Monday, December 29, 2008

Andrew Brown defining humourless atheism


I should just say that there aren't any TBTMs at the moment because a) I'm struggling with a nasty flu-bug type of thing, and b) my visiting mother-in-law has taken on the dog-walking duties, so I'm not on the beach myself!


UPDATE: I wanted to engage with James' comments in a new post, but they'd sit better as the flesh on the bones of this one...

James: Interesting, but not persuasive of anything further than the old "New Atheists are just atheists with potty mouths" argument. Brown doesn't seem to have read most of the folks he pillories. Worse, though, is the quality of his arguments. I am, first and foremost, not at all sympathetic to the idea that philosophy is, when it comes to its basic (and many of its more advanced) questions, some sort of specialized discipline requiring the "authority" of formal education in its subject matters to discuss. This is even more true of theism, deism, and atheism than most subjects.

Sam: I'm pretty sure that Brown HAS read the various people concerned (I'm sure he's read more than me for example) but I think you miss his point by talking about philosophy exclusively - part of Brown's point is to try to widen out the discussion beyond the narrow confines of 20th century analytical philosophy.

J: Brown’s definition of the “New Atheists” definition of faith is, well, unsatisfactory. This is no real fault of his own, as I think this is one of those words where “you know it when you see it,” much like the ongoing struggles to define “truth.”

S: Well, he documents the source (Dawkins' Selfish Gene) and it's a common trope.

J: Brown’s proposition of a rigorous adherence only to science as the route to all knowledge is likewise more straw than man. As I read many of the fellows Brown lambasts, science is, in their view, the route to certain knowledge. That is to say, anything that science cannot attest to is, at heart, conjecture. Some of them might apply this to all things god, but not all; this route is used to attack some of the pillars of Abrahamic monotheism, and so I think it is natural for Brown and other Judeo-Christians (and Westerners in general) to believe that if one has no god, one must have science as their sine qua non.

S: the issue is whether there is legitimate knowledge (or insight, or wisdom) which doesn't come via the scientific process; more broadly, whether scientific knowledge is the best form of knowledge possible for a human being to attain. The ones Brown is criticising tend to more or less explicitly hold to a scientistic/ reductionistic/ materialistic outlook which presupposes that scientific knowledge is precisely that - either the only legitimate form of knowledge available, or, the best sort of knowledge available. I reject this, and I see a rejection of this as one of the litmus tests distinguishing between humourless and sophisticated atheisms (or, more provocatively, whether an atheist is brain-dead or not). I see this as the most important (and intellectually interesting) area of discussion.

J: Many atheists do use “reason” as an attack on religion. I don’t think this is fair, or accurate: reason describes a thought process, which the religious do use. Where the “New Atheists” score is that the reason and logic used by the religious starts with premises that presuppose the conclusion; to put it in scientific terms, no room is made for the null-hypothesis.

S: Agree with the first bit :) I know lots of religious people who explore the 'null-hypothesis', we tend to call it apophaticism.

J: Brown makes a mistake he accuses the “New Atheists” of (rightly or wrongly, depending on the case): The conflation of religion, faith, and belief. Religion imposes a structure upon faith. The Enlightenment was not an atheistic project, but an anti-authoritarian one. It sought, and seeks, to upend these structures. Indeed, that is the very problem with Protestantism: it falls short of reaching its logical – and correct – conclusions. Largely because of the real world implications of such an upheaval.

S: I think we need to have a conversation about these words "religion", "faith" and "belief" because I think they are used in different ways, and no consensus can possibly form on that basis. Once that became clear I might end up agreeing with you.

J: I don’t think Brown understands the objections to religious moderation: Without an honest rejection of literalism or an acknowledgment of metaphor, fundamentalism and liberal denominations are joined at the hip, so long as both insist on the absolute certainty of core doctrines. It’s like enabling an alcoholic family member: you refuse to buy the rounds, but you don’t actually slap the fucker around and send him to rehabilitation because you might find some dysfunction in the core of your family system that started the whole thing to begin with.

S: I get the analogy, but I don't understand the point (possibly because there's more to Christianity than the fundamentalists and the liberals).

J: Ultimately, where Brown – and Sam – goes wrong is in trying to detach the philosophical and psychological underpinnings and consequences of faith from religion and then detaching those underpinnings and consequences from politics and society.

S: Do unpack that a little more....

The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)

Awesomely good - intellectually intriguing and creative, extremely well-written and absorbing, and, last but not least, I'd recommend to any philosophy students wanting to know what 'reification' means.
With a h/t to Mike Bursell who recommended it to me.

Mamma Mia

Marvellous. 5/5

Friday, December 26, 2008

Mersea madness

Otherwise known as the Boxing Day Dip in aid of the RNLI.
More photos on Facebook for those who are my friends there.

This night all gods die (a sermon)

I've definitely gone off the idea of posting sermons, but my boss liked this one, and as I had written it out in full - very rare these days - I thought I'd shove it up.

This will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger

I'd like to begin my remarks tonight by talking about the end of the world, the twilight of the gods, gotterdammerung, ragnarok, armageddon - the day when Tesco has nothing left on its shelves - and what I want to say to you on this magical night is: "this night all gods die"

For what do we think of when we think of the gods? The traditional mythical portrayal is normally of heroic figures, of Zeus and Apollo, or Odin and Thor - characters that are larger than life, filled with mighty power and special skills, who can interact with mortals but only from a position of great superiority

So why might I claim that gods such as these die on a night such as this? Simply because, for a Christian, here is where the real God, the one, true, living God, God with a capital G, can be found - and can be found, moreover, in the form of a small human baby.

This will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger.

A baby who is not invulnerable and filled with amazing strength; this baby is an especially vulnerable one, homeless, a refugee, warmed by the breath of the animals as he struggles into life in their feeding tray - and remember, at the end of this story, this god gets executed like a common criminal

we cannot believe in both sorts of gods - it is either one or the other - so we can either believe in gods geared around strength and power and victories, a celestial form of "my dad is bigger than your dad" - or else we can believe in a god that can be discovered in what is weak, what is not respectable, what can so easily be ignored by all the people well fed, warm and satisfied in the inn.

this will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger

or perhaps there is room to disbelieve in both? to disbelieve in all the Greek gods, and the Norse gods, and the Celtic gods and so on - and then, as some atheists like to put it, to not believe in just one more? I don't believe that's actually a possibility, for let me ask the question: what are the priorities around which we build our lives? for that is really what the gods are - they embody and personify our values, they represent those things for which we strive, they are what guide our choices day by day, as slowly but surely we either build a prison for our souls, or a home in which to live - and everyone, even atheists, has priorities in their life

for all that happens, when people are deceived into thinking they don't worship any gods is that other things, things that we don't normally recognise as being gods take the place of God, and these become the objects, the idols, around which lives are built, and lives are then destroyed. After all, possibly the best example we have seen, this year, of a god being toppled is our financial system, what Jesus called Mammon - and we're all vulnerable to that temptation, to look to the accumulation of wealth to provide security, and respect, and comfort, and happiness - it doesn't of course, and in a time such as this, when that particular god has toppled to the floor, the emptiness of that worship is revealed for all to see

such gods are not the one, true living God - for the hallmark of the true and living God is that worshipping Him leads to life, not death; it leads to peace in our hearts, not strife in our souls; it allows us to flourish as fully human beings, to know and become who we truly are, and not simply to be pieces chewed up and spat out by an unthinking and uncaring system

how then, if tonight is the night when all gods die, how can we learn to listen to that living God? Well let us pay attention once again, to that small and vulnerable baby, the one that can be pushed aside so easily.

This will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger.

Let me suggest that the living God speaks his Word in just the same way; he will not normally light up the sky in bright neon to tell us what to do; no, his is a quiet voice, one that is easily pushed aside or shouted down by all the voices that fill our heads - of friends, of family, of society, of economic necessity - but this quiet, easily pushed aside voice - this voice is persistent, this voice will never leave us, for this voice leads to life, and the eternal desire of this voice is to lead us into abundant life

this voice speaks a word to us, a word which was there in the beginning, when we were first thought of, and a word through which we ourselves were made - it is a voice which already knows the fullest truths about us, more truths than we are even prepared to admit to ourselves in our most private moments - and which speaks a word of love in just those places, at just those times

if we can but listen to that voice, if we can but leave the comfort of the inn, and go to be in the stable, with the shepherds and the wise men, and the donkey and the ox, then we too can hear this voice which leads to life - for that is what is at stake in this story of the death of the gods, and the birth of the living God

this will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger.

may each of us hear this voice of the living God, so that Christ can be born in our hearts, this Christmas time, and for ever more. Amen.


I wish you all a joyful Christmas season.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grudge 2

Some excellently scary moments but the film as a whole was garbage. I haven't seen the original (English or Japanese) and I doubt that I now will (I only watched this one because of an accidental set of circumstances, otherwise I'd have made sure I watched them in order).


Better than expected thriller/horror, mainly due to good acting from the lead actress.


The Simpsons Movie

Enjoyable. I've always wanted to watch the show on a regular basis but have never managed to.


The Simpsons Movie

Enjoyable. I've always wanted to watch the show on a regular basis but have never managed to.


Particular political issues - a response to Al

Al listed some issues that he counts as "conservative", and invited me to comment on them. I'm just going to comment here on my own views on each issue, not on whether they count as definitionally conservative or not.

Al's list: "lower and less progressive taxes, more spending on defence, police and prisons, sympathy for the death penalty, reluctance to control guns, less spending on health and social security, less spending on state schools and the encouragement of private alternatives, more restrictive immigration, "no" to gay marriage or to any form of equal rights for gays, less regulation of business to help the environment or to protect workers rights or consumer rights, less regulation of financial markets, less subvention, freer trade, more restrictive abortion laws."

My stance:
lower and less progressive taxes I'd be in favour of a flat-rate tax;

more spending on defence, police and prisons yes, but tied in with a large number of structural reforms, especially with regard to the reformative elements of the prison system. I'm not in favour of prison for non-violent crime, especially as prison is presently constituted;

reluctance to control guns I'm presently thinking about the implications of remedying the disempowerment of the general populace, which may or may not involve armaments;

less spending on health and social security as I see it the issue is not about the level of spending but about a) how the spending is sourced, and b) how it is managed and spent. I'm in favour of a more intelligent structuring of health spending (NOT shifting to a US system, which I think is bonkers). I think there is a debate to be had about emergency care and chronic care, in that the former I see as being essentially free at point of need, the latter I'm not so sure about;

less spending on state schools and the encouragement of private alternatives I'm in favour of a voucher system, which gives parents more power, rather than being beholden to the producer interests;

more restrictive immigration yes, especially from Islamic countries. I'm a big fan of the US system of immigration, ie having to sign up to a framework of values;

"no" to gay marriage or to any form of equal rights for gays I'm in favour of full legal (secular) equality for gay people/ gay couples;

less regulation of business to help the environment or to protect workers rights or consumer rights I'm in favour of businesses being required to operate within the constraints established by their local community; they must certainly operate within the law; I'm also strongly in favour of proper cost-benefit analysis being done on proposed regulations;

less regulation of financial markets financial operations need to operate under the same law as anything else, eg contract law; beyond that I'm not sure what regulations are at issue;

less subvention yes;

freer trade yes in principle, but I don't see free trade as an idol to be pursued at all costs, as in practice 'free trade' can be a total misnomer;

more restrictive abortion laws yes.


Gratuitous extra piccie because I wanted to include this link: recent temperature changes in context.


Faith equals fertility?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Who should pay for the helicopter?

A group of friends are climbing a mountain in the Alps. There is an accident, a fall, and one man breaks his leg. The emergency services are contacted; the injured man is airlifted out; he heals; all is well.

Who should pay for the helicopter?

I would have thought that some form of insurance or tax on the people who walk in the mountains, which pays for the helicopter, would be a workable and sensible arrangement.

What I don't think is sensible is a tax on the general population to pay for the helicopter - not only are the general population not involved in the Alpen pursuits, but a general tax is something extorted by force.

[And the reason I don't think extorting things by force is any good is because it destroys the moral fabric. This is why I'm a conservative on general principles.]

The difficulty comes with, eg, a single mum in poverty. Should there be a general tax to help her? Is it a fair analogy to compare an Alpen walker who breaks his leg with a single mum?

What I would not dispute is that there are circumstances where it is not just morally right but morally imperative to offer support to a single mum. What I question is whether that support should come from a central government relying on enforced taxation.

So the real question is: how far should people be expected to bear the consequences of their actions? In the case of Karen Matthews, for example, it's not clear to me that government support was helping. Put crudely, central government is too remote and coarse grained to help in a situation where the wider culture (especially the moral or ethical culture) has broken down. In such cases it is more important to establish a moral framework than to give out cash.

I do believe that a Christian approach is one based on grace rather than merit, so there isn't just a bias to the poor, there is a bias towards mercy rather than condemnation. What I don't believe is that this mercy should be distributed via the state (as opposed to, eg, the local church).

In other words, I would agree that despatching the helicopter is a Christian act. What I don't agree with is a general assumption that the best way to provide the helicopter is by a centralised state.

"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right." (2 Thess 3)


The U.S. commander in charge of the waters off Somalia, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, told CNN on Monday that he thought it would take a force of 61 warships to safeguard the sea lanes just in the Gulf of Aden, compared with the 14 international ships now patrolling off the Horn of Africa. If the U.S. Navy alone had to provide a force that size, it would take every destroyer and cruiser in the fleet, plus three frigates.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Last few days have been exceedingly busy, so no TBTMs - but you haven't missed much as the weather has been very dull - as with today's picture. Am now slowly getting back into the saddle.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A reading group

Over the last few months Stephen Law led a 'group read' of Dawkins' God Delusion, which I think worked out fairly well, although I didn't comment as much as I might have done as he was fairly restrictive in what he wanted to cover. I'm inclined to do something similar here, as I think there is a good crowd of people from all over the spectrum of belief and unbelief.

The book I'm going to begin with is Rodney Stark's "The Victory of Reason". I'll write a chapter summary at the beginning of each week and try and kick off some vigorous and fruitful discussion.

I'll begin in January - which should give anyone who wants to join in time to get hold of the book.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Walking ancient paths.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Please God, please force us to be good.


Not a tripod to be seen.

A George Monbiot article on Global Warming denial

Day off, so Ollie gets a later walk, and TBTM is delayed. I'm reading this article by George Monbiot, where he says:

Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian's forums, you'll find endless claims that the hockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world's glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn't matter.

I thought I'd do a quick post about anthropogenic global warming (AGW), as it's something I'm thinking about at the moment (when I get the time to think - like on a day off...)

So far I've been wholly persuaded about AGW (eg in my Let us be Human talks) but what's happening now as I dig into it further, and look more explicitly into some of the science, is that I realise the situation isn't as black and white as it is portrayed by people like Monbiot. For example it does seem true that (running through his list):
- the hockey stick graph is rather dodgy, and had to be significantly amended in the light of criticism;
- sunspots are clearly involved in the process somehow, and there is ongoing research to find out to what extent;
- some of the world's glaciers ARE advancing;
- global warming theory IS heavily dependent upon computer models, but not exclusively;
- some climate scientists in the 1970s were worried about an ice age coming (but this is a point about the media not the science).

All of which, added up, doesn't mean that AGW is unreal. I still think it probable that the carbon emissions from industrial civilisation are damaging the climate and likely to tip it into a new equilibrium - and that this tipping will cause havoc to us. In addition (not least for wider reasons) I think that the sooner we embark upon a massive shift away from fossil fuels the better.

However, I would also say that:
- the polarisation in the debate isn't helping the access to truth, and if the science was totally robust, people wouldn't talk about the 'scientific consensus' (one million lemmings can be wrong);
- the IPCC reports are seriously flawed - ie they significantly overstate the potential risks - because they overestimate the amount of fossil fuels available;
- we are not in control of the situation, and I think people like Monbiot are getting hysterical because they want to be. He is consumed by fear and has no faith.

I'm becoming more and more persuaded that Bjorn Lomborg has basically the right approach. I haven't read 'Cool it' but in his earlier 'Sceptical Environmentalist' he argued that there are many other problems which humankind face that, if addressed, could do much more for the sum of human happiness (eg ensuring clean water access, or educating all girls in the third world etc). Of course, all these things should be done as well as shifting off fossil fuels; all I'm saying is that global warming is one problem amongst others. It's not the be-all and end-all of the crisis we have entered into.

(Oh, and for the record, I do subscribe to the Real Climate blog and read it regularly. I just now also read some of the sceptical sites as well.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The virtue or sin of contraception

The 90(!) comments on my post on the difference between being Green and being a Christian who cares about the environment (here) have ended up being a long conversation about different attitudes to contraception.

Chris G-Z takes a traditionalist Roman Catholic perspective on the subject, and I have been puzzled on the justifications being offered. In particular, in situations where a married couple come to know that they are not fertile, we pursued the question of whether it was legitimate for sexual relations to take place. Chris agreed that, in such a case, it was licit "to have sexual intercourse for non-procreative purposes, so long as, if it is procreative, then the conception is allowed to take its natural course" and so long as the sexual relation is "between a husband and wife married to each other".

I am baffled as to the difference between this and accepting the use of contraception. I'm not aware of a contraceptive method with 100% reliability, and I'm aware of a number of people (myself included) who, should contraception fail, would be willing to accept the consequences of that failure (eg raise the resulting child). There seems to be an acceptance that sexual relations are not exclusively for purposes of reproduction, which I think is right, but which runs against the grain of the teaching on contraception.

I should add that I think this is a problem with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church, not with Chris' logic generally. It may be that there is something in the official teaching which we haven't unearthed yet.


Madagascar 2

Went to see this with my eldest; he loved it, I thought it was fine. 3/5


10 energy myths.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Don Cupitt on a non-realist God

Can be listened to here.

(An excellent site by the way, for anyone interested in philosophy).

I once sat at Don Cupitt's feet, listening to him give his spiel, which I was rather interested in at the time. As, in the course of the conversation, it became very clear that he had no understanding of the mystical tradition from the inside I lost interest in his point of view. Might be time for a reassessment.

NB my view on non-realism is the same as Wittgenstein's: (paraphrase from memory) 'one man is a convinced realist, another a convinced idealist, and each teaches his child to cross the road accordingly'.


The well-tended bookshelf.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Political Brain (Drew Westen)

Very stimulating application of contemporary research into the emotions (something I've had a long standing interest in - see, eg, here) to the political sphere in the United States. I particularly enjoyed the dissection of the Gore-Bush debates, and the plausible explanation of why Bush "won". Clearly a big influence on the Obama campaign - let's hope that Palin reads it too, although she seems to be a natural at most of it. Highly recommended.