bookmark_borderWhy we should have ceremonies with religious speeches

A benediction speech during graduation at Midwestern State University. It’s the best argument for encouraging religious performances in public events that I’ve come across in a while.

I figure that if you have a zealous religious performance along these lines, anyone with some sanity remaining will be embarrassed or repulsed by such a display. It will reinforce any inclinations they have to keep some distance between religion and things that actually matter.

And if you have a generic performance approaching “ceremonial deism,” well, the result will mostly be thoroughly boring and conventional. Again, people with some inclination toward independent thought will not be impressed, and they will tend to think that there is not much content behind a lot of religious speech.

bookmark_borderWho is the audience?

It’s an old (2009) photo, but I ran into it again today:

It prompted me to ask if some of the more militant Islamic groups are aware of the disastrous public image presented by posters with “freedom can go to hell” and so forth on them. But then, many of them seem media-savvy to a fault. They must know how negatively the average liberal Westerner will respond to that sort of display.

I guess their real audience must be others. Disaffected Muslims who will support groups who look like they will most aggressively defend a Muslim identity? Rich and devout businessmen (Saudis?) who will fund groups that draw media attention precisely because they seem so over the top?

bookmark_borderDistrust of Science

I ran into a news item suggesting that at least in paranormal matters, public distrust of science is quite strong. Indeed, in a study done on belief in ESP, people informed that the scientific community was skeptical about ESP ended up more likely to think that ESP was real.

People like me, who are deeply involved in science education, often think that all we have to do is improve scientific literacy (whatever that means), and a better educated population will come to see that trust in science is well-warranted. Then we’ll have fewer people believing in ghosts and psychic powers, creationism, occult conspiracies, anti-vaccination paranoia, climate change denial, Scientology, etc. etc. Some of us extend such hopes to science literacy working against the popularity of religion—or at least the forms of religion that lean heavily on explicit supernatural bullshit rather than obscurantist metaphysical bullshit.

But such hopes themselves might be more faith-based than empirically well-supported. Substantial acquaintance with science is impractical to achieve beyond a small percentage of even a modern population. And inclinations toward supernatural belief are too deeply rooted in the nature of human cognition. If people trust science, it’s in the context of a general trust of established expertise, even perhaps trust of authority. The professional classes do this quite well. But those of us who live lives revolving around trust in expertise have also been more than willing to screw over lots of people in the name of established expertise. If trust in expertise erodes—and it is easy to suspect that now is such a time—a lot of people are not going to distinguish between economists and other modern witch doctors and natural scientists. I wonder if the present wave of distrust of science has a lot to do with a general rising “fuck the ‘experts,’ what do they know anyway?” attitude.

If so, it doesn’t bode well for science-inspired criticism of supernatural beliefs. It might be best to hunker down, pretend that science plays perfectly nice with religion, and hope that religious populism finds more enticing targets than boring people wearing glasses and funny lab coats.

bookmark_borderAntony Flew’s Passing

Antony Flew died the other day. Like many secular people, I have mixed feelings. At the end of his life he was declared a theist. I say “was declared” because it is not clear to what extent in his final two or three years he was not simply in a state of senescent confusion. The final book issued in his name (actually authored by third-rate religious apologist Roy Abraham Varghese) is a crackpot screed that, surely, Flew would have repudiated with disdain had he been in possession of his powers. Because he lent his famous name to such a text, theistic propagandists were not ashamed to exploit his dotage, cackling and gloating over their “victory” in “converting” the “world’s most notorious atheist.” Perhaps we atheists should all draw a object lesson and beg that everyone disregard us, if, someday, when in the grip of disease or decay, we begin babbling about the love of God or endorsing intelligent design.
Surely, we should not judge a life of 87 years on the basis of the senile follies of the closing few years. Less excusable than his end-of-day volte face was the fact that he participated in public debates for which he was woefully unprepared, such as his encounters with Thomas Warren, Gary Habermas, and William Lane Craig. Someone used to the sorts of debates held at the Oxford high table would hardly be prepared for the bare knuckles style of American fundamentalists. You could excuse him for being blindsided once, but he fell for it again and again.
Still, I rank Flew as second only to Bertrand Russell as a writer of pellucid, witty, and penetrating philosophical prose, and Flew’s treatment of the theistic arguments was far deeper and more rigorous than Russell’s. Speaking personally, his book God and Philosophy helped drive me from theological murk (e.g., Paul Tillich) and into the harsh light of analytic philosophy. Flew was made famous by his much-quoted 1950 essay “Theology and Falsification.” Flew argued that theological assertions, unlike empirical claims, are incapable of falsification. A scientific claim, such as the double-helix structure of DNA, is potentially falsifiable (though not actually falsified) by many kinds of scientific tests or data. Theological assertions, says Flew, are not similarly falsifiable by contrary data or counterexample.
All such efforts to rule out theological claims as pseudo-assertions on the basis of some sort of verifiability or falsifiability criterion are now generally dismissed as detritus from the bad old days of logical positivism. I still think there is something to Flew’s argument, though. Consider a typical theological assertion, one that was presented to me as Law One of the Four Spiritual Laws from a Campus Crusade tract: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Great news, huh? The omnipotent, omniscient, creator of the universe loves ME and has a wonderful plan for MY life! But then a moment’s reflection reminds you that God’s “wonderful plan” for some people’s lives is that as infants they are burned to death in house fires. In fact those who assert that God loves you must also hold that God’s love for persons is compatible with his permitting of any of life’s multiple misfortunes to befall them. That is, “God loves you” is not falsified if God permits you, through no fault of your own, to suffer a hideous and torturous death. God’s love therefore seems to be something very strange—not at all like the love of parent for a child. As Flew notes, an earthly father will be driven frantic to ease the suffering of a child, while the heavenly father does nothing at all.
The upshot is not that assertions like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” are meaningless or devoid of factual significance. They are asserting something, but just what? If God loves me but in some mysterious way that is compatible with letting any horrible thing happen to me or, worse, my loved ones, then why should I want God’s love and why should it matter to me? Indeed, what, really, is the difference between saying that God loves me and saying that God is totally indifferent towards me? The value of Flew’s “Falsification” essay is precisely that it makes us ask such hard questions of theological assertions rather than giving them a free pass because, superficially, they look like innocuous everyday assertions.

bookmark_borderCraig on Philo

First, sorry I have been away from S.O. for so long. Very busy. Anyway, I just noticed a small thing that I should probably ignore, but it irks me sufficiently that I am going to vent. In a footnote to his article “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin, Craig makes a few passing remarks about the philosophical journal Philo, of which I was the founding editor. Craig contends that in academe, atheism is a philosophy in full retreat, with theists increasingly dominating discussion in the philosophy of religion. He sees Philo as a case in point: “A sign of the times: Philo itself, unable to succeed as a secular organ, has now become a journal for the general philosophy of religion.” Actually, Craig is himself being a bit of an organ in this passage, so let me clear the air.

was originally meant to be the journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers, but our aim was never to exclude contributions by theists. Allow me to quote some of my comments from the first issue of Philo:

“The purpose of Philo, is quite simply, to provide a single source for the best peer-reviewed articles by nontheist philosophers on topics relating to the philosophy of religion and religious apologetics...This does not mean that editorial policy will exclude articles by theists; our policy is to publish the best articles we receive. However, we aim to become recognized as the source for the highest quality writings by the most distinguished nontheist philosophers. In this sense we aim to make our journal the counter part of Faith and Philosophy [the journal published by The Society of Christian Philosophers].”

Though Philo is no longer associated with the Society of Humanist Philosophers, it continues to publish critiques of theistic claims by leading nontheist philosophers, such as Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Richard Carrier. Many articles by less well-known writers contain incisive critiques of theistic arguments and Christian doctrines. In short, Philo continues to do pretty much what I hoped it would do when we started it. It was no more intended as a propagandistic “organ” than Faith and Philosophy and probably less so than Philosophia Christi.

I guess one of the many differences between myself and William Lane Craig, for which I am duly grateful, is that I do not consider it a defeat to have helped found a forum for the expression of views other than my own.

bookmark_borderPerceiving Moral Truths?

Dianelos Georgoudis has put forward a theistic view of ethics and moral reasoning in his comments on “A Question of authority”, a recent post by Taner Edis. Given the intriguing combination of ethics and philosophy of religion involved here, I was unable to resist engaging Dianelos in a discussion of his views.

Although I am skeptical about the views he expresses, I envy him for having a theory of ethics and moral reasoning, when all I have are a motley collection of thoughts, hunches, observations, and inclinations on these topics. Perhaps this dialogue will help me to develop my own theory or viewpoint on the nature of ethics and moral reasoning.

As I understand it, Dianelos takes the position that the potential of an infinite regress in moral reasoning can be avoided through the use of ultimate premises that are known to be true by direct perception. This is analogous to the idea that the potential of an infinite regress in theoretical reasoning can be avoided through the use of ultimate premises that are know to be true by direct perception (e.g. an observation statement, such as: “The litmus paper turned blue.”). Furthermore, and this point is a bit more fuzzy and unclear in my mind, the direct perceptions that ground these ultimate moral premises are (in some way, shape, or form) perceptions of God or of God’s nature.

Here is one of the recent exchanges on this topic:
Bradley said:
“If what is being perceived is a fact about the nature of God, then wouldn’t the proposition that represents this perception be something like: “God’s nature is X” or “One aspect of God’s nature is X.”? ”
Dianelos responded:
“Yes, indeed. And that’s what moral propositions refer to, namely to the moral nature of God. So, for example, the proposition “you should not return evil” refers to an aspect of God’s moral character, namely that God does not return evil.”

The focus is on an example of a moral proposition:

1. You should not return evil.
Given that the discussion is about moral judgments or propositions, we can clarify (1) to make this explicit. Statement (1) has basically the same meaning as the following statement:

2. If you return evil, then you have performed an action that is morally wrong.
I believe the pronoun “you” here is intended to be understood as a plural pronoun (similar to the southern expression “you all” or “y’all”). If so, then proposition 2 can be further clarified:

3. If anyone returns evil, then that person has performed an action that is morally wrong.

Although proposition 3 has the form of a conditional statement, I think it should be analyzed in terms of a universal generalization. If so, then statement 3 can be restated as follows:

4. For any x and any y, if x is a person and y is an action performed by x and x’s performing y constitutes returning evil, then x’s performing of y is morally wrong.

It seems implausible to me that such a universal generalization can be known on the basis of direct perception.

It still seems to me that any direct perception of the truth of proposition (4) would (if possible) be a perception of a set of actions and the characteristics of the actions in that collection. Furthermore, it will be a set of actions performed by persons.
If God is not a person, then the direct perception of the truth of (4) would not involve a direct perception of God. If God is a person, then the direct perception of the truth of (4) would include perception of God, but would also include direct perception of other persons.

If there are some actions that are morally permissible for God, but not for human persons, then a universal proposition having a form similar to (4) about such actions being morally wrong would be a false proposition, because although one might directly perceive that such an action would be morally wrong for human persons, one could not directly perceive that God’s performance of such an action would be morally wrong (unless direct perceptions can be mistaken).

I think the idea that there are some actions that are morally permissible for God but not for human persons is a coherent and even plausible idea. So, this provides support for my view that there is a problem with directly perceiving proposition (4) to be true. Multiple perceptions are required, and all of the relevant perceptions must be in line with the universal generalization. Otherwise, how could potential counterexamples to the generalization be precluded?

Furthermore, it seems to me that Dianelos is actually engaging in moral reasoning here, and not just in direct perception:

5. God does not return evil. (directly perceived ultimate premise).
1. You should not return evil. (moral proposition inferred from an ultimate premise).

But this moral reasoning is defective and falls prey to the IS/OUGHT gap, or something similar to the IS/OUGHT gap. If proposition (5) is a purely descriptive claim (if we can analyze “God” and “return evil” in some purely descriptive way), then Dianelos needs to add a normative principle to make the moral reasoning work:

5. God does not return evil.
A. Any type of action that God never does is a type of action that it would be morally wrong for a human person to do.
1. You should not return evil (i.e. it is morally wrong for a human person to return evil).

Making the normative assumption explicit also reveals a problem with the ultimate starting point of this bit of moral reasoning. There are lots of things that God does not do, and only some of those things are avoided by God for moral reasons. For example, God does not get married (according to Christian theology).

6. God does not get married.
A. Any type of action that God never does is a type of action that it would be morally wrong for a human person to do.
2. You should not get married (i.e. it is morally wrong for a human person to get married).

My reconstruction of what I take to be the moral reasoning implicit in Dianelos’ comments, suggests a different interpretation of the ultimate starting point of this bit of moral reasoning. It is not an accident that God does not return evil, nor is this a byproduct of something specific and peculiar to God’s nature. God does not return evil presumably because God believes it would be morally wrong to return evil. This insight allows us to reformulate the moral reasoning, (to eliminate the defect discovered when we made an unstated assumption in the moral reasoning explicit):

7. God believes the proposition that returning evil is morally wrong for any person.
B. For any proposition P, if God believes P, then P is true.
1. You should not return evil (i.e. it is morally wrong for a human person to return evil).


When I was a kid, about thirty five or forty years ago, I remember that the political talk of my parents and their friends had a very Enlightenment flavor. Religious conservatism was reactionary, something that was a nuisance but would be swept away with progress. When they ran into, for example, a woman in full hijab (a less common sight in 1970s Istanbul than it is today), secularists would make a face and remark on how people “in this day and age” still behaved according to medieval religious norms.

Well, in my lifetime since, it has become obvious that not only was religious conservatism not a fading atavism, but an increasingly confident feature of public life. The 1970s medieval relic was actually the wave of the future.

I left Turkey more than twenty years ago, but its story has included the painfully slow collapse of a sclerotic secularism that enjoyed very little in the way of a popular base. Most people outside of a small urban elite were not convinced that they should understand their lives in a political framework determined by the European Enlightenment. A revived, retooled, technological, modern Islam and Islamism resonated much better.

Well, I came to the US in the 1980s, in a time when the Religious Right was relatively new, still flexing its muscles. And in my time here, it has been reasonably successful in promoting its political culture, even though the death of the Christian Right is a regular pronouncement in commentaries on the news. And I have to say that the Religious Right has been the only serious populist, democratic, grassroots movement I have experienced in the United States.

The state of abortion rights is a good illustration. It’s scary how much abortion has become delegitimized in politics and in popular culture alike. Due to almost exclusively conservative religous-based opposition, abortion almost exists in the shadows, as something that might just be barely legal but carries a heavy burden of moral opprobrium. Access to abortion has seriously deteriorated across the country. And you can completely forget about abortion as a component of healthcare that might be supported by public funds. At best what secular defenders of abortion can hope for is preserving an anemic “choice,” so that not all communities have to abide by a religiously-motivated regime of reproductive politics.

And similarly with politics in general. Our political choices are between an openly theoconservative Republican party, and a Democratic party that works very hard to present itself as religion-friendly. Democratic administrations hold the Religious Right at bay but also legitimate more religiosity in politics, more public money funneled through religious channels.

Here too, there is an air of defeat about secular politics. We are, it seems, in a post-secular age. Public life is not as drenched in religiosity as in a Muslim country. But advancing a more secular agenda does not seem a realistic possibility. Perhaps the best we can do is to defend some enclaves—scientific institutions, perhaps—isolating them from the most heavy-handed religious influences.

Even Europe is not doing so well. In the past few decades, the Christian populations of Europe have, if anything, become even less religious. But having the bulk of the immigrant Muslim population assimilate to this secular environment now appears to be a naive hope. Large numbers, perhaps the majority, of European Muslims are not persuaded that Enlightenment-based institutions improve upon what is provided by divine law. Modern economies and urban environments have changed immigrant Muslim religiosity and beliefs in important ways, but they remain exceptions to the European Christian story of secularization.

So in Europe, the best that can be expected is perhaps to have separate communities, with a degree of pluralism in legal systems, and a public sphere where sensitivity to devout constituencies trumps considerations such as freedom of speech. In specifically secular environments—but not the public sphere open to all comers—secular Europeans might still enjoy their way of life. But the universal aspirations of secular Enlightenment politics have, perhaps, been defeated.

It’s important to note that whether in Turkey, the US, or Europe, the Enlightenment perspective has failed to convince large populations. Lots of people just do not want to live that way. When Enlightenment regimes have been imposed through direct coercion, such as in Turkey, the devout have resisted, often successfully. When secular politics arose through indirect coercion—economic modernization, urban conditions, state control of education, etc.—secularism was still not entirely successful, such as with immigrant populations who depended on religious solidarity. Democracy, in the sense of respecting popular choice and participation, has often produced right-wing, religiously colored populism.

And historical experience has left Enlightenment secularism frayed along its intellectual edges as well. We can no longer rely on a narrative of progress and universality. These narratives are too closely allied to the utopian, quasi-religious aspects of the European Enlightenment. And disassociating the Enlightenment from utopian follies such as communism or neoliberalism is not an easy task. A full-throated defense of Enlightenment secularism is more difficult these days; it gets lost in nuances and qualifications and ends up as politically impotent.

So maybe the thing to do is to accept defeat for now, and hope a better day will come. Reduce the ambitions of secularism: scale it down from a political regime that applies to everyone. Instead, perhaps we can instead defend secularity as an option, as the internal culture of particular groups and particular institutions.

In all likelihood, this too is unworkable. It cuts too much against the grain of the Enlightenment tradition. Trying to defend institutions such as science by trying to be unthreatening toward religious interests may just get us muzzled while rewarding religiously motivated interference.

But what else is there to do? Redouble our efforts to impose a more secular order? Does that really have prospects for success? If, as is quite possible, secularism cannot be sustained in present circumstances without a significant degree of coercion, are we sure we want it in the first place?


I’m reading Bruce Bawer’s Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom. So far it’s unremarkable: standard issue right wing paranoia about Islam, obscuring what should be real concerns about the political implications of conservative Muslim religiosity.

It’s interesting, however, how Islamophobic literature distorts Muslim religious terminology. Jihad always means holy war. Dhimmi isn’t a reference to historically “protected” non-Islamic minorities within Muslim empires, but a word used to condemn Europeans seeking an accommodation with devout Muslim minorities.

I’ve become used to this sort of thing, but every now and then, it’s the Islamophobic use of much more minor Islamic terms that catch my attention. For example, Bawer has an offhand reference to taqiyya, the practice of protective dissimulation that is supposedly encouraged when Muslim interests would be harmed if Muslims revealed their true religious beliefs. Bawer calls Tariq Ramadan “a habitual practitioner of the Islamic art of taqiyya—which essentially means saying one thing in Arabic and another thing in English or French.” I’ve run into this sort of thing on Islamophobic web sites as well. The implication is that the practice of taqiyya is another reason not to trust Islamists (or Muslims in general): they’re encouraged to conceal their true intentions.

But if you think of it, that’s a strange notion for most Muslims to endorse. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni. And where it is dominant, Sunni Islam has historically been both the religion of the popular majority and the political establishment. Sunnis would have no reason to dissimulate. Shiites, on the other hand, have often been despised, politically distrusted minorities. (Shiite dominance of Iran is relatively recent.) Indeed, endorsement of taqiyya is primarily a Shiite practice, not part of the wider Islamic mainstream. And in the historical context of repeatedly persecuted Shiite populations, it made good sense—taqiyya is not some kind of endorsement for concealing true beliefs for underhanded reasons. And it is not, usually, part of Sunni practice.

Now, interestingly, accusing conservative, politically active Muslims of taqiyya used to be very common in Turkish secularist circles as well, particularly around twenty years ago. The secularist fear was that the Muslim conservatives were not truly committed to democracy, and that they were lying to gain political advantage. I’d be curious to know more about the history of the accusation, because I imagine that when it first surfaced, taqiyya would be a particularly delicious political insult. By saying a conservative Sunni is performing taqiyya, a secularist could insinuate not only that he was lying, but also implying that the Sunni was practicing an art associated with the distrusted Shiites. And I imagine that both the secularists and their targets knew exactly how the secularists were pressing the term taqiyya into service for political theater. But when I first got used to seeing it, it had already become an ossified, ritual accusation, with no humor in it. Later on, it became clear that in many respects, Turkish popular Islamists were more democratic in their political attitudes than the secularists.

And now, taqiyya is used, even more superficially, as part of Western Islamophobic rhetoric. I’d be curious about how that came about as well. Did the Westerners originally pick up the idea from anti-Islamist Turks or Iranians? Whatever the history, the way they use it now just illustrates how many so-called “critics of Islam” are more interested in Muslim-bashing than understanding what they are ostensibly criticizing.