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This posting is about terminal illness and assisted suicide and the recent lecture by Terry Pratchett on the same.

Terry Pratchett (assisted by Tony Robinson) recently gave a lecture entitled Shaking Hands with Death. It’s on BBC iPlayer (possibly only viewable in the UK), on Youtube, and you can read the Guardian‘s edited transcript. It is funny and moving. I recommend it.

Pratchett has posterior cortial atrophy, a variant of Alzheimer’s disease which currently effects his vision and motor skills while leaving his memory intact. Eventually, though, Alzheimer’s will deal with him as it does with everyone else who has it.

The burden of the lecture is that Pratchett wants to be able to chose the time and manner of his death, and wants anyone who helps him to do so to avoid prosecution. He says:

I would live my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the “Brompton cocktail” some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.

Currently, the helpful medic (or any other helper) would probably be breaking the law. What Pratchett suggests is that there should be a tribunal which would pre-emptively exonerate such helpers:

The members of the tribunal would be acting for the good of society as well as that of the applicant – horrible word – to ensure they are of sound and informed mind, firm in their purpose, suffering from a life-threatening and incurable disease and not under the influence of a third party.

The sound mind and firm purpose are important to Pratchett, who prefers the term “assisted death” to “assisted suicide”. He tells his listeners how he wrote about suicides as a young reporter. The phrase the coroner always used was that a person had “taken his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed”. What he wants is for a quick death to be available to those whose balance is level.

It’s hard to see how one could deny someone like Pratchett the opportunity to die in the comfort of their home. There would have to be precautions, limits which would put some helpers we might think were morally justified on the wrong side of any new law. I think limiting euthanasia to people with a terminal illness who are able to express their desire for it is one of those precautions: there would still be hard, tragic cases where we’d might wish the law were laxer, but the government must also protect the vulnerable from pressure to die.

Pratchett has his opposition: Archbishop John Sentamu says we must not listen to opinion polls or dying celebrities (though, we must, of course, listen to bishops). We should, says Sentamu, listen to disabled people. clairlewis, a disability rights activist, gives her opinion over at Heresiarch’s blog. Unfortunately, her arguments seem completely unrelated to Pratchett’s request.

The comment from someone called “KeepOut OfMyLife” puts it best, I think. Being poor and disabled is hard, and someone who is struggling to cope may consider suicide. Their desire to die could be alleviated if their standard of care were better. It would be negligent to hand these people the means to die without improving their care, just as it would be negligent to hand a gun to someone who was deeply depressed. But this isn’t the case that Pratchett wants the government to deal with. In fact, a government could (though, given the budget deficit, will not) improve care for people with disabilities and allow people with terminal illness to get help in dying when they chose.

clairlewis‘s argument appears to be that terminally ill people should not have what they want until disabled people get what they need. While I can understand her frustration that disabled people are ignored while Pratchett is able to use his clout to get a hearing, preventing Pratchett and others like him from having the death they want will not help anyone else.

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?

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.

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.

This blog is now syndicated over at Planet Atheism, the aggregator for all your online atheism needs.

If you’re reading this there, hello and welcome. I’m a former evangelical Christian who’s now an atheist. You can read the story of how I de-converted, and listen to me talking about it on Premier Christian Radio. There’s more about me and this blog on my profile page.

If you’re new here, you might want to start by reading the stuff in the “best of” category. Have fun!

As 2009 is nearly over, here’s a selection of what I think are my best posts this year:

See you in 2010.










At this time of year, my thoughts are inevitably drawn towards the time when He will return. Here’s a video which I hope will explain what I mean, which you should all take a moment to view. If you have any questions, this leaflet should help to answer them, or you could see my previous posting on the subject.

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Edited to add: if you enjoyed that, you’ll probably enjoy the rest: we were listening to them while putting the tree up.

The BBC reports that Olive Jones, a school teacher who’s also a Christian, was suspended for offering to pray for a sick pupil. This case looks similar to that of Caroline Petrie, a nurse who was also suspended (though later reinstated) after she offered to pray for a patient.

The Daily Mail has a longer interview with Mrs Jones than the BBC. I take articles in the Heil with a pinch of salt, but I assume they wouldn’t directly misquote her, as they’re on her side. Some salient points from their story: Jones is a supply teacher who visits the homes of kids who are too ill to come to school. After a previous incident, she’d been warned before that it wasn’t appropriate to pray with her pupils. The parent who complained had previously complained after Jones gave a testimony (evangelical jargon, usually referring to a story about how someone became a Christian, told for the purpose of evangelism, though in this case it was about how God saved her from being crushed by a tractor) in front of the parent, but the complaint hadn’t reached the right people, so when she did so again in front of the parent and child and also offered to pray, the parent complained to the school. Mrs Jones is now suspended pending an investigation. It’s not clear whether the decision to investigate happened after the press got involved: it looks like Jones is a contractor who can be fired without notice, not a full time employee of the school.

Inevitably, the Heil‘s commenters, and those at Cranmer’s blog, blame Muslims, political correctness, New Labour etc. etc. I suspect that if the story had been about a Muslim or Pagan doing what Mrs Jones did, the Mail‘s take on it would have been rather different (though I hope that the school’s response would not have been).

Jones’s actions as described by the Heil seemed to me to be deserving of disciplinary action from her employers. The same would apply if a Muslim or a Pagan had done the same, or if a strident neo-sceptical toxic rationalist neo-atheist had told the kid there’s no God and no miracles. Teachers aren’t paid to give unprompted religious “testimonies”, and shouldn’t assume that they’re welcome (especially in someone’s home). If the parent or the kid had asked about Jones’s religious beliefs, it’d be different, but there’s no evidence that this happened. It’s beholden on the school to ensure they comply with employment law, and firing for the first offence seems too harsh, but if someone’s on an at-will contract and has been warned once before, I can perfectly understand the decision to fire them.

I don’t think this is a free speech issue: Jones is free to pray on her own time (which will surely be as effective as praying with the family), and indeed, she was free to do what the Heil said she did and accept the consequences.

Tom Harris, MP and Ian Dale have further thoughts on the matter.

Edited to add: Tabloid Watch has the story from the parents who complained. Their daughter is 14 and has leukaemia, and they’d endured Jones’s evangelism for a while before complaining.

A couple of the blogs I read recently had discussions on the resurrection of Jesus: Common Sense Atheism and Parchment and Pen.

The wrong kind of God

In the comment thread over at Comment Sense Atheism, I wondered about the role of natural theology (that is, stuff like the Kalam Cosmological Argument) in preparing the ground for belief in the resurrection. When William Lane Craig debated against Bart Ehrman, Craig said “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” According to Ayer (that is, the commenter over at Common Sense Atheism, not the logical positivist), “Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.”

There’s an unwarranted assumption here. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the Kalam argument is valid. This gets us as far as deism. To get to Christianity, we need the resurrection, as Ayer says. But if God didn’t do it, the resurrection is fantastically improbable, which I think means the New Testament evidence alone shouldn’t convince us unless we assume that God is the sort of god who might raise Jesus from the dead. But why should we assume that? Remember, we need that assumption to bolster the NT evidence sufficiently for us to believe it, but the only available “evidence” that God is that sort of god is the resurrection itself, the very thing we’re seeking to prove. I’ve not seen an argument from Craig (or any other apologist) which avoids this apparent circularity.

Simple explanations

So we’re stuck with being deists, which is a bit boring: as far as I know, they don’t have any choons. Perhaps we might instead argue that the New Testament evidence is sufficient on its own: it shows Jesus rose, and hence (if we’re feeling charitable about it) that there’s a god of the right sort, Christianity is true, greatest hits of Charles Wesley here we come.

This was what the Parchment and Pen posting was about. C Michael Patton argues that alternative explanations are less simple than just accepting that Jesus rose from the dead. There was a thread on the local newsgroup, cam.misc, where another Christian made the same argument.

I remembered that Heinlein once said the simplest explanation is always “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.” What’s wrong with that explanation? It hides complexity behind language, as Alex Selby explains. I ended up saying that the Christian account is “simpler” in some sense, but not in a sense that lends it credibility. In this sense, the “simplest” explanation for what you see in Derren Brown’s stage shows is that mind reading really works and he’s a master at it: all that other stuff he does to achieve the effects is extremely convoluted in comparison. Alex doesn’t think we should describe that sense as simple. I can see his point, and perhaps I should have said that the Christian account feels simpler, rather than that it is.

At this point, a popular apologetic move is to accuse your opponent of assuming naturalism, materialism, scientism and other bad -isms (remember: if you have no other arguments, you can always play Spot The Worldview). I’m not sure whether that’s a valid move. I think you’d need an argument that using this informational Occam’s Razor won’t do the job in the case of non-material stuff, which again, I haven’t seen anyone attempt.

Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel books are the only cyberpunk stories I know of set in and around Peterborough. As my memories of the place are of being dragged around the big shopping centres there as a kid, it’s hardly a name to conjure with: it’s like setting your story in Milton Keynes, or something (though Charles Stross did that successfully). After global warming, Peterborough has a Mediterranean climate (a little far-fetched, perhaps, but I can’t quite remember how much we knew about global warming in 1993, when the first book was published). At the edge of the flooded Fens, it’s thriving port, filled with refugees from the floods, smugglers and whatnot.

The trilogy follows Greg Mandel, a former officer in the English Army who fought in the Jihad Wars. Mandel was given psychic powers as part of an experimental unit, the Mindstar Brigade. He can sense strong emotions, and gets flashes of intuition. Now a civilian, he makes a living as a private detective. As the trilogy begins, England has just revolted against the People’s Socialist Party, who took power in the chaos after the Warming. When the PSP largely disbanded the army, Mandel spent some time as an urban guerilla on the council estates of Peterborough, fighting with the PSP’s supporters. As we first meet him, he’s on his way to assassinate a former member of the hated People’s Constables, who used to beat people well with their magic wellness sticks. He’s soon tangled up in solving problems for Event Horizon, an emerging English mega-corporation. Event Horizon aren’t a stereotypical evil corporation: they’re the good guys, a sort of mega family firm. Julia Evans, the boss, is another recurring character in the books, though, reassuringly, she’s not Mandel’s love interest.

Reading the books after The Magicians, I found Hamilton’s style tight and easy to read rather than sparkling or poetic. Sometimes we get a cyberpunk version of Hello magazine: he’s got an irritating habit of carefully describing what people are wearing when he introduces them and detailing the makes and models of cars, weapons and so on; and almost everyone is beautiful. That said, the plot rattles along satisfyingly, with some gripping set-pieces. Of course, there are big corporations who duel via their hired mercenaries, spies and hackers, but these standard cyperpunk elements are combined with mysteries for Mandel to solve, mixing the SF stuff with detective fiction.

Hamilton went on to write several door-stops in the Night’s Dawn trilogy (the dead come back… in space, with Al Capone as the principal villain: strangely not as bad as it sounds, although the ending was a let down) and the Commonwealth Saga (which contains the neat idea of running railway lines through stable wormholes). I like the Greg Mandel books for their comparative brevity, pace, and their English take on cyberpunk.