February 3, 2013 Comments Off
This is a video of a conversation I had with the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor on ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was one in a ‘daisy chain’ of discussions on belief organized by 5×15 at the Wellcome Collection in London in December. The daisy chain featured, as well as Laurie Taylor and myself, Laurie’s son Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA (and a fellow-panelist of mine on The Moral Maze), Nick Spencer, director of research at the religious think tank Theos, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, each interviewing the next daisy in the chain, as it were. My conversation with Laurie Taylor is at the top. Videos of the other conversations are below. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
Jacques Berlinerblau, whoses book How to be Secular I reviewed in my last post, took umbrage on Twitter at my characterisation of his argument as anti-democratic. Twitter is not the best medium to have nuanced debate on these kinds of issues, but it was an interesting discussion (the heart of which was a debate not so much about secularism as about democracy) so I have curated the tweets via Storify (slightly reordered to make better sense of the discussion), with some comments thrown in. I hope, however that Jacques Berlinerblau takes up my offer to publish on Pandaemonium any lengthy response he wishes to write. In the meantime here is the Storified Twitter exchange.
October 27, 2012 § 8 Comments
Back at the beginning of the US Presidential campaign Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of launching ‘a war on religion’ and of wanting ‘to establish a religion in America known as secularism’. The irony is that Obama himself, even before entering the White House, had made clear his own disdain for secularism. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama had chided fellow Democrats for equating ‘tolerance with secularism’. In embracing secularism, he wrote, Democrats ‘forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with larger meaning’.
Secularism is clearly a toxic word in US politics. But why? And how can we detoxify it? Those are the two questions at the heart of sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. Berlinerblau is Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The key problem in the current debate about secularism is, he argues, the association of secularism with atheism. Studies have shown atheists to be America’s least trusted group. For most Americans, one study concluded, an atheist symbolizes some one ‘who rejects the basis for moral solidarity’. Atheists, in other words, cannot be ‘one of us’. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
My essay on ‘The Myths of Muslim Rage’ sparked a debate about the relationship between religion and politics. Many challenged the idea that the conflicts over The Satanic Verses two decades ago, and over the Innocence of Muslims now, find their roots as much in political conflict as in religious belief. ‘Regardless of who may have been “pulling the strings” and for what reasons’, as one critic put it in commenting on the essay, ‘the fact that those strings can even be pulled in the first place has become a tragically predictable aspect of modern Islam. I would contend that religious sensibilities are firmly at the center of this situation.’
There are, I think, two problems with the insistence that these are primarily religious confrontations. The first is what I see as a literal reading of the clashes: that because religion is the language in which a particular conflict takes place, so that conflict must necessarily be religious in content as well as in form. I have observed before how those who are most hostile to religion often ‘take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves’.
The second problem is the failure of many to recognise that the very character of religion has changed in recent decades. There is a tendency to view the contemporary resurgence of religion as a throwback to the past, as simply the return of old-fashioned faith. In fact contemporary forms of religion are often very different from, and hostile to, traditional varieties. What we are witnessing is not so much the return of religion as its remaking. This was the theme of a talk I gave three years ago at a conference provocatively titled ‘The Return of Religion and Other Myths’ organized in the Netherlands by the Utrecht art centre BAK , as a part of an ongoing project on ‘post-secularism’. So, I am publishing here an edited version of the first part of that talk.
August 30, 2012 § 6 Comments
Religious freedom, I argued in my Notes on Religious Freedom, is not a special kind of liberty but one of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and action. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent, nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These, I argued, should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.
It is true that many religious beliefs – about homosexuality, for instance, or blasphemy – imply practices that are often at odds with the norms of a liberal society, and this has been at the heart of many recent conflicts between secular norms and religious conscience. But such conflicts are not unique to religious belief. Racists, communists, Greens, New Age mystics – all could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices which are at odds with liberal norms. Nevertheless, a racist pub owner cannot bar black people from his pub, however deep-set his beliefs. It would be a criminal offence for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown GM crops, however strongly they might feel about such agriculture. Society should accommodate as far as is possible any action genuinely required by conscience. Nevertheless, there is always a line that cannot legally be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line, I suggested in my Notes on Religious Freedom, should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 22, 2012 § 26 Comments
My ‘Notes on Religious Freedom’, a shorter version of which appeared in New Humanist, was picked up by Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True and led to a fascinating debate, much of it critical of my arguments. I am grateful to WEIT for linking to the essay and for hosting the debate. What was striking about much of the criticism was the degree to which it was underpinned by deeply authoritarian sentiments. I have observed before the way that many contemporary atheists adopt an unpleasantly authoritarian stance. Many now demand, in the name of ‘reason’ or ‘science’, state restrictions or bans on views that might cause ‘harm’. It is a strange attitude for those who supposedly believe in free speech and free thought. (And before anyone jumps on me I am not suggesting that all atheists, or even most atheists, believe this – there were many on the WEIT thread who challenged such views; what I am suggesting is that such claims now form an important and objectionable strand in contemporary atheism.)
What is particularly disturbing is the casual bigotry that now seems acceptable and often goes unchallenged. One of the criticisms on the WEIT thread was of my opposition to the burqa ban. One commenter had this to say:
Alexander Hellemans: Imagine you would board the Paris metro, and there is a seat next to some person in a burqa, very fat, and you can’t see its face. Would you feel comfortable sitting next to it?
‘It’ is a person. However much one might loathe religion, however much one might despise what the burqa symbolises, to describe a person as a thing is sheer bigotry. It is to look upon that woman in the same way as do Islamist clerics. We should not need reminding of the consequences, historically, of such dehumanization. Yet no one thought it necessary to challenge Hellemans’ sentiment. Such comments turn up, of course, on many blogs (Pandaemonium included). But the failure to challenge it suggests that people are sometimes so blinded by their loathing of religion that they become inured to such bigotry and do not recognize the need to combat it at every point. That is a dangerous place to be. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my book-that-is-almost-finished on the history of moral thought we have reached Chapter 18, which explores the contemporary debates about the relationship between science and morality, from Joshua Greene’s work to Sam Harris’ arguments. This extract is from the section that unpacks Alex Rosenberg’s arguments about morality in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.
The desire to root morality in science derives from a laudable aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask the famous question: Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If on the other hand, the gods chooses the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.
The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. « Read the rest of this entry »