Interesting that the “inverse” (in some broad sense) of the ontological argument for the existence of God is an argument for the non-existence of the Devil.
Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
I’ve been thinking back to by mother’s funeral on the occasional of the one-year anniversary, and particularly thinking about non-religious funerals. In fitting with my mother’s atheism (or “being a bloody heathen” as she put it), I of course organised an entirely non-religious funeral, which acted as a joyous celebration of her life and included lots of her favourite music and readings, as well as giving family and friends a chance to talk about her life.
I was talking to someone about religious funerals last week, and they were saying that at the last religious funeral they attended, the service consisted of one-and-a-half minutes of talk about the deceased, and 28-and-a-half minutes of talking about Jesus.
Occasionally, usually on the kind of “and finally…” type slot that Trevor McDonald used to do at the end of the news, we here about someone who had a themed funeral relating to an interest that they were passionate about—Elvis, or windsurfing, or whatever. Lots of people find this kind of funeral rather undignified and naff.
Yet, when we have a religious funeral, even for someone for whom religion was only a small part of their life, the religious aspect dominates completely. Perhaps we should find this just as naff. Why do we allow this one aspect of a life to dominate so strongly at the celebration of a complex and rich life? By all means, have the religious-themed funeral, much as we allow the Elvis funeral, for the deeply committed. But for the average punter, who has a religion as just one part of a complex life, why not represent this by one small token in the ceremony, and celebrate the remaining aspects of a life well lived in the remainder?
Thinking about the basis for moral action as a result of Stuart Sutherland’s interesting lecture earlier this evening on “Hume and Civil Society”. Hume skeptically examines various putative bases for moral action, and finds many of them wanting—religion, social norms, rational thought.
I was wondering whether, in practice, there is a single “base theory” like this, though. Perhaps there are a number of different bases, and the consequences of these all largely coincide. Groups might seem to be acting in a coherent moral fashion, but each individual’s morality might have a different basis; or, more likely, combination of bases. Some might be driven by emotional repugnance, some by rationally thinking through the consequences of their action, some by social norms, some by fear of (spiritual or temporal) authority, most by some mixture of them all. In the end they all do more-or-less the same thing. This has a flavour of the “swiss cheese” theory of risk: most of the time at least one of our moral bases kick in to prevent us acting immorally, and it is only when all of the bases are absent, or else miscued in a particular context, that morality fails.
I’m interested in things that appear to be communication but which in practice communicate almost nothing. Here is a good example. During my years at primary (5-11 years) school, we had to say “the Lord’s Prayer” almost every day, as part of the vaguely um-Christian ethos that tends to be around in such schools; therefore, I spent a few hours with this text each year. I am sure that the teachers thought that we were getting something from this, and that we knew what it meant. Here is what I got out of it:
Our Father, which art in heaven
Bizarrely, given the misunderstandings below, I think I basically understood this, despite the obscurity of the grammatical construct “which art in” and the use of “Father” for “God”.
hallowed be thy name
I had no idea what this meant. If pressed, I might have thought that “hallowed” was “hollowed” but where I would have taken this thought I don’t know.
Thy kingdom come,
No idea what this meant.
Thy will be done
I didn’t really understand the basic idea that a prayer was “talking to God”. I thought that this was some kind of “God’s voice” making some vague threat, interpreting “will be done” dialectically as “will be told off”. I thought that this meant something like “you’ll be in trouble with God if you don’t behave”. I had no idea that the word “will” was anything other than the verb.
On earth, as it is in heaven.
I had some vague idea that this meant that earth is more-or-less the same as heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread
I didn’t get the synecdoche of “daily bread” as representing food, and thought that this was a well-meaning but obscure concern on behalf of God.
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
I only knew the word “trespass” from “no trespassing” signs. Whenever we got to this pair of lines, a particular mind’s eye image of a “no trespassing” sign in the fog came to mind (I can still picture this to this day). I thought that it was basically about not walking on land that I wasn’t meant to, and not being too bothered if people took a short-cut across our garden. I remember thinking that this was a pretty obscure topic to occupy two whole lines of what I was told was the most important prayer in Christianity.
and lead us not into temptation
Don’t really remember how I interpreted this, if at all.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever,
I kinda understood this—but, it was always said with a kind of upward, crescendoey sweep, and I think I felt it was more of a sound-gesture than anything meaningful.
I remember being told as a very little kid that we say “amen” at the end of prayers as an abbreviation of “all men”, i.e. we are saying something like “and this is something that all men (people) should believe”. I have no idea to this day whether that is true, but it sounds a bit hokey to me (I’ll look this up in a minute).
So, there we are. About two lines fully understood, several others grievously misinterpreted. I don’t think that this constant rote-repetition of this helped me to get any closer to God—indeed, it probably set in my mind the idea that God was some obscurantist who was obsessed with bread and walking across other people’s gardens. But, I do remember it word-for-word, even to this day!
There have been a number of critiques of the popular atheist writings of the last few years (of which the canonical example is that of Dawkins) along the lines that these atheist writers ignore a long tradition of critical studies in religion. For example, in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (17th February), Mary Beard makes a typical comment of this type: “[Ferdinand Mount’s] attack on Dawkins et al. for their fundamentalist atheism and their apparent ignorance of the long history of the sceptical study of religion…is a powerful, sometimes devastating, polemic”. I find attacks of this kind intuitively dissatisfying, and in this post I’d like to try and unpick the reasons why.
I think that the core of my dissatisfaction is that the pro-theist arguments seem so far removed from something that would be real that it seems weird to engage with the detailed critical work in that area. This is the power of the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument; the FSM seems, to many atheists, to be just as ludicrous and therefore as worthy of engagement (or not!) as any traditional religion.
This seems something that the theist side of the argument fails to understand – despite the fact that many theists believe strongly in one particular version of theism and would be very happy to dismiss other religious traditions through an FSM-style argument: this is the well-known “we are all basically atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you” argument.
Imagine that, suddenly, we found a community that took some area of human activity (say, music) and reified the experience of musicking into some real, supernatural entity. Or, for that matter, the people (who I understand are not trivial in number) who believe that soap operas depict a real event. Would the sudden discovery of a large community of critical writing in this area represent something that would need to be engaged with, or would we be able to carry on dismissing this as just basically ludicrous from its basic ideas? Is it just the sheer size of the religious community/ies that demands that the details of such a community be taken into account, or is there a difference in kind between these hypothetical communities and the religious communities?
There are one or two examples of communities that are off-mainstream and yet do, have substantial bodies of work that critics don’t feel the need to engage with The first is the new age woo-woo community. Whilst it would be hard to argue that there is a critical tradition in this area, there is a large quantity of writing in this area. Similarly, there is the tradition of crank writing in mathematics (see e.g. Underwood Dudley’s books). It seems that a difference here these are weak examples as they lack a real critical community. There is a difference between the two communities in that the crank mathematics community is fragmented – each crank works in isolation and might well believe the other cranks to be deluded; by contrast, the new age community is well connected and mutually-supporting.
Or, am I being as naive as the people who attack science as “scientism” without really engaging with science properly? This is not to attack all of “science studies” but just those areas that extrapolate from a small number of features.