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Darwinism

Evolution vs Stupid Design Theory

In Unspeak, I suggested that there was a problem with the use of the term “Darwinist”:

['Intelligent Design' proponents] tended to refer to their opponents — that is, biologists — as ‘neo-Darwinists’. What was actually known as the ‘Neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis’ of evolutionary science combined Darwinian theory with twentieth-century genetics. Yet the consistent use of the term ‘neo-Darwinist’ by evolution’s enemies imputed to science an idolatrous reliance on the supposedly outdated ideas of one man, as though he were the false god of an ‘evolutionist’ religion.1

Now, in the New York Times, Carl Safina argues persuasively that biologists themselves have erred in accepting the term:

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.” [...] Science has marched on. But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder. We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism. “Darwinism” implies an ideology adhering to one man’s dictates, like Marxism. And “isms” (capitalism, Catholicism, racism) are not science. “Darwinism” implies that biological scientists “believe in” Darwin’s “theory”.

And this, Safina argues, leaves a rhetorical door open for liars:

Using phrases like “Darwinian selection” or “Darwinian evolution” implies there must be another kind of evolution at work, a process that can be described with another adjective. For instance, “Newtonian physics” distinguishes the mechanical physics Newton explored from subatomic quantum physics. So “Darwinian evolution” raises a question: What’s the other evolution?

Into the breach: intelligent design. I am not quite saying Darwinism gave rise to creationism, though the “isms” imply equivalence. But the term “Darwinian” built a stage upon which “intelligent” could share the spotlight.

For a case in point, see this remarkable farrago of unreason by the Telegraph‘s anti-science correspondent Christopher Booker:

[Darwin] might [...] have recognised that some other critically important but unknown factor seemed to be at work, an “organising power” which had allowed these otherwise inexplicable leaps to take place. But so possessed was he by the simplicity of his theory that, brushing such difficulties aside, he made a leap of faith that it must be right, regardless of the evidence. In this he has been followed by generations of “Darwinians” who have found his theory so beguiling that, like him, they have refused to recognise how much it cannot explain.

It’s true that “Darwinism” cannot explain what Booker invokes, a “critically important but unknown factor [...] an organising power”, because such a power is by definition inexplicable. But hang on, if this “factor” is “unknown”, how does Booker know it’s “critically important”? Indeed, if it’s “unknown”, how does Booker know it’s an “organising power”? These are rhetorical questions: what is going on here, piquantly, is that a major broadsheet columnist is outing himself as a creationist.

Like his fellow creationists, Booker doesn’t have much truck with known facts. As Richard Wilson helpfully points out, Booker’s Telegraph column recycles two of its dunciac paragraphs from this earlier piece in the Spectator, wherein Booker confidently asserts that “genetically we are all but identical” to “mice and sea urchins”, and wonders plaintively how “much the same genetic coding can produce such an infinite variety of life forms?”

Me, I wonder how the same alphabetic coding can produce such a stunning variety of tongue-dragging moronitude in purportedly high-minded periodicals. And from long meditation on that improbability, I am inevitably driven to believe in a Stupid Designer. Surely the accretion of random changes could not possibly have resulted in organisms so ill-suited to rational thinking?

  1. Unspeak, 2nd edn (2007), p.50.
45 comments
  1. 1  hardindr  February 11, 2009, 3:04 pm 

    PZ Myers has a different view on this op-ed.

  2. 2  Steven  February 11, 2009, 3:08 pm 

    Thanks for the link. It seems that Myers agrees with the terminological point:

    I reject the label of “Darwinist” because my interests in the field are so remote and alien from what Darwin did that we really don’t have much in common.

  3. 3  redpesto  February 11, 2009, 6:26 pm 

    “Darwinism” implies an ideology adhering to one man’s dictates, like Marxism. – but that’s where ‘social Darwinism’ comes in as an ideology/political philosophy.

  4. 4  LongHairStu  February 11, 2009, 7:21 pm 

    Alphabetic coding… Stupid designer… Accretion of random… Ill-suited to rational thinking!

    Marvellous, delightfully put. Mind if we use that one? Just when bickering with friends of course…

  5. 5  ejh  February 11, 2009, 8:55 pm 

    Booker had a personal crisis and religious conversion about forty years ago. I once flicked through The Neophiliacs, which was well-received at the time, in a market and I recall the last chapter being full of very glutinous matrerial about “the love of our Lord Jesus Christ” and so on. He’s a clever and amusing man nonetheless, but from a rational point of view he lost it a long time ago.

  6. 6  ejh  February 11, 2009, 8:58 pm 

    Incidentally it’s funny about the Spectator: they don’t seem to mind having their own material reused, or reusing material from other magazines…

  7. 7  Mike  February 11, 2009, 9:12 pm 

    Me, I wonder how the same alphabetic coding can produce such a stunning variety of tongue-dragging moronitude in purportedly high-minded periodicals

    Oh, jeez, I’m dying here! That was great.

  8. 8  Stuart A  February 12, 2009, 10:26 pm 

    He’s a clever and amusing man nonetheless, but from a rational point of view he lost it a long time ago.

    I admit I’m not a regular reader, but what of Booker’s recent output demonstrates this clever and amusing nature? As far as I’ve been able to discern he is a full-on “straight bananas” eurobore who makes occasional detours to dump anti-scientific garbage into the minds of harrumphing followers.

  9. 9  Gregor  February 13, 2009, 11:43 am 

    As a believer, I found this encouraging:

    http://www.the-scientist.com/t.....8;id=53891

    Ideally, I would say that there is an issue that being a cleric does not automatically grant you the authority to lecture on evolution any more than it does to support creationism. Still, as those believers who think a knowledge of the Bible is sufficient to condemn evolution have taken the first step, I think some have to speak in favour, even if they are not strictly qualified.

    Can’t say that rationality is so big in this article though:

    http://johannhari.com/index.php

    ‘Imagine what Europe would look like now if everybody who offered dissenting thoughts about Christianity in the seventeenth century and since was intimidated into silence by the mobs and tyrants who wanted to preserve the most literalist and fanatical readings of the Bible.’

    Many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe were largely unaffected by this 17th Century violence and have made vast contributions to science and have better civil liberties than we have here. As for the ‘most literalist and fanatical readings of the Bible’, that is something that actually became most prevalent in the 17th Century, and generally by those who offered ‘dissenting thoughts’.

    It seems a reference to the comical ‘Muslim Reformation’ theory. The idea that Muslims needed a Henry VIII used to be part of neo-liberal received wisdom, though it seems to have died down a lot recently.

  10. 10  Steven  February 13, 2009, 12:01 pm 

    I expect Hari does not know any better, but I do find the cartoon version of the history of ideas as a long war between Science and Religion awfully tedious — more especially when articulated by someone, like AC Grayling, who (one assumes) does know better.

    I also find myself sceptical as to the virtues of the heroic stance whereby the casual pisstaking of religions about which you have not bothered to find out much (perhaps Hari has read widely in Buddhism, but I rather suspect not) somehow becomes a principled defence of free speech. [Update: new post.]

  11. 11  ejh  February 13, 2009, 1:46 pm 

    I thought it was a Muslim Enlightenment rather than a Muslim Reformation that was the big idea?

    Re: Booker, I understood that he wrote some of the still-sometimes-funny bits in the Eye (and the unfunny and paranoid EU section). If this is not so I am perhaps being over-generous.

  12. 12  Stuart A  February 13, 2009, 5:05 pm 

    I expect Hari does not know any better, but I do find the cartoon version of the history of ideas as a long war between Science and Religion awfully tedious — more especially when articulated by someone, like AC Grayling, who (one assumes) does know better.

    I don’t suppose you could, from your position of yawning superiority, spell out Grayling’s error?

  13. 13  Steven  February 14, 2009, 1:21 am 

    You are correct in not so supposing.

  14. 14  Stuart A  February 14, 2009, 2:53 am 

    You are correct in not so supposing.

    In which case a rational supposition would be that Grayling “knows better” than you, what with him a) bothering to state his case and b) being a professor of philosophy.

  15. 15  Steven  February 14, 2009, 8:29 am 

    Like I said, I’m pretty sure he does know better.

  16. 16  Gregor  February 14, 2009, 9:41 am 

    Stuart

    I think you are asking a bit much, considering that 1) this is a blog post, which originally had nothing to do with the idea and 2) It would take a very long time and 3) It is such a silly idea anyway.

    You should try reading Black Mass by John Gray which is a good refutation of the idea (and Gray is himself a professor of philosophy).

    I don’t know how exactly one becomes a professor of philosophy: given that Grayling supported the idiotic ‘atheist bus’ campaign, I can’t imagine you have to be terribly clever (my faith survived the Romans, the Arrians, the Ottomans, the Crusaders, the Bolsheviks, I think it can survive a message on a bus). Given that Grayling seems to think John Gray is an oaf, he would probably agree. Whoever is right, Gray is by far the better stylist. Also, as a historian, I can’t help noticing that most ‘new atheists’ have very poor knowledge of history and geography. Gray has excellent knowledge of our history and that of other countries.

    However, Grayling has not (to my knowledge) provided a valid falsifiable hypothesis concerning science and religion as forces entirely counter to each other. As he seems to agree with Hitchens that bad folks who hate religion are religious, then I cannot imagine how he really could.

  17. 17  Steven  February 14, 2009, 10:27 am 

    Oh, very well then! I was thinking specifically of this, which I find all the more frustrating given that he is arguing against the egregious Steve Fuller (emphasis added):

    [...] from a thousand years before St Augustine, Thales and the Pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics and Epicureans were thinking in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe, on the assumption that human intelligence is competent to understand the workings of nature, which observation abundantly suggests are regular and ordered – it needs no gods to point out how spring returns after every winter, and the crops grow again as they did before, and so manifestly on. Not only did people emphatically not have to wait for St Augustine to discover that they could enquire thus, without invoking supernaturalistic beliefs of any sort, but it is indeed a mark of the thought of Thales and his successors that they did not start from such beliefs, but began their thinking from observation and reason. It was the revival of their independence of thought in the Renaissance and afterwards – the rediscovery of a non-theistic tradition of thought about the world – that represented a resumption of the scientific enterprise that had been crushed by religious dogma for a millennium, and which in the 16th and 17th centuries had a struggle to free itself from religion’s iron opposition [...]

  18. 18  Stuart A  February 18, 2009, 1:29 am 

    You should try reading Black Mass by John Gray which is a good refutation of the idea (and Gray is himself a professor of philosophy).

    I think Gray is an inane contrarian. But even supposing him a brilliant thinker, I don’t see what his anti-utopian message has to do with Grayling’s allegedly cartoonish historical contention. Gray is certainly more sympathetic to religious belief, but all he seems to offer in its defence is a tu quoque. (The atheist bus campaign doesn’t have much obvious bearing on this.)

    However, Grayling has not (to my knowledge) provided a valid falsifiable hypothesis concerning science and religion as forces entirely counter to each other.

    I have not seen Grayling make such a blanket claim. (Nor do I know how you square Popper with Gray’s output.)

    Steven:

    Thanks for responding. Unfortunately I don’t see what the howling error is. I suppose it depends how one interprets “crushed”. In any case, it still seems to me that religious epistemology was a highly significant retarding factor for science, quite apart from political considerations.

  19. 19  Gregor  February 24, 2009, 2:33 pm 

    ‘I have not seen Grayling make such a blanket claim’

    Appalling Cliches sums up his ‘cartoonish views’ in this article:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/o.....27060.html

    ‘Why so many of the new activists among non-religious students should be scientists is obvious. Science is as much a mindset as a body of knowledge; its premise is that thought is to be guided by publicly testable and rationally consistent evidence. The discipline of this approach makes short work of the foundation of today’s religions, which lie in the ignorance of people living several millennia ago. This critical, evidence-based, enquiring mindset also thinks afresh about the good for human lives and societies; it is this responsible motivation which most naturally accords with science at its best.’

    The article is called ‘An Antidote to the Prevailing Superstition’. I presume that is a reference to Christianity, in a country where a fraction of the population attend regular services, and which (according to EU statistics) is amongst the most atheistic in Europe.

    http://ec.europa.eu/public_opi.....ort_en.pdf

    I suppose Accumulated Cliches is right that science ‘makes short work of the foundation of today’s religions’ (and respect for getting two clichés into the same clause) if you literally believe in the book of Genesis, which only fundamentalist do. Given that Cain marries someone East of Eden, though he is the only son of Adam and Eve, I would say that a literal meaning would be impossible. To say that the story has a strong truth in it is very different.

    ‘The hand ceases to be friendly when the fresher wakes up to the limitations accepted in the moment of vulnerability. The non-religious groups aim to give a cheerful welcome and support without the baggage of having to think someone else’s thoughts and follow someone else’s rules as the price of fellowship.’

    In my religious community, there are many people who have openly lost their faith but are welcome. However, we generally never ask each other about our faith. It is between the believer and their spiritual father. What is strange is that many ‘new atheists’ seem to perceive a greater dichotomy between faith and unbelief than we do. I could be an atheist tomorrow. Who knows?

    However, unlike most ‘new atheists’, I am bi-cultural. As well as being British, I am close to the Greek and Romanian communities, and according to the statistics, these are amongst the most religious peoples in the EU.

    According to the likes of Hari, Grayling et al, with their rates of religious observance, my Balkan friends should be barely-humanoid idiots, allergic to science, liberalism and reason. However, per capita I would say that they are far more intelligent and interesting than my British contemporaries. Whilst many of my closest friends are British, we are a very definite sub-culture: the majority of my contemporaries’ conversation seems to spin tediously around football and fart jokes. I’m not down on my country or anything, but I don’t quite see the Neitzsche-Voltaire temperament at work in secular Britain.

    In fact Hari once said that ‘the believer has an empty mental cabinet’. I have a good friend who is a nun and can speak fluent Korean. Don’t know what Hari’s Korean is like, but if anyone listened to that genius’s ideas, the Korean peninsula would probably be a nuclear wasteland, so no one would have to.

    For more Accumulated Cliches insanity read his review of Christopher Hitchens:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/a.....54215.html

    My main quibble is that he tries using a cliché in an original way, so he calls it ‘a razor sharp book’. Still, Grayling concludes:

    ‘Hitchens ends by calling for a “new Enlightenment”, premised on the idea that the proper study of mankind is man and woman. The unfettered pursuit of science, the study of literature and poetry, and a generous attitude to relations between people – all of this now being within the reach of humankind for the first time ever – is the true basis for achievement of the good, and Hitchens urges it upon us.
    Not, he concedes, that achieving it will be easy or quick: but it is possible. The obvious first required step is liberation from religion: Hitchens’ book is an outstanding contribution to that goal.’

    Again, I wonder what falsifiable hypothesis he has and I find his tone worrying, because we ARE ‘liberated’ from religion, given that only 38% of Brits believe in God. I have found Greeks and Romanians far more cultured than British, yet according to Mr Cliché, it should be the case that they are ignorant of poetry and science, whilst secular Brits should be walking encyclopaedias… rather than (generally speaking) people dressed in stupid trousers and baseball boots, who blab on about football and pop music.

    ‘The atheist bus campaign doesn’t have much obvious bearing on this’

    My point was that Grayling praised it, which means he is an idiot. I just find the atheist bus campaign hilarious. I had a wonderful time recently with my community, eating lovely food, playing with my friends’ children, listening to lovely singing. But apparently some wise people have spent £150,000 telling me to stop worrying and get on with my life…

    ‘Gray is certainly more sympathetic to religious belief, but all he seems to offer in its defence is a tu quoque’

    Gray is not a defender of faith, but rather an opponent of humanism, which I think is very wise. It seems to me that Gray is a real atheist, whilst the humanists have a very bizarre religion. Interestingly, he recently seemed to imply that Apostolic Christianity with its view of fallen nature is more in keeping with what we know of natural selection than the humanistic idea is.

    I don’t seek to preach, and have never encouraged even close friends or relatives to become Christian. However, I find the aggression shown by new atheists very disturbing. Stirring up anger and scapegoating communities can never achieve anything positive. However, if you take the view that religion is stupid, that draws you to the conclusion that some races and cultures are more prone to stupidity than others, which I also find disturbing.

  20. 20  Steven  February 24, 2009, 4:42 pm 

    Gray is not a defender of faith, but rather an opponent of humanism, which I think is very wise. It seems to me that Gray is a real atheist, whilst the humanists have a very bizarre religion.

    Were I not on blogiday I would be tempted, after the goings-on in the next-door thread, to write a post on the term “Humanism” itself, but it’ll have to wait…

  21. 21  Gregor  February 24, 2009, 4:51 pm 

    ‘ would be tempted, after the goings-on in the next-door thread, to write a post on the term “Humanism” itself, but it’ll have to wait…’

    That sounds like something to look forward to. Just looking back I realise how long my post was. Never, ever listen to William Shatner’s take of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds after drinking seven cups of coffee. It does strange things to you.

  22. 22  dsquared  February 24, 2009, 5:01 pm 

    I had a wonderful time recently with my community, eating lovely food, playing with my friends’ children, listening to lovely singing. But apparently some wise people have spent £150,000 telling me to stop worrying and get on with my life…

    the message presumably wasn’t addressed to you then; it must have been addressed to all of those people who are troubled or worried by their religious belief. There are quite a lot of them apparently.

    (I think it was Lacan, via Zizek, who noted that an unaddressed envelope always arrives at its destination – apparently bus posters don’t work the same way).

  23. 23  Stuart A  February 24, 2009, 7:27 pm 

    Appalling Cliches sums up his ‘cartoonish views’ in this article…

    That article does not say that “science and religion” are “forces entirely counter to each other.” I doubt Grayling has made this sweeping claim.

    The article is called ‘An Antidote to the Prevailing Superstition’. I presume that is a reference to Christianity, in a country where a fraction of the population attend regular services, and which (according to EU statistics) is amongst the most atheistic in Europe.

    Firstly, he refers to religions in general, not Christianity specifically. Secondly, religious belief could still be described as the “prevailing superstition” even if the country were largely atheistic because this could be true relative to other superstitions. Thirdly, I don’t think we can be sure that Grayling composed the title.

    I suppose Accumulated Cliches is right that science ‘makes short work of the foundation of today’s religions’ (and respect for getting two clichés into the same clause) if you literally believe in the book of Genesis, which only fundamentalist do.

    He’s also right that thought “guided by publicly testable and rationally consistent evidence” disposes of the gospel accounts as credible history.

    Again, I wonder what falsifiable hypothesis he has…

    I don’t know what sense you intend for falsifiable, but if it has anything to do with Popper I find it a strange companion to declarations of religious belief.

    I have found Greeks and Romanians far more cultured than British, yet according to Mr Cliché, it should be the case that they are ignorant of poetry and science, whilst secular Brits should be walking encyclopaedias

    I’m not sure which “Mr Cliché” we’re talking about here, but I haven’t seen Grayling suggest religion is a sole or even primary determinant of intellectual attainment.

    My point was that Grayling praised it, which means he is an idiot.

    Possibly, but no more of an idiot than the people in favour of the far more prevalent Christian advertising one sees. I assume you condemn these campaigns equally as strongly?

    It seems to me that Gray is a real atheist, whilst the humanists have a very bizarre religion.

    I find it interesting how defenders of religion frequently resort to labelling their opponents as religious. It doesn’t seem to suggest much confidence. But let’s decide humanism is a religion: How is it more bizarre than Christianity?

    However, I find the aggression shown by new atheists very disturbing. Stirring up anger and scapegoating communities can never achieve anything positive.

    When did Grayling do this?

    However, if you take the view that religion is stupid, that draws you to the conclusion that some races and cultures are more prone to stupidity than others, which I also find disturbing.

    I haven’t seen Grayling or Hitchens or Hari propose that religious belief stems from some kind of racial stupidity. I strongly doubt any of them has.

  24. 24  Gregor  February 24, 2009, 8:21 pm 

    Eh, seems we’re getting a bit off topic here.

    ‘I find it interesting how defenders of religion frequently resort to labelling their opponents as religious. It doesn’t seem to suggest much confidence. But let’s decide humanism is a religion: How is it more bizarre than Christianity?’

    I didn’t label ‘opponents’ as religious, but humanists. John Gray is utterly dismissive of the claims of religion, but says (essentially) that history gives very little cause for optimism and that religion is preferable to many other ideologies. As for ‘It doesn’t seem to suggest much confidence’, I do not respect all religions, and never said that having faith is preferable to being an atheist, so I do not see your point.

    Humanism is more bizarre because (as its title implies) it has a view of people as fundamentally good and that this came about through a kind of social evolution. If you study history you will find a very different story to the humanist one.

    ‘I haven’t seen Grayling or Hitchens or Hari propose that religious belief stems from some kind of racial stupidity. I strongly doubt any of them has.’

    And I never said that they did. But I was just pointing out that is surely the logical conclusion of the idea that religion is stupid.

    ‘When did Grayling do this?’

    As with the racial comment, it is a logical conclusion. Grayling has not done this explicitly (though my comment, if you read it was aimed at ‘new atheists’ in general) but there is a lot of hatred shown towards believers. I read an article in The Independent weblog with the title ‘Muslims feel like the new Jews of Europe’. The absolute hatred of the hundreds of comments that followed this were truly shocking. And many of them were written from an atheistic perspective.

    ‘I assume you condemn these campaigns equally as strongly?’

    Condemn: my least favourite word on the internet. I didn’t condemn the atheist bus campaign, I just think it is amusingly stupid. For me the religious ones are very weird, given my experience of faith through lifestyle and community, but that is not here or there.

    ‘I haven’t seen Grayling suggest religion is a sole or even primary determinant of intellectual attainment.’

    ‘The obvious first required step is liberation from religion’?

    ‘I don’t know what sense you intend for falsifiable, but if it has anything to do with Popper I find it a strange companion to declarations of religious belief.’

    Maybe looking at other cultures and seeing if there really is a strong correlation between atheism and enlightenment. As for Popper, he was an agnostic. I do not claim a Popperian argument for religion, but I would not make a dramatic sociological statement condemning atheism the way that Grayling does concerning faith. If I did, I would have created a falsifiable hypothesis along the lines that ‘My views will be invalidated if an atheist society is more free/ well-educated/ humane than a devout society’.

  25. 25  Stuart A  February 25, 2009, 12:40 am 

    I didn’t label ‘opponents’ as religious, but humanists.

    I assumed that you viewed humanists as opponents. My guide was you saying, “Gray is not a defender of faith, but rather an opponent of humanism, which I think is very wise.”

    I do not respect all religions, and never said that having faith is preferable to being an atheist, so I do not see your point.

    You paraphrased Gray as saying, “religion is preferable to many other ideologies”. I assumed you endorsed this position.

    Humanism is more bizarre because (as its title implies) it has a view of people as fundamentally good and that this came about through a kind of social evolution. If you study history you will find a very different story to the humanist one.

    Personally, I find the virgin birth, raising from the dead, treatise on skin complaints, divinely-mandated infanticide, etc. more bizarre than a belief in human goodness. As for the study of history, I’m not sure that’s been altogether kind to belief in Biblical truth.

    And I never said that they did. But I was just pointing out that is surely the logical conclusion of the idea that religion is stupid.

    But you hold a particular set of religious beliefs that assume the majority of the world’s population is, if not stupid, at the least tragically misguided. You’ve said you “do not respect all religions”. So what “logical conclusion” am I to reach?

    Surely we can agree that the geographical distribution of religious belief is a result of numerous factors and not some crude product of racial or cultural determinism?

    Grayling has not done this explicitly… but there is a lot of hatred shown towards believers.

    Has he done it implicitly?

    I didn’t condemn the atheist bus campaign, I just think it is amusingly stupid. For me the religious ones are very weird, given my experience of faith through lifestyle and community, but that is not here or there.

    One is “idiotic” and “stupid”, the other is merely “weird”. Why is that?

    ‘The obvious first required step is liberation from religion’?

    But that is in pursuit, so he says, of a “new Enlightment”. I don’t see the relation between that and the claim that “secular Brits should be walking encyclopaedias”.

    I do not claim a Popperian argument for religion, but I would not make a dramatic sociological statement condemning atheism the way that Grayling does concerning faith.

    So when considering religious belief one should adopt Popperian emprical tests when examining its sociological effects but not its foundational claims?

  26. 26  Gregor  February 25, 2009, 11:52 am 

    ‘I assumed that you viewed humanists as opponents.’

    Yes, but not all plants are trees even if all trees are plants. Humanists do seem to have a religious belief, whilst true sceptics like Gray (who also criticises religion) do not. Atheism was once represented by erudite and urbane people like Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (both of whom I admire) who brought charm, wisdom and optimism. Just compare that to the intellectual and moral crudity of Christopher Hitchens.

    ‘You paraphrased Gray as saying, “religion is preferable to many other ideologies”. I assumed you endorsed this position.’

    Not really because he was speaking as an atheist. But he said ‘many’, not all.

    ‘But you hold a particular set of religious beliefs that assume the majority of the world’s population is, if not stupid, at the least tragically misguided.’

    No. Mine is not a proselytising denomination. The Bible says that God came into the world to save sinners. St Paul says that Christians are seen as foolish.

    ‘Surely we can agree that the geographical distribution of religious belief is a result of numerous factors and not some crude product of racial or cultural determinism?’

    WE can agree with this, but not everyone would. In Britain there is an unassimilated section of the Muslim population who are increasingly ghettoised. I do not think the ‘new atheist’ smugness helps this, and in the case I pointed out, Muslims were being attacked from an atheist perspective in a racist manner.

    ‘One is “idiotic” and “stupid”, the other is merely “weird”. Why is that?’

    Because it does not understand what faith is for most people and it is a waste of money that could have been spent on better things.

    ‘But that is in pursuit, so he says, of a “new Enlightment”. I don’t see the relation between that and the claim that “secular Brits should be walking encyclopaedias”.’

    Did you actually read the entire paragraph? He says that the ‘unfettered’ pursuit of science and poetry required ‘liberation’ from religion.

    ‘So when considering religious belief one should adopt Popperian emprical tests when examining its sociological effects but not its foundational claims?’

    It would be impossible to have a Popperian test for the foundational claims of faith, because faith is by definition belief in something that cannot be proven. The sociological aspect is different. Firstly, there is no evidence that a further collapse in religious observance would create a more sophisticated and intellectual culture. I come from Generation Y as it is called. And most of my British contemporaries are mind numbingly incurious. It is mainly in the Orthodox diaspora that I befriend people of my age. It just gets on my nerves the smugness that the new atheists show, and the way they arrogate the scientific method purely by unbelief. They have done very little primary research into the sociology of it, yet make sweeping statements.

    Also, look up Privacy International. Devout Romania and Greece have excellent civil liberties, whilst secular Britain is almost on a level with Communist China. If the obverse were the case, I’m sure that the New Atheists would try to make a point about it. I’m not saying that Britain has its faults because it is secular, but that these faults in a secular society invalidates the hypothesis of Grayling.

    Secondly, we have had two wars fought for poorly defined reasons against ‘fundamentalists’ in the ‘war against terrorism’. As well as shedding the blood of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, and British soldiers, our civil liberties are being destroyed in the name of ‘the war on terror’. An intelligent look at religion, community interaction and the state is needed.

  27. 27  Steven  February 25, 2009, 4:24 pm 

    He says that the ‘unfettered’ pursuit of science and poetry required ‘liberation’ from religion.

    Just imagine what Milton, Spenser, Newton, Mendel et al ad nauseam might have achieved in the fields of poetry and science had they not been enslaved and fettered by religion. It’s tragic.

  28. 28  dsquared  February 25, 2009, 4:41 pm 

    The people who genuinely were fettered by religion, of course, were the Jaroslav Haceks and James Joyces of this world – all the producers of degenerate and disreputable art which, in general, soi-disant humanists don’t like.

  29. 29  Gregor  February 25, 2009, 6:51 pm 

    ‘Just imagine what Milton, Spenser, Newton, Mendel et al ad nauseam might have achieved in the fields of poetry and science had they not been enslaved and fettered by religion.’

    Well, on the plus side, at least Robbie Williams hasn’t fettered his immense talent with religion.

  30. 30  Stuart A  February 25, 2009, 7:33 pm 

    Yes, but not all plants are trees even if all trees are plants.

    I didn’t say “all”.

    No. Mine is not a proselytising denomination. The Bible says that God came into the world to save sinners. St Paul says that Christians are seen as foolish.

    If atheists are necessarily implying the majority of the world’s races and cultures are composed of inferior intellects on account of their religious beliefs, then so are you, because you also do not share these beliefs.

    WE can agree with this, but not everyone would. In Britain there is an unassimilated section of the Muslim population who are increasingly ghettoised. I do not think the ‘new atheist’ smugness helps this, and in the case I pointed out, Muslims were being attacked from an atheist perspective in a racist manner.

    I agree, these attacks on Muslims are terrible, but there isn’t some inherent link between them and the general critique of religion offered by Grayling. I am not at all a fan of Hitchens or Hari or Harris. I thought that Hitchens’s book, in particular, was dire. I dislike the attempts by these people and others to drape their political attacks in the mantle of secularism and the Enlightenment. But that says nothing at all about secularism or the Enlightenment except that they can be abused for propagandistic purposes — just like religion.

    Did you actually read the entire paragraph? He says that the ‘unfettered’ pursuit of science and poetry required ‘liberation’ from religion.

    Yes, I read it. It still doesn’t suggest, even remotely, that “secular Brits should be walking encyclopaedias”.

    It would be impossible to have a Popperian test for the foundational claims of faith, because faith is by definition belief in something that cannot be proven.

    That doesn’t put you in a poor position to demand falsifiable hypotheses from other people?

    They have done very little primary research into the sociology of it, yet make sweeping statements.

    I agree on this count. I think all of the “New Atheists” have made hyperbolic statements about the effects of religious belief, in particular Islam.

    I’m not saying that Britain has its faults because it is secular, but that these faults in a secular society invalidates the hypothesis of Grayling.

    I don’t agree. Firstly, you have not pointed me to a falsifiable hypothesis on these lines from Grayling. Secondly, it seems fairly apparent from his writing that Grayling does not agree that Britain is a model of a society unfettered from religion. Thirdly, a necessary condition is not the same as a sufficient condition.

    Secondly, we have had two wars fought for poorly defined reasons against ‘fundamentalists’ in the ‘war against terrorism’. As well as shedding the blood of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, and British soldiers, our civil liberties are being destroyed in the name of ‘the war on terror’. An intelligent look at religion, community interaction and the state is needed.

    Agreed.

  31. 31  Stuart A  February 25, 2009, 8:04 pm 

    Just imagine what Milton, Spenser, Newton, Mendel et al ad nauseam might have achieved in the fields of poetry and science had they not been enslaved and fettered by religion. It’s tragic.

    What Grayling actually referred to in that article was “the study of literature and poetry”, not the production of them. I’m not familiar with Milton or Spenser’s literary studies (or scientific ones, for that matter), but in any case Milton seems a curious poster boy for religious tolerance. (And yes, Mendel was a monk. Well done. Does that somehow mean Galileo wasn’t imprisoned?)

    Aside from that, you are aware that Newton was an Arian heretic who had to conceal his religious beliefs all his life? He also wasted hundreds of thousands of words on crackpot religious theorising. So yes, he might have achieved more had he not been constrained by a religious mindset — something that could be said of countless individuals through history, and which I think is Grayling’s larger point, however intent you are on ignoring it.

  32. 32  Steven  February 25, 2009, 9:24 pm 

    What Grayling actually referred to in that article was “the study of literature and poetry”, not the production of them. I’m not familiar with Milton or Spenser’s literary studies

    They didn’t have jobs in university literature departments, if that’s what you mean (since such jobs didn’t exist). But it would be rather silly to argue that they didn’t study literature and poetry.

    but in any case Milton seems a curious poster boy for religious tolerance

    I don’t believe I ever suggested that Milton should be on a poster (perhaps stuck to a bus) advertising religious tolerance.

    And yes, Mendel was a monk. Well done. Does that somehow mean Galileo wasn’t imprisoned?

    Thanks! And to answer your question: no, it doesn’t. What it does mean, along with countless other examples, is that religion has not always and everywhere been opposed to or incompatible with science.

    So yes, [Newton] might have achieved more had he not been constrained by a religious mindset — something that could be said of countless individuals through history

    It could be said — indeed, it is said quite frequently. But that doesn’t stop it being the kind of claim for which there is no evidence at all: just the kind of claim that nu-atheists in other contexts tend to get quite worked up about in their heroic defence of empirical reasoning etc.

  33. 33  Gregor  February 25, 2009, 9:49 pm 

    ‘If atheists are necessarily implying the majority of the world’s races and cultures are composed of inferior intellects on account of their religious beliefs, then so are you, because you also do not share these beliefs.’

    You seem to think I am offering a mirror image to the atheist v believer arguments of people like Hari, when I am not. He said that the believer has an empty mental cupboard (http://blogs.independent.co.uk.....t-the.html).
    I would never say this about atheists. I was just pointing out that if you take this view, then surely some readers will conclude that some races and cultures are mentally emptier than others. I never said that ‘atheists are necessarily implying’ that, but as I said (and you seemed to agree) some aggressive atheists (often unintentionally) give ammunition to racists.

    Also I do not think someone is stupid just because they have different beliefs to my own, though that is your supposition. And when I said I do not respect all religions I was primarily thinking of Scientology and Mormonism.

    ‘But that says nothing at all about secularism or the Enlightenment except that they can be abused for propagandistic purposes — just like religion.’

    I have never said anything to disagree with that.

    ‘Yes, I read it. It still doesn’t suggest, even remotely, that “secular Brits should be walking encyclopaedias”.’

    I WAS being rather tongue-in-cheek, but it is obvious you interpreted Grayling’s statement in a way I find difficult to understand given that he explicitly says that religion is a barrier to culture and science then surely it means that atheistic cultures will be more intelligent and cultured. This has not generally been my own experience.

    ‘That doesn’t put you in a poor position to demand falsifiable hypotheses from other people?’

    No, because I do not make sociological statements condemning any group.

    ‘I don’t agree. Firstly, you have not pointed me to a falsifiable hypothesis on these lines from Grayling. Secondly, it seems fairly apparent from his writing that Grayling does not agree that Britain is a model of a society unfettered from religion.’

    Britain is essentially as secular as any post-Christian society. I have experience with more devout societies that I find generally preferable. As for a falsifiable hypothesis, Grayling does not offer one. But I would say something like ‘If a devout society has excellent civil liberties, a high standard of care for its children and a good education system (despite being comparatively poor) then it would nullify my hypothesis that religion is a force negative to society. If a largely atheist (but very wealthy) society has millions of illiterate adults living lives without hope in dismal housing estates then maybe I should shut my big gob’.

  34. 34  Stuart A  February 25, 2009, 10:38 pm 

    They didn’t have jobs in university literature departments, if that’s what you mean (since such jobs didn’t exist). But it would be rather silly to argue that they didn’t study literature and poetry.

    I’m sure they did. And, as I said, I am not familiar with what they did in this regard. While I’m sure this is largely a testament to my literary ignorance, it nevertheless seems true that what they are primarily famous for is not what Grayling was referring to.

    I don’t believe I ever suggested that Milton should be on a poster (perhaps stuck to a bus) advertising religious tolerance.

    No, but you did include him in a hilarious and sophisticated sarcastic remark that suggested he was a positive example of religious tolerance.

    Thanks! And to answer your question: no, it doesn’t. What it does mean, along with countless other examples, is that religion has not always and everywhere been opposed to or incompatible with science.

    But where did Grayling say that religion and science were “always and everywhere” incompatible?

    It could be said — indeed, it is said quite frequently. But that doesn’t stop it being the kind of claim for which there is no evidence at all: just the kind of claim that nu-atheists in other contexts tend to get quite worked up about in their heroic defence of empirical reasoning etc.

    He wasted vast amounts of his time on worthless religious investigations. Superstitious beliefs also motivated equally worthless alchemical experiments. When he applied rational thought to empirical facts, on the other hand, he did more productive work. Clearly this, and the subsequent scientific advances of humanity, imply no correlation, because you’ve recruited the italics tag to tell me ex cathedra that this constitutes no evidence at all. Case closed then.

  35. 35  Stuart A  February 25, 2009, 11:00 pm 

    You seem to think I am offering a mirror image to the atheist v believer arguments of people like Hari, when I am not. He said that the believer has an empty mental cupboard (http://blogs.independent.co.uk.....t-the.html).

    I’ve already said that I am not defending Hari. What he says, and what atheism necessarily implies, are not the same thing. The conflation of the two is something I object to. That said, Hari is specifically talking there about “when religious thoughts are challenged”. I don’t interpret what he says as a statement about the general mental faculties of the religious.

    I WAS being rather tongue-in-cheek, but it is obvious you interpreted Grayling’s statement in a way I find difficult to understand given that he explicitly says that religion is a barrier to culture and science then surely it means that atheistic cultures will be more intelligent and cultured. This has not generally been my own experience.

    Just because Grayling says x is a necessary condition for a better society it doesn’t mean that x is a sufficient condition for a better society. That is, the presence of x does not guarantee a better society, but this better society he envisions could only exist if x existed. More broadly, I think you are trying to conclude too much from the state of British society because all kinds of factors play into it apart from religion.

    No, because I do not make sociological statements condemning any group.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this à la carte approach to epistemology is defensible.

    As for a falsifiable hypothesis, Grayling does not offer one.

    But you were complaining about the lack of “primary research” underpinning his “sweeping statements”. If they aren’t falsifiable statements, how are you evaluating their truth?

  36. 36  Steven  February 25, 2009, 11:05 pm 

    No, but you did include him in a hilarious and sophisticated sarcastic remark that suggested he was a positive example of religious tolerance.

    I’m afraid I cannot find the suggestion you have so irritably read into my remark, though I am glad you found it hilarious. I merely pointed out that Milton didn’t seem to have much of a problem studying poetry even though he was afflicted with religion. (Nor did Philip Sidney, William Blake, et al ad nauseam, etc.) I am pleased we agree on that now.

    But where did Grayling say that religion and science were “always and everywhere” incompatible?

    I believe the claim that the “unfettered” pursuit of science can only come about once we are all “liberated” from religion very strongly implies such a view: it is a property of religion in general, Grayling is saying, that it fetters scientific pursuit.

    But I don’t believe you can really be very happy defending this particular article of Grayling’s. The study of literature and poetry is among the things that are “within the reach of humankind for the first time ever”? It’s just arrant chuckleheaded nonsense, I’m sure you agree.

    you’ve recruited the italics tag to tell me ex cathedra that this constitutes no evidence at all.

    Yes, I do find the italics tag useful that way. (Newton’s “superstitious beliefs” also “motivated” his physics, of course — pleasingly, in more than one sense.)

  37. 37  Stuart A  February 26, 2009, 12:20 am 

    I agree that review was not Grayling’s best moment. He was reviewing a really quite terrible book, and I think it perhaps brought out the worst in him. I don’t think he could defend the “first time ever” claim regarding poetry.

    I found Grayling’s book, What is Good?, more impressive. If he was substantially wrong on the history then I would be genuinely interested to know how, which is why I asked about it. Unfortunately we are instead discussing your “always and everywhere” claim which you say is “strongly implied” by his alleging the fettering of science by religion. I disagree that it is reasonable to insert the qualifiers “always and everywhere”.

    Yes, I do find the italics tag useful that way. (Newton’s “superstitious beliefs” also “motivated” his physics, of course — pleasingly, in more than one sense.)

    I specified where I, and as far as I understand his biographers, viewed the approach as being different between his physics and alchemy. I have little idea what you mean by “motivated” in “more than one sense”, but I’m glad it tickles you so. I suppose it’s something to do with Newton believing God set the heavens in motion, or some such. If so it’s irrelevant.

  38. 38  Steven  February 26, 2009, 12:30 am 

    I found Grayling’s book, What is Good?, more impressive

    I haven’t read that one but I do like him as a philosopher, i.e. when he is not on his tedious nu-atheism trip.

    I suppose it’s something to do with Newton believing God set the heavens in motion, or some such. If so it’s irrelevant.

    Well, Newton would have disagreed with you. But the point is that there is no more evidence for the claim, advanced by you, that his religion somehow prevented his making even more amazing scientific discoveries than he did, than there is for the opposite claim that it somehow caused them.

  39. 39  Stuart A  February 26, 2009, 12:39 am 

    But the point is that there is no more evidence for the claim, advanced by you, that his religion somehow prevented his making even more amazing scientific discoveries than he did, than there is for the opposite claim that it somehow caused them.

    Ah. So there is no evidence at all for a claim that I didn’t make. Got it.

  40. 40  abb1  February 26, 2009, 2:03 pm 

    He wasted vast amounts of his time on worthless religious investigations. … When he applied rational thought to empirical facts, on the other hand, he did more productive work.

    Seems to me that the idea that, for example, world is sitting on an elephant standing on a turtle is a hypothesis just like any other scientific hypothesis. It does explain some things, like earthquakes for example. Until it’s been definitely ruled out by empirical facts and observations it remains a valid hypothesis, why not? Are you saying there is an obvious reason why it doesn’t deserve to be investigated?

  41. 41  Gregor  February 26, 2009, 3:43 pm 

    ‘If they aren’t falsifiable statements, how are you evaluating their truth?’

    If you’d read my previous post you would see that I had offered a falsifiable statement that Grayling might consider using.

    ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this à la carte approach to epistemology is defensible.’

    There is a reason why the 1600 year old Nicene Creed begins ‘Pistevo’ not ‘Ksero’. That is because Christianity is faith, and you apparently have a lot of difficulty understanding that. I do not ask people to accept the Gospels as historical fact, but I choose to have faith in them.

    Grayling is entitled to faith that Britain is a theocracy that would be a paradise full of nerds with bunsens and poetry tomes if it were not for the Taliban style ‘fetters’ of religion. But to state that this great escape from religion is ‘the obvious first step’ is very wrong. I believe the Trojan War happened, though there is no evidence for it. I would not say ‘the Trojan war obviously happened’. Saying that you believe something is not the same as saying you know something, and the two statements require different levels of evidence.

    ‘More broadly, I think you are trying to conclude too much from the state of British society because all kinds of factors play into it apart from religion.’

    But I never once said that faith or atheism are important factors in British society. I just said that 1) Britain is secular 2) From my experience it is not terribly enlightened and 3) Grayling is being very foolish implying that religion ‘fetters’ our society.

    Incidentally, I really don’t have any idea what you were saying about Steven’s alleged suggestion that Milton supported religious freedom. He never mentioned religious freedom but was just showing how foolish Grayling was to imply that religion ‘fetters’ poetry.

  42. 42  Seeds  February 26, 2009, 4:57 pm 

    Gregor:

    [W]hen I said I do not respect all religions I was primarily thinking of Scientology and Mormonism.

    Intriguing. Do you mind me asking if you “actively” disrespect them, or do you just have no strong feelings either way?

    What is it about these two religions in particular? Is it their philosophy, their recent history, or their youth [i.e. they haven't produced any Joyces or Miltons yet]?

    Stuart A:

    And yes, Mendel was a monk. Well done. Does that somehow mean Galileo wasn’t imprisoned?

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said in the thread, and I suspect that we are both in the position of agreeing with the central concept of “new/nu atheism” (Unspeak there? It’s certainly not a term that those involved identify with) while wishing that we had some better cheerleaders. But I think we have to be careful here, as the history of religion and science is inextricably interlinked. Feyerabend’s Against Method goes over Gallileo’s relationship with the church in exhausting detail and the picture is more complicated than it first appears.

    Christopher Hitchens certainly falls into the same “inane contrarian” category as Gray and – like Gray – he often makes good and useful points. His point about morality could potentially be more widely applied:

    Can you name a moral action taken, or a moral statement made, by a believer that could not have been made by an atheist?

    I would suggest that this could be applied in principle to scientific discoveries, although it should be obvious that I’m prepared to accept that the course of science has been influenced by religion, and even by great scientists’ personal religious beliefs. However this cannot apply to the arts, which rely so much on the beliefs, emotions and experiences of the creator [note small "c"]. Obviously a particular work inspired by religion could not be somehow coincidentally and identically created by an atheist or agnostic, although it is arguable that something of identical “worth” could be (and very probably has been).

  43. 43  Gregor  February 26, 2009, 5:40 pm 

    Intriguing. Do you mind me asking if you “actively” disrespect them, or do you just have no strong feelings either way?

    I don’t care about them either way.

    ‘What is it about these two religions in particular?’

    I knew a former Mormon who said the church investigated how much money they made to check that they paid enough to the church. As for the Scientologists, L Ron Hubbard spoke openly about how lucrative it would be to start a religion.

  44. 44  Seeds  February 26, 2009, 7:28 pm 

    Firstly, I can’t help finding it contradictory that you claim not to care either way and then offer reasons for disliking them. Perhaps it’s just the fault of the way I phrased the question. Otherwise I conclude that these negative points are counterbalanced by other, positive factors. I can’t think of any obvious examples; then again, I have little but contempt for either Scientology or Mormonism.

    It’s also interesting that your distaste for both religions is rooted solely in the amount of money that their churches make. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall any church that has ever gone out of business, whereas I can think of plenty that make astronomical sums of money, with the seemingly-obligatory financial and sexual scandals that follow. [Which orthodox church do you belong to, out of interest?].

    It could be that I’m missing the point. Is it simply their crassness and lack of tact that offends you, as they go about consolidating their political influence and generating their enormous wealth at the expense of both their members and the wider community?

  45. 45  Gregor  February 26, 2009, 11:25 pm 

    ‘Firstly, I can’t help finding it contradictory that you claim not to care either way and then offer reasons for disliking them. Perhaps it’s just the fault of the way I phrased the question. Otherwise I conclude that these negative points are counterbalanced by other, positive factors.’

    Being honest I do not know enough about them. Maybe they have good points: I do not know enough to ‘actively disrespect’ them. But they seem ‘religious’ in a sense that I am not. The word ‘religious’ has various meanings in common usage. My Priest said ‘I hate religion’ and a very important Orthodox theologian (John Romanides) once said that religion is a disease and Orthodoxy is the cure. Of course these comments all depend entirely on what ‘religion’ means.

    I entirely agree with these comments if ‘religious’ is taken to mean someone with a strong sense of what is right and wrong, who demands people share their views and who likes preaching to people about their lifestyle. In this regard I find the ‘new atheists’ very religious. Overall I do not regard myself as ‘religious’ yet I find a lot of beauty in my faith, and feel uncomfortable with people like Grayling and Hitchens making such bizarre claims.

    ‘It’s also interesting that your distaste for both religions is rooted solely in the amount of money that their churches make.’

    No, it is because their ‘prophets’ were obsessed with (Must. Avoid. Bad. Pun.) increasing capital and making money. It makes me doubt their motives somewhat.

    ‘Which orthodox church do you belong to, out of interest?’

    The Eastern Orthodox Church; many of us dislike using terms like Greek/ Russian/ Romanian; this is a very modern innovation and is partially a concession to the romantic nationalistic movements that (I think at least) many Priests unwisely became involved with.



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