Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The truthful atheist

Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, is a truthful atheist. Unlike the 'new atheists', he does not castigate religious believers as imbeciles because they don't agree with him. Nagel acknowledges the intelligence of religious believers and is honest enough to admit that his atheism is motivated not only by reason, but also by fear:

'I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.'

According to Nagel, the fear of religion common in philosophical circles has 'large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life' because it has encouraged the transformation of a biological explanation into a general theory of truth:

'My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.'

Nagel observes that the problem with this sort of 'Darwinist imperialism' is that it cannot completely eliminate the religious threat. The question of whether or not atheists, other than Nagel, are able to see this is a different matter:

'There might still be thought to be a religious threat in the existence of the laws of physics themselves, and indeed the existence of anything at all - but it seems to be less alarming to most atheists.'

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word. Oxford 1997, pp.130-131.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What the Fool says (7)

The late atheist philosopher, J.L. Mackie, made the following assertion in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 'Morality is not to be discovered but to be made'. This disconcerting statement, which dramatically lowered my estimation of him, crystallizes precisely one of the great dangers entailed in atheism, the separation of fact and value. On this account, moral principles and values have nothing to do with the structure of reality, but are statements of how we would like things to be. We make morality in our own image, which is not such an objectionable idea if 'we' are peace loving followers of Saint Francis, but is completely objectionable if 'we' are the not so peace loving followers of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. Once moral principles cease to be regarded as objective statements about the world and become expressions of our personal prejudices, then any behaviour can become morally acceptable, if we choose to make it so.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What the Fool says (6)

Atheists never tire of complaining about the intolerance of religion yet themselves demonstrate an incapacity for tolerating, not just any viewpoint which is opposed to their own but, more alarmingly, any person who is not in complete agreement with them. Last year Stephen Fry appeared alongside Anne Widdecombe in a t.v. programme for Channel 4 in which they debated the merits of the Ten Commandments. In the following reply, posted on his website, Fry gave this response to a viewer who had the audacity to question the intelligence of Fry's assessment of the moral worth of the Ten Commandments, as well as his behaviour towards his opponent Anne Widdecombe:

'The Mosaic commandments are so evidently the hysterical drivel of a mad desert people (my own people as it happens) that they don’t deserve the dignity of anything other than anthropological curiosity and amused contempt. They have no more moral authority than any other set of preposterous, ill-thought out and inconsequential assertions. Besides how dare a “loving” creator be so arrogant and egotistical as to create a race of beings and then boss them about with these ludicrous “commandments”. I mean, frankly. ...It’s not what’s wrong with the commandments ...no, those are bad enough, it’s the commandments that are MISSING ...No mention of tolerance, decency, kindness, openness, freedom – all qualities actively disdained by that entity. Oh, it’s so self-evident that the decalogue is absolutely no basis for any kind of law, moral, theological, social, political or any other kind ...'

But, questions of 'hysterical drivel' aside, Fry's plea for the 'MISSING' commandments of 'tolerance, decency, kindness, openness, freedom' has a hollow ring:

'Incidentally, she [Anne Widdecombe] interrupted me a great deal more than I did her. Hitchens and I were edited to look intolerant. I only agreed to do the interview because I felt guilty at what an unholy (in every sense) idiot she made of herself in the debate on catholicism that preceded that interview. Well, she got her revenge by making us look like the intolerant ones. But we don’t preach intolerance, she and her church most specifically do. I’m tired of being expected to show “respect” for these odious, creepy and preternaturally stupid people and their “beliefs”.'

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Doubting atheist

It seems that A.N. Wilson has returned to faith in God after a long battle with atheism. Although it may be difficult to see quite why Wilson found atheism so compelling in the first place, other than the usual difficulties of religion such as doubt, dryness, faintness of heart etc, he offers some useful insights into what attracts people to atheism. A large part of it for Wilson seems to have been the satisfaction gained from being a 'born-again atheist', the 'complete certainty' of the atheist creed and the 'heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers', and for the first time in his life at ease with his contemporaries. What stands out in Wilson's account is a peculiarly English donnish propensity to denounce anything faintly mysterious as 'nonsense'. He dates his slow journey back to belief in God from his recognition of the failure of materialist atheist explanations of complex human experience, for instance, of love and music:

'When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion - prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.'

But what really seems to have clinched it for Wilson are the dangerous moral consequences of making man the measure of all things:

'I haven't mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler's neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer's book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer's serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.'

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dishonest to God

The philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock has a new book out called Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics. Last week she took part in the discussion programme Start the Week on Radio Four. Her contribution was subsequently commended by a writer in the Catholic Herald for showing that polite discussion between believers and non-believers is still possible. But one is tempted to ask what in the end politeness has to do with it. Are we supposed to be grateful to those who talk kindly to us while all the time telling us that our views are so abhorrent as to have absolutely no place at all in civilised society?

Warnock is careful to concede the appeal and power of religion, its cathedrals and musical traditions for example. What she seems to find most irksome is that the religious think they have in her words a 'superior right to dictate what is and what is not a law'. But there is a world of equivocation between denying someone a 'superior right to dictate' laws and denying them 'any right to make laws at all'. Despite the reassuringly reasonable tones the underlying message is still the same bossy and intolerant one of Dawkins, Hitchens, or Fry: if you are a believer you should be kept from wielding influence in the public/political sphere. It appears that only the pure free-thinking atheist is capable of delivering the well reasoned dispassionate analysis that political decision-making requires. But in the light of the pope's visit, when Benedict XVI demonstrated a depth of philosophical reasoning and political acumen that most secularists and most politicians can only dream of, such a view looks not only old hat but, to borrow a term from Warnock, just plain silly.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What the Fool says (5)

Philip Pullman clearly sees himself as the atheist's answer to C.S. Lewis and his mission to oppose in Lewis' Narnia books what he dubbed 'one of the most vile moments in the whole of children's literature.' Now this little remark would probably be enough to raise the suspicion that Pullman is a ha'penny short of a shilling but a recent reply he made to an audience in Oxford when asked about the offensive nature of the title of his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ suggests all this celebrity atheist attention has really gone to his head:

"Yes it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That's all I have to say on that subject."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Two pictures speak a thousand words

Here is a cartoon published by the atheist Martin Rowson in The Guardian. Interesting to compare it with the reality. But then one can rarely accuse atheists of letting the truth get in the way of their propaganda. Rowson is unsurprisingly a supporter of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Society. Enough Said!

Here is the reality. Two hundred thousand people greet the Pope with enthusiasm as he makes his way towards Hyde Park. Add to that the eighty thousand people awaiting his arrival in Hyde Park. The few thousand atheist protestors were swept away by a sea of joy.