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Friday, 30 November 2007

"But I care about it anyway"

L.L. Barkat wanted me to expand on the conclusion of my post The Raft, where I said "Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway." She says:

I wonder about good and evil only existing in the mind. I think it opens up sticky issues like, if evil is just a construct, then what's to stop me from choosing evil ways (because if it exists in the mind only, then I get to define it)... or what's to make me listen to someone who feels I've worked evil against her (because if evil only exists in her mind, then she is defining it and I can disagree with the definition and be done with it).

I'm about to start arguing like a theologian and I know it and I hate the fact! A while back I found a book in the library called Belief or Nonbelief: A Confrontation. It's an excellent book, in many ways: a respectful dialogue between the atheist novelist Umberto Eco and the Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Eco asks all sorts of questions of Martini; Martini gets only one in reply. Martini's question, though, is the question, the one that always comes up: How is it that nonbelievers can still believe in some sort of morality?

Eco answers well, but nevertheless he certainly relies to some extent on his own ability to write in order to give his answer the force and seeming reasonableness that it does have, and frankly, while reading, I couldn't help feeling the similarity in tone to the Cardinal's responses on earlier issues. Yes, I think it's true: while atheists can defend their view of the world with the shining strength of reason and logic on almost every count, when it comes to morality, there are times when we're just arguing so as to make the question go away. We argue emotively. We argue from consequences. We argue in circles. We do everything we get mad at theologians for doing.

When I was first facing this problem of the lack of absolute morality built into the universe, I did consider belief in God as a solution. But it just really seemed like overkill. Accepting an even bigger uncertain proposition so as to get rid of the uncertainty in a proposition I really wanted to believe? Not on your life. If I'm going to believe something out of thin air in order to justify some notion of morality, then I'm not going to believe in God. Simple belief in morality will suffice. Why go further?

So that's my excuse. I'm about to give you some explanations of how atheists can be content to simply believe in morality and not in God. In theological fashion, I'm not going to face the issue on blank, even terms. Instead, to begin with, I'm going to deliberately choose the starting point that works most easily for me. This is LL's comment that:

And here's the other thing... as a person who has experienced the deep evil wrought by others (during my childhood), it is hard for me to let them off the hook with a thought of... well, it was, after all, only in my mind.

Let me tell you some other things that are only in your mind, LL. Love is only in your mind. Happiness is only in your mind. Hope is only in your mind. And guess what? Those things are all real anyway. So maybe morality is like love, and hope, and happiness. It's only in our minds, but life would be nothing without it.

It helps that my notion of morality is very directly predicated on happiness and hope. I'm approximately utilitarian. Explanation of where I vary from utilitarianism is too complicated for this post and will have to wait for another one, because I have yet to fully articulate it and so cannot yet summarise it neatly. Maybe after I write that post I've just unwisely promised you, quick and easy summary will be possible in future. But for now, let's stick with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that we should act in that fashion that produces the greatest total happiness for all people concerned. So, you see, I sneak the idea of the importance of happiness in with the perfectly certain proposition that happiness is real (I find it particularly beautiful that we can be more certain of the existence of happiness than we can of the existence of the external world. We experience happiness directly; the world is only observed through our senses, which might deceive us). For that matter, what is importance? Something is important if we think it is; 'importance' is an expression of value, and value is another one of those things that only exist in the human mind, but which it would be utterly stupid to discard.

So, you see, happiness is important in an almost universal sense because we all think it is important, pretty well every one of us. And since we're likely to be more happy if we band together and support each others' happiness, why not do so? Because, hey, if we act to promote happiness in general, there will be more happiness to go around.

(See the circular reasoning? We should act for maximum happiness, because if we did, there would be maximum happiness.

It's quite convincing even with the circles visible, isn't it?)

More to come, but please, give me some feedback now. How am I doing? Be honest.

I'm not angry -- or am I?

Greta Christina, that sex-positive darling who writes such illuminating atheist reflections, had a startling smash hit a while back when she stepped oh-so-slightly out of character to write a post on atheists and anger (and yes, you can safely read that post without being in danger of encountering explicit sexual content, just so you know):

This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry.

When I first read the post, it had eight comments. It was very much Greta Christina, anger and all: clearly written, honest, comprehensive in its examination of the surrounding issues. I got a bit bored by the end, though. It's a very long list of things to be angry about. Don't get me wrong. I thought then and I still think now that Greta Christina has a perfect right to be angry about all those things and the many more that she says she has only scratched the surface of. After all, she has been personally damaged by several of them, what with being bisexual and living in a horribly theistic place like America, where the safeguards of democracy are under threat in part due to faith-based voting. I, too, have been damaged by religion, but not to the same extent. I am angry for my own sake about one thing, and one thing only, and that thing is deep and painful. To hold on to the anger would be to hold on to the pain, and so I do not use that anger, do not weave it into my reasons for acting; I let it sit out there on the edge and exist for as long as it needs to.

So, you see, I'm not angry. I got to the end of Greta's post and wondered if I could explain my position, but I needed to think about things, so I decided to let it sit for a bit and maybe join the discussion later.

Well, everyone in the atheist blogosphere knows what happened not much later. By the time I saw the post again, it had three hundred comments. Today, it has 862 comments and counting. It was linked to by Pharyngula, by Friendly Atheist, and many others. And a huge proportion of those comments amounted to "Right on"! Greta Christina had struck a nerve. Many atheists were angry, and were heartened and energised by Greta Christina's eloquent, even defence.

This was clearly not my party, but now that things have died down a little, perhaps it is not so improper for me to speak.

I'm not angry at religion as a whole, but there are some things that do make me angry. Sometimes when I'm walking into town, I take the wrong route by accident. It's fine to go down Exeter Street if I'm heading to the mall or over to my parents' place, but if I'm turning left, I have to pass the Christian Science Reading Room. It's got this big sign on the window saying "Prayer Works". Works how, exactly? You know, just by context, that this isn't going to be one of those serene theological answers like "God answers every prayer, it's just that sometimes the answer is 'no'/'maybe'/'ask again later'". No, what it means is that they're peddling dodgy science. But of course they are. "Christian Science" is a contradiction in terms, for it refers to science that will only accept conclusions that seem to support religious dogma, and that is not science at all. It makes me furious. How dare they mock the sincere attempts of scientists to be even-handed by claiming that their own biased propaganda is of equal worth? Don't they understand the love, the sacrifice, the effort that scientists put into the search for truth? And yet they pollute the term 'science'! They dare to use it for efforts that are neither courageous nor intellectually sincere, feeble obfuscations by which they hide from reality. It makes me sick.

Other things make me angry, too. Christians in my own country don't play the "atheists are nihilists who can't be moral" game very much, at least not where I and other atheists can see them, but every so often, especially on the internet, I read something that reminds me that the view is alive and barely-challenged in some quarters (no, LL, I'm not looking at you -- your questions are fair and I will answer them in another post). Just yesterday I found this page linked to by a Wikipedia post.

The atheist who poses the problem [of evil] is left in the end with the conclusion that evil was really not worth worrying about in the first place. That is bad faith, and what seemed to be the moral force of his position is exposed as a mere self-serving indignation.

Now, look. It's one thing to claim that atheists are deluded, or irrational, when we apply moral notions to the world around us, or to a hypothetical God, claiming that the notion of morality is still important whether there are gods or not. It's quite another thing to accuse us of deliberate deception. I can assure you that we do not argue in bad faith, and yes, I am angered by the implication that we all do.

Oh, but that is nothing. After all, the author of that piece might be honestly deluded himself. Perhaps he really does believe that all atheists are nihilists who are out to get other people to join us by reason of our total lack of moral feeling. Others do not have this defence. A few months back, a friendly Christian who I met over the internet suggested that I listen to Ravi Zacharias' speech "Why I Am Not An Atheist". Regrettably I have been unable to find a transcript, but the MP3 is here. I myself didn't get past Part 1. After trotting out the "I am absolutely sure there is no God" definition of atheism, making the uncertainty of agnosticism sound weak and open to conversion, and completely ignoring the strong but sensible position taken by most self-described atheists on the existence of God, Zacharias really gets underway in the second half of that first MP3. First he explains -- no, he doesn't explain, he claims -- that atheism cannot support any idea of morality that is not "utilitarian, pragmatic, subjective or emotive". Don't you love the way he exploits the ambiguity in that term 'utilitarian'? It could refer to utilitarianism (which, whatever justification you give for it, is pretty darn absolute, actually, and popular among atheists, thereby raising difficulties with his point which he does not bother to address), or it could refer to the selfish pushing of morality in others for personal gain onesself. Then he decides to quote Nietzsche. At length. At loving, loving length, just to make atheism sound scary:

God is dead, and we have killed him. . . . Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not more night coming on us all the time? . . . That which was the holiest and mightiest of all the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives. . . . Is not this the greatest of deeds to great for us to handle? Must not we ourselves become God simply to seem worthy of it?

Got that, people? Don't kill God, it's too scary, and you'll turn us all into -- what was Dawkins' description? -- "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Let me break here to point out that I myself actually didn't kill God. Others have done that for me. Nietzsche's incredibly evocative description of what it might be like to lose God has nothing to do with what it is like never to have had God in the first place; his evocation of the empty nihilism that comes when a worldview collapses has nothing to do with the calm knowledge that atheistic worldviews can still find meaning and beauty in the world. However, Zacharias does not expand on the idea of frightening emptiness, so obvious in the passage he quotes (which was, I must add, much longer than the little excerpt I have given you above). I'm sure he likes having it there, but ostensibly he is only introducing Nietzsche so that he can segue into "Any time I hear a man lambasting or criticising a religion for having caused bloodshed..."

The same people often forget of the bloodshed that has been shed in the name of atheism. Stalin was an avowed atheist. . . . He read Nietzsche. Adolf Hitler personally presented a copy of Nietzsche's writings to Benito Mussolini. . . .

See that? See that?

Zacharias isn't mistaken. He knows there's no evidence that Hitler was an atheist. He probably knows that Hitler said, many times, that he believed in God. He probably knows that the Nazis promoted "Nazi Christianity". How do I know Zacharias knows this? Because he never once actually claims that Hitler was an atheist. But he is content to give his listeners that impression. Furthermore, he is content to smear atheists by allowing us to be represented by a thinker like Nietzsche, rather than, say, John Stuart Mill, whose work On Liberty expounds ideas considered by many to be the foundation of a free and open society -- the very sort of society that fascism and communism threaten. Minority though we have been for most of history, atheists have nevertheless been disproportionately responsible for new ideas, and it is irresponsible for Zacharias to point out the more damaging ones while failing to acknowledge the work of atheists in finding the good ideas.

Oh, one last thing about Nietzsche's influence on Hitler. Martin Luther's influence on Hitler, particularly as regards the hatred of Jews, has also been extensively documented. Need I say more?

Zacharias is far too smart and well read for me to let him off the hook. He's smearing us deliberately. And yes, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me angry. Really angry. Not necessarily angry at religion as a whole, just angry at apologists who blatantly smear a whole group of perfectly good people, obviously knowing they're doing it, but doing it anyway.

I was going to finish up by saying that I'm not angry at religion, and that most of the time the things that really annoy me are lies -- lies and deliberate obfuscations. I was going to say that when I hear about the bad consequences of religion: war, torture, death by exorcism, ostracism of those outside, credulity and vulnerability to charlatans, slavery and the oppression of women and homosexuals . . . well, most of the time, while I pity the religious who are caught in their false worldviews, and wholeheartedly support efforts to abolish the suffering caused by religious fundamentalism, really I find it very difficult to be angry at anything other than the lies people tell. I'll blame them. I know there are other factors that lead to the evils of religion, and the injustice of this disproportionate assignation of blame might bother me if I had any sympathy for lies, but I don't.

I was going to say all that, and most of the time it would probably be true, but I seem to have worked myself into a right fury here. I guess maybe I am an angry atheist after all.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Raft

When I was ten, I believed in Absolute Morality, derived from reason and incontrovertible. My mother, she of the part-time philosophy degree, subscribed not so surprisingly to the idea that morality should come from and be subject to reason and, childlike, I took the notion to extremes. I wasn't quite sure of the whole rationale, but I was jolly well going to learn more about philosophy and then I'd be able to understand exactly how to pinpoint morality perfectly. In the mean time, I was going to be consistent. There were to be no logical contradictions in my viewpoint!

Morality had been a concern of mine for a while if I remember correctly; a practical concern rather than a theoretical one. I applied myself to the problem of playground bullying. Standing by while somebody else was being bullied was unacceptable; so was even the mildest form of unkindness to those who seemed outcast. This latter principle had me patiently listening to the class geek quite regularly, although I confess I mostly tuned out his Star Wars trivia and then tried to pretend I'd been listening (he grew up to be quite hot, actually, but he was a year ahead of me so we never spoke much in high school and I doubt he remembered the girl who used to say 'Mm-hm' to him in primary school).

The fact that I considered myself required to intervene when anyone else was in trouble was actually less problematic than you might think. I know that in movies, the way it goes is that the cute little girl stands up for the little boy, who then defiantly rejects her in an attempt to regain his manly pride from the ignominy of having needed defence. However, I stood up for other people so regularly that, at least as far as I can remember, it seemed to be a generally accepted occurrence. I also never waited for thanks. I wasn't in it for thanks, I was in it for the joy of the argument -- which, regretfully, never lasted long. I used to plant my feet slightly wider than my shoulders (second position in ballet, if you must know), glare at my offending classmate and shout "How dare you? What reason did you have to do that? Go on, argue! What's your reason?" Usually by the time I got that far, they'd have given up. Satisfying though it was to hear 'Don't argue with [Lynet]' as a generally accepted maxim, I often used to wish they'd put up more of a fight.

When I was eleven, I read Sophie's World. Thus, over a year or so, as things sank in and I re-read the technical parts I had skipped the first time around, I became acquainted with a rough outline of the ideas of history's great philosophers. I knew what utilitarianism was and had a go at understanding Immanuel Kant. I knew of Hume's dictum that 'ought' cannot follow from 'is', and his notion that morality was purely emotional. At the same time, I was dealing with some major snags in my anti-bullying crusade, to wit:

(a) As kids get older, they're less likely to be intimidated by mere shouting.

(b) As kids get older, their bullying gets more subtle, and their relationships with each other start to change. My peers were entering the "groups" phase (I skipped that one at the time because it seemed ludicrous to me to blindly follow the crowd, and had to go back and learn the necessary lessons when I was older). All of a sudden, I had to deal with the fact that most of the people I might have defended were more interested in becoming accepted as part of the group than in avoiding being bullied -- in fact, they'd take all kinds of crap as long as they were still even slightly "in".

There was no way for me to properly defend people. I wasn't really needed any more.

I was also really, really lonely. Rejecting the idea of the group can do that to you.

Somewhere towards the end of the year I was twelve, I had two quiet crises. One involved me realising that I was going to have to compromise my ideals, my reason, my personality in order to get the basic human interaction I needed in order to stop me from going insane. Here, however, I'd like to talk about the other change.

My standpoint on morality had been shifting slowly, the more I learned, and it was with sincere regret that I came to the conclusion that reason alone was not enough. Indeed, at twelve years old, with too much time alone to reflect, I didn't really have a definite position on morality at all. It was at around this time that I realised that I might have to allow some of my principles to be inconsistent with each other, taking my worldview as a work in progress rather than something that had to have finished perfection at all times. That was an important step. I also decided I rather liked the idea of a sort of dialogue between logic and moral intuition, starting with intuitions, then attempting to generalise in a consistent fashion, then going back to moral intuition as a way of seeing how the generalisation might need to be modified (I forget which philosopher I got that from -- it was ten years ago, after all -- but I know I didn't come up with it myself). Still, on some inner level, I had to concede that I was sidestepping the point. Why trust moral intuition at all? Is there any 'real' morality?

I confess freely that the idea that morality wasn't built into the universe really frightened me. Indeed, when I finally allowed myself to reason and let my thoughts go as they would, I came up with this:

Well, okay, so maybe there's no morality. But if there's no morality, then it isn't morally wrong for me to pretend there is morality. So I'm just going to act like there is morality anyway. Can I stop thinking about this now?

I was aware at the time of the parallels between such thinking and religious faith as held by many people. As an illustration, consider this comment:

To me, it either is all true and He is God and totally in control [. . .] or He isn't - and if He isn't, none of this really would matter, would it?

Obviously there's a slight flaw in the assumption that nothing would matter without God, and yes, we could construct an argument that favours a secular humanist view over a theist one with exactly that flaw in mind, contending that it does matter, and that in view of the things that matter (truth, human happiness and so forth), atheism is the better position. Oh, but I have given the end of the story away! Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. If I was disturbed by the notion that there might be no absolute morality, I was almost equally disturbed to find myself engaging in such faith-type reasoning. Was I as bad as Christians after all? In the end, I found my starting point by answering no to the question 'Can I stop thinking about this now?' No, you cannot stop thinking. If your reasoning is shaky, you must face the fact. By the moral principles which you defiantly continue to use, the truth matters, so stick as close to it as possible.

If the swamp where there were no rules lay just beneath my feet, and the platform above it on which I had stood was breaking apart, then I determined to myself to build no more than a raft. Dangerous as it might be, I determined to build no edifices of dubious foundation, no vast opaque temples to block out the sight of the unsteady ground. No catechism, no false authority of tradition, no pretense that there might be epistemological safety in numbers. Only a raft.

In the Sophie's World digested version of Sartre, I found the notion that human beings, having faced the terror of meaninglessness, are free to give their own meaning to their existence. I liked it and absorbed it, but it was many a year before I learned that the ideas I was groping towards had a name and a history already in their own right, and came to realise that I was quite simply and precisely a humanist. Indeed, meaning isn't hard to find in this universe; there is meaning as long as somebody means it. Morality is harder. I wanted it to be fundamental to the universe as a whole; I had to accept that it was confined perhaps to a single species on this tiny Earth. Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway.

Humanist Symposium #11

As usual, allow me to plug my favourite blog carnival.

Monday, 19 November 2007


Since you have introduced me to the Onegin stanza, Alon:

While her husband's in the water
the coxcombs crowd like butterflies.
She weaves the way her mother taught her.
If they hope that with their lies
they can persuade, they're wrong! She'll never
make her choice, for she is clever.
Although she knows her husband strays,
she'll keep within her faithful ways.
With pride she views her work, while hating
the way that she has used her mind
with independence, just to find
herself obediently waiting,
unravelling so craftily
the shroud that could have set her free.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A Breath of Air (Sonnet)

I throw my head back! Life is in me yet
My heart can still skip beats and laugh, oh, yeah!
So jump! Rejoice that deathly blank despair
Can never be interminably set.
He'd just become an adult when we met
No longer awkward, slackly debonair
He smiles at me with such a friendly flair
I too must smile, releasing my regret.
I cannot say I've felt a love's embrace
Nor shall I ever find it here, I know
Another woman smiles to see his face
And day by day I see their comfort grow.
To her he gives his lively warmth and care;
To me, he's just a precious breath of air.

1. In many ways this is an old poem. I didn't dare write it at the time, and I started writing it about a year ago if I remember correctly. But I only finished it recently, and yes, it is possible that new ideas have made their way in.
2. There are two main types of sonnet. A Petrarchan sonnet starts with an octet that has the rhyme scheme abbaabba, and then goes on to a sextet, usually rhymed cdecde or cdcdcd. A Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains and a couplet: ababcdcdefefgg. Frankly, I find the Shakespearean sonnet unbelievably bitsy -- fragmentary, that is; my quatrains have a tendency to stand stolidly alone with no flow*. By contrast, a Pertrarchan sonnet has a well-defined shape, since you are supposed to have a volta -- a turn, a change of mood, a new idea -- between the octet and the sextet. But let's face it, quatrains aside, that final couplet at the end of the Shakespearean can be wonderful. So I have cheerfully attempted to get the best of both worlds; my rhyme scheme is abbaabbacdcdbb. This gives me an octet, a quatrain and a couplet, which is certainly a departure from the usual Petrarchan shape; the couplet is a conclusory thing that brings together both prior sections.
3. Yes, and I rhymed the couplet using the b rhyme of the octet. Again, this is an attempt to make my rhyme begin the 'cohesion' thing for me. It's also not very hard, because the word 'air' has an awful lot of rhymes. I could have fitted 'chair', 'hair' or 'compare' in quite easily. 'Bear', 'mare' and 'stare' would have been less useful, I think. I'm a little sorry I didn't include 'swear' or 'dare', because they're both lively words. On the other hand, I'm sure a line ending in 'there' would have been dreadfully bland. And at one point I did include 'repair'. But you get the point. Oh, and if being American means things don't rhyme as well for you as for me, then I apologise -- but I'm not particularly contrite ;-)

*Which is why I interlocked my ruba'iyat. So that they'd flow. I mean, if I'd wanted to imitate Khayyam or FitzGerald as accurately as possible, I really shouldn't have done that.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Religious and anti-religious themes in 'His Dark Materials'

I have to confess, when I heard they were making a movie out of The Golden Compass -- the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials sequence -- the anti-religious themes in the book were the first thing I thought of. The comments on this post on Friendly Atheist feature a few comments that suggest that the Christian response is an over-reaction. If so, it was an entirely predictable one, for Pullman is an atheist, and he did write these books with criticism of religion in mind. On the other hand, this post on Beliefnet by Donna Freitas, a defence of His Dark Materials from a Christian perspective, speaks of the way Pullman's story can be read as affirming the religious principles on which some people build their lives. That I did not predict -- but it does not surprise me so very much.

The atheism of His Dark Materials is actually somewhat equivocal. In the fictional multiverse of the books, the Authority known as 'God' is an imposter who did not create the universe, and who is destroyed almost incidentally in the third book by the main characters without their even knowing it. It's almost a throw-away scene, one which, if the third book made it to the screen, might be cut simply for reasons of time. Unlike the depiction of the Fall from Eden as a very good thing (which, certainly, some Christians might find hard to swallow) the death of 'God' is actually not that major. However, while the books reject this authoritarian imposter of a God, they do also have an overarching notion of destiny and purpose, embodied in a mysterious substance known as 'Dust'.

What is 'Dust'? The book gives several possible answers: original sin, the human spirit, a substance attracted to an adult's conscious mind and engagement in life. For an atheist, giving this somewhat humanist idea a supernatural tilt is hardly terrible because this is a
fantasy book. A Christian, however, might see a hint of some true God in this idea, a God who affirms human beings in contrast to the authoritarian religion which crushes them. His Dark Materials reads to me like a humanist freedom cry, a blazing beacon of joy in experience, a command to live life richly and fully, unstifled by repressive religious notions. There are more than a few Christians who value some of the same things as humanists, so we should not be surprised that they also find value in these books.

I'll say this outright: Pullman's His Dark Materials sequence definitely strengthened my atheism. It made me much more likely to see certain types of religious notions (such as giving all control over to God, or such as the repression of sexuality) as antithetical to a life well lived. But if you do believe in God, Pullman's books won't necessarily seem to be fighting that notion overmuch. It really depends what sort of God you have.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

My theory on Flew

Okay, now that I've got my own theory of events, I'm writing a proper post, adapted from my comment on Daylight Atheism here.

Some background, as best I can summarise: Antony Flew was a relatively well known atheist -- not "the world's most notorious", by any stretch, but well known as a philosopher due at least in part to a paper he published in the 1950s on the question of whether God is a scientifically verifiable claim. More recently, however, in his eighties, he has changed his mind on the existence of God.

In 2004, Biola University awarded Flew the "Philip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth". (I am tempted to request that you shoot me if I ever receive an award named for someone thus famed for the distortion of science. In so doing, I reveal my own bias, of course! Still, I really am trying to be fair here). Flew said in his acceptance speech:
In speaking to, or writing for, my fellow professional philosophers I write or speak only about Aristotle's God, who was not concerned with or about human beliefs or behavior. But in speaking to an audience in the United States I cannot do better than to say that I have become, like the young Mr. Jefferson who drafted the Declaration of Independence, a Deist.
There has been more than one insinuation that Flew would have to be senile to accept the arguments for God that he has done. This is too typical of the way some atheists feel about religion in general to be entirely credible. We cannot always understand why any sensible person would believe it, but many otherwise sensible people do. In Flew's case, shifting to Deism shows at least some sign of rigour. Many, indeed perhaps most, of the standard arguments for God will take you little further.

Recently, a book has come out, with authorship credited to Flew and to the evangelical Roy Varghese. A New York Times article questions the book's authorship:
As [Flew] himself conceded, he had not written his book.

“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? “He went through everything, was happy with everything,” Varghese said.

Cynthia DiTiberio, the editor who acquired “There Is a God” for HarperOne, told me that Hostetler’s work was limited; she called him “an extensive copy editor.” “He did the kind of thing I would have done if I had the time,” DiTiberio said, “but editors don’t get any editing done in the office; we have to do that in our own time.”

I then asked DiTiberio if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss. “I see your struggle and confusion,” she said, but she maintained that the book is an accurate presentation of Flew’s views. “I don’t think Tony would have allowed us to put in anything he was not comfortable with or familiar with,” she said. “I mean, it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older. In my communications with him, there are times you have to say things a couple times. I’m not sure what that is. I wish I could tell you more. . . We were hindered by the fact that he is older, but it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”

Richard Carrier, an atheist who corresponded with Flew over his change of mind, has posted his own version of events, along with a theory of his own about the book's authorship:
In my opinion the book's arguments are so fallacious and cheaply composed I doubt Flew would have signed off on it in sound mind, and [the reporter] Oppenheimer comes to much the same conclusion. It seems Flew simply trusted Varghese and didn't even read the book being published in his name. And even if he had, he is clearly incapable now of even remembering what it said. The book's actual author turns out to be an evangelical preacher named Bob Hostetler (who has also written several books with Josh McDowell), with considerable assistance from this book's co-author, evangelical promoter and businessman Roy Abraham Varghese.

However, I don't completely believe the story they told Oppenheimer. The style of the chapters attributed to Flew differs so much from the portions explicitly written by Varghese (such as a lengthy preface), that I suspect Hostetler was responsible for much more than the publisher claims. Whether that's so or not, this is a hack Christian tract, not formal or competent philosophy, nor anything from the mind of Antony Flew.
Carrier's post is interesting but he's biased as heck -- possibly biased as to his own influence on Flew's change of mind (Flew seems to have flip-flopped a bit) and the extent to which Flew would remember it, and definitely biased towards atheism; we can't help that. He does, however, give some interesting details on Flew's book. And apart from the speculation, much of what Carrier says is so entirely consistent with Varghese's statement on the matter, as quoted above, that I'm inclined to believe both.

Here's is Varghese, repeated from above:
“There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”
Here is Carrier on the book:
Curiously absent from the entire book is any discussion of Deism...
...this book is filled with the typical concerns and methods of contemporary Christian apologetics...
Finally, chapters provided by Varghese (actually written in Varghese's name) vent a fireball of rage and calumny against the renowned, popular, and bestselling atheists Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.
These are strong indications that the overall shape and content of the book aren't Flew's doing -- which they wouldn't be, if Varghese's statement is accurate! It's not at all far-fetched to suppose that Varghese et al are using Flew to promote a worldview that doesn't precisely align with his. It would be possible to do this without actually lying, per se -- just omitting inconvenient qualifiers that Flew might have placed on his position had he been putting the book together himself, and adding in some (credited) bits from other authors that push people towards Christianity particularly.

I can imagine them rationalising it this way, putting it together so carefully from things Flew actually did say, choosing the bits that made the story they wanted. They may well have even used statements from Flew that he later retracted, as Carrier claims. I can imagine Flew agreeing to let them write the book after a bit of pressure, thinking they had the right to the 'data' of his personal story, not paying attention to the way they were writing as if he agreed to the worldview they were promoting with that 'data', and feeling as if he had to go along with it once he'd said yes.

I can even imagine Varghese and possibly Hostetler rationalising that Flew probably would agree with such-and-such an argument, because it makes so much sense... but, though I can imagine them thinking that, I am inclined to withhold belief that they actually did include arguments that Flew didn't agree with. I really don't think they would have needed to. I could have done it without resorting to that.

In short, Flew may simply have decided that he doesn't have the energy to fight the war over subtext in the way his views are being presented by others. Varghese is being somewhat dishonest in presenting the view of the book as Flew's when it is really being pulled towards Varghese's own as a result of the fact that he did most of the work, but that's it.

And yes, Flew's old age may make him less inclined to expend the energy to argue over subtleties. He may also be in decline somewhat intellectually -- we know he's suffering from an inability to remember some things. That probably exacerbates the situation. It doesn't mean that Varghese and Hostetler made the whole thing up, though. With my imperfect knowledge, my current guess is that they merely took a real change of opinion and dressed it up to support their position as much as possible, but probably without lying outright.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Antony Flew

Okay, this is disturbing. Be sure to read the journalist's account on Page 5 of his conversation with Flew.

(Via Pharyngula and Daylight Atheism)

Monday, 5 November 2007

Bwahahahaha! LaTeX on Blogger.

I learned about two weeks after I started blogging that you can get LaTeX to work on WordPress. It was the first time (but certainly not the last) that I thought to myself why, oh why the heck did I not blog on WordPress?

Well, I'll probably still think that from time to time, but I've found a way to use LaTeX on Blogger. So let's see if I can get it to work:

Hey! Magic.

For those of you who are wondering what the heck is going on, LaTeX is a typesetting program that you can use to produce mathematical formulae. For example, that integral on the left of the above expression is produced by putting the following into LaTeX:

\int_a^b f(x) e^{\mathrm{i}\omega g(x)} \mathrm{d} x

I'm told it works better on a white background. So if, by the time you see this, I've changed my blog template, that will be why.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Humanist Symposium #10

The tenth Humanist Symposium is up! It's at Letters from a Broad this time, with a sweet little illustration, sort of like an illuminated border. My post on tragedy is included.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Conservative think tank recommends fathers give higher priority to their children.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Maxim Institute, a New Zealand based conservative think tank, has come out with a report which says that:

Fathers should
* Take their share of responsibility for their children's wellbeing and development.
* Spend time with them, be supportive and involved.

Families should
* Reconsider factors that drive fathers to work long hours, such as the desire for higher living standards.

Employers should
* Accept and support their employees' commitments outside work.
* Allow flexible working hours and working from home where possible.

Social services should
* Communicate with fathers as well as mothers because both affect the child's development.

Society should
* Encourage fathers' involvement with their children from infancy.
* Give higher priority to marriage and committed relationships.

There are many criticisms that could be made regarding the way this compares with other statements from the Maxim Institute. We could point out that longer working hours are in many respects a result of the free-market economics that the Maxim Institute unequivocally champions. We could point out that they're recommending that parents put off buying a house, when home ownership is a standard level of independence and security in New Zealand, and that social programs which could make it easier to have the house and spend time with the kids would probably be opposed by the Maxim Institute. We could point out that some people can't afford a house or time with the kids, and that the Maxim Institute isn't likely to support helping those people, either.

But I just want to point out that this is a conservative think tank, here, looking at the research and deciding, not that mothers should go back to the home, but that fathers should meet them there. I just want to savour how far we've come.