August 15, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument. This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)
A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.
Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2012 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 15, which looks at existentialism, and primarily the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. This extract is from the section that explores Sartre’s concept of freedom and his relationship to Marxism.
‘Existence comes before essence’. So claimed Sartre in his celebrated 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. It is a phrase that gets to the heart (one might even say the essence) of his understanding of human nature and of human freedom. Humans do not possess a given nature, an unchanging essence, from which their capacities, personalities and values derive. Rather humans create themselves and their nature by acting upon the world.
This, for Sartre, was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from a Godless world. ‘When we think of God as the creator’, Sartre observed, ‘we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan’. God ‘makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife’. But what if there is no God? Then there can be no God-created human nature. More, there can be no human nature at all. The only coherent way in which we can speak of a distinctive human nature is as a preconceived creative plan for human beings, just like the only way we can speak of a paper-knife is as a consciously manufactured artefact. Only God, in other words, could have created human nature. If we do not believe in God, we cannot believe in human nature. For Sartre the death of God provided also the last rites for human nature.
The idea that without God, there can be no human nature might seem a strange view, especially for an atheist, in the post-Darwinian world. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 6, 2012 § 44 Comments
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 27, 2011 § 6 Comments
I have been reading Sophocles’ Theban Plays, a loosely connected trilogy which reworks the myth of Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, and whose family is fated to be doomed for three generations. I also came across the text of Berthold Brecht’s celebrated 1948 production of Antigone, the last of the Theban trilogy (though the first that Sophocles wrote). What is striking in reading the scripts side by side is the chasm between the meaning of the heroine for Sophocles and her meaning for Brecht.
Antigone tells of the confrontation between the eponymous heroine, the daughter of Oedipus, and Creos, the current king of Thebes. Just before the play opens, Oedipus’ two sons Eteocles and Polyneices have killed each other. The two brothers had shared the throne of Thebes, each the ruler in alternate years, until Eteocles had refused to turn over power at the end of his annual term. Polyneices gathered an army and attacked the city in furious retaliation. The brothers died at each others’ hands in single combat. Creon, their uncle, who now becomes king, decides that Eteocles should be buried with full honors as defender of the city. The body of Polyneices will, however, be left outside the city gates, to rot, unmourned, as a traitor. Anyone who would honor him with a burial, Creon decrees, would be put to death.
The play opens with Antigone, sister to both Eteocles and Polyneices, resolving to defy Creon’s decree and to bury the latter. She pleads with her sister Ismene to help her. Ismene refuses, recalling the family history of tragic defiance of both fate and lawful order. Alone, Antigone slips out and scatters funeral oil and earth over her brother’s body. A furious Creon condemns Antigone to be buried alive, letting the gods dispose of her as they will. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
The latest strip from the irrepressible Jesus and Mo may seem like a typical dig at the inconsistencies and illogicalities of religious faith. But, in its own inimitable way, it taps into one of the most difficult theological conumdrums for believers.
A common argument in the increasingly tedious ‘God Wars’ is the claim by believers that atheists are naive about religious belief. They read holy books too literally and think of God as an old man with a white beard. But, say believers, religion has long since moved on from such unsophisticated conceptions. It is, for instance, the argument that lies at the heart of Terry Eagleton’s broadside against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists. Among the latest to join this chorus of ‘We’re more sophisticated than you’ is Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Atheists can indeed be naïve about religion and theology, and I myself have been critical of many of the arguments. But the apologists for religion are equally naïve, not to mention disingenuous, in their defence of belief. It is true that there has long been a sophisticated strain of theology that sees God not as a person but as the ‘condition of being’, the prerequisite for the existence of the universe and the functioning of life. But there has also been a constant and profound tension between this abstract, non-figurative imagining of God and the God that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, explain the finer points of sex, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 18, 2011 Comments Off
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 9, a chapter that explores medieval Christian thought, and in particular the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of Christian theologians. Western Christendom had recently rediscovered Aristotle, largely through translations from the Muslim world. Aquinas found in Aristotle both a reason for, and a means to, transform the traditional relationship between reason and faith in Christian theology.
For Augustine and early Christian theologians, reason had been subservient to faith. The yen for knowledge had led to Original Sin and Original Sin had corroded human intellect and will. Aquinas, echoing the arguments of the Muslim Rationalists, reversed the relationship between reason and faith. Reason was not a corrupting expression of human hubris, too great a reliance on which denied humans access to the divine, but a divine gift to enable humanity to understand God, and bring them to Him. Aquinas was, of course, a devout and obedient Christian and for all his defence of reason, divine revelation remains the foundation of his moral framework. Yet Aquinas does something novel with the Christian moral framework. He grasps the tension at the heart of Christian belief between human agency and the consequences of the Fall and, unlike Augustine, tries to rethink that tension to minimise human degradation and maximise the possibilities of reason.
This extract is from the final section of Chapter 9, which explores the importance of Dante, and in particular of The Divine Comedy, in giving poetic life to Aquinas’ moral vision and in sketching out the outlines of the moral landscape that was to come.
August 19, 2011 § 30 Comments
UPDATE: this post won the 2011 3QD Politics and Social Sciences Prize.
In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:
Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian
Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife. « Read the rest of this entry »