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BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 1.

Chapter One: A deeply religious non-believer

I won’t recount the contents of each chapter, as I am assuming you will have read them. Instead I will pull out a few points I think of particular interest.

Much of this first chapter is devoted to explaining that while scientists will sometimes talk about God – e.g. Einstein and Hawking both do – they use the word in an unusual way. Einstein, as Dawkins clearly, shows, did not believe in any sort of personal God or creator/designer God, and was perhaps something of a Spinozistic pantheist.

Dawkins next turns his attention to the special reverence and privilege that he believes attaches, quite undeservedly, to religious belief.

There are two issues here:

(i) are religious beliefs and views given special privileges and respect? and
(ii) if so, do they deserve those privileges and that respect?

Dawkins answer to (i) is yes, they are, and it seems hard to deny he is right about that. What Dawkins does not address, certainly in this chapter, is whether a case might be made for answering “yes” to the second question. Dawkins here just assumes the answer to (ii) is “no”. Some religious readers will want to argue the correct answer is “yes”

Actually, I looked at some of the most obvious arguments for a “yes” answer to (ii) in this article I posted a few months ago, if you are interested in pursuing this point. I explain that (i) the onus is on those who think the religious and their beliefs are due special respect to justify this discrimination in their favour (if they cannot, they are guilty of simple prejudice), and (ii) I can find no good justification for privileging religious beliefs in this way. Certainly, the most obvious justifications fail spectacularly.

I, like Dawkins, am particularly struck by the way religious experts are called on whenever an ethical issue is debated. As Dawkins observes:

“whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio and television. I am not suggesting we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer, or a doctor?”

Well, there are reasons the religious will give to justify giving religious perspectives a platform, alongside such other experts, and some might yet be good reasons. Here are some:

(i) religion has, historically, tended to be one of the main forums in which such ethical questions have been raised and addressed.
(ii) religious leaders have often thought harder and longer about ethical issues than most of us
(iii) religious leaders may have built up some expertise dealing face to face with people struggling problems and trying to offer help and advice.
(iv) religious leaders represent large groups defined in large part by their ethical outlook.

But do these facts justify beating a path to the door of the religious leaders whenever ethical issues are discussed? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

One last thing. I would add this point about expertise on ethical matters. Even if religious leaders do have rather more expertise and insight than most of us when it comes to ethical issues, that doesn’t entail we should defer to them. As I explained a while back, while it might make sense to defer to a chemist on chemical matters, or a plumber on how your pipe work should run, you shouldn’t defer to anyone – not even a religious leader – on moral matters. The responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be handed over to an “expert” in the way that the responsibility for making a chemical or plumbing judgement can.

This is something many (not all) religious people deny. They think their leaders are “experts” to be deferred to in just this way. They are, I think, dangerously wrong to think that. See the War For Children’s Minds, chpt 5.


I find the whole Einstein "was-he-or-wasn't-he" thing really tedious (rather like Hitler: "christian or not"). How exactly would the arguments change if Albert had worn a cilice?
Anonymous said…
They wouldn't, it's just that religious people feel it gives their beliefs some justification if a person of such genius shares them.
Anonymous said…
There's another angle - ii a, perhaps. I think it's fair to say that religious leaders have thought harder and longer about ethical issues than most of us and that they may have built up some expertise dealing face to face with people and trying to offer help and advice. But I think it's also fair to say that, to the extent that their thinking about ethical issues is explicitly religious, it is likely to be flawed. To put it crudely, if the thinking is along the lines of 'X is bad because God/the Bible/the Koran/Sharia says so' then it's an unthoughtful kind of thinking.

Not all religious leaders do think that way, but the possibility is a crack in their expertise.
Larry Hamelin said…
(i) religion has, historically, tended to be one of the main forums in which such ethical questions have been raised and addressed.
(ii) religious leaders have often thought harder and longer about ethical issues than most of us

I suspect Simon Blackburn would call both of these justifications instances of the Protestant Work Ethic fallacy.
Anonymous said…
Ophelia beat me to it, but I'll add my own spin on the point.

Stephen, you've frequently argued for the primacy of critical thinking in epistemology, education, and life in general - and rightly so. Overwhelmingly, the specific sort of training and experience in religious thought that ministers and priests and imams and the like receive - as opposed to a religiously neutral, secular approach to comparative religion as a topic of sociological, historical, anthropological, and literary study - is directly OPPOSED to critical thinking. These religious "experts" on moral matters, insofar as they embrace beliefs on the basis of faith rather than reason and evidence, are deliberately setting aside the only tools we have for separating truths and falsehoods. In this, I see no relevant distinction between scientific and moral issues: Faith is anti-expertise no matter how you slice it.
Stephen, things are never that black and white. I am particularly struck by the skill some religious leaders exhibit when dealing with very human issues. You see some of them devote their lives to people, and they probably undertake many mundane ritualistic tasks in order to do what they obviously love doing.

On Wednesday of this week, I attended a funeral of a 41 year old man who had committed suicide. The man was the son of a friend of mine.

I was particularly struck by the practical advice for the occasion, and the actions and humble demeanour of the elderly Franciscan who took the service in a Catholic church. The priest was a relative of the dead man. He emphasised the importance of the family. During the service, and afterwards when everyone met for food, he made a point of speaking and shaking hands with as many people as possible. I observed his face while he spoke with the families and friends. This was not something he did out of duty. For a guy like that, I give a yes, even if I don't accept his beliefs.
Kosh3 said…
1. Something that annoyed me about Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' was his use of the word 'god'. If you were not aware of a certain historical precedent of physicists using the word in an unusual way, as I wasn't when I read it when I was probably about 15, you would have had no idea at all that Hawking could have been the word in a nonstandard way. He later said in an interview he greatly regretted not making his views on god clearer - that he meant not god in any traditional western sense, but some spinozan, nomological sense. Well, he has only himself to blame, and it was entirely foreseeable. I suppose the same applies to Einstein's use of the word. I agree with Schop, in the following

"The chief objection I have to Pantheism is that it says nothing. To call the world God is not to explain it; it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word world."
--Schopenhauer, 'A Few Words On Pantheism'

2. Karen Jones (in 'Second-hand Moral Knowledge', Journal of Philos.) has argued that there is a place for deference to others on ethical issues. Her basic argument runs: some people, through their life experiences, are in a better position than others to recognise, say, racism or sexism, than others are. For example, a woman may be more sensitive to recognising the sexism of a given situation than a man may be - not all men, necessarily, but some individuals, who lack the appropriate life experiences to become attuned to recognising them. In such cases, where the man cannot see himself why honest, trustworthy, and critical women looking at situation x would describe it as sexist, they should defer to that the situation is in fact sexist.

My response goes:
-The moral judgments we make can be extremely important for ourselves and others, and as such, we are called on to be very careful and demanding in relation to them. The level of trust in others than would need to be met in order to accept their moral authority needs to be high.
-Peoples life experiences can just as easily lead them to wrong, biased, or otherwise inaccurate ethical judgments as right ones. A Marxist who said "look, I've worked on a factory floor for 18 long years, trust me when I say that the current mode of production of western societies is exploitative" would not be convincing.
-In light of 1 and 2, we need some way of independently establishing the moral reliability of putative experts - some way of seeing that their judgments in areas where our moral faculties are blind turn out to be true most of the time. The prospects for this kind of assessment seem very dim - precisely because we ourselves cannot perceive the truth of the moral judgments of others in those situations, we are not in a position to ascribe to them that reliability. The man who defers to the trustworthy, honest, and critical women that situation x is sexist, does not then himself actually perceive it as being sexist. He just (nominally, at least) believes that it is.

Thus, it seems to me that everything about the situation as described can be true – that a man Y is blind to the sexism of situation X, that a group of women viewing it are not – and that it is still not advisable to defer to them. None of that makes reference to responsibility, which Stephen highlights as being important. I suppose that could be worked in, but there at least is an alternative that can stand without it.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Geoff (which is odd; I don't usually find myself defending clerics). I do think clerical experience of trying to help and console people is worth something; often quite a lot. There was something on BBC World News a few months ago - riots in Kenya or was it Zimbabwe - violence, people killed and injured, people wailing over corpses - and there was some decent-looking guy in a dog collar. In that situation it was a relief to see him. That's not exactly expertise but it is at least experience.

(Am I losing my grip?)
Paul P. Mealing said…
I am possibly the only person who contributes to this blog who has 'issues' with Dawkins. I don't see the world as being divided between atheists and religious fundamentalists, but I expect that's because I live in a subtly different society to him. Cultural context has a lot to do with one's worldview.

In regard to Stephen's comments, the best book I've read on moral philosophy is Hugh Mackay's 'Right & Wrong, how to decide for yourself'. He spends an entire chapter explaining why morality from 'God' is a bad idea.

Regards, Paul.
Anonymous said…
I guess one question I have is "Who is it that is calling on the religious experts to address controversy over moral issues?

If you mean the media, perhaps you are giving them too much credit for having pure motives. Perhaps a greater issue for them is stirring up more controversy, getting more viewers, hense getting more advertising dollars. And what better way than to bring in Jerry Falwell, Joel Olsteen, Rick Warren, etc. People who love them will tune in just because and those who don't will because they want to see them crash and burn.

If you are talking about government or other institutions, where else is there to turn? Shall we turn to an atheist or agnostic to answer moral issues? On what basis will their answer be acceptable? At least a "religious" leader has some credibility to some people. At least a "religious" leader has some standard to which their response can be held or checked out.

I am not saying that makes it right, but I cannot say that makes it wrong. Are such issues held to an unchangable standard (such as for those who believe in God) or are they in a state of flux, dependant on our understanding at that time? Like it or not, I think most people prefer the former because if nothing else, it is more comfortable to believe that every question has an answer.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Ophelia and others that clerics' experience may be helpful in some ethical dilemmas, but I also agree with Kosh3 that clerics' worldviews may also, just as easily, lead them astray. It all depends on the situation, the cleric, and the clerics' experience.

Therefore, Stephen's point -- that we each have responsibility to make our own ethical decisions -- stands.

Most of us will want to consult with others before making a difficult moral choice. And, for some people, that may mean consulting a cleric.
jeremy said…
Yes, I don't think Dawkins would have any problem identifying certain clergymen as being wonderful, good people. I think the issue is whether or not their opinion should be privileged above that of the average man, necessarily.

What about the argument that, seeing as a great many people are religious, they should have a representative on such ethical panels? (This is basically Stephen's point 4.)

Imagine a law that was aimed at outlawing gun ownership. Would it be inappropriate to have the president of the National Firearms Association present on the panel?

This argument does not assume that the religious have any sort of moral expertise. It only says that they represent a large group of people, and that such representation should be present when discussing matters that affect this large group.

Anonymous said…
I think it is fair to draw a distinction firstly between authority that people derive from religion in the following ways

i) simply being religious
quite often the media will point this out in the same way as they do peoples ages number of children etc. in this way it may become a "hurray word". People often use it themselves as in "I was bought up a Catholic and..."

ii) using arguents from religion. Quoting their favourite holy book. Looks like reason but isn't.

iii) holding a religious qualification.
Well any PhD looks good doesn't it. Very open to exerts straying outside their field. e.g. from monasticism in 12th century Ireland to ethics of reproductive medicine.

iv) holding religious office.
This might hold as others have said by virtue of either representation of a significant community or the job itself providing relevant experience such as pastoral work.

Historically religious organisations have held onto (iii) as well as both parts of (iv). You could not get an academic qualification in anything if you were considered unorthodox even in the fairly recent past. It is very difficult to rid ourselves of this weight of history. It permeates our institutions and language. Words like "Christian" and used as synonyms for "charitable","just" self sacrificing" etc. while "Unholy" is seen as a bad thing.

The thing that struck me about Ch.1 was the role of religion in the giving and taking of offence. As RD points out religion somehow elevates offence in its name way beyond any other sort. I think this privileges religion far more than simply allowing a brace of bishops in parliament or the odd priest on an ethics committee, since it is more likely to impinge on everyday life. The paradox is that the written teachings of at least some religions exhort the believer to bear any such indignities with good grace ("turn the other cheek" etc.) or at least fatalism. More than that, they portray suffering of this sort in the name of the faith as particularly virtuous. Martyrdom, not running in races on Sunday even though you might win and so on. The final twist is the stream of apologetics in response to the "Problem of Evil". Surely a bit of religious persecution is positively beneficial?
Psiomniac said…
I am possibly the only person who contributes to this blog who has 'issues' with Dawkins.
Trust me, you're not.
I think there is a question of 'why have expertise at all?' but given that there is some respect for expertise the question becomes one of 'what expertise should be given respect in these contexts?'

What understanding of 'religion' is being used? The word is being used a lot - not least by Dawkins - but what is being referred to?

Finally, in the case of a panel of the great and good, presumably what we are after is some sort of wise guidance. So, to explore what sort of people should be on such a panel, we need to give some consideration to what human practices cultivate wisdom, however understood (which could then be discussed) and whether the 'religions' are better understood as 'wisdom traditions' - which brings us back to the topic discussed several threads ago, which nobody seemed interested in taking up.
Anonymous said…
"I think there is a question of 'why have expertise at all?' but given that there is some respect for expertise the question becomes one of 'what expertise should be given respect in these contexts?'"

But this surely RD's point. The other markers of expertise we use are over-ridden in the case of religion. We are conditioned to stop asking and assume that a dark robe implies expertise in all matters of morals and ethics. Mind you we are also often asked to believe that politicians are exerts in various aspect of public policy simply by virtue of appointment by the PM.
Just re-read chapter 1 (which I first read a month ago) and I'm re-struck by his insistence on 'supernatural' as the defining aspect of religious belief. This begs a few questions, as I touched on here.
Psiomniac said…
Sam, I agree that the term 'supernatural' is problematic.
I also looked at the issue although briefly here.
Anonymous said…
I think what Dawkins is referring to by "supernatural" is "magical". The defining aspect of religion being magical thnking and fantasy.
Anonymous said…
"Back in the day," it was considered impolite to discuss politics and religion. I gather that, in many areas in the U.K., today, most people "of faith" keep it to themselves. In such a situation, I can imagine that frank discussion about reality might "offend" someone else's religious beliefs or superstitions -- but that person would not, then, admit that he or she was offended. In such a situation, a religious belief becomes almost a dirty little secret.

In some ways, the above would be preferable, to me, to the strident "I'm offended" dialogue so often engaged in here in the U.S. But on the whole, I enjoy an open society in which people typically express all sorts of opinions and feelings, including expounding on politics and, yes, religion. Living in an open society, surrounded by all kinds of people and knowing about, in many cases, their religious beliefs, I try not to deliberately offend others' religious sensibilities, but I also try to be firm about my own lines being crossed. For instance, a conservative Catholic friend said something about evolution completely lacking evidence. I might've let her slide on her anti-evolution comment (we were alone, and I'm NEVER going to change her mind), but she crossed MY line when she used the word "evidence." So I popped into a brief review of the mountains of evidence (including the fact that we actually see evolution).

On the other hand, I didn't say that her beliefs are idiotic or anything else that has no purpose other than to be disrespectful.
Kyle Szklenski said…
Hm. I'm still wondering: What does it even mean to be an "expert" in moral discourse? There's a lot of possibilities, as far as I can tell.

1) A person who has been through a lot of difficulty in life and has made choices that might be similar to yours before.

2) A moral philosopher who, while maybe they have not been through the difficulties personally, have nevertheless thought about a lot more situations than most people, and have come to conclusions about how these types of decisions should be made.

3) A book-thumping priest who claims to have a reference manual for making these types of decisions. (Sorry, I know this is a bit loaded, but I really can't see any reason anyone should choose this option.)

4) A child who is innocent and therefore may be better at not bringing any prejudices to the table when answering the question.

5) Any intelligent person who is able to weigh the pros and cons of each possible decision and decide fairly between the two.

I'm sure I missed some, and you probably think some of the above can be summarily dismissed, but this was just a starting point to try to figure out what we even mean by "expert" when it comes to moral decisions. In fact, I would go so far as to ask how can one determine if another is any more or any less able to answer a moral question than they are? This is a befuddling question to me.
Anonymous said…
Should we take moral advice on abortion or stem cell research from a person who believes in ensoulment? Should we take advice regarding woman’s rights from a male dominated organization who believes in different ‘roles’ for men and women? Should we accept ‘wisdom’ on how to live from a person who believes our goal in life should be the unification with God? What about listening to catholic priest on the matter of sex education in schools?

The answer to those questions is surely a resounding no because religious a priori faith limits their thinking . I know this sounds extreme but personally I have no trust left in religious organizations. Should you listen to a religious person disparage evolution? No because they have a repeated history of lying and distorting the facts. Should you listen to a religious person on moral social problems? No because once again they lie and distort the facts to support their religious faith. The Catholic church for example is happy to claim their campaign for absence in Africa is reducing aids but the vast majority of independent organizations disagrees.
kyle - I think I would add something about being trained in a tradition that has explored the relevant topics - in other words training can enable clear thinking on an issue, taking advantage of what has already been discerned - so you don't have to keep reinventing the wheel
Anonymous said…
I am not surprised by the inclusion of "religious leaders" in public discourse. As Ophelia indicated, religious leaders would be persons who perhaps give ethical/moral questions more consideration and thought than leaders in other fields (technical,scientific, etc.). Moreover, they would also represent (being leaders) the views of large segments of the general population. So when they give their opinions on topics like abortion or stem cell research, they are reflecting the views of many people (whether those views are rational or not). That's the nature of democracy.
Larry Hamelin said…
Sam asks What understanding of 'religion' is being used? The word is being used a lot - not least by Dawkins - but what is being referred to?

I think Sam adequately answers his own question:

I'm re-struck by his insistence on 'supernatural' as the defining aspect of religious belief.

But this is not precisely correct: Dawkins does not propose the idea of "supernatural" as the defining of character of all religion. Dawkins makes clear, rather, that he uses supernaturalism to define the sort of religion he is interested in talking about.

This begs a few questions...

How? It's simply not an objection at all to observe that Dawkins does not seem interested in talking about the sort of religion Sam is (or says he is) interested in.
Larry Hamelin said…
[I]t might make sense to defer to a chemist on chemical matters, or a plumber on how your pipe work should run...

Let me leave aside Stephen's entirely correct point that one should not defer to even a legitimate expert in moral matters.

It bears closer examination precisely why we should defer to plumbers. We should defer to them not because they have spent a lot of time studying plumbing. We should defer to them not because they have passed examinations or received credentials.

This is the protestant work ethic fallacy. There are any number of people who have spent vast amounts of time studying physics, who are still just lunatics. You can put as many hours as you like studying astrology, you can memorize books full of information and pass the most rigorous exams (graded on a curve with a normal distribution), and you will have learned nothing of value.

By itself, the amount of work you have spent learning some discipline does not establish the value of that discipline. By itself, the credentials you have received, no matter how difficult they are to obtain, do not establish value.

We should defer to plumbers because they have proven their ability to do what we ask of them: to fix our pipes.

That's the only question we need to ask: Have the religious proven their ability to get the correct answers to ethical questions?

Taking our modern 21st century liberal ethics as a yardstick, we find that the vast majority of the religious have been wrong on every issue. They were wrong on slavery, wrong on women's rights, wrong on democracy, wrong on science, wrong on freedom of speech, wrong on divorce, wrong on medical ethics. I cannot think of a single relevant ethical issue considered more or less solved today that was not achieved despite the best efforts of the majority of religious authorities.

Yes, there have been exceptions. What of them? At worst, they have been considered dissenters and heretics by the same kinds of authorities that today demand acknowledgment as experts; at best they have been following in the footsteps of secularism, pushing back on God the ethical beliefs won by men and women.

A school that claims expertise only by disowning 99% of every graduating class for the last two thousand years would not engender the least bit of confidence in its ability to produce expertise.
jeremy said…
Yes, I agree with BB that Dawkins is very clear to define exactly the conception of 'God' that he is debating. And I think that the definition he uses is the one most religious people subscribe to (some "sophisticated" theologians aside).

I also find BB's following post (on deference to religious authorities) very interesting - much food for thought.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Cathy made a point about keeping religion beliefs to oneself, or not discussing it in polite company, and I think this can be misconstrued.

I grew up in a country where there was a political divide between protestants and Catholics that affected even the small country town where I grew up – we were effectively segregated – as school kids we had nothing to do with each other, even though there were only 2 schools in the town: one government and one Catholic, less than 10 minutes apart by foot. That all disappeared in the 1960s – just evaporated like it had never existed.

So there was a political reason why people didn’t discuss religion. But there was also a sense that religion was something deeply personal that you didn’t discuss with others because it wasn’t their business. People who ‘sold’ religion door to door were invariably given short thrift, not because the recipients on the other side of the door were atheists, but because they believed that their religious beliefs were no one else’s business. I think that attitude still exists to some extent in Australian secular society, which is why there is a large degree of tolerance to other religions generally, as long as people keep it to themselves and don’t try and convert you.

Regards, Paul.
Anonymous said…
Re - deference to religious authority.

In later editions to the book RD has added a further preface in which he deals with several popular responses including
"You can't criticize religion without a detailed analysis of learned books of theology". In case you haven't got that edition RD cites in his response
P. Z. Myers "The Courtiers Reply"
Anonymous said…
On the subject of expertise:
I can see that exposure to suffering and to people going through moral and ethical dilemmas might contribute to someone being counted as a an expert. While this is true of people employed in a religious capacity surely it is also true of medical staff and the police?
Anonymous said…

A liitle more knowledge of the way theism actaully operates might have helped dawkins define the god he was denying a little better.

In practice Theism and Pantheism are not different species. The lines arent so cute a dawkins maintains. In my experience they are interdependent ideas.

What dawkins defines as god are the parts of theology which can not be tested by traditional scientific method.

Why should all aspects of theology be verified by scientific arguments ? - until someone puts this message through a spectrometer to discover what I really meant - I honestly cant see this book as nothing more than journalism disguised as science.
Stephen Law said…
Hi big bad bob - you say "What Dawkins defines as god are the parts of theology which can not be tested by traditional scientific method."

Not sure what you mean by this.

Take the hypothesis that there's an all-powerful all-evil being. That's straightforwardly empirically falsified. So why is the all-powerful all-good God hypothesis not also empirically testable?

Seems to me it is, and is similarly empirically falsified.
Stephen Law said…
PS BBB I will expand that last comment as a post.
Anonymous said…

Lets just say Dawkins idea of god is an objectifiable being - something separate form the observer - thats a great target for scientific method - you can safely say "this cannot be verified by scientific method".

But if god is part of the equation - if he is equally an interior and exterior phenomenom - then its quite hard to get something observing itself to validate itself ?

I guess I am one of those moderate believers that dawkins writes about and says he would have written a different book if everyone was like me. I am saying a lot of people are and we would like someone to write that book...

hope this helps

i have no formal training in philosophy - i wasnt joking about running my posts through a spectrometer - they might make more sense that way...
Anonymous said…
Slightly off-topic perhaps:
I was lucky enough to read a copy hot off the press before any of the reviews were published. As I am already an atheist I am in the choir to which he is preaching, so although I was entertained by the book it did not introduce much that was new to me. This made reading the reviews actually more fascinating than reading the book. Most of the them were bad not in the sense of panning the book (though they did), but in the sense of giving wildly inaccurate accounts of the contents. This stuck me as odd, as one of Dawkins' qualities is clarity.
I suspect that for several of the theist reviewers their mission was to give whoever read their review grounds to dismiss the book without reading it. As refutation of the actual arguments would be quite difficult (in the case of some of the classic arguments for atheism a refutation would actually have been a major philosophical breakthrough) the goal was therefore to simply imply that a refutation exists somewhere without actually stating it. Another technique was to tag atheism as old-fashioned in contrast to the "happening" and "now" virtues of theism. The vaguest technique was the "sophistication" defence. Dawkins was "unsophisticated" while the reviewer was "sophisticated" (those reviews had to be read in the voice of George Sanders for maximum effect). This works best if the reviewer avoids giving examples, so when the reviewer is given lots of room (see Eagleton) it can come spectacularly unstuck. The sum total message of these reviews is "nothing to see here, move along". Not all of this was actual dishonesty. For example responses to the courtier's reply tend not to understand it, because if you genuinely can see the emperor's clothes then you are going to think the child in the story is an idiot. I have even seen one theistic writer suggest that Myers is arguing in favour of ignorance, which is so obviously wrong that you know someone is just not getting it.
Sorry to ramble on - I'll finish by mentioning the name of the one reviewer I can remember who actually showed signs of having read the book. It was Marek Kohn.
Anonymous said…
You (Stephen) note that Dawkins contends that an undeserved sense of reverence is attached to religious belief. Rightly, I think, you also note two issues are at stake:

(i) Are religious beliefs and views given special privileges and respect?


(ii) If so, do they deserve those privileges and that respect?

First, I should note that Dawkins gives very specific answers to a very broad question. Are we suppose to understand Dawkins as speaking specifically about the present? Or the past? Or all of history? I'm not entirely sure what Dawkins means, and I think he fluctuates between the two. Predominantly, I think religious belief has been revered simply because (historically) religious belief has been widely held. However, there have been plenty of cultures where religious belief has been held with neglect, and in such cultures religious belief has been condemned. As far as our present and specific culture, I think what reverence did exist is now being questioned - so Dawkins is not entirely wrong.

As for (ii), I do not think they deserve those privileges any more or any less than any group of beliefs. We ought not to revere atheist belief simply because it hasn't been revered in the past; nor should we revere religious belief because it has.

The same holds for his criticism of "moral" experts. What one considers as an "expert" (though I might disagree with this term) depends entirely on one's moral or ethical philosophy. Historically, religious leaders have been called on these issues simply because people tended to have a religiously based metaphysics. Before we settle who we should call on issues of ethics, we ought first to settle what a proper ethics is.
Anonymous said…
Representation of a group as represented through religious leaders is a poor excuse for proper representation.

If you want proper representation, have a vote (democracy), or select people at random (statistical sampling).

This argument is put forward for why religious leaders should be represented in the House of Lords, and it is spurious there for the same reasons as apply here. Those without religion are not represented, those represented are not represented in proportion to their numbers (or even the strength of their beliefs) but by historical accident.

Then you have to ask how are these people selected. In whose hands are you placing the reins of power? Down this route lies cliches, cabals, and theocracy.
Anonymous said…
Then you have to ask how are these people selected. In whose hands are you placing the reins of power? Down this route lies cliches, cabals, and theocracy!

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Why I won't be voting Labour at the next General Election, not even to 'keep the Tories out'.

I have always voted Labour, and have often been a member of the Party, campaigning and canvassing for them. For what it’s worth, here’s my feeling about voting Labour next General Election:   1. When the left vote Labour after they move rightwards, they are encouraged to just move further right, to the point where they are now probably right of where e.g. John Major’s Tory party was. And each time the Tories go further right still. At some point we have got to stop fuelling this toxic drift to the right by making the Labour Party realise that it’s going to start costing them votes. I can’t think of anything politically more important than halting this increasingly frightening rightward slide. So I am no longer voting Labour. 2. If a new socialist party starts up, it could easily hoover up many of the 200k former LP members who have left in disgust (I’d join), and perhaps also pick up union affiliations. They could become the second biggest party by membership quite quickly. Our voting


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Aquinas on homosexuality

Thought I would try a bit of a draft out on the blog, for feedback. All comments gratefully received. No doubt I've got at least some details wrong re the Catholic Church's position... AQUINAS AND SEXUAL ETHICS Aquinas’s thinking remains hugely influential within the Catholic Church. In particular, his ideas concerning sexual ethics still heavily shape Church teaching. It is on these ideas that we focus here. In particular, I will look at Aquinas’s justification for morally condemning homosexual acts. When homosexuality is judged to be morally wrong, the justification offered is often that homosexuality is, in some sense, “unnatural”. Aquinas develops a sophisticated version of this sort of argument. The roots of the argument lie in thinking of Aristotle, whom Aquinas believes to be scientifically authoritative. Indeed, one of Aquinas’s over-arching aims was to show how Aristotle’s philosophical system is broadly compatible with Christian thought. I begin with a sketch of Arist