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Is Religion Dangerous?

I was at a conference yesterday with theologian Professor Keith Ward. He gave a talk based on his book Is Religion Dangerous? and then he and I had a debate. Here's one of the points I made.

Keith (whom I like v. much, by the way) takes the view that religion is not to blame for much (indeed, in the book he even says that it is not a cause of evil, and that it is not intolerant [the intolerant merely use it] - however, his actual view is bit more nuanced than that).

Many, including Keith, recommend religion for social engineering purposes. They claim that (i) it helps build a sense of community, (ii) it makes people happier and healthier, and (iii) it makes them better behaved.

Suppose it does. Even if it were useful in these ways, it seems to me there are nevertheless special dangers attaching to the use of religion as a tool.

Religion is immensely powerful and can behave in unpredictable ways. Take the young earth creationists back in the 60's. A tiny band of crackpots. Who would have predicted that this weird little belief system would, within the space of a half century or so, infect the minds of 100 million Americans, including smart, college educated people?

We have here an illustration of the gobsmacking power of religion to get even very smart people to believe palpably stupid things. We also have an illustration of its unpredictability.

Religion, it seems to me, is a bit like nuclear power. Immensely powerful and (arguably) useful. And, perhaps most of the time, it runs quite happily, doing not much harm.

But unless it is extremely carefully controlled and monitored, it can very quickly run out of control. Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you can predict the unpredicted. Somewhere along the line, something probably will go wrong, and when it does, you have a toxic situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.

Is nuclear power safe, or dangerous? Perhaps it can be used safely, but that's not to deny that it is potentially hugely dangerous. The same, I'd suggest, is true of religion.

Keith Ward agreed with me, by the way.

Let's also not forget that only five of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was still garroting Europeans who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Yes, I know your local vicar seems like a nice chap, but we'd be wise to remember that our freedom from religious oppression and violence is a very recent development.

Currently, the UK Government is fostering, and in many cases, sponsoring a great many little religious nuclear power stations up and down the country. What has now become apparent to me is how little monitoring there is of what goes on in them. Basically, in the independent sector, they're self-monitored.

When I spoke about the potential dangers of faith schools on Radio 4's Today programme, a member of one of the Standing Advisory Comms. on Religious Education contacted me to say, "Thank goodness you're bringing this up." He regularly goes into schools and is horrified by what he sees. And he's a Christian.

If you're not worried about what's going on in some religious schools, you should be. Here's a brief excerpt from a Radio 4 interview with Ibrahim Lawson, head of an Islamic school:

IL: [t]he essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.
ER: You use the word "inculcate": dies that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?
IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really…
ER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?
IL: That’s right…

One of the key safeguards religious schools need to have in place is a critical culture. My own view is schools like Ibrahim Lawson's should no longer be tolerated, let alone be state funded.

Seems to me the UK Government is currently promoting the building of religious nuclear power stations up and down the country - many of them dodgy.

I'd be particularly interested to hear from teachers and others working in this field who have knowledge of the current system - perhaps they can reassure me? Or confirm my suspicions? Remember, I'm not saying all faith schools are dodgy.

For more of my views on faith schools, see my The War For Children's Minds.


It could be argued that Neanderthal Man's ability to 'make fire', or modern Man's ability to invent the match, was also dangerous.

But 'making fire' has guaranteed the survival of Man.

So, why not "religion" ?
Anonymous said…
But 'making fire' has guaranteed the survival of Man.

What an extremely dodgy asseveration, on several levels. You mean, presumably, that technology has so far made human beings very succesful.

But 'guaranteed the survival'? Guaranteed? Don't you think that technology might, in fact, lead to the extinction of humanity? Because it's unpredictable, like religion?

(The neanderthals, btw, were not our ancestors).
Anonymous said…
Fire led to many other inventions and brought mankind out of the stone age.

Religion, on the other hand, suppresses progress.

The two really do not seem to be comparable.
Alex said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said…
Hey Stephen,
I am in complete agreement with you on the point regarding a "critical culture". As one who is currently enrolled in a seminary program, it is my constant fear that I will run into a system that is all about propping up it's internal coherence at the expense of external correspondence. So far it's been a mixed bag. Honestly, the best education I've yet received has been through dialogue with those who see the world differently than myself. I recommend it for everyone.

Schools that are built around unquestioning allegiance to any given ideology are breeding grounds for a most undesirable sort of person. You end up with clans of mutually exclusive fiercely committed individuals who are filled mostly unexamined presuppositions. It's a very short leap indeed form that point to igniting a conflict where those involved are hell bent on the destruction of all competing ideologies. History is rife with such cases. One of the greatest concepts we all ought to entertain is the notion that maybe... just maybe... we might be wrong. Look for truth, not comfort. It's a lonely path and relatively few take it. However, it is my opinion that wold would be a much better place if more of us did.
James James said…
It seems to me that this is not an argument that the world would be better off without religion (however this came about), but specifically that we would be better off without religious schools.
reason said…
Well I went to Catholic Schools and it convinced me to avoid religion like the plague.
Anonymous said…
The power of religion to make people happy is often overstated in these debates because it is nopt properly couterbalanced by the pwoer of religion to immiserate. Polls find a strong correlation between happiness and religious belief partly because those who were made miserable by the religion have left the faith.
Matt M said…
"Many, including Keith, recommend religion for social engineering purposes."

If we convinced all children that every time they misbehaved a puppy was brutally killed it would (probably) improve their behaviour considerably (and help us identify potential future psychopaths) - yet few people would condone such a lie. Why should using religion for similar purposes be seen as any different?

Beliefs should stand or fall on the basis of how much evidence supports them, not their (alleged) utility.
Alex said…
"Beliefs should stand or fall on the basis of how much evidence supports them, not their (alleged) utility."

Preach it brother!
Unknown said…
Beliefs should stand or fall on the basis of how much evidence supports them, not their (alleged) utility.

Anonymous said…
Hello Stephen, I quite agree with your assessment of Keith Ward's point. But weren't you more astonished still by his claim that most of what most Christians said and believed was nonsense and that all that really mattered was that critics of religion should engage with 'academic' Christianity? He did seem almost willfully oblivious to the fact that what he was defending was so totally at odds with what religion actually is as practised in the world. He's probably right that religion as carefully ruminated over in North Oxford isn't dangerous, but on the rest of the planet . . .
James said…
Enjoyed the report!

My particular country is reaping the 'rewards' of religious schools - in terms of how it engineers a lot of problems. After the recurring sex stories are 'finally revealed', maybe we'll start wondering about the rest of the junk they stuffed into the last few generations, in the classroom.

Another helpful fictional framework for understanding the 'positive social benefits' that religions can (nay, choose to?) yield is Frank Herbert's Dune series, in which the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood use a mysterious, underlying framework of beliefs called it's Missionaria Protectiva, a common framework of myths, practices, and incantations upon which iterative generations of religions are all based; and a breeding program, for 'better behaved people' I guess.

Those crazy altruistic 'theists'. ;)
Unknown said…
It's pretty well establish that any faith:
- has its own set of rules
- these rules are not open to interpretation, except by a self serving elite.
- these two conditions cause the faith to evolve over time to include all sorts of rules, and appropriate punishments for breaking them.
- criticism is not tolerated (to varying degrees)
- reason is not applicable

Compare this with nuclear power. When a government is hell bent on promoting nuclear power, at the expense of issues such as cost and safety, then all the above might apply to nuclear power too, up to a point. The limit of the comparison is that the last two conditions are not supposed to apply. It might appear, through political coercion, that criticism and reason are not tolerated, but in the long term they are applicable - the use of nuclear power isn't a faith position.

Though the misuse of nuclear power could be ultimately destructive, it's misuse is most likely to occur in the hands of extreme faith based ideologies - and I include the totalitarian atheistic as well as the theistic faiths.

You can argue the toss about what type of democracy is best, but at least you are allowed to argue. Can you do that in a theocracy? If two theocracies clash on fundamentalist issues, and given they both believe in martyrdom, do you suppose a nuclear holocaust would be avoidable?

So religion is more dangerous than nuclear power.
Matt M said…

Because that's why people hold the beliefs they do - try telling people that while something's a lie it's incredibly useful (to society) for them to believe it and see how much luck you have.
Anonymous said…
Matt, the quote was "should" - just because something is difficult to accomplish does not mean it shouldn't be attempted.

That being said ...

r.b.m., attempting to justify beliefs based on their utility is ultimately futile because what is useful to one person is most definitely not useful to another.

The only way to accurately justify a belief is to prove it is true. If you disprove it that belief should be abandoned.
Anonymous said…
How do you prove any arbitrary fact?

And is it really the case that, for example, the belief that 2+2=5 (to take an uncontroversially "false" fact) is ever really useful for the believer? Not temporarily expedient, but actually useful as part of a coherent system of belief?
Stephen Law said…
Dear anonymous 28th Nov 9.25pm. Yes I thought Keith was a bit wobbly on that issue. But I thought he was most wobbly on the interpretation of scripture - particularly his assumption that the "correct" interpretation of the Bible or Koran must always be benign. May post on that later....
Anonymous said…
Well for starters I can prove that 2+2 does not equal 5, at least in the standard decimal system that we use.

And while that anti-fact may not be useful others, such as the belief in the existence of a "supreme being" serve to make some people an awful lot of money, so I'm sure they find it useful.
Anonymous said…
"Whoosh" is the usual response. Do you know what "uncontroversially" means?

You're claiming that any belief can be justified by proof. Do you think that most people's belief that 2+2=5 is based on their knowledge of a mathematical proof, or do you think that it's based on the fact that 2+2=4 is a useful thing to believe, and 2+2=5 is not a useful thing to believe? Bearing in mind that Russell and Whitehead spent ten years trying unsuccessfully to provide a rigorous proof for that sort of simple arithmetic (360 pages of Principia Mathematica lead up to the conclusion that 1+1=2).
Anonymous said…
Thank you for the history of maths, but that was fully covered in my maths degree some years back.

And yes, I do know what "uncontroversially" means. Do you know what "polite debate" means?

Can an uncontroverisal and untrue belief be useful to the believer. I imagine so, but I'm pretty sure there is no such belief, as any untrue belief will always cause controversy of some kind, even if only amongst a very small group. Your comment was really postulating a situation which cannot exist in order to ... well, I'm not really sure .. back up your statement that you can't prove an arbitrary fact?

"You're claiming that any belief can be justified by proof."

I'm not claiming anything of the kind. I am merely saying that a belief can become proven or disproven. If it is proven then it is no longer a belief, but a fact. If it is disproven then it should be abandoned as a belief.

Of course there are "levels" of proof, in that there can be a great deal of circumstantial evidence to back something up but, as Gödel proved, there will remain theorums which are unprovable in any given system.

Now if you want a response in future then I suggest you post politely. I don't discuss with trolls.
Anonymous said…
"attempting to justify beliefs based on their utility is ultimately futile because what is useful to one person is most definitely not useful to another"

So the fact that 2+2=4 is not uncontroversially true in your view? Or is it not useful?

You need to disentangle "beliefs" and "facts", and also to look back and see where I've used the concept of "truth".

You say beliefs can become proven or disproven (I'd say they can't, facts can be proven or disproven and people can have beliefs about facts, but let's stick to your argument). So what state are beliefs in before they are "proven" or "disproven"? Why do people hold these beliefs?
Anonymous said…
Also: if you're not claiming that any arbitrary belief can be justified by proof, what is the status of those beliefs which you admit cannot be justified by proof? How are those beliefs justified?
Anonymous said…
There are plenty of people to whom the fact that 2+2=4 is totally unimportant and not in the least useful. Probably not in developed countries but find somebody starving in Cambodia and see if they get anything useful from it.

I'm not really sure why you're clinging to this 2+2 argument. You can't use an example to prove anything (which you are trying to do - this untrue uncontroversial belief isn't useful, ergo, no untrue uncontroversial beliefs are useful). It doesn't work like that - you can only disprove by means of a counter-example.

The status of those beliefs which cannot be proved (or disproved) is going to vary depending on the amount of available evidence. In that case it makes sense to side with believing/disbelieving depending on the precise example, and to be ready to change that point of view when new evidence appears.

In general terms this is how science works and why religion simply does not work, because it flies in the face of all available evidence, calling for beliefs which, while it may not be possible to disprove all of them outright, are extremely unlikely based on the available evidence.
Anonymous said…
I'm using 2+2=4 as an example of a fact which is uncontroversially accepted, and which people do not believe as a result of a proof (or because of an empirical fact), but because it is useful - because consistently believing that 2+2=4 is something which has beneficial consequences, and consistently believing that 2+2=5 does not. You can substitute any uncontroversially accepted belief you want, I'm not clinging to it at all. You rightly point out the importance of counterexamples, and I'm still waiting for your illustration of a true fact which does not have utility, which is what you need in order to show that utility is not a good basis for belief.

However, it's no good attempting counterexamples where someone has no interest in the fact in question, because that sidesteps the question of usefulness. A hammer is a useful tool if you're trying to bang in a nail, a mango is not a useful tool. If you have no interest in banging in a nail, is the hammer or the mango more useful? Useful for what? Should your Cambodian need to know what 2+2 is, the question of usefulness would arise - 4 would then be as useful to her, and 5 as useless, as to anyone else.

"You can't use an example to prove anything" - so I can't use an example of a bald man to prove that some men are bald, or that not all men are not bald? You're the one making a sweeping universal claim, and I've provided an example to show you how you are wrong.
Anonymous said…
“Religion, on the other hand, suppresses progress.” – Mike N.
My religion has not suppressed my progress. It is a motivating, driving force that I value very deeply. I would be careful of measuring the value of something by its ability to advance or slow progress. For example, many of our modern technologies were invented due to the urgency that the two world wars put on technology.

I find Stephen's position ironic, because a common critism of religion is that it moves responsibility away from an actor to some external force, and I will apply this same critism to the writer and many of you. By claiming that religion is dangerous you are reinforcing the displacement of responsibility from a person to their religion.
Religion is demonized where it is abused. A Catholic priest molests a child and Catholicism is blamed. It is accepted that the Catholic belief in the virtue of virginity drove the priest sex-crazy enough to commit this horrid act. So what do we make of a Catholic priest who is not a pedophile? If the two of them hold the same office, the same beliefs, possibly the same place of service, what is different? I believe we should move towards placing more responsibility on the person than one's environment.

We have seen people grossly abuse government. Is government dangerous? We have seen people grossly abuse marriage. Is marriage dangerous? We have seen people grossly abuse technology. Is technology dangerous? Please notice that the commnon word in all these statements is "people". All in all, I disagree with Stephen. I do not believe that religion is dangerous; I believe people can choose to be dangerous.
James said…
"My religion has not suppressed my progress. It is a motivating, driving force that I value very deeply. I would be careful of measuring the value of something by its ability to advance or slow progress."

That's right, we don't want anything like objective and clear ideas about what "progress" means, or why it makes possible better lives for everyone. Religion might get hurt, not being needed, like that.

"For example, many of our modern technologies were invented due to the urgency that the two world wars put on technology."

That's right, let's not mention the centuries of scientific progress that made those technologies possible. No matter ... it's merely the context.

"I find Stephen's position ironic, because a common critism of religion is that it moves responsibility away from an actor to some external force, and I will apply this same critism to the writer and many of you. By claiming that religion is dangerous you are reinforcing the displacement of responsibility from a person to their religion."

In the age of personal relationships with divine saviors, that might make sense - but religion, strangely enough, doesn't refer to its individual members to identify itself; rather, it collects and suborns the believers to a common standard of belief. Who shepherds the sheep?

Isn't it funny how god has a perfect divine will, clear as a bell when he expresses it... and yet there's so many subsets of christianity all claiming to have contradictory expressions of that divine will?

"Religion is demonized where it is abused. A Catholic priest molests a child and Catholicism is blamed. It is accepted that the Catholic belief in the virtue of virginity drove the priest sex-crazy enough to commit this horrid act. So what do we make of a Catholic priest who is not a pedophile?"

I make nothing of him - he's of no consequence to me. Why should I give him any consideration over and above anyone else? When he diddles my kids (and there were a LOT of kids diddled, buddy) it a different matter. That's what makes those priests that have been "found wanting" pederasts, not mere pedophiles.

Religion is being exposed and shamed, for BEING an Abuser, in a clear, undeniable, and abhorrent way. If religion can abuse a public trust, by breaking its own moral code, what Truth is in it, I ask you? Those Big Important Points it offers suddenly pale in comparison if they're morally bankrupt. In what possible way can you argue religion's the one abused?
Anonymous said…
"You rightly point out the importance of counterexamples, and I'm still waiting for your illustration of a true fact which does not have utility, which is what you need in order to show that utility is not a good basis for belief."

My dog is brown. Uncontrovertially true, and therefore a justified belief because I can see him. The fact itself though is of no use to myself, my dog or anybody else.

It seems I phrased my last response poorly - of course you can use a bald man as an example to prove bald men exist (although not as a proof that baldness as a genetic trait exists ... as he could have shaved his head ;) )

But then we're not really talking about examples of "some men ..." here are we?
Anonymous said…
Religion does not suppress progress?

- Galileo & Copernicus
- Creationism in schools
- The spread of aids in Africa because of Catholic doctrine

And as for pedophile priests - the Catholic church has an active policy to move these priests around between parishes and effectively hide them, all the time causing more abuse.

I believe that policy is in place largely thanks to the current pope ...
Will Hawthorne said…

What precisely is your claim here? Is it

(A) religion is dangerous,


(B) religion is potentially dangerous?

If (B), then just about anything you care to specify fits that bill, and your claim is uninteresting to the point of triviality. The pen on my desk, for example, potentially has "special dangers" attached to it in that it can be used to savagely kill other humans. Or there's always that "potential" danger that some day a brilliant "nihilist" will convince people, in some Ungerian fashion, that they don't exist. Philosophers might then believe stupid things or act in dangerous ways. Oh no! There are "special" and even unpredictable dangers attached to philosophy!

If your claim is (A), then it's more interesting, but you haven't actually argued for it. Basically, you list a couple of examples of particular instances of religious people who behave in dangerous (or stupid) ways. But it doesn't follow from

(i) there are some people such that they're religious and they perform dangerous actions (or hold dangerous and stupid beliefs),


(ii) therefore, religion is dangerous.

So interpreted in terms of (A) or (B), your claim is flimsy either way. But perhaps there's an alternative interpretation. Would you mind stating your claim in more precise terms?


Anonymous said…
Supposing there were two dogs in a room, yours and one of another colour. Black, say. If you tell a friend to bring your dog, the brown one, isn't the fact that you believe that your dog is brown (and that your friend shares your concept of brownness) useful? You're thinking of "utility" in far too limited a way.
Stephen Law said…
Hello Will – thanks for contributing.

I would have thought it pretty obvious that my argument is not “Some religious people believe/do dangerous/stupid things, therefore religion is dangerous.”

I am suggesting it takes something pretty powerful to get so many (in some cases highly educated and smart) people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly (though religion may not be unique in this respect).

Religion has that sort of power. It’s also rather unpredictable (as I pointed out, no one would have predicted what happened).

Is it not sensible, then, when dealing with something so powerful and unpredictable, to have certain safeguards in place? Just as for nuclear power. That was my conclusion. Disagree?

Is religion dangerous? If nuclear power is “dangerous”, then, yes, so is religion.

The answer to the question “Is religion dangerous?” depends on what we mean by “dangerous” (e.g. does it mean will result in bad stuff (really bad stuff, quite bad stuff?), highly probable will result in bad stuff (really bad stuff, quite bad stuff?), possible it will result in bad stuff, etc.?). Which is why I didn’t bother to provide an answer – I can’t be bothered to get into a boring semantic dispute about what “dangerous” means.

Give me your definition of “dangerous” and I’ll give you my answer.
Will Hawthorne said…

Why it's incumbent upon me to define terms ("dangerous") for you that you initially made use of in your entry is a mystery.

In any case, your argument runs as follows:

(1) Religion has the power to get so many people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly.

(2) Religion is also unpredictable.

(3) If something x is unpredictable and has the power to get so many people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly, we should have safeguards in place against x.

(4) So we should have safeguards in place against religion.

I think this is a fair construal, given your comment above. Now, where are your supporting arguments for (1) and (2)?

All you did in your original entry is bring up examples of particular religious people who hold ridiculous beliefs. But, as I said earlier, it doesn't follow from that that religion has the "power" to do thus and such. At the most, you could claim that some religious people have the power to assent to ridiculous beliefs. And certainly that's true.

What does it even mean in the first place to assert that "religion has the power..."? This is surely translatable into talk of religious people having power, right? Like a football team, or the Navy, or the media, religion is composed of people who hold many different kinds of beliefs. It's not an entity that exists over and above the set of people who compose it.

So if a subset of religious people have bizarre (or even dangerous) beliefs, it seems more sensible to say that we should safeguard against them, not "religion". If you disagree, then are you prepared to suggest that we should safeguard against football, say, if we find that many of its players abuse steroids and hold irrational beliefs?

You also provided no arguments for (3). If you think you did, then would you mind formulating them for me in your next comment? Anyway, (3) is subject to obvious counterexamples. Using your reasoning and terminology, one might say that the blogosphere has the power to get so many people to believe ridiculous things so quickly. Should we safeguard against the blogosphere?

And again, the key terms you employ in your argument seem either ambiguous or too vague. What does "safeguarding" against religion entail? (I'm not asking for necessary and sufficient conditions; a rough sketch would be nice.) And why should we safeguard against religion, rather than just particular religions? Do you want us to safeguard against theistic buddhism, hinduism, neoshamanism, bha'i, dianic wicca, christian wicca, santeria, progressive judaism, and all the other thousands of religions in the world? You might say something like, "No, only certain religions should be safeguarded against." But if you say that, then O wonder why you wouldn't just say, "Only certain religious people should be safeguarded against."


Stephen Law said…
William says: “Why it's incumbent upon me to define terms ("dangerous") for you that you initially made use of in your entry is a mystery.”

Let me explain. I was responding to Keith Ward, who argued that religion is not (very) dangerous. I myself deliberately avoided making a categorical claim about whether or not religion is “dangerous”.

Instead, I argued for a conditional: IF nuclear power qualifies as dangerous, THEN so does religion, for similar reasons (of course, there may be [well, there are] those who deny nuclear power is “dangerous” even while acknowledging there are risks that need to be managed; ditto religion.).

Certainly, I’m suggesting religion involves a similar sort of risk (i.e. because of its power and unpredictability). Whether you call it “dangerous” is up to you.

I simply didn’t get into the debate about whether religion categorically is “dangerous”. If you want to drag me into that debate, the onus is on you to define the term.

I’ll respond to rest of your comment in a main posting. See today's entry.
Anonymous said…
I find it weird that you all are debating, "Is religion dangerous?" without first defining what "religion" is. Perhaps I missed this while scrolling through. Can anyone point me to a post where it was defined, if indeed I did miss it?
Unknown said…
It is probably a family resemblance concept, so no definition in terms of nec and suff conditions is possible. However, I think we all know what we are talking about don't we - Christianity, Judeaism, Hinduism - belief systems concerned with revealing the fundamental nature of reality (usually supernatural, involving deities), recommending a particular path to salvation/enlightenment, etc. Typically they also lay down moral principles, and make a virtue of faith and submission.

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