Tag Archives: religion

That The Skeptics Should Not Tackle Religion

by Barry Williams

(Reblogged with permission from The Skeptic magazine,
Vol 38, No.1. March 2018, pages 44-47). 

At the Australian Skeptics National Convention in June 1990, a debate was conducted on the proposition “That Australian Skeptics Should Tackle Religion”. The proposition was put by Robert Macklin, and this is the text of Barry Williams’ reply.

There is very little of substance in Robert Macklin’s presentation with which I would personally disagree. My point of departure from his views lies in the methods we should apply to problems we both acknowledge.

The primary aim of Australian Skeptics is to “investigate claims of pseudo-scientific, paranormal and similarly anomalous phenomena, from a responsible, scientific point of view”. That is a worthwhile purpose, we do it well, and it is what I believe we should continue to do.

Among the things we do not do are the investigation of shonky car dealers, economic predictions, ordinary (non-paranormal) confidence tricksters, political promises, advertising hyperbole or any of the myriad other dubious claims, or claimants, at large in the community. While these areas are undoubtedly worthy of investigation, there are other organisations which deal with such matters, and no doubt they do it a great deal better than we could.

As a general statement of purpose, we have always eschewed the pleasure of investigating religion per se , considering that it lies outside the ambit of our published aims. I believe that we do this for very good reasons, both from a philosophical, and more especially, from a pragmatic standpoint, and notwithstanding Rob’s very persuasive case, as this paper shall seek to demonstrate

Let us first consider what is meant by the phrase “tackling religion”. At what level is it suggested that we tackle it?

  • Does it mean that we should investigate religion as a social phenomenon?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate the mundane practices of religious organisations?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate the fundamental beliefs and dogmas of religions?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate specific claim made by people, in the name of religion?

I believe that we can dispose of the first two options very quickly. Religion, as a social or psychological phenomenon is, and always has been, a fertile field of study for social scientists. There is no doubt that, throughout human history, people have involved themselves in religious practices and, I strongly suspect, people always will. In this context, the impulse to religion is a bit like masturbation; if it did not satisfy some real need within the human species, then it is unlikely that so many people would indulge in it. That aside, there is nothing pseudoscientific or paranormal about the phenomenon of religion. Much as some Skeptics might regret it, religion is an all-too-normal human activity.

The second option, the mundane practices of religions, are equally outside our terms of reference. Many Skeptics may consider practices such as compulsory celibacy, fasting, circumcision, ordination or non-ordination of women, ritual cannibalism, etc, as being curious, even outrageous, but they are not paranormal or pseudoscientific activities. To an objective observer the rituals of religious organisations are no more peculiar that are those of football clubs, political parties or of any of the multitude of other organisations in which people involve themselves. That religious organisations attract to themselves certain privileges, bestowed by the body politic, and which are not available to other organisations, is a matter of concern to many Skeptics. I agree with that concern, but religious organisations are not alone in attracting privileges, which also apply to sporting bodies, trades unions, service organisations and many others. They are likely to continue to do so while politicians perceive that there are votes in it. Therefore, to address these problems requires political activity, which also lies outside the ambit of the Skeptics’ aims.

Next, we must address an area that lies quite clearly in the realm of the paranormal; the fundamental beliefs of religions. To approach this subject, we must consider just what it is we are discussing.

There seems to be no doubt that we, the human species, have a great need for certainty in our lives and that we are the only species, so far as we know, which has the certain knowledge of its own mortality. That is no easy burden to bear, regardless of how rationally we may like to view the world.

Little wonder then that the majority of religions have, as a fundamental tenet of their beliefs, some form of survival of the death of the corporeal body. Whether this survival is in a spiritual form in some sort of “paradise”, as many religions hold, or whether it is accomplished through reincarnation, as others assert, very little in the way of testable evidence is ever offered in support of the proposition. More of which later.

The existence of deities is a further common factor in many, though not all, religions. The evolution of deities matches the evolution of human societies. Our tribal ancestors had a simple, animistic, religion, in which spirits controlled every animal, object and natural phenomenon. These spirits were used to explain almost everything that happened, and were very personal to the people. As civilisation developed, these natural spirits also became more formalised into the polytheistic pantheons of such cultures as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Norse (and, of course, many others). These gods did not inhabit individual items but tended to be associated with somewhat more abstract concepts, such as the state, or war, or love, or the family. They were more formalised than the nature spirits, but nonetheless retained personalised attributes.

Finally we reached the stage of having a “world” god, responsible for everything that happens, or has happened. Many people claim to have personalised relationships with such deities, but it is, to my mind at least, a claim that is impossible to sustain at any level of the intellect.

In this fleeting brush with the history of deism, one trend is obvious. Gods are invented to explain those things we do not understand. As we learn more about the natural world we inhabit, then our cultural gods are forced further into the realms of mysticism. “God of the gaps” is a term which I believe is applied to this phenomenon.

To the Norse, Thor with his hammer was perfectly reasonable explanation for thunder, but it is unlikely to be given much credence by a modern meteorologist. A great flood which covered the whole world, and from which an elite group was rescued by their deities, may have meant something to the Babylonian citizens of a riverine culture, but it is not sustainable in the light of our present knowledge.

Which gets me back to my point of departure into the thickets of theological speculation.

Most Australians (around 85% is the figure I have seen), when asked the question, “Do you believe in God?”, will answer “Yes”. When called upon to elucidate on that assertion, most of them, at least in my experience, retreat into mumblings and scratchings of the toes in the dirt.

Believers in gods, to a very large degree, will not (or can not) tell you the mass, temperature, volume, pressure, viscosity, reflectivity, colour, or indeed any other physical attribute of their god. If, as seems likely, gods are without physical attributes, then they are in fact abstract concepts, and, as such, are no more testable in a “responsible, scientific manner”, than are other such abstract concepts as love or beauty.

I suspect that there are as many perceptions of “god” as there are people doing the perceiving. Stephen Hawking, in a recent TV programme, is quoted as saying that if God represents all the underlying natural laws of the universe, then he believes in God. I find that proposition difficult to dispute. If God is used as a shorthand term for the underlying laws of nature, fair enough, but, if this pantheistic concept is accepted, it disposes of any sort of personal god, which is sure to antagonise the adherents of most religions. This sort of god does not punish you for breaking its laws because there is no way in which you can break them. You can of course be punished for attempting to break the laws, as anyone who steps off the top of a very tall structure will quickly discover.

The same applies to surviving death. Of course, we all do survive death, in the sense that our constituent atoms do not cease to exist, just because we cease to breathe, but this is not very satisfactory as a religious concept.

Which is all a rather long winded way of getting to my point that, while the fundamental beliefs of religions may well be paranormal, their very lack of specificity leaves us with no sensible way in which we can test them.

We could, of course, indulge ourselves in long, and ultimately fruitless theological debates, just as people have been doing for as long as they have been human, but we have to ask ourselves what does theological speculation achieve? To a large extent, theological debates resolve themselves into ever more esoteric rehashings of old arguments, without ever reaching any sort of conclusion. To my mind, the legendary debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin is one of the more serious examples of theological argument.

That may be a naive view of the topic, but I do believe that if we were to adopt Rob’s views we would reduce Australian Skeptics to the status of a theological debating society, a fate which I believe our organisation is far too valuable to deserve, and a regression that I, for one, would find most distressing.

This brings me to my final option. Should we investigate specific claims, made by people, in the name of religion?

To this question, there can be only one answer, “Yes”. That is precisely what we have always done.

In broad terms, every paranormal claim is made in some sort of religious context. The believers in astrology, numerology, et al clearly believe what they believe as an act of faith. Their beliefs are updated versions of primitive animist religious concepts. However, the adherents of these beliefs do make testable claims and those claims can be, and are, tested by Skeptics, and are frequently shown to be baseless.

The same can be said of many claims that are made in a more directly religious context. It has never been the case that those who make dubious, but testable, claims can cloak themselves in some sort of mystical shield called “religion” and thus avoid the scrutiny of the Skeptics.

Claims made for the Turin Shroud, faith healing, and the sad joke that is Creation science’ have always been investigated by Skeptics and should continue to be so investigated.

Finally, let us get away from the esoteric morass of theological speculation altogether and rejoin the real world of newspapers, politicians, football commentators, public relations consultants, economists and fashion designers. This is the area that someone has cleverly referred to as the “marketplace of ideas” and it is in this marketplace that we Skeptics have to sell our wares.

Our “product” is rational thinking and that is not necessarily an easy product to sell. Australian Skeptics is operating in this marketplace and has, through the efforts of our quite small membership, developed a reputation as a responsible organisation.

Where once we had to fight for recognition, now our views are sought, particularly by the media. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that we have denied ourselves the pleasure of being dogmatically and raucously offensive to those whose ideas we dispute. We are perceived as being a tolerant, moderate and reasonable organisation, capable of giving a sound, rational response to dubious claims.

This is important in the ideas market, in which perceptions count for a great deal. We have to sell the concept of a rational, scientifically based, view of the world, to an audience to which that view does not necessarily come naturally. One way to make the job harder is to alienate 85% of your potential market before you utter a word.

As I mentioned earlier, around that number of Australians profess some sort of belief in some sort of deity. It is probably a reasonable speculation to say that more than half of these people are only nominally religious: functionally they are agnostic. However, one of the best ways to force a nominal member of some religion to defend his loosely held faith, is to make a frontal attack on it.

There are other organisations whose main purpose is to tackle religion and, to be frank, they are very seldom heard from in public forums, while the Skeptics’ views are much more often heard in those same forums.

I believe this is so because we do not arrogate to ourselves any concept of ideological purity, but, instead, maintain an attitude with which any reasonable individual can identify. I doubt very much if we will advance our cause by one millimetre by adopting a stance of being “Unholier than thou”.

Before you damn me as the ultimate unprincipled pragmatist, let me suggest that, by promoting a general idea of Skepticism in the areas we do encompass, we are automatically encouraging people to apply critical analysis to other areas of their lives as well, be the religious or any other. Critical thinking is a difficult concept to learn, but it does get easier with practice. That is the practice we have always adopted and that is the practice I believe we should continue to adopt. Rob used analogy brilliantly in equating the Christian gospels with cricketing reportage. Let me also conclude with an analogy derived from another favourite pastime of our species – war.

Consider two generals, neither of them particularly engaging personalities, each in control of huge armies, each trying to win a war for his side. The major difference between them was their approach to the unpleasant job they had. They also one other thing in common, the name Douglas.

Douglas Haig thought that victory on the Somme be achieved by sending countless men to their deaths, charging into massed machine guns.

Douglas MacArthur, for all his faults, was considerably less profligate with the lives of the men under his command. His island hopping strategy in the Pacific, leaving large garrisons of his enemy behind him, out of reach of logistical support, undoubtedly saved many lives.

I have no doubt that Australian Skeptics will suffer if we insist on making frontal assaults on well entrenched opponents who hugely outnumber us. Much better to encourage a climate of critical thought in which they will wither on the vine, while never forgetting that they have the right (and are likely to continue) to believe in anything they please, regardless of how foolish those beliefs may appear to us.

While I agree with many of Rob Macklin’s concerns, to do as he suggests will require that Australian Skeptics become a fundamentally different organisation from what it is now. We would become just another player on the stage of sectarian disputation, indulging in tendentious, and ultimately futile, theological speculation. We would waste our energies in chasing the will-o-the-wisp of seeking answers to the unanswerable. We would distract our attention from that which we do well – testing the testable.

I believe that Australian Skeptics is far too valuable an organisation for us to debase our currency in this way. I believe that what we do now makes far too valuable a contribution to the life of our community for it be diluted by indulging in esoteric arguments we are unlikely to win. I believe that we will continue to be regarded as a voice of reason while we continue to focus on that which we do best; calling into question dubious, testable claims and providing reasonable explanations. That is what we should continue to strive for, not to be seen as some niggling fringe group, with a pure philosophy and no audience.

I am sure that all you rational people will agree.

Barry Williams was, at various stages, president, editor and executive officer of Australian Skeptics. He died earlier this year – his obituary can be found in the latest issue of The Skeptic, a magazine he edited for close to two decades, and to which he contributed on a grand scale. 



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Joe Hildebrand on free speech

“This should make the blood run cold in any free-thinking, independent, intelligent person.” – Joe Hildebrand on Australia’s Grand Mufti’s calls to make it illegal to criticise Muslims about their religion.



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Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

There is currently a fashion for religion/science accommodationism, the idea that there’s room for religious faith within a scientifically informed understanding of the world.

Accommodationism of this kind gains endorsement even from official science organizations such as, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But how well does it withstand scrutiny?

Not too well, according to a new book by distinguished biologist Jerry A. Coyne.

Gould’s magisteria

The most famous, or notorious, rationale for accommodationism was provided by the celebrity palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages. Gould argues that religion and science possess separate and non-overlapping “magisteria”, or domains of teaching authority, and so they can never come into conflict unless one or the other oversteps its domain’s boundaries.

If we accept the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), the magisterium of science relates to “the factual construction of nature”. By contrast, religion has teaching authority in respect of “ultimate meaning and moral value” or “moral issues about the value and meaning of life”.

On this account, religion and science do not overlap, and religion is invulnerable to scientific criticism. Importantly, however, this is because Gould is ruling out many religious claims as being illegitimate from the outset even as religious doctrine. Thus, he does not attack the fundamentalist Christian belief in a young earth merely on the basis that it is incorrect in the light of established scientific knowledge (although it clearly is!). He claims, though with little real argument, that it is illegitimate in principle to hold religious beliefs about matters of empirical fact concerning the space-time world: these simply fall outside the teaching authority of religion.

I hope it’s clear that Gould’s manifesto makes an extraordinarily strong claim about religion’s limited role. Certainly, most actual religions have implicitly disagreed.

The category of “religion” has been defined and explained in numerous ways by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and others with an academic or practical interest. There is much controversy and disagreement. All the same, we can observe that religions have typically been somewhat encyclopedic, or comprehensive, explanatory systems.

Religions usually come complete with ritual observances and standards of conduct, but they are more than mere systems of ritual and morality. They typically make sense of human experience in terms of a transcendent dimension to human life and well-being. Religions relate these to supernatural beings, forces, and the like. But religions also make claims about humanity’s place – usually a strikingly exceptional and significant one – in the space-time universe.

It would be naïve or even dishonest to imagine that this somehow lies outside of religion’s historical role. While Gould wants to avoid conflict, he creates a new source for it, since the principle of NOMA is itself contrary to the teachings of most historical religions. At any rate, leaving aside any other, or more detailed, criticisms of the NOMA principle, there is ample opportunity for religion(s) to overlap with science and come into conflict with it.

Coyne on religion and science

The genuine conflict between religion and science is the theme of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (Viking, 2015). This book’s appearance was long anticipated; it’s a publishing event that prompts reflection.

In pushing back against accommodationism, Coyne portrays religion and science as “engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.” Note, however, that he is concerned with theistic religions that include a personal God who is involved in history. (He is not, for example, dealing with Confucianism, pantheism or austere forms of philosophical deism that postulate a distant, non-interfering God.)

Accommodationism is fashionable, but that has less to do with its intellectual merits than with widespread solicitude toward religion. There are, furthermore, reasons why scientists in the USA (in particular) find it politically expedient to avoid endorsing any “conflict model” of the relationship between religion and science. Even if they are not religious themselves, many scientists welcome the NOMA principle as a tolerable compromise.

Some accommodationists argue for one or another very weak thesis: for example, that this or that finding of science (or perhaps our scientific knowledge base as a whole) does not logically rule out the existence of God (or the truth of specific doctrines such as Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection from the dead). For example, it is logically possible that current evolutionary theory and a traditional kind of monotheism are both true.

But even if we accept such abstract theses, where does it get us? After all, the following may both be true:

  1. There is no strict logical inconsistency between the essentials of current evolutionary theory and the existence of a traditional sort of Creator-God.


  1. Properly understood, current evolutionary theory nonetheless tends to make Christianity as a whole less plausible to a reasonable person.

If 1. and 2. are both true, it’s seriously misleading to talk about religion (specifically Christianity) and science as simply “compatible”, as if science – evolutionary theory in this example – has no rational tendency at all to produce religious doubt. In fact, the cumulative effect of modern science (not least, but not solely, evolutionary theory) has been to make religion far less plausible to well-informed people who employ reasonable standards of evidence.

For his part, Coyne makes clear that he is not talking about a strict logical inconsistency. Rather, incompatibility arises from the radically different methods used by science and religion to seek knowledge and assess truth claims. As a result, purported knowledge obtained from distinctively religious sources (holy books, church traditions, and so on) ends up being at odds with knowledge grounded in science.

Religious doctrines change, of course, as they are subjected over time to various pressures. Faith versus Fact includes a useful account of how they are often altered for reasons of mere expediency. One striking example is the decision by the Mormons (as recently as the 1970s) to admit blacks into its priesthood. This was rationalised as a new revelation from God, which raises an obvious question as to why God didn’t know from the start (and convey to his worshippers at an early time) that racial discrimination in the priesthood was wrong.

It is, of course, true that a system of religious beliefs can be modified in response to scientific discoveries. In principle, therefore, any direct logical contradictions between a specified religion and the discoveries of science can be removed as they arise and are identified. As I’ve elaborated elsewhere (e.g., in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (2012)), religions have seemingly endless resources to avoid outright falsification. In the extreme, almost all of a religion’s stories and doctrines could gradually be reinterpreted as metaphors, moral exhortations, resonant but non-literal cultural myths, and the like, leaving nothing to contradict any facts uncovered by science.

In practice, though, there are usually problems when a particular religion adjusts. Depending on the circumstances, a process of theological adjustment can meet with internal resistance, splintering and mutual anathemas. It can lead to disillusionment and bitterness among the faithful. The theological system as a whole may eventually come to look very different from its original form; it may lose its original integrity and much of what once made it attractive.

All forms of Christianity – Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise – have had to respond to these practical problems when confronted by science and modernity.

Coyne emphasizes, I think correctly, that the all-too-common refusal by religious thinkers to accept anything as undercutting their claims has a downside for believability. To a neutral outsider, or even to an insider who is susceptible to theological doubts, persistent tactics to avoid falsification will appear suspiciously ad hoc.

To an outsider, or to anyone with doubts, those tactics will suggest that religious thinkers are not engaged in an honest search for truth. Rather, they are preserving their favoured belief systems through dogmatism and contrivance.

How science subverted religion

In principle, as Coyne also points out, the important differences in methodology between religion and science might (in a sense) not have mattered. That is, it could have turned out that the methods of religion, or at least those of the true religion, gave the same results as science. Why didn’t they?

Let’s explore this further. The following few paragraphs are my analysis, drawing on earlier publications, but I believe they’re consistent with Coyne’s approach. (Compare also Susan Haack’s non-accommodationist analysis in her 2007 book, Defending Science – within Reason.)

At the dawn of modern science in Europe – back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – religious worldviews prevailed without serious competition. In such an environment, it should have been expected that honest and rigorous investigation of the natural world would confirm claims that were already found in the holy scriptures and church traditions. If the true religion’s founders had genuinely received knowledge from superior beings such as God or angels, the true religion should have been, in a sense, ahead of science.

There might, accordingly, have been a process through history by which claims about the world made by the true religion (presumably some variety of Christianity) were successively confirmed. The process might, for example, have shown that our planet is only six thousand years old (give or take a little), as implied by the biblical genealogies. It might have identified a global extinction event – just a few thousand years ago – resulting from a worldwide cataclysmic flood. Science could, of course, have added many new details over time, but not anything inconsistent with pre-existing knowledge from religious sources.

Unfortunately for the credibility of religious doctrine, nothing like this turned out to be the case. Instead, as more and more evidence was obtained about the world’s actual structures and causal mechanisms, earlier explanations of the appearances were superseded. As science advances historically, it increasingly reveals religion as premature in its attempts at understanding the world around us.

As a consequence, religion’s claims to intellectual authority have become less and less rationally believable. Science has done much to disenchant the world – once seen as full of spiritual beings and powers – and to expose the pretensions of priests, prophets, religious traditions, and holy books. It has provided an alternative, if incomplete and provisional, image of the world, and has rendered much of religion anomalous or irrelevant.

By now, the balance of evidence has turned decisively against any explanatory role for beings such as gods, ghosts, angels, and demons, and in favour of an atheistic philosophical naturalism. Regardless what other factors were involved, the consolidation and success of science played a crucial role in this. In short, science has shown a historical, psychological, and rational tendency to undermine religious faith.

Not only the sciences!

I need to be add that the damage to religion’s authority has come not only from the sciences, narrowly construed, such as evolutionary biology. It has also come from work in what we usually regard as the humanities. Christianity and other theistic religions have especially been challenged by the efforts of historians, archaeologists, and academic biblical scholars.

Those efforts have cast doubt on the provenance and reliability of the holy books. They have implied that many key events in religious accounts of history never took place, and they’ve left much traditional theology in ruins. In the upshot, the sciences have undermined religion in recent centuries – but so have the humanities.

Coyne would not tend to express it that way, since he favours a concept of “science broadly construed”. He elaborates this as: “the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.” On his approach, history (at least in its less speculative modes) and archaeology are among the branches of “science” that have refuted many traditional religious claims with empirical content.

But what is science? Like most contemporary scientists and philosophers, Coyne emphasizes that there is no single process that constitutes “the scientific method”. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is, admittedly, very important to science. That is, scientists frequently make conjectures (or propose hypotheses) about unseen causal mechanisms, deduce what further observations could be expected if their hypotheses are true, then test to see what is actually observed. However, the process can be untidy. For example, much systematic observation may be needed before meaningful hypotheses can be developed. The precise nature and role of conjecture and testing will vary considerably among scientific fields.

Likewise, experiments are important to science, but not to all of its disciplines and sub-disciplines. Fortunately, experiments are not the only way to test hypotheses (for example, we can sometimes search for traces of past events). Quantification is also important… but not always.

However, Coyne says, a combination of reason, logic and observation will always be involved in scientific investigation. Importantly, some kind of testing, whether by experiment or observation, is important to filter out non-viable hypotheses.

If we take this sort of flexible and realistic approach to the nature of science, the line between the sciences and the humanities becomes blurred. Though they tend to be less mathematical and experimental, for example, and are more likely to involve mastery of languages and other human systems of meaning, the humanities can also be “scientific” in a broad way. (From another viewpoint, of course, the modern-day sciences, and to some extent the humanities, can be seen as branches from the tree of Greek philosophy.)

It follows that I don’t terribly mind Coyne’s expansive understanding of science. If the English language eventually evolves in the direction of employing his construal, nothing serious is lost. In that case, we might need some new terminology – “the cultural sciences” anyone? – but that seems fairly innocuous. We already talk about “the social sciences” and “political science”.

For now, I prefer to avoid confusion by saying that the sciences and humanities are continuous with each other, forming a unity of knowledge. With that terminological point under our belts, we can then state that both the sciences and the humanities have undermined religion during the modern era. I expect they’ll go on doing so.

A valuable contribution

In challenging the undeserved hegemony of religion/science accommodationism, Coyne has written a book that is notably erudite without being dauntingly technical. The style is clear, and the arguments should be understandable and persuasive to a general audience. The tone is rather moderate and thoughtful, though opponents will inevitably cast it as far more polemical and “strident” than it really is. This seems to be the fate of any popular book, no matter how mild-mannered, that is critical of religion.

Coyne displays a light touch, even while drawing on his deep involvement in scientific practice (not to mention a rather deep immersion in the history and detail of Christian theology). He writes, in fact, with such seeming simplicity that it can sometimes be a jolt to recognize that he’s making subtle philosophical, theological, and scientific points.

In that sense, Faith versus Fact testifies to a worthwhile literary ideal. If an author works at it hard enough, even difficult concepts and arguments can usually be made digestible. It won’t work out in every case, but this is one where it does. That’s all the more reason why Faith versus Fact merits a wide readership. It’s a valuable, accessible contribution to a vital debate.

The ConversationRussell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Voluntary euthanasia: beware of the godly!

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbysists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;
  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and
  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly legitimate consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate legitimate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

The ConversationRussell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Karl Popper on radical political promises


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God, religion and fundamentalism: an unholy trinity

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Dianna Theadora Kenny, University of Sydney

There are many arguments for the existence of God – Anselm’s ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument and the “immediate experience of God” argument. But if you don’t already believe, these arguments won’t convince you. They are post-hoc constructions to shore up existing beliefs.

The counter-arguments say that religion is a bad but entrenched idea. Religions peddle ugly doctrines that have ugly consequences. These so-called “holy books” variously demand the execution of “witches”, support slavery, endorse mass killing of infidels and heretics, waging of war, condemn homosexuality and denigrate women.

Religions promote division and inequality. They have in-groups (“chosen people”) and out-groups.

Enter Freud

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, said that religion is a collective neurosis shared by the masses to shore up civilisation. Religion has its roots in infantile helplessness and the longing for a strong father. Neurosis and religion have universal common roots in human nature and cognition.

Freud believed that there was a developmental progression over the course of history – from animistic and magical, to religious, and then to scientific explanations – in the way in which people perceive and explain the universe.

Each explanation becomes progressively less omnipotent and egocentric. It ends with the scientific view that we are mortal, finite, small in a vast universe, and helpless against the forces of nature.

Enter fundamentalism

Who falls prey to fundamentalist messages? I have developed an algorithm:

Fundamentalism = fear + magical thinking + social and political forces that create psychological vulnerability, rage, hate, envy, alienation and marginalisation + cognitive narrowing (for example, indoctrination).

As a result, the disenfranchised, embattled, denigrated and rejected, deprived and needy, traumatised and dispossessed, envious, hateful and rageful members of society are all fair game for the message of fundamentalist religious and politico-religious ideologies.

Membership of a fundamentalist group reverses these intolerable feelings. Fundamentalist ideology bolsters group self-confidence. Fundamentalism turns out-groups into in-groups that empower and enrich its members. They are now no longer denigrated and alone, but exalted as a select and chosen few.

Fundamentalists become warriors with a simple message of salvation that is found in a naïve and literal interpretation of ancient, sacred texts. Gone is the hopelessness and uncertainty of life. The path is straight; the goals are clear. However, to partake, one must relinquish one’s “self” – one’s individuality and “mind” – in order to render blind obedience to the collective ideology.

Acts of fundamentalist terrorism must breach an almost insurmountable barrier – the prohibition against the taking of life. Yet, these heights have been scaled and breached repeatedly in the course of history.

In addition to underlying motivations like socioeconomic inequalities, ethnic struggles and nationalist movements, to commit atrocities requires fundamentalists to have undergone “a long process of caricaturing, degrading and dehumanising” their targets, in order to create a rift between themselves (in-group) and their intended victims (out-group).

Enemies cease to be fellow human beings. They become infidels.

Religion and suicide bombing

Suicide bombing, like genocide, is characterised by the perceived need for purification. The term “ethnic cleansing” carries this meaning, as did former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s call for a return to the values of the Islamic ancestors, to cleanse mankind of the West’s impure and corrupted values.

Those who must be cleansed are necessarily impure and indeed evil. The cause – to rid the world of this contamination – is sacred and sanctioned by God.

Suicide bombing is more prevalent in occupied nations, in which the occupied resist, yet succumb to the constant humiliations as a result of their abject subjugation.

Repeated humiliations spawn impotent rage, frustration and despair that demand expression. For some, it signals a wish to be dead rather than endure further humiliation. Suicide bombing disables the military might of the occupier. It is the ultimate defiance of the oppressor.

The profiles of suicide bombers are disparate. Some are recruited from among the homeless and poverty-stricken. Others are recruited by imams, at mosques and by social media; and from among the affluent and well-educated who live abroad. Some are young boys brainwashed in the madrassahs, or widows and bereaved sisters of deceased jihadists who wish to expel their rage and grief about their loss in retaliation against a hated enemy.

On deradicalisation

Deprogramming a bomb or a missile is possible, but can you deprogram a terrorist? Radicalisation into fundamentalist violence follows four stages – pre-radicalisation, self-identification, indoctrination and action.

Deradicalisation, the process of persuading extremists to abandon the use of violence, is not simply a reversal of the radicalisation process. Careful assessment of individuals to identify the unique set of context- and person- specific factors motivating their involvement is essential.

Many countries – such as Singapore, Indonesia, the UK and the Netherlands – have implemented deradicalisation programs with varying degrees of success. The Indonesian prison deradicalisation program has been a failure: of 600 undertaking the program, only 20 deradicalised.

But, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) feared military wing, the Black September Organisation, thought that radicalised members only “switched off” when the PLO gave them a:

… reason to live, rather than a reason to die.

The solution? They married them off.

You can read other articles in the Roots of Radicalisation series here.

Dianna will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 1 and 2pm AEST on Friday, July 3. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The ConversationDianna Theadora Kenny is Professor of Psychology and Music at University of Sydney. This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Hitchens on religious instruction

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Ricky Gervaise on religion

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A. C. Grayling on religious criticism

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Christopher Hitchens on philosophy and religion


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