No one expects the Secular Inquisition…

I’m in a fisking mood today, and as Dorries is more that usually inane at the moment, I’m afraid its going to have to be a bit of Mad Mel that gets the bullet:

Oh God! Tony Blair has confessed to religious faith being ‘hugely important’ to him during his tenure as Prime Minister.

And?

The full force of the secular inquisition will not hesitate in pronouncing its anathema upon him for committing this heresy of religious belief.

Really?

I can’t say that I’ve noticed much of a reaction to Blair’s comments over and above a big ‘so what?’. In fact the general impression I’ve from what little comment there has been over Blair’s entirely unremarkable ‘revelation’ is that most people have moved on and regard Blair as no more than a “yesterday’s man”.

For as Mr Blair also admitted, he was previously unable to be open about this key element of his character because ‘Frankly, people do think you’re a nutter’.

Too right they do. Especially these days when people turn themselves into human bombs and blow countless innocents to bits in the expectation that they will be rewarded with 72 virgins in paradise.

Islamic terrorism and the demented beliefs that fuel it have given all religion a bad name. But this kind of death cult can scarcely be equated to the ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ pieties of Christianity.

See, it’s all the fault of those damn Muslims.

Although, strictly speaking, Christianity’s veneration of the Easter story means that it too is a form of ‘death cult’ – in anthropological terms a ‘death cult’ is any form of religious belief in which the death (and sometimes rebirth) of a central mythological figure is venerated and/or in which martyrdom in the cause of advancing or advocating the tenets of the faith is also venerated.

Besides the antipathy to religious faith goes far wider and deeper than fear of terrorism. It is the outcome of a dominant secularism which claims that faith and reason are irreconcilable, and that belief in a supernatural creator is the equivalent to believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Talk about sloppy thinking.

Secularism claims only that there should be a clear separation of church and state, i.e. that religion and politics should be treated as separate domains. Hence it is perfectly possible for even religious believers and organisations – like Ekklesia, for example – to espouse and advocate in favour of secularism.

It’s actually atheism that considers that a belief in a personal, interventionist, god in incompatible with logic, reason and a scientific understanding of the nature and origins of the universe and, therefore, no more plausible than a belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

For reasons that will become clear later in this same article, this distinction is critically important.

Though most people still say they believe in some kind of God, religious faith has become progressively more enfeebled and unable to resist the secular onslaught. Hence the enormous success of books such as The God Delusion by the biologist and militant atheist Professor Richard Dawkins.

I would have thought that the enormous success of The God Delusion comes down to two things: a lot of people bought the book and they bought the book because they wanted to read Dawkin’s arguments.

I’ve personally read and re-read the book several times, enjoyed it immensely and found much in it that concurs with my own view of the world. It hasn’t changed the way I see things, although in some cases it has helped to solidify certain arguments which I already understood pretty well and now understand a little better.

He and his followers have created a climate of rampant intolerance towards religion, in which to acknowledge personal faith is to risk professional and social ostracism.

Really? And your evidence in support of this is, Melanie?

No?

Didn’t think so…

Yet the foundations of British society and Western civilisation rest upon the Bible and Christianity. It is the concept of a rational creator that lies behind the rationalism of the West. The idea of equality — fundamental to Western liberalism — derives from the belief that all human beings were created in the image of God.

There are a few problems with this particular line of argument.

First and foremost, the concept of a ‘rational creator’ is by no means ubiquitous within Christianity. Its a concept which, to give it its proper attribution, belongs the ‘realm’ of natural theology, a doctrine that is, perhaps, most clearly associated with Thomas Aquinas but which is, in truth, rooted far more in Classical philosophy than it is in the Bible – the first description of a natural theology is actually to be found in Plato’s Laws. Against that one has to set the doctrine of revealed theology, which is based firmly on scripture and on religious experiences, many of which are held to be revelatory and the (presumed) product of supernatural interventions. The latter is by far the more common ‘brand’ of Christianity, being the one that exoteric churches promote most extensively to their followers, in addition to being the primary foundation of protestantism, hence Luther’s rejection of reason as being the enemy of faith.

In simple terms, Christianity – as with the other Abrahamic religions – comes in two basic forms; an esoteric form, which encourages intellectual and philosophical enquiry, i.e. the variety taught to the priestly caste, and an exoteric form, which demands blind faith and a rigid adherence to set doctrines, i.e. the variety pitched to the masses from the pulpit. What Phillips is trying here is no more than a standard bait and switch of the kind that demands that you ‘judge’ the merits of religion on the basis of the beliefs of its intellectual elite rather than on the ‘dumbed down’ brand that it puts out for public consumption. Or rather it makes that demand when talking of those religions of which she approves as when it comes to Islam, which he dislikes, she’d much rather you judge it exclusively by references to the extremes of Salafist fundamentalism and disregard entirely the very different interpretation of Islam one finds within, for example, Sufiism.

It is an unequivocally intellectually dishonest line of argument, not to mention one that disregards the debt that Christianity’s natural theologians owe to the philosophers and scholars of the Classical world. In truth. the most one can assert with any confidence is that Christianity assisted in the development of modern rationalism by ensuring that important philosophical works of the Classical world survived to be read by future generations – beyond that one cannot say, with anything like absolute certainty, to what extent the foundations of modern rationalism are actually rooted in Christian natural theology as distinct from Classic Greek thought.

Moreover, the idea that we should value religion, or a particularly religion, simply because concepts such as rationalism and equality [may have] originated in religious thought presupposes that such concepts can only exist and function within the context in which they arose; i.e. that rationality and equality are essentially meaningless unless framed in their original context and due reference to a belief in a personal god. This is complete and utter nonsense, not least because one simply cannot infer the existence of a personal god from the existence of such concepts.

19th-century campaigns of social reform, which brought about an end to slavery, universal suffrage and the transformation of Britain from a criminal cesspit into an orderly society, were motivated by Christian evangelicalism. The Labour party was famously created by Methodism rather than Marx.

The relevance of which is what, exactly?

So what a desperately sad commentary on our times it is that a Prime Minister felt unable to acknowledge that he subscribed to the faith that underpinned his society.

Of course we expect political leaders to take decisions based on empirical evidence of what is in the best interests of their country. But certain acute situations require judgments which are, in essence, unavoidable leaps of faith.

In such circumstances, would we really prefer it if the Prime Minister decided what to do by just crossing his fingers, closing his eyes and sticking a pin into conflicting advice?

As arguments go, this is so bad that its laughable.

What Phillips presents here is a completely false dichotomy – in the absence of conclusive empirical evidence as to the correct course of action, Blair is afforded only two possible options when making a judgement call; he can resort to his belief in god or to random chance. He cannot, presumably, reason things out for himself and trust his own personal judgement, or take advice from others and place his faith in their judgements and opinions, he can rely only on his religious beliefs, or on a plethora of other ‘beliefs’ – you never know, as a politician he might have just made the occasional political decision – or he can toss a coin, roll a dice or throw a dart at a map of the world and invade whichever country he manages to hit – ‘Fuck me, lads, that was a lucky shot… anyone got a problem with invading Fiji?’

Wouldn’t it be a source of some reassurance that he draws instead upon his faith for guidance – thus acknowledging the limits of his own judgment and shoring it up with convictions which have shaped civilisation for centuries?

Well that depends very much on the exact manner in which his religious beliefs could be said to have guided him in his decisions.

No one would, I think, quibble about the influence of Blair’s personal beliefs if, for example, he were to cite Matthew 5:9 – ‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’ – as having provide a little inspiration at those times when the Northern Ireland peace process got rather bogged down and looked to be at serious risk of being derailed – although we might well wonder why that same passage wasn’t quite such an inspiration when it came to the business of invading Iraq.

That’s a very different proposition from making statements that appear to suggest that Blair – or any other politician – has a personal hotline to god and is getting direct advice from a supernatural source. That would be the point where many people would quite naturally begin to wonder just exactly what kind of nutball they’d elected to run the country.

As Mr Blair said, it would have been seen in this way in the U.S., which is still a much more religious country than Britain due to the centrality of the evangelical tradition going back to the Pilgrim Fathers.

But in Britain, the Church of England has turned into a kind of social workers’ convention where faith in God is too often seen as the equivalent of making a rude noise in church.

It is almost as if Christianity is fine – with its high-minded concerns about poverty, the environment, war and so forth – as long as no one believes in it.

Of course, the irony is that Mr Blair’s government seemed determined to attack and undermine bedrock Christian ethics. This appears to have rested on his misguided equation of Christianity with a sentimental universalism which held that everyone’s viewpoint was of equal value.

Nevertheless, he did believe in a Christian God which he was unable to reveal without doing himself political damage. That is because, to a secular society, religion is merely a form of organised superstition. Acting on religious faith is thus seen as irrational, and praying to God regarded as evidence of clinical insanity.

Again, Phillips is conflating secularism with atheism. In a secular society, religion is a private matter, one that is separate and distinct from the state and the conduct of government.

That’s not to suggest that religion is to be entirely excluded from the public in a secular society, A free, secular society, permits free and open religious expression and will necessarily take into account the view and opinions of religious believers in its decision making processes as one body of opinion amongst many which need to be considered. What it will not do, however, is privilege religious belief over non-belief or privilege one form of religious belief over another.

Secularism, itself, demands only that religion makes it way in the world on the same basis and same terms as other beliefs, ideologies and world-views. If a particular brand of religion wishes to argue for, say, a prohibition on homosexuality, it has to do so by advancing reasoned and rational arguments, engaging in debate with its opponents and, in a democracy, winning over a majority to its position. You will do this because ‘God says so’ just doesn’t wash as an argument.

This, in essence, is the other primary reason why many people can, and do, treat open expressions of religious faith by politicians with a degree of suspicion. Even without indications that a politician may harbour certain irrational religious beliefs, i.e. that they have a personal hotline to their particular god, there can be – sometimes with justification – concerns that a political leader’s personal beliefs may lead them to privilege a particular religion or religious denomination and its core doctrines over and above even the democratically expressed will of the people, in effect impose their personal beliefs on society irrespective of its wishes.

The idea that secularism is rational and peaceful, however, is very wide of the mark. Terrible global despotisms such as Nazism, Communism and Maoism have been unreligious or anti-religious.

Will someone please explain Godwin’s Law to Phillips.

Secularism is neither necessarily ‘unreligious’ – it imposes a separation of religion and state, true, but one of primary purposes of such a separation is to permit religious freedom by preventing individual religions, or religious denominations, from making use of the power of the state to impose their particular beliefs on society – or necessarily anti-religious for much the same reason. Secularism actually arose, as a concept, within Christian thought as a means of freeing religious belief from secular authority and as a reaction to the declining political authority of the Papacy, and the concept of Christendom, during the late Middle Ages, as both were supplanted throughout Europe by the rise of temporal and secular authority of monarchies and, later on, the concepts of the nation state and representative democracy.

Moreover, as the influence of religion has declined in Britain, far from becoming more rational, people have become more credulous, superstitious and irrational than ever before. They place their faith in a range of New Age cults, paganism, witchcraft and belief in psychic phenomena such as reincarnation, astrology and parapsychology.

What previously belonged to the province of the quack and the charlatan has given rise to mainstream treatments and therapies. The NHS provides funding for shamans, while the NHS Directory of Alternative and Complementary Medicine promotes ‘dowsers’, ‘flower therapists’ and ‘crystal healers’.

As an atheist I view this merely as an observation that some people have merely traded one set of irrational superstitions for another, which, when it comes from the likes of Phillips, amounts to no more than the pot calling the kettle black.

As a secularist, I take the view that people are free to believe what they wish provided that they observe certain societal values that are considered to be universal in application and with the proviso that in practising their beliefs they cause no harm to others. I may – and do – consider such beliefs to be foolish and irrational, as I do religious belief generally, and will happily argue the case against them, but it up the individual to decide how much store they wish to place in my arguments, or in those of Richard Dawkins for that matter, and whether or not anything either of us has to say influences them to rethink their opinions and beliefs.

And New Age, Islamist, green and far right groups are united by their predilection for crackpot conspiracy theories, whether about aliens and crop circles or the perpetrators of 9/11.

Or about MMR, perhaps?

I’m not about to go into detail here, suffice to say that of anyone in the British mainstream media, Melanie Phillips is about the least qualified, by her own actions, to criticise anyone for possessing a predilection for crackpot conspiracy theories.

In any event, the idea that religious belief and reason don’t go together is contradicted by many distinguished scientists, such as the botanist Sir Ghillean Prance, the director of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins, and Allan Sandage, reputedly the greatest living cosmologist. These are all staunch believers – and it is science itself which has confirmed their faith.

Sorry, but this no more contradicts the notion that religious belief and reason don’t go together than the invention of the teabag can be said to demonstrate the existence of Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot, merely your basic appeal to authority fallacy.

Of the three, Collins is the most interesting example by virtue of his coining the phrase ‘Biologos‘ to describe his preferred take on the old chestnut of ‘theistic evolution‘ in which his ‘argument’ for the existence of god runs as follows:

BioLogos rests on the following premises:

  • The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  • Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
  • While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
  • Once evolution got under way no special supernatural intervention was required.
  • Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
  • But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

So far as his reliance on the cosmological ‘fine-tuning’ argument for god is concerned, Dawkins deals with that one fully in The God Delusion, but in essence it amounts to now more than – we don’t understand X therefore god.

However, there are a number of rather more fundamental problems with Collins’ ideas.

For one thing he proposes an entirely non-interventionist god, i.e. it not a personal god and one that doesn’t, therefore, listen to or answer prayers, live in heaven, perform miracles or take any active part in the universe. Even if such a god did exist to kick things off 14 billion years ago, or maybe 4 billion years ago when life started, whether or not such an entity still exists today or ever existed makes not the slightest bit of difference to human experience and human understanding of the universe. A god who does not intervene in the universe serves no useful purpose at a human level and might as well not exist for all the good it does.

Such a non-interventionist god also rather pisses in Christianity’s chips as, logically, a non-interventionist deity is incapable of ‘fathering’ a child, which blows the whole Jesus as the son of god line right out of the water.

Collins’ use of arguments from improbability are also extreme problematic. Even if the origin of the universe and the origin of life on Earth are improbable event, how much more improbable is the proposition that a non interventionist ‘designer’ god could produce a sentient human at the end (so far) of an evolutionary process where that gods total input consists entirely of fine-tuning a matter of half a dozen physical constants some 14 billion years ago or, if we take the origins of life as the last intervention, from ‘designing’ the first self-replicating RNA strand some 4 billion years ago, never mind, of course, that his argument makes no effort to explain exactly how and why humans sudden became ‘unique’ on diverging from the evolutionary path followed by the other Great Apes.

Darwinian evolution suffers from none of these problems because it makes no assumptions that evolution will eventually human beings. Its obviously fortuitous, from our point of view, that it did but it need not have done and the fact we’re here to consider such questions is proof only that evolution took one particular course rather than many other possible ones.

In short, just because Collins professes to believe in god it doesn’t automatically follow that his beliefs, or his arguments for the existence of god, are either rational or stand up to scrutiny.

As John Lennox, an Oxford University-mathematician, has written in his devastating book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, it is people such as Richard Dawkins who are guilty of the most profound irrationality.

This is because, in claiming that only atheism is scientific, they make nonsensical assertions which contradict scientific knowledge and evidence-based thinking.

Let me say in advance that you’re going to love the next bit…

In suggesting that life sprang into existence without any kind of governing intelligence, they fly in the face of the evidence emerging from science that the hitherto unimaginable complexity of life forms, including the living cell, makes it scientifically impossible for life to have emerged without some kind of intelligent design.

Mwahahahaahahaha…

Yes, the basis of Mad Mel’s claim that Dawkins is ‘guilty of profound irrationality’ is…

…Intelligent Design.

I’m not even going to bother rebutting that, it so absurd – and in any case she wouldn’t listen or understand, remember this is the same Mad Mel who tried to tell Ben Goldacre that he didn’t understand how Cochrane studies work when he called her out over her feeble arguments on MMR.

Nevertheless, the Dawkins-ites are lionised as apostles of reason. Meanwhile, those scientists who are doing what scientists are supposed to do — follow where the evidence leads them — and who have concluded as a result that life was created by a guiding intelligence, are hysterically smeared by the Dawkins camp.

In a shocking campaign of intellectual thuggery, this camp has falsely accused such scientists of being religious fundamentalists who believe the world was created in six days – when they believe no such thing at all. Some of these scientists then find they are threatened in their posts or even forced out altogether.

More tendentious rubbish.

Some proponents of ID are young earth creationists, who believe that a personal god created the earth in six days, and some aren’t – it doesn’t matter either way because Intelligent Design is still a load of unscientific, thinly veiled, creationist hooey whether you think the universe is 6000 or 14 billion years old.

As for ID-ers being threatened in their posts, let alone ‘forced’ out of their posts, the only cited case I could find where such a claim was made is that of Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at the University of Iowa who, with the Discovery Institute, claimed that his support for ID resulted in his being denied tenure and an promotion to Associate Professor. The University, however, tells a very different story:

On June 1, 2007, Gregory Geoffroy, President of Iowa State University, rejected Gonzalez’s appeal and upheld the denial of tenure. In making this decision, Geoffroy states that he “specifically considered refereed publications, [Gonzalez’s] level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy” and that Gonzalez “simply did not show the trajectory of excellence that we expect in a candidate seeking tenure in physics and astronomy — one of our strongest academic programs.” Geoffroy noted, “Over the past 10 years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.”

Gonzalez’s failure to obtain research funding has been cited as a factor in the decision. “Essentially, he had no research funding,” said Eli Rosenberg, chairman of Gonzalez’s department. “That’s one of the issues.” According to the Des Moines Register, “Iowa State has sponsored $22,661 in outside grant money for Gonzalez since July 2001, records show. In that same time period, Gonzalez’s peers in physics and astronomy secured an average of $1.3 million by the time they were granted tenure.”

The one verifiable case in which someone was sacked because of their views on Intelligent Design is this one

Pope Benedict XVI has sacked his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution.

He has removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after the American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Holy See’s endorsement of “intelligent design” theory, which essentially backs the “Adam and Eve” theory of creation.

Of course, there is intolerance a-plenty within the religious world; terrible things have always been done in the name of God.

Which is why it is essential to separate Church and state, as has been the case ever since the 18th-century Enlightenment curbed religious authority and ushered in the age of reason based on political liberalism, individual freedom under law and the tolerance of minorities and dissent.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, she is indeed now advocating secularism, the separation of Church and State- this is turning into a bit of pure Glenda.

Secularism… Are’ntchajustsickofit! But separating Church and State, we gotta have that… Geddit!!!!???

That legacy, however, is under grievous threat from without, in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, and from within, in the form of secular fundamentalism.

The fact that a British Prime Minister has to keep his Christian faith secret is sorry testimony to the self-inflicted damage of a society that is in danger of losing not just its faith, but its mind.

Except that its not actually secularism she wants, but the re-Christianisation of Britian – in fact I do wonder if that last bit about separating Church and State is not just some weird acid flashback to her former life as a liberal.

About the only thing under grievous threat here is the sanity of Daily Mail readers as they desperately search Mad Mel’s comments for anything that might remotely resemble a coherent or cogent argument.

Just how the hell does Joshua Rozenberg, who seems an eminently sensible chap, manage to put up with her?

  • timgbull

    Best damn fisk I have seen for ages …. clearly a master of your subject, you expose the appalingly lazy thinking of one of the MSM’s lunatic fringe.

  • “And New Age, Islamist, green and far right groups are united by their predilection for crackpot conspiracy theories, whether about aliens and crop circles or the perpetrators of 9/11.”

    This would be the same Melanie Phillips who believes Iran is plotting a second Holocaust, that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were secretly transported to Syria (http://www.septicisle.info/2007/04/just-how-much-madder-can-mad-mel-get.html) and that global warming is a myth. The only difference between Phillips and those with a predilection for crackpot conspiracy theories is that she gets house room in the Daily Mail and the Spectator to spread hers.

  • Kent man

    Isn’t it strange that all the major religions believe in the one God and yet are prepared to slaughter each other for religious reasons for not believing the right things about Him/It?
    Isn’t it strange that this God, who they claim was the creator of all, allows some of his creations to destroy other of his creations without lifting a hand (or bolt of lightening).to prevent it?
    Isn’t it strange that this same God, who is all powerful and omnipotent, should need weak, but self important, religious leaders to decide when He has been insulted/offended/abused and to mete out punishment, when He must be capable of doing so Himself….if necessary?

  • Just how the hell does Joshua Rozenberg, who seems an eminently sensible chap, manage to put up with her?

    1. Doesn’t bring her work home?

    2. Exceptional cook?

    3. Fantastic in bed?

  • 5cc

    In the last quote, she claims that Blair kept his religion secret. When was that now?

  • Kent Man –
    It’s all down to the get out clause for God not doing anything, free will.
    And the preists? That’s called sucking up to the boss.

    Bollox, the lot of it.

  • Much as I love you, Unity, I fear that you may be wasting your time on Melanie Phillips…

  • Kent man

    Sim-O
    Have you noticed how politics and religion are opposite sides of the same coin.
    The leaders always know best, and the rabble are controlled by fear. What it is that one has to fear is always only known to those “in charge”, who demand being kept in the lap of luxury for keeping the secret and guiding the masses in the ways of ignorance.

  • Wait a second…

    So she goes from pro-religion (the one she likes), to bashing Islam and other alternative choices of faith, to secularism? The editor must’ve fell asleep after the first paragraph.