Saturday, 28 July 2007


This is a review of some of the points made by Anthony J. Carroll in his paper:
Carroll says, "Is it reasonable [of secular liberals?] to presume that religions cannot judge between unfair proselytism and the reasonable acknowledgement of one's faith in the public domain? I think not." - On the contrary I think it is. The reason being that most faiths, and certainly the big three, are absolutist in their views about the truth of their religions.

The very fact that this discussion is taking place so openly in secular democratic states is indicative of the fact that there is not (or should not be) any absolutist view from liberal-democratic (or philosophically-atheistic) world views - they should always be open to debate and persuasion.

Carroll says, "The alternative to the liberal position is the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon' model. This model acknowledges the positive insights of communitarianism about how learning and socialisation are accomplished within particular communities with distinctive commitments. Communitarianism privileges the good of a particular tradition over the claims to universal rightness of a neutral reason supposedly independent of tradition and cultural context. It readily accepts a pluralism of cultures within the one society. Continental European societies, however, are concerned that such a model will lead to ever greater fragmentation, a fear that is not, in present late-modern or postmodern societies, without foundation. When, therefore, the French state sees headscarves in the classroom, it fears societal atomization and the weakening of the social bond-le lien social. If you let one group do their own thing, the danger is that everyone will simply go their own way. Society will disintegrate, and the result will be nothing other than anarchic tribalism."

This seems a reasonable view. The liberal approach appears to offer the opportunity for more cohesion. Granted, there may be a problem where religious communities object to this approach, and so potentially detract from that possibility of cohesion. But that is generally the nature of such groups, a nature that the secularist liberal objecting to.

In liberal secularism there is also the objection to the promotion to children of singular absolutist views within religious (or political or any other) communities, since with closed communities this amounts to indoctrination. Note that this is not an objection to the promotion of religious beliefs. Following liberal democratic principles it should be open for any religious, political or other group to express their views to adults, and to attempt to persuade adults within the bounds of law*. Further more, there is no objection to the teaching about religions, atheism and other world views within a well controlled non-indoctrinating classroom.

The problems only arise because some religions, or at least some sub-groups, not only believe that the truth of their religious world view is absolute, but, because they believe so, they assume they have the right to impose that view on everyone else, at the expense of democratic principles. I think Carroll's solutions require that these groups relinquish such aims.

Imagine, if you will, if you can, an absolutist dogmatic religious world view that includes in it the view that democracy is invalid, evil and must be replaced by the one true theocracy. Further, that world view sees nothing wrong in using all the tools, all the 'weaknesses', of that evil democracy to democratically win control of the state, with the intention of making it a theocracy. What road back remains for those of other faiths, or atheists, for democracy. This is the terrible fear that drives the liberal democratic secular movement. And it isn't based solely on distant historical experiences of religious wars, as Carroll suggests.

"However, as I have argued, its [secular liberalism's] seemingly neutral, rational principles are in reality neither neutral nor independent of material claims. Liberalism is itself an ideology; it is grounded in a particular vision of the world, one that is all the more powerful because it is not explicitly acknowledged." - I think it is explicitly acknowledged, by secular liberals, and I understand that it might not be by those that don't share the view. It is the more powerful because it is the most cohesive and is not exclusive. It is also the most beneficial to the most people - both as a society and as individuals. It is not perfect, but then perfection is a flawed notion when applied to human social organisation (see my blog on perfection:

"For its part, communitarianism respects the particularities and the substantive claims of distinct groups. It supports the freedom to live according to one's own moral, religious and cultural convictions." - Only coincidentally. This "freedom to live..." is not a requirement in any group, except within liberal democracy where it exists as part of the definition of that world view and is not superseded by any 'higher power'.

"Liberalism stresses freedom at the cost of ideological blindness and naïveté; communitarianism fosters cohesionat the risk of societal atomization. How can one draw on the strengths of these conflicting positions and avoid the limitations of each of them?" I don't see ideological blindness as a fault - your ideology shouldn't prevent your access to, for example education. In suggesting that "communitarianism fosters cohesion" surely there is no suggestion that liberalism does not? Liberalism fosters super-cohesion beyond any particular group, while at the same time imposing no restriction on cohesion within groups, given safeguards.

As for Carrol's proposals: "Acknowledging Commitments", "Citizenship", "Appropriate Assertiveness" - I agree with all his sentiments here.

The examples of the headscarf or the crucifix should pose no problem for state schools, if Carroll's guidelines are followed. There remains the problem of other forms of dress, such as the complete covering of the face except for the eyes. It has been argued that this form of dress is inappropriate since it prevents full communication between teacher and pupil. So where does this lie in Carroll's mind?

*If it is felt that a law does restrict religious expression among adults the liberal democratic system allows for that law to be challenged.


This notion of perfection is often used to prove god exists. Aquinas employs it in his proofs. It would be stretching credibility even to say it 'suggests' there might be a god - but to say it proves it is ridiculous.

The whole notion of perfection in anything is simply that - a notion. It's a vague notion of direction or improvement: "this is good", "this is better", "keep improving until you get to perfection", which of course we recognise we can't achieve - therefore jump to the conclusion that the only entity that can we call God, and so god exists. Nonsense.

If perfection doesn't exists, and there's no reason to suspect it does, then it cannot be used to conclude God exists. And even if perfection was a reality, and if we chose to call it God, there is no reason to attribute all the usual properties to god that make him the personal god that religions promote.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

McGrath, Dennet, Dawkins - Memes

I read this debate between Dennet and McGrath:

I think McGrath is right to point out that the meme hypothesis is purely that - with no evidence. The hypothesis can be made to fit history, but is it falsifiable, and what supportive evidence is there?

McGrath points out Blackmore's acceptence that atheism is a meme, just as theism is. Is atheism a meme? In some respects - when there is unquestioned belief in atheism. And I suppose the same hypothesis can be applied to any human idea - such as the appreciation of art, what art is, how it evolved, etc.

But scientific atheism accepts its own vulnerability, and does not claim infalability, and does not require faith. It is not a belief system in itself, but a consequence of what all humans do - attempt to understand and reason about the world around us. Atheism is a probabilistic conclusion, not a dogma, not a self sustaining belief. It may be that atheism as a world view is falsified in the future, by scientifically supported evidence of God. But how would theism be falsified? No matter what was discovered about the universe god could always be postulated to be beyond that.

McGrath points out some of the flaws in the meme hypothesis: "But my real question is this: how would Dr Blackmore and Professor Dennett be able to settle that point scientifically? If they are not able to do so, then we have a non-scientific debate about imaginary entities, hypothesised by analogy with the gene. And we all know how unreliable arguments based on analogy can be – witness the fruitless search for the luminiferous ether in the late nineteenth century, based on the supposed analogy between light and sound. It was analogically plausible – but non-existent. The analogy was invalid. Richard Dawkins tells us that memes are merely awaiting their Crick and Watson; I think they are merely waiting for their Michelson and Morley."

I would agree with this, particularly about the inappropriateness of analogies sometimes. Dawkins Burka analogy in "The God Delusion" is suspect, for example.

McGrath makes another good point about the association of 'evil' with religion: "Now Professor Dennett might respond by saying that these are not typical of atheism. I believe he would be right to do so. But neither are the excesses of violence and intolerance that he does mention, typical of religion. I appreciate the need for a bit of rhetoric and exaggeration to spice up an argument, but one cannot represent the pathological elements of any movement, religious or antireligious, as if they were normal or typical. Few of us in this audience tonight are in favour of fanaticism; but it is clearly perfectly possible to be a fanatical atheist, as much as a fanatical religionist. It’s fanaticism that’s the problem, not religion or anti-religion."

Agreed. I think the early use of the 'evil', as in 'evil in the name of...' and the other old chestnut 'the problem of evil' are fine as simplistic rebuttals of simplistic claims of theist about the inherent goodness of religion. Both theists and atheists would be better to leave these out of the main debate. Basically 'evil' can be performed by anyone, religious or not. And the problem of evil can be argued either way, as problematic for theism, or inconsequential as evidence against.

McGrath is right here: "In Oxford, we are facing a threat from one of the most fanatical groups in British society today: animal rights protestors. They are not religious. They are driven by an ideology – by a world view. Surely our common enemy is the fanatic, first and foremost. We need to reflect on how to control this phenomenon. But it is a clear factual error to assume that this is limited to, or necessarily characteristic of, religion."

However, Dawkins point is that the dogmatic teaching of religion to children makes them amenable to irrational unquestioned ideas later. That would also be true if we taught dogmatic atheism to children too. I think Dawkins, (and Stephen Law in "The War for Childrens' Minds") are really promoting the teaching of reasoning to children, and the removal of teaching of dogmatic religion - and are not proposing the teaching of atheism. Read Stephen Law's books on philosophy - they don't promote atheism as such, but ask questions and invite the reader to think of their own answers.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Man U Prices

Poor Man U fans. John Mayall (surely he should be a blue) is suing the reds over cup ticket prices being included in the season ticket scheme - it used to be optional, as at Man City.

In response to some season ticket holders protesting by holding up their renewals, the United spokesman added: "We've a waiting list of 14,000 for season tickets and we regularly turned 5,000 people away for Premiership games last season."

So Man U are effectively saying "stuff you, there are more mugs where you came from who will pay."