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a bonobo world? 9 – humanism, bonoboism, doggism and science

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a caring and sharing bonoboist society – and these are all females, except maybe the kiddy

In Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes rather disparagingly of humanism. Here he goes: 

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion, namely humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas not in order to question those dogmas but rather in order to implement them.¹

And so on.

So what exactly is humanism? I should probably make the fuck-nose sign here, but let me write about my personal interaction with the concept. Of course I’d heard of humanism but hadn’t really given it much thought before entering university in my 30th year, in spite of having read a few philosophy books etc. At uni I fell in with a few eager-beavers with whom I entered into D&Ms on politics, ethics and the meaning of life. One day in the midst of an intense session, one interlocutor pulled back, gazed at me with furrowed brow and said ‘You’re such a humanist’. I could only shrug and I truly didn’t know whether he was insulting or commending me. Montaigne-like, I was ever drawn to matters pertaining to myself, especially when others appeared to express an interest. I’d noticed, in my regular browsing at the uni bookshop, a book with the title On Antihumanism or Towards Antihumanism or something similar. This was the mid-80s and post-modernism was unfortunately still thriving. It seemed the book was treading that path – Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ tweaked to ‘death of the human’, opposition to any anthropological defining of the Homo sapiens category, muddied with much Foucauldian, Derridean and Lacanian rhetoric. 

So I began to feel much sympathy for humanism, and I was drawn particularly by two negatives: it wasn’t religious and it wasn’t nationalistic.

So, religion – and what does Harari mean when he says that humanism is a religion and a dogma? Well, it seems nothing more than the bleeding obvious: that humanism replaces worship of gods with blind worship of humanity. Now, I admit that there’s an element of truth in that. Witness, again Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity (and no amount of mathematising can can obscure the connection between infinitude and godliness) and Bronowski’s heaven-bent Ascent of Man. In fact I recall, during my period of membership in a humanist organisation (I’m rarely a joiner of such groups and it rarely lasts for long), an attempt to create a kind of humanist church with cheery singalongs and happy clapping. It all sounded naff as taffy to me. 

But my own take on humanism was that it involved the realisation that we humans were on our own, and reliant on each other, for better or worse. And that we were one species, and as such needed to take collective responsibility for our damages and to build on our strengths. I also thought it was bleeding obvious that we were above all self-concerned, even self-obsessed. This strikes me as nothing more or less than a biological fact. Bonobos are the compassionate apes, so they say, but the compassion ends mostly – perhaps not entirely – with their own species. You might call this bonoboism, and it makes a lot of biological sense. My pet dog goes apeshit on spotting another dog during our walks, it never fails. She wants to get close, to sniff, to fight, to fuck, who knows? You might call this doggism, but it’s not doggy dogma. It’s funny – humans have interfered with dogs phenotypically for centuries – flattened faces, lengthened legs, bent backs, tufty tails and much nasty neotenising, but dogs never cease to recognise their own polymorphous kind. Of course they have a nose for that kind of thing, but it’s the sight of their fellow beasties that sets them off. I wonder what the science says?

Anyway humanism. Of course, we don’t have to be invested in our own species. I recently heard an interview with a softly spoken, very reasonable-sounding gentleman who is dedicated to the extinction of Homo sapiens, reckoning that the species has done far more harm than good. He’d done his bit, not by knocking off his neighbours, but by getting himself desexed. Only 7.8 billion more to go – ok, maybe only half that number, but then with sperm banks… it’s all so hard. 

There are videos around, depicting what life might be like in the future if human apes suddenly disappeared. All very verdant and lush and lovely, but they don’t dare to visualise forward for more than a few decades. How about a couple of million years hence? Not so long, geologically speaking. We’ve been a most unusual apex predator, but there’s no reason not to assume that an even more unusual and rapacious predator will evolve. So I wouldn’t give up on our species just yet. 

Still, I’ll never feel entirely comfortable with identifying as a humanist. I just don’t like isms much, they make me reach for my water pistol. 

Anyway, returning to Harari, what’s to be made of humanism’s apparent deal with science? His argument is that science is really not so much about knowledge as about power. The power to produce more answers, and more stuff. To win the race against hunger, you find ways to produce more foodstuff. To reclaim land, you find ways to produce more foodstuff using less land. To reduce toxic or climate-affecting emissions, you find, or produce, new forms of energy with fewer nasty emissions. Yes, there will be vested interests blocking production and denying problems, but science will always find a way, and we’ll always go that way, eventually. Or so the deal has it.

Of course, Harari is right. I don’t happen to agree with his definition of humanism, but that’s really a minor issue. To me, it’s a deal science makes with a certain kind of self-confident optimism. A ‘we will overcome’ jingoism, for our species. And I must say, I have mixed feelings about all this, because my view of science has a personal element, for I have something of an unrequited love affair with science. I think she’s brilliant, sexy and endlessly enthralling. To me, she’s the gift that keeps on giving. Through her machinations, unknown unknowns shift into known unknowns or unknown knowns, and in the future more unknown unknowns will begin to be known, and yet we won’t quite know what we don’t know about them, even if we know what we don’t know. And really, I don’t even know whether I know what I’m saying. 

So science, with its how questions, is a quest to give us more power, over life, the universe and everything, for knowledge is power. But we’re not going to stop travelling down that road. As many have pointed out, to have the power to create something you need to know how it works, from photosynthesis to viruses to intelligence or consciousness. And we’re working on all this stuff, for better or worse. 

Are we working on creating a more compassionate society, a bonobo society or something like? Sort of – and many are passionate about this. But I’m not sure we even know what society is, let alone how to make it better. 

  1. Y N Harari, Homo Deus, p 231


Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, 2016

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012 

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

Trumpdagistan: the new fundamentalism

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The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others, but it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Thomas Jefferson

A recent Point of Inquiry podcast has again turned my attention to what I should now call Trumpdagistan, a more or less dictatorial state that borders Canada and Mexico, which for various reasons I shouldn’t really be concerning myself with, as I live very far from the country and have never had any intention of visiting it, even if I had the means. It just seems to be a kind of ghoulishness on my part, my version of addiction to, if that website still exists.

As a completely non-religious person, I’m obviously opposed to any interference of the state by religion, that terribly bad explanation of any and all phenomena. Trumpdagistan, even before it was renamed, was the most religious of all the democratic countries. Their national god is Guard, who guards Trumpdagistan against all evils, including secularism, the world’s primary evil, according to Billy Barr, the dictatorship’s chief toady, who believes that all morality derives from the book of Guard.

Whilst the wanker in the white palace (WWP) is very unlikely to believe in Guard (for his self-obsession is all-consuming but exhausting, as it basically consists of constantly puffing hot air into a balloon full of holes), he recognises the usefulness of a national god in much the same way as every previous dictator has. So he’s happy, indeed delighted, to unleash his toady on secularism and more particularly, secularists. Free-thinkers, in the words of Stephen Dedalus.

The WWP and his toadies have made every effort in their few years of control to create a compliant, Guard-worshipping judiciary, especially at the very top, the Supreme Court. As the Point of Inquiry podcast has pointed out, that court is now stacked with Guard-botherers, more or less bent on overturning the separation between politics and religion, through particular interpretations of the country’s much-worshipped Constitution which somehow bestow a kind of second-class citizenship on secularists. It’s unclear, however, how the Constitution can be so interpreted.

In any case, the WWP’s ‘administration’ has managed to promote two more religious right-wingers to the Supreme Court, for a total of five – just another couple of bricks in the wall, so to speak. The much-worshipped constitution of the former USA actually has very little to say on religion. The first amendment to that constitution, as it pertains to religion, says only this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

That’s it. It’s since been known as the ‘establishment clause’. The rest of that amendment, also quite brief, deals with freedom of speech, without particular reference to religion. The only possible ambiguity in the above clause is ‘respecting’, which could mean ‘having respect for’ or ‘with respect or reference to’. Neither interpretation suggests that the constitution, or the bill of rights, supports any religion; rather it clearly supports keeping out of religion, or maintaining a separation between religion and law-making. And yet, mischief-making religionists, some of them rather powerful, have tried hard to distort the simple meaning. Take the late unlamented Justice Scalia, who in one forgettable judicial opinion came up with this gem:

The establishment clause permits the disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.

Of course the clause has nothing whatever to do with permitting disregard, it simply avoids permission and prohibition equally. Nothing could be clearer. What Scalia seems to be wanting the clause to say is that the law should disregard and so not protect polytheists, atheists and the like. This defies any serious interpretation.

And so we come to the toady. He’s apparently a catholic, and believes that secularism is the principle cause of the ills that Trumpdagistan is suffering from. Those ills don’t, of course, include white collar corruption, which he avidly supports. To their credit, many other catholics are condemning Barr’s evidence-free claims, but in Barr’s Trumpdagistan, a collection of writings penned many centuries ago by scores of individuals of widely varying views and experience, and known today, at least by some, as the bible, is the only source of morality for all humanity, and will no doubt be installed as the basis of all Trumpdagistani law. All of this is making the WWP very popular, if polls are to be believed, so expect much more of it in the future. What would Thomas Jefferson think?

Written by stewart henderson

February 23, 2020 at 5:08 pm

nones, rinos and new australians – we’re becoming more secular, but also more religiously complex

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So the census data on religion, and everything else, has just come out, and it wasn’t as I’d predicted (in my mind). I expected a rise in the nones but I opted for a more conservative result, partly because of so many wrong predictions (in my mind) in the recent past, but mainly because I didn’t really expect the accelerating rise in recent censuses to continue for too much longer, I expected a few wobbles on the path to heathenism. Not so much two steps forward and one step back, more like a mixture of giant strides and baby steps.

So the result is encouraging and more people are taking note and it has clear implications for areas of social and political policies in which religion plays a part, such as funding for religion in schools, marriage equality, abortion rights, euthanasia, tax exemptions for religious organisations, school chaplains and the like.

So let’s take a closer look at the findings. The graph I present at the top of this post is identical to the one I posted about 5 years ago, except that the last bar, representing the 2016 figures, is added. And it’s quite a spectacular finding, showing that the acceleration is continuing. The drop in the assertively Christian sector is way bigger than expected (in my mind), from a little under 60% to just over 50%. That’s really something, and there’s no doubt that figure will be well under 50% by next census. So much for the twilight of atheism – at least in this benighted backwater. The figure for the assertively non-religious has taken a bigger jump than in any previous census – we only started measuring the category in 1971. That was a surprise, as was the size of the drop in Catholics (and the Anglican population continues to diminish). The figure of 30.1% for the nones, up from 22.3% in 2011, should be supplemented by a goodly percentage of the ‘not-stated/inadequately described’ category, which makes up about 10%, barely changed from last census. This would make for a figure of more than a third of our population professing no religion.

The figure for ‘other religions’ continues to rise but it’s still under 10%. It’s hardly cause for concern exactly, but we should always be vigilant about maintaining a thoroughly secular polity and judiciary. It has served us, and other secular countries, very well indeed. Meanwhile the mix of other religions makes for greater complexity and diversity, and hopefully will prevent the dominance of any particular religious perspective. We should encourage dialogue between these groups to prevent religious balkanisation.

These results really do give hope that the overall ‘no religion’ figure, now at around 30%, will overtake the overall Christian figure, at about 51%, in my lifetime. If the trend continues to accelerate, that may well happen by 2026. Meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to see how these results play out in the political and social arena in the near future, and what Christian apologists have to say about them.

Of course, the census hardly provides a fine-grained view of the nation’s religious affiliations. I’ve not said much about the ‘rino’ population before – that’s those who are ‘religious in name only’. In fact I only heard that acronym for the first time two days ago, but I’ve long been aware of the type, and I’ve met a few ‘Catholics’ who fit the bill. It really does gripe me that more of these people don’t come out as non-believers, but of course I can’t get inside their heads. Certainly church attendance has dropped markedly in recent years, but it’s impossible to know whether these nominal believers would follow religious lines on hot-button topics like euthanasia or abortion.

The census results, as always, have been published with accompanying ‘expert’ commentaries, and on the religious question they’ve said that the figures don’t really give comfort to Christians or atheists. It’s cloud cuckoo talk, but it doesn’t surprise me. The results speak volumes and give plenty of comfort to those who want religion to be kept well out of politics, and who never want to see a return to powerful Christian lobbies and their incessant and often ridiculous propaganda. Politicians, please take note.


Good Friday? We object..

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profound spirituality lives on

profound spirituality lives on

Canto: I’m sitting here thinking I’d like to take a ride to the beach and then breakfast at a seaside caf but I can’t because it’s ‘good Friday’ and every such outlet in this state is shut down.

Jacinta: Right, and so what’s so good about Good Friday? I’ve heard tell it’s good for us to have a complete day off from shopping or having paid servants wait on us – a bit like having a day off from using electricity or motorised transport or – imagine it – a whole day in which smartphones couldn’t be used. We would somehow be better human beings, more appreciative of the first-world splendour we bask in, if we experienced the horrendous suffering of being deprived of it for a day.

Canto: Well I’ve had thoughts of that kind in the past, but I’d rather be up-front and call it first-world-free day or some such, because we both know good friday isn’t about deprivation of our favourite indulgences, or, if it is, that deprivation is supposed to remind us that on a ‘good day’ around 2000 years ago someone was crucified. A horrible death but not so horrible in this case because this particular guy was an immortal being in disguise who is now still alive and all around us and loves us terribly much. So it’s all good.

Jacinta: Yeah…right… sooo…

Canto: Okay the reason they say it’s good is because this immortal being died, or pretended to, or went through enormous suffering, because this allowed us to be saved.

Jacinta: Ahh right… saved… saved… ummm

Canto: Look Jass … I know this seems confusing to you but if you take a thorough-going theology course, and maintain a deeply spiritual lifestyle for the next several years you might be offered a glimmer of the revelation enveloped in this outwardly mysterious form of knowing-as-being.

Jacinta: Ohhh… shit… but all I really wanted was a caffe latte..

Canto: Okay well the reason you won’t get your latte today is because a certain dwindling section of our society believes this story of Jesus on the cross is literally true, or symbolically true or true in some deep sense which is beyond our shallow faithlessness, and this section of our society, though now a shadow of its former all-powerful self, once had complete control of our polity and economy and thus dictated what holidays we should have and why. And since we really like to have holidays and it would be a pain in the national arse to rename or reconfigure them, the ship of state being very difficult to shift from its course and all that, we’re stuck with good friday until the dwindling near-minority dwindles to such a level that it becomes a national embarrassment that we’re still pretending to respect such inconcinnities.

Jacinta: Well I saw on the morning news that the Sydney fish market’s open today.. wherever that is..

Canto: I think it’s in Sydney.

Jacinta: … but nothing’s open in dear old Adelaide, the shitty of churches. I don’t think we should just sit back and accept this. Why aren’t people protesting?

Canto: Okay, yes, let’s protest. What do you suggest?

Jacinta: Well, ummm, we could write to our local MP?

Canto: Yes, that would turn the ship of state around quick smart.

Jacinta: How about a petition?

Canto: Now that’s original. We could put it out over the net through or some such, and sit back and watch the overflow of community outrage…

Jacinta: Well the fact is, as you say, we love our holidays, so many people are prepared to be completely hypocritical about the reason for the season, even to the point of accepting the inconvenience of one complete shut-down day…

Canto: So that’s the end of our protest?

Jacinta: Pretty much. Join me for a nice breakfast out somewhere tomorrow morning?

Canto: You’re on.


Written by stewart henderson

March 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

is faith a virus? Hauerwas, Boghossian, and the ‘problem’ of natural theology

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A post I wrote some 18 months ago reflecting on the comments of an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, while he was in Australia (I think) has raised some interest – more than I’m accustomed to – from people who obviously find theology more important than I do. My post was triggered by Hauerwas’s inane remark that atheism was ‘boring’, the kind of cheap remark that Christian apologists are apt to make. So it was with some bemusement that I was treated, in comments, to a defence of Hauerwas as a great Christian critic of standard US Christianity (which struck me as quite beside the point), and as a person whose throwaway lines shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Maybe so, but I can only go on the words I heard, which seemed to be spoken seriously enough, and I have little interest in researching Hauerwas’s whole oeuvre to get a better handle on particular utterances, as I do find theology quite boring (and that’s not a throwaway line).

Still, I’m prepared to give Hauerwas another go, within the broad context of faith. So I’m going to have a look at what he says in the first of his Gifford lectures on ‘natural theology’.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

And what, you might ask, is natural theology? Well, apparently it’s the attempt to find solid reasons, beyond ‘divine revelation’, for the existence of – not gods, but God, the Judeo-Christian creation. I’m always amused by this usage – though actually the bloke’s an amalgam of various local gods including Yahweh the Canaanite war-god, Elohim, a name half dipped in obscurity but deriving from the plural of el, a Canaanite word for any god, and Adonai, a term of similarly obscure provenance. It’s as if a company like MacDonalds  had copyrighted the name Hamburger to disallow its usage by everyone else.

But at least it’s promising that these lectures are about giving reasons for believing in some supernatural entity or other, rather than relying on that notably slippery term, faith.

Unfortunately, though, Hauerwas doesn’t start well. Let me home in on a sentence from the very first paragraph:

The god that various Gifford lecturers have shown to exist or not to exist is a god that bears the burden of proof. In short, the god of the Gifford Lectures is usually a god with a problem.

This is an age-old trope, going back at least as far as Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who put forward a piece of clever word-play as an ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of his god, all the time saying that the god didn’t  really need such an argument, implying that to suggest such a thing was tantamount to saying he was a god with a problem.

But Anselm’s god didn’t have a problem, any more than the god of Hauerwas, or the god of any other theist. These gods, I’m fairly convinced, are unlikely to exist outside of theists’ imaginations. It is the theists who have the problem. The burden of proof is borne by the believers, not by their gods. Hauerwas should know better than to employ such a cheap trick.

Further along the line Hauerwas provides his own very different definition of natural theology as ‘the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin’. He provides a link to an endnote after this, but I’ve been unable to find the note, so this statement remains largely gobbledygook to me, though I can comment on its key terms; ‘nongodforsakenness’ can only have meaning for those who think they know that their god exists, and ‘sin’ is a not very useful term arising from Judeo-Christian theism, a term I reject because I view morality as deriving from natural and social evolution. Just as we don’t describe our cats as ‘sinners’ or as ‘evil’, we shouldn’t, in my view, describe humans in that way. It would surely be more accurate, and far more fruitful, to describe them as socially or psychologically dysfunctional. This allows for the possibility of remedies.

However, I’m prepared to be patient (to a degree), as Hauerwas requests. I’ve managed to read through the first of his Gifford lectures, and that’s more than enough for me (and my understanding of it all is further undermined by some egregious typos in the text). A number of thinkers are referenced and sometimes discussed at some length – I’ve read a little Aquinas, and more of William James, but the others –  Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Alasdair MacIntyre, are only familiar to me as names. These intellectuals have no doubt great resonance in the (clearly shrinking) theological world Hauerwas has chosen to inhabit, and that’s probably the main reason they mean so little to me, as I inhabit the world of modernist nihilism that Hauerwas apparently inveighs against.

To be fair, Hauerwas takes care to claim that the modern era, like the middle ages, is far too complex for any brief laudatory or condemnatory summation. To this effect, he says:

It is important… that I make clear that I do not assume my account of modernity is necessarily one of declension. Though I admire and am attracted to many of the movements and figures we associate with what we call the Middle Ages, I do not assume the latter to be some golden age from which modernity names a fall.

However, I’m suspicious of this claim, as elsewhere in this lecture he speaks of modern nihilism as a given, and as a problem.

But before I go on, I’ll try to give a brief overview of this first lecture, which I’m sure will be seen as a travesty of his views. To some extent it’s a problematising of the stated purpose of the Gifford Lectures, which is apparently to argue for the existence of a god without resort to divine revelation (or perhaps argue about, since a number of previous lecturers, such as John Dewey, William James and A J Ayer, were secularists). It’s Hauerwas’s contention that natural theology is a modern, post-enlightenment phenomenon that wouldn’t have been recognised by earlier theologians such as Aquinas, and that to reduce the Christian god (‘the ground of everything’) to something to be explained or proven, like dinosaurs or black holes (not, unfortunately, Hauerwas’s examples) is more or less to already admit defeat. Of course, he’s right there, and it’s no wonder he inveighs against modernism!

Hauerwas claims Karl Barth in particular as a major influence in his thinking, which seems to involve just accepting the ‘truth’, particularly of the life of Jesus and his death on the cross, and being a ‘witness’ to this life, particularly in the way one lives one’s own life. In outlining this view, he expresses extreme confidence about the essentiality of Jesus and the manner of his death as an example and a message.

I can’t write about this in the way that theologians write, and I certainly don’t want to, so I’ll be much more blunt and say that the problem here is one of faith – a term nowhere mentioned in this lecture.


Peter Boghossian

The atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian recently toured Australia to promote his book, A manual for creating atheists, and the general project behind it. The tour was partly supported by an organisation called Reason Road, of which I’m a member. It’s Boghossian view – and I think he’s right – that it’s faith rather than religion that atheists need to question and undermine, in order to promote a healthier view of the world, and his characterisation of faith is also something I like. He calls it ‘pretending to know what you don’t/can’t know.’ He also describes faith as a virus, which should be combatted with epistemological antibiotics. Bearing this in mind, it’s worth quoting a couple more of Hauerwas’s statements:

… the heart of the argument I develop in these lectures is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves.

That God is Trinity is, of course, a confession. The acknowledgment of God’s trinitarian character was made necessary by the Christian insistence that the God who had redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was not different from the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. God has never not been Trinity, but only through the struggle to render its own existence intelligible did the church discover God’s trinitarian nature. Accordingly, Christians believe rightly that few claims are more rationally compelling than our confession that God is Trinity. Of course, our knowledge that God is Trinity, a knowledge rightly described as revelation, only intensifies the mystery of God’s trinitarian nature.

From these statements we learn that Hauerwas is not only a Christian but a trinitarian, and presumably – but not necessarily – a Catholic. His Catholicism seems further confirmed by remarks here and elsewhere about the essentiality of church to Christian living.

More importantly Hauerwas makes the bold claim that the triune nature of his god is ‘rationally compelling’ to Christians in general. This is quite clearly false. I don’t know too many Christians but few of them are Catholic and even fewer would consider themselves trinitarians. Of course most wouldn’t have given the matter the slightest thought, and so perhaps wouldn’t be Christians to Hauerwas’s mind, but Hauerwas makes the claim that ‘God as Trinity’ is a matter of knowledge – though knowledge as ‘revelation’, which to my modernist mind is no knowledge at all. This is another example of pretending to know things you can’t possibly know. All that Hauerwas adds to this is a degree of confidence, though whether this is false confidence – mere bravado – or not, only Hauerwas can say. We get this throughout the lecture – a ‘confident’ pretence that he knows things that he can’t possibly know.

The reason for this, of course, is that he rejects natural theology, a kind of adaptation of post-enlightenment scientific methodologies, often called methodological naturalism. By doing so he permits himself the luxury of knowing that his god is triune, and is the ground of all being, and had a son who died on the cross for our sins – all by revelation!

Is there any point in continuing? To allow knowledge by revelation, or some sort of automatic conviction, or faith, is indeed to give up on any fruitful theory of knowledge altogether. Everything is permitted.

Epistemology is another term nowhere mentioned in this lecture, but the fact is that our modern world has been largely built on an improved epistemology, one that separates knowledge from belief in a throughly rigorous, and enormously productive way. It is this renovated epistemology  that has allowed us, for example, to look at the Bible not as the work of Moses or other pseudo-characters, but of scores of nameless authors whose individualities and attitudes can be revealed by painstaking textual analysis. It allows us to question the character of Jesus, his motives, his provenance, his fate, and even his very existence. It allows us to distinguish the possibly true elements of Jesus’s story from the highly implausible; the virgin birth, the miracles, the chit-chat with the devil in the desert, the transfiguration and so forth.

Far more importantly, though, from my view, this brighter and tighter epistemology has brought us modern medicine and cosmology, and modern technology, from improved modes of travel to improved ways of feeding our growing population. And of course it has brought about a renovated and enhanced understanding of who and what we are.

I really get off on knowledge, and so I take a very dim view indeed of those who would seek to poison it with so-called knowledge by revelation or faith. Knowledge is a very hard-won thing and it’s very precious. It deserves far greater respect than Hauerwas allows it.

The belief of Hauerwas and others that their god cannot be relegated to the furniture of the universe is simply that: a belief. What they are asking is that their belief should be respected (and even accepted) presumably because it is all-consuming. It’s such a vast belief, such a vast claim, that it dwarfs modernity, it dwarfs methodological naturalism, it dwarfs boring and worthless atheism. And it dwarfs any insulting attempt to test it.

I don’t know whether to describe Hauerwas’s claim as an arrogant one. It might well be that Hauerwas is genuinely humbled by this revealed ‘knowledge’. Either way, it’s not remotely convincing to me.


I don’t much enjoy writing about this stuff, and I hope I never post on this subject again.


Written by stewart henderson

August 23, 2015 at 9:29 am

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

the anthropic principle lives on and on

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The anthropic principle, the idea that the universe – and let’s not muddle up our heads with multiverses – appears to be tweaked just right, in a variety of ways, for the existence and flourishing of humans, has long been popular with the religious, those invested in the idea of human specialness, a specialness which evokes guided evolution, both in the biological and the cosmological sense. And, of course, God is our guide.

Wikipedia, God bless it, does an excellent job with the principle, introducing it straight off as the obvious fact that anyone able to ascertain the various parameters of the universe must necessarily be living in a universe, or a particular part of it, that enables her to do the ascertaining. In other words the human specialness mob have it arse backwards.

So I’ll happily refer all those questing to understand the anthropic principle, in strong and weak forms, it proponents and critics, etc, to Wikipedia. I’ve been brought to reflect on it again by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, ‘mind and supermind’, in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. 

Yes, the anthropic principle, which many tend to think is a clever new tool for deists, invented by the very materialists who dismiss the idea of supernatural agency as unscientific, is an old idea – much more than 30 years old, because Gould was critiquing not only Freeman Dyson’s reflections on it in the eighties, but those of Alfred Russel Wallace more than a century ago, in his 1903 book Man’s Place in the Universe. Gould had good reason for comparing Dyson and Wallace; their speculations, almost a century apart, were based on vastly different understandings of the universe. It reminds us that our understanding of the universe, or that of the best cosmologists, continues to develop, and, I strongly suspect, will never be settled.

Theories and debates about our universe, or multiverse, its shape and properties, are more common, and fascinating, than ever, and accompanied by enough mathematics to make my brain bleed. The other day one of my regular emails from Huff Po science declared that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning after all. This apparently from some scientists trying to grab attention in a pretty noisy field. I’ve only scanned the piece, which I would hardly be qualified to pass judgment on. But not long ago I read The Unknown Universe, a collection of essays from New Scientist magazine, dedicated to all ideas cosmological. I didn’t understand all of it of course, but genuine questions were raised about whether the universe is finite or infinite, about whether we really understand the time dimension, about how the laws that govern the universe came into being, and many other fundamental concepts. It’s interesting then to look back to more than a century ago, before Einstein, quantum mechanics, and space probes, and to reflect on the scientific understanding of the universe at that time.

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin's calculations, used by Wallace

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations, used by Wallace

In Wallace’s time (a rather vague term because the great scientist’s life spanned 90 years, which saw substantial developments in astronomy) the universe, though considered almost unimaginably massive, was calculated to be much smaller than today’s reckoning. According to a diagram in Man’s Place in the Universe, it ended a little outside the Milky Way galaxy, because we had no tools at the time to measure any further, though Lord Kelvin, the dominant figure in physics and astronomy in the late 19th century, made a number of dodgy calculations that were taken seriously at the time. In fact, Kelvin’s figures for the size of the universe, and for the age of the earth, though too small by orders of magnitude, were considered outrageously huge by most of his contemporaries; but they at least began to accustom the educated public to the idea of ginormity in space and time.

But size wasn’t of course the only thing that made the universe of that time so different from our own conceptions. The universe of Wallace’s imagination was stable, timeless, and, to Wallace’s mind, lifeless, apart of course from our planet. However, he doesn’t appear to have any good argument for this, only improbability. And an odd kind of hope, that we are unique. This hope is revealed in a passage of his book where he goes off the scientific rails just a bit, in a paean to our gloriously unique humanity. A plurality of intelligent life-forms in the universe

… would imply that to produce the living soul in the marvellous and glorious body of man – man with his faculties, his aspirations, his powers for good and evil – that this was an easy matter which could be brought about anywhere, in any world. It would imply man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe, needed no great preparations for his advent, only, perhaps, a second-rate demon, and a third or fourth-rate earth.

Wallace, though by no means Christian, was given to ‘spiritualism’, souls and the supernatural, all in relation to humans exclusively. That’s to say, he was wedded to ‘human specialness’, somewhat surprisingly for his theory of evolution by wholly natural selection from random variation. This is the chain, it seems, that links him to modern clingers-to the anthropic principle, such as William Lane Craig and his epigones, who must needs believe in a value-laden universe, with their god as the source of value, and we humans, platonically created as the feeble facsimiles of the godhead, struggling to achieve enlightenment in the form of closeness to the Creator, with its appropriate heavenly rewards. And so we have such typical WL Craigisms as ‘God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths’, ‘God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings’ and ‘God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe [by humans of course]’. These best explanation ‘arguments’ can be added to ad nauseum, of course, for they’re all of a part, and all connected to the Wallace quote above. We’re special, we must be special, we must be central to the creator’s plan, and our amazingness, our so-much-more-than-animalness, in spite of our many flaws, suggests a truly amazing creator, who made all this just for us.

That’s the hope, captured well by the great French biologist Jaques Monod when he wrote

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

I think modern philosophy has largely moved on from desperate denialism, but Monod’s remarks certainly hold true for religions, past present and future. Basically, the denial of our contingency is the central business of religion. It’s hardly surprising then that the relationship between religion and science is uneasy at best, and antagonistic at its heart. The multiverse could surely be described as religion’s worst nightmare. But that’s another story.

some reflections on Christianity in the 1630s

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puritans off to benight the new world

puritans off to benight the new world

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

L P Hartley,  The go-between, 1953

You occasionally read that atheists or non-believers are having a hard time of it these days, and I’ve certainly encountered some Dawkins-haters and ‘arrogant atheist’ bashers, both in person and online. I’ve even had a go at the likes of Terry Eagleton, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Jacobson for their puerile arguments – which I’m really quite fond of doing. But the fact is that we atheists have never had it so good, and it’s getting better all the time.

This post is partly a response to one by the Friendly Atheist, in which he expresses skepticism about a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on the worldwide treatment of non-believers, but doesn’t really develop his argument. It’s also partly inspired by a book I’m reading, God’s fury, England’s fire: a new history of the English civil wars, by Michael Braddick, which is extraordinarily detailed and begins with a comprehensive scene-setting, describing the civil and ecclesiastical context in which ordinary lives were lived in England circa 380 years ago.

I’ve written before about taking the long view. We tend to be impatient, understandably, for our lives are short, and we’re keen to see worldwide transformation within its span, but I invite you to travel back in time to another country, our ‘mother country’, or mine at least, to see for yourself how foreign, and how hostile to non-belief, it was back then.

Essentially, there were no atheists in Britain in the 1630s, and the way Christianity was practiced was a hot political issue, central to most people’s lives. Sunday church attendance was compulsory, subject to government fines, but there was a plurality of positions within both Protestantism and the more or less outlawed Catholicism. Due to the horrific religious wars then raging in the Germanic regions, there was more than a whiff of the Last Days in the air. Parishes often took up collections for the distressed Protestants of Europe, and although the government of Charles I maintained an uneasy neutrality, many volunteers, especially from Scotland, went off to join the fighting on the continent.

Braddick’s book begins with an event that underlines the everyday religiosity of the era. In 1640, a Scottish army passed solemnly through Flodden, just south of the border with England. It wasn’t an invasion, though, it was more like a funeral procession. The Scots were engaging in a very public mourning of ‘the death of the Bible’. Trumpeters death-marched in front, followed by religious ministers bearing a Bible covered by a funeral shroud. After them came a number of elderly citizens, petitions in hand, and then the troops, their pikes trailing in the ground. Everyone was wearing black ribbons or other signs of mourning.

This was not quite an official Scottish army, it was an army of the Covenanters, essentially Calvinists or Presbyterians, defenders of the ‘true religion’, who were protesting about the imposition, in 1637, of a new Prayer book upon their congregations. Considering the history of Scots-English warfare, this was a provocative incursion, but the Scots met with little resistance, and after a brief battle at Newburn, they marched into Newcastle, a major northern English town, unopposed.

To understand how this bizarre event could’ve occurred involves analysing the complex religious politics of Britain at a time when religion and politics were almost impossible to separate – as any analysis of the contemporaneous Thirty Years’ War would show. The fact is that many of the English were sympathetic to the Scots cause and becoming increasingly disgruntled at the government of Charles, the long proroguing of parliament, and the perceived turning away from the ‘true religion’ towards a more embellished form that resembled the dreaded ‘papism’.

England and Scotland were both governed by Charles I, a nominally Scots king who, since moving to London to join his father as a young child in 1604, had never been back to his native country. However, as is still the case today, the two countries perceived themselves as, and in fact were, quite distinct, with separate churches, laws, administration and institutions. The Covenanters, were in a sense, nationalists, though their attitude to Charles was, unsurprisingly, ambivalent. In a propaganda campaign preceding their march south, they generally made it clear that they had no quarrel with England (though some went further and hoped to ‘rescue’ England from religious error), but were acting to defend their religious liberty.

Charles and his advisers were naturally alarmed at this development, and a proclamation was issued describing the Covenanters as ‘rebels and traitors’. At the same time it was felt that Charles’ physical presence, if not in Scotland at least in the north of England, was needed to stop the traitorous rot. Charles’ attitude was that if he was to enter ‘foreign territory’, it had better be at the head of an army. However, to raise and arm a military force required money, which required taxation – usually sanctioned by parliament. It also required the goodwill of the people, from whom a force would have to be raised, and here’s where politics, bureaucratic administration and religious attitudes could combine to create a dangerous brew, a brew made more poisonous by the king’s unbending temperament.

Charles was married to a Catholic, the not-so popular Henrietta Maria of France. Henrietta Maria’s Catholicism was devout, public and extravagant. The famous architect Inigo Jones designed a chapel for her in a style that outraged the puritans, and she held her own court at which Catholics were welcomed and protected. Charles’ own tastes, too, were hardly in line with the move towards austere Protestantism that was sweeping the country (though there were plenty who resisted it). Charles had in fact been moving in the opposite direction since his accession to the throne in the 1620s, as had his father James I. It wasn’t that they were about to embrace Catholicism, but they were reacting against strict Calvinism, in terms of outward display if not in terms of theology. But in many ways it was the theology of Calvinism – not only the weird doctrine of predestinarianism but the ideas of justification by faith alone, and of a direct, unmediated connection with the deity – that attracted the populace, to varying degrees, though it never caught on as strongly in England as in Scotland. The term ‘popery’, which didn’t always refer in an uncomplicated way to Catholicism, was increasingly used to indicate suspect if not heretical tendencies.

A key figure in all this turmoil was William Laud, the most influential religious authority in England. He was the Bishop of London from 1628, and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. It was Laud who was largely responsible for issuing the new prayer-book in 1637, along with many other reforms in line with Charles’ more formal approach to Protestant religious practice, an approach that later became known as High Church Anglicanism. But so much was at stake with even the mildest reforms, and by the end of the thirties, a wave of puritan hysteria was gripping the country, which created an equal and opposite reaction. Laud was arrested and imprisoned in the tower in 1641, and executed in 1645, by which time the civil war was in full swing, with the tide having turned decisively against Charles.

However, I don’t want to get into the details of the religious factionalism and strife of those days here, I’m simply wanting to emphasise just how religious – and barbaric – those days were. The civil war was horrifically brutal, and as the primary documents reveal, it was accompanied by wagonloads of biblical rhetoric and god-invocations on both sides. The royalists’ principal argument was the king’s divine right to rule, while parliament was always referred to as ‘God’s own’. It was theocracy in turmoil, though many of the points of discontent were decidedly worldly, such as taxation and what we would now call conscription – forced service in the the king’s military. Besides monitoring of church attendance there were the ‘Holy Days of Obligation’ such as Ascension Day and the Rogation Days surrounding it, when the bounds of the parish were marked out on foot – and sometimes by boat if it was a seaside parish – so that jurisdictions were imprinted in the minds of God’s subjects, for in those days the local church had control and responsibility over the care of the poor, elderly and infirm. Certainly in those days the church acted as a kind of social glue, keeping communities together, but it was never as idyllic and harmonious as it sounds. Rogation processions were often proscribed or limited to ‘respectable citizens’ because of the drunken revelry they attracted, and there were always the political dissensions, usually related to some church leader or other being too popish or too puritan. Just like today, it was a world of noisy, opinionated, half-informed people, some of them very clever and frustrated, who demanded to be heard.

Witchcraft, though, was very much a thing in this period. Recently a workmate was expressing understandable disgust at the brutish burning of infidels or traitors or whatever by the Sunni invaders of northern Iraq – and she might also have mentioned the brutish slaughter of women and children as ‘witches’ on our own doorstep in Papua New Guinea. When I mentioned that our culture, too, used to burn witches, the response was predictable – ‘but that was in the Middle Ages’. We like to push these atrocities back in time as far we can get away with. In fact, the largest witch-hunt in English history occurred in East Anglia in 1645, when 36 women were put on trial, 19 were executed and only one was acquitted. Like an earthquake, this mass trial caused a number of aftershocks throughout the country, with some 250 women tried and more than 100 executed. A large proportion of all the witch-killings in England occurred in this one year. These women were hanged rather than burnt, but burning at the stake – the punishment reserved for heresy, an indication of how theocratic the state was – wasn’t abandoned until 1676, under Charles II.

We should be grateful for having emerged from the theocratic thinking of earlier centuries, and we can look around at theocratic states today, or just at those with theocratic mindsets, to see how damaging they can be. To have gods on your side is to be absolutely right, fighting against or punishing the absolutely wrong. In this superhuman world with its superhuman stakes, the mere human is a cypher to be trampled in the dust, or burned, beheaded, sacrificed on the altar of Divine Justice. The past, our past, is another country, but we need to visit it from time to time, and examine it unflinchingly, though it’s sometimes hard not to shudder.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 11:24 pm

a change of focus, and Charlie Darwin’s teenage fantasies

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He's just so moi, though I'm more rough than ruff

He’s just so moi, though I’m more rough than ruff

“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Myself’

Sitting at my computer with the ABC’s ‘Rage’ on in the background, when on came a video by an artist who’s taken the moniker ‘Montaigne’, and how could I not be attracted? Good luck to her. I first stumbled on the original Montaigne decades ago, and like thousands before and since, I was fairly blown away. He’s been an inspiration and a touchstone ever since, and to think I’m now approaching his age at his death. One thing he wrote has always stayed with me, and I’ll misquote in the Montaignian tradition, being more concerned with the idea than the actual words – something like ‘I write not to learn about myself, but to create myself’. This raises the importance of writing, of written language, to an almost ridiculous degree, and I feel it in myself, as I’ve sacrificed much to my writing, such as it is. Certainly relationships, friendships, career – but I was always bad at those. All I have to show for it is a body of work, much of it lost, certainly before the blogosphere came along, the blogosphere that retains everything, for better or worse.

The New Yorker captures the appeal of Montaigne well. He wasn’t an autobiographical writer, in that he didn’t dwell on the details of his own life, but as a skeptic who trusted little beyond his own thoughts, he provided a fascinating insight into a liberal and wide-ranging thinker of an earlier era, and he liberated the minds of those who came later and were inspired by his example, including moi, some 400 years on. So, I’d like to make my writings a bit more Montaignian in future (I’ve been thinking about it for a while).

I’ve been focussing mainly on science heretofore, but there are hundreds of bloggers better qualified to write about science than me. My excuse, now and in the future, is that I’m keen to educate myself, and science will continue to play a major part, as I’m a thorough-going materialist and endlessly interested in our expanding technological achievements and our increasing knowledge. But I want to be a little more random in my focus, to reflect on implications, trends, and my experience of being in this rapidly changing world. We’ll see how it pans out.

what's in that noddle?

what’s in that noddle?

Reading the celebrated biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, I was intrigued by some remarks in a letter to his cousin and friend, William Darwin Fox, referring to the ‘paradise’ of Fanny and Sarah Owen’s bedrooms. This was 1828, and the 19-year-old Darwin, already an avid and accomplished beetle collector and on his way to becoming a self-made naturalist, was contemplating ‘divinity’ studies at Cambridge, having flunked out of medicine in Edinburgh. Fanny was his girlfriend at the time. These bedrooms were

‘a paradise… about which, like any good Mussulman I am always thinking… (only here) the black-eyed Houris… do not merely exist in Mahomets noddle, but are real substantial flesh and blood.’

It’s not so much the sensual avidity shown by the 19-year-old that intrigues me here, but the religious attitude (and the fascinating reference to Islam). For someone about to embark on a godly career – though with the definite intention of using it to further his passion for naturalism – such a cavalier treatment of religion, albeit the wrong one, as ‘inside the noddle’, is quite revealing. But then Darwin’s immediate family, or the males at least, were all quasi-freethinkers, unlike his Wedgewood cousins. Darwin never took the idea of Holy Orders seriously.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 10:53 am

Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom


Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states


The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.



 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am