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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Blackburn on Armstrong

Simon Blackburn has an interesting review of the latest from Karen Armstrong (thanks to commenters at Butterflies and Wheels for this).

Blackburn is a plenary speaker at the AAP conference this week - I look forward to seeing him in action.


Brian said...

The money quote from Blackburn:

Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic.

Ironic genius!

J. J. Ramsey said...

I think I can see why Julian Baggini called her part of the "fluffy brigade."

RichardW said...

I heard Karen Armstrong on Radio 4's "Start the Week" yesterday, making the same point: religion is properly about practice, not belief.

I couldn't help wondering why I would be motivated to engage in a practice unless I had a belief that it would achieve something desirable.

phonytician said...

Isn't the point she is making that religious practice, i.e. they way people conduct their daily lives gives them something desirable, i.e. happiness, emotional stability in the face of adversity etc.

I guess there is actually an potential interesting conundrum. What if it could be scientifically proven that people of some religious faith are leading better lives and are more happy and better adjusted than non-religious people (I am really not saying that is the case!), but would that make it our rational duty to become believers?

Anonymous said...

What is a "better life", Phonytician? What if it could be scientifically proven that people addicted to a particular drug are more happy and better adjusted than other people. Would it then be our rational duty to take it? What if it could be scientifically proven that people who deliberately torture animals are more happy and better adjusted than other people. Would it then be our rational duty to become sadists?

phonytician said...


exactly, that is my point! Some values might be more important than scientific proof.

Now ask yourself where did you get the values from? Clearly if there would be scientific proof that the world would be a better place when everybody would be an animal torturing saditistic maniac, we still wouldn't want such a world, even though in that case science and rationality would tell us we should. Why not? Because the world isn't just a set of facts, it simply is a fluffier place, which all those rationalist hardline talk always has a tendency of looking a bit foolish. Fluffy brigade maybe isn't so bad ;-)

Anonymous said...

Scientific proof isn't a value, though, Phonytician. I was misled by your combination of people "leading better lives and are more happy and better adjusted" which made it sound as if being moe happy and better adjusted were components of living a better life. There is a difference- a very big difference- between a better life for individuals and the world being abetter place. I think religion offers the first, on terms very similar to the two analogies I used, drug addiction and sadism, but it doesn't offer the second, in fact it makes it worse for anyone else in the short-term and damages everyone, believers included, in the long run.

Religious belief isn't fluffy, either and believers aren't members of the fluffy brigade. It purports to offer an absolutely true set of facts and the instructions on how to behave that follow from those facts. It is more certain than science, which rests on doubt, and the conclusions religions reach are much more certain and they apply them much more ruthlessly than applies those of science.

phonytician said...

Not quite sure, whether I understand your disctinction beween better lives for individuals and a better world, and why religion could only help with the former.
So would you think there is a purely scientific way to find out what a better world is? Would such a world be good or bad independent of the quality of life of the individuals living in it? Why would you say it is not possible that religion could contribute to making the world a better place?

Religious belief isn't necessarily fluffy, obviously there are people who like to sell their beliefs as facts. I don't think religion has anything to offer in terms of facts or could even contribute to any factual questions, but isn't the problem with people like K. Armstrong that she kind of refuses to claim that and retreats to some fluffy position, saying religion can offer no facts but that doesn't matter because it has other good things to offer?

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, I wonder what morality is for if it isn't for something like people living better lives (in some sense that, to avoid circularity, isn't already moralised) or to make the world a better (again in some sense that isn't already moralised). One obvious problem is that these things may sometimes be in opposition to each other, but at many other times they might require the same behaviour.

If it turned out that the way to achieve these things is for everyone to take lots of mind-bending drugs, I don't know why we'd not take the drugs. Likewise if torturing animals had that effect. Of course, torturing animals hurts them (to a huge degree) ... so straightaway it looks as if the practice makes the world worse, at least by most standards of better and worse.

If engaging in religious ritual aids your own flourishing/helps you live a better life by some plausible external standard, then do it by all means, as long as it doesn't harm others and so make the world a worse place. But if you can't justify the epistemic content of your religion, or if you've refined your religion to the point where it has no epistemic content, then don't expect to be deferred to by others when you start telling them how to live.

Really, I'd have no problem with religionists who simply engage in non-harmful rituals, make no truth-claims, and don't interfere in the behaviour of others. If some religion is really like that, it becomes more like an art form than like what religion has been historically. I have no great objection to that sort of religion, if it exists. But if Armstrong thinks that religion has typically been like this she is barking up the wrong tree - does she really make that claim?

phonytician said...

"that sort of religion, if it exists."
Why so cautious? I know for a fact that it exists (some friends who are marvelously tolerant with me as an atheist). Maybe I have been just insanely lucky, but actually nearly all religious people I met seem to fall into that category (I guess it does help to grow up and live in secular western Europe).

Irrespective of the horrors that undoubtedly are committed in the name of religion, isn't the overwhelming evidence still that most religious people seem to live normal lives without much engagement into religious hate crimes or persecution of unbelievers, etc. Shouldn't we as scientist pay a little bit of respect to the laws of statistic and not judge a group of people by its fringe elements even if they are causing all the headlines?

Anonymous said...

Phonytician said
"some friends who are marvelously tolerant with me as an atheist"
LOL - how wonderful some theists are! They actually deign to *tolerate* you! :-)

Seriously, I half recognise your description amongst my theist friends in secular western Europe, but there is an undeniably patronising element to *my* friends' attitude to my morals, which seems to betray what they *really* think of them. I cannot be *sure* of this, of course, without reading their minds, but I'm often left wondering what they are getting out of their belief if it's *not* a superior way of living. A sense of community and eternal life, perhaps, which ends up making them rather selfish?

And I think my friends don't *privilege* their belief (and seek to dictate behaviour based on it) because they know darn well that it doesn't stand up to sceptical scrutiny. Doesn't stop the leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches in Britain (and elsewhere) seeking to influence public policy on a range of matters, though.