October 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 10, which looks at the Renaissance and the Reformation and at the impact of both on moral philosophy. This excerpt is about Martin Luther’s theology and about the ambiguities of the Reformation, an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity that was nevertheless also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity.
‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. Martin Luther’s famous response to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, defending his right to challenge the authority of Pope on the basis of his personal convictions sounds to a modern reader as a ringing endorsement of personal conscience, individual freedom and free will. Whether Luther actually spoke those words remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it was never his intention to defend freedom of will. Luther dismissed as blasphemy the very concept. ‘Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin’, as he put in his Heidelberg Disputation, a famous debate within the Augustinian Order. Indeed he barely believed in any kind of freedom. When Luther insisted that ‘I can do no other’, he was defending not his freedom of will but his lack of freedom to believe and to act. He could do no other because he was compelled to do as he had.
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 »
August 6, 2011 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts I’m running from my still-being-written book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 8, which explores the struggle between the Rationalists and the Traditionalists in early Islam, and the significance of that struggle not just to Islam but to Christianity and to the development of modern secularism too.
The expansion of the Islamic empire from India to Iberia created new political tensions and theological dilemmas. It also created new kinds of administrative problems, the most pressing being the practical question of how to collect taxes, keep accounts and maintain records of state in an empire consisting of dozens of languages, forms of law and administrative styles. In the early eighth century Caliphs decided that Arabic should be the common language of empire, and the one in which public records and accounts were to be kept. So there began what came to be called the translation movement – a huge project sponsored by caliphs, local governors and rich philanthropists to translate local records into Arabic. Soon the translation movement spread its wings. The new empire had within its borders a treasure house of philosophical, scientific and religious texts, mainly Greek and Persian. Translators began first with those works that helped meet the pragmatic needs of the new rulers – works on subjects such as medicine, natural history, astronomy and astrology. Over time, intellectual horizons broadened further still. Translators moved from works of practical learning to more speculative philosophy. The Arab world discovered Plato and Aristotle.
The acquisition by Arabs of the philosophical jewels of the Greek and Persian worlds helped transform the intellectual culture of the new empire. In the mid-eighth century the Caliph al-Mansur built the new city of Baghdad to be his imperial capital. And here his great grandson, the Caliph Al-Ma’mun, created the ‘House of Wisdom’, a celebrated library and centre for scholarship that helped turn Baghdad into the world’s greatest intellectual centre of its time, the Athens of its age. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
Chapter Five of the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought explores the idea of evil within monotheistic religion. It opens with the Book of Job, in my eyes the most eloquent book in the Bible, and the one that gets to the heart of the problem of evil for a faith that believes in a omnipotent, omniscient, totally benevolent God: how could such a God allow the righteous and the innocent to suffer? Chapter 5 explores the various explanations, from God’s punishment, to the work of Satan, to the inevitable fall-out from the existence of free will to various forms of theodicy.
This, the fifth in my series of extracts from a book in progress, is taken from the final section of Chapter 5.
IN 1826 WILLIAM BLAKE PUBLISHED A SERIES OF 22 ENGRAVINGS TO ILLUSTRATE a new edition of The Book of Job. It was the culmination of more than 40 years of obsession with the Biblical story, and with a figure with whose torment Blake identified. The God that permitted Job’s suffering was, for Blake, a false God, a lawgiver who imposed upon humanity laws that it could never keep. In one of Blake’s engravings for the Book of Job, Yahweh appears as a cloven-hoofed apparition who menaces Job while pointing to the tablets of the Covenant. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 4, 2011 § 41 Comments
I gave an unusual lecture this week. I was invited to Bristol University’s Trinity College, to talk to theology students about ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was an enjoyable event, and I relished debating with an audience that was courteous, articulate and well-informed (and all of them endearingly concerned at my loneliness in being the only atheist in the room). And, perhaps, I planted a few seeds of doubt in their minds. What was clear, however, was that the difference between between us rested less at the level of philosophical debate than of psychological temper. « Read the rest of this entry »