Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Placing Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has a new book out this week, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.  Naturally he’s been out talking about it, and commentators have been talking about him.

Glancing through this stuff, I am struck as always by how precisely I can “place” a fellow Englishman.  Dawkins is straight out of the upper-middle-middle-class suburban south of England.  (Yes, yes, I know he was born in Nairobi and raised on a farm.  Makes no difference.)  His second-drawer boys’ boarding school education, his enthusiasm for the Oxford tutorial system and sentimental fondness for the Anglican Church (really), his insouciance towards the milder forms of pederasty, his ornery impatience with metaphysical flapdoodle, . . .  I know this guy, in some way that I don’t know anyone that isn’t English (although I think I might get a good part of the way there with an Irishman, Welshman, or Scot), and in a way that nobody not English can know him.

I certainly can’t “place” Americans that well, although now well into my fourth decade of residence in this country.  Yet this is a “cousin” nation, with a lot of cultural overlap.

The usual questions:

  • Is this a peculiarly English thing? Or
  • Is it an old-island-nation thing?  Can Japanese and Icelanders “place” each other like this?  Or
  • Is it universal among old, long-coherent nations?  Can Finns, Spaniards, and Thais do it?
  • If mutual recognition at this level is a common thing in nation-states, what chance does anyone have of really understanding another country? Or
  • Am I just exceptionally blind and deaf to unfamiliar cultural signals?  Did my mental equipment for “placing” people just get stuck around age 20, while other people’s matured?

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Unknown Unknowns

Looking up something about postwar British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, I came across the following gem.

Attlee, in old age, is being interviewed by a biographer, Kenneth Harris.

Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?

Attlee: I don’t know.

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On the fifth day of Christmas . . .

. . . My true love gave to me a book on pop metaphysics.

Yes, I read Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? over the weekend.  It’s light stuff: A journalist ─ though a more-than-usually intelligent one ─ talks to philosophers and physicists with interesting opinions on the title question.

Precisely halfway through, though ─ pp. 150-153 ─ the author deftly inserts a personal story guaranteed to tug the heart-strings of dog lovers.  My wife, who is of that breed, and not the least bit interested in metaphysics, actually cried when I read it to her.  AND the dog story manages to include a curious theorem about prime numbers!

Altogether a pleasant holiday-weekend read.

So far as the title question is concerned, there is not much of a conclusion. How could there be?

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What Is It Like To Be A Theist?

For those who like this kind of thing ─ I confess to a mild and occasional weakness for it myself ─ here is atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel (What Is It Like To Be A BatThe View From Nowhere) reviewing a book by theist Alvin Plantinga, not altogether unsympathetically.  Sample:

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist — an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly — in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view — how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

Best sentence:

My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith.

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Reading Susan Jacoby’s long grumble about the dearth of women in the “secularist movement” (why does it have to be a movement?) my eye was caught by this:

Atheists to this day are constantly accused of being shrill, but in a sexist atmosphere shrill seems shriller when it’s a woman who is speaking.  As a Massachusetts newspaper wrote in the 1850s of Ernestine Rose, an immigrant from Poland who is another overlooked female figure in the history of American atheism, “We know of no object more deserving of contempt, loathing, and abhorrence than a female atheist. We hold the vilest strumpet from the stews to be by comparison respectable.”

Dr. Johnson got there first, in his description of 1730s London:

Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead.

Johnson’s imitations of Juvenal are well worth the trouble.  Here (and here, and here) is another one.

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A Little Bit of Heaven

I did publish some reviews and columns during my absence, but probably the only such item that is much of a “fit” for Secular Right was my contribution to a symposium published in the June issue of The American Spectator.

The symposium was actually a group review of Peter Kreeft’s best-selling book about Heaven.  That is to say, myself and two other invitees ─ one Christian believer, one Jewish believer ─ all submitted reviews of the book, after a brief introduction by Bob Tyrrell, TAS editor.

My contribution is here.  Of the others, I liked Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s the better.  Very Jewish:  “Heaven, schmeaven ─ God wants us to be busy on Earth!”

I’m afraid I was not very kind to Kreeft’s book, which I described as warmed-over C.S. Lewis.  Which it is.

My review inspired a couple of spirited responses from Christians.

First came Roger Clegg, in the Letters columns of the July-August TAS.  His letter and my response are here.  My response is rather flippant: but then, Roger was impertinent and illogical.

Impertinent: He opens a window into my soul and asserts that: “Mr. Derbyshire, poor soul, is trying very hard not to believe.”

How does he know that? This is a standard Christian trope: That the atheist, poor fellow, is a believer really, but, like a naughty child, just won’t admit it.  Sooner or later the Hound of Heaven will get him!

My own religious history, hinted at clearly enough in my review, is precisely the opposite. For many years I tried very hard to believe, but just couldn’t. At last I sank gratefully into unbelief, which I found much more psychologically relaxing ─ better suited to my temperament ─ and not at all the agonized “trying very hard not to believe” posited by Roger. But then, I guess he knows my inner life better than I do.

Illogical: “Mr. Derbyshire demands ‘evidence’ of God and Heaven, but since there is plenty of evidence what he really seems to want is proof.”

No, it’s evidence. I describe myself plainly in my review (ninth paragraph) as “a rather severe empiricist.” If what I really wanted was proof, I would have described myself as “a rather severe rationalist,” wouldn’t I?  But again, perhaps Roger knows me much better than I know myself.

In the June TAS, not yet online, I get another scornful letter from L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center. Brent fixes on my dismissal of C.S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma,” which argues that:

[Jesus of Nazareth] either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

To which I had responded, in my review: “Why couldn’t Jesus just have been mistaken?” Brent replies that anyone who mistakes himself for God Almighty must have been a lunatic. Jesus plainly wasn’t a lunatic.

I agree that the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t seem to have been a lunatic, though it’s not impossible he was the kind of psychotic who’s terrifically good at faking sanity.  Not impossible; and way more possible than that Jesus was related by blood to the Creator of the Universe.

The things one might believe about oneself without being mad are many and various, though, and highly dependent on one’s time and place; and the limits of ordinary non-insane human self-deception are very wide, in my experience. My best guess is that Jesus really believed he was divine, but was mistaken. (This was also Martin Gardner’s opinion.)

I note, very incidentally, from my recent reading, that Abraham Lincoln seems not to have believed in an afterlife.  At any rate, I read this on page 56 of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals:

When his New Salem friend and neighbor Mrs. Samuel Hill asked him whether he believed in a future realm, he answered no.  “I’m afraid there isn’t,” he replied sorrowfully. “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us.” Though later statements make reference to an omnipotent God or supreme power, there is no mention in any published document, the historian Robert Bruce observes ─ except in one ambiguous letter to his dying father ─ of any “faith in life after death.” To the end of his life, he was haunted by the finality of death and the evanescence of earthly accomplishments.

The notion of an afterlife ─ a “metaphysical Disneyland,” Thomas Metzinger calls it ─ seems to me the most extravagantly improbable of all theological concepts.  On this I agree with Lincoln, whose religious convictions are chewed over here (and no doubt in many other places).

Whatever he believed, Lincoln was undoubtedly a great-grand-master of “Ceremonial Deism” ─ but that’s an oratorical style, not a confession.


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Left Smugness and Vocal Fry

[I apologize for the long hiatus in posting.  I have been preoccupied with other issues.]

I’ve been trying to figure out what I found so annoying about this gathering of atheists.

A couple of things I can identify right away.  Cara Santa Maria has the worst case of vocal fry I have ever been assaulted with.  You could serve up her voice with black pudding and field mushrooms.  “Once considered a speech disorder,” says Science magazine.  Once?  She also, without any contextual or stylistic justification, lets loose a taboo word.  That’s not to mention her face iron and tattoos.  Is there a ranch somewhere breeding these types?

And then, the other panelists are all lefties.  They are the very nicest kind of lefties, thoughtful and erudite ─ the kind you’d invite to a dinner party ─ and of course I don’t mind their scoffing at virgin births, golden tablets, and the rest (though why does the Ganesh Milk Miracle never get a mention in these discussions?) but how do they manage to foul the air with so much cool, damp smugness?

Sure, these people are a lot smarter than the average bear.  Do they have to be quite so up-front about it, though?  Rich people used to wear shabby clothes and have beaten-up furniture.  There was much to be said for that.

And of course, the panelists are all Left Creationists.  Their enthusiasm for evolution by natural selection stops dead around 100K years ago so far as Homo sap. is concerned.  Why are they never called on this?

If you are baffled at why atheists are so disliked in the U.S.A., index your bafflement at 100.  Then watch that video clip (it’s 45 minutes).  The bafflement index, you’ll find, has dropped below 20.

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The Islamification of Buffalo

One of the best special-interest bloggers is Ann Corcoran of Refugee Resettlement Watch.  She knows her territory well and comes up with some amazing stories.  The importation of refugees — a high proportion of them fraudulent (90 percent according to Don Barnett) is an appalling racket that cries out for reform; but of course, any politician who said so aloud would be accused of wanting to slam the nation’s door in the faces of the homeless, tempest-tost, etc.

Ann’s post today is about the sensational growth of Islam in western New York state.  Huge loser from that growth?  The Catholic Church.  Major enabler of that growth?  The Catholic Church.  You can’t make this stuff up.

[I note that the region Ann’s writing about belongs to the “burned-over district” of the early 19th century.

The name was inspired by the notion that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no “fuel” (unconverted population) left over to “burn” (convert).

Something in the water up there, perhaps.]

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Loaves and Fishes

[Cross-posted at The Corner]

From the November issue of Episcopal Journal, a monthly “produced by and for members of the Episcopal Church in the United States and  abroad.”

Front page lead headline, on the Occupy Wall Street protests:

Season of Protests
In the search for justice, you’ll find Episcopalians.

Editorial on page 2:

Is Jesus among those occupying Wall Street?

The editorial answer is: “sort of.”

What would Jesus say about the folks currently occupying Wall Street and the financial districts in other cities in our nation? Perhaps he, like  those at Trinity Wall Street, would neither endorse nor condemn this particular movement, but he probably wouldn’t be surprised by it.

Depend on Episcopalians to take a firm, uncompromising stand. The editorial drifts leftwards as it proceeds, though. Near the end:

Certainly there are many wealthy people and corporations — and even churches — that devote a major part of their assets to  aiding the less fortunate. But the Christian message is not just about charity but about justice — creating a world where all are empowered to  live fully, as God intends them to live, without worrying about feeding their families or paying for medical care.

I thought that creating worlds was the job of the Big Guy … but my theology is notoriously weak.

Anyway, that’s what the Episcopalian Jesus wants: for someone else to feed our kids and pay our medical bills.

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At The Corner, our National Review group blog, David French offers a cute thought experiment:  What if present-day Christianity were as addled with terrorist impulses as present-day Islam?

It isn’t, of course, but terrorism is not completely alien to Christianity.  Here’s a specimen from the 4th century: the Circumcellions, a/k/a Agonistici.  I particularly liked this lawyerly work-around:

Because Jesus had told Peter to put down his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:11), the Circumcellions piously avoided bladed weapons and instead opted for the use of blunt clubs . . .


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