Category Archives: Humanism, Religion, Atheism etc.

Why Pat Robertson’s comments on Haiti shouldn’t shock us

It hardly needs stating how appalling Pat Robertson is. Many of you will have heard that he blames what’s happened in Haiti on their having made a pact with the Devil to help them free themselves from French tyranny. The obvious first reaction is astonishment that anyone could say something like that. But, to be honest, if you accept his world-view, what he’s said is pretty reasonable.

In Pat Robertson’s mind things like the Devil and an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God are very real; unless he’s been lying convincingly for a long time, he believes that these beings truly exist. And so do millions of people all over the world. And it is rational to wonder, if there exists an omnipotent benevolent being with the power to stop earthquakes from happening, why this being doesn’t stop earthquakes from happening. This is a classic problem, articulated famously by Epicurus: if God knows of the suffering and can stop it, but does not, then he is not omnibenevolent. If he is omnibenevolent, then he either does not know about the suffering (so is not omniscient) or does know and cannot do anything about it (so is not omnipotent). Many atheists, reasonably, see this as quite a good reason not to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god. Believers have responses, however, and these responses tend to concentrate on allowing constraints on God’s omnipotence. God does indeed know about the suffering, and is indeed against it, and could indeed do something about it, they argue; however, doing something about it would violate something important.

Usually this something is free will: God, we are told, does not stop human beings from doing evil, as our freedom is very important. For this to make sense in the context of a natural disaster like an earthquake, then the earthquake must be somehow caused by the actions of human beings. This is why people like Pat Robertson always try to come up with sin as an explanation for natural disaster: if natural disaster can’t be blamed on the victims, then it must be blamed on God, and that’s unthinkable. The thing to keep in mind is that none of this is peculiar to some obscure crazy sect of Christianity: it’s pretty close to what a huge number of Christians believe. After all, given the kind of deity Christians profess to believe in, there are only so many ways of explaining suffering.

So what was the Haitians’ sin? This is where Devil worship comes in: in 1791, a man called Dutty Boukman performed the role of priest in a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, which included prophesies about a slave uprising. This helped steel the resolve of the Haitian slaves, leading to the Haitian Revolution, which led to the end of slavery on Haiti and the establishment of a black-ruled republic. For Pat Robertson, like many other Christians, religious practice must be explained in terms of the Christian God or the Devil. And Voodoo is clearly contrary to the teachings of Christianity; so it must be Devil worship. In this world-view, it all suddenly falls into place. What could the people of Haiti have done that was so terrible that God would let them suffer like this? Well, he thinks, it’s a matter of historical record that they invoked the Devil to help them beat the French. Now they have reaped their reward.

People are understandably horrified at what Pat Robertson has said, but, if they share his basic beliefs, they shouldn’t be. When New Orleans flooded, how bad was it to immediately lay blame at the feet of the responsible authorities for not maintaining the levees? If you accept the basics of Pat Robertson’s world-view, then his blaming the people of Haiti for the earthquake is hardly worse. It’s not as if he’s encouraging people not to help. I’m not arguing moral relativism. I’m not saying that Pat Robertson is right in any sense. What I’m saying is that Pat Robertson believes the same basic things as millions of Christians; all he’s done is take these beliefs to their logical conclusion.

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How fundamentalist is Dawkins?

I was a bit disappointed to hear lovable atheist Jeremy Hardy, on last week’s News Quiz call Richard Dawkins a “fundamentalist atheist”. Admittedly, he then called him a “Jehova’s I never saw nothing”, so he wasn’t so much making a point as setting up a joke.

But ‘fundamentalist atheist’ is a common term, and it’s one that atheist bloggers complain about. So why do they complain? What, after all, does ‘fundamentalist’ mean? Probably the most obvious interpretation—the meaning you would most likely infer if you didn’t know the word—is that a fundamentalist is someone who adheres strictly to a set of fundamental principles. Now, inasmuch as those people described as fundamentalist atheists tend to adhere pretty strictly to the principle that reason and evidence are the best way to understand the world, then I suppose they are fundamentalists. But then anyone with strict principles is a fundamentalist. Is that really what people mean, or understand by the term?

I don’t think so. There’s something else. There’s a connotation to fundamentalism beyond simply strict adherence: people tend to understand it to mean strict adherence to dogmatic principles even in the face of reason, evidence, and (what the speaker holds to be) more basic moral principles. So it would be fundamentalist to believe, having been shown scientific evidence to the contrary, that the wine drunk in mass had actually turned into blood. It would be fundamentalist to kill someone for being an apostate. But it wouldn’t really be fundamentalist to expect the sun to rise yet again tomorrow, even if you were pretty dogmatic about it.

So what does Richard Dawkins believe dogmatically that is counter to reason and evidence? It’s not clear that there’s anything much, at least not related to atheism. I can imagine a dogmatic atheist, who fundamentally believed that there was no god because that’s what they’d been told; this would be not so much in the face of reason and evidence as without reference to them. But Richard Dawkins has a whole book published to show that he’s not one of those. It’s not even as if he claims to know absolutely for certain that there’s no god; he’s just pretty close to sure. Perhaps what people mean by “fundamentalist atheist” is that evidence and reason lead so overwhelmingly to belief in god that anyone who doesn’t believe is simply clinging to dogma.

That’s possible, but then every atheist in a position to look at the evidence is a fundamentalist, and that includes Jeremy Hardy himself! So what did he mean, if he didn’t just mean it as a joke (which, admittedly, is quite possible)? I think there’s been a shift in meaning of the word ‘fundamentalist’, whose origins are understandable. I think what a lot of people mean by fundamentalist, if they mean anything very much, is ‘a person who belongs to a particular religion and goes on about it all the time, quite loudly’. Now, Richard Dawkins doesn’t really belong to any religion, but that’s kind of the point people are making; he bangs on about religion an awful lot for someone who hasn’t got one.

I suppose there’s a further parallel. Pastors who bellow from the pulpits (and outside it) presumably believe sincerely that they are saving people from being tortured for eternity. If you really believed that, wouldn’t you try to convert them? In a somewhat similar way, except that this isn’t about places that might not exist, Richard Dawkins is aware of the damage that religion has done to knowledge and learning, and the horrors it has inflicted on humanity (on this topic, the recent Intelligence Squared debate on the Catholic Church is worth watching). In which case, can you really blame him from going on about it a lot?

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Pharyngula on the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society

I recently posted a link on the behaviour of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society, who apparently cancelled a talk by a speaker when they found she was a communist; then, when she did turn up, the president of the society set the police on her cameraman, who was apparently treated very roughly. There’s been a bit of toing and froing on various blogs, giving both sides of what happened. If you’re interested, Pharyngula has a series of posts worth reading:

It seems to be increasingly hard to feel that the society didn’t at least make some serious errors here.

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How to give humanism a bad name

This is pretty appalling, and I find it very surprising. I like to think it’s not typical of people who call themselves humanists.

Edit: I may have jumped in too soon:) There’s a comment at the bottom of the article I link to, which gives the other side of the story and certainly seems to cast things in a different light.

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Why can’t Jedis wear hoods?

Have you heard the story about the man who wore a Jedi outfit to a supermarket in Bangor, and was asked to remove his hood. As the man considers Jedi to be his religion, he’s claiming religious discrimination. The supermarket’s response shows good humour and is to be admired.

The interesting point raised by this, of course, is not whether this this man is ‘really’ a Jedi, or if it can ‘really’ be considered a religion. The question is whether religious clothing preferences should be treated any differently from non-religious clothing preferences, and if so, why. In practice, of course, people who dress a certain way on the basis of beliefs and views they call religious are more likely to get upset about it than people who dress a certain way because they think it looks cool. Well, on the whole, anyway. I think. Probably. OK, so let’s at least assume that this claim is accurate. It means that by exempting those people, the companies cause less upset. Moreover, religious people often belong to sizeable communities of like-minded people, who have a certain lobbying power. Supermarkets are doubtless wise to prefer risking the wrath of people who call themselves Jedis over risking the wrath of people who call themselves Muslims or Sikhs.

But is this all it is? Is this the only reason certain religious people are exempt form certain rules where non-religious people aren’t? To avoid offending the former (even though the latter are undoubtedly also offended)? Is this sensible, or is it weak-willed? Should we start requiring everyone, unless they have a really good (e.g. medical) reason not to, to follow the same rules? Wouldn’t that be less discriminatory?

This is an old question that’s been asked before many times in other places. And I have to admit that while my instinct is to assert that everyone should have to follow the same rules, and that religious people shouldn’t have special exemptions, I can’t help wondering that maybe there is some room for compromises in cases like this. I suggested here, after all, that there’s necessarily more ‘muddling through’ in morality than we’re often prepared to admit. If people do feel so strongly, even on irrational grounds, about covering their heads, then maybe we should let them. But yes, that feels wrong too—shouldn’t we allow the same rights to people who feel equally strongly about it on non-religious grounds? I think we should, but how do these people prove that they have such strong feelings? It actually has more to do with this than it has to do with religious privilege, I think. The religious people can at least say that they belong to community x, where it is well known that members of community x do things in a certain way. And some non-religious communities get the same concessions: Scotsmen in national dress are exempt (along with Sikhs) from certain requirements of UK legislation relating to knives. The real losers are the people who feel just as strongly about covering their heads as the religious people do, but who lack the context that helps justify their choice.

But this all remains unsatisfactory. Let’s assume that the rule on having heads uncovered in the supermarket is reasonable; what should the supermarkets do? Should they exempt anyone? If so, where should they draw the line?


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A transitory Yes

I’ve never read A Room with a View, and think that perhaps I should. I enjoy the film rather a lot, and saw it for the first time when I was quite young: an adolescent excited by the prospect of seeing Helena Bonham-Carter having a sexual awakening. But an actor whose face I associate with that film at least as much as hers is Denholm Elliott, who plays the father of the boy she falls for.

The father and the boy are described as freethinkers, and E. M. Forster, who wrote the novel, was a humanist. There’s a line in the film that I like very much, and which I always hear in the voice of Denholm Elliott. When I googled it to check the wording, I at first got this:

At the side of the everlasting why, is a yes, and a yes, and a yes.

Which, I think, is the form it takes in the film. A Google book search, however, led me to a fuller, more qualified, version in the original novel, and I like the tone of this a little better:

Then make my boy think like us. Make him realise that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes, if you like, but a Yes.

I think that this statement is a very relevant to humanism.

Now, a sense of wonder is as important to most religious people as it is to the non-religious. So the everlasting Why is something all thinking human beings grapple with, at least a little. But its everlastingness is perhaps especially important to humanists, who—it seems fair to say—value doubt rather more highly than most religious people appear to. There is no promise to the humanist of an eternal truth at the end of the rainbow, and we are suspicious of certainties. Almost all humanists, I think, believe that there is something true about the universe that it is possible to know; but no humanist, I suspect, thinks we can ever know all there is to know, or that there is some great being somewhere who does. So perhaps the Why is more clearly everlasting to most humanists than it is to most religious people. The biggest Why—‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’—is one that many religious people think they have the answer to; and their answer is ‘God’. Humanists do not agree. But, to be fair, not all religious people do either, even the monotheists. God, obviously, has to be part of the something, and is thus part of the explanandum, not the explanation. In fact, since anything that could be invoked to explain the existence of something rather than nothing has to be part of the something, the question remains in principle unanswerable, and the Why is doomed to remain everlasting. And many religious people are aware of this, while some humanists, it’s fair to say, are not.

But then there’s the affirmation: the Yes. On the surface this sounds a bit glib; my fiancée was unimpressed by the quote when I first mentioned it to here: ‘What does that actually mean?’ she asked. Good question. In fact, this is exactly the question we should all ask when we feel inspired by a quotation: why are we inspired by it? Is there something true in it, or does it just sound good? As I understand it, the meaning of this quotation is that in the face of everlasting uncertainty there are still things to be affirmed. Humanists are not nihilists; despite our armour of doubt, there are things we believe in. Some people (in fact, rather a lot of people) misunderstand the term humanism to imply a kind of human supremacism, a notion that we are the greatest of all species. This is not at all what humanism is. The point rather is that humanism is a philosophy for humans, based on human values. Humanists tend to have a faith in humanity; not in the sense that monotheists have a faith in God, but in the sense that you might have faith in your daughter to pass her exams, or a faith in your own ability to survive life’s misfortunes. While acknowleding that we shall never live up quite to our ideals, humanists have faith that human beings are able to live good and moral lives and do good—and that the power to do this comes from within; we don’t need any supernatural beings to help us achieve it. The Yes, it seems to me, affirms furthermore that human beings are capable of knowing things; that the universe may be mysterious, and that some things will always remain mysteries, but that through reason and evidence we can chip away at our ignorance and understand things.

And I’m sure there are many many religious people who would also claim there to be a Yes by the side of the Why; and many of them would call that God. This is why I like the version of the quote to be found in the original novel. The Yes is transitory. And that is more a humanist notion than a religious one: the recognition that death is death. While the universe just sits there, resisting explanation, the small answers we give to the big questions only last as long as we do. And one day we’ll all be gone.

But (and the quote ends by reaffirming the Yes) that doesn’t really matter.

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Is a cat an atheist?

I am an atheist. I’m also an agnostic; I don’t consider the two to be mutually exclusive, because it seems to me that the first is about belief, and the second is about knowledge. I can’t say that I know there are no beings of the kind that we might call gods, but I don’t believe there are.

But what exactly is atheism? I raise the question because, in several of the atheist and humanist blogs I read, the question comes up rather a lot. And it is almost always asserted that atheism is simply the absence of belief in any deities; it is not in itself a belief. In an interesting blog entry I read today, it was asserted that:

Atheism prefixes the Greek a- (without) to theism, and means simply “without belief in at least one god.” It does not mean disbelief or refusal to believe; it is a position of neutrality: absence of belief. To place it in context: a baby is atheist until it is introduced to supernatural concepts at a later age; animals are atheist.

This is a fairly typical position, and I’m not going to flat-out disagree with it, but I think there’s something wrong there somewhere. This may come partly from having a fiancée who’s an epistemologist; if you argue with her about belief and knowledge, you’d better be on firm ground. That said, I’m not showing this to her before I publish it, so maybe I’m sinking deep into epistemological ground as we speak. We’ll see…

Three things trouble me, I think, about the statement I quoted above. I’ll start where my feet feel firmest. As a linguist, I’m irritated by the appeal to etymology; just because a word was derived a particular way doesn’t mean that we can derive its modern meaning this way. Atheism is not forced by virtue of its origins to mean… well … anything in particular. A word means what it is used to mean; there is no inherent link between patterns of sound and particular meanings. In fact, the kind of questions people like to ask about language, like ‘How many phonemes are there in English?’ and ‘What does this word mean?’ are only really answerable with regard to a particular individual speaker or utterance at a particular time—the large-scale entities we call languages are really just statistical clusters of speakers and their utterances. So when we ask what a particular word means in English, all we can really say is, ‘What do most English speakers (or most of the English speakers I consider relevant in some way) use this word to mean?’ Or, perhaps, ‘How can this word be used most effectively?’ which in general, I suppose, implies using it in such a way as to make communication with the relevant people as straightforward as possible.

Now, with this in mind, the distinction between ‘without belief’ and ‘disbelief’ is reasonable; we certainly can distinguish between individuals to whom it has simply never occurred to believe in something and individuals who have thought about whether a particular thing exists and decided they do not believe in it. That’s all very well. But let’s be honest: no one in the first group is going to call themselves an atheist. As many atheists like to point out, baldness is not a hair colour; but a bald person who’s never heard of hair isn’t going to distinguish themselves as bald. This is not to say that it’s wrong to say that newborns and animals are atheists; it’s just that they’re a different kind of atheist from people who’ve been told about religion. The kind of atheists (like me) who write blog entries about atheism are people who believe there is no god. In answer to the question, ‘Do you believe there is a god, or gods?’ there are, broadly, three responses for people who understand what the question means: ‘Yes’; ‘No’; ‘I have no position’. People who answer in the first way are theists; people who answer in the second way are atheists; it seems quite wrong to say that people who answer in the third way are also atheists. And for those who answer no, the distinction between absence of belief and belief of absence seems spurious: if they understand the question and have given it enough thought to answer as they do, then they not only lack belief in god; it is reasonable also to say that they believe there is no god.

But this leads us to a somewhat odd situation, where we have two kinds of atheist: people who understand what the question means and answer no, and people (or other entities) who are simply unaware of the question. Maybe we should just live with this; it’s not actually all that odd: language is often ambiguous. Or maybe we should restrict the term atheist to one or the other. If we do, then it seems to me that it might better be restricted to the first set. This accords best with how people understand the term; it counts people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as atheists. The second set counts cats and, perhaps, rocks and trees as atheists. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the term seems rather less useful applied to them.

And there’s a potential difference between these entities and new-born humans too. I’ve known people take the argument a step further and state that atheism is the default human position. This is far from clear. It is the default rational position, and the null hypothesis; it is the hypothesis that best accords with Occam’s razor (which is not quite the same, incidentally, as the simplest hypothesis in every sense of the word). But that does not mean that human beings are by default atheists in anything but a trivial sense. Indeed, I suspect that evolution has given us biases such that we tend on the whole towards theism. It is, on the whole, rational thought that leads us away from that.

So I am suspicious of claims that new-born babies are atheists. They are not atheists in the same way that I am, except inasmuch as we are all members of a large set of entities that happen to lack a belief in deities. But I’m not convinced that that’s the set it’s most useful to apply the term to.


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