Category Archives: Secularism

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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Collective Insanity (George Monbiot)

[A series of articles reviewing blogs and websites on my blog-roll.]

In Buddhist circles it is common enough to see references to collective delusions (and not doubt in other religions) but it is extremely rare to see it in secular writing. George Monbiot has an article up on his blog, Majesty, We have Gone Mad (also published in the Guardian and on Comment is Free where you can join the bun fight). This is vintage Monbiot and beautifully researched as you would expect.

What I know and you may not is that the high price of oil is currently the only factor implementing British government policy. The government claims that it is seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, by encouraging people to use less fossil fuel. Now, for the first time in years, its wish has come true: people are driving and flying less. The AA reports that about a fifth of drivers are now buying less fuel(8). A new study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature shows that businesses are encouraging their executives to use video conferences instead of flying(9). One of the most fuel-intensive industries of all, business-only air travel, has collapsed altogether(10).

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Conservatives and Progressives

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

Andrew Sullivan has been chewing over what it means to be a conservative and I would like to clarify my own ideas here. I agree with Sullivan in seeing Edmund Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. (Of course, that I am a Bristolian and the Anglo-Irish Burke represented the city in parliament doesn’t bias me in the least.) Modern conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution, which is not to say that it was a reactionary movement, there being much to be said for the point of view that the French Revolution was a glorious mistake (the same could been achieved much less violently) and that conservatism offers a valuable critique, with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France setting the terms of the debate.

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Elitism: The Democrats Self-Inflicted Wound?

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

I have been meaning to get my ideas straight on elitism for some weeks now, but little did I realise how central it was to so many philosophical issues that I am talking about on this blog. The catalyst for this series of articles was my previous article on Obama’s Appalachian problem, which I thought was explained brilliantly by Senator Jim Webb. Webb is an Appalachian of Scottish-Irish descent, the very demographic that has been causing so many problems for Obama. I will return to the attitudes of progressive elites to the ‘racism’ of the Appalachians later.

One of the clearest explanations of Elitism in US politics was written by Jonathan Chait in a short article, Popular Will, where he says:

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Listening Skills

Nesrine Malik has written a well argued piece on Comment is free about the excessive attention that is paid to certain ex-Muslim reactionaries in the West, and why it so counterproductive for the liberal Muslim cause (though she has failed to do her own copy-editing).  It has provoked the usual attack of the trolls, and my own robust defence.

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The Nietzschean Austen

Will folks will never learn. The AustenBloggers have poking fun at this piece, that begins rather unpromisingly:

The Jane Austen industry continues to move on as television adaptations, movie treatments, biographical fiction and modern spin offs fill our wide and small screens.

Why this interest in an early 19th century writer of virtue and sensibility? Is it because we lack in our age any such thing since liberalism has taught us that anything goes as long as no one gets hurt? Is it because of the romance and the happy endings that have the heroine finally marrying the man of fine sensibility, every woman’s dream, a retreating one in the face of the personality of the modern male? Or is it that all of this happens without resort to the messy and by now unintelligible involvement of God?

It is safe to say that God does not appear as a character in the novels of Jane Austen. The church is certainly present as a respectable profession for second sons, but such sons are not moved by any religious sensibility but by the necessity of obtaining a place in society.

Clergy may be enthralled to worldly prestige and goods like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice or simply solid and noble like Edmund in Persuasion [sic] but they do not appear to be moved by the Spirit of God. Indeed they show little difference in character to any other character in the novels.

It is difficult to do justice to the shallowness of this critique. That Austen was intensely preoccupied by the competing demands of society and the individual (Malcolm Bradley’s ’62 essay is good on this) and on the need to combat selfishness (almost any decent Austen criticism). One might think that life is too short to spend too much time on those that won’t do even the most basic reading before assaulting the public with their bar-room literary criticism, but serious authors have made some similar claims:

I say that Jane Austen the novelist did not believe in God because God is totally absent from her work. A person may remain silent about a deeply held and genuine belief, but not a writer: all that exists in a writer’s work is what he creates.

Laurence Lerner, The Truthtellers: Jane Austen, George Eliot & D. H. Lawrence, pp. 23-4

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What is Enlightenment?

Peter Knox-Shaw has drawn my attention to Jane Austen and ‘Modern Europe’, an article he has published in this month’s Notes & Queries (55:1, March 2008), suggesting that ‘this recent piece might help convince you!’ Now what I am to be convinced of is the topic of this article but first I have to explain what Peter is driving at.

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Face facts, George Monbiot. Our environmental catastrophe is partly your responsibility

[It goes without saying that I would only write such an article about someone I truly respected and admired. My line of reasoning in the heading is that George Monbiot the high-priest of agressive secularism and George Monbiot the environmental campaigner contains a fatal contradiction, a contradiction that is pervasive in the modern, industrial, Enlightened philosophy.]

Dear George Monbiot,

Last Tuesday’s article in the Guardian, Face facts, Cardinal. Our awful rate of abortion is partly your responsibility, made its central point very well, better far than I have seen it made elsewhere. However there was one telling sentence.

Murphy-O’Connor has denounced contraception and abortion many times. That’s what he is there for: the primary purpose of most religions is to control women.

This last sentence is of course a rhetorical assertion. It makes a mistake which is truly endemic in our culture, a bundling together of things that we resent and then projecting their causes onto religion. This habit is surprisingly pervasive, being widespread for example in Buddhist circles (I am a Buddhist), the assumption being that Buddhism is somehow different and authentic while Christianity is shallow and a kind of crude mind-control that we have out-grown. It really isn’t at all possible to parody this kind of thinking for the more crude you make it to try and make the point, the more you just find people nodding in agreement. It is a lazy kind of thinking and we are very fond of it.

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