Category Archives: Atheism

Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

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The Neanderthals

[This article is the third in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

Baroness Murphy said recently in an article on Lords of the Blog.

Sitting here blogging while waiting on tenterhooks for the vote in the Commons on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Mustn’t watch more TV…I just heard a TV BBC 1 newsreader describe the debate on the creation of hybrid embryos for stem cell research as ‘a clash between science and ethics’. I was so angry I wanted to punch the screen. Huge numbers of ordinary people (and peers by a massive vote when the bill came through the Lords a couple of months ago) regard it as immoral and unethical to stop research that could benefit thousands of people. Far from being a clash between science and ethics it is more a straight clash between medieval church ignorance and 21st century secular realities and medical advances.

This dismissal of the concerns of so many people as ‘medieval church ignorance’ is a typical highly-educated liberal dismissal of those that question, on religious grounds, the brave new world being delivered by science, as was Arianna Huffington’s article, GOP Debate: A Competition to See Who Could Be the Biggest Neanderthal, decrying conservative positions on issues like abortion, stem-cell research and evolution in a Republican presidential debate.

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In Defence of Motherhood

Jean Kazez has an interesting article at Talking Philosophy, Are Kids Green?, where she discusses the ethical dilemma of having children (for an atheist). As Kazez makes clear, and this is an argument that the Chinese government has made, children are not environmentally friendly, so how do you ethically justify having children. The article is brutally honest, and Kazez rightly argues for the common sense position.

But that’s not how I read it. I think in discussions of morality there’s usually an unstated assumption that moral imperatives take priority. Either you do what you should, morally, or you hang your head in shame…you lose your right to self-respect. In the lingo of metaethics, this is the view that moral considerations are overriding.

But I think not. Morality is a very important part of what we aim for, but not all of what we aim for, and not first priority all of the time, over absolutely anything else. What can compete with morality? A variety of things, but one is the sense of having one life to live. I will do what’s critically important to me before I die, and I won’t hang my head for that.

On another meta-point, I agree with Kazez allowing common sense to take precedence here. If your philosophy is contradicting reality then this is interesting, but you must give the benefit of the doubt reality and assume the philosophy has gone wrong somewhere (at least until the reason for the paradox has become clear). I think there is a paradox here as ethics is a guide to actions and why shouldn’t ethics guide the decisions over how many children to have. The environmental logic is difficult to escape yet it is plainly barmy to conclude that it is ethically dubious for a couple to have a child. Kazez is clearly interested in grown-up real-world honest philosophy, which can’t but command respect.

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Subjective Truth and The Rationality of Religion

[The discussion thread for Julian Baggini’s Karma’s heart of Stone at Talking Philosophy took off and produced an interesting discussion of how atheists should critique religion. I was making the case that atheists were far too prone to satisfy themselves with critiquing the crudest religious expositions but that they should be gunning for the most sophisticated critiques. It produced a long and interesting discussion thread that broached many subjects. It is a shame that this kind of discussion between atheists and religious people doesn’t happen more often instead of the stock bun fights were people get to reiterate their stale positions.

One of the more interesting interchanges concerned a discussion of ‘subjective truth’. This illustrated for me another area in which atheists and those adhering to religious philosophies are inhabiting different mental universes. I have lightly edited the discussion into the following.]

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Fundamentalist Atheists

Over at South Jerusalem Gershom Gorenberg has a fascinating article arising out of the controversial comments of John Hagee and Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook about a literalist tendency, seen in all religions, that attempts to map scripture onto the external world in the pursuit of meaning. As Gorenberg said these folks are showing that they don’t understand poetry or his view (and I agree) religion, and he concludes:

So once again we have a choice. We can misread verses as Hagee does, as Tzvi Yehudah Kook did, and sit back and believe that we understand what it all really means. Or we can read the verses as Heschel did, or as Martin Luther King did, and ask what we are supposed to do. This isn’t about faith versus secularism, or Christianity versus Judaism, or Islam versus Christianity. It’s about a division that cuts through religions, not between them.

This is a precise encapsulation for me of the difference between a mature and immature understanding of religion. The purpose of religion must ultimately be ethical, and the texts will naturally be stuffed with poetic and allegorical devices to convey its message. Prophetic strands will no doubt be present but the primary focus must be on ethics: how to make sense of the world and live a meaningful and just life. To see the entire text as a literal map of reality is going to lead to an awful lot of confusion.

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Earthquake Follies

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Talking Philosophy) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

After picking up Peter Singer on his inability to even attempt to address the ‘problem of evil’ seriously I see Julian Baggini has written a similar article on karma in the wake of Sharon Stone’s clumsy remarks. Just as Singer chose a hopelessly weak foil, one that is not known for any mastery of theology to make his point Baggini has chosen Glen Hoddle and Sharon Stone. As I suggested in the earlier article this I think fits a pattern of a particular kind of atheism, the faith system being based on the incompetence of the religious. This can’t be stated too clearly: the object of their faith, the thing to be protected, is the belief in the irrationality, stupidity, confusion, corruption, etc., of religious people. It is a profoundly negative belief system.

The earlier article, Why I am not an Atheist, avoided getting down into the issues themselves as I was convinced that this would trigger a tedious repetition of entrenched positions. Also not being a Christian I didn’t feel it was my place to wade in, but I have since promised to engage the issues and write a blog article, Theism for non-Theists. Here I do get involved with the Buddhist issues and you can consider it a bridge to the promised article, as the misunderstanding of karma and failure to grasp the Christian approach to the ‘problem of evil’ seem have similar underlying causes.

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ADVANCE NOTICE: Theism for Non-Theists

Some people have found Why I am not an Atheist unsatisfactory, and I do feel a twinge of guilt. it was never my intention to engage in the kind of bickering between Christians and Atheists that is all to common in blog articles so my article stuck firmly to the meta-argument that Peter Singer wasn’t advancing serious arguments, that he needed to engage serious theologians and take more then about 830 words to deal meaningfully with (never mind dispose of) the central philosophical problem of the Abrahamic religions, how to reconcile an all-powerful, good creator God with evil and suffering in the world He has created. It is the kind of problem that, quite literally, seven-year olds spot. To me the paradox is obviously intended to confront the seeker in the way that people imagine Zen koans to do, something to meditate on in order to gain a deeper insight into reality and the Christian religion, rather than a decision problem, such as, whether the planets orbit the sun in an elliptical or circular path. To treat it like the latter, as a physical, empirical decision problem is, to my mind, to make a serious mistake.

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