Archive for February, 2007

Special Privilege for Religious Values

There’s a feature on religion by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian today. It’s positively riddled with things that piss me off.

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

Is it appropriate to describe Dawkins as a fundamentalist? I suppose it depends entirely on how you’re defining the term. Well, whatever, for the sake or argument let’s assume it is. But there’s fundamentalism and there’s fundamentalism. There are some things it’s not quite so bad to be an extremist about as it is others. For instance, being absolutely adamant about needing evidence for belief is very different from being absolutely adamant about needing to kill everyone who doesn’t worship the right God. Even if Dawkins is as much of a fundamentalist as the bigots and the jihadis, then he’s certainly not fundamentalist about the same sorts of things or in the same ways as they are. That’s quite an important distinction. It’s precisely the reason you don’t see people like Dawkins and Harris committing mass murder in the name of their beliefs. Slee looks to be evoking a variation of the epistemological equivalence tack that Jim posted on. It’s a crock. But there’s more of it from John Gray:

Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. “It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself.”

As far as I’m aware both Hitchens and Dawkins are unbelievers because, in short, they have seen no evidence to warrant belief. Their unbelief is not fixed; it’s evidence dependent. So, unless they’ve been exposed to decisive evidence for the existence of God and yet they stubbornly refuse to believe, it’s hard to see how they’re epistemologically equivalent to believers.

Neuberger is to take on Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling when she speaks at a debate against the motion We’d Be Better Off Without Religion next month. The debate has been moved to a bigger venue. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.”

So, “if you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” Apart from when you don’t accept there’s doubt in that sentiment, presumably. You could be forgiven for thinking a Rabbi would be on very thin ice with a statement like that. If, where their beliefs that we’d be better off without religion are concerned, Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling are simply dogmatic then, presumably, at least one of the following has to be true:Either: They have stated directly that whatever the evidence they will continue to believe that we’d be better off without religion. Or: They have been exposed to decisive evidence that we’re better off with religion yet continue to believe we’re not. Now, I’m pretty sure the first is false, and to suggest the second would be to beg a central question. It would presuppose such evidence exists.

If someone seeks to deny your existence, I suppose you may want to fight to assert it. But is Azzim Tamimi’s ontological status really being disputed? Denying the very existence of the faithful is hardly a corollary of arguing that religion is pestiferous and its manifestation in the public sphere inappropriate. Who knows though? That fact may not prevent Tamimi or some of his acolytes from expressing their “violent religiosity” regardless.

The refrain of Christians like [Nick] Spencer is that unless religion is a part of public-policy debates, then society will be impoverished. Last November the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in which he distinguished between programmatic and procedural secularism. The former meant that in the public domain, everybody had to silence their fundamental convictions and debate in a value-free atmosphere of public neutrality. For Williams, this was a hopeless way of carrying on public discourse in a bewildering society that embraced not only many faiths but many anti-faith positions, and in which real disputes over very different values needed to take place. Better was procedural secularism, which promised that different groups could at least converse with each other in public discussions over sensitive questions of value and policy. This would involve, said Williams, “a crowded and argumentative public square that acknowledges the authority of a legal mediator or broker whose job it is to balance and manage real difference”.

It is an idea similar to one set out by Yahya Birt, research fellow at The Islamic Foundation. “One form of secularism suggests that religion should be kept in the private sphere. That’s Dawkins’ position. Another…, is to do with establishing a modus vivendi. It accepts that you come to the public debate with baggage that will inform your arguments. In this, the government tries to find common ground and the best possible consensus, which can only work if we share enough to behave civilly. Of course, there will be real clashes over issues such as gay adoption, but it’s not clear to me that that’s a problem per se.”

Argues Spencer: “We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

I’m not sure we should accept that religious people will “come to the public debate with baggage that will inform [their] arguments.” They may well come with baggage that will motivate their arguments, but not inform them. Furthermore, I’d have thought that the only time we should feel obligated to “treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable” is when those value systems are, indeed, coherent, reasonable and even valuable. Not at any other time nor for any other reason. Not, for example, because they’re religious values. Religious values that might not actually be coherent, reasonable and valuable but instead deranged, irrational and disgusting. Moreover, how could this proposed public mediation even work? Yahya Birt doesn’t think it’ll be “a problem per se”. Oddly enough though, he doesn’t feel the need to go into detail. Without engagement on the foundations, however, it looks somewhat intractable. If one side, for instance, is arguing that homosexuals should enjoy freedom from discrimination and the other that they should be executed because their God says so then how does one mediate such a thing? And how about when two faith positions themselves are in direct opposition? You can embellish the matter with woolly terms like “common ground”, “mediation” and “the best possible consensus” all you want. But the idea that we should exempt certain values from being judged purely on their merits by granting them special privileges on religious grounds seems, putting it mildly, unsettling.

P.S. David Thompson, Ophelia Benson, Jim Denham, Caspar Melville, Ben at Religion is Bullshit and the peculiarly monikered “Shuggy” also have a go. The Guardian has also posted some letters in response to the piece.

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Aynimal Rights

Here’s a discussion on animal rights on the Leitmotif blog between Jim and I and an Ayn Rand Objectivist. It resulted in some really weird and wonderful stuff, but on boiling-down the prose the result is pretty much the same as it normally is. Here are a few snippets:

Ergo Says:
The faculty of volition is not our “rights-conferring” characteristic. We are moral beings because we have the faculty of volition, which means we are causal agents and face choices. Rights are a species of conceptual principles. By the nature of rights as moral principles, and by our human nature as moral beings, rights are applicable only to humans (all humans, including the disabled or the retarded).

Ergo Says:
The Objectivist approach is to always saliently acknowledge the fact that humans do not exist in a vacuum but in a reality that surrounds us and has a specific identity. Our actions are always in relation to the context of this reality around us. If this is acknowledged, then it becomes clear why rights are applicable and possible only to humans and not animals or any other species on Earth.

Ed Says:
If the faculty of volition is a characteristic so foundational to a mental life that any humans who lack it entirely are nothing but vegetables then it would seem undeniable that at least some animals have it. Of course, I agree with the idea that only humans can understand rights and consequentially only humans are moral-beings; just as it is only people who live in Germany who live in Berlin. But, of course, without affirming the consequent, it no more follows that at all humans are moral-beings than it does that all Germans are Berliners.

Enjoy, you lucky people.

Unite and Conquer

Here’s Terry Eagleton (the one who thinks suicide bombers are “tragic heroes”) with a typically fuzzy piece in the Guardian. Apparently, the reason those in power criticise multiculturalism is because it threatens their abilities to invoke “materially divisive policies”. I don’t know whether that’s their reason or not, but it certainly isn’t the only reason they might have.

There is an insuperable problem about introducing immigrants to British values. There are no British values. Nor are there any Serbian or Peruvian values. No nation has a monopoly on fairness and decency, justice and humanity.

There’s that “British values” term again. This sort of thing is part of the reason I don’t like it. Bringing nationality into it is counterproductive, equivocal and offers this kind of easy-out. Either way though, I don’t understand his point. Evidently, Terry Eagleton values writing vague articles in the Guardian. But he doesn’t have a monopoly on it. Not by a long shot. But that doesn’t mean writing vague articles in the Guardian is not an Eagletonian value or that, because all his values may overlap with those of others, Eagletonian values don’t exist. Anyway, it’s more the liberal, egalitarian, modern and progressive values themselves that are important. If they’re the ones being proclaimed to be, conceptually speaking, “British” then fine. It’s secondary who else holds them. Maybe it’s the fact that some seem to be transgressing these values – and others allowing them to do so – in the name of cultural plurality that’s prompting concern.

It is easy to see why a diversity of cultures should confront power with a problem. If culture is about plurality, power is about unity. How can it sell itself simultaneously to a whole range of life forms without being fatally diluted? Multiculturalism is not a threat because it might breed suicide bombers. It is a threat because the kind of political state we have depends upon a tight cultural consensus in order to implant its materially divisive policies.

So, if it’s a threat to those in power in because it challenges a “tight cultural consensus” (whatever that means and even though we’ve been given no reason to think it, but let’s just assume that’s true for a moment) then it can’t be a threat because it might breed suicide bombers (or misogynists or homophobes or archaic theocrats)? And this is because things can only be threats for one reason? Or because being a threat to a “tight cultural consensus” necessarily excludes being a threat for more legitimate reasons? Perhaps it’s none of the above and these are just two unrelated and unsupported assertions. And perhaps Eagleton just writes for the sake of writing.

Incidentally, David Thompson, Ophelia Benson and Rosie Bell all beefed Eagleton rather more articulately than I just did.

Monbiot on Moonbats: Screw Loose Change

I seem to take something of a guilty pleasure in the anatomical study of conspiracy theories. Maybe it’s because their proponents espouse phenomenological explanations that are, shall we say, unnecessarily intricate. William of Occam would be turning in his grave. So much so that perhaps “turning” isn’t even the right word. He’d be performing rapid summersaults like a particularly ill-managed foosball mannequin. Any trace of reason or epistemological sobriety being expelled in dark trails by the overwhelming centrifugal forces. Apropos the vehicle for this gratuitously macabre metaphor, George Monbiot has written a couple of good articles in the Guardian this month. “A 9/11 Conspiracy Virus is Sweeping the World” where he takes conspiracy documentary Loose Change to task and the perhaps marginally more resolute “9/11 Fantasists Pose a Mortal Danger to Popular Oppositional Campaigns” from todays edition. Here’s a bit from the former:

There is a virus sweeping the world. It infects opponents of the Bush government, sucks their brains out through their eyes and turns them into gibbering idiots. First cultivated in a laboratory in the US, the strain reached these shores a few months ago. In the past fortnight, it has become an epidemic. Scarcely a day now passes without someone possessed by this sickness, eyes rolling, lips flecked with foam, trying to infect me. The disease is called Loose Change.

And the latter:

“You did this hit piece because your corporate masters instructed you to. You are a controlled asset of the new world order … bought and paid for.” “Everyone has some skeleton in the cupboard. How else would MI5 and special branch recruit agents?” “Shill, traitor, sleeper”, “leftwing gatekeeper”, “accessory after the fact”, “political whore of the biggest conspiracy of them all”.

These are a few of the measured responses to my article, a fortnight ago, about the film Loose Change, which maintains that the United States government destroyed the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Having spent years building up my leftwing credibility on behalf of my paymasters in MI5, I’ve blown it. I overplayed my hand, and have been exposed, like Bush and Cheney, by a bunch of kids with laptops. My handlers are furious.

Those last few paragraphs perhaps betray sympathy with Maddox’s view of the matter; but for less glib accounts of what’s wrong with the conspiracy theories “The 9/11 Truth Movement in Perspective” from Skeptic Magazine and “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” from Popular Mechanics are actually really interesting in themselves.

Stay mental, yeah?

P.S: I have to admit to blatantly nicking the subtitle of this post from the Screw Loose Change website. I couldn’t resist. It works on two levels!

Criticising Multiculturalism? You’re a Racist!

Martin Jacques is in the Guardian suggesting, amongst other things, that anyone who blames aspects of multiculturalism for the non-integration of elements of the Muslim population is merely a racist trying to invoke god-only-knows-what through the back door. Here’s the gist:

And what is to blame for this failure to integrate? Prejudice, perhaps? Discrimination? Racism? No, according to David Cameron, Ruth Kelly and many others, the cause would appear to be multiculturalism. Pause for a moment and spot the slippage in the argument. It is no longer only about Muslims but all our ethnic minorities.

What is? What is about all our ethnic minorities?

For enshrined in the principle of multiculturalism is the idea that the white community does not insist on the assimilation of ethnic minorities but recognises the importance of pluralism. It is not about separatism but a respect for difference – from colour and dress to customs and religion. The attack on multiculturalism is the thin end of the racism wedge. It seeks to narrow the acceptable boundaries of difference at a time when Britain is becoming ever more diverse and heterogeneous.

I’d have said that multiculturalism was more the idea that the no one cultural group should insist on the assimilation of any other rather than simply a safeguard against the cultural despotism Jacques implies is inherent in white people. But anyway, apparently, blaming the current model of multiculturalism for any of its perceived shortcomings means rejecting and opposing everything multiculturalism is about. There’s just no middle-ground; it’s simply not possible to criticise or blame it for anything without being an out-and-out bigot with a hidden yet unmistakably racist agenda. There he was waxing lyrical about rhetoric as well. And no, multiculturalism is not about “respect” for alternative customs and religions, it’s about toleration of them; but it’s not as if even that’s inherently a good thing. It would depend entirely upon the customs and forms of religion one is being inclined to tolerate. There are customs and certain elements of religion that simply don’t warrant much accommodation. Some of them, for instance, don’t much value equality; some aren’t very keen on democracy, science or progress and some teach adherents to distrust or to emphatically despise anyone different from them. In fact, some don’t think all that highly of respect for difference in customs and religion themselves. And perhaps the current model of multiculturalism affords these sorts of ideas too much shelter under the umbrella of well-intentioned acceptance and pluralism. So, it’s perfectly possible, despite what Jacques might imply, to criticise multiculturalism for what you perceive to be wrong with it and to lament what you perceive to be its regrettable side-effects without instantly metamorphing into a goose-stepping Nick Griffin.

[W]hile British foreign policy so profoundly discriminates against the Muslim world, and New Labour remains in denial about the connection between domestic Muslim attitudes and its foreign policy, there seems little prospect of making a new start.

Presumably Jacques must be referring to something of a selective account of British foreign policy. Perhaps the most vocal proponent of the NATO intervention in Kosovo was one Tony Blair. It was that intervention that prevented Serbian forces from continuing their genocide and displacement of the Muslim Albanian population. It’s hard to see how something like that could be considered profoundly discriminatory against the Muslim world.

Parts of item reminded me of Žižek’s Orwellian proclamations from last September and there’s much more to bemoan besides. But I can’t be bothered to address it all. He’s a wanker.

Raymond Blanc and the Irksome Pâté

Well, it appears that animal rights activists are targeting Raymond Blanc’s restaurant and requesting that foie gras be removed from the menu. The article contains a classic example of something I see time and time again from those looking to defend their dubious treatment of animals:

[Blanc said] “I wish the animal rights people would look at intensive farming which goes on all year rather than the 6-10 days for the production of foie gras.”

I bet he does. Because then he’d be free to continue selling the irksome pâté in peace. The implication, of course, is that these animal rights groups would be better off targeting more blameworthy offenders, so they should leave foie gras alone and go and hassle the likes of the intensive farming industry instead. And indeed, there could well be some could truth in that sentiment. (Although there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think these groups are targeting foie gras instead of as opposed to as well as intensive farming.) But the things is, the issue of whether these groups have questionable priorities has absolutely no bearing on whether the restaurant should remove foie gras from its menu; it’s not an answer to that question; it’s simply a diversion from it. Regardless of issue, this tactic is frequently used by those who would rather turn the focus of the discussion back onto their critics than actually address the criticism itself; but it seems practically ubiquitous when the subject is that of animal ethics. It’s all a bit of a red herring, yeah?

Quite incidentally, in the same piece, Blanc himself seems to make a passing attempt at vilifying his critics:

Police have been called in to advise Brasserie Blanc, owned by world-renowned chef Raymond Blanc, after it received sinister letters and emails from activists.

“Police are aware of the e-mails and postcards and they have given us advice,” he said. “They are not threats as of yet, but more of a request that we consider taking foie gras off the menu. “It’s something that everyone is keeping a close eye on because of the animal rights goings-on elsewhere in the country.”

They’re not threats as of yet? That seems to imply there’s good reason to think that threats will follow doesn’t it? Also, if these messages were simply requests that they “consider taking foie gras off the menu” then it seems slightly melodramatic to refer to them as “sinister”.

Having said all of that, Blanc does address the main point more directly in the item and also makes some concessions. He says he’ll “stop [selling foie gras] if there is any evidence of pain to the animals because ethics are important” and that he will need to “have a further look at the scientific evidence”. Although I’m not sure how much scientific evidence one should really need when it comes to the question of whether force-feeding geese until they develop liver disease is in their best interests or not. Oh well.

Pros and Canned

A London teacher gets sacked because the children claim he said something, err, unacceptable. The school didn’t feel the need to ask him about the issue before firing him; in fact, it didn’t even seem to be all that important whether he actually said it or not. The children were “very upset”, apparently, and that’s all that matters. Like how school-children get upset when something is “just so unfair” or they’re punished for being disruptive and so on. But perhaps this is different because it pertains to a matter of religion and religion is special and any getting upset over a matter of religion is automatically justified. So, what was it they claim he said anyway? Well, “pupils at the predominantly Muslim school claimed Mr McLuskey said most suicide bombers were Muslim.” So, is that even false? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t know.) But if it’s true then it seems even weirder that he should be sacked for saying it. Perhaps some things are just off-limits even when you’re taking a lesson on the “pros and cons of religion”. Better just stick to the pros I guess.