February 2009

Wandering around the web recently, I found Prisoner of Narnia, an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker from 2005. It’s about the life of C.S. Lewis, and the enduring attraction of the Narnia books.

The link to the article came from Daylight Atheism, where they liked this bit:

A startling thing in Lewis’s letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes — the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.

It’s that belief in belief thing again. This has also come up in my sporadic discussion with apdraper2000, where he’s asking why I spend so much time blogging about theism. If you want to know what my motivation is, you can read the thread.

Of course, any Christian worth their salt would be able to you that the reason it’s so hard to keep believing in the existence of God as compared to say, believing in the existence of atoms, is because the world is currently a hostile place, where the believer is a footsoldier in a cosmic battle, facing the flaming arrows of Original Sin, Satan, Dust, the BBC’s blatant bias, the Patriarchy, the Illuminati, New Labour, Zionists, and Communists. Let us waste no more time on the naive idea that if you keep having to shore up your belief in something, it just might be because you’re wrong.

Rather, it’s the article’s insight into Lewis’s psyche which is interesting. Gopnik portrays Lewis as a mystic who saw Christianity as a way to keep the magic, the joy of life, real. I was reminded of Jesus in John’s gospel, promising life in all its fullness.

Cardinal Manning agonized over eating too much cake, and was eventually drawn to the Church of Rome to keep himself from doing it again. Lewis didn’t embrace Christianity because he had eaten too much cake; he embraced it because he thought that it would keep the cake coming, that the Anglican Church was God’s own bakery. “The story of Christ is simply a true myth,” he says he discovered that night, “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

It sounds like Lewis might have agreed with my contention that scriptural religion is lived fan-fiction, although, of course, he’d have said it was fan-truth.

Gopnik says that the believer and unbeliever can agree on the importance of imagination and stories as a way to reach the parts that both institutional Christianity and a narrow materialism do not reach. The final couple of paragraphs are particularly good, and we learn a lot about Lewis and Tolkien along they way. Definitely worth a read.

Edited: I changed “it just might be because it’s bollocks” to “it just might be because you’re wrong” after a Christian found the former form offensive. I’m recording that here so it doesn’t look like I’m hiding something.

I talk a lot about religion on here, but mostly about generic theism or Christianity. I don’t tend to talk about Islam, partly because I don’t know as much about it as I do about Christianity, and partly because I like my extremities the way they are.

Still, I was interested in the reaction to Johann Hari’s article in the Independent, Why should I respect these oppressive religions?. The Independent uses LiveJournal as a blogging platform, so you can comment there using your LJ account.

Hari says those who want to prevent criticism of religion (notably Islam) on the grounds of “respect” are gaining influence in politics, especially in the UN. He rightly says that this is a bad thing.

The article was published at the end of January, but the comment threads on it are still busy. simon_gardner has been working hard for the cause of secularist neo-atheist militant secularism (he doesn’t seem to get the point about induction, alas, but expat2009 doesn’t really explain it very well either).

The Statesman of India published Hari’s article and ended up with a small riot on their hands. The editor and publisher were arrested for “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims. As jwz once observed, the Universe tends to maximum irony.

Back here on LJ, the Muslim commentators on the Hari’s post seem very interested in whether people are allowed to deny the Holocaust (and also in something called “Zionists”: from what I can gather these are the equivalent of evil spirits in the Muslim belief system). I can’t think why that’d be, but I’ve been trying to pin some of them down on the matter.

I recall reading the description of CUWoCS in the Freshers’ Handbook a decade or so ago. Like many religions, they said, we believe that our god will return and condemn people to horrible torture; unlike other religions, however, we don’t claim that this somehow means our god is good.

I mention this partly because there’s a bit more discussion on C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller’s view on Hell in a thread on my last posting.

However, I mention Great Cthulhu because of a vision that has been given to, no, vouchsafed unto, me, of the time when the Stars are Right and He returns. You can see the full horror. This is a stark reminder of the choice we all face: who will be eaten first?

Thanks to scribb1e, the D&Ders, and the Cthulhu Crochet blog.

I’m talking about doubt in a few places at the moment. The feeds of my comments don’t cover stuff outside LJ (I was using CoComment, but decided that was too risky), so here’s where the action is:

Over at Hermant the Friendly Atheist‘s place, top Christian evangelist Lee Strobel turns the tables on us, and invites other Christian authors to ask atheists hard questions about atheism. You can see my responses over there. Greta Christina has some good thoughts on the questions.

The most interesting questions were Plantinga‘s stuff on whether having brains which evolved means we can’t trust them, and Mike Licona‘s question: what would make you doubt your atheism?

Lily the Peaceful Atheist (by the way, what’s with all these atheists being nice and fluffy? I want to be a fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militant like my hero, Richard Dawkins) talks about doubting atheism in a two part posting (part 1, part 2). She’s not impressed with Strobel and friends, but rather, talks about the “emotional doubts” of the ex-Christian: the fear of death, and the feelings evoked by Christian music. I understand those sorts of feelings, having had them myself. Still, I’m enough of a scientist (and enough of an evangelical) to want facts rather than emotion.

I said that I ought to be able to doubt atheism, and also other long held beliefs. The problem with saying “I want to doubt” is that it’s a noble statement, but if that’s all it is, it’s useless. As gjm11 says, half the problem is knowing what to doubt. With that in mind, I thought I’d ask you lot:

What should I doubt?

This doesn’t have to be religion/atheism, of course, although you’re welcome to suggest that if you like (<evil grin>).

Here’s a list of stuff I think about religion, philosophy, science and politics, so you can tell me where you think I could be wrong. Anonymous comments are allowed edited: but please sign yourself with some kind of nickname so I can tell you apart from other anonymous commenters.

<lj-cut text=”Stuff I think. Prepare to be alienated.”>Religion/philosophy: The sort of god that I used to believe in almost certainly doesn’t exist. Jesus probably existed, but God’s not saying much these days, so who cares? Non-evangelical sorts of god are too vague to bother with. Philosophically, I am a tentative materialist, and an interventionist moral relativist.

Science: global warming is real and caused by humans, but I don’t know what I personally should do about it. I don’t fly much because it’s dull and the security theatre is frustrating (“Time to spare, go by air” © my Dad), but I do drive to work. David Mackay’s book made me think we should build more nuclear power stations. Homeopathy works by the placebo effect. The MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Ben Goldacre is god.

Politically, I’m left wing in that I’m in favour of a social safety net, the NHS, and so on. That said, New Labour have become high-handed and irrational wrt ID cards and other civil liberties issues, and on that basis I won’t shed too many tears when they lose the next election. Capitalism seems to be the least bad way of organising stuff. The Communists and whatnot I see in blogland seem to relish the moment when they’ll take power and hang the oppressors: like Christians talking about hell, the fact that this will never happen doesn’t make it any more morally acceptable. I am not a cultural relativist in the usual sense of that phrase.

I think the US-influenced identity politics that seems so popular here on LiveJournal is often bulshytt, and more interested in piety than achieving its stated goals (see also). As a white, male etc. etc., getting into discussions about it is like stepping on the third rail: unless I’m talking to someone I already know to be rational, it’s not worth the trouble. That said, I think certain classes of people have systematic advantages over others, but sometimes the concept of privilege is misused in the same way that the opposition misuses evolutionary psychology. Men and women are different at the biological level and this influences brains, but popular reporting of this stuff never talks about standard deviations and whatnot.

So, fire away 🙂

One of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, Sam Harris, appears to have undergone some sort of conversion. This is serious stuff.

The people over at Edge have been talking about Jerry Coyne’s book reviews and thoughts on the incompatibility of science and religion (mentioned here previously). The authors of the books, Karl Giberson and Ken Miller, have both responded to the reviews.

Yet it is Harris, a former militant atheist himself, who responds most resoundingly to Coyne (and his supporter, Dennett), in a sweeping, magisterial essay whose sophistication, not to say length, rivals the work of William Lane Craig. I commend it to you.

<lj-cut text=”Just one more thing you should know before you comment”>This is a joke, people. Do read Harris’s essay, though, it’s laugh out loud funny in some places.