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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

James Wood on the New Atheism

This piece is difficult, puzzling, and, I think, largely wrongheaded. But it also seems, in my humble opinion, to have some wisdom in it somewhere - perhaps just because the discussion of literary novels seems quite plausible, but perhaps also because Wood is onto something about religious experience. He's correct, I'm sure, as to just how complex, confused, and confounding the religious lives and beliefs of ordinary people - people who are not fanatics, saints, or dogmatists - can be. That point is worth making, and I think there are some strong paragraphs around the middle of the article, especially when Wood is talking about literature and how it represents the variety and difficulty of our inner lives.

Even early in the piece, Wood has this passage, which contains some sharp insight, at least until the final quoted sentence:
We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions – they stand up and recite creeds on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; they can tell you who will be punished in hell, and how; they believe that Allah is the one God, and so on. Prayer itself is a proposition: it proposes that God exists, and can be communicated with. Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.
And yet, and yet ... alas, yes, Wood does seem a little wrongheaded. As a commenter pointed out in the equivalent thread to this one over at Jean Kazez's place (Jean loved Wood's piece), you can hardly claim that someone like Richard Dawkins is "dead to metaphor", as Wood ends up doing; au contraire (as Jean more or less  acknowledges), Dawkins is very much alive to metaphor. In fact he is a master of metaphor - he has become such a fine and successful writer partly through his skill in employing vivid metaphors to explain conceptually difficult subjects ... and to make them far clearer to a wide audience. This is where his profound appeal lies.

Jean responds, on her thread, that Dawkins is nonetheless not sensitive to what goes on in the heads of actual believers, or many of them, who may be operating day-by-day with  all sorts of doubts and inchoate hunches, with meaningful images that they can't explain in literal propositions, and so on.There's a point here: I suspect it's true that this complexity of belief (with all the doubts, reversals, and so on) is not emphasised in a book like The God Delusion. I can't say I remember this getting much atttention. (Dennett's work, however, may well be another matter.)

But in any event, is it fair to condemn The God Delusion for being what it is - a rather polemical work, albeit an urbane, complex, and often funny one - rather than a literary novel? Isn't there room for such works, especially in a world in which the kinds of religion that are its chief targets still have a great deal of social and even political influence?

Is it really fair for such a work, no matter how urbane, complex, humorous, and varied in its tone - sometimes, to be sure, forthright and provocative, but at other times meditative, gentle and even conciliatory - to be characterised as if it is one-dimensional, emotionally and linguistically flat, and intellectually narrow? It's a pity that Wood is not prepared to read Dawkins with the same charity and the same kind of sensitivity to nuance and language that he gives to the various European and post-colonial novels that he discusses.

There's clearly an important place for novels of character that explore how religious people - or, indeed, non-religious people touched by religion - think and feel. Wood has made me want to go back and re-read Moby Dick, To the Lighthouse, and other works that he mentions or explicates. He makes me want to read some novels that I have yet to broach for the first time, such as the work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (which I don't know at all) and that of J.M. Coetzee (whose oeuvre I've dipped into only slightly, much to my, ahem, disgrace). That's all impressive, and surely it's (part of) the task of a skilled literary critic to make me respond like that.

But Wood's piece would be stronger if he concentrated on the strengths and beauties of the novels he discusses - leaving the New Atheists out of it altogether - or if, alternatively, he were willing to bring the same critical sense of tone, style, and complexity to the work of Dawkins, Dennett, and others, as he does to works of prose fiction. Dawkins' books, to stay with that prominent example, are far more complex in their language, sensibility, and understanding than Wood would have us think, and considerably more justified than Wood accepts when their author does, indeed, make simplifications: these are inevitable in the writing of non-fictional exposition and polemic, and it's not as if they are hidden or unexplained.

There's a job waiting, for whoever wants it, of examining the published work of Dawkins, in particular, as literature - admittedly a somewhat polemical body of literature. That would make an excellent topic for a PhD, or perhaps for a monograph with at least some appeal beyond an academic audience. The job would require a scientifically literate, sympathetic critic - perhaps Wood could carry it out as well as most, but he'd need to do away with some preconceptions. I'm not volunteering for this particular job, but I do wish critics like Wood would treat the New Atheist books with some of the care and sensitivity that they call for and extol ... even as they tend to caricature, over-simplify, and diminish.

Chrys Stevenson on the Australian Christian Lobby

More specifically on Jim Wallace's handling of his role as its CEO.

Heavy Lifting ... or Liphting

So, will Jean Kazez go through with this?

More elevator etiquette at In Living Color

In the wake of the subject that we don't talk about here, Jean Kazez has written posts on another couple of elevator incidents. I actually think these may be of more intrinsic interest than the more famous one. In any event, they're interesting in their own right.

What do you think of this and this? Did the people who made stereotyped assumptions in these cases (1) do nothing wrong, (2) do something let's say sub-optimal (or maybe let's say something that failed to include the conduct that would have been praiseworthy), (3) do something definitely but only slightly wrong, or (4) do something seriously wrong... ? You may give different answers in the two cases.

If something is wrong in these cases, are we seeing sexism and racism respectively? Or is it something else? If it is sexism and racism, what are the relevant concepts of sexism and racism here?

My first thought is that there actually is something wrong in each case, but I'm not so sure that it's sexism/racism ... or if it is then we need to employ fairly broad conceptions of what sexism and racism are. But there certainly is some stereotyping going. Does it perhaps tend to reproduce sexism and racism even if not motivated by these things. I assume that you can take actions that tend to reproduce sexism (for example) without being motivated by sexism - perhaps as a result of ignorance or some other epistemic or moral defect. We may live in a world where the social structures and other circumstances are such that more is required of us (by standards that we might ourselves rationally accept) than merely not being motivated by sexism or racism.

Or maybe not - far be it from me to pre-empt what you might think. Let's see if we can get some, ahem, nuanced discussion.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

60 is the new 20

Well, I certainly hope it turns out that way when I get there. Meanwhile, I'm referring to this review of a new book by Catherine Mayer: Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly. This sounds like something I should read.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A quiet month at the Hellfire Club

I've been rather quiet in my blogging rate during August, with the consequence that this place has also been quieter than usual in terms of traffic. (The actual number of posts may not be down, but the number of substantial ones certainly is.)

Partly it's because August has been a busy month. I've had page proofs to check and index for Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and, for the benefit of those who haven't ever done the equivalent, this is a surprisingly time-consuming job. There's also room for glitches that make it more so. However, I'm coming to the end of the process now. Hopefully, you'll see the book in print in just a few months.

I've also done some work (including a lot of reading) on the Atheist Myths book, which I am writing with Udo. And I've put aside some time for preparation for the big public debate that I'll be involved in early in September. So, yeah, it's been quite a month.

I'm also working with guest-editor Linda MacDonald Glenn on an ambitious Minds-and-Machines issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and this is now occupying a fair bit of my time. I'm hoping that we'll be able to publish the Special Issue in November (or at least, since we are able to publish on-line in increments, make a damn good start).

And I was maybe a bit more sociable than usual during August, with my birthday falling in the middle of the month.

I admit, though, that part of the problem has been the Elevatorgate debacle. First, this blog is still an Elevatorgate-free zone: I don't want the madness here, and I am very unlikely to publish any comments to this post that get into the merits of it (y'all are warned not to waste your time on that). However, despite my Elevatorgate-free-zone policy I got somewhat embroiled in the debate by making a few stray comments elsewhere. The result is that I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about the issues ... with the effect that one of the things I was thinking a lot about during August was the very thing that I swore not to blog about.

I've also ended up spending a lot of time discussing the issues privately with a whole range of people - both people on the internet and people in real life - which has syphoned off a surprising amount of my time and energy. While I don't think that publicly warring about it all is super-productive, I do think that the debate has exposed tricky issues, and demonstrated the existence of rifts that we weren't even aware of. I think the issues need to be discussed, but not necessarily by way of creating flame wars all over the internet in the way that's been happening.

At some stage, I'll probably have a bit more to say publicly, but perhaps not here. For the moment, it would be good, I think, if we all allowed the debate to cool down a bit ... and maybe returned to it when we have a bit more distance from whatever events pushed our various emotional buttons. Then again, that's been my hope for nearly two months now, and yet I see that the debate is still raging in various corners of the internet.

So, in all, it was a quiet month at the Hellfire Club. Perhaps things will be a bit noisier here in September. I do have some other stuff that I'd dearly like to talk about, so let's see how it goes.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - Bleeding Cool reveals Uncanny X-Men line-up

According to Bleeding Cool, this is what the Uncanny X-Men line-up will look like post-Schism.

In fact, it can only be two-thirds of the core group, for which we've been promised nine characters. We've also been told that it will be the most powerful X-Men line-up ever, and this little pictured group goes a long way towards that ambition.

Okay, so we have Emma Frost, Cyclops (still as leader?), Magneto, DangerColossus (who is depicted here, I suspect misleadingly, as if he is still in the form of the Juggernaut as a result of the current Fear Itself storyline), and Magik.

If these characters are written at full power - I hate it when characters are underwritten to make stories work - that is certainly a monstrously powerful and versatile line-up. It covers pretty much the whole range of standard powers for superheroes and villains. You have to wonder what threats would have much of a chance against them, especially with another three core characters to be revealed.

I wonder who they will be. Namor? Hope? Psylocke? Storm? Surely not ... hmmm, Dazzler?

It's starting to look as if Schism will split up two current couples: Colossus and Kitty Pryde, as well as Magneto and Rogue (this split is not really surprising) ... but not Cyclops and Emma Frost, which would have been kind of interesting. We're getting a very gender-balanced team, though - and I wouldn't be surprised if the final male:female ratio is 4:5. This could be a very Claremontish team that way, depending on who the missing characters are.

Finally, we're getting a rather villainous combination of X-Men, with almost all of these pictured team members having dark sides to them. Magneto, Emma Frost, and Danger all started out as villains. Arguably the first, or even the first two, still are at heart. As for Magik ... she's not exactly villainous but she's an incredibly dangerous loose cannon.

Hey, this could almost pass for a supervillain team, especially if Namor ends up being part of it.

Which is bleeding cool with me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Paula Kirby on evolution and Christianity

Paula Kirby explains over here some of the reasons why evolution does, in fact, threaten Christianity.

Sample:

Evolution means that the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis are wrong. That's not how humans came into being, nor the cattle, nor the creeping things, nor the beasts of the earth, nor the fowl of the air. Evolution could not have produced a single mother and father of all future humans, so there was no Adam and no Eve. No Adam and Eve: no fall. No fall: no need for redemption. No need for redemption: no need for a redeemer. No need for a redeemer: no need for the crucifixion or the resurrection, and no need to believe in that redeemer in order to gain eternal life. And not the slightest reason to believe in eternal life in the first place.

That said, of course there are forms of Christianity which do away with a literal fall from grace, and reinterpret the sacrificial atonement so that no such historical event is required. Nonetheless, the doctrines of fall, sin, atonement, and the last things are closely integrated in traditional Christian theology. Many, many people are committed to forms of Christianity that tend to fall (as it were) apart if the literal Adam and Eve story is no longer accepted. Those people - or large numbers of them - would just as soon abandon Christianity altogether if this set of doctrines no longer holds. They will not cheerfully step over to some kind of thinned-out system of doctrine that involves only a symbolic fall from grace.

Kirby has much else to say in the article, and she says it very well indeed. It's a powerful explication of why evolution and Christianity don't mix well, despite all the efforts of accommodationists. She deserves to be better known and used more frequently at conferences and in books and journals.

Freedom from Dogma

My friend, the very intelligent and kind "bluharmony", has created a new blog with the title Freedom from Dogma. She only has one post there so far, so this is indeed a baby blog just brought into the world. Still, you might like to check it out.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Currently reading The Jews and their Lies by Martin Luther

This is a repellent book, though of historical interest (which is why I've broached it). Even more repellent are some features of the abridged translation that I'm reading: despite some unconvincing disclaimers, it's pretty obvious that the publishers and editors are more-or-less endorsing Luther's anti-Semitic rantings.

I haven't felt this tainted by reading a book for a long time. In fact, I can't remember when I ever felt quite like this just about reading a book. Maybe reading a Gor novel, or something.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Maryam Namazie's talk

I went to Maryam Namazie's strong and inspirational talk in Sydney last night, and did actually manage to speak with her briefly afterwards. Unfortunately, I didn't get to plot and conspire with her in private ... but I feel honoured to have met her.

Maryam is a major thinker in the contemporary struggle on behalf of freedom and reason. She should be getting major gigs, internationally, not just in the UK (the Sydney dinner was relatively small scale). How about it, CFI, Atheist Alliance International, Council for Secular Humanism, planners of global conventions, etc., etc.?

During question time, I asked her about Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent proposal for Muslim women to convert to Christianity. Maryam's reply was to the effect that this is what happens when someone gets too close to a right-wing think tank. Sounds about right. She then segued into a passionate defence of secularism.

(Before anyone asks, no it was not recorded. Alas. Not as far as I'm aware.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Maryam Namazie dinner in Sydney

I'm off to Maryam Namazie's first gig in her Australian tour, a dinner in Sydney - and looking forward to it very much. I hope I get a proper chance to talk to Maryam, who was, of course, one of the many fine contributors to 50 Voices of Disbelief. I guess she'll be a bit mobbed, but we'll see.

Description of the gig: "Talk by Maryam Namazie and fundraising dinner for One Law For All.
Maryam will speak about the implications of legal pluralism for Australia, with insights from the UK experience to date in accommodating Islamic sharia law through the Arbitration Act 1996, and the current effort to limit the power of sharia courts and religious tribunals through the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Abbie Smith talks at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention

Abbie Smith speaks on evolution and vaccination. This is a tight, confident talk, presented at a very high level of professionalism by someone who obviously knows her stuff. Someone give this woman more gigs. (And she certainly copes with the little technical glitches better than I would have, as I know from hard experience. Sigh.)

For a secular Europe

European readers who have not heard about this campaign, please go and have a look ... and do what you can to participate. This looks like a superbly organised campaign with magnificent events and speakers.

Sunday supervillainy - X-Men solicitations post-Schism

 The November solicits for the X-Men books show all the X-teams and big-time players facing up to the aftermath of the current Schism storyline. Although we've been getting plenty of hints, it's still far from clear just how it will all shake out: which characters other than the most obvious will be in the Uncanny X-Men book (and team), which will be in the Wolverine and the X-Men book (and team), and how the various associated groups like the New Mutants, Generation Hope, the returning X-Jammers, and the Magneto/Rogue/Gambit triangle will be affected as old alliances are broken and new ones forged.

Marvel has managed to intrigue me with this storyline - I roolly, roolly want to see who ends up allied with whom, what their respective rationales are, and whether the whole thing can be made to seem plausible, given what we know about the characters and their motivations.

Since most of the world's mutants were moved to the old Asteroid M, now a floating island off the coast of San Francisco, the X-Men franchise has had a huge political struggle just crying out to be written and drawn for us. There was no way that Cyclops could rule over this bunch of 200 strong-willed, philosophically divided superhumans forever ... without a challenge coming from somewhere.

Marvel has gone with a challenge from Wolverine, rather than somebody more obvious from an in-world perspective like Professor X, Storm, Magneto, or Namor, and I still need to see this made convincing, given that Wolverine has never, to date, seemed like a willing or plausible leader of mutantkind. But, hey, I'm open to it, and this is a chance for some major character work if the current writers are up to it. (I have no reason to think they're not: it's a very solid creative team right now, though I'm sad to see Mike Carey leaving it at the end of a brilliant 5 1/2 year run on X-Men Legacy.)

Let's see how it plays out. Here I am, grabbing the popcorn.

Friday, August 19, 2011

That time of year again

Yes, the years roll around. Yesterday was my birthday, and I've been celebrating with a series of birthday lunches over the last few days.

Here I am with my father at today's lunch. Happy day-after-birthday to me. Another year older and even greyer, but I guess that's a lot better than the alternative.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A shout out to my friends at Creative Net

Voila! This is especially for libraries and other such organisations that might be interested in talks from the sort of people that Creative Net represents.

The main emphasis is on writers and illustrators of fiction for children, teenagers, and young adults. That is certainly not my own emphasis these days (though those Terminator novels that I did were for a cross-over audience), but still ... someone might want to book me through these guys to talk about something appropriate to their purpose. Jenny is also on the list, as is a very impressive stable of industry professionals in Australia. If you are ever likely to be booking speakers in this sort of category, and if you're based here in Australia, do check it out.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Maryam Namazie comparing Islamist and far-right thinking

Maryam Namazie, who will soon be touring Australia, has been producing some very meaty posts on her blog lately. Here's one on the far-right and Islamism.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - baddies gone good

Some great heel-face turns discussed in this article at Newsarama (I'm always delighted at the excuse to post an Emma Frost pic).

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Atheists are wrong"

This is just a reminder about the forthcoming IQ2 debate in Sydney on 6 September. This one is worth getting a ticket for ... well, I hope it will be. If all goes well it will be quite a show.

Speakers

For:

  • The Most Rev Peter Jensen is Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney and Metropolitan of the Province of New South Wales (since 2001). A former lecturer and Principal of Moore Theological College, he earned a D Phil from Oxford for his research on Elizabethan Protestantism. His book At the Heart of the Universe is used around the world as an introductory text on Christian Doctrine. His 2005 Boyer Lecture series for the ABC has been published as a book, The future of Jesus.
  • Dr Tracey Rowland is the Dean of the John Paul II Institute, Melbourne and a Permanent Fellow in Political Philosophy and Continental Theology. She is also an Adjunct Professor of the Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society of the University of Notre Dame, Sydney. Dr Rowland holds a doctorate from the Divinity School of Cambridge University and has published widely including two books on the theology of Benedict XVI.
  • Scott Stephens is the Religion & Ethics editor for ABC Online. Before joining the ABC he taught theology and theological ethics for many years. He has written extensively about the intersections among philosophy, theology and politics, the work of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the political theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Paul II, the moral problem of secularism and why atheism stems from the theological revolution of Christianity.

Against:

  • Russell Blackford is a philosopher, literary critic and creative writer. His qualifications include separate PhDs in English literature and philosophy . He is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology and the author of many books, articles, essays and short stories. His books include 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (2009) co-edited with Udo Schuklenk. His new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, will be published shortly. Dr Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle.
  • Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy and lectures in Advertising Creative at UWS. She is author of three books and is currently writing about atheism. Caro appears regularly in the media, is a panellist on the ABC’s top rating The Gruen Transfer and an occasional radio host.
  • Dr Tamas Pataki is honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne (School of historical and philosophical studies) and honorary Fellow of Deakin University. He studied philosophy at the University of Melbourne and psychoanalysis at University College, London University. Dr Pataki has been a lecturer in philosophy at RMIT, University of Tasmania and University of Melbourne. He co-edited, with Michael Levine, Racism in Mind (Cornell 2004) and is the author of Against Religion (Scribe, 2007) as well as of articles and book chapters on the philosophy of mind and numerous popular pieces and reviews.

Chair:

Dr Simon Longstaff has a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge. Prior to becoming the inaugural Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre in 1991, Dr Longstaff worked in the Northern Territory in the Safety Department of BHP subsidiary, GEMCO, lectured at Cambridge University and consulted to the Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Trusts. His book Hard Cases, Tough Choices was published in 1997. Dr Longstaff was inaugural President of the Australian Association for Professional & Applied Ethics and is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum. He is Chairman of Woolworths Limited Corporate Responsibility Panel and AMP Capital Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee and serves as Member on a number of Board Committees.

Montreal police investigating Mabus...

... at last. See this newspaper article on the subject. Mabus comments here quite a lot, though his comments don't get published. He also sends me loony emails. I have no idea how dangerous he really is, but he's a pest. I get enough crap from him for it to be slightly disruptive, and I can well imagine others finding it downright disturbing. When you multiply his impact on individuals by the large number of other people who have to put up with the same thing, he's a social menace. Grrr.

I'm amused at his mother's comments, though - in the article.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An extract from Visions of Ecstasy

This YouTube extract from the notorious banned video, Visions of Ecstasy, is not for the faint-hearted. It opens with a scene of self-inflicted pain and harm that I found confronting. Perhaps, as someone suggested on Facebook when I linked to it there, the video could be considered unsuitable for young teenagers, insofar as it could be taken as glamorising self-harm. Perhaps there is a legitimate paternalistic basis to restrict it.

That said, should Visions of Ecstasy have been banned completely in the UK, assuming that the rest of it is not seriously worse in its impact? As you will see if you do choose to click on the link, it has a kind of beauty, and it is open, I suggest, to a range of interpretations. Is it a celebration of religious ecstasy, or a denigration of it? If it compares religious and sexual ecstasy, as it surely does, does it thereby disparage the former? If so, why does that follow? Is that sort of disparagement a bad thing, in any event? Is it actually a deeply religious work? Alternatively, is it a kind of pornography? If so, is it necessarily a bad kind (is there a good kind, or not?)? Is it disturbing if some people are sexually aroused by this material?

Even from this brief extract, I imagine that many questions could be asked about it. To say the least, it would be interesting material for discussion in an art appreciation class, or even in classes relating to certain areas of philosophy.

I wouldn't want it shown on, say, a public bus. But should it be prohibited totally, in an effort to protect the public from it - or to give effect to public sentiment?

When Visions of Ecstasy was banned in the UK, it was on the basis that it was criminally blasphemous. When the case eventually found its way to the European Court of Human Rights, the law relating to blasphemy was upheld as consistent with freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights. That law has since been repealed and replaced with a hate speech law (itself controversial), so Visions of Ecstasy may yet become available for viewing or purchase in the UK. But should it have been banned in the first place?

You can probably guess what I think. I discuss the issue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and have my say there. But what do you think, based on the extract (those of you who decide to go ahead and watch it)? What principles should apply to something like this?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Thomas Pynchon

The Existentialist Society in Melbourne has published on its website my notes of my talk on Thomas Pynchon earlier this year. It may be that you had to be there - I'm not sure how useful these notes are if you come to them cold. Still, I'm linking to them in the hope that they may be of some value or interest to my readers. Cheers!

(And I now see some typos, etc., but I hope the sense is clear enough in each case.)

Another quote from Smith

"The religious concern with obedience, duty and guilt stands in stark contrast to the rational conception of morality, where man is of central concern, where man's life is the standard of value, and where moral principles function for human welfare. Any link beween religion and morality is not only unjustified, it is enormously harmful. The religious view of morality is still widely accepted; children are raised by it, and men [hey, and women! - RB] attempt to live by it - with the result that millions of people practice, in the name of morality, what amounts to emotional and intellectual suicide."

Monday, August 08, 2011

From Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith (1979)

I've often said things like this, forgetting that Smith said it and said it well. He may not have been the first, either, but it's a clear, concise formulation:

Unlike the philosopher, the theologian adopts a position, a dogma, and then commits himself to a defense of that position come what may. While he may display a willingness to defend this dogma, closer examination reveals this to be a farce. His defense consists of distorting and rationalizing all contrary evidence to meet his desired specifications. In the case of divine benevolence, the theologian will grasp onto any explanation, no matter how implausible, before he will abandon his dogma. And when finally pushed into a corner, he will argue that man cannot understand the true meaning of this dogma.

Pity about the old-fashioned use of masculine pronouns and the word "man" as an expression for humankind. This kind of thing jars these days (though given the historical and continuing degree to which religions tend to be patriarchal it is not entirely out of place to use "he" for a generic theologian). That aside, it seems to me one of the most powerful points that should be made - so often, theologians, in trying to preserve some non-negotiable dogma or another, will end up adopting claims that may not be logically inconsistent but are just wildly implausible for anyone who is not already committed to the dogma. And indeed, even they may find that what is required is just not believable.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Forthcoming US trip

I'll be visiting the US in late February through to mid-March. This is primarily to talk at the Council for Secular Humanism conference in Orlando at the beginning of March. But I do have some other gigs arranged - in Hartford, New Haven, and Buffalo (CFI headquarters in Amherst).

Unfortunately, time will preclude any others. Hopefully there will be another chance at some stage, and I may be able to stay longer next time. Unfortunately, I don't have the sort of financial resources to do this sort of thing out of my own pocket (thanks, in this case, to the CFI/CSH for covering my expenses relating to their gigs, which includes actually getting me to the US and back).

I'll announce details a bit closer to the time for people who live in those areas or are thinking of going to the Council for Secular Humanism conference.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Lovely sentences from John F. Haught

"In any case, were I to try to elicit scientific evidence of immortality I would just be capitulating to the narrower empiricism that underlies naturalistic belief. What I will say, though, is that the hope for some form of subjective survival is a favorable disposition for nurturing trust in the desire to know."

And a bit later: "Such a hope is reasonable if it provides, as I believe it can, a climate that encourages the desire to know to remain restless until it encounters the fullness of being, truth, goodness and beauty."

Got it?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The future of this blog

The other day I was praising you, my regular commenters - you know who you are - for helping make this a place for reasonable, thoughtful conversation.

There was a reason why I was keen to say that: I've been thinking for some time now about the future of this blog. Whether or not it continues in the longer term, I wanted to thank you for helping it achieve something.

Will it continue? Well, it's in no immediate danger. However, I've been wondering quite a bit this year whether the work that goes in here is really the best use of my time and energy. Arguably I could build up its popularity if I moved to a platform with more functionality than provided by Blogger, or perhaps the thing to do is make some kind of arrangement to share resources and efforts with others who have a presence on the internet. But to be honest, there's also a question whether I should be blogging at all unless I can move to a situation where I: (1) receive some payment for it; and/or (2) at least reach a much bigger audience. Arguably, unless that happens I should be putting the time and energy into writing books or something.

I certainly want to maintain a presence on the internet, but there may be ways that are more time-efficient and more effective in reaching a wide audience. Over the coming months I want to explore/think about that. If anyone wants to make me a good offer, I'll be listening.

Meanwhile, as I said, I'm not planning imminent closure of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club or anything like that. I'll at least see how things go for the rest of this year. But yes, I am considering how best to use my time and energy.

I now have page proofs for Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. Over the next couple of weeks I'll have to give much of my attention to checking and indexing them. Service here may be a bit slower than usual - I don't think I'll be blogging every day as I normally do. But that's not the beginning of the end or anything.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The public responds to Jerry...

... and he discusses it here (where there's also a good thread of comments including a couple by me in a discussion about the word "secular").

Jerry Coyne on being good without God

For the one or two people in the world who haven't yet seen it, Jerry's new article in USA Today is well worth a look.

Monday, August 01, 2011

OMG, ah now haz 2000 friends on Facebook

Well snork me!

I'm proud of you guys

As I read the ongoing discussion here and on other threads where the conversation still continues, I'm quietly proud.

I've tried to make this a thoughtful, reasonable place where we could get some good discussion without anyone having to toe a particular line. I do have views, of course, and I've often pushed them. I've also handed out a certain amount of snark from time to time. I don't claim to be, as Jeremy Stangroom sarcastically calls me, the Polite Professor (I'm not even a professor) who never shows the slightest incivility. Some things do annoy me, make me impatient, even make me angry. I've been quite willing, on occasion, to tell people to piss off if I've found them sufficiently irritating.

Still, I've aimed at a certain standard overall - I've wanted this to be a blog where we could maintain a friendly and tolerant atmosphere, welcoming thoughtful and reasoned dissent, and developing some useful discussions that might at least clarify a few things. I've also hoped to introduce some elements of humour and fun - all work and no play makes for a boring blog.

Okay, so I haven't been entirely successful with all that ... but to the extent that I've had (I think), a leeetle bit of success it's largely been because my regular commenters have picked up the spirit of the thing. It hasn't gone unnoticed at my end.

So - just this once - I want to say to you guys (which is meant to be a gender-inclusive word) that I'm proud of you, and that you have my thanks.