Monthly Archives: September 2013

Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

One of the frustrations I have in discussing matters of faith and ‘religion’ with atheists, which I don’t get when discussing with people of other faiths, is the insistence that the primary issue is whether or not God exists. But, as I said in part 1, to critique someone’s point of view, it helps if you try to see things from that point of view, even if you don’t hold to it yourself.

So in looking at atheism, which is not merely a rejection of christianity, but of any ‘religion’ that may be described as theistic, I do have a great deal of sympathy. After all, if the existence of God had been proved there would be no need for much further discussion and we could all agree. But the fact remains that God’s existence has not been proved. There is still doubt and disbelief, and that is not entirely irrational.

Where my frustration lies is with those who I would describe as more fundamentalist to whom this is seen as a blocking problem. i.e. one which must be resolved fully and finally before any other progress can be made. When I try to speak of the good work of many a philosopher and theologian over the centuries, who have wrestled with a great many of these ideas and those related to them, I often get a response back that theology is “nothing more than weasel words” or a play on semantics or some other similar kind of put-down.

That point of view I have little sympathy for. Imagine for a moment that I am a sceptic about chemistry. Having read a little chemistry, I know that the whole science is dependent upon the interaction of electrons and their “orbits” or quantum shells. But this imaginary sceptic doubts whether there is such a thing as an electron. “Show me one,” I demand. “Let me hold it in my hand and turn it over so that I may examine it.” The chemist friend, who is extremely patient, explains that one cannot hold an electron in the hand as one might hold a coin. He pulls up a blackboard and does some illustrative diagrams, though he explains that these are models which represent the behaviour of electrons, but which are not necessarily 100% accurate depictions thereof. He does some fancy demonstrations by throwing group 1 metals into water, putting nails into acid and setting fire to the resulting gas. He does everything he can with the means available to his disposal to show me that chemistry is real. I turn to him and say, “That’s just trying to weasel your way with coloured flames and powders. You haven’t shown me a single electron.”

The frustration that the chemist would feel at my imaginary dunce is the frustration that I do feel for those who would ask for a proof of God before looking at any other aspect of christianity. For me, and also for many other christians, the route to belief leaves a big clue in the name – Christ. Though my understanding is that Christ is a title, the same as Messiah, which is attributed to Jesus. So when referring to the person I will tend to refer to Jesus rather than to Christ.

Going after the historical Jesus

Given that this christian’s faith is grounded in the person of Jesus, if any wish to dissuade me from my belief (as you are perfectly entitled to do) then this must be the starting point, rather than an attempt to start with the question of God.

Logically, there’s nothing wrong the latter approach. If the idea of God could be disproved then not only would christianity fall but so would most religions. In this respect, it’s a prize that any atheist should desire, if being right is their aim. Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.

There certainly have been efforts made to try to discredit Jesus, though some of these fall prey to the same kind of bad apologetics I alluded to before. Here, I think specifically of adherents to the Christ Myth hypothesis, who believe, contrary to evidence, that Jesus never existed. Even Richard Dawkins has backed away from such extreme irrational revisionism!

To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity. To try to discredit all other religions would require more effort. This would put to the test those who not only do not believe in a god, but who also claim that not believing in a god is an insignificant part of their lives. I see whole twitter feeds, comment profiles and blogs dedicated to telling us how much of a non-issue it is for them. Yet such an effort would be needed to allay the suspicion that atheism is a lazy cop-out, a non-thought process. I’m sure there a number of things we don’t believe in, but the truth is we either don’t give them much attention or we have a glib answer to hand.

To those who do not think much about the matter, I can understand that. There are a great many things in this world to worry about, competing for our attention. So why should you pay attention to the guy on the street corner yelling out random things interjected with the word ‘Jesus’ every now and then. I don’t expect you to know the difference between a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness, let alone why neither of them are typically regarded as christians, in spite of seemingly having so much in common with your friend who says she goes a pentecostal church, or your uncle, the lifelong anglican. It’s absolutely to fine for you to have your (non-)belief and I don’t find there anything wrong with that. I might disagree with you, but if so, let us sit down and reason together.

To those who have thought about the matter, and admit as much, I commend you. It takes guts to be willing to take a serious look at something you disagree with. I would have some questions to ask you, though maybe I’ll save those for another time.

Conclusion

I suppose my point is this: atheists and christians often talk at cross-purposes. For a christian to speak of God, we do not all speak with the same understanding or viewpoint. I speak from my own perspective, many aspects of which will be familiar and shared with a wide range of christians from a number of denominations and those of none. There are ideas of God which I reject, such as the depictions of an old man with a large beard in the clouds, a sky fairy or kind of invisible puppeteer. I know of no christian whose beliefs are expressed as such, or which could be fairly described likewise.

Theology is not so much a study of God, as a searching of God. It cannot be contained in a cage to have Its behaviour studied, to see how it reacts to certain stimuli. In part 1, I mentioned an ordo fides that the christian has. In this respect, God is best seen as a sort of tentative ‘conclusion’, but not a ‘conclusion’ that is ever finalised, if you get what I mean. I know I’m playing loosely words there, but I admit I struggle to find the perfect expression. But one person’s ‘conclusion’ should not be another person’s starting point. To do so misses out on a wealth of reasoning and nuance which may not be readily apparent from a concise statement of conclusion – such as a creed or other statement of faith.

To be an atheist can be to be wholly independent of any religion. That is, a viewpoint of non-belief that is purely a vaccum, not referencing any other viewpoint, whether “religious” or not. It need not be though, and of those that I ‘meet’ on the internet, in particular their atheism is formulated with specific reference to a number of religions, in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism (where I am careful to distinguish the latter two, though many conflate them  – incorrectly in my view).

It is almost inevitable that any prolonged discussion between a christian and an atheist will involve some level of disagreement. What I would hope need not be necessary is any form of insult, ridicule or hectoring. Because there is a great risk of talking past one another, or of possibly making assumptions about what another person does and doesn’t believe, why not listen to one another? Don’t assume you know what another person thinks, but hear them out before interjecting with any clarifications. Be aware that another may be approaching a subject from a completely different angle, couching their reasoning in different terms and with different emphases.

By all means, we should challenge one another and permit ourselves to be challenged. Only, if you do, don’t demand everything on your own terms. An atheist might want to discuss the question of God’s existence, but if that’s not the way a christian naturally approaches the issue, don’t be surprised if the response seems oblique. Likewise, to any christian that might wish to challenge an atheist, listen to what they have to say first; don’t project onto them the views of others who may hold similar views. If we can base discussions on these foundations, then I would hope that there may be a lot less unnecessary disagreement and that any disagreements remain solely on the things which matter to each of us in our shared humanity.

Book Review: Borders: A Very Short Introduction by Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen

Having been thoroughly hooked by the Very Short Introductions, this was one that I just happened to glance across while I was browsing a local bookshop. I can’t say that the subject was one that I have ever had a particular interest in, though the fact that a whole book (albeit a brief one) could be devoted to it did somewhat pique my curiosity.

It has to be noted that the book is very modern; so modern, in fact that I fear it may be out of date before too long. I’ll come on to why a little later, but if you’re thinking of reading it, please do so sooner than later.

Given that the book is about borders, there is a certain irony that in dealing the subject, the authors have had to traverse a number of disciplines including geography, politics, religion and commerce. Thus, the borders between these disciplines become blurred slightly. Certainly, they are not as firmly delineated as one might think. Yet, that is almost exactly the point of the book. The authors are quick to point out that even though you might pick up a map or an atlas and view borders between nations, or between districts or neighbours on a street, the ink & paper are more rigid than the borders they represent. Disputes occur all the time, some which are more prominent than others.

In discussing this, the authors do of course touch on the thorny issues related to the borders between Israel and Palestine. Here, they do tiptoe around some of the issues, but they are not overlooked entirely or ignored.

In writing this very short review (I confess, I finished it nearly 2 months after finishing the book) I was trying to think who I would recommend the book to. In truth, I couldn’t think of anyone to whom this would be of particular interest, yet that might seem and unfair denigration. That does not mean that it will not be of interest to anyone. As with any VSI, it’s a quick read so will not take up too much of your time.  It also comes armed with a very useful list for further reading, should you be inclined to carry on a new-found interest in the subject.

Sympathy for atheists (part 1 of 2)

It’s probably fair to say that I spend a reasonable amount of my spare time questioning and investigating my faith. This involves not only my own critical thinking, but also reading both proponents and opponents of my faith. I won’t agree with all, but I think it’s better to be well-informed of as many relevant viewpoints as one can reasonably manage without being confuddled by the noise. Indeed, if you look through my fairly eclectic reading, I hope you’ll see a fair array of views present. The idea behind this is somewhat akin to “iron sharpens iron.” i.e. the better quality the opposition I engage with, the more refined my understanding will become. Of course, if anything is revealed to me which falsifies any idea I’ve had, and it stands up when scrutinised, tested, etc. then the most logical course of action is to change my mind.

It would be my hope that any other person who regards themselves as a rationalist would recognise this as being a fair description of their worldview. You might choose to word it slightly differently, but I think the essence of the idea is there.

So when it comes to christianity, there are two different sorts of opposition. One would be someone who at claims to be a christian (see here for a longer discussion on this) but who holds a very different viewpoint. An example of this would be Marcus Borg, who would say he is a christian, but who thinks that the history is less relevant than the “more than literal” meaning of the christian message. The other kind of opposition would be atheistic, whereby the claims of christianity are thought to be false.

This is where I come to the slightly provocative title of this post. I have lot of sympathy for atheists who, very rightly, would wish to counter a christian viewpoint. The reason I have this sympathy is the great variety of beliefs that are held by different christians. Not only that, but to those who don’t live and breathe christianity, it’s not always clear what is an essential belief held by christians and what might be incidental.

If one is to provide an incisive critique into christianity, then it helps to try to view things from a christian’s perspective. One of the attacks I read and hear most frequently is the attack on the idea of a God.  Yet I do not know of many christians for whom this is their starting point. Though it is true that without God, christianity would be a nonsense, it is not the start and end of christian belief. To say that God is the Alpha and Omega does not mean to say that a belief in God is all there is, it is a more poetic statement about the cosmos. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by a number of christian/atheist discussions, there is little agreement about what one might mean by ‘god’ – at one end you might come up with such a pithy definition that it lacks any depth or understanding; it is barely an outline, bearing little resemblance to the portrayals made of God in scripture, art, belief and apologetics throughout history. At the other end of the scale, one might try to come up with a highly detailed and nuanced view of God. One of the many dangers here, though, is that few other christians would wholly agree with the description given. In this case, one must go through every understanding of God and attempt to refute each in turn; a task which is surely too great for any one person to attempt.

There is a wider question of whether or not any description of God could ever be said to be accurate. I would argue, somewhat apophatically, that the answer to this must be ‘no’. However, before I lunge down the route of mysticism, I would give a kataphatic response that we can get a glimpse, a beginning of understanding. To me, that beginning is found in the person of Jesus.

Of course, and this may have occurred to you, that the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed is a statement expressing belief in the existence of God. This, I will admit, is a personal bugbear of mine as the authors of the creed seem to be trying to work somewhat chronologically through the bible rather than express what I would refer to as an ‘order of belief’ – an ordo fides, if you will. To my way of thinking, I go by Jesus’ sayings that “no one can come to the father except through me.” and “he who has seen me has seen the father” [John 14:5-14].

In practice, I don’t know of many people at all who are christians because they first believed in the existence of God and then somehow progressed on from there to christianity. So even though I am happy to describe myself as a theist, and have no issue with anyone describing me as such, it is secondary to my being a christian.

The bible and apologetics don’t always help

Another area of sympathy for atheists comes from the area of christian apologetics. Though there is some that I like and find quite stimulating, there is, quite frankly, a load of old guff out there. But why is apologetics needed? Surely the key source material for christian belief, the bible, has the answers?

Sadly, not. The question of the existence of God is barely addressed in the bible. Aside from a particularly unhelpful little quip in Psalm 14 and a less than convincing appeal to the argument from design at the start of Romans, there is very little in the 66 books which set out a case. Instead, God is very much a factor which is assumed. It was only much later that the question began to be posed and the idea of God doubted and disbelieved. Only then was there a need for apologetics.

However, the field is cursed by a problem. That is, those who are christians already (in most cases) accept the conclusions before they hear the argument. This creates a predisposition to agreeing with the argument, regardless of its validity. Thus, many a well-meaning christian has parroted a line of bad reasoning. Though before my fellow christians accuse me of being an infidel, I would point out that the same is true of many an atheist. If you read the Amazon reviews of something like God is not Great or The God Delusion, you will find a great many reviews there are from atheists who have read those books to reinforce their confirmation bias. So no one group is entirely free from what I think is a very natural tendency to seek out the like-minded.

That’s it, for now

I do have a few more points to make, but I shall leave for those for later, as this is getting quite long. In case those points address concerns you may have now, I’ve not opened comments on this piece; you’ll have to wait until the 2nd part next week.

Book Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Anyone who ever looks at theology these days cannot help but notice the shadows of certain figures looming large over them. Arguably, fewer of these are more prominent than Karl Barth. His Church Dogmatics is often cited as one of the greatest works of 20th century theology. It is, however, extremely long and, I might add, rather expensive. So in order to attempt to get to grips with Barth’s theology, I have had his Dogmatics in Outline on my radar for some time. In this book, which is comprised of transcripts of lectures he gave in Germany, just after the Second World War, he condenses his magnum opus into a little over 140 pages, going through the Apostles’ Creed, phrase by phrase.

Before he begins in earnest, he gives us an outline of his plan, as well as some very useful discussions on the nature of faith.  One must not think, though, that because the book is short that it is straightforward. It’s very dense, particularly the early chapters. I think I could re-read the first 30 pages over and over again, get something new out of them every time and yet still not fully grasp the breadth of the vision that Barth was expounding.

As he moves on to look at the various bits of the Apostles Creed, it does become a bit more accessible. Though that may be because I had, by that time, adjusted my reading to suit the cadences present in the text. In many ways, it is particularly hard for me to summarise what Barth’s theology is, because what became clear is how much of an influence he has been on the leaders of the churches I have been a part of. That is, I view my own beliefs as being fairly orthodox and there is very little in this book that is vastly different from the teaching I have largely grown up within baptist, pentecostal and other nonconformist churches. It was then merely a very well-articulated series of sermons in the same vein that I have listened to in each of the last 4 decades.

As I was reading through it, I found myself wondering if his theology was the pinnacle of ‘pre-critical’ thinking. Though there are plenty of theologians before him who have had similar views (I think here of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther & Calvin) Barth was a contemporary of Bultmann, who is one of the others whose shadow across modern theology cannot be ignored. The other figure I thought of was A.W. Tozer. Though the latter was not as theologically astute as Barth, I sensed a similarity in their approach to, and view of, the bible. Interestingly, though, Barth does not go so far as to make any sort of claim to inerrancy, but he does insist on the bible being front and centre of how we understand the christian faith. Though Bultmann is barely alluded to, there is a distinct air of defiance against Bultmann’s school of thinking. For my part, though I would lean towards Barth’s point of view, I would pay more attention to biblical criticism than is evidenced here.

Barth warns at the outset that this is meant to be a careful look at what the church should be and be for from the perspective of those who are part of the church. It’s not a book I would recommend to a non-christian, that’s not the target audience. But for anyone wanting to read a book of pretty solid theology, then this is an excellent place to start.

Suffragettes, Mandela and ‘just violence’

Background

After stating my position with regards to egalitarianism and feminism last week, it was almost inevitable that there would be some objections and feedback. Some of these are included in the comments, though others were received elsewhere. Here I look at two objections that were put my way on Twitter but which tweets of 140 characters would be insufficient to deal with. If you like, you can work out how many tweets this blog post would need to be divided up into. Below is the conversation that took place which triggered this:

Summary 1 Summary 2 Summary 3

Beatrix Potter

As an early aside, please allow me to deal with the point raised about my advocacy of Beatrix Potter could be interpreted as infantilization. Of course, Potter is best known as a writer of children’s fiction. Yet she was much more than that. The characterisations which she brought to her writings were based on observations she’d made during the time she worked as a naturalist. She was also a pioneer of conservation, long before it was fashionable. To dismiss an advocacy of consideration to be given to her inclusion on a banknotes as ‘infantilization’ ignores the fact that she was a polymath. Not only have her stories brought great joy to many in this country (along with Austen) but the breadth of her other work is, I think, a fine example.  If people are ignorant of other work, perhaps putting her on a banknote might even help educate them.

Nelson Mandela

With that aside done, one must address the key issue: whether or not my statement that the suffragettes were regarded as terrorists was true. The comparison that was drawn was to Nelson Mandela, so it is to him we now turn.

To my generation, the first time most had heard of Nelson Mandela was when he was released from prison. I remember it being a newsworthy event, but given that he had been imprisoned before my lifetime, I knew nothing of his earlier activities. To me, he was the president whose election victory marked the end of apartheid. The narrative at the time was that he was a political prisoner; i.e. that he had committed no crime, but was merely incarcerated for his political views.

Upon looking into his past, one can read that he was an advocate of non-violent protest, but that his involvement with Umkhonto we Sizwe deterred him from this route into more direct action. From what I was able to read over the weekend, I could not find any direct evidence that he took part in any of the terrorist activities that were carried out by the group he was a part of, though he seems reasonably possible that he did have a hand in the wilful destruction of property. He certainly didn’t condemn it at the time.

What this does illustrate is the maxim that someone who is regarded by one group as a terrorist, may be described as a freedom fighter by another. As I pointed out, to try to be so binary as to say that Mandela is either a terrorist or a statesman is a false dichotomy. Individuals are complex beings who generally live for a long time. Mandela certainly fits that bill. In his younger days he took part in terrorist activities and his later years he was a great statesman. Though I would refrain from using the term “great” I would cite as another example Martin McGuinness. One could ask: is he a terrorist or a statesman? The question is based on a flawed premise that he is one or the other, but that a single person cannot embody both in their lifetime.

So I would state that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, but that to simply slap that label on him and say no more would be not be reasonable. Similarly, with the suffragettes, I stated “To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor”. It was also stated that Thatcher thought that Mandela should remain in prison and that the ANC were “only a terrorist org”. It should be noted that Thatcher did change her mind and later advocated his release. To label the ANC as only a terrorist organisation is to be simplistic and not a position I would support.

Just violence

Given that, the apparent supposition is that the violence the suffragettes carried out could not be classed as terrorism because it was justified. The reason for this justification is a little vague, though given the character constraints on Twitter, this might be cleared up in the comments. All I have to go on is that there was violence against women at the time. It would help if this were more specific; i.e. what forms of violence were used, against all women or just groups of them, any examples/case studies which might illustrate this.

Since this point cannot be directly addressed, I will instead discuss a more general idea which would seem to be related: whether violence is justified. By violence, I am here referring to physical violence including, but not limited to, assault upon other people, destruction of property (including acts of arson) and attempted murder. To expand to other types of violence would require an even longer blog post than this.

I would state my opinion as being highly, but not absolutely, pacifist. To be absolutely pacifist, one would not so much as raise a hand in self-defence. I don’t think I could live up to that high standard. Given the classic hypothetical situation that someone is attacking my mother, I would attempt to stop them.

What I do not agree with is physical violence beyond the self-defence. I do not support pre-emptive strikes against an opponent, violence in retaliation for other acts of violence or physical violence as a means to react against non-physical violence (e.g. economic, political or verbal violence). This position is held in respect of the individual and of groups of people (whether they be politically motivated or not). The case of warfare is different and I think it is very difficult, possibly even foolish, to attempt to come up with a personal ethic of justified violence that can be extended to violence between nation states or a civil war without that ethic having to be altered. To do so would be like trying to liken the economy to personal financial management.

Consequently, I think it does little good, when considering the question of the suffragettes, to  question whether the Dunkirk landings were justified or the American civil war. They are certainly questions that might be asked, but they are peripheral to the question in hand.

If I could put it pithily, if you come running towards me with a big knife, seemingly intent on stabbing me, a justified level of violence against you would be to attempt to disarm you, causing as little pain or injury or as possible. Any more than that would be unjustified. I would not try to shoot you dead, I would not react by burning down your home or kidnapping your family.

Given this stance, we come full circle to the question of the suffragettes and whether their acts of physical violence were justified. It might be argued that in being denied the vote women were being subjected to a level of political violence. In this respect, their movement was an extension of the earlier Chartist movement that began in the 1830s, under the dual leadership of the more peaceful William Lovett (one of my political heroes) and the more firebrand Feargus O’Connor, whose tendencies towards destruction were later echoed by Christabel Pankhurst. For much more detail on their activities, I would recommend, if it is available on 4OD, a fairly recent programme that Clare Balding presented, called Secrets of a Suffragette.

Yet I am not aware of any campaign of physical violence against the suffragettes, based directly or indirectly on their campaign, for which the arson attacks spearheaded by Christabel Pankhurst could be deemed to be self-defence. They were provocative acts of violence, made to attempt to get the suffragette voice heard. As stated in my original opinion piece, this is not a wholesale denunciation of them. The careful reader will recall that what I was uncomfortable about was the unfettered praise the suffragettes often receive.

The impact of the non-violent

It is asserted that to abjure all violence would reduce one to being a “non-actor in history”. I have no particular expectation to be remembered in history; very few people ever have been. Some of those who are remembered are so because of their violent acts, whether they be Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Saladin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, just to pick a few names spanning the history of civilization. I’m sure you could pick 6 others who would fit the bill just as well.

Yet some are remembered for their nonviolent protests. I would immediately think of Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I think making a nonviolent impact on the world is harder than making a violent one. But I would rather be blessed as a peacemaker and be anonymous than be remembered for a single act of violence. I would doubt that those who seek peace are “non-actors” – it’s just harder to push a stone up a hill than it is to watch it roll it down again.

Book Review: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

After publishing the list of books that I read last year, I received some admonishing from one reader who complained that there was a severe lack of Jules Verne in my fiction reading. This, then, is my attempt to remedy that situation. Having read some of Verne’s books when I was a child and having seen some film adaptations of the books, I wanted to read one that I was unfamiliar with. It wasn’t terribly easy to get a hold of a copy of From the Earth to the Moon (FTETTM) as none of the bookshops I looked in had in stock, so I had to get it ordered specially. The version that actually arrived included the sequel, Around The Moon, which I shall be reading and reviewing shortly after this.

The story is as simple as it gets: a group of men decide that they wish to fire a projectile to the moon. I say ‘men’ because it is an all-male cast with not a single woman getting a look-in. In thinking through the book, I can see that there are two ways to read it. One is to take it at face value, in which case we get a really rather silly story, little characterisation and some preposterous dialogue. The other way of reading it is as a caricature of the American nationalism, with the self-aggrandising and pompous members of the Gun Club who wish to turn their projectiles skywards being emblematic of a pompous nationalism not unlike that witnessed in some quarters of American society today.

The book begins with members of a Gun Club venting their exasperation that there are no wars to fight and so little use for their guns. They want a project to occupy them, so an idea comes to launch an unmanned projectile to the moon. On a wave of ill-thought out enthusiasm, there is almost Nuremberg type rally designed to muster support and funds for the project (I know I’m being a little anachronistic here, but that’s nothing compared to the scientific flaws in Verne’s work). Most of the rest of the book is then concerned with how various technicalities might be overcome.

As a work of science fiction, then, it goes to an extreme end of realism, as Verne attempts to convince his reader that the idea of a projectile being launched is feasible. About 2/3rds of the way through, however, after quite a few of the issues are “sorted”, a new plan is hatched to ensure that the vessel is manned. This, of course, is a sleight of hand on Verne’s part as the issue of G-forces that would be created are cunningly overlooked.

The book concludes on a rather disappointing note as you do not get to find out whether or not they reach their goal. That, instead, is left for the sequel.

So would I heartily recommend it? Not really. It is an early example of science fiction, so it may help to understand how the genre has developed, but it is by no means a great exposition. So for die-hard Verne fans, it’s one to tick off the list, but I cannot claim that I enjoyed reading it.

Is religion evil? An analogy with water

This evening, I was watching a short interview on channel 4 news with Stephen Hawking. One of the questions asked whether religion was a force for good or for evil. I can’t recall the precise wordings of the question & answer, though I hope I am faithful to the gist. If anyone has a transcript, that would be most helpful.

The answer he gave was very scathing. He rightly cited a number of wrongs that have been committed in the names of various religions. Yet he overlooked all the good that has been done in the names of the sane religions.

Aside from the difficulty in defining what one means by “religion”, which makes the question at once simplistic and possibly misleading, a thought came to my mind.

To ask such a binary question about a myriad of complex beliefs and practices might be likened to asking whether water is a force for good or evil. If one has a particularly prejudiced view, one could point to the millions (billions?) of human deaths caused by water. Countless floods have led to the loss of life and diseases that have been transmitted by drinking dirty water continue to claim lives every day. You could similarly look at the erosion that water causes, with landslides also claiming lives and causing many to lose their homes.

All this, though overlooks the good of water, as a sustainer of life, a source of energy and all sorts of other things.

If I may extend the analogy, without extending it too far, one might say that one of the big killers is, effectively, “poisoned” water. I.e. it is not the water itself that kills but the chemicals, viruses and bacteria that live within it (and often thrive in that environment) which do the damage. So, with various different religions, the elements that do the damage are carried the religion, but are ultimately poisons. They may do little damage to the religion itself (except for reputational) but they will hurt the unwary who drunk the dirty water, unable to distinguish the pure from the impure.

I don’t know if anyone has come up with a similar analogy; I’m just thinking on the hoof here. Is that a wholly unfair analogy? I don’t ask ‘does the analogy fall down at some point?’ – every analogy does at some point. I hope that makes some sort of sense.

What do you think?

Book Review: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion by David Hume

A word first on the precise book I read, as I am aware that the works of David Hume have been published under various similar titles but with different contents. This version was published by Oxford University Press and has an introduction written by John C.A. Gaskin. The bulk of the book is made of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. It also contains Hume’s My Own Life, section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and a letter dated 10/03/1751 concerning the Dialogues.

As a freethinking christian, I am advocate of reading views that contradict one’s own. You can see some examples of other such books I have read, including those by Marcus Borg, Christopher Hitchens and Ben Whitney. When I asked Simon Clare for a recommendation of such a book, he mentioned Hume in passing, but ultimately recommended Whitney. Though I thought it would be worthwhile having a read of some of Hume’s work.

The inclusion of section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was a little odd, as the notes reference other sections which weren’t included in this volume.

The bulk of the book is made up of the Dialogues, which I confess came as quite a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting a classic work of atheistic thinking to be quite so good. The thing that struck me most was the format. I’ve not read a work like it since I did Plato’s Republic quite some years ago. Instead of a straightforward exposition, Hume has created several characters who enter into a protracted discussion. In so doing, the notes to the book state that Hume somewhat disguises what his own view is. The two main characters are Cleanthes (who dominates the early part of the discussion) and Philo (who dominates the latter part). There is also Demea who interjects occasionally. Though Demea is not cast as a simpleton, as Galileo did in a similar dialogue which got him in an awful lot of trouble, he is regarded as an earnest believer and is not as nuanced as Cleanthes.

In setting up a dialogue as he has done, Hume somewhat disguises what his own view was. Cleanthes is, roughly, the reasonable believer while Philo is the extreme sceptic. Which of these represent Hume’s voice? The notes attached, and a few comments I’ve seen when looking into it, say that Philo represents Hume’s true view. Given the body of the other writings in this volume, that is an understandable point of view. Though in the letter about the Dialogues which is included, Hume explicitly states that he sides with Cleanthes. The notes try to dismiss this by stating it was a typo, though I’m not so sure.

As for the contents of the Dialogues themselves, they can be roughly divided up into two parts. In the first, the existence of God is assumed and then the question is posed as to what we might discern about the nature and character of God by mere observation of the world around us. In so doing, Hume deliberately blinkers the conversation by limiting it to “natural religion” and excludes any consideration of history. In this first part, the ultra-sceptic Philo puts in his objections occasionally but is typically well-countered by Cleanthes. However, having started with the fairly narrow premise of what might be inferred about God, it is of little surprise that the answers which emerge are very limited. An interesting point raised in the notes in that this first half is meant to be a counter-argument to the argument from design, though it was written before William Paley’s famous, influential and nowadays disregarded work, Natural Theology. I say it is meant to be a counter-argument rather than it is a counter-argument as it seems to me that Hume and the participants in his fictional dialogue rather side-step the issue and merely present other, reasonable possibilities so that one could only conclude that natural theology is not compelling, rather than showing it to be false.

The second half of the Dialogues turns the question around and Philo takes to the fore. Instead of taking the existence of God as obvious, this is now called into question and instead, the participants look at whether the existence of God is necessitated by what we observe from the world around us. Crucial to this is the classic question attributed to Epicurus, the question of theodicy. In so doing, Hume examines four “sources” of evil and there is a discussion on each in turn, though I did feel that a proper definition of ‘evil’ was somewhat lacking, making the discussion amenable to the prejudices of the participants (i.e. the different voices in Hume’s head which he wrestles with). Consequently, the conclusions of the discussions may be somewhat skewed away from the rational objectivity for which he strives. It is interesting to note that at this point in the dialogues Demea departs, though no particular reason is given; it seems to me that Hume is saying something along the lines of, “given that all has been said, the devout believer has no choice but to concede defeat and leave.” Though I admit, that is just my interpretation. Yours may be different.

I also admit that I used the word ‘conclusion’ in the preceding paragraph rather loosely, as Hume does not really come to any succinct verdict. He certainly doesn’t go so far as to say that he has disproved God, which is what I was expecting, given the book’s reputation as a classic work of atheism. Instead, he merely goes so far as to demonstrate reasonable doubt.  Yet this is, as I said earlier, reasonable doubt on a single strand of theological thought, that of natural theology. If anything, he well demonstrates that this strand alone is insufficient to base a belief of God on. In this, I would agree with him. Though it is Hume’s own limited scope that leaves open much more to be explored. My own faith, for example, though I am fascinated by the fine-tuning question in physics, do not hurry down the path of teleology which tends to lead to the God-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, I take fine-tuning as a possible indication of the providence of God, but I hold it tentatively, aware that it might be wrong. The rock of my faith, however, is the person of Jesus, who, if memory serves me correctly, does not get a single mention in the Dialogues. If he does, then he is certainly not a central figure. Neither is Abraham or David or the Buddha or Muhammad.

So what then, of the follow-up, The Natural History of Religion? The introductory notes states that it was unusual for it to be partnered with the Dialogues, as the Natural History was considered an inferior work, though the editor of this volume wished for them to be paired. In this respect, I would agree with the prevailing view as the Natural History contains far fewer points of relevance.

As an aside, if you read the Natural History (and to some extent, the latter parts of the Dialogues) one may see why the so-called “New Atheism” is really not all that new. The starting premise, though unstated, is that all religion must be untrue. This is assumed, without reason or evidence. The question which then arises, and which this book attempts to answer, is “Where did religion come from?” The answers which Hume gives are, sadly, all too frequently echoed today by the internet atheists one meets on discussion forums whose knowledge and understanding of any religion is shaped predominantly from a few years of attending church as a child, followed by confirmation bias of listening to and reading the naysayers as adults. So we find here an attempt at understanding the evolution of monotheistic thought out of polytheism. There is a discussion likening beliefs in gods to belief in elves and pixies. Yet nowhere does Hume draw on any historical evidence for his assertions. They are stated as though they should be taken at face value, which I doubt even his arch-sceptic, Philo, would have done.

It was a disappointing end to the volume, as I must admit I really rather liked the Dialogues. They have much to offer and much to mull over. Certainly, anyone who wishes to delve into the idea of teleology should only do so if they pay heed to Hume tapping on their shoulder, warning them of fruitless alleyways of thought. Yet to include the Natural History of Religion without tackling the very real historical figures of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, to name just three, is to miss the point entirely. That said, I would recommend that anyone who might regard themselves as a christian, a catholic, a Jew or a Muslim, should read Hume.  Though he does little to challenge the specifics of faith, the philosophical musings on what we might know about the nature of God and how we know it is of great value. His case for the reasonableness of doubt is well made and is one that I agree with, even though I do not go so far as some readers of Hume might to do allow doubt to fester into disbelief.

On egalitarianism and feminism

Egalitarian and equality logo

I’ve pondered long and hard about whether to write on this subject. In fact, the first draft of this post was started in November 2011, but it got shelved, along with several others that I may dust off and heavily edit sometime. I do not write this to antagonise or offend, but rather to clarify my thinking, communicate that to you coherently and hopefully prompt you to think. I doubt all will agree with me and indeed, you are welcome to disagree with me in constructive debate in the comments if you so wish. In trying to be clear, I have not tried to keep this short, so I apologise that it is quite a long read. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

The problems in writing on the subject

Though I write this blog pseudonymously, it is no great secret that I am a man. So, the first problem then is ‘can and should a man write anything about feminism?’ I would give the answer, ‘yes’. If the answer were otherwise, then I would view that as sexist. No person should be discriminated on the grounds of their gender (indeed, I struggle to think of grounds whereby discrimination ought to be acceptable, though I am focusing here on one particular set of prejudices).

Even if we can agree that the answer is ‘yes’, can any aspect of feminism be critiqued without being dubbed “anti-feminist”, “sexist” or “misogynistic”? Again, I would say that the answer to this is ‘yes’ and indeed I shall be critiquing some aspects of feminism. I hope in so doing that I will not be considered to be any of those things just described, though I cannot but help think that given if this post gains a wide enough audience, that some might well think that of me. It was for fear of being verbally attacked that I postponed this, as it is a highly emotive topic to many.

I am also conscious of the need for precise wording. In the past, if entering into conversations, I have used slightly the wrong word which then becomes the sole focus of a verbal attack, losing all sight of the main topic of conversation. I have tried to be careful in my use of words and have proofread this a couple of times, though I cannot rule out the possibility of a misplaced word or two. If you think I have used an incorrect word in places, whereby its correction would not drastically alter the direction of my argument, then please let me know. If such a change would have a significant influence on the argument, then it is probably fair to assume that I have said what I mean. Probably, not certainly!

My position and semantics

I am not a feminist.

I support equal opportunities and equal representation of genders. I oppose discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. I do not support sexism or anything that could reasonably be described as the denigration of one gender by another.

But this does not make me a feminist. I am egalitarian.

When it comes to determining matters of prejudice and privilege, I apply a “mirror test”. I.e. if you think something is not sexist, or not racist or not religiously discriminatory, then swap the genders, swap the races or swap the religions and then see if you still think it is not prejudiced. It is for this reason that I do not think that simply by being a male, that any opinions one might have on feminism are, a priori, worthless.

Though we have a few physiological differences which need to be mutually understood and respected, we have far more in common by virtue of our shared humanity which can and should be celebrated.

In stating my position of equality, I am sometimes told that I am a feminist because some dictionary definitions state that it is about equality. I have a Collins dictionary at home and it defines feminism as “doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women.”

The same dictionary also gives the following definition of an egalitarian: “a person who believes that all people should be equal.”

These two positions may not appear to be all that different. Indeed, I would say they are not. So even though I do not align myself with feminism, I am not wholly opposed to it.

In referring to dictionary definitions, one must also be careful to avoid taking them as complete and accurate. Those who tell me I am a feminist are often keen to point to the dictionary and state that I fit the bill. However, dictionaries are not the be all and end all of semantics. I assume most readers of this blog are either christians or take an interest in religion, so let’s go there for an example. The same dictionary from which I plucked the above has this to say about ‘faith’: “strong belief in something, especially without proof.” I don’t know of anyone of any religion who would say that that is a fair or true statement. It coincides very well (maybe even being derived from?) Richard Dawkins’ erroneous view, as espoused in The Selfish Gene. The fact is, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So it is with feminism and egalitarianism. To strip them down to one sentence summaries does both a great disservice and over-simplifies things.

Some qualms about feminism

In explaining why I am not a feminist, I must point out some issues I have with the movement. Here I will look at three, which seem to me to be common. Please continue to bear in mind, this is not a wholesale attack on feminism, I wouldn’t do that. These are just issues that I see present which sit uncomfortably with me.

Praise of the suffragettes

When looking at modern feminism, one can hardly escape the impression made on it by the suffragette movement. In some ways, this might be considered the heyday of feminism, when it was at its most radical. Yet the unreserved praise that is heaped on it makes me uncomfortable. Though I admire the guts and determination of the women of this movement, as an advocate of nonviolence, I cannot condone all of the actions that were carried out in the movement’s name. It was, at the time, considered a terrorist organisation, just as the IRA was in the 80s and 90s and as Al-Qaida are today. To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor given the acts of arson carried out and other acts of violence.

Though we now have equal votings for men and women, I am not one to say that the means justified the end. So when I hear unfettered praise of the suffragettes, I cannot help but be unnerved by the advocacy of violence that is latent within. To my mind, it went a step beyond civil disobedience, which I personally view as a totally acceptable form of protest.

In any good movement, there are often unsavoury elements. But these need to be dealt with head-on rather than swept under the carpet. One of the issues that has stirred up much debate over recent months has been the replacement of Elizabeth Fry on the £5 bank note with Winston Churchill and the subsequent campaign to ensure female representation on at least one denomination of banknote (though, for the record, having been forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school, I am no fan of Jane Austen and thought that Beatrix Potter would have been a better choice). Often coming near the top of ‘Great Britons’ polls and the like, Churchill was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Anyone who has looked into his role in the suppression of the Mao Mao uprising can testify to this. For anyone interested in a critical look at Churchill, I would recommend Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire.

A word

If there is one word that riles feminists more than any other perhaps, it is the one about which this paragraph is concerned. It is a word that is sometimes too easily used in the accusative, when it ought not to be. With any feminists with whom I have had discussions which cover the territory with which this blog post is concerned, every one of them has reacted with fury at the mention of the word, adamant that all feminism is free from it. Yet the evidence of what I read and hear tells me that is not wholly untrue. By using it, I would expect this paragraph to be the source of the most disagreement and the focus of any attack on me, if it is forthcoming. Though many, indeed most, feminists that I know of could not fairly be described as having this trait, I could not claim for it to be absent from all without telling a lie. What is this word? If you guessed it was misandry, then that would seem to be an acknowledgement that what I have said is true. As stated earlier, I would ask anyone who contests this to apply the ‘mirror’ test to statements made by, and in favour of, feminists. Though the majority will not be sexist, I’d be surprised if an unbiased application of the test came up 100% sexism-free.

Representation of all women?

The third part is the question of “who is feminism for?” The easy answer is to say that feminism is for women. After all, isn’t that the dictionary definition given above? Again, though, this demonstrates the deficiency of the dictionary definition. Feminism often fails to come across as an empowerment of women; it comes across as an empowerment of feminists. Yet one has to recognise that not all women are feminists and that some actively are against it. Yet when I read, hear or see debates between feminists and non-feminists I am appalled by the level of patronisation (and yes, I am aware of the irony of the etymology of that word) shown to the non-feminists, which are often in the same “you silly woman” tone that is used by misogynists when denigrating women.

One must then face up to the legacy and ideas on one figure of modern history: the late Margaret Thatcher. Though she did not align herself with the feminist movement, she was in many ways the epitome of it. She showed that a woman could achieve the highest position of authority in the land not bestowed on them by birthright (though it’s worth noting that the monarch has been a woman for roughly 125 out of the last 176 years). Yet I am uncomfortable with otherwise reasonable, liberal feminists who speak out in praise of her. To me, as an egalitarian, no one should have their ideas and legacy attacked because of their gender, it should be an irrelevant factor. Yet I would maintain that anyone can and should have their ideas and legacy attacked if they are worthy of being so. And I would have little hesitation (though Cameron is starting to be a serious competitor) in saying that she was the worst prime minister in my lifetime; I was born after she came to power. I say that not as an attack on her because she was a woman but because of what she did. It is the defence of her, because she was a woman, that I find I cannot agree with. Again, applying a mirror test, it would be to defend Cameron’s legislative programme attacking the most vulnerable in society because he is a man. In my view, it is simply wrong. Admiring the strength of someone’s conviction regardless of where that conviction is pointed is not an admiration I could ever echo.

Consequently, we must be careful to discern, when someone is being verbally attacked, between whether they are being attacked because of their gender or because of what they have said and done. The former is sexism and is not, in my opinion, in any way acceptable. The latter, however, if done constructively and with due grace, may be justified. If anyone attempts to use anything like the phrase, “[because you are woman/man]” then their credibility may well be damaged. If their argument rests on such a clause, I would consider them to have lost that argument.

What about christianity?

If I am uncomfortable to wear the label ‘feminist’, given its negative connotations, one might fairly ask of me, “why, then, are you comfortable to be called a christian?” Indeed, there are a great many evils that have been committed in the name of the christian faith. I hope to look at this topic on the blog soon, as it’s another post I shelved a while ago. If you wish to read about these, just pick up any book on the Crusades, the Borgias or on abuse that was at first committed and then covered up. The crimes committed in the name of the church are far worse than those perpetrated in the name of feminism.

So why do I call myself a christian? It’s because there is no commonly used alternative which is well-understood. If I call myself a follower of The Way, then someone who has either been a christian for a little while or someone who is otherwise biblically literate will likely understand what I mean by that, but I doubt the rest of the population might. When I say I am a christian, I often have to spend some time giving a nuanced and suitably detailed answer to the question, “What kind: catholic or protestant?” It would take even longer if I omitted the word christian altogether. Even though many have a flawed understanding of what a christian is, the image conjured up is not wholly removed from reality.

Another factor is that of etymology. Even though most people aren’t quite as passionate as I am about word origins, the root words in our nouns and adjectives are noticed by most people. In calling myself a christian, I make it clear that my identity is found in Christ. If I call myself a feminist, then my identity is clearly something to do with femininity. If, however, I call myself an egalitarian, my identity is clearly something to do with equality.

So here comes the nub of my argument: feminism is but a means to an end; that end being egalitarianism. The promotion of women’s rights is not complete, but it has made great progress in the last hundred years. Though, as mentioned above, I do not approve of some of the means used to achieve this. No reasonable person could deny that western society has been male dominated for far too long. In reacting against this, some aspects of feminism attempt to swing the pendulum too far the other way. But over time, I think we will obtain a fair, egalitarian balance, although it would be too optimistic to expect the elimination of all forms of sexism in my lifetime.

Conclusion

I don’t think any reasonable person can deny the evidence that feminism has elements of sexism within it. These are by no means present in everyone who labels themselves as a feminist and I would not label anyone a sexist unless that exhibited some evidence of a prejudice against a gender. If one is passionate about promoting equal rights and representation, then you are welcome to call yourself a feminist, though you may wish to clarify your position, as I hope I have clarified my position here, even if you don’t agree with it.

But my lingering question has to be, given the negative connotations that feminism has, why not call yourself an egalitarian? To me, it lacks the connotations that detract people from supporting feminism. One could spend time and effort trying to ‘correct’ public perceptions of feminism so that it is distanced from its sexist elements and the violence in its history, or one could drop the term, as the ‘black power’ movement became the ‘civil rights’ movement.

I will oppose the denigration or prejudice of anyone on the grounds of their gender, whether they be male or female. I recognise that the majority of such sexism is directed against women and so that is where the bulk of our attention must be. The so-called “trolling” of prominent women speaking out is abhorrent and must be opposed. Not because the perpetrators are men, but because what they say is abominable. I recognise that in many areas, not least in business, there are glass ceilings, holding women back. I fully support identifying how these glass ceilings operate and how to overcome them so that the best person, irrespective of their gender, gets the right job.

That’s my position.

I am an egalitarian.

Book Review: Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

This was by no means one of the books that I had ever intended to read. I’d never heard of the author nor had this particular book been recommended to me. I found it whilst perusing the science section of a local bookshop, having already determined that I would leave with at least once science book in my possession. I think I’ve said before, certainly in person, if not on this blog, that I am a sucker for a good cover. Not only was the title good enough to make me pick up to take a closer look, but the description of the book and the recommendations printed on both the back and the front were enough to make me think this was worth paying a little bit of money for.

The book is written as a series of short essays, seemingly distinct and with little to no overall narrative to it. So it’s a good book to have lying around that can be picked up, read for 15-20 minutes and put down again.

It covers a variety of topics from Tammet’s point of view. It must be noted that Tammet (not his real name, he changed it to ‘better fit’ his identity) is described as a high functioning autistic savant. In short, he’s a really clever chap. Now I’ve come across one or two in my time and have been able to hold my own against them in some intellectual challenges. However, they usually get the upper hand on me and I can’t quite emulate their speed or agility of thought, which I admit has been a cause of some chagrin from the age of 17 onwards; before that, I immodestly add, I was always the cleverest person I knew.

So it was with some relish, and a little touch of rivalry, that I wanted to get to see the world through such a savant’s eyes. In many respects, what I was reading seemed to be the account of a more articulate version of myself, with the only difference that Tammet views numbers as colours. I knew several in the maths department at university who did this, but I always think in terms of ‘complements’ – i.e. what number would you need to add to make a round number? So if someone says 7, I think 3. If they say 83, I think 17.

I probably ought to confess that I finished this review a few weeks after reading the book, so I am relying a little on memory. While reading it, I found it quite fascinating, but a few weeks later the only things that really stick in my mind are the fact that he came from a very large family and a compelling account of his recitation of digits of pi. This last bit was especially impressive as it ran on for thousands of digits and the recitation took several hours to complete.

The book will be of note to anyone interested in maths or to those who are keen in trying to understand how other people tick. Indeed, if anyone wants to understand me, then this is an account that gets as close to me as any I think I have read; although there are some marked differences.