A great cloud of witlessness: the Not Ashamed campaign

I’m back, bitches. I’ve been roused from my slumbers by a friend’s link to the Not Ashamed campaign against the marginalisation of Christianity in the UK. It’s fronted by George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

A great cloud of witlessness

Apparently, it’s getting harder to be a Christian in this country. So, what’s the problem? The campaign’s choice of heroes of the faith makes it clear that the essence of Christian practice is stopping gays getting the same rights as everyone else, getting yourself special exemptions from workplace dress codes (keeping up with the Muslims, I suppose), and proselytizing on the taxpayers’ time. The Ministry of Truth examines these bold martyrs in detail (I’ve previously discussed the cases of Olive Jones and Gary MacFarlane myself) and concludes that they probably should be ashamed, really.

Now, I’ve had a rough time over the last few months, hence the lack of posting, and some Christians have been very kind to me (as well as some non-Christians, of course). So I’d formed a different view of the essentials: I had thought they were things like kindness and goodness, those things against which, as St Paul says, there is no law. But who am I to disagree with the former Archbishop of Canterbury?

I imagine Carey would say that if you can’t spurn the gays or wear a silver ring to school, you can still be a Christian, but well, it just wouldn’t be the same: hence the campaign’s description of the heroes as “those who have suffered”. It must have been awful for them.

The grand metanarrative

Some time ago, Weeping Cross (who is one of those moderate religionists of the sort that never gets enough publicity for condemning the extremists: glad to help) wrote that

the narrative of persecution is a terribly comforting one for many modern Christians, and is to a great degree generated by them. It’s a way of taking cultural marginalisation and making it a sign that they’re getting something right: people don’t like the truth, so the more truthful we are about the Gospel, the more disliked we will be.

Someone called JPea commented on Heresiarch’s latest, informing us that all this is part of the cosmic battle between good and evil which will soon culminate in the kind of end of series finale where they blow the entire special effects budget. Luckily, Rev Cross was around to tell them not to be so silly: “Try looking at what’s actually happening and not trying to fit it into a grand metanarrative.”

I’m not sure that’s a realistic instruction for most of the Not Ashamed types: the whole point of that style of religion is to be part of the big story (I’ve just discovered Greta Christina had my idea first, curse her). The mundane facts that Christian observance is on the decline in this country and that more and more people won’t put up with discrimination against gays must be invested with cosmic significance: there is a conspiracy of “strident” atheists and “politically correct” bureaucrats, with the Dark Lord behind it all. If the meteor that flew by last night wasn’t a special signal to me on whether I should buy a new car, then how terribly shallow it all is.

Edited: One of my nice Christian friends didn’t like the Advice Dog image which was attached to this posting, so I removed it.

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Reform and the Interminable Anglican Sex Kerfuffle

Down at the Graun, they’ve been looking into those “traditionalists” in the Church of England, the ones who are involved in the most recent bout of the Interminable Anglican Sex Kerfuffle. Andrew Brown has discovered complementarianism, and he doesn’t approve. He’s found the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust‘s site, wherein he’s learned that trustees sign various declarations of their doctrinal rectitude, annually (which seems a bit lax: I’d go for twice nightly, and three times on Saturdays). We’ve discussed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy before, and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was mentioned during the ComplementarianFail drama of 2009. It’s the Danvers Statement which has Brown so exercised, and he quotes a few choice passages from it for your enjoyment.

Intelligent, willing submission

Now, my old church was a Reform one, so I remember a bit about this stuff. I’ve been sharing my memories of those halycon days of “intelligent, willing submission” here; wheeling out the inevitable Houseplants of Gor gag (and handcuffs) here (another commenter has actually read John Norman’s books: fun times); making simont‘s point about the failure mode of complementarianism here; and arguing that Christianity is not necessarily evil here.

Some of the reports I’ve seen about the Sex Kerfuffle have been theologically confused (not Brown’s of course: he correctly identifies the Reform people as Calvinists). It’s reported that the “traditionalists” might all defect to Rome: in Reform’s case, this is about as likely as Ian Paisley getting all chummy with Jessel the Tri-felge Putenard. The traditionalists are two distinct groups, both of whom suspect that the other lot aren’t really Christians, but who are prepared to make common cause over the vital issue of penises and the possession (bishops must have them) and disposition (they must not put them too near other men) of the same. It is the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics who might defect to Rome.

Disestablishmentarianism

The Graun‘s recent editorial warned that the church should either get with the programme or face disestablishment: “The Church of England now expects both the benefits of establishment and the cultural freedom of private religion. At the very least, a national church should not become disconnected from the best values of the country it serves.”

The Graun seems to think that the established church should be what Andrew Rilstone describes as “the Church of Dumbledore”, a sort of deistic religion whose purpose is to work for social goods, “baptising the dead and burying the sick”. Rilstone originally wrote The Ballad of Reading Diocese the previous time a Kerfuffle over Jeffrey John arose, but it remains as relevant as it was then.

The National God Service, the Church of Dumbledore, seems to be one of those oddly British historical vestiges, like the monarchy. While I don’t particularly see the point of it, it hardly seems worth the trouble of getting rid of it. A church which patronises women and views gay relationships as sinful, on the other hand, should go its own way: the state should have nothing to do with such an organisation. It’s not clear to me who’s currently winning: I’ll watch developments with interest.

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Q: When is a person like a rock? A: When there’s no God

C. Michael Patton writes honestly about the day he lost his faith, and how it came back again. One paragraph of his struck me: “My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another.”

It’s a popular line of thought, but so far as I can tell, not well founded. If you think Patton was right, you think that the statements:
1. There is no God.
2. People are of greater moral value than rocks.
are incompatible: if one is true, the other cannot be. But, on the face of it, I see no reason to think that. To make an argument, you’d need to introduce other, related, statements and back them up. (If you spend a lot of time debating this sort of stuff, you’ll noticed I’ve taken a leaf from William Lane Craig’s book. My response is pretty similar to his response to the logical Argument from Evil, where he points out that his opponents have just made statements without showing how the statements are logically related).

I mentioned this in the comments on Patton’s post, and have been discussing it with The 27th Comrade. Comrade makes the weaker claim that “If God doesn’t exist, it is not necessarily true that people are not rocks”. He then goes on to claim that a person’s value can only depend on a transcendent, immutable opinion; and that without God, there can be no objective moral values.

But I see no reason why, if there are moral facts independent of human opinions, they would be defined by the opinions of a (non-human) person. I also don’t see how this makes values objective, since that word usually means “independent of anyone’s opinion”.

On the horns of a dilemma

At this point, I mentioned the Euthyphro dilemma (which I apparently introduced to William: I’m glad someone’s learning something from my ramblings). If God sets what is moral by his opinions, they seem arbitrary: God could have made anything moral by fiat. If God’s moral opinions reflect some other independent facts (as my opinion that “the sky is blue” does, say), while God may well know the facts better than we do, the facts would still be facts if he did not exist.

If you’ve had some evangelism training, you’ll know there’s a popular response to the dilemma, which is to say that goodness is part of God’s essential nature: not external to him, but not something he chooses. Craig adds that we understand what words like “good” mean without reference to God; it is informative, rather than tautologous, to learn that “God is essentially good”. But it seems then that any being which had the morally good properties God is claimed to have would be good, whether or not that being existed. As John D says, “All that Craig is doing is ascribing certain moral properties to God, but it is these moral properties that provide the foundation for morality, not God. He is talking about necessary moral truths, not necessary theistic truths. In other words, morality is still not ‘up to God’, it merely inheres in him.”

Comrade seems to have got diverted by my examples of horrifying things God could have made good by fiat. I was unclear here, and unfortunately I chose as examples some of the horrifying things the Christian God actually does in the Bible, which Comrade then felt compelled to defend (I often run into this problem with theists: with hindsight, I should have avoided the sensitive subject of racism when talking to robhu about complementarianism, but I had trouble thinking of an example of discrimination which evangelicals don’t already think is a good thing). But that wasn’t my point, which was rather that, if morality is based solely on God’s opinion, there’s no reason to suppose that God’s opinion is anything like what we mean by “good” (notice that Craig is cannier here).

Comrade asserts that (edited: if there is no God) we have no basis to judge anything that has evolved as wrong, referring to Orgel’s Second Rule: “evolution is cleverer than you are”. But again, I see no more reason to identify “what has evolved” with “good” than I do to identify “God’s opinion” with “good”. Evolution may be clever, but clever isn’t the same as good.

The psychology of moral arguments

What I take from this is that some people want different things from moral values than I do. Some people just intuitively feel that if there isn’t a God, they can’t get those things. What they seem to want is:

  • Moral values must be “objective”: this means they cannot be pure opinion, unless it’s the opinion of someone they can always trust and who has much higher status than them.
  • Moral values must be unchanging.
  • Moral values must be “grounded”: this word is often used. It’s not clear what it means for morality to be grounded, but it gives us a strong visual image of grounded objects (at least, I assume you’re also seeing a tree with an extensive root system underground), so suppose it does well as an intuition pump. God is supposed to be pretty solid, in non-physical sort of way: I hear he’s a bit like a rock.
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Brown, Bishops, Bigots, Justice, Laws

After the last case of nature imitating art, Gordon Brown’s gaffe reminded me of that moment on Yes, Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey learns an important lesson: the microphone is always live, just as the gun is always loaded.

I don’t know whether Mrs Duffy is a bigot. As Bernard Woolley might say, that’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I engage in open discussion on immigration; you are a bigot; he’s being charged under Section 19 of the Public Order Act. Andrew Rilstone says she’s read too much of the Nasty Press, and that Brown is himself too used to pandering to them, in public at least, both sentiments which seem fair enough, to me.

Justice and Laws

There’s a lot of blogging going on about the failure of yet another legal case where a Christian claimed they’d been discriminated against when they were sacked for discriminating against gays. Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, was sacked by Relate for refusing to give therapy to homosexual couples. Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, intervened in the case. He submitted a witness statement in which he called for special, religiously sensitive, courts to hear cases like McFarlane’s; said that Christians were being equated with bigots (that word again); and warned of “civil unrest” if things carried on (for an example of civil unrest organised by the Church of England, see Eddie Izzard’s Cake or death sketch).

It’s worth reading the full text of the judgement by the excellently named Lord Justice Laws. After giving his legal opinion, the judge addresses Lord Carey’s statement. He rejects Carey’s claim that the law says Christians are bigots, distinguishing discriminatory outcomes from malevolent intentions. He goes on:

The general law may of course protect a particular social or moral position which is espoused by Christianity, not because of its religious imprimatur, but on the footing that in reason its merits commend themselves. So it is with core provisions of the criminal law: the prohibition of violence and dishonesty. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of lawmakers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy. And the liturgy and practice of the established Church are to some extent prescribed by law. But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

This debate is usually framed as Christians vs atheists and secularists. Indeed, Carey is still fulminating, fellow bishop Cranmer rumbles about establishment, and the Christian Legal Centre appears to think it’s a good idea for the courts to take a position on the veracity of the Bible (let me know how that one works out for you, guys). But not all Christians are with Carey and the CLC: some Christians call out Carey for bringing Christianity into disrepute, and some recognise that claiming persecution has become a cottage industry for Christians in the UK. See also How to spot a fundamentalist Christian lobby group in your news, where you’re encouraged to spot a pattern developing.

The Evangelical Alliance would like these cases to stay out of the courts. A common response to this sort of case is to ask whether some accommodation could be made to the discriminatory Christians: perhaps those who objected to dealing with gay couples could be excused such duties? That seems reasonable to an extent, but Lord Justice Laws makes it clear that there is no legal obligation on employers here. It would be churlish to object to employers freely choosing to make such arrangements, so long as they do not inconvenience co-workers who do not discriminate in this way, but it seems hard to argue that employers have a moral obligation to do so, either: co-workers would probably feel a bit like the elder brother in Prodigal Son parable, and might ask why should someone behaving badly get equal pay and more flexibility about their work then someone willing to do the entire job. More generally, if society has decided that such discrimination is wrong, why should those doing wrong get special treatment? What do you think, readers?

Edited to add: some more discussion of the McFarlane case is happening over on andrewducker‘s post about it.

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Is the Creator good?

… since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. — St Paul, Epistle to the Romans

Suppose the existence and fine-tuning of the universe are best explained by a creator. Well, OK, but what sort of creator? Looking for the best explanation for things is clearly a reliable way to proceed: once we’ve settled the question of design by this method, we had better follow where it leads.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself, as we have already taught you, nor by the devil, a statement one cannot possibly make, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate. — Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora

What goes for the Law goes for the world too: it’s a mixed up sort of place, containing both good things and bad things. While other explanations are possible (just as, say, it is possible, though of course unlikely, that the universe somehow arose without a creator), Ptolemy‘s explanation seems the best one: the creator is not perfect. Not evil either, though, just… middle of the road. Doing the best they can, perhaps.

Is it impossible for someone to create universes if they aren’t perfectly good? Could even a very technically skilled person be a bit of a dick? It seems odd, then, to suppose that the creator has the traditional attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness, and so on.

… as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject. I am Sceptic enough to allow, that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes. — Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

There’s an argument, which you may occasionally hear made by William Lane Craig, that we’re not a position to know that the creator doesn’t have sufficiently good reasons for allowing bad stuff to happen: he (according to Craig, the creator is a “he”) is said to move in mysterious ways, after all. Unfortunately, as John D relates, this makes it hard to see why we should intervene if we see someone suffering: who are we to say what good may come of it? Moreover, if our understanding of bad and good outcomes is so suspect, how are we then in a position to know that the creator is good?

He may be fully convinced of the narrow limits of his understanding; but this will not help him in forming an inference concerning the goodness of superior powers, since he must form that inference from what he knows, not from what he is ignorant of. The more you exaggerate his weakness and ignorance, the more diffident you render him, and give him the greater suspicion that such subjects are beyond the reach of his faculties. — Dialogues, again

Perhaps someone could appeal to a sacred book to show that the creator is good. Still, these things seem open to interpretation: we’d best leave Craig and Ptolemy to argue about the details of their shared scriptures. In any case, we’d need convincing that the book was a reliable source on the subject.

Perhaps, in the absence of external evidence, someone could come to a strong inner conviction that the creator is perfectly good. But it seems this sort of confidence can cut both ways. As Chris Hallquist writes, “If there is any actual case where we are confident that divine inaction is incompatible with perfection, then we must conclude that God does not exist.” (It seems that “God does not exist” might be a little hasty here, but we’d best leave Hallquist to argue with Ptolemy on that score).

Given all this, it seems odd to me that so many people confidently assert that the creator is good. We rightly prefer to believe that our instruments are broken than that we have disproved the Law of Gravitation, but it’s interesting to test our limits: if you are such a person, is there any such case you can imagine which would convince you to change your position? If not, why do you trouble yourself with evidence about the creator’s moral character either way? It would seem better to just accept that some people have one conviction about the creator, and some another. On the other hand, if we do look to the evidence, it seems that what we observe is best explained by a creator who is imperfect, and possibly indifferent.

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Georges Rey: Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception

Georges Rey‘s Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception ties together a lot of things I’ve been thinking about on this blog. Rey writes that:

I find myself taking seriously the following hypothesis, which (for lack of a better name) I call meta-atheism: Despite appearances, many Western adults who’ve been exposed to standard science and sincerely claim to believe in God are self-deceived; at some level they believe the claim is false.

How wude

This looks like an atheist version of a Christian argument (which originated with St Paul): the Christian claims it’s obvious that God exists, deep down everyone knows it, and if you claim not to, you’re deceiving yourself because you don’t want to admit to your own sinfulness and God’s moral authority. If you sign up to a scheme like this, and you view your opponent’s arguments as mere evidence of their self-deception, you’re engaging in logical rudeness.

That said, there are some differences between Rey’s version and the Christian one, which boil down the way Rey is less insufferable about it all (Rey says that meta-atheism doesn’t entail atheism, he does engage with Christian apologists in his paper, he admits he might be wrong, he doesn’t think believers are evil or stupid, and so on). So, assuming we’re mollified a bit by some counterbalancing logical politeness, what’s the argument for meta-atheism? Rey has 11 points which he thinks count as evidence. A couple seemed particularly relevant to my interests, so I’ll concentrate on those.

That’s just too silly

One was what Rey calls “detail resistance”: the way believers find it odd or even silly to investigate the mechanics of God’s supposed actions. As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the final straws for me, before I stopped going to church, was an argument I was involved in on uk.religion.christian, on the details of how God acts today (yet another rehearsal of the argument that caused me to write this essay, as it happened). During the argument, I realised that I somehow found the discussion itself silly. I started to wonder what was going on in my head, and things unravelled from there.

Likewise, Christians who think God caused the Big Bang would find it silly to look for details of God’s involvement in black holes. This feeling of silliness is a clue: Rey observes that “this resistance to detail is strikingly similar to the same resistance one encounters in dealing with fiction. It seems as silly to ask the kind of detailed questions about God as it does for someone to ask for details about fictional characters, e.g.: What did Hamlet have for breakfast?”

Invisible dragons

Rey also mentions “betrayal by reactions and behaviour”. Christians would respond that of course, they’re not perfect, but what Rey has in mind is not moral failings. Rather, it’s the sort of thing Hume refers to: though people make protestations of faith, “nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience”.

We’ve been here before: Rey is thinking about how someone who anticipated-as-if a religion was true would behave, and comparing that with how most believers actually behave. Previously, we’ve mentioned that it’s odd that believers already know the ways in which tests for God will fail: if you’re a Christian, you’ve got an idea of which prayers are realistic, a strange proposition, when you think about it. And if you’re an atheist and feel like stumping a Christian, ask them what sin is committed by parents who pray for healing rather than taking their dying kid to a doctor.

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Bad arguments about religion: part 3: Science cannot prove your wife loves you, Francis Collins, etc

This round of bad arguments is about science. Before I start, I’ll acknowledge my debt to Jeffrey L. Kasser’s lectures, though, of course, any mistakes in applying them to the question of science and religion are my own.

Most people recognise science’s effectiveness at modelling the world, and theists are no exception. Some theists disagree with well established conclusions of science (for example, evolution). Some theists go along with the folk in liberal arts faculties who, in Kasser’s phrase, think science is a particularly dull literary genre. I’m not going to talk about either of these sorts of people. This post is about theists who claim their religion is compatible with, but has gone “beyond”, science. Their claims usually rely on making true, but uninteresting, arguments, in the hope that the hearer slides to a stronger conclusion than the arguments warrant.

Science has not explained X, therefore God did it

This is the God of the gaps argument. Right now, popular choices for X are abiogenesis, consciousness, and altruism. To take that last example, Francis Collins argues that the theory of evolution has no explanation for pure altruism, and, following C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Morality in Mere Christianity, claims that the Christian God must be responsible. As the former director of the Human Genome Project, Collins’s opinions carry weight, but, poking around with Google Scholar, I found no evidence that he has contributed his criticisms to the peer reviewed literature on the evolution of altruism. Even if he had written a good paper on that subject, more is needed before we accept that the best alternative explanation is a particular god. As Gert Korthof’s review of Collins’s book puts it “Collins fails to demonstrate a. the failure of Darwinism to explain the Moral Law (true altruism) b. the divine origin of the Moral Law c. b follows from a.”

Science cannot investigate/explain/prove everything

There’s a bad argument from atheists which leads to confusion here. Some atheists seem to use “science” to mean “anything for which there’s good evidence”, but the theists, quite sensibly, use it to mean “that stuff scientists do”. If the theist faces an atheist who says “your religion is invalid because it cannot be established by science”, it’s legitimate for the theist to dispute that statement by talking about other, non-scientific, forms of evidence which most people accept.

There are some things we do not use science to investigate, because they seem a poor fit for scientific investigation. To use one of Kasser’s examples, we wouldn’t get into a scientific investigation of the “universal law” that “all the beer in my fridge is American”, even if that is a statement which has the form of a scientific law (“all copper conducts electricity”). I prefer to distinguish scientific evidence from other rational evidence (though I think these forms of evidence have something in common which is not shared by religious “ways of knowing”): Eliezer Yudkowsky’s article on the subject describes what I mean.

So, the theists are at least partially right, but notice that none of this says much to convince us that there’s a God. When they try to do that, theists typically say that science or other rational evidence will get you some way towards theism (though, I’d say, not all that far), but then add that some “other way of knowing” or “faith” is required in addition. But if the theist claims they have another “way of knowing”, they must demonstrate its reliability, rather than merely knocking existing ways of knowing.

Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?

A specific case of the “science cannot explain everything” argument, this particular example gets its own section because it’s regularly trotted out by people who ought to know better (for example, John Lennox in his debate with Richard Dawkins). Again, this is one is true, but uninteresting. It’s not the job of science to prove my wife loves me, just as it’s not the job of science to explore my fridge looking for American beer. Nevertheless, assuming I’m not actually a stalker, I have sufficient rational evidence that my wife loves me, and I don’t have to invoke any special ways of knowing to get it.

Next time

Next time, we’ll look at claims that science arose from theism, and talk about reductionism and butter.

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Bishops gone wild: special Equality Bill edition PLUS “Why men don’t go to church”

As a toxic neo-atheist fundamentalist neo-rationalist sceptic, it was difficult to know what to hope for in all the kerfuffle about the Equality Bill: is it better that the government narrows the scope for discrimination against homosexuals by religious organisations, or better that the church publicly admits it’s so important for it to discriminate that it’ll use the votes of the bishops in the House of Lords to accomplish it? Which will bring in the Kingdom of Dawkins sooner? It’s so hard to tell.

The only winning move is not to play

The story so far: the Government wanted to specify the scope of the religious exemption from the Bill’s provisions, after the European Commission said the existing exemptions were too broad and might result in legal action from the EU. The Government told the churches that their somewhat cosy position would not change and that the new wording was merely clarifying it, but the churches weren’t taken in: there were petitions organised by charming characters, everyone got terribly excited, and there was an amendment proposed in the House of Lords to strike out the more specific language. As Andrew Brown’s blog posting has it “Eight serving bishops and Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, voted for the decisive amendment which was carried by five votes”. Eight bishops and five votes, you say?

Brown says this may be a pyrrhic victory for the church, as its actions have shown it’s out of touch with Radio 4 listeners and other worthy types. If you were Rowan Williams (you remember, Rowan Williams), you’d probably be wondering how long the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism will be able to hold out against the floccinaucinihilipilification of the Christian heritage of this country.

Decorate the church with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches

It’s not just Radio 4 listeners the church has to worry about. Over at the Times, Ruth Gledhill wonders why men don’t go to church. She quotes from this painfully awful advice from a Christian charity on how to make the church attractive to men: “Men appreciate ‘professionalism’… things done well. For instance, if you use a drama make sure it is good, otherwise men will find it embarrassing” (women are, of course, undiscriminating); “does the church always need to be decorated with flowers? … How would it go down to decorate with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches?” How would it go down, readers?

Gledhill has a serious point, which is that the church is undergoing the evaporative cooling of group beliefs: society is getting more socially liberal, and those left in the church less so, because those who do have liberal beliefs cannot stand to stay in the church. Though Gledhill has some anecdotes about thriving liberal churches, she doesn’t back this up with data.

Luckily, someone else has gathered a whole load of data. According to the Guardian, the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey by the National Centre for Social Research showed that “36% of people thought sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were ‘always or mostly’ wrong, down from 62% in 1983” (detailed numbers are here, if anyone wants to play with them). Gledhill links to the chapter on religion from the survey, which makes interesting reading: between 1983 and 2008, the percentage of the sample describing themselves some sort of Christian fell from 66% to 50%. “No religion” rose from 31% to 43%. The percentage describing themselves as “Church of England” fell from 40% to 23%. In 2008, 62% said they never attended religious services.

We’ll nae be fooled again

As Brown says, there’s a tension between the government’s role in promoting libertarian freedom and promoting social goods. There is an argument for freedom of association, but the question is where to draw the line. My preference would be to allow the exceptions the church wants, on the condition that organisations making use of them will not receive public money or tax exemptions (such as charitable status). The church is dwindling, and out of step with society: the rest of us should not have to pay for it.

Anyone for another petition?

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Bad arguments about religion: part 2: homosexuality and mixed fibres: the Bartlet gambit

To give the impression that I’m fair and balanced, this time round I’m looking at a bad argument which is usually used by atheists.

There’s a scene The West Wing where President Bartlet tears a strip off an evangelical Christian talk radio host. In the scene (you can see it on YouTube, or read a transcript), the evangelical tells Bartlett that the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. Bartlet then launches into a series of rhetorical questions, asking how he should carry out other Old Testament rules which we’d now find ridiculous, if not downright evil: “My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?”

Let’s call this the Barlet gambit: the President’s argument seems to be that it’s inconsistent for evangelicals to say “homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so”, because they’re not also keeping these other rules which are also found in the Bible. The gambit is a favourite with people who argue with evangelicals about homosexuality: sometimes they even quote Bartlet.

Unfortunately, the Bartlet gambit fails as an argument.

What’s wrong with it

Evangelical Christians have reasons why they’re not keeping the Old Testament laws despite regarding the Old Testament as scripture. The question comes up in the New Testament itself, once we reach the Acts of the Apostles, where we read of the first non-Jews converting to Christianity (up to that point in the story, what will later become Christianity is still a movement within Judaism, although a few Gentiles are impressed with Jesus in the gospels). The Council of Jerusalem ruled that Gentile Christians are allowed to eat shrimp and wear mixed fibres and, luckily for penis owners, don’t have to be circumcised.

So, according to Acts (which, like the rest of the Bible, is inerrant, remember), Christians sorted this stuff out in the first century AD. They aren’t going to worry about atheists calling them hypocrites for wearing cotton/polyester blend while “hating the sin and loving the sinner”.

Perhaps Barlet is specifically objecting to the evangelical’s use of Leviticus, which does put homosexuality on a par with things which aren’t kosher, rather than with things which are morally evil. Alas, even without Leviticus, there are other Bible passages which can be pressed into service against the gay, and you can rely on evangelicals to know most of them, because the issue has become a defining feature of evangelicalism. We could argue that these passages don’t apply to modern committed homosexual partnerships, but evangelicals don’t find these arguments impressive.

What to do instead

In the UK, many rank-and-file evangelicals are educated professionals. They didn’t get into religion to give gays a hard time, and, unless they’ve completely disappeared up their own sub-culture, they tend to be a bit embarrassed by the anti-gay stuff. Still, because it’s “what the Bible says”, they feel they’re obliged to go along with it anyway, even if the Guardian wouldn’t approve (the evangelical jargon phrase for that sort of thing is that it’s a “hard teaching” where you’ll just have to “trust God”).

If I were a gifted orator like Barlet, I think I’d appeal to their sense of justice. Is there perhaps something odd about the way churches accept straight couples who are openly in their second or later marriage (something about which Jesus had some strong words to say), but wouldn’t be happy with an openly gay couple? Some hypocrisy there, maybe?

Or we might try empathy. There’s the problem that, as Valerie Tarico says, evangelicalism “can re-direct our mother-bear instincts away from protecting vulnerable individuals and toward protecting the ideology itself. Believers may come to feel more protective of their religion than they are of actual human beings.” Still, it might be worth a go: is it fair to say that gay people cannot form committed romantic relationships? Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you obey the evangelical rules, it seems rather a lonely place.

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Bad arguments about religion: part 1: worldviews

There’s an awful lot of nonsense talked about religion and atheism, from both sides of the fence. Today, I’m looking at a specific set of theist (usually Christian) arguments, namely, those related to “worldviews“. Fear not, though, theism fans: this is the start of a series on bad arguments, and the atheists have it coming too…

Note: the section titles here are links which should take you straight back to the section. So if you find someone playing “Spot the Worldview” online, you can link them straight to this page to show them the error of their ways.

Slightly less difficult

As I’ve mentioned before, talk of worldviews became fashionable among evangelicals when I was an undergraduate. Back then, one of the big evangelistic events the Christian Union organised was called Paradigm Shift, a term borrowed from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As part of our evangelism training, we read Nick Pollard’s book, Evangelism made slightly less difficult, which was about helping people to see the flaws in worldviews other than Christianity (Pollard writes about this approach here).

There were some good things about this approach. Engaging with the arguments of people who disagree with you is better than writing those arguments off as a smokescreen put up by evasive sinners. It’s more realistic than the major alternative approach, which was (and still is) treating Two Ways to Live as inherently magical, so that the most important thing was to “proclaim” it to non-Christians as often as possible. Still, worldview talk can go wrong. Here are some ways I’ve seen that happen:

Worldview X is false, therefore my preferred rival, Y, is true

This is an example of the false dilemma fallacy. As gareth_rees says, theists may assume (but not show) that the worldview they’re proposing does better than a major rival, and spend all their time attacking the rival. In creationists’ attempts to disprove evolution, there’s an implicit assumption that if evolution fails, the Christian God is the next preferred explanation. Similarly, much apologetical effort is directed against materialism or physicalism, when it is perfectly possible to be an atheist and believe in ghosts, say. Matt McCormick’s useful article, Know Your Godless Heathen Positions, makes clear the distinctions between a number of possible positions (atheism, materialism, naturalism, and so on).

This is not a fallacy if an atheist is, say, a committed materialist who won’t accept religion for that reason. In that case, a theist would need to clear the ground by arguing against materialism. The fallacy occurs when, having cleared the ground, the theist fails to build their own argument.

Spot the Worldview

We all have views about how the world is, but many theists assume that all atheists bought a well-known brand that’s available in bulk (as Christianity itself is, albeit in a variety of sizes, colours and flavours). A while back, on this thread, many theists seemed to assume that all atheists would be strict materialists. That’s not how I’d describe myself: I’d say I’m a provisional materialist, at best.

Sometimes, theists assume they can argue against these atheist brands merely by mentioning their names and saying that everybody knows brand X is inferior. For example, you might be in the middle of talking about Dawkins’s books when a theist tells you that “Richard Dawkins is a logical positivist, and positivism has been debunked”. This doesn’t work on it’s own: first they have to show that Dawkins is a logical positivist (he’s not, he’s a scientific realist), then they have to give some argument against positivism, and lastly show it’s relevant to an argument about whether his books are any good.

Everything is a faith position, atheism is a religion

Evangelical Christians like to argue (wrongly) that “everyone worships something”. This translates into worldview talk as statements like “everything is a faith position: I have faith in God, you have faith in human reason/science/the Conservative Party”. You might hear the theist make a statement like “atheism is a religion”. What could they mean by this?

They might mean that everyone has to start by assuming some stuff (that they’re not in the Matrix, say, or that scientists aren’t just making their results up), assuming stuff you can’t show is “faith”, therefore everyone has “faith”, and therefore Christian faith is as justified as any other. This goes wrong in a couple of ways: firstly, it assumes that all such assumptions are equally reasonable. They aren’t: for example, they can be differentiated by how easily we could tell if they were wrong. Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Secondly, this use of “faith” isn’t how many Christians like to use the word. According to Christians, faith means putting your trust in a person. Christianity transplants notions of loyalty to friends onto loyalty to worldviews. With the exception of those of us who worship at the Church of Dawkins, atheism isn’t about loyalty to or trust in a person, nor is steadfastness in a particular atheist view seen as a virtue (quite the reverse, as far as I’m concerned).

They might mean that there are atheists who, for example, organise into groups to further their aims, or raise funds for the cause. As Poke argues, even atheists may feel they should not organise into groups because “that’s what religion does”. The atheists should recognise that doing the opposite of what mistaken people do doesn’t make you correct. The theists should recognise that forming into groups and raising money is not what makes something a religion.

Finally, they might mean that atheists imitate the worst features of religion. This could be true: both religious and non-religious groups may fall into uncritical supercriticality, the idea that it’s wrong to criticise any argument that supports your position. It would be right for a theist to criticise an atheist group which fell into this trap, but not all of them do so.

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