God-2 must have made God-2) I think that he is picturing God as a powerful, complex being, composed of atoms, that evolved or was created somewhere in space-and-time. A man in a bowler hat on a flying carpet: perhaps even an elderly one who forgot to recharge his electric shaver. At any rate, he quotes someone called Carlin who thinks that God is 'an invisible man living in the sky.' He strongly implies that he thinks that the story of the ascension of Jesus means that Christians think that Jesus came from the sky and went back there. He quotes an atheist blogger who describes God as a 'sky-fairy.' And he begins the book with an enormously revealing quote from Douglas Adams.
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
Dawkins thinks that Christians think that along with the rose bush, the nasturtium and the lawn-mower, there is one more object in the garden, namely, a fairy. So naturally, he searches the garden. When an extensive finger-tip search fails to turn up any little people with gossamer wings he concludes that there are no fairies and that any Christian who carries on saying that there are is being perverse.
But, but, but....Does Dawkins – did Adams? -- honestly not know that these simply aren't the kinds of fairies that Christians believe in? That even if you widened your search and eventually tracked down a little commune in Glastonbury where the fairies who designed the garden, planted the seeds and installed the fashionable water-feature were currently living you still wouldn't have found the kind of fairy we believe in? We don't believe that there are fairies in the garden. Or anywhere else. You'd be much better off saying that we think that the garden is in the fairies.
I suggested in my last sermon that if Oolon Coluphid had tracked down the 'God' who had left a message in five mile high letters of fire on the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains, he still wouldn't have found the person who actually created the The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy -- namely, Douglas Adams. Dorothy L Sayers pressed the idea that 'God is like an author' quite hard, and C.S Lewis practically broke it. It's also been used by Mr. Grant Morrison and Mr. David Sim. But seriously. You 'brights' will understand us Christians much better once you've grasped that when we talk about 'God', we are thinking of something much less like a fairy and much more like a Douglas.