Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Richard Dawkins Foundation for what?

When I first heard that Prof. Richard Dawkins FS was planning to found his own charity I was slighly annoyed, but pleased that at least it had an honest name: back then it was to be called the "Richard Dawkins Foundation for Rationalism and Humanism". Fair enough, I thought, does exactly what it says on the tin.

Subsequently, however, it appears to have undergone a touch of the Alastair Campbells: it is now called the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

There is a big difference. Firstly, reason is not the same thing as rationalism; as Alister McGrath points out,
Reason is the basic human faculty for thinking, based on argument and evidence. It is theologically neutral and poses no threat to faith - unless it is regarded as the only source of knowledge about God. It then becomes rationalism, which is an exclusive reliance on human reason alone and a refusal to allow any weight to be given to divine revelation [...] thus immediately locking theology into the fallen human situation, with no possibility of being extricated from our confusion and distortion by God himself.
Now, I can hear atheists saying "hear hear", but that's not the point. The point is it is perfectly possible to be reasonable while recognising the limits of reason:
The Enlightenment criticized Christianity for basing itself on the person of Jesus Christ rather than on the permanent, universal, unshakeable foundations of reason. Yet it is now generally conceded that no such unshakeable and universal foundations actually exist.*
Secondly, as - as I documented in my last post - people seem to be recognising, "unthinkingly" associating reason with science (and, in any case, what Dawkins actually means is scientism) and regarding their combination as the be-all-and-end-all is an attitude which has got us nowhere very quickly except into the arms of bland consumerism and all-conquering self-interest.

I note in passing that what the Bishop of Oxford is doing on this site is probably a textbook example of what Denyse O'Leary has called "selling out to materialism".

Anyway, the Foundation doesn't have charitable status as of yet.

*Alister E. McGrath, 'Intellectuals Don't Need God' and Other Modern Myths, Zondervan (1993), pp147-155

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Parris on miracles and progress

Matthew Parris is one of those commentators I enjoy reading largely because I disagree with him about nearly everything - especially his agressive secularism, as demonstrated here

Let's see if I can summarise his argument...
  1. Atheism is true.
  2. Therefore, miracles don't happen.
  3. Therefore, this alleged miracle is a sham.
  4. Therefore, you're all crazy.
I won't bother listing the intellectual pillars of western history who believed that miracles do happen. Rather, I'll quote from a famous sceptic:
Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle
- Émile Zola, having just seen a miracle

However, I did say I disagreed with him about nearly everything. This article is really rather interesting, especially the section towards the end:

When I was 10, my schoolmates and I believed that an Age of Reason was almost
upon us. Reason was (unthinkingly) associated with science; and science would
help to lead mankind not only to a more comfortable, but to a more just and
moral, way of life.


Prominent among the ideas whose time we thought would come was a withering away of nation states, and the growth of World Government. Petty nationalisms were primitive and old-fashioned, and humans would outgrow them. And we would learn fairer means of distribution of the world’s resources. Population control would occupy the world’s leaders. Wars and conflicts would cease — or at least be controlled and adjudicated by international bodies. Lives of selfish greed would yield to reason. Growing understanding of psychology would help to tame madness — collective and individual.

Some believed communism was the human system through which this transformation would be wrought. Others thought a liberal humanism — and, of course, science — would do it. And there were those who thought that America would lead the world until all the world was so much like America that world government was effectively achieved. The clash of ideologies was strong, stronger than ever — indeed it was to lead to the Cold War — but both sides to that argument shared belief in an important premise: that human society was, if not perfectible, then capable of huge improvement through political and social action; and that that old devil, human nature, could be tailored, trimmed, rebalanced and enlightened.


None of this has come to pass. The gap between rich and poor has widened. The nation state is as strong as ever. With the stumbling of the United Nations, ideas of world government have faded. We are no closer to curing mental illness or human misbehaviour: crime has increased. The forced migrations of peoples haunt the age. We have given up even thinking about the population explosion. And, now that communism has fallen by the wayside, Adam Smith’s view of human progress driven by individual self-interest is even more widely accepted than in 1950. A profound pessimism underlies it all. We do not any longer suppose it likely that the human race is capable of improvement except in its material circumstances.

It is refreshing to see humanists facing up to reality. Human nature is actually rather nasty and our attempts at saving ourselves are beginning to look foolish. What we need is a miracle. Comparing Parris' thoroughly realistic take on science, human nature and society with Richard Dawkins' rather 19th century view of the ascent of man and the continual march of progress should be fruitful. It is also refreshing to see a tacit acknowledgement that the state of a society and of humanity in general should not be measured (solely) by its material circumstances. Gordon Brown take note. What would be nice now would be the insight that philosophical materialism has a tendency to lead to practical materialism. After all, if this world is all there is, why should I not try to grab as much of it as possible?

Do bears do their business in the woods?

Pope puts his faith in the Book of Genesis, not Darwin

Or, as reported elsewhere, "Pope supports evolution", "Pope supports ID" and "Pope is far too clever for most of us to understand him". Some of my own thoughts on this huge topic can be found here. I will merely note in passing that recent months have shown an astounding amount of non-news about the Pope. Here are some things obviously no-one would have ever expected Benny to say:
"Islam is not true."
"Hell is real."
"God created life."
I guess we can safely conclude that the Pope is a Catholic.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Is abortion "the ultimate motherly act"?

Caitlin Moran thinks so

I don't agree . Nevertheless, I've seen and heard some half-decent arguments in its favour in my time. This isn't one of them. In fact, it makes me feel rather ill. For example, she criticizes the view that

The greatest mother — the perfect mother — would carry to term every child she conceived, no matter how disruptive or ruinous, because her love would be great enough for anything.
It is, though, rather ruinous to the baby's life to be killed, is it not? The heart of her argument is as follows:

[G]iven that both science and philosophy continue to struggle to define what the beginning of “life” is, wouldn’t it be better to come at the debate from a different angle entirely? For if a pregnant woman has dominion over life, why should she not also have dominion over not-life? This is a concept understood by many other cultures. The Hindu goddess Kali is both Mother of the Whole Universe, and Devourer of All Things. She is life and death. If women are, by biology, commanded to host, shelter, nurture and protect life, why should they not be empowered to end life, too?
But if that's true...

I’m not advocating stoving in the heads of children, or encouraging late abortions
Why not? It follows from the Kali argument.

Ultimately, I don’t understand antiabortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life.
And that's a good thing?!?

I don’t understand why pregnant women — women trying to make rational decisions about their futures — should be subject to more pressure about preserving life than, say, Vladimir Putin.
This makes no sense. I don't like what Putin's doing. I don't like what Ms Moran is doing (and has done) either. And what makes it worse is that her case is not in any way one of those testers, like rape or a handicapped child. She "was just too tired". I don't know, maybe I'm just too naïve or deluded or plain young to get this - and anyway, I'm a man, so I obviously have no right speaking on this topic at all - but I thought contraception was pretty good these days. I didn't realise anyone had to get pregnant in the first place. And I agree with commenter Daniel Webster from New York, who noted that
Rest assured, someday your children will be rationalising about the "ultimately loving act" of sparing the world from another "unwanted parent"