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April 03, 2008


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Innocent Abroad

Well, if the space is shrinking, I hadn't noticed. There are liberal religious traditions still, even if their organised membership is declining. And there is the more diffuse idea of spirituality - the view that man does not live by bread alone and that happiness comes from within - which many people, like you, practise in one form or another in their daily life.

Oh, and please be careful about promoting MacIntyre. Like a fundamebtalist jihadi, he believes that individuals exist to serve society, rather than the other way round.


"What worries me is that the space between scepticism about instrumental rationality on the one hand and an embrace of religious obscurantism on the other is shrinking." You what? Do you mean "I don't like seeing socialists parading around in support of mad mullahs"?


A thought-provoking post. Some of this I'll need to return to but my initial thought is that while I recognise some of what you're saying, you're wrong on a number of levels. For example, you say:

"The left’s attitude to religion is confused because, ever since at least William Blake, it has had a deeply ambiguous attitude towards scientific rationality."

The left doesn't *understand* religion very well but I don't think it's particularly confused about it. What you mean, surely, is that the left *disagrees* amongst itself about it? Take the people you mention. Hitchens isn't the least confused about religion. I think he's wrong about it in a couple of respects but he certainly isn't confused. He thinks it poisons *everything*. The Seamus Milne's of this world are somwhat more confused - but not that much and if they were more honest about what they actually thought, they'd look even less confused than they do just now. They think capitalism, regardless of how liberal, is the worst thing in the world - so they are prepared to support literally *any* movement that sets its face against it. If these people are confused about anything, it's capitalism - not religion. But even on this, I'm not sure they're that confused - they're just plain wrong.

"If science needs an institutional framework in order to direct the fallible human mind towards the proper growth of knowledge, mightn’t we also need such frameworks to help us with our moral and political reasoning? One such framework - as Augustine of Hippo stressed - might just be a belief in God and acquiescence to Church authority."

You're conflating two issue here: the need for an institutional structure and a belief in God. While the former might be necessary, surely we don't have to demonstrate that the Church is no longer capable of providing this function? My God, as imperfect as our reasoning and knowledge might be, it is now surely beyond our experience to assume that priests are better equipped to inform us as to the nature of the Good Life? I have to say the person that strikes me as being the most confused here is you - but this has nothing to do with religion and reason: what you're confused about is the balance society should strike between individualism and collectivism.


"Oh, and please be careful about promoting MacIntyre. Like a fundamentalist jihadi, he believes that individuals exist to serve society, rather than the other way round."

I'd like to second that. If you want to remain a liberal, he isn't going to be much good to you in your quest for answers to all this.

Bob B

S&M: "It cannot answer the question: 'what is a good life?' because, as Hume said, reason can only ever be the slave of the passions. Moral thinking, as Alasdair MacIntyre argued, requires a different conception of rationality."

But Hume nevertheless made sensible and robust proposals as to the sources of our moral sentiments and social values:

"All moral duties may be divided into two kinds. The first are those to which men are impelled by a natural instinct ... which operates on them, independent of all ideas of obligation, and of all views either to public or private utility. Of this nature are love of children, gratitude to benefactors, pity to the unfortunate. ... The second kind of moral duties are such as are not supported by any original instinct of man but are performed entirely from a sense of obligation, when we consider the necessities of human society, and the impossibility of supporting it, if these duties were neglected. .... We shall only observe, before we conclude, that though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard, by which any controversy can ever be decided."

Mark Wadsworth

It's all bollocks. You should read 'The Six Thinking Hats'.

Bob B

Thank you for contributing that thought.

Unfortunately, David Hume (1711-76) didn't live long enough to read Edward de Bono on: Six Thinking Hats, but you may find this current news item of interest:

"Binge drinking teenagers are still at risk of absent-mindedness and forgetfulness days later, a study says. A team from Northumbria and Keele universities compared 26 binge drinkers with 34 non-bingers in memory tests, and found the drinkers fared worse."


The bit that gets me is the belief that science could only become free when 'liberated' from the oppressive clutches of the church. Nine out of ten of all the great scientific discoveries have come from a church backed individual or institution.

Just to take two areas of intense current interest: the origin of the universe; and the role of genetics in evolution. As to the first, the Big Bang theory - the current 'scientifically accepted' one - was first propounded by a Belgian Jesuit priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaître in 1927. For the second, the Father of modern genetics is Gregor Mendel, a nineteenth century Augustinian monk.


Chris Hitchins is on the left?!!!


This is wrong
Left to themselves, people can’t think rationally
There is a very important word missing it comes after "people", begins with "a" and ends with "s". If people were incapable of reason, there wouldn't be even be any structure that promotes it. And that defeats the whole point, and actually strenghtens surely the argument that the left should support science, because it implies that progress requires a collective effort.

Trooper Thompson

The first thing to note is that the existence or non-existence of God is not a question that reason or logic can answer, because there is no known test that can disprove God - there is now falsifiability. If I want to disprove Archimedes' eureka moment, all I need to do is run a bath, mark the level of the water and then get in. If the water doesn't rise, Archimedes is wrong. There is no such way of disproving God. Dawkins 'God delusion' is a progression of straw men arguments, where the only true Christian is someone who kills abortionists, and the only true muslim a suicide bomber, which is like saying the only true Darwinist is a eugenicist mass-murderer.

One of the favourite reasons for hating religion is because it causes wars, but this shows a very poor knowledge of history. If you study, for instance, ancient Rome, people such as Caesar, Pompey, Crassus etc are motivated by lust for power, greed, avarice etc, religion has very little to do with it.

Bob B

"The bit that gets me is the belief that science could only become free when 'liberated' from the oppressive clutches of the church."

Consider the evidence:

"Galileo's works were placed on the infamous index of prohibited books, and it was only in the mid 18th century that reprints were permitted. It wasn't until 1835 that the church officially recognised that Galileo had been right. Yet Galileo himself was not exonerated."

The Church didn't formally exonerate Galileo for publicising his heretical notion of a heliocentric universe until 1992. We can only speculate as to the probable fate of Newton and his book: Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) had Catholicism been the established church of England at that time. This is not encouraging:

"The Oxford Martyrs were tried for heresy in 1555 and subsequently burnt at the stake in Oxford, England, for their religious beliefs and teachings."

Joe Otten

And the left's attitude to reason is confused because it has been sold a pup by the pomos.


I don't expect "reason" to do anything for me. What I expect is to be able to reason about any question, scientific, philosophical, political or moral, to inform my judgements. And I consider anybody - religious or not - making a "reason doesn't apply here" appeal to be afraid of the truth.

Put this way, I don't see how any of your 4 objections hold.


Trooper Thompson...
I wonder if you have read Dawkin's book, because your argument sounds like a strawman argument in itself.

Dawkins never tries to prove the non-existance of any God (arbitrarily defined). He does try to show that some commonly held notions of God are not possible (since they are often self-contradictory). Atheism only requires that you not believe in God, given that there is no proof FOR the existance of one.

last of the presbyterians

you mean, no proofs that atheists accept as such...

The Celtic Chimp

Hi Chris,

Tut Tut *waggling finger*
Your reasoning leaves a lot to be desired young man!

Your Dawkins example of inconsistancy is not valid. The following distinction exists. God belief is not based on empirical evidence, it is not supported by any evidence. No-one anywhere in the world has any actual proof that God exists. As for the Jewish lobby, there exists a lot of evidence attesting to the influense of the Jewish lobby. People can and some undoubtedly do posses this knowledge. Give Dawkins some measure of credit. I'd imagine the many people who think so are not totally without evidence to support their beliefs. In a religious context they are without evidence. I'm sure you would not rate a computer expert as having the same expertise as a leprachaun expert.

The powerful critisisms

1) People can't think rationally.

You seem to think this is the case because people can be subject to various conative bias. This is a non-sequitar. It is exactly akin to saying poeple can't be healthy and linking to a lisk of illnesses. Just becasue a person can be subject to a bias, does not mean they are subject to it.

2) Reason is not ethically neutral. This makes no sense. Are dreams ethically neutral, how about imagination? Ethical bias is not relevant when discussing reason. You then talk about appeals to reason. Appeals to reason is not the same as reason. Appeals to reason can have any ethical character as can appeals to anything else. For reasons far beyond my understanding people seem to consistantly protray rationality as some kind of passion killer. Rational people are not some kind of emotionless machines weighting up probable gains. You can be both rational and emotive. Everyone is both to greater or lesser degrees. If you want to buy a painting don't go to a surgeon. If you need a triple heart bypass, don't ask a painter. The surgeon might well paint in his spare time though. What rationality does is invite us to get in the lab and create hardier and more productive food crops rather than sit around with our hands clasped in prayer. Religion is not a problem because it is not positively rational, it is a problem because it is anti-rational. Just look at the creationist loons in the U.S. trying to have 'creation science' taught in schools. Anyone with even one sick,atropied half functional braincell should be able to determine that prayer does not work. People still pray. These people have too little rationality. Being a rational person or by extention a rational society does not in any way mean that we cannot be expressive or open to a vast array of experiences.

3) Reason doesn't help us solve serious disputes. Are you suggesting religion can? Regardless, engineer doesn't help us solve serious disputes, neither does dancing or knitting. So what. If this is in some way a critisism of why rationality would not be preferable to religion I don't see the argument.

4) Rationality, at least in its instrumental sense, is insufficient foundation for morality. Again, are you suggesting that religion is a good foundation? I fail to see it. Most humans have an innate morality. This is evidenced by the very fact that you do not reason out moral actions. When you see a person in distress, you do not choose to help because you can see some practical advantage but because you want to help. Similarly, you do not stop yourself from killing someone becasue there is a pertinent commandment. If that is your reason for not killing someone, you have completely missed the point of morality. Reason nor religion have anything to do with our moral instincts in much the same way that neither have anything to do with imagination or an innate desire to compete.

I don't find these critisims to be at all convincing. Aften thousands upon thousands of years of nearly universal religious belief and dominance what did we have to show for it? Almost nothing in a tangible material sense. Did we gain anything in terms of wisdom and happiness? Were we champions of ethical conduct? Nope. In a few centuries of declining religious dominance and the rise of rational enquiry, we have leaped forward materially, we have much more liberated societies and have advanced considerably in ethical terms. In fact, the most brutally immoral actions are still being conducted by the religiously minded. The very last thing that was wrong with the 9/11 terrorists was that they had an over abundance of rationality. Religious beliefs are irrational. When confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the religious try to pretend that all non-scientific endevour is somehow going to disappear if people stop believing in sky-daddies. Art is not reliant on religion. Music is not reliant on religion. Morality is not reliant on religion. Happiness is not reliant on religion. Freedom is not reliant on religion. Spritual experience is not reliant on religion. What is reliant on religion? I can't think of a single thing apart from priests of course :)

I think that space comment is certainly true in the U.S. Not so much in Europe though.

Amir Hassan Rafiey

I'm a religious social-democrat. I found some commonlities between religious and social-democratic values: justice and fairness, duty of believers to serve weaks and poor, and faith to a better future which is more compatible to values; i.e. fairer and more helping to weak people.
So, I think there are just two big religion/ party allover the world: spiritual/lefts and materialist/right.
What some leftists like Marx didn'y want was not a true religion, but a wrong one who benefitted rich, tyranists rather than weak poor people.

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