It wasn’t inevitable that ABC Religion would go to the Atheist Convention – other areas of the ABC had staked the territory, and how many times ought one media organisation interview Richard Dawkins? In the end, we went because we were curious about the aim/s of the Convention, its unfolding purpose and direction, the people who would be there, and what it would tell us about atheism as a contemporary position. Then, we discovered that the Convention was fully within our remit not because there was particular attention to ethics; it was virtually all about religion.
At this distance from that weekend – we’re two and a half weeks down the track as we bring this blog to a conclusion – it doesn’t get easier to sum up the Convention or our blog enterprise. Yes, some philosphical and scientific claims stay, to be pursued in arenas where conversation is possible and questions can be asked. And so does the loathing and abomination of hypocrisy in religous institutions. These things are more than important. But other aspects come forward, in part I acknowledge because they have been reinforced by the blog process. Thus, often in tension with my recollection of individual attendees, I recall the Convention’s ‘culture’, alongside the quality of content in various presentations, and the tenor of comments from blog readers.
Who came to the Convention? Mostly Australians, with probably fifty per cent, I’m told, from Victoria. It was a cheery crowd, happy to foregather and in the end mildly triumphant about the achievement of the Convention. As Gary Bryson and Chris Mulherrin noted, many we spoke to felt ‘liberated’ or ‘affirmed’ by the opportunity to get together with like-minded people. In what sense were they like-minded? Much of the on-stage and commentary narrative resisted diversity or range – no such stance as agnostic for example. Nevertheless, a recent commentator on the blog has described the Convention attendees as “a bunch of staunch individualists with enormously disparate views on a whole range of issues.” Out on the concourse, amongst the crowd, it was possible to encounter those ‘staunch individualists’ – and we introduced a few of those we met in this blog. (See (Conversing with James, So far, so?, All Talk and No Action) We noted the predominance of males, the presence of younger people (interestingly, many of those to whom we spoke were making their way towards atheism from no personal experience of religion). And we noted the increase in attendance on the Sunday, when the headline speakers were to take the stage and to become available for book signings. We noted the intense interest in specific issues, like the influence of creationism in education and in politics, the presence of chaplains in schools, the perceived ‘control’ by religion of the limits of personal freedom, interests that had drawn people to the Convention. But inside the main venue it was difficult to discern individualism, staunch or otherwise. It seemed inside that group think prevailed, in the collective responses to quips, characterisations, and comic routines, in the apparent imperviousness to chauvinism, ignorance and simplicities on stage, and in the absence of critical questioning of speakers. I am still astonished that no-one challenged John Perkins’ depiction of Islam, that no one picked up on Richard Dawkins’ shift from naked ‘mental money’ to ‘gratitude’ still vested in all its cultural (including religious) clothing, that no-one responded to Peter Singer’s dull flattening out of Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ remark, that no-one remarked the focus on Christianity and the figure of Jesus, the strenuous and mocking rejection of ‘the tragic vision’.
It‘s easy to describe the Convention culture en bloc as crude, naïve, and aggressive. That’s what it was often like, from the opening night when it first framed religion as comedy and first represented itself as unfairly denied government funding. Certainly the guest comedians hit the spot (hypocrisy, silliness, credulity), but sometimes the cruelty and crudity of the comedy just amplified the anti-intellectual strain of much of the Convention content. I mention naivety: that comes across in the emblematic funding story. It’s clear that obdurate naivety was involved there: a refusal to doff the lens of prejudice in order to see clearly structures of government, bureaucratic processes, necessary objectives. (See this and this.) Naivety was there in the response to Taslima Nasrin and in the axiomatic laughter in response to references like A. C. Grayling’s to the Quran: it is naïve surely to imagine that there is nothing to be known or understood about the Quran beyond what is comprehended in a cheap quip. Naivety was there in the suspension of enquiry: no questions about why the Convention was dominated by white middle class males who carried strong whiffs of atavistic anti-Catholicism (little to do with rationality) and who apprehended atheism as a dimension of the ‘good life’ not yet available to the poor of Africa and India. No questions about what that might say of the atheism they represent and its capacity for critical attention to the world we live in. No question about the curious conjunction of fundamentalisms in someone like Dan Barker. No question about the globalising dynamic of American style creationism: how is it that Turkish Muslim creationists and American Christian fundamentalists can work together in order to defeat Science? And of course naivety was comically there in the teleology proffered by the Convention: its placement of atheism as a point of achievement (purpose?) where the cleverer, smarter etc might be found. As for aggression, that was implicit in the language of attack, contempt and derision.
I’ve been challenged by some commentators on this blog to admit my bias, as if there is one telling bias, religious belief. Well here’s a bias and it’s not half joking: English accents of a certain kind remind me that I’m not so far removed from the colonial experience. I hear in Richard Dawkins and in A. C. Grayling that smooth voice of imperialism, going about quashing languages and symbolic structures as it ‘rationalises’ and ‘improves’, systematises and reduces, ruling out other voices, other experiences and complexities beyond its ken, erasing boundaries and setting up arbitrary borders – and not in the least interested in upsetting the way the imperium works. And I admit to another bias, towards history and the work of historians, who are curious and open and who never imagine that complex reality can be explained by reduction, and who tell us about the harm that imperialism has visited upon the world we live in today. There was no history at the Convention, just doses of pseudo-history.
But I come back to individuals, like some of our contributors, and their concern for issues of equity and justice, and their urgent desire to build a practical collective ethics and indeed to find community. They are memorable. I hope they are able to get to work. I come back to those few speakers, like Leslie Cannold, who stood on their distinctive ground, holding out the prospect of discussion and collaboration. And I’ll hope that next time, the Atheist Convention will get around to developing an ethics for the moment when the persistence of religion (against evolutionary purpose?) challenges our arrival at that religion-less utopia envisioned by atheism’s contemporary advocates. I’ll be interested.
In the meantime, if you are interested in milieux where conversation is possible, try ABC Radio National, and try also a blog site like The Immanent Frame, which attends to ’secularism, religion and the public sphere’. Check out Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, attend to events coming up hosted by the ACU’s Faculty of Philosophy and Theology, including the annual Simone Weil lectures. That’s a start. Thank you for your attention – and thanks also to my collaborators in this enterprise. I think we’ve learned a lot!
Accused of being an atheist, the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot replied, ‘It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.’ Diderot was what we might today call an ‘apatheist’, someone who is untroubled about whether God exists or not, and who considers the question neither meaningful nor relevant.
The 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, while understandably lacking in apatheists, was chock full of scientists, philosophers, comedians, and what must surely have been the most single-minded and concordant audience gathered anywhere outside of a symposium of Star Trek fans. Let’s face it, any convention that can bring more than 2,500 people together around a shared belief in nothing has to have something going for it.
The atheists it attracted were by and large the real deal; rational non-believers fully committed to filling in any theoretical ‘God-shaped hole’ with a distinctly Darwin-shaped plug, embracing evolution, the scientific method, and a wide-ranging secular humanism which supports pretty much everything on the hate list of conservative religion.
Nothing wrong with that. Except that, as Ali Sayed has pointed out elsewhere on this blog, this huge convention of like-minded people, hyperbolically calling itself ‘The Rise of Atheism’, had apparently no political objectives at all; no setting in play of forceful new movements for example, no raucous plenary session hammering out action points and strategies. No frenzied pamphlets pointing the way forward. The convention, it seems, had no ambitions to harness the forces of change.
So what exactly was it for?
A clue can possibly be found in the answers people gave me to the question, why are you here? While some said they hoped to learn something, or contribute to the debate, the majority told me they were here to see the big speakers; Richard Dawkins especially, but also AC Grayling and Peter Singer. They bought their books, too, by the truckload. I don’t have figures for the number of books sold over the weekend, but it was seriously good business, if the long queues for signings were anything to go by.
And the convention itself seemed often to be less about “the rise of atheism”, and more about the rise and rise of celebrity atheists; less a convention even, and more an extended festival, a carefully wrought piece of show business, a big production number, complete with stars and support acts, stirring music, comedic interludes and even the obligatory prima donna directors (I had the misfortune to spend some time in the control room and I can tell you there were more histrionics in there than backstage at So You Think You Can Dance).
Does any of this matter? Well, there’s nothing wrong at all with celebrity, or with using big names and comic acts to attract an audience. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with selling books at a convention, or t-shirts, or anything else really. So why is it then that this particular convention left me with a curiously unsatisfied feeling, like eating a meal consisting of nothing but wilted salad leaves? I’m not saying it didn’t have its highlights; its moments – if not quite of transcendence – then at least of intellectual clarity and emotional depth (see my enthusiastic response, day two). I’m not even saying that the convention failed as an event; clearly it was appreciated by most of those in attendance. And it must rank as one of the biggest – if not the biggest – gathering of atheists in the southern hemisphere.
What I am saying is that the feel-good like-mindedness, the close sense of community and camaraderie, the blatant preaching to the converted that emanated particularly from the celebrities, was in fact the raison d’etre of this event. AC Grayling called it “a warm bath feeling” (in an interview with me which will be aired on Encounter on April 18). Again, there’s nothing wrong with a warm bath, though it’s quite a different thing from a convention where ideas are sytematically debated or discussed, or put under the microscope, or even politicised in any useful way. The backdrop to this warm bath – the mis-en-scene of a kind of faux atheist triumphalism – only succeeded in over-hyping the celebrities while underplaying the presentations of lesser mortals, some of whom actually had something new or useful to say on the matter.
So who were they, exactly?
I have to start with two speakers who dared to be critical of atheism in its contemporary form. Phillip Adams, an atheist of impeccable credentials, (and yes, a celebrity, too, though he wasn’t pushing a book) urged us to beware of falling into the trap of ‘atheist fundamentalism’, and of pursuing atheism with a ‘missionary zeal’; Tamas Pataki, an atheist philosopher, raised philosophical doubts about whether you can categorically say there is no God. And he asked us to consider what a world without religion would look like. We can’t know for sure, is the answer, and such a world could logically be much worse than one with religion in it.
While Adams largely got away with his gentle chiding about zealousness and his call to work with like-minded religious folk on matters of social justice, Pataki sparked the ire of a large section of the audience seemingly untrammelled by anything as necessary as doubt. It became clear at this point that doubt was a quality generally in short supply, and that ideas which nibbled at the atheist vision of a promised land free of religion had no place in this particular warm bath; the evil torpedo of doubt threatening the rubber duck of truth.
The next person on my list is a doubter of a different kind, Bangladeshi author, Taslima Nasrin. Arguments about whether Nasrin’s views on the burqa sparked the recent riots in Karnataka have been discussed elsewhere in this blog. But in any sane world Nasrin would have every right to criticise Islam or any other religion as much as she likes, and the fundamentalists (Muslim or Hindu) would have no right whatsoever to riot in the streets, let alone issue death threats or force people into exile. Nasrin’s every public utterance against the excesses of fundamentalist Islam is a victory for moderation, and her courage in speaking out sends a clear message; we – atheists and moderate believers alike – will never tolerate a religious fanaticism which is a danger to others, which oppresses women, and which violates the human rights of those who have a mind of their own to doubt with.
And finally, honorary mentions go to the panel of women – Lyn Allison, Leslie Cannold, Tanya Levin and Jane Caro – for reminding us that religion, organised or otherwise, can only too often be an expression of misogyny; and to Max Wallace for his presentation on the surprising and troubling extent to which taxpayers subsidise religion and what we can do about it. Useful, practical stuff.
As for the stars, well, to paraphrase Diderot horribly, it’s very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but not at all so to watch or not watch celebrity atheists strut their stuff on stage.
Depends what you’re after, I suppose; debate, doubt and the struggle of the intellect? Or the pleasant sit-back-and-soak-it-up feeling of a soothing warm bath?
Two weeks and many words ago, I first wrote as a guest blogger on this site. I was looking forward to participating in the Atheist Convention as an undercover heretic, a true believer in science but one who has the temerity to believe also in God. I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been glad of the opportunities for dialogue and at times I’ve been surprised.
I’m glad that the Convention raised serious questions about ‘life, the universe, and everything’, including issues of prejudice and influence, in society and politics. I’m glad too for the challenges to the religious faithful to get their houses in order.
A surprise: despite opposing belief systems, as a Christian I found common ground with these committed ‘true non-believers’. Like me, the atheists have taken their stand. In a bizarre sort of way it was good to be amongst people who have no truck with relativism or with a postmodernism which turns truth into plasticine.
Another surprise: while religious groups feel marginalised at times by secularism, it was interesting to walk in the shoes of the atheist and hear of their angst at encountering religion at every turn of politics (Christian politicians), education (chaplains in schools) and law (tax exemptions for religious organisations).
In my first post I asked four questions. My answers below are tentative and personal. They arise from evidence which is largely anecdotal, from conversations with people at the Convention, and from some 800 comments on this blog.
1. Is the ‘new atheism’ a religion?
Of course not! Atheism rejects the ‘God hypothesis’. But wait… the irony of the so-called ‘New Atheism’, represented by Richard Dawkins, is that it is characterised by its antagonism to religion. With a few exceptions, this was the brand of atheism on show at the Convention. It is unapologetic about the battle to remove the influence of religion from the secular marketplace. So, try as the ‘New Atheists’ do to distance themselves from religion, there is a sense in which they are defined by it; by their anti-religious and anti-theist stance.
In the strident, and at times ridiculing atmosphere, I heard echoes of Alister McGrath’s suggestion that atheism in the West might be on the wane: “Once a worldview with a positive view of reality, it seems to have become a permanent pressure group, its defensive agenda dominated by concerns about limiting the growing political influence of religion.”
Melbourne philosopher, Tamas Pataki, opened his talk at the Convention saying he would likely be the least popular speaker. Why? Because he had no jokes and no inclination to incite ridicule of the religious. What’s more, he suggested that some of the prominent atheists were seriously mistaken, and he was concerned that organised atheism was taking on the marks of religion, with its priests, apostles and disciples.
This is a fundamentalism of sorts, mirroring the religious variety in its zeal bordering on bigotry, and its inability to understand how other thoughtful people can arrive at different conclusions.
But, as Pataki demonstrates, all atheists cannot be tarred with the same brush. Many do not share either the zealous non-faith or the political agenda of this ‘New’ brand of an old tradition. Many would not agree with Dawkins that “religion poisons your ability to use your brain.” For some, Dawkins is embarrassing. Atheist philosopher Jim Stone recognises that believers are often excellent philosophers and well respected by their atheist colleagues. He says: “The people I don’t like are the New Atheists, because they don’t seem to realize that the people with whom I must contend, even exist.”
2. What is the New Atheist’s psyche?
In my experience of the last two weeks I’ve come across a lot of cranky people. It seems that en masse, the ‘New Atheists’ are mad at religion and mad at religious meddling in society and politics. They are especially mad (with some justification) at Christianity; mostly its historical atrocities and its sexual norms and abuses.
So the question is:
3. Is conversation possible?
But perhaps there is a prior question: who wants to converse?
The creed of ‘intolerance to religion’ is a conversation stopper. Insofar as the rhetoric of the ‘New Atheism’ ends the dialogue, it finds itself out of place in an open and multi-cultural society. It paints a black and white picture of the evils of religion versus the abundant benefits of a religionless utopia. This polarity can only be bad for the atheist cause, as once again it mirrors its nemesis: just as religion is characterised and tainted by its extremists, so serious-thinking atheism runs the same risk. As a moderate Christian, orthodox in belief (yes, I believe Jesus rose from the dead) I, along with moderate atheists, do not want to be identified with extremists.
But there is no logical or necessary impediment to conversation. The words of Stephen Jay Gould, renowned evolutionary biologist (and not a religious believer), are worth repeating:
To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time: science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. … Science can work only with naturalistic explanations… Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.
For those who wish to converse, the challenge is to distance themselves from the fringe. Some suggestions (in case anyone were thinking of asking):
- drop the rhetoric of superiority and the intellectual high ground of being ‘brights’ and ‘freethinkers’;
- leave ad hominem arguments aside;
- do not equate the limits of science with the more encompassing scope of reason;
- accept the language of belief, recognising that any truth claim is a claim to believe something (including that God does not exist);
- desist from equating intellectually robust theism, with dragons in the garage, spaghetti monsters overhead or fairies at the bottom of the garden;
- accept that science is not an objective, impersonal method resulting in guaranteed truth;
- pay attention to the manners and customs of civil conversation, especially when commenting on blogs written by sensitive souls such as myself.
4. Where will it all end?
Is a new wave of culture wars inevitable, premised on the idea that only a univocal secularism will bring harmony? No… so long as the extreme agenda and rhetoric of the ‘New Atheism’ does not become that of the moderate majority of atheists. In an increasingly secular West, harmony depends on mutual tolerance, not uniformity. The conversation can only continue when all parties accept the limitations imposed by an impartial democratic state.
The human condition is an intractable mystery that will not be solved by science alone. There are few serious contenders in the stakes for a comprehensive worldview. Atheistic naturalism, which proclaims the ‘death of God’, is one. My own Christian tradition, which ‘preaches Christ crucified’, is another. There are three or four more. In the end, truth will out, but in the interim — the centuries or millenia until then — the task is one of simply getting along. That will be made easier if we recognise that things are not so simple as the fundamentalist — atheist or religious — would like to make out.
Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.
There’s a final piece of audio to be posted: Dan Barker’s address to the Atheist Convention. Dan Barker is the former US Christian evangelist turned atheism spruiker. He came to the Convention following a student organised ‘debate’ with Cardinal George Pell at Macquarie University. When he arrived in Sydney, he told the audience, someone said to him: “‘You’re debating George Pell? He’s an imbecile!’” Said Dan Barker: “I didn’t know whether I could use those words until after I met the man.” He told us little of the ‘debate’, other than that he had addressed Cardinal Pell as George.
In his Convention address, Dan Barker recounted the story of his life as a fundamentalist preacher in both the United States and in Mexico and his subsequent turn to atheism. “I got to tell you the tactics of evangelism are crude and simple and transparent and embarrassing but they work …there’s all of these people out there who are susceptible and gullible and wondering and they see somebody like me who is confident, I know what I am talking about, I have answers ….” He used to say the answer was ‘Jesus’. But since his appearance twenty-five years ago on the Oprah Winfrey Show, he has proffered atheism via books, radio show, websites and the talk circuit.
According to Dan Barker, “The fundamentalist mindset is a binary brain… To us fundamentalists there is no grey area, no middle ground ….” The turn to atheism was gradual: “I’m smart but I kind of delayed my education……I realised you know if the Prodigal Son is a parable, and if Adam and Eve are a metaphor, then maybe God himself is just one huge figure of speech. Maybe the whole thing is just one… and why not… if you are going to say there is metaphor in the Bible, where do you draw that line?”
Being smart is evidently important to Dan Barker (as it was to some other speakers at the Convention) since this information is listed in his personal biography: “He belongs to a number of High-IQ societies, including The Prometheus Society, with an entrance requirement at the 99.997th percentile.” (Though ‘smartness’ is not necessarily the best armour, even when you know, supposedly, what you are talking about. Enjoy this.)
As I listened to Dan Barker, Yusuf Estes came inevitably to mind. He is one of a number of American fundamentalist formerly Christian preachers who have preceded Dan Barker on the Australian circuit, the difference being that the others turned to Islam.
Aside from the fact that the shift hasn’t done much for Yusuf Estes sartorially, Dan Barker and Yusuf Estes have a lot in common, still. There’s a question of tone: check this out.
There’s that wonderful refrain, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ (and the striving to put it to work): see here.
And there’s the marketing mentality (know to whom you are selling): watch this.
So, what is it about fundamentalism? And, in this form, its American character? And its influence within what might be emerging as an atheist movement? They’re questions the Convention didn’t even begin to consider.
And yes, do listen to Dan Barker (Dur: 39.32; Size: 36.1 MB)
Alternatively, you can access this audio and other audio from the Convention via the Audio tab at the right of this page.
Those of you who were at the Global Atheist Convention or have been following this blog may be interested to know that ABC Radio National’s Encounter program will be broadcasting a program on contemporary atheism based around the ideas and themes of the convention.
The program will feature interviews with AC Grayling, PZ Myers, Dan Barker, Tamas Pataki and others, as well as comments from members of the audience and excerpts from some of the convention presentations, and from the earlier debate in Sydney between Dan Barker and Cardinal George Pell.
The first broadcast is on ABC Radio National on Sunday, April 18th, beginning at 7.10 am, and the program is repeated on Wednesday, April 21th at 7.10 pm. It will also be available as an audio stream and a written transcript at our website – http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/default.htm.
Elizabeth Silver went to the Atheist Convention and left thinking about the issues she has with the idea of faith. She has decided that in religious usage it conflates two notions: belief and loyalty. But, she argues, belief is better served by a different partnership:
One evening during the Global Atheist Convention, I watched an atheist interview a remarkably intelligent and nuanced Christian (I didn’t catch his name, alas; for these purposes I’ll call him Mr Christian) for a short web video. I asked a couple of questions myself. One of the topics hit, I think, the crux of why religion appears so nutty to atheists.
Mr. Christian said that God would never clearly demonstrate his existence, because if He were to do so, He would compromise people’s moral autonomy to choose their beliefs.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Jesus ostensibly performed plenty of miracles, which were presented in the gospels as conclusive proofs of God’s existence.
The issue here is, simply, the virtue of faith. Many religious people see belief in God as a virtue in and of itself, even (or especially) when that faith is not supported by clear evidence. Requiring proof somehow cheapens the virtue, and expecting God to provide evidence is cheapest of all (cf. Doubting Thomas). By contrast, atheists do not attach any kind of moral virtue to belief; they may believe things that are not adequately supported by evidence (e.g. the complete absence of divine purpose, etc.), but this doesn’t make them better people, and ideally they’d prefer to have evidence for all their beliefs. As an atheist, I do not hold belief to be a virtue; it just seems nutty to me. So I’m interested in why religious people see belief as a virtue.
Why is faith a virtue?
I’m familiar with this moral stance; my mother held it while I was growing up. Mum (a Catholic, at that time) sometimes disparaged my father (an atheist) because “your Dad doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see.” This is clearly false (although it was not clear to me at the time); Dad, and I, and everyone else believe in lots of things we can’t see, like electrons. The point was, though, that proof somehow cheapened belief, and that belief itself was good. There’s a variation on this pattern in children’s stories, where children are often required to believe in magic in order to be good children (and for the magic to work).
This is the attitude Mum held, and to a certain extent instilled in me. Although I was an agnostic throughout high school, I still wanted to believe. I wanted God to be real. I also wanted unicorns to be real, but I suppose that was an unavoidable side effect.
I no longer hold that belief is a good in and of itself, nor that proof cheapens belief. In my first year of university, I developed such a love of truth that I now see only one way in which a belief can be good or bad: it is good if it is true, and bad if it is false. (There are added nuances about relevance and usefulness, but I think they’re side issues. Religious belief may be useful – it may make some people happier – but that won’t explain why belief is seen as a virtue.) I will not confer any additional moral evaluation of a person’s beliefs. In fact, when I say a belief is “good”, I do not mean morally good, or that the person holding it is morally good.
Whether the believer is good (or wise) for believing something to be true depends entirely on how the believer arrived at her beliefs. The belief itself is good because it is true, and truth is good. I take this as an axiom.
I have a strong intuition about why religion holds faith to be a virtue, but I have nothing but linguistic evidence for it, so I’ll just discuss it here, and I’d like to hear your opinions in the comments.
My intuition is this: there are two senses of the word faith. One means belief (i.e. what you think you know), and the other means loyalty. I think religion conflates (i.e. combines, collapses into a single construct) these two very different concepts. From now on I’ll use the words “belief” and “loyalty” when I want to draw those senses apart, and omit the word “faith” unless I want to refer to the conflation that occurs in religion. Please note that I’m not trying to talk about different kinds of faith, or divide them into two different kinds; there are infinitely many kinds of faith that people feel, and it would be sheer hubris for an atheist to try to categorise them. I’m just talking about two different senses of the word.
Loyalty may be a real virtue; it certainly helps to build trust between people, and trust can produce wonderful social benefits. However, none of us would wish to place our loyalty unwisely, by following false (or wicked) friends (or gods). For the moment I’ll assume that if given wisely, loyalty can be a powerful resource for good. Even if I don’t assume that, I can assume the weaker point that human societies value loyalty highly and instinctively. This goes back to tribalism and is easily demonstrated by in-group/out-group effects.
It appears to me that whenever faith is seen as a virtue in and of itself, which is cheapened by proof, it’s because we’re talking about loyalty. To be truly loyal, you should maintain your allegiance regardless of the evidence for or against your liege (though evidence against may invalidate the “if given wisely” clause, rendering the loyalty useless). It’s easy to act loyal to someone who pays you, like a boss; harder to be loyal to someone who treats you like you don’t exist. So loyalty is (perhaps) a virtue, and it is definitely stronger when you have less reason to apply it.
The trouble is belief is good when it’s true, and it has the best chance of being true when we have evidence to support it. I would not demonstrate virtue by believing the sky to be pink (or anything else that flies in the face of evidence, or is simply unsupported, like the existence of Russell’s teapot). So the apparent contradiction of “faith without evidence, or in the face of evidence, is the highest virtue” is really just a confusion of belief with loyalty. Once you disentangle these two concepts, you can realise that it is ridiculous to condemn people for their disloyalty to false, contradictory, or unsupported ideas. We may value loyalty to people or organisations, but there’s no reason to give our loyalty to beliefs; we believe them if they’re true and if they’re not, we don’t. There is no reason to devalue the pursuit of evidence.
Belief as loyalty, and loyalty to belief
However, when you have a personal relationship with God, your very belief in Him defines a person for you to be loyal to. Disbelief is suddenly a betrayal. Furthermore, even outside the context of religion, we often use beliefs as markers for membership in a particular group and/or loyalty to a particular leader. Examples: Catholics are fellows with one another and they are loyal to the Pope. By contrast, I wouldn’t feel much fellowship with a George-Bush-supporting-climate-change-denialist. The use of beliefs as membership cards allows the word “faith” to conflate loyalty with belief. It allows “faith in the face of evidence” to be a virtue, because what it really means is, “they’re on our side”.
This is why it is so important for atheists to create social bonds of fellowship between groups of different beliefs, to take the emphasis off loyalty (because in such a scenario, we’d all get along anyway) and put it back onto knowledge and belief. That is the only way to make “faith in the face of evidence” appear as ridiculous as I think it is.
Elizabeth Silver is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, a research assistant at Latrobe University’s Statistical Cognition Laboratory, and a tutor in bioethics at Monash University, who’s about to start her PhD in philosophy of science at either the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University.
The (non-) existence of God is ostensibly the defining characteristic of atheism. But my experience of the recent Atheist Convention and subsequent discussion, convinces me that the real issue at stake is the nature of science. The link is obvious: if science is the only source of objective knowledge, there is simply nothing to say about anything outside of science. But what if our view of science is wrong?
In a previous blog post I suggested that “science must take some things as given before it can start its work” and I also mentioned some ‘non-scientific’ beliefs that I thought most atheists would go along with. In this post I suggest that science isn’t the simple, methodical, truth-guaranteeing project we sometimes think it is. This view of science, gestated over a few hundred years, was born as positivism in the first half of the last century. It was mercilessly put to death in the second half by philosophers and reflective scientists. It is a view of science as a pure pursuit of sure knowledge, with the corollary that all other knowledge claims are pretenders. But it is a view that ignores much that is intrinsic to the logic and practice of real science.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we are talking of science as it is practised today. And let’s accept what the philosophers call ‘methodological naturalism’. That means, in the words of philosopher of science Michael Ruse, “miracles lie outside of science, which by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law.”
So if science is not as simple as the phrase ‘the scientific method’ implies, how should we understand it? What is this thing called science? (to borrow the words of Alan Chalmers’ book of that title.)
Science is an intrinsically human enterprise. It is a cultural product of the Western world, and it is rife with beliefs, commitments, intuitions, trust, subjective judgements, tacit knowledge, skills, creativity and presuppositions. It is not that science should be anything else: it can’t be. We have woken from the dream of 17th Century philosopher René Descartes, who hoped to find certainty by casting aside all that could possibly be doubted. This does not mean that it is unreasonable to trust scientific consensus. But it does mean we ought to pay attention to the historical, philosophical and empirical evidence which shows that science is no impersonal rule-governed enterprise resulting in sure knowledge.
History is littered with scientific theories that were ‘known’ to be true and subsequently overturned. Ptolemy’s universe was earth-centred before Copernicus came along. The Newtonian world was absolute before relativity arrived. Thomas Kuhn, a historian of science with a PhD in physics, changed forever our understanding of science with his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn says that a scientific theory goes largely unquestioned until a revolution unseats the reigning paradigm, replacing it with a new vision of what is true. SSR, as the book is affectionately known, argues that the idea of a universal and rigorous scientific method is a myth. While Kuhn has his critics, there is widespread agreement that science does not follow a rule-based method and that there is no neutral umpire to arbitrate between two competing scientific theories. Even rules of thumb such as simplicity and beauty cannot be defined, and depend on human judgement.
As well as what is revealed by its history, a philosophical inspection of science also leads to a more nuanced understanding. I mentioned the so-called ‘problem of induction’ in a previous blog post. (No matter how many black crows you see, there is no way of proving that all crows are black.) Another difficulty is that there are any number of theories that will fit the evidence; it depends on how many assumptions you want to include. Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe was propped up in the face of contradictory observations by introducing more assumptions. For 1400 years it was renovated as historical need arose. The sun-centred Copernican view prevailed, not because it simply explained the facts, but for reasons ranging through politics, religion, personal alliances and an appeal to simplicity. In the words of Max Planck, the Nobel prize winning father of quantum theory, “new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
In addition to anything found in text books, the expert scientist brings creativity and tacit knowledge to bear. There are many things we know, but cannot explain. Most of us know how to ride a bicycle. But few of us know what it is that we know. And if we could describe the laws of physics governing bicycles, it would be no use to a four-year-old astride a bike for the first time. Recognising rock specimens or identifying new diseases or species are examples of the intangible knowledge of the expert. This is an ‘added extra’ that cannot be explicated. In the end a human judgement has to be made. In the words of scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, “into every act of knowing there enters a tacit contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection, but a necessary component of all knowledge.”
When we see that this is how science works, says Polanyi, then we will desist from the “vain pursuit of a formalized scientific method”, and instead, recognise “the scientist as the agent responsible for conducting and accrediting scientific discoveries.” While the scientist’s procedure is methodical, those methods are “the maxims of an art” which the scientist applies in their own original way to the problem they have chosen. Nobel prize winning physicist, Max Born says, “Science is not formal logic–it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art.”
So scientific discovery too, is an art as well as a science, driven by the passions and intuitions of the enquiring genius, which cannot be formalised. At sixteen Albert Einstein was dreaming of flashlights and moving trains. Convinced that his intuitions were correct, it took him years to put mathematical flesh on the bones of relativity theory. He knew more than he could explain, and driven by passionate belief, he persevered to convince the scientific establishment. Like most of the great discoveries of science, relativity did not arise from new information. Such discoveries occur when old information is seen in a fresh light, and without being able to explain the process, the scientist cries “Eureka! I have found it.” Polanyi said that to see a problem is to see something that is hidden, “to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars.” And Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Scientific knowledge is also a complex and undefinable web of trust, hinted at by the ‘third law’ of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Polanyi puts it more analytically: “the knowledge comprised by science is not known to any single person. Indeed, nobody knows more than a tiny fragment of science well enough to judge its validity and value at first hand. For the rest he has to rely on views accepted at second hand on the authority of a community of people accredited as scientists.”
Human judgement, trust, tacit knowledge, creativity, are all intrinsic to science as we know it. Is this a reason to abandon science? No. Is this a reason to doubt the scientific consensus on climate change? Not at all. But it is reason to recognise the limits and the very human nature of this thing called science. It is not all-encompassing. It does not guarantee truth. But when it comes to knowledge of the natural world, science is all that we have, and it seems to have a good track record. Which of course begs the question of induction, but one has to stop somewhere.
Chris Mulherin has degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology and is currently writing a doctorate on scientific and religious knowledge. He is an Anglican minister and lives in Melbourne.
Comments keep coming in about scripture, puzzling over the way religious people attend to archaic texts. Here Frank Moloney adds to Melanie Landau’s reflection on reading scripture, from the perspective of someone who has spent seventy years (almost) reading and reflecting on the scriptures of his tradition:
I am very sensitive to the problem that many people have with reading Scripture. On the one hand there are many who regard it as pre-scientific, or even just silly: full of the world of a God who speaks to human beings, manipulates human history, works miracles, and even an incarnate Son of God who, though crucified, is reported as rising from the dead. How can such texts, especially such narrative texts (“stories”) claim to be in some way normative for anyone today?
On the other hand, there are many for whom the Bible is normative. They read texts, both the stories and the more didactic material, as if they were either 21st century texts reporting things exactly as they happened, or as if they are to be accepted as literal eye-witness reports, which thus cannot be challenged. To such readers, no critical question can or should be raised.
Most people fall in between, and simply do not bother with the Sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible. They are vaguely aware of some of the great stories (often through artistic representation), but would never take a word from Scripture as relevant to their lives.
This is a pity, because the Scriptures had their birth in “real life,” and need to be read in the light of our “real lives” in order to be better understood. None of the biblical authors thought of themselves as writing texts that would become normative for millennia. The authors of the first five books of the Bible (and there are several, as the books are made up of a number of traditions, assembled into their present form at a much later date) wanted to explain why there was so much evil and suffering about. Was God responsible? Does God exist? They wanted to know where the people of Israel came from, how they should live together. They wanted to know more about their choice to belong to only one God. So they thought about these things, prayed about them, told stories about them as they sat by the fire at night … and gradually their experiences began to surface in traditions that meant everything to them. These traditions remained alive, and were eventually shaped into the book of the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is respect for their questions and their experiences that must lead us beyond (and especially behind) a literal reading of a text that necessarily reflects its time and place. The questions that were asked then are asked by believers – and even non-believers – now. Across the centuries, we can sense the experience that we share with them, as they tell their stories, and reflect theologically upon those stories, as they tell of the prophets calling them back to their original faithfulness and so on.
But unless we respect where these experiences came from, and how they were shaped, then however we read (or do not read) Scripture, we miss the point. The biblical Word of God does not plummet into life and society with a “once and for all” response. It asks us to enter into a world where the presence of God has been felt, and asks if we share that experience.
The same must also be said for the Christian Testament. Gospels were written decades after the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the experience of this tiny group of crazy people who believed that Jesus was alive and among them, that they were energised by his Spirit as they tried to live, love, die and rise as he did, that is found in those pages. That is why the four Gospels are such different “stories.” They reflect different experiences of the one determining event: the person of Jesus.
Unfortunately, fundamentalist biblical readers are the people most recognised in the broader discussion. They are courageous and they speak out. They are also members of powerful churches. Indeed, most church institutions are uncomfortable with the type of approach to the Scriptures that I have sketched: an approach that allows the Bible to reflect human experiences matching our own, “sets people free” from the institutions’ use of them for their own doctrinal and legal purposes.
It is important to remember that the experience of believing individuals and communities produced the Bible. Those individuals and communities both created the Bible, and – as institutions – keep it alive in their lives and liturgies. However, the Bible strikes back. Read properly, respecting where, why and how it was written, it is a problem for institutions. All human institutions want to control the Word. But the word bites back, and acts as a thorn in the side of any institution that wishes to be an end in itself.
In the end, this is the dangerous edge of a correct use of Scripture: it asks us to be what we claim to be. This is also a reason why many reject the Bible: it asks the questions they cannot – or do not wish to – answer.
Frank Moloney STL (PSU) SSL (PBI) DPhil (Oxon) STD Honoris Causa (St Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, USA) FAHA has served as a member of the International Theological Commission to the Vatican.
Critics of God and religion sometimes use the dynamics of interpretation as evidence of the bankruptcy of scripture. The argument goes something like this: that honesty requires scripture to be read literally and that any kind of interpretation and symbolic reading is an attempt to whitewash scriptural problems and evade the ‘truth’. However, I think that we do not need to defend any problems in scripture in a debate about whether God exists. God’s existence or lack of is not contingent on a morally or otherwise perfect scripture (or world for that matter).
To deny readers of scripture the capacity of good faith interpretation is to rob a canon of its capacity for ongoing dynamism and validity throughout the passage of time. I think humans need to take responsibility for the way we read scripture, reading it as an open gateway rather than a closed passage. When there are things that we don’t like we can use this as an impetus to act in the world against those things. We can be in dialogue with scripture so that it opens us to the world as we want it to be, or so that it narrows the world and eats in on itself, without any space for incorporating new realities as they unfold. As the rabbis say, it can be an elixir of life, or a drug of death.
In a famous rabbinic story, the Oven of Akhnai, the rabbis used a biblical verse about deciding according to the majority to actually ban God from interfering in rabbinic disputes, and to disallow the rabbis from bringing supernatural proofs to the argument. The irony here is that the rabbis used their interpretation of the Bible to ensconce their own authority against God. Similarly a Talmudic story recounts a time travel episode with biblical Moses sitting in the classroom of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva is recounting laws and Moses doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about. But at the end Rabbi Akiva says that the laws are from Moses at Sinai, and in the rabbinic text, it says that after Moses heard this he was relieved. This shows the rabbis’ self-consciousness of the radical interpretive nature of their enterprise. They are interpreting Bible but Moses, whose signature is the bible, doesn’t recognise what they are talking about. Valid interpretation can take us that far from the original source that it becomes unrecognisable. At the same time it is still attributed back to its source and maintains its connection in that way.
The goal of calling scripture accountable to philosophical and scientific truth is not solely the domain of atheists; it is also something integral to many religious thinkers. Medieval Maimonides tried to reconcile his belief in the truth of scripture with his commitment to philosophical truth and it was this process that gave birth to metaphorical readings that allowed scripture to continue to ring true as new knowledge was brought to bear upon it. The truth of scripture can also be understood from a more humanistic perspective, in terms of the meaning and authority invested in it by communities of meaning, who often attributed their meaning because of suppositions about the divine inspiration of the text. But evidence of ‘faulty scriptures’ doesn’t ‘disprove’ God. In fact there wouldn’t be a rabbinic tradition without these faults, whose lines spark the creation of midrash. We just use our problem with scripture as part of our social action in the world, whether we are religious, or not.
My observance of Jewish ritual and, even more so, my learning of traditional sources is not invested in any attachment to God’s existence. Even relating to God is more about a sense of directionality towards infinity more than an address to something fixed. I often suggest that students bracket the question of God because it can be a distraction. (Personally I don’t think ‘believe’ is the right verb for God, but that’s another story.) Although the tradition may self-reflectively attribute God as the locus of authority and intention, this attribution has been perpetuated by different communities of interpretation in different ways throughout time and can often be a tiny fraction of the deeply human factors motivating learning and ritual.
Melanie Malka Landau is Lecturer, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Faculty of Arts, Monash University. She also facilitates individual and group processes around relationships, healing and rites of passage.
Taslima Nasrin’s speech at the convention was unique in the emotional engagement it engendered (Gary Bryson has described this in a previous post.) The audience gave Taslima Nasrin a lengthy standing ovation following her peroration:
I am in other words a stranger in my own country Bangladesh and a stranger in neighbouring India and a stranger in the West , where I am now living, Where can I go, nowhere. ….But I have a home, a home that consists of a family of people, men as well as women, who bravely oppose the forces of darkness and ignorance. These represent my true home. The hearts of people are my home and my nation, my only safe haven, my shelter and my refuge.
….. My home is love, the love I receive from women all over the world, that is my home, the love I receive from atheists, free thinkers, secularists, and humanist[s] is my home, the love I receive from you, that is my home. I do not regret what I have done so far, I do not regret anything that I have written, come what may. I will continue my struggle against all the extremists, fundamentalists, intolerant forces without any compromise to my death. I am all the more committed to my cause.
Taslima Nasrin prefaced her speech with brief reference to riots in the State of Karnataka on 1 March, just a fortnight before her appearance in Melbourne. Fifteen thousand people took to the streets, she told the audience, and two people died, “because a local newspaper published an article of mine about the burqa…” ”The editors wanted to have a healthy debate about the burqa so they published the article.”
In the remainder of her address Ms Nasrin canvassed her childhood arrival at atheism, Mohammad’s deficiencies as a model, and the Quran as a series of injunctions to violence and sexism. She gave an account of her displacement from Bangladesh and of her subsequent difficulties living in India. Islam was at the root of her homelessness, and not only fanatics, but liberal intelligentsia who defended the rights of Muslims, threatened her continued security in India.
My interest here is not Islam, the Quran or Mohammad. That’s for a different post. Suffice to say that Islamic fundamentalism is without question a problem for the security and well being of people, evidently everywhere. And it is a specific problem for women.
But, since the Karnataka events were quoted by Taslima Nasrin to contextualise her criticism of Islam and her ‘homelessness’, I would like to invite you on a tour of the available empirical information. I want to suggest possibilities for more telling readings of the riots than the one offered by Ms Nasrin.
1. On Karnataka: It’s a state (population 53 million) in southern India where the BJP is in power. The BJP subscribes to Hindutva, an ideology that argues all Indians should subscribe to a Hindu ethos. The BJP – nationally – has interpreted Muslim population figures and Muslim identity as a threat to the Hindu ethos prevailing in India. (There’s a strand in Indian secularism which joins in this interpretation.) In Karnataka 83 per cent of the population is Hindu; a mere 12 per cent is Muslim and not quite two per cent Christian. Only 8 per cent of Muslims have government jobs. Politics in the state are dominated by two caste groupings that comprise 15 per cent and 17 per cent respectively of the population: The access of these communities historically to land, education and government jobs; and more recently to the commercial and business opportunities thrown up by economic liberalisation is the basis for their social dominance. One aspect of their power is the connection of Hindu religious leadership within these groupings to unregulated business enterprise. In effect, politics in Karnataka is intra-Hindu, with each party balancing its caste equations carefully before it decides how to recruit Muslim votes or Dalit votes etc. According to the World Bank, political parties in Karnataka including secular parties “have generally not sought to mobilize political support by pursuing welfarist policies.”
Politicians customarily refer to Karnataka is the IT powerhouse of India but this level of industrial advancement is largely limited to the capital Bangalore (a quarter of the State’s economic activity happens there) and to the city of Mysore. Many other areas of Karnataka are highly underdeveloped. In 2005 Transparency International ranked Karnataka as the fourth most corrupt state (of 20) in India, particularly in services such as ‘Income Tax, Judiciary, Municipal and RFI (farming)’.
In Karnataka, therefore, there is a prevailing ideology, an entrenched political and social power structure, and a pattern of uneven economic development – all of which provide sources of outrage aplenty , and provocations for outbreaks of communal violence.
2. On Communal violence: Communalism and resort to riot in India has a long history, much analysed. But religious based communalism is intimately tied to the identity consciousness produced initially by British ‘empirical’ innovations in census taking and their introduction of elective representation along communal lines. Communalism is on the rise in India – where ethnicity, language, religion, caste divide and structure in hierarchies people competing economically and politically.
3. What happened in Karnataka on 1 March?: The Karnataka newspaper The Deccan Herald describes the course of events here: The [Nasrin's] article, about the purported views of Nasreen on the purdah system, led to protest marches in the two cities by Muslims, prompting retaliatory demonstrations by a section of Hindus. The counter-protests, parades and demonstrations worsened the situation and the violence went into a spiral as mobs from various parts of the towns took to the streets, burning police vehicles, smashing cars, stoning buildings and causing damage to public property.
Of the two people who died in the riots, one person was shot by police, the other killed in the crowd violence. In other words, the event was a complex phenomenon; it was not a matter of 15,000 Muslims taking to the streets.
4. What about the article?: Taslima Nasrin did not write an article for the Karnataka newspaper (Kannada Prabha) which published her piece. The paper picked up (for its own good reasons in a Hindu majority state) and translated from English an article published in January 2007, ‘Let’s think about the burqa’ . Update: Taslima Nasrin has informed us that the 2007 version of the article was preceded by publication in a Bengali newspaper, Daily Statesman, in 2006. See Comment below.
Following the riots in Karnataka, Taslima Nasrin issued a statement widely reported in the Indian media: “The incident that occurred in Karnataka on Monday shocked me. I learned that it was provoked by an article written by me that appeared in a Karnataka newspaper. But I have never written any article for any Karnataka newspaper in my life,” she said.
Nasreen said, “The appearance of the article is atrocious. In any of my writings I have never mentioned that Prophet Muhammad was against burkha. Therefore this is a distorted story.”
The author said, “I suspect that it is a deliberate attempt to malign me and to misuse my writings to create disturbance in the society. I wish peace will prevail.”
5. An alternative voice: Irfan Engineer of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai has written a reflection on the Karnataka riots. He writes: Minority fundamentalism often becomes existential justification for fundamentalist elements from majority community. Competitive fundamentalism together can erode individual freedoms and threaten democracy. Read the whole article here.
This is a lengthy post. But I hope it suggests that attention to complexity is preferable to staying with the simplistic. And preferable to the essentially solipsistic narrative of the Karnataka event presented by Taslima Nasrin.
Here’s an alternative way of reading communal conflict structured around religious identity. It concerns recent conflict in Nigeria, but it models a way of seeing that illuminates ways forward, rather than reducing us to one impossible but very easy to articulate ‘solution’.
And for a discussion of what goes missing when the detail is ignored of how those two lives were lost in Karnataka, read Gyanendra Pandey, ‘In Defence of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today’. It’s in the Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 26, No 11/12 Annual Number (Mar., 1991)
Listen to Taslima Nasrin [Dur: 43.24; Size: 39.7 MB]