Weird science at Stormont


Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m slightly irritated by this campaign in the Grauniad to get secularists and atheists onto Thought for the Day. It may not be so bad, I suppose, if they were putting on serious thinkers with something to say who just happened to be atheists. But, all things being equal, opening the God slot to atheists means Radio 4 turning to whoever volunteers, which means evangelical atheists. And I would be not inconsiderably annoyed if those bozos at the National Secular Society managed to muscle in, since their whole purpose is to say “Religion! Boo!” They’re entitled to do that of course, as long as they do it on their own time. Trying to claim a quota of an already small amount of religious programming seems a bit off to me.

We’ve also got the Darwin anniversary at the moment. I really enjoyed Attenborough’s defence of Darwin the other week, but we can expect to see plenty of Professor Dawkins, who sort of encapsulates a lot of the problem I have with evangelical atheists. One thing that winds me up is his reliance on easy targets. I’ve never yet seen him debate a serious theologian, but he is extremely fond of heading over to Kentucky to wind up some inarticulate hillbillies. He also has this touching belief that the way to make the world a better place is to hector religious people and try to browbeat them into becoming atheists. Yeah, that really worked in the Soviet Union.

There’s also the evidential question, as in the vulgar materialist assumption that science has disproved religion. No it hasn’t. It may have made religion intellectually unnecessary, but as Attenborough understands and Dawkins doesn’t, science can’t prove or disprove a metaphysical assertion. No, where science does come into play, and where Dawkins is very good, is when religious fundamentalists make daft assertions about the physical world. This is trespassing on science’s territory, and science is perfectly within its rights to give the trespasser both barrels.

Which brings me to Stormont, where the occasional sighting of Jocko Homo should be of interest to evolutionary theorists. From today’s Tele:

A DUP Assemblyman has urged one of Northern Ireland’s biggest museums to ‘balance out’ a forthcoming exhibition on evolution with a display about creationism.

The Ulster Museum is to run a series later this year on evolution and fossils, which is expected to incorporate the work of naturalist Charles Darwin, whose birthday 200 years ago is currently being celebrated.

Darwin’s views on the theory of evolution and natural selection shocked the worlds of science and religion when first published.

However, North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey has called for a creationist exhibition to be run alongside which explains the origin of life according to a literal reading of the Genesis account in the Bible.

“All I’m saying is that there should be a balance because there are other views out there,” Mr Storey said.

“There are people who have a different view to Darwin on creation.”

Mr Storey, himself a proponent of creationism, said that he was entitled to express his views on the subject.

“I believe in creationism and intelligent design, I don’t believe in the theory of evolution”, he said.

Mr Storey also said that a failure by the museum to reflect the views of “other people” could raise the possibility that a legal challenge may be launched under equality legislation.

The museum, which is due to reopen later this year following a major refurbishment programme, responded last night with a statement which read: “The Ulster Museum… will house galleries and exhibitions of international significance interpreted in line with excellent scholarship and research.

“Within the permanent science galleries we will explain the conventional scientific theories internationally accepted by scholars and scientists to describe life on earth from the earliest evidence of fossils.

“This is consistent with approaches taken by museums of renown across the world.”

Mervyn is chairman of the Assembly education committee.

In related news, the environment committee has passed a vote of no confidence in Sammy the Streaker, but the rules of the peace process mean the minister stays in situ until Robbo decides otherwise. But I’m very taken, not for the first time, with the comments boxes which are placed at the bottom of Telegraph articles and allow the Ulster populace to speak they’re brane. Here are a few genuine comments:

One day history will show us that ‘climate change’ and the whole CO2 bunkum is a farce. Bona fide science knows this already. Mr.Wilson is to be applauded for his views on the matter and for not following the morons who have fallen for the baised and skewed reporting of the true facts about the fallacy that is man-made climate changed which we have rammed down our throats by government.

At last a minister with a BRAIN, we should give him a medal as big as a frying pan.

Regardless of whether MMGW or AGW are fact (which I dont believe they are) Mr Wilson is to be commended. Why – well, for having the intellectual rigour and conviction to make a stand, for one. To me, the harsh reality is that these ‘climate’ issues are a stage for wanna-be communists, champange socialists and ultra-left liberals, who would like nothing more than to put severe restrictions on the daily lives of everyone, believers (of MMGW/AGW) and non-believers alike.

If we dont collectively waken up we may find ourselves under the cosh of a regime of our own making.

You disagree? Think about it, we’re already in a surveillance driven state, CCTV everywhere, fines for not having rubbish sorted, massive databases of personal information, an overbearing government, etc, etc, etc. Put the pieces together, what could be more perfect than the impending threat of climate carnage as a vehicle for society wide control, huh?

Think, think, think, people, or should that be sheople ?

On second thoughts, maybe we should bring Dawkins over here. Isn’t public understanding of science his job description?


  1. D. J. P. O'Kane said,

    February 13, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    I come over here for light relief, when Cedar Lounge starts giving me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. And what do I get?

    ‘Mervyn is chairman of the Assembly education committee.’

  2. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 13, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Does Sinn Fein have a view on all this?

  3. Fionn said,

    February 13, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Well lads,
    sorry to post this here, I couldn’t find any other contact details. I just wanted to ask you if you could add my new blog to your blog list. It’s called ‘Anarchy Isles’ and the link is:

    thanks for your time,

  4. February 13, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    […] Sunrise celebrates Darwin Day with a piece on the limits of scientific thought among the leading politicians in the north of Ireland.  One […]

  5. Liam said,

    February 13, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    What is a “serious theologian”? Is it something like a serious tarot card reader?

  6. Phil said,

    February 14, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Well, no, because there aren’t any other serious tarot card readers – they’re all equally crazy and irrelevant, because there aren’t enough people out there to say otherwise. A serious theologian – like a serious sociologist or a serious literary critic – is someone who’s regarded as a serious theologian, by other people who care about theology/sociology/lit crit.

  7. Andy Newman said,

    February 14, 2009 at 1:26 am

    There is also a substantial body of theory dealing with the ideological and philosophical implications of belief in divinity.

    For example the debate about free will in Christianity is an importnat paort of our cultural and philosophical heritage.

    And it would be foolish to suppose that science has (or could have) an answer to all the issues raised in people’s individual lives. For example the parents of a child born with a disability may have deep and insatiable anxiety about why their own particular child was so afflicted. Religion may give them answers that science cannot.

  8. Derval said,

    February 14, 2009 at 9:34 am

    But as Dawkins says, he’s not interested in the ‘serious theology’ of less than 1% of believers, that comes down to a God of the invisibly small gaps. That kind of belief is pretty much designed to be undisprovable.
    The religion that most people believe in say God has a personal relationship with each of the, is watching and listening to everything we do, and intervenes regularly in the world.
    When you argue against popular belief in capitalism, it’s precisely the popular belief you have to engage with. The cutting edge of economic theory, and the details of of the latest not-Nobel winning research are basically irrelevant. The arguments are about the minimum wage/unions/immigration destroying jobs, or socialism meaning Stalinism, or anarchism meaning chaos.

  9. Ray said,

    February 14, 2009 at 9:36 am

    The typos are a direct result of being logged in as my wife. Obviously.

  10. Niall said,

    February 14, 2009 at 9:59 am

    This is the kind of thing that makes me feel that unionists are a different species. How on earth could a party made up of the like s of those idiots ever get elected? The DUP’s mouth on equality calls gays abomination. The environment spokesman doesn’t believe in climate change. The education spokesman wants creationism to be treated as something other than bunk. It’s ridiculous.

  11. skidmarx said,

    February 14, 2009 at 10:56 am

    You seem conflicted on Dawkins. After having been told repeatedly that he was as dogmatic as his opponents, I was surprised to find The God Delusion logical and reasonable.

    1. Is it you who has a book on Eritrea out? I saw someone watching: and wasn’t sure it it was further cause for depression.

    6. Surely on your reasoning a serious tarot reader is one regarded as such by other serious tarot readers? Perhaps it is the community of meta-theorists or philosophers of science that need to be convinced of a discipline’s legitimacy.

    7. With wishing to be insulting, religion may give answers that you cannot given your general inability to construct an argument. There may be a substantial body of theory about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Doesn’t mean it has the slightest relevance. There is a substantial debate in general philosophy about free will and determinism, but I don’t see what God has to do with it. I was in a problems of philosophy and methodology clas once with an ex-RCP organiser where I seem to remember we’d independently come to the conclusion that hard determinism was compatible with free will. I certainly can’t recall anyone mentioning the malevolent thug in the sky?

  12. johng said,

    February 14, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    I agree about serious theology (its simply philistine to dismiss everything that has been thought about belief in human history as a mistake) but its also true that Dawkin’s is entirely inept in relationship to sociological thought about religion, which itself has something to say about the history of thought about religion. Its incredible that anyone could write a book preporting to be about religion without having engaged in any serious encounter with debates about the significance of religious belief in relationship to the development of society.

  13. Dr Paul said,

    February 14, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Atheists on ‘Thought for the Day’? Another chance for my old ex-RCP chums to start rabbiting away, I reckon. Do we really want that?

  14. skidmarx said,

    February 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    12. I did briefly study some of Thomas Aquinas once. Nothing that rose above the level of debate in the schoolyard.
    The God Delusion doesn’t purport to be a sociological analysis of religion. It’s an argument about the facts, and is remarkably logical, detailed and fair.

    13. “Oooooh!” [and shudders].

  15. johng said,

    February 14, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Have to disagree with your account of Thomism I’m afraid SkidMarx. I don’t think the reconciliation of Aristotelianism with Christian belief, which amongst other things, led to a new definition of natural rights, can be reduced to a ‘discussion in a schoolyard’. Also of interest is the way in which Aquinas was forced to both oppose and learn from Islamic scholars who had preserved Aristotelianism through the European dark ages. In many ways these debates laid the basis for the renaissence. I don’t suppose these ‘facts’ entered into his account.

  16. Phil said,

    February 14, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    as Dawkins says, he’s not interested in the ’serious theology’ of less than 1% of believers, that comes down to a God of the invisibly small gaps. That kind of belief is pretty much designed to be undisprovable.

    In that case it’s a bait-and-switch operation. You can demonstrate that young-earth creationists are either dishonest or crazy (for example) without making any impression on vast tracts of the landscape of religious belief, which have made sense & continue to make sense to an awful lot of people. All those people may be mistaken (I think they probably are), but quite a lot of them are also thoughtful, reflective and wise, in ways which can’t entirely be disentangled from their ‘delusion’.

    Surely on your reasoning a serious tarot reader is one regarded as such by other serious tarot readers?

    That’s not my reasoning. What I said was

    there aren’t any other serious tarot card readers – they’re all equally crazy and irrelevant, because there aren’t enough people out there to say otherwise.

    There need to be a lot of people who take Belief X seriously, and do so for a long time; millions, let’s say, for a hundred years or more. On top of that, Belief X needs to have advocates who can get a hearing on Radio 4 or in the Times (or local equivalent), without immediately triggering a public inquiry into who’s letting the loonies in. Once a belief system’s achieved that kind of critical mass, it makes perfect sense to talk about some of its exponents being more ‘serious’ or ‘credible’ or ‘reasonable’ than others.

    Dawkins’s great mistake, it seems to me – although I admit I’m only really familiar with his journalism – is to treat Christianity as if it were as marginal and eccentric as Tarot card reading, or as if marginality and eccentricity (or their absence) didn’t make any difference to belief systems. It’s an old atheist debating trick (remember Russell’s teapot), but it’s not much more than that.

  17. Ray said,

    February 15, 2009 at 9:03 am

    It’s not bait-and-switch if he isn’t taking arguments particular to YECs and pretending that they are common to believers.
    He’s saying, _this_ is what most believers believe in. They don’t believe in an impersonal force that brought the universe into being and then faded into the background. They believe in a powerful beardy bloke in the sky who listens to their prayers and rewards or punishes their behaviour. _This_ idea of an interventionist god is what makes up the ‘vast tracts of religious belief’, not the publications of theologians.

    Once a belief system’s achieved that kind of critical mass, it makes perfect sense to talk about some of its exponents being more ’serious’ or ‘credible’ or ‘reasonable’ than others.

    So the seriousness of an practitioner – were X is theology or tarot – depends on the popularity of the belief in X, not the content of the belief?
    (Dawkins doesn’t treat religious belief as a marginal activity. The only reason he bothers arguing against it is that it isn’t marginal.)

  18. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 15, 2009 at 9:23 am

    I think I’m with Ray and skidmarx on this. The idea that a belief system is inherently more credible due to weight of numbers is odd. The key words in the sentence being ‘belief system’. They’re beliefs. As it happens I’m not an atheist, but while I get the point that there are good, wise and insightful people in all religions (and none) the idea that they’re vested with some particular wisdom, goodness and insight due to their belief system strikes me as wrong. We’ve seen the opposite sufficient times to make it more probable that good wise and insightful people will be so in spite of rather than because. And to be honest all the good, as regards ‘good theologians’, wise and insightful stuff tends to be fluff on the top of belief systems, a sort of humanism given a religious edge that would still manifest itself in other circumstances entirely. Indeed if I’m in a cynical mood I’d bet that it’s a result of religions having to bend to the reality of reality (and many millions of adherents… which of course is one reason why small sects tend to be more didactic whereas larger ones somewhat less so – works the same in politics too 😉 ).

  19. Doug said,

    February 15, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Dawkins main problem is that he isn’t a Marxist but an idealist. Hence his responses to people who don’t agree with his ‘rational’ debunking of religion veers from handwringing disbelief to assuming his audience are just stupid. The dangerous limitations of his atheism were shown with his uncritical endorsement of that shit Sam Harris.

  20. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 15, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Doug, that strikes me as a political charge (which may indeed be correct as regards Harris’s evident monomania about Islam), but I’m not sure it refutes the central point. I agree that Dawkins overdoes the presentation of his thoughts, and I think that he misses a number of aspects about just how comforting religious belief can be given the circumstances we all find ourselves in, but I find it difficult to dispute the content of them.

  21. Niall said,

    February 16, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Dawkins is a tit. I loved his books on evolutionary biology, but his polemics on religion are poorly researched, limited and generally illogical. He contradicts himself from one day to the next. One minute, religion is the sole reason for the Northern Ireland conflict (and the NI conflict is, he claims, his reason for hating religion) and then next its not actually religion itself, but segregation through religious schools. One minute, Jesus probably did not exist, then he did.

    Theology is a complicated field of study. What Dawkins does is skim it. He’s happy to take a quote here and there, but study it? No.

    Why the attacks on Aquinas if he’s not interested in theology? Even when he tackles Aquinas, he removes the ‘proofs’ (Aquinas never intended them as proofs in the way that we use the term though Dawkins seems unaware of this) from their wider philosophical, theological and cultural context and then congratulates himself on having found holes in his arguments. If his aim is to tackle common arguments put forward for God’s existence, why tackle an argument made by some random risk management consultant using Bayes theorem? Dawkins doesn’t ignore theology; he ignores it when it is convenient to do so. The fact that many people utilise a particular belief system is not proof that it is particularly logical in itself, however Dawkins is the man who proposed the existence of memes and as such he should probably realise that any belief system that was as illogical and inherently contradictory as the caricature he presents as theism would have died out long ago in the face of more economical and reliable alternatives. You’d think that this might make him think that maybe, just perhaps, there might be some merit to investigating some theologies a little bit further, but clearly that’s not the case.

  22. skidmarx said,

    February 16, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I do wonder if some people have actually read any Dawkins.

    johng – I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Aquinas. I do remember him trying it on with an argument that “a thing greater than we can imagine” or somesuch was a good description of God, and must imply existence as otherwise it couldn’t be that great; kids in a primary school playground(or the host of the sectarianlunacynetwork) could come up with more impressively structured arguments.I’ve also read Augustine of Hippo’s “City of God”, which shows more sign of thought but is still on the wrong side of mumbo-jumbo.
    John Molyneux has an article in a recent ISJ that attacks Dawkins similarly, so you’re in good company. There is a case for organised socialists not being abusive about religion, but to suggest that what is wrong with Dawkins is his lack of socilological background is to miscast his role. He is laying out the position of a scientist on the questions of evolution, creation, God and stuff, and is expecting anyone who claims to put forward a position in the same realm to adhere to the scientific method and scientific logic, and if they don’t he points out good-naturedly why their views should not be taken seriously as science.

  23. February 16, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    @ Hasta siempre comandante:

    The Vatican and the catholic church have no problems with evolution theory and reject creationism, so Sinn Fein should have no problems argueing against that DUP crap … as long as they do not think that peace in stormont and government has a higher value than scientific truth

  24. Ray said,

    February 16, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    The ontological argument for the existence of God is –
    God is, by definition, the most perfect thing in the universe
    The most perfect thing must possess all qualities to a perfect extent
    God must be perfectly wise, perfectly good, perfectly etc
    Existence is a quality
    God must possess the quality of ‘existence’ perfectly
    A thing that does not exist does not possess the quality of existence perfectly
    Therefore God must exist

  25. February 16, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Arguments for the existence of God? Try I’ve always been particularly fond of no.413

  26. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 16, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I like his deconstructions of the Bible, esp. the Book of Judges which is pretty hideous although parts of it may serve as an IDF ideological manual.

  27. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 9:19 am

    The trouble is Skidmarx, is that from a marxist point of view, this is a philistine account of Aquinas. As is entirely normal, the way you were taught about his philosophy was entirely shorn of the historical context and significance of his arguments. There is a problem with the ‘role’ you describe in itself in relationship to this. There used to be a joke about English analytical philosophy to the effect that the entire history of philosophy would be dismissed as a succession of ‘howlers’ of a tuesday afternoon seminar. I think accounts of the history of thought as well as religion (for much of human history the same thing) which ignore history and context are themselves entirely mystical. And I think my ‘good company’ extends to karl marx, who cut his teeth against many of these arguments.

  28. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 9:50 am

    realised the incongruity of defending aquina’s on an irish blog!! I should stress that ‘shorn of historical context’ refers not just to english afternoon seminars but also to jesuits.

    part of that wider context was the way in which ‘proof of god’ teleologies were rooted in a wider teleology about human purpose. The enlightenment famously attacked aristotelian teleologies successfully in the case of science, without much success in the case of politics and ethics (politics remained incoherently teleological whilst ethics becomes a wierd new form of teleology producing endless arcane attempts to square consequentialism with deontology, arguments its quite possible to be familiar with without broadening ones understanding of actually existing political or ethical dilemmas one iota: the degeneration of aristotelian thought in the later medieval period having its counterpart in contemporary dry abstractions about the precise balence to be struck between persons and institutions).

  29. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 9:51 am

    or in other words…hocus pocus. Marx followed Hegel in noticing that the old hocus pocus was giving way to a new one. Its this that led him to break with radical liberalism and become a ‘marxist’.

  30. Ray said,

    February 17, 2009 at 11:37 am

    johng –
    If one wants to understand why Aquinas (or any other theologian) proposed an argument, it is of course necessary to understand the historical and philosophical context in which they are acting.
    However, it is not necessary to study that context to decide if the argument is valid.
    Crossing threads for a moment, it is doubtless interesting (to some) to study the evolution of the AWL’s thought, it’s context in late 20th century UK Trot left, the particular arguments made by Cliff (or whoever) that Matgamna is responding to. But their political programme can and should be evaluated separately from all that.

  31. skidmarx said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I saw a bit of Sammy Wilson doing environment questions yesterday, and two questions occured to me:

    (i) What was his implication about the Begg family and illegal dumping about?
    (ii) Does his constituency cover a zoo, which would explain the references to a polar bear colony?

    johng – I don’t have time right now to defend the right of rational thought not to obey context, so I’ll settle for suggesting that teleology can be farthinking.

    hsc – Genesis is like a cheap horror movie. Instead of an empty house where the new inhabitants are warned not to go into the basement, but are there twenty minutes later, Adam and Eve are put in the Garden of Eden and despite being warned not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge are chomping on same twenty verses later. If we’d had video then we might have avoided all this monotheism. I mentioned this to an American comedian on a train to Nottingham a couple of years ago, and he observed that the new Testament is like a zombie flick.

  32. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I think that very much depends on the subject. I don’t think its possible to understand the logical structure of Aquina’s argument without understanding the wider teleology within which its embedded. And I don’t think its possible to understand that wider teleology without having some historical understanding. The real debate with Aquina’s on questions of belief is not his proof, but the familiar contention that without God it is not possible to have a coherent picture of ethical life (and his presupposition that this is possible). This is a familiar point made against athiests and Thomism is a philosophically sophisticated version of this argument. The difficulties of refutation are partly to do with the fact that we do not have a coherent picture of the good life in our own society. Hence the persistance of the kinds of arguments Aquina’s puts foward. The question of how to combine views of ethical life without teleology or god is not a straightfoward one (although my own presupposition is that it must be possible). Dawkins always sounds a bit religious to me when he goes on about the wonders of science, something like a God-shaped hole. He suggests that science might offer compensations for the loss of spiritual life. I find this an odd way of proceeding.

    On the AWL I don’t think any program can be either evaluated or judged seperately from an understanding of its historical development. I think this is actually part of what evaluation and judgement is all about. This is of course not the standard way of treating such questions in bourgoise society but I think its what marxism is all about.

  33. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Skidmarx, I think its a bit quick to seperate context and rationality: and to dismiss Aquina’s as ‘irrational’. If for example it was demonstrated that the ‘proof of god’ argument could not be understood on its own, but was in fact part of a wider argument, its clear that any judgement which did not take that into account would simply be a judgement on the wrong argument.

  34. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Actually on the above point there is something of a debate. I don’t really consider myself qualified to comment, but the sad fact is that this debate simply wouldn’t feature in Dawkin’s account. For the simple reason that he doesn’t know about it. This doesn’t strike me as being very scientific.

  35. Ray said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    johng, why do you assume that he doesn’t know about it? He may know about it, and think it’s unimportant.

    A modern audience doesn’t care about scholastic teleology. They don’t share the vision of the good life that Aquinas had, or even the idea that this is a single ‘good life’. There’s no need for dawkins to argue against this, and if Aquinas’ ontology doesn’t stand without his teleology, so much the worse for his ontology. Again, you insist that Dawkins must judge Aquinas in the context of Aquinas’ larger project, when Dawkins is interested in the particular question of God’s existence.

    I completely disagree about the evaluation of political programmes. If a political programme says that it is necessary to support US and Israeli policy in the Middle East, then that programme is wrong. Wrong in a historically interesting fashion, perhaps, but wrong nonetheless. And we judge that it is wrong by studying it in relation to the world, not in relation to the policies passed by the Socialist Party in 1993.

    Newton’s ability as a scientist has to be judged by the standards of his time and the evidence available to him. But his theories are still wrong no matter how smart a guy he was, or how advanced for his time.

    (Religious people complain that science lacks an appreciation of grandeur, than complain when scientists talk about the grandeur of the universe. They complain that science can’t give purpose to life, and then complain when scientists talk about the ways in which science ‘compensates’ for the lack of spiritual life.)

  36. Ray said,

    February 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    sorry, that should be
    “Again, you insist that Dawkins must judge Aquinas’ argument in the context of Aquinas’ larger project”

  37. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I think if you don’t understand an argument you can’t make a judgement about it. I’m not sure whether you simply have’nt understood my point or we just disagree philosophically. I suspect a bit of both. Its interesting that you raise the question of the plurality of goods which is indeed an ideological shibboleth of capitalist society, and which is (I think) false. I think its false because of my historical understanding about the connection between liberal goods and capitalist society. I also think that the failure of this idea has much to do with the continuing hold of religion. And that therefore liberal critiques of religion fail. Socialist ones hold out the possibility of succeding.

  38. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    To make myself clear, all arguments have larger contexts, and judgements about those arguments are likely to be improved with a knowledge of those contexts. Personally I’m even more antiquarian then Aquinas. I’m unsure how much he improved on Aristotle.

  39. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    oh and in terms of Aquina’s ethical theory I don’t think they have been ‘disproved’ (although there is much that I would find unacceptable which is not the same thing: although this involves historical judgements as well).

  40. Ray said,

    February 17, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    You disagree that people can have different conceptions of ‘the good life’, and should be free (within limits) to pursue those conceptions? I’m not talking about material goods, just things like ‘the most important thing in life is to raise happy children/advance the knowledge of science/produce great art/be moderate in all things’ You think that Marxism reveals a ‘correct’ answer?

  41. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    I think the nature of our society makes it very difficult to excercise choices in anything more then an empty way, and believe that this has much to do with the way capitalism destroys the possibility of genuine mutuality and social life which I think are the only arenas in which genuine human flourishing can take place. Liberal values have a function in a societies which we are unfortunate enough to have to exist in (which is why modern communitarian projects tend to be right wing and should be opposed), but ultimately these values reflect as much as they limit the damage that capitalism has done and continues to do to us.

  42. prianikoff said,

    February 17, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Dawkins may be an academic, who thinks the struggle against religious ideas is more important than the class struggle.
    But it’s important to defend, his freedom to engage in such a critique.
    Particularly against the spurious argument that this incites “religious hatred”.

    Failing to do so, could lead to the sort of situation that pertains in Turkey, where Dawkins web site was blocked in 2008.
    This followed a court case brought by Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya), author of the anti-Darwinian tract “Atlas of Creation”.
    This asserts that:-
    “Examining the fossil record, we see that living things are exactly the same today as they were hundreds of millions of years ago, in other words, that they never underwent evolution.”
    Dawkins described the book’s arguments as “breathtakingly inane”.
    It’s promoted by the “Truth Research Foundation”, based in New York City, which describes its aim as: “to research the truth by scientific means”.

    Given that 25% of science teachers are reported to believe in Creationism and the well-funded attempts to promote it, it’s important
    to ensure it’s kept out of school science curricula.
    Creationism belongs in the study of religion, which should be non-compulsory.

  43. johng said,

    February 17, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    I don’t disagree either that Dawkin’s Freedom of Speech should be protected or that Creationism should be kept off the science syllabus. But Turkey is a rather interesting example of a State where its very unclear that the battle against religious superstition is the main problem. I also think, if your a Marxist, you can’t help but notice that arguments which certainly are radical in certain contexts, have a certain ‘swim with the stream’ quality to them these days.

  44. hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 17, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    The “secular” state has indeed been pretty repressive in Turkey, although its secularism is exaggerated – in 1996 I witnessed Turkish army gendarmes attack left-wing demonstrators while chanting “Allah Allah Allah”.

    The “moderate Islamist” AKP in government since 2002 is itself pretty repressive – for example, in the past two years, 55 people in Turkey have been shot dead by police, allegedly for not heeding the command to “stop”.

  45. johng said,

    February 18, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Indeed both are a problem. But the central problem is capitalism. Incidently, sailing close to the wind in terms of my sympathies for Aristotle, the first part of Marx’s Introduction to the Grundrisse see’s him rehearse his Aristotelian sympathies by contrast with 18th century liberalism:

  46. Hasta siempre comandante said,

    February 18, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Well, both the “secular” and the “moderate Islamist” aspects of Turkey’s politics are pro-capitalist.

    Reaction is international – Islamists in Turkey have started campaigning against evolution, noting the campaigns by similar wingnuts in the Christian world.

  47. February 18, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Adnan Oktar/Harun Yahya is not only a total weirdo and creationist but also an anti-semitic and anti-masonic conspiracy theorist and responsible for dozens of mostly successfull libel cases and successive blocking against websites (, googlegroups, the website of the teachers union Egitim-Sen) critizising him in Turkey

  48. skidmarx said,

    February 18, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    I wasn’t attacking Aquinas for being irrational. Plain stoopid perhaps.

    In assessing mathematical propositions, we don’t defer to wider social conditions when assessing veracity. Why should evolutionary biology and paleontology be any different?

    I’m also sympathetic to Aristotle on excellence as an alternative to rational choice theories of human behaviour.

    And what have you got against cats?

  49. Phil said,

    February 19, 2009 at 12:20 am

    They believe in a powerful beardy bloke in the sky who listens to their prayers and rewards or punishes their behaviour. _This_ idea of an interventionist god is what makes up the ‘vast tracts of religious belief’, not the publications of theologians.

    I don’t think so. I think most Christians over the age of six are well aware that not every prayer is answered and that God frequently permits bad things to happen to good people. In other words, everyone who’s not a self-deluding fanatic has got to come to terms with the problem of evil – and the publications of theologians have a lot more to do with the way people engage with it than fantasies about a beardy bloke in the sky.

    So the seriousness of an practitioner – were X is theology or tarot – depends on the popularity of the belief in X, not the content of the belief?

    No, the popularity of the belief – what I called the ‘critical mass’ of adherents – is what makes it possible to identify it as having serious and non-serious proponents. There are serious and non-serious Marxists; there aren’t any serious Hoxhaists.

    (Dawkins doesn’t treat religious belief as a marginal activity. The only reason he bothers arguing against it is that it isn’t marginal.)

    As I said, the problem is that he argues as if its not being marginal didn’t make any difference – as if it made sense to treat Christianity in the same way as you would a belief system posted on some bloke’s Web site last week. It’s a profoundly idealist approach, ironically.

  50. Garibaldy said,

    February 19, 2009 at 12:36 am

    “They believe in a powerful beardy bloke in the sky who listens to their prayers and rewards or punishes their behaviour”

    If that had said Andersonstown instead of the sky, I’d have been convinced you were talking about many of the faithful in west Belfast.

  51. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Aquinas plain stupid? I don’t think so.

    In terms of Marx’s Aristotelian sympathies I think the real question is the notion of human beings as ‘zoon politicken’ or ‘political animals’, revised by Aquina’s to ‘social animals’ on the basis of his recognition of the difference between an athenian city state and the medieval polity. This notion is in sharp contrast to the kind of individualism associated with the 18th century liberalism which had led the charge against Aristotelian models of ethics and overturned Aquina’s as stupid.

    I’m not suggesting a return to Aquina’s just suggesting that the models put foward by 18th century liberals were as socially informed as those put foward by other theorists, despite their claims about universalism etc. I also think that the general lack of historical consiousness which charecterised the enlightenment (later to be corrected in complicated ways by others) continues to linger on in the work of those like Dawkin’s, and that it is this rather then ‘science’ which accounts for the kind of intellectual take he has on religion (I’m not suggesting his science is bad, just the way he uses it).

    And seeing all that stuff about ‘beardy blokes’. Yeah this is just silly.

  52. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 9:20 am

    A J Ayers once suggested that anyone who disagrees with Hume is a bad egg. I’m a bad egg.

  53. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Oh. And cats. I just say things like that to offend my friends. Or do I?

  54. skidmarx said,

    February 19, 2009 at 10:59 am

    49. When I first read the Bible, it seemed immediately obvious that what was being presented was a history of the world claimed to be as it actually happened. And that it’s only really about Jews. When I was a young teenager, I asked my R.E. teacher if it was the position of the Catholic church that the Bible was literally true, and he said that a variety of views on that were acceptable.
    Didn’t Alexei Sayle used to be a serious Hoxhaist? I think the last census recorded a large number of Jedi adherents. Were many of them serious?

    51. I could have been a bit more coherent in 48, I don’t know if I’m going to achieve it now. Tom Paine thought there was a place for a bit of militant atheist argument that just knocks down the claims of religion without worrying about their social context. I don’t see anything about the religious ideas of religious people that is worth considering except to point out its illogical nature.

  55. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I just don’t agree that there is nothing to say about the religious ideas of religious people aside from their illogical nature. Partly because whilst the logical inconsistancy of religious documents was an important starting point for the emergence of historical consiousness during the post-enlightenment period some of the tools used in that deconstruction were tools which had been developed in close association with religious belief: hermeneutics for example. Partly also because important contributions to logic were made in the same way.

    I should clarify that my views on cats are ultimately related to canine loyalty.

  56. Ray said,

    February 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Phil – 49

    I said listens to their prayers, not grants (all of) their prayers. Do you disagree?
    Also, I did not say that God is supposed to reward or punish behaviour here on earth (but most believers do think that major events are planned by God, even if they don’t know why), so bad things happening to good people is not an issue. Most believers think they will be judged after death and rewarded or punished then, don’t you agree?

    Increasing the number of adherents does give you a better spread, of course, so it’s easier to find people in that group who are otherwise rational and intelligent. But really, where’s your cut-off? Is Scientology now large enough that there are serious and rational proponents of the idea that we are all possessed by the spirits of dead clams? How about Mormonism, and their lost civilisations of the Americas? (In the other direction, are there now so few Jews that this whole ‘Jehovah’ business can be written off as nutty?) What kind of numbers are we talking about here?

    Look, I know it’s interesting and perhaps even important to contemplate why it is that so many people are religious (or racist, or nationalist, or superstitious), just like it’s interesting (and undoubtedly important) to understand just why the placebo effect is so strong. But when you’re judging the validity of an idea, the number of adherents it has should not weigh in the balance. The universe is not a democracy.

  57. prospero said,

    February 19, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Dawkins never debates a serious theologian ? Here he is debating N.Irelands very own Dr John Lennox in the US last year - A rather biased debate due to lennox being given the final word on every subject with no chance of a rebuttal for Dawkins. Thats as good as it gets with “serious” “theologians” . As Christopher Hitchens says, in one of his rarer moments of clarity when he moves away from Iraq and onto religion, is really a non-subject .

  58. prospero said,

    February 19, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    ** theology is really a non-subject**

  59. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Ray read what I said about hermeneutics. Its just not true that you can seperate things out that clearly. Its a mistake.

  60. Ray said,

    February 19, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    No, it is not. The world does not have four corners, nor is it supported on a pillar, or on the backs of turtles. It is millions of years old.
    It is possible for people to believe some things that are true, and some things that are false. The truth values of these propositions do not bleed over onto each other because they are held in the same head. Logic does not become a little less true, and religion a little less false, because some religious people used logic.

  61. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Ray you are simply not understanding what I’m saying. Anyway I’m happy to differ.

  62. Ray said,

    February 19, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Or perhaps you are trying to glide over to a slightly different conversation and I’m staying here?

  63. johng said,

    February 19, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    No Ray. I’m not. Its just clear that you don’t want to engage with what I’m actually saying.

  64. Ray said,

    February 19, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    You’re still making the same argument as in comment 12 – if you want to discuss religion, it’s not enough to discuss the content of religious beliefs, you must discuss “the significance of religious belief in relationship to the development of society.” I say no, those are logically distinct subjects, there’s no reason why a discussion of one must involve the other. You disagree, but you don’t explain why, except that your method is ‘more marxist’.

    My position is simple. Some (if not all) religious claims are claims about the nature of the world. If they are claims about the world then their truth depends on their relationship to that world. The number of people who believe these claims, their reasons for belief, the history of the development of those beliefs… these are all separate questions. It is possible to address the truth value of the claims without addressing these other questions.

  65. Phil said,

    February 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I said listens to their prayers, not grants (all of) their prayers. Do you disagree?

    My point is precisely that an omnipotent and benevolent God, who listens to but does not necessarily grant prayers, is a complex proposition.

    Most believers think they will be judged after death and rewarded or punished then, don’t you agree?

    I think this is the kind of wild oversimplification which your method lends itself to. It’s a bit like saying “Most Marxists believe in establishing a command economy ruled by the infallible Party, don’t you agree?” There’s an element of the semblance of truth, but religious belief is much more complex than you’re giving it credit for. (Which supposedly shouldn’t matter, because it’s incorrect however complex it is – except that your demonstrations of its incorrectness always seem to have simplicity as a central term.)

    where’s your cut-off? Is Scientology now large enough that there are serious and rational proponents of the idea that we are all possessed by the spirits of dead clams? How about Mormonism, and their lost civilisations of the Americas?

    My cut-off is when it happens. There are substantial numbers of Christians who are recognised by large numbers of other people, not all of them Christians, as serious & thoughtful proponents of the faith; that’s a statement of fact. I think you could probably say the same of Judaism, although the Reform/Orthodox split tends to weaken the voice of both sides (and let’s not even get into the effects of Zionism). Is it true to say that there are substantial numbers of Scientologists, or members of the LDS church, who… etc? Not as far as I’m aware.

    when you’re judging the validity of an idea, the number of adherents it has should not weigh in the balance

    Again, it’s not whether a body of ideas is valid but whether it deserves to be taken seriously. I’d argue that any body of ideas which has millions of adherents deserves to be treated with respect – and mined for whatever positive contributions it can supply – even while we challenge whatever reactionary and factually incorrect assertions it makes. In any case, validity isn’t the question when you’re dealing with the kind of questions that are addressed by religion and not by science. The question is whether a body of ideas provides useful ways to think about life – whether we should take it seriously, in other words. I don’t personally believe in God, but I think Christianity does provide useful and interesting ways to think about life, and that ranking it with astrology and four-leaf clovers is seriously mistaken.

  66. Ray said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:37 am

    The question of why an omnipotent, benevolent God allows evil to exist may be a complex question, but that doesn’t mean that most believers grapple with this question in a philosophically well-developed way, or even that they are aware of the different reasons advanced by theologians why this should be the case.
    The comparison with Marxists is interesting, because it cuts against your other argument. Marxism today in western countries is a minority pursuit – the appropriate comparison would be with new converts to a religion, who are generally more zealous and have given more thought to their belief than those who inherited it. If Marxism was sufficiently well-established that you could have generations of Marxists growing up in societies where Marxism was completely uncontroversial then yeah, I’m sure most/many of them would have the kind of unreflective belief that can be easily simplified.

    Your criteria for ‘serious and thoughtful’ seem to have less to do with number of adherents and more to do with age. Catholicism has been around for long enough that it is not seen as weird, that it has become an accepted part of society, so one can have a serious and thoughtful discussion about the healing powers of holy water and the intercession of saints. Scientology is still new and conspicuously wacky, so no respect for them.

    Again, it’s not whether a body of ideas is valid but whether it deserves to be taken seriously. Here, and again with the idea of respect, you’re blurring a distinction. As a social fact, the existence of millions of believers has to be taken seriously. You have to acknowledge that they exist and take them into consideration. In the same way that you have to take the existence of millions of gay people seriously, but could ignore the existence of a couple of thousand pigeon-racers as a social irrelevance.
    But the ideas of religious people do not become more serious because they are popular (and, conversely, if ‘marxism’ is true it remains true even when unpopular). Many of the questions of religion are addressed by science – was the universe created? where did we come from? what happens when we die? – and science is a better way of answering those questions than a show of hands or a look at the historical record to see who has been around longest.

  67. johng said,

    February 20, 2009 at 9:59 am

    But Ray, what does Dawkin’s prove about the nature of religion, either in terms of its content or its relationship to the world? It was Marx who claimed that the criticism of religion ought to give way to the criticism of a world which makes it neccessary. I also just don’t believe that the question of how we come to arrive at our beliefs and how they hook up to the world can be so neatly seperated. When for example you quite correctly stated that the AWL’s position on the middle east was wrong independently of how they came to arrive at such beliefs you neglect the fact that criticism of their position depends on a knowledge of both the middle east and a knowledge of a developing tradition of thought about self determination etc. It doesn’t exist independently of the traditions of enquiry which make such beliefs possible and in many ways the truth claims associated with these traditions of enquiry are incomprehensible unless you know something about the tradition of enquiry concerned. The same is true of science (the most famous joke about this is Douglas Adam’s one about the meaning of life the universe and everything being 42). This is of course tremendously important in arguments about why Creationism should not be taught in science classes, this completely correct position resting on the distinction between religious and scientific claims. This distinction is a product of a wider history which leads us to invest it with normative as well as factual value. We do all this, both at the level of politics and at the level of science, because we are part of tradition(s) of enquiry which have a history and which therefore allow us to judge between successful and unsuccessful ways of pursuing these problems.

  68. Andy Newman said,

    February 21, 2009 at 12:41 am

    There is some humour in Trotskists mocking other people for having an irrational and non-evidence based belief system, and that is before we even start on the infallible beardy blokes.

  69. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 22, 2009 at 10:23 am

    JohnG, the nature of religion is a separate issue if we’re talking about it as a social/cultural and in some instances explicitly political construct as distinct from its self-avowed belief system and entirely distinct from the ‘world’.

    And while it is true that nothing exists independently of anything else I’m not sure that there is self-evident that religious belief is somehow ‘hooked up to the world’ in anything other than an emotional way (in other words as in part a value system and in part a means to assuage either a conscious or sub-conscious fear of death).

    It seems to me that a lot of the flak Dawkins gets is because he’s rude to religion. I agree with the line that that approach of his is somewhat counter-productive, but I still cannot understand why people would berate the content of his thoughts.

  70. johng said,

    February 22, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Well we disagree about religion not being hooked up to the world. we also disagree about the relationship between form and content. we also disagree about neatly seperating intellectual traditions from the knowledge they produce. but hell, thats ok.

  71. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 22, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    To a point, but I’m interested in how you think religion is hooked up to the world in anything other than a manner which is of some considerable interest in sociological terms but hardly of any in terms of its explicatory power over – say – the material world… or indeed your dispute with Dawkins critique of religious beliefs which incorporate concepts of a God and/or afterlife where he points out that there is absolutely no evidence for same (and again, let me reiterate that I’m not an atheist so I have some sense of the purchase on peoples minds of these things), or finally the idea that intellectual traditions are somehow ‘knowledge’ producers in a sort of mechanistic fashion when – to my mind, and no doubt this is my own prejudice – the knowledge (or rather the facts) exist independent of the traditions and are uncovered by same rather than being brought into being by them… that too, I hope, is okay.

  72. johng said,

    February 23, 2009 at 10:01 am

    knowledge cannot exist independently of the intellectual traditions which produce it. Crucially knowledge of the historical development of such traditions is important not simply sociologically but epistomologically. Part of how we can make judgements about what is to be counted as knowledge has to do with an understanding of how particular traditions have accounted for anomolies, self-corrected, etc, etc. Whilst both the scientific revolutions of the 17th century, and later developments associated with the 18th century Enlightenment, began a process of seperating theological beliefs from experimental methods at earlier stages in the development of human thought shifts in theological attitudes produced important shifts in the possibility of other kinds of knowledge. Thus Renaissence Humanism (closely associated with later scientific revival) built on traditions which had been preserved in the Islamic world, which in turn could exist because of the radical sundering of the spiritual from the material in that intellectual tradition. To put it simply, if the only thing that was to count as holy was a book, then the rest was open to question. The radical humanism which developed first in the Italian city states and later across Europe (one thinks of Shakespeare and Bacon) provides different moments in a single process of intellectual transformation where new ways of thinking become possible which extend into science. There was however a step backwards with the reformation, precisely because of the impoverishment of Protestant theology when it came to the old ‘schoolmen’ which encouraged a kind of know-nothingism, which was both a revolutionary tool against the old order, but at the same time dreadfully debilitating in terms of the development of philosophy and learning of various kinds. However a new twist is given to this by German idealist philosophy which attempts to provide more sophisticated justifications for the autonomy of the individual subject, producing yet another revolutionary wave of possibilities which eventually filters its way into other forms of knowledge including science. One consequence of this mixed heritage of revolutionary storms and technical philosophical and scientific work, is a divide between consiousness of history and consiousness of science. So it is that a brilliant scientist like Dawkin’s can come up with silly forms of biological reductionism like ‘memes’ (as related to ideas) and produce deeply impoverished accounts of human history and its significance, as evidenced by his attempt to understand the development of religious ideas as a) rooted in our biological nature rather then in our history and b) simply a series of perposterous mistakes. In many ways for an understanding of history one would do better to go back to Renaissence humanists like Vico. This is the result of the fractures and problems in knowledge produced by thousands of years of class society.

  73. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    And then you come to the question of ethics, which has always been a weak point for Marxism. What I think is one of the great things about Dawkins (and the people who didn’t read beyond the title of The Selfish Gene missed this) is his insistence that the great thing about humanity is that we aren’t prisoners of our genetic coding and can in fact rise above it.

    But then you ask where your ethical codes come from, and invariably they are culturally determined, and usually rationalised via religion. Aquinas’ natural law is about as good as it gets. And the Enlightenment attempt to have a code of ethics completely divorced from that has never really got beyond utilitarianism. At the very least it’s an area for further study.

  74. johng said,

    February 23, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    I would only quibble with the idea that it was a particularly weak point of Marxism!! In one way this is of course true but in another way its a bit of a cheek given that the dominant way of arguing this is to suggest that the half baked tradition which usually results in some idiotic discussion about whether you say that you liked your christmas presents or not has something to offer what is at least a tradition with some kind of historical understanding of ideas.

  75. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 23, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    johng that’s an interesting potted history, but not one I’m unfamiliar with… still its on foot of making some fairly rapid and incorrect assessments of my viewpoint… firstly I don’t and didn’t argue that religion wasn’t ‘hooked up to the world’ but that it was hooked up in certain (and fairly obvious) fashion which I outlined. Secondly I didn’t say there was no relationship between form and content, but again gave a straightforward analysis of where I thought problems might lie in terms of Dawkins form, thirdly I never suggested that there are ‘neat separations between intellectual traditions and the knowledge they produce’, quite the opposite. Anything that has what I described as an ’emotional’ aspect to it will almost per definition be messy and complex. But that doesn’t ascribe to it some particular power.

    I suspect you overstate the importance of the intellectual traditions within which knowledge (and of course what sort of knowledge are we talking about?) is arrived at, I’m almost certain that there are problems about the point you make of knowledge not existing independently of the traditions… the most obvious being how could those from a different tradition be in any position to make an evaluation of such knowledge. A further one is how great would the depth of ‘understanding’ (I use the term advisedly) necessary be if one was from beyond the given tradition in order to appreciate this ‘knowledge’. Beyond that there is the obvious problem that in a context of a plurality of traditions, and access to that plurality, the subjectivity of each is rendered more clearly allowing us some ability to reach towards a more objective (or perhaps less subjective) viewpoint.

    And I’m hugely unconvinced that scientific experimentation is so linked into the societal/sociopolitical/sociological constructs within which it is developed as to be all but inexplicable beyond them. A gas centrifuge is a gas centrifuge whether operated in Tehran or Washington. The body of knowledge necessary to arrive at constructing and operating same is identical. That in both locations the framing device societally of a theistic God is localised in particular and peculiar ways is essentially irrelevant other than in an explanatory fashion as to sociopolitical and sociocultural motivations. Those motivations may be crucial, as I suspect they are in given contexts, but they are not fundamentally inseparable from the truth or otherwise of a God. Also, I think you elide scientific process and philosophical systems such as Humanism in a way which while useful to your argument doesn’t really ring true.

    As regards the biological basis of religious ideas, or perhaps more particularly, religious belief, well, I don’t see any specific problem there (and there actually is considerable evidence that they are outgrowths of biological functions – check out research covered in New Scientist last year). It doesn’t mean that religious ideas have no purchase beyond the biological, but it does indicate that the ideas and the purchase should be treated with the utmost scepticism.

    As for memes, well, I guess everyone has a bad theory in them. I’d love to have a good one to my name but I’ve never found the idea particularly convincing, indeed – true story – a friend of mine did an MA on a cultural field where she use ‘memes’ as a central element only to discover that in that area memes were considered passe. I certainly wouldn’t buy into it as anything more than a metaphorical approach and in my own research would be very careful to distinguish between empirical and non-empirical approaches.

    You seem to implicitly posit in a previous response that there is some class of ‘knowledge’ that religion generates or uncovers that is opaque to scientific enquiry… at least that’s my reading of:

    “This is of course tremendously important in arguments about why Creationism should not be taught in science classes, this completely correct position resting on the distinction between religious and scientific claims. This distinction is a product of a wider history which leads us to invest it with normative as well as factual value. We do all this, both at the level of politics and at the level of science, because we are part of tradition(s) of enquiry which have a history and which therefore allow us to judge between successful and unsuccessful ways of pursuing these problems.”

    Surely if we add religion to politics and science we can see that under both normative and factual value enquiries it is again hugely problematic, none of which detracts from Dawkins argument that on balance there is no evidence for a God and therefore that necessitates people to keep that strongly in mind particularly when engaging with theism. This doesn’t mean one should be disrespectful of those who believe, quite the opposite (and there I’d diverge from Dawkins), but nor does it mean that we should reify religious belief. You suggest that there is a divide between consciousness of history and that of science, but that’s surely irrelevant. One can be conscious of both and still regard the empirical evidence for God to be entirely lacking. It doesn’t in any sense validate religion or religious explanations or – and I guess this is where you come from in this – a body of thought generated by a religion. Again quite the opposite.

    To me Barthes and those after him provide a better means of ‘understanding’ religion as an aspect of societies, by allowing us to see it as a ‘mythic’ form of expression or narrative within various competing/complementary societal discourses. I read Barthes as providing an explicitly metaphorical methodology which seems to function usefully in the context of religion and indeed other aspects of culture. That at least allows us to step away from unproductive approaches which seem, implicitly, to assign to it a meaning and credibility, or if you prefer a purchase and power, that it simply does not have (and again that’s not to say it has no purchase or no power, its purchase and power is entirely a social construct built in part on biological foundations… but purchase and power do not confer ‘truth’ to it).

  76. johng said,

    February 24, 2009 at 9:59 am

    “I’m almost certain that there are problems about the point you make of knowledge not existing independently of the traditions… the most obvious being how could those from a different tradition be in any position to make an evaluation of such knowledge”

    Thats a large question. But if we take science as a tradition of enquiry, then to evaluate the results of the knowledge produced by that tradition of enquiry would involve at some level having some knowledge of that tradition of enquiry. I would have thought. In terms of the ‘level of understanding’, again a large and difficult question. Our society has sometimes been described as a scientific one so people often take on certain kinds of knowledge from practical experiance (combustion engines etc) without neccessarily understanding the principles involved, or on the other hand from ‘a scientific world view’ (evolution rather then creationism) without neccessarily understanding the principles involved. This raises larger questions about the relationship of certain kinds of knowledge to society obviously. The question of plurality of traditions is a large one although it is often over-stated. In some ways its linked to the earlier question in that different traditions of thought adapt to each other (thus the Catholic Church has supported Darwin for a number of decades) partly being shaped by wider social change, partly on the basis that traditions of thought and enquiry change in the face of challenges both internal and external. Its also an overstated problem though. When you raise tehran and rightly comment that the same scientific principles operate, this would come as no surprise to a scientist in Tehran operating within the same tradition of enquiry as a scientist at UCLA, or indeed to the Mullah responsible for funding his endeavors, who operates within a world view which recognises the autonomy of the same. On the relationship between the rise of humanism and science: they are historically inseperable. And indeed its very clear that someone like Dawkin’s is a humanist and would simply be impossible without that history. On the notion that religion has a biological basis, I’m afraid we’d just have to disagree. I think this is pseudo-scientific nonsense. But perhaps the most puzzling thing about your claim is that if it did (a gene for god?) this would be an argument for treating religious claims with suspician. A religious person could quite happily argue the opposite. I can imagine a situation where a larger and larger body of evidence emerged proving that religious beliefs were hard-wired into us and there was a growing triumphalism in the vatican as science finally proved that God had shaped nature so as to ensure supernatural habits deeply rooted in our soul.

  77. johng said,

    February 24, 2009 at 10:13 am

    You seem to implicitly posit in a previous response that there is some class of ‘knowledge’ that religion generates or uncovers that is opaque to scientific enquiry…

    Thats not at all what I meant. I meant that there is a distinction between science and religion surely something we can agree on. And that this distinction is not at all about the one being ‘truth’ and the other being ‘false’ or the one being based on ’empirical evidence’ and the other being ‘superstition’, but on an understanding of the kinds of traditions of enquiry and their history which are associated with them. There have been large problems with what have ‘demarcation criteria’, which have led some into relativism but I think this is largely based on an inability to see science as a tradition of enquiry with a history, as opposed to a set of contigent claims which are true or false. Thats not to suggest that there are not histories of science, or indeed that anomolies in that story have not provided the basis for much speculation on these questions, just that an understanding of what makes scientific knowledge scientific needs to be based on some kind of understanding of science as a tradition of enquiry.

    Barthes I have not read but, yes, religion can be understood in a broad sense as a set of mythologies and symbols linked to society, indeed the development of archeology in the 19th century provided a set of surprising generalisations about forms of burial and forms of society which functioned surprisingly well. But in my view the attempt always to demonstrate a neat seperation between theological and scientific thought is anachronistic in most of human history and deeply misleading therefore in accounting for how this divide eventually emerges (a divide which I fully support; there seems to be a belief that disagreement with Dawkin’s implies softness on the defence of science: I think the reverse), and which which is therefore unhelpful.

  78. johng said,

    February 24, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    NB The ideological stories told about both the scientific revolution and the enlightenment are perhaps the worst basis for defending the real gains they made.

  79. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 24, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    I’m a bit surprised you dismiss the idea of religion as having a biological basis out of hand (and note I said that earlier it was a social construct built in part on biological foundations). I think the idea that religion and morality are in part the product of evolutionary adaptations (and no reason there for a ‘God gene’ as such but perhaps something a little bit more complex), for example as noted in a good piece in New Scientist from September 2007, strengthening group and social cohesion when agriculture initiated a much greater division of labour, is fairly uncontentious – indeed there’s some interesting work at Queens UB on just this issue. It doesn’t detract from religions having autonomous characteristics in the present day and indeed throughout recorded history. Nor would I agree that were a “God” gene discovered (although I doubt it’s that simple) that that would in any sense validate religious beliefs, not least because it would cut across at least some aspects of them – for example issues of choice and ‘free will’ – and more broadly as a body of knowledge would give succour to those – like ourselves – who have no issue with say the mutability of sexuality or gender.

    I entirely agree with you there is a distinction between science and religion. But, my problem is that the ‘knowledge’ ascribed to religion does seem to me to be essentially ‘false’. I don’t mean that in a glib way, or intend to suggest that religious belief is a waste of time (although it can be). I think religious belief can be an enormous source of comfort on an individual and sometimes collective basis. But I don’t think that that belief is based on very much beyond rituals and structures which again I don’t doubt have a considerable utility.

    Even if, and I entirely accept that within religions (Islam and Catholicism spring most readily to mind) scientific enquiry (and traditions of enquiry) has (have) taken place this again has tended to be in spite of rather than because – in order to validate the propositions of the religions concerned rather than operate in an oppositional or iconoclastic way…

    And this isn’t to dismiss in any sense your point that scientific enquiry is in itself constrained to some degree by its traditions, but it strikes me as distinctly different in terms of its goals and processes to religious modes of enquiry.

  80. Neil said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:16 am

    This has been a fascinating discussion both in terms of the different points raised but also because some participants seem to be having conversations with themselves rather than other posters.

    Reading Johng’s posts in particular reminds me of a documentary I once saw about a squid. This graceful creature will swim around the ocean and when confronted with danger emit’s a large cloud of ink like fluid and then shoot off in a totally unexpected direction leaving it’s erstwhile pursuer befuddled and confused.

    It seems to me the bulk of this thread has revolved around criticism of Dawkins and Skidmarx defense of him. This defense flows from what seems to me to be an accurate summation of Dawkins central criticism of religion. That is that since science uses a method that, at its starting point (note those words please Johng I am not discounting the valid points you raise about the role of ideology, society etc in the production of scientific knowledge), rests on observation and interaction with the material world whereas religion does not therefore religion cannot claim the same validity as science in terms of statements of fact about the material world, including statements that God exists in a material, non metaphorical sense.

    I think Skidmarx hit the nail on the head with his Iranian centrifuge analogy. To restate the position; Understanding the respective ideologies, religious motivations, political structures etc of Iran and the USA can tell us a great deal about WHY the decision was taken to follow this line of research.

    However if we want to understand HOW a point was reached where the knowledge to produce centrifuges was arrived at in the USA and Iran then our starting point must be the methods of scientific enquiry as it relates to this particular field. Things like ideology, political priorities and so on are secondary (although not unimportant if a fully rounded out understanding of the process of scientific advance is to be understood).

    In some ways Johng’s confusion about how scientific research is conducted is a mirror image to Dawkins misunderstanding of the origin and role of religion in society.

    A method purely derived from the so-called ‘hard’ sciences (in Dawkins case genetic biology) is inadequate when trying to explain how religion arose and why it maintains a hold on society. For that an approach combining biology, psychology, history, economics and sociology (to name but a few!) is necessary.

    At the same time it would be a serious error to assume that because science and religion both find their origin in the same milieu, human society that both are subject to the same laws of development and the statements that they make about the world have equal validity.

  81. johng said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:45 am

    I’m sorry Neil but could you explain what you mean by my ‘confusion’ about how scientific research is conducted? And how you extrapolate any such confusion from anything I’ve written? Or where I have implied that the statements that religion or science make have equal validity (absolutely nowhere is the answer, since I would resolutely oppose any such argument). Neil like Dawkin’s just seems resolutely hostile to anything but an idealist account of knowledge.

    I would agree with wordbystorm that much of the ‘knowledge’ associated with religion is ‘false’ but think this an entirely inadequate basis for distinguishing between science as a tradition of enquiry and theology: because of course as anyone who is familiar with debates in the philosophy of science will tell you much of what was once regarded as true in science is now regarded as false. However there is still a difference between Newton’s theory and an astrologers theory (and just to be clear, I believe there IS a very important difference, its a difference I want to defend). Perhaps the key confusion is revealed in what is basically the achronistic argument that bodies of knowledge associated with religion and bodies of knowledge associated with science have different laws of development. That is a historical development. It is relatively recent. And again is a good thing. When you add to this anachronism the debilitating misreading implying that I am suggesting that ‘traditions’ ‘restrict’ science (against what? individual genius?) its clear that this is really an ideological argument. There could be no knowledge of any kind without traditions of enquiry. The relationship between tradition and knowledge is not one of constraint. Not if it is in good working order.

  82. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    johng, it strikes me we agree on more than we disagree. But, if I could suggest, it seems to me that you are much more concerned with the process of knowledge acquisition than you are with the knowledge itself. And while – as I’ve previously noted – there is no small truth in what you say about constraints and limitations that come into play during those processes I think it misses the larger picture that the sort of ‘knowledge’ produced from religious or scientific systems is quite different in nature. You say it yourself, there is difference between astrology and Newton’s theory (and remember we’re not using theory as ‘theoretical’). But there’s equal difference between theology (of whatever variety) and, say, astronomy.

    And the fact that – again as you rightly say – some aspects of science are seen as incorrect after once holding often dominant positions in a specific field merely points up the distinction between scientific knowledge, how it is arrived at and religious knowledge and how it is arrived at. A good example is the Vatican which has had considerable interest in cosmology. Problem is that the rhetoric close to the top of the Church now is somewhat more favourable to a non-rational interpretation of data and this appears to have impacted upon the attitude to the Vatican observatory and so on. Why so? Because the underlying premises upon which RCC is predicated is essentially more comfortable with religious thought than scientific knowledge. Of course it’s entirely possible that areas of scientific thought can be corrupted, or that scientific processes can be corrupted, and such happened under both the Nazi’s and in South Africa and other places as regards a falsification of data in order, for example, to present supposed truths about racial distinctiveness. But unlike the religious context where all is essentially directed towards supporting the tenets of the faith, the scientific context operates with at least some attempt to provide a degree of objectivity – which is precisely why the term ‘falsification’ is used. That it doesn’t succeed entirely is hardly a surprise, but at least scientific enquiry attempts to gain that degree.

    I do have a fundamental disagreement with you though following on from the above as regards the idea that ‘traditions’ don’t restrict science. The traditions associated with religious knowledge, as described above can do little but restrict it. Indeed due to their position within texts which function as specific references for all that comes after its hard to take seriously the idea that religions function – except in particular instances – as anything other than constraining and limiting forces societaly and scientifically. The idea that ‘tradition’ is somehow free floating of the intrinsic dynamics of religious formations seems unlikely.

    In that context it is you who is confusing two very distinct approaches to understanding the world and our place in it. Which leads you to make a statement that you disagree that ‘bodies of knowledge associated with religion and bodies of knowledge associated with science have different laws of development’. How could they have otherwise precisely due to their developments, due to the nature of their enquiries and so on? Recent or otherwise is entirely irrelevant. Individual genius (not something I mentioned, but perhaps telling as regards your understanding of scientific method) is also entirely irrelevant – indeed I’d probably be as suspicious as you of arguments that would reify individual genius. As for this being an ideological argument. Well, naturally. There is no knowledge without traditions of enquiry. But the ideological necessity is to determine which are useful, ie deliver outcomes with at least some sort of applicability to understanding the world around us and which aren’t.

  83. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 9:06 am

    “do have a fundamental disagreement with you though following on from the above as regards the idea that ‘traditions’ don’t restrict science”

    Ah here is the misunderstanding. I was speaking of the scientific tradition (to me it is a tradition and a tradition to be defended at that). The reason why I stress the historical development of this tradition is because I think thats how it is best defended-not attacked. To give an example: if a sceptic about science was to say ‘well, Newton’s theory is wrong, Einstein’s theory is entirely different, so the knowledge embodied in the historical development of science shows that knowledge isn’t cumalitive etc, etc (you’ll be familiar with the argument) it would be neccessary to reconstuct a narrative of how and why Newton’s theory went wrong, and how and why it was corrected. Thats part of our understanding of any theory. Here I think an understandable prejudice about words like ‘tradition’ or ‘narrative’ (its the catholic church or post-modernism) gets in the way of rational argument. I happen to believe that a dominant way of understanding science which seeks to radically seperate the history of a tradition (ie the scientific) from the epistomological status of its claims actually undermines both arguments for realism and truth. This is obviously not the aim. But I think its the result.

  84. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 9:07 am

    And of course the reference to ‘individual genius’ was satirical (as in that would be a stupid way of understanding scientific method).

  85. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I also think there is a serious problem of reducing demarcation criteria to particular ‘methods’ or a discussion of methodology. The latter (from the training of lab technicians to discussions amongst philosophers of science) are in fact parasitic on a larger scientific tradition comprising sets of practices and institutions and the history which has led up to them. The point about anachronism is related to the fact that those practices and institutions have a history and that history was not always seperate or distinct from the practices and institutions of religious orders. That they were seperated and how they were seperated is a story you have to tell to justify and defend that seperation. Something you can’t do if you take an achronistic (presentist) view which see’s this seperation as always having been pre-figured. It wasn’t. Its something which occurs in the 17th century.

  86. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I think you may be over-estimating the extent to which pre-18th century science was a product of religious institutions rather than in religious institutions. When there are strong penalties for atheism or even divergence from current orthodoxy, when the funding for scientific enquiry comes only with the approval of the religious establishment, it is not surprising that the idea that science was only fleshing out the details of God’s creation rather than representing a break from faith-based belief persisted for so long. It used to be the case that all pre-historic societies were represented as having religious beliefs, because any sort of ritual or respect for the dead could not be understood in any other way. When it is still neccesary for each president of the US to declare a personal religious belief we haven’t travelled to far towards an empire of reason.

  87. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    I’m very unsure of the idea that people who were interested in science always saw themselves as opposing a religious establishment or were secret athiests etc. I think this was part of a historical movement rather then something which was always dormant. In other words I’m completely unsure of a picture of world history which see’s the development of reason as an unending struggle with religion. This to me becomes true at a particular historical moment when the social order to which religion was attached holds back the development of knowledge. In other words changes in modes of production rather then changes in religious attitudes fuel these shifts.

  88. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I wouldn’t say always, but when I see Dawkins sometimes being suggested as a Deist I would suggest there was a lot more of it than is acknowledged. It may be partly a question of modes of production, but also an accumulation of science, especially Darwinism, which makes it feasible to dispose with the god delusion.

  89. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    The very title of the work ‘The God delusion’ (suggestions of some form of mental imbalence as in delusional) is to me crassly ahistorical and misleading. I think Darwin’s work was very important in making consistant materialism thinkable. But at other stages idealism and even particular kinds of religious belief played an important historical role in pushing foward human knowledge, or rather, making them possible. Including ones which led to real scientific development which laid the basis for later modern science.

  90. johng said,

    February 27, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Deism was of course one of those.

  91. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    A delusion is a false belief. Many scientists in the past may have operated within an idealist framework, but I see nothing that suggests that it is that idealist framework rather han the scientific method that ultimately cuts against it that has aided the development of knowledge.

    Jim al-Khalili in his recent series on science and Islam repeated the idea that the medieval authorities’ interpretation of Islam promoted scientific development. I might suggest that it was just less of a fetter than it might have been.

  92. Phil said,

    February 27, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    89-90 – Hegel also springs to mind. Deluded as hell, and very, very important for the development of materialist thought.

  93. skidmarx said,

    February 27, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Given that deism arose at a time when open atheism led to severe social sanctions, I would suggest tha many deists were cautious atheists, and would continue to suggest that there is nothing about its difference from atheism that is progressive or benefitted the development of science.

    Again read Dawkins’ book and you will see a careful classification of different levels on non-belief, his willingness to support a “probably” no god advertising campaign and indication that he does not include himself in the mos hardline of atheists. I might suggest also that it is not ahistorical to insist on cause and effect and the like as the basis for events.

  94. skidmarx said,

    February 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    92. I was going to say good point on Hegel, then I remembered that either Marx or Lenin says somewhere that it is only his dialectical method that is at all useful, all the idealism needs to be discarded, which seems to fit with what I’ve been saying about scientists in general.

  95. June 12, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    […] unmistakeable form of Mervyn Storey (DUP, North Antrim). Mervyn, as regular readers will know, has previous on this issue. The CF seems from its website to have particular preoccupations with Sabbatarianism […]

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