[this post has been updated 12th Oct to include the Jon Ronson quote, and the link to the above clarification]
We’re living in a fascinating age, right now. We finished mapping the human genome nine years ago; we finally have a President of the USA who can mention nonbelievers without fearing reprisal from the electorate or a celestial punisher; we have such a prosperous and luxurious way of life that
- we can muck around on the Internet with minimal costs, and we rarely consider anything amazing or unusual about this, unless we pause to complain about bandwith usage
- we can actually forget that we’re entrenched in a couple of wars
- people can get uptight about stem cell research on a philosophical, rather than scientific, basis
- a large proportion of humanity can be suffering and starving, and all people want to argue about is the curse of non-belief.
These, while not all desirable, are symptomatic of an incredible age where we really have very little idea of the scope of progress we’ve made in the past century. Of course, we have a long way to go to rectify the grievous asymmetry between people of differing nations – there but for an accident of birth.
And one of the gloriously unusual repercussions of this age is the state of reason, and the public image of those who espouse it. I mean, public advocates of critical thinking could be exemplified by the Betrand Russells, the Carl Sagans, the David Humes (bit of generational leaps there!).
So Reason (which I’ll treat as synonymous with critical thinking for the purposes of this post) was the grandfatherly approach, the common-sense advocated during the Cold War to placate those warring factions of wannabe Rambos and Strangeloves.
The 60s gave us a number of particular political hot buttons – the war in Vietnam obviously being a huge issue, seemingly presided over by politicians, exploiting the common man. I apologise for the simplistic historical account here, it really isn’t my area, and any corrections are, as usual, gratefully received. And as the war moved into the 70s, with the Nixon administration taking charge of the devastation, there were a large number of protests – politically, by students, by filmmakers, by musicians.
Films like ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’ resonate in culture today, as do anthems such as ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath. The Woodstock event, with Hendrix’s famous rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (with the cheers added in post-production, incidentally), the period was full of grassroots consciousness-raising. They weren’t necessarily the most articulate, or politically-savvy messages – but they were voices of dissent, at a time when the world needed to hear the dissenting voice of reason.
The hippy movement was following on from the initial rock ‘n’ roll explosion in the ’50s (ignoring the initial transition from rhythm and blues music between the ’30s-50s, when it became a cross-cultural phenomenon) – a movement based on rebelling against the status quo, the perfect music to listen to if you wanted to frustrate your parents without too much effort.
And of course, that traditional voice of traditional values – the homophobic, racist, non-progressive bible-bashing tradition – was affected most by this egregious assault on ‘the family’ – back when you could just plain hate someone because of the colour of their skin. Now you had people actually buying their records! And working with them! And moving their hips suggestively!
And with the hippy movement in the ’60s, we had an imposing force at work – nihilism. Young men and women leaving home to revel in their hedonistic ideals of experimentation and community, protesting against unjust war and repressive conservative notions of sexuality and freedom. Quoth Ginsberg:
where we wake up electrified out of the coma
by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the
roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the
hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls col-
lapse O skinny legions run outside O starry
spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is
here O victory forget your underwear we’re
And that was one of the fears – nihilism. Personified in rampant, unchecked libido – and worse, the death of God.
Come the ’80s, and we had the horrors of the AIDS epidemic (sadly still here, preventative measures still scorned by the Church) – again, blame lay at the feet of those libidos, those agnostics and atheists, those with a liberal approach to sexuality, and special ire to those in the throes of addiction, or anyone born with attraction to the same sex. What was the problem? Apparently, no consequences.
Apparently, without God, anything’s permitted. Rape, murder, theft, false witness. No consequences. The straw man pops up again.
Of course, these are all familiar arguments – and they’re flimsier now than they ever were. Living your life according to secular morals, or following your own attractions instead of tormenting yourself fitting in to others blinkered views on sexuality, or refusing to support unjust wars or horrific politics – is NOT nihilism. It is not ignoring consequences. It is taken the burden of consequences onto yourself.
The mindset adopted by naysayers – of sexual politics, of liberal attitudes to race, religion and war, of free music art and poetry – is that we must surrender our responsibility to another. It is treating God, or gods, or any higher power, or a political movement, as an abusive parent; kowtow and capitulate to the wants and petty desires, or face the consequences. But only because they want what is best for you.
We’re seeing it in the current age, too.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently delivered a broadside against Reason (it’s more of a broadsheet, really) – all the usual tropes are here, carefully blurred enough to render any literal interpretation meaningless. The trick is really smoke and mirrors. All it involves is looking at a system which works (the scientific method – a process of inductive and deductive reasoning, testable hypotheses, constant critical review to reduce human errors and fallibility), decrying it as ‘another religion’ (spot the baseless conflation?), then saying that your religion is just another ‘way of knowing’.
It is one of the most poisonously foolish dogmas of modern intellectual life that reducing human motivation and reflection to a pattern of determinism, whether material or psychological, is a mark of liberation and maturity.
[...]A Christian humanism is a perspective that cuts against all such illusions and faces the tragic and the unresolved in human affairs with honesty. It is ‘humanistic’ simply in that it recognises utter and lasting worth in human beings because of how God has dealt with them. But because it is based in this way on God’s dealings, it appeals to some comprehensive, absolutely free and transcendent reality about which – astonishingly – we can make some true statements. It challenges both the humanism that claims an absolute value for humanity to be self-evident and the relativism that makes such a statement of value no more than a strong expression of emotions of solidarity. It implies that what is good for humanity is truly a universal destiny, on which the minds and hearts of all people can converge; and thus it is a fundamentally non-violent humanism, seeking the grounds for reconciliation by insisting that what is good for one person, community or civilisation has somehow to be integrated with what is good for another. Friendship and converse between persons, justice and peace between communities, between ethnic and national groups are the fruits of this universalism.
Now, there are a number of irrational presuppositions in this excerpt – the number one culprit being begging the question. Archbishop Williams is using the existence of God (and we can suppose he means the Judeo-Christian concept of the Abrahamic God, and not one of the other multitudes) as the foundation of his assumptions about human dignity; and especially this odd phrase ‘transcendental reality’: a particularly useful get-out-of-jail-free card beloved of Karen Armstrong and other sophisticated theologians – define a deity beyond the corporeal realm, so if anyone questions any of the assumptions or claims, you can point into the distance at this transcendental ‘other’.
And if all religious people agreed with the sophisticated theologians, then we’d be fine; it’d be a world full of, at the most extreme, deism. Because once God is watered down to the level of a ‘transcendental’ who guides the natural laws and doesn’t interfere with our daily existence, then we’ve practically created an impotent god in the image of the spaces in scientific inquiry.
The problem is: we don’t live in that world – where the majority agree that God as a philosophy is a Good Thing. Instead we have a ‘my Dad is bigger than your Dad’ situation between warring nations; children are walled off from different ways of life in sectarian faith schools; we have leaders who treat the silent whispers of an unspecified deity as political dictation. It’d be simultaneously hilarious and tragic if it weren’t true. As Jon Ronson says in his fantastic book, “The Men Who Stare At Goats”:
For everyday agnostics, it is not easy to accept the idea that our leaders, and the leaders of our enemies, sometimes seem to believe that the business of managing world affairs should be carried out within both standard and supernatural dimensions.
If sophisticated theologians with their “astonishingly…true statements” were representing the majority, then it would be a discussion worth having. Unfortunately, they seem to be watching a completely different News channel to the rest of us.
Jason Rosenhouse has a fantastic article on this over at Evolution Blog, about this ‘ways of knowing’ chimera.
I would also strongly argue with Williams’ assertion that secular beliefs are the underpinning of a ‘pattern of determinism’ – but that’s another post for another time…
We’re not in the clear, rationality-wise, not just yet. The key to the approach is a constant vigilance to spot fallibility and bias – and no-one’s free from this. But we can only progress and improve our mass critical thinking through clear communication – jumbled, fuzzy rhetoric may look impressive on a Cultural Theory paper, but it doesn’t aid our understanding of anything. That’s not to say that these fora aren’t providing anything useful, or are incapable of doing so – just that the chosen mode of communication renders any practical comprehension impossible. I’d highly recommend Alan Sokal’s “Beyond The Hoax” for a clear demonstration of this.
My main bone of contention with this speech is the strawman of Reason. Reason isn’t some giant atheistic totem-pole. You don’t sell your soul to Godless evolutionary-development theory and start preaching militant atheism because you adopt the mental model of Critical Thinking. That’s flimsy projection. Reason, like scepticism, isn’t a set of dogmatic assertions – it’s a model for viewing and filtering information. Uncritical dismissal of information is not reason, nor critical thinking, or scepticism.
This distinction is fundamental to the understanding of my position in this area of discourse. Being a reasonable person who thinks critically means allowing the possibility of being wrong (but not at the expense of credulity) – the state of the scientist and the philosopher is much more complicated than the above speech makes out.
Being a sceptic, or a critical thinker, doesn’t mean you have to be an atheist or agnostic. It doesn’t mean you oppose religious practice (same with secularism, which doesn’t mean atheism; I seem to have to harp on about this all the time, yet Tony Blair has yet to make the distinction) – the dividing lines are very subtle, and far beyond any expertise I possess, and far beyond the scope of a humble internet essay.
If Tony Blair and Rowan Williams are attacking atheism and agnosticism – a lack of belief in a god, or gods, or just in their god – then please just come out and say so. It would save so much time. We see this misuse of language anytime there’s a contentious issue being discussed (for instance in the Catholic abuse scandals), and I’m fed up of it. If it’s the ‘secular agenda’ and ‘reason’ that you oppose – what, like scientific research? Really?
But I assume that you don’t oppose scientific research – all the hundreds of hours spent developing antiretroviral drugs to help treat HIV; lives spent dedicated to the pursuit of understanding and preventing cancers.
So please just say what is the scourge of humanity – in plain language, much obliged. Pirouetting around the issue may be great for speeches, but it doesn’t aid our understanding one jot. If there’s a legitimate problem with atheism, or agnosticism, or following the wrong faith, then just come out and say so.
But attacking an unrelated mode of thought – reason, or critical thinking, or scepticism – muddles your message, and makes it seem as though you don’t have a clue who you’re against. And I don’t like them-vs.-us thought, either, but talking about a ‘secular agenda’ really doesn’t help.
I’m not calling for universal atheism, or agnosticism, or whatever; these are liable to change with society. But I would join with the new Rock Stars spreading a message, controversial & humanitarian in content – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Barack Obama, Bill Hicks, Tim Minchin, Derren Brown and many others – that with reason, goodwill, critical thinking and humanism, we can help society at large beyond any narrow sectarian divides, and importantly be self-critical enough to understand where we’re going wrong.
It’s like being a rock ‘n’ roll star. In terms of background and attitude – compare The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pulp, Coldplay,Motley Crue and Genesis. It’s hardly a blanket set of properties you must adopt.
Like most things, it reminds me of The Simpsons, discussing how to be cool:
Homer: So I realized that being with my family is more important
than being cool.
Bart: Dad, what you just said was powerfully uncool.
Homer: You know what the song says: “It’s hip to be square.”
Lisa: That song is so lame.
Homer: So lame that it’s… cool?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I’m glad. And that’s what makes me cool—not caring, right?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we’ve tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?