Not thrones and crowns

A meme from Paulie:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

The dogmatic certainty that God does not exist, and that His non-existence really matters. Like Paulie, I prefer ‘agnostic’ as a label.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Church of England; I described it here. We were quite big on the story about feeding the hungry and freeing the prisoners, and the one about the woman taken in adultery, and the bit with the money-changers in the Temple. We weren’t particularly bothered about what happens when you die – or even, really, about what happened when Jesus died.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

Dishonest. (What’s the point of this question? It’d be far more interesting to write a paragraph, or even a sentence.)

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Anything to do with history, up to and including palaeontology. But science has a lot to offer our understanding of even quite recent periods. Get a load of this, from a recent LRB:

In 1998, Michael Bennett revealed that a badly burned charter in the Cottonian Collection, just readable under ultraviolet light, was a copy of a previously unknown declaration by Edward III of October 1376, strictly limiting the royal succession to his male heirs and their male descent. This declaration was never made public, and it was quite unclear that a king had any right to regulate the succession in this way. If valid, it made John of Gaunt, and Henry after him, heirs to the throne should Richard, the son of Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince, die childless, and excluded the March line, whose royal blood came through Edward’s granddaughter. The declaration was probably made at Gaunt’s prompting and must have been known to Henry at an early point, and to Richard too.

New discoveries from fourteenth-century manuscripts – that’s exciting.

(The space programme was fantastic, too.)

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

What: its arrogant condescension towards the rest of the world. Why: because it’s not a good way to relate to people. Marxists feel quite certain that they (or rather we) have got the key to human history, but we also believe that everyone else needs to get it for themselves. Freudians feel similarly confident that they (or we) have got the psyche down pat – but, again, we don’t go around pouring scorn on the unanalysed masses. Neither group would dream of claiming that our particular brand of enlightenment had dibs on the word ‘bright’. I’d like to see some humility from atheists – some acknowledgment that it’s possible to learn from people whose mental universes strike you as daft.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be both disappointed and pleased, which would probably necessitate quite a long conversation. My children are both personally tolerant, politically liberal and intellectually curious; I’ve known clergy who were all three, so let’s assume that, in this scenario, these character traits haven’t changed. But I’d still be disappointed, since I don’t think belief in a personal saviour who forgives sins and guarantees admission to Heaven is particularly healthy. Admittedly, when I was growing up (as I said above) we got along fine in the Church of England without bothering much about that end of things, but I think it’d be hard to pull this off while actually wearing a dogcollar. I’d be pleased, at the same time, because I think that – even taking into account their role in fostering supernaturalist illusions – most clergy do more good than harm. (I’d certainly rather that than they went into advertising.)

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

If I went in for this sort of thing, it’d be the First Cause. I tried to refute it in a rather simple-minded church youth group once, many years ago, using an insanely complex theory which I’d got from Isaac Asimov – there was a singularity before the Big Bang, and then there was also a singularity of anti-matter, and there was a Big Bang in the anti-matter universe too – only it was more complicated than that because there was another singularity… no, right, there was another pair of singularities, that’s right, only when these two singularities had their Big Bangs they were actually going backwards in time… and the thing is, right, before the Big Bang all these singularities cancelled each other out, right, which meant that actually nothingness could turn into four separate singularities at any moment, so like it could be happening all the time…

A much better answer, I think, is we don’t know. We don’t know, but we – collectively, as a species – are trying to find out. Isn’t that exciting? (History again, you see.)

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

As far as capital-A atheists go, see above, QQ1 and 5, and below, Q9. (We Guardian-reading live-and-let-live agnostics don’t really have the kind of orthodoxy this question implies.)

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

None of the above. Both Dawkins and Dennett would be good on their own territory, if only they’d stick to it. I went off Dawkins when I first read about memes, which is some time ago now. Dennett these days is quite openly an evangelist, and I don’t trust evangelists. Hitchens has very little to offer in this area; I haven’t seen much by Sam Harris, but what I have seen suggests that he’s a twit. The only self-proclaimed atheist writer I’ve got any time for is Philip Pullman; he takes religion seriously as part of real, intellligent people’s lives.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Ian Paisley, just to see what would happen. But I don’t believe in persuading people to abandon their beliefs – for atheism as for Marx or Freud, people need to see that it works when you use it and then realise that it would work for them. Or not – it’s up to them.

And I tag… you, dear (presumptively atheist) reader. Or not – it’s up to you.



  1. Posted 25 June 2008 at 08:58 | Permalink | Reply

    The dogmatic certainty that God does not exist

    Why “dogmatic certainty”? Why not “there does not seem to be any evidence to support the existence of God and therefore his non-existence has to be our scientific position subject to revision in the event of such evidence coming to light”?

  2. Posted 25 June 2008 at 10:35 | Permalink | Reply

    Short answer: because that (the former) is what ‘atheism’ suggests to me.

    Longer answer: I’m not convinced by ‘subject to revision’. Personally I’m not in the least open to evidence that God caused Hurricane Katrina or planted fossils in the rocks; if evidence to support either of these propositions came to light I would have absolute faith that it was faked. I start from the position that the existence or non-existence of God – as a proposition about the non-human universe – is sublimely irrelevant to any scientific question I can think of: if the way a religious person thinks about God comes into conflict with scientifically-produced evidence, I would expect God to budge up.

    Really I’m with Terry Eagleton: there’s a difference between “God created the world in seven days” and “God sustains the universe in existence through His selfless love for His creation”. One is scientific, testable and demonstrably false; the other isn’t. If people want to believe the latter, while somehow reconciling it with all the other things they believe about the universe, I don’t see what harm it does. I certainly don’t think that religion has a greater mobilising power than any other form of ideology, or that it’s more likely to mobilise for bad ends.

  3. Posted 25 June 2008 at 11:26 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t see what harm it does.

    Nor do I, but the thing about “atheism” is that, in and of itself, it’s a statement of the scientific evidence. The desirability of believing (or not believing) things that stand outside that evidence is another matter.

  4. Posted 25 June 2008 at 12:07 | Permalink | Reply

    Lots of people, myself included, believe there’s no scientific evidence for the existence of God. Only some of those people also believe that God doesn’t exist. If we’re going to call the larger group atheists, we’ll need a new name for the smaller group.

  5. Posted 25 June 2008 at 16:42 | Permalink | Reply

    That’s a possible point, but it’s also possible that believing that there’s no scientific evidence for the existence of God perhaps needs a stronger term than “agnosticism”.

  6. Posted 25 June 2008 at 22:01 | Permalink | Reply

    Not really – I wouldn’t even say that believing there’s no scientific evidence for the existence of God commits you to agnosticism, let alone atheism. It’s quite possible to hold this belief and still believe that God does, in fact, exist.

  7. Posted 26 June 2008 at 12:21 | Permalink | Reply

    Surely if you look for a stronger term than ‘agnosticism’ you are allowing yourself to be defined by a position that you don’t really think is relevant in the first place? It’s a bit like the old ‘Irish / Scotish = NOT BRITISH!!’ problem. It kind of stymies positive development.

  8. Cian
    Posted 26 June 2008 at 23:05 | Permalink | Reply

    Just because there’s no scientific evidence for a deity, doesn’t mean that such won’t be found in the future. Extremely unlikely that it would be the judeo-christian god (particularly given the fact that both the Old and New Testament have the same relationship to historical truth as the Greek/Norse myths), but the existence of a creator is not disproven.

    Freudians feel similarly confident that they (or we) have got the psyche down pat

    Well I get your larger point, but Freudians are wrong. I guess the difference is that while Christian theologies exist which successfully sideline those aspects of the bible that can be disproved (which I tend to think is most of it – I agree with the minimalists), you can’t really do that with a system like Freudianism where modern psychology discredits most of its assumptions/beliefs. On the other hand both systems can be interesting to study despite this, and can shed unexpected light on unrelated areas. Theology led to both much of our philosophical tradition, and led directly to hermeneutics. While much of the western political culture has its roots in theological arguments of the reformation.

  9. Posted 28 June 2008 at 11:31 | Permalink | Reply

    Just because there’s no scientific evidence for a deity, doesn’t mean that such won’t be found in the future.

    Hence “subject to revision in the event of such evidence coming to light”, surely?

  10. Posted 28 June 2008 at 12:15 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t think Cian’s disagreeing with you, ejh. I disagree with both of you, though – I can’t imagine what would constitute evidence for a deity.

  11. Posted 28 June 2008 at 12:57 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, it’s like aliens, isn’t it? God and aliens only appear to people late at night and when they’re on their own. If either of them showed up in Knightsbridge on a Saturday morning and took the missus shopping in Harrods…

  12. Posted 9 July 2008 at 00:55 | Permalink | Reply

    you can’t really do that with a system like Freudianism where modern psychology discredits most of its assumptions/beliefs
    There are certainly elements of Freudian theory that can no longer be sustained, but “most of its assumptions/beliefs”? That’s simply not the case at all. In fact, there’s a significant re-evaluation of Freud underway at the moment and a realisation that his model of mental processes is an uncannily useful one. As Gregory Bateson (who I’ll never tire of quoting) points out:

    We may joke about the way misplaced concreteness abounds in every word of psychoanalytic writing – but in spite of all the muddled thinking that Freud started, psychoanalysis remains as the outstanding contribution, almost the only contribution to our understanding of the family – a monument to the importance and value of loose thinking.

    Even beyond that, I would argue that Freud’s ideas about psychological development, neurosis and psychosis generally provide us with a greater understanding of these things than any alternative.

    I don’t say all this as a Freudian. I’m far from that. In fact when I first began studying psychoanalysis I had a powerful anti-Freud bias (formed when I studied him as part of a philosophy degree). However, as time has progressed I’ve developed a deep respect for the man’s work and find this notion that he’s somehow been “discredited” rather mystifying.

  13. Cian
    Posted 11 July 2008 at 00:29 | Permalink | Reply

    Well my background (post-grad, and rather eccentric) is cognitive psychology, rather than psycho-analysis. I think psychology is a science, can be conducted successfully as one and I don’t think psycho-analysis/Freudianism has anything to do with science. I’m not particularly opposed to the man (though I think William James was far more important scientifically, and deserves to be better known for such), I just don’t think he (or psychotherapy) have much relevance today.

    What I’ve read intermittently of Freud simply doesn’t fit the emerging experimental data, and (very) loose consensus about how the brain does and doesn’t work. The developmental stuff (that Klein built upon) is completely wrong. Nobody seems to take his theories on psychosis very seriously anymore (and I would think that the physiological data provides a considerable challenge to his theories, while the social/cultural theories seem rather more useful and empirically grounded), and given only the psycho-analytic community believe in neurosis, I’m not sure what use his theories there are. Anyway his theories depend upon the concept (which can’t be observed), making it all rather circular. CBT actually can demonstrate measurable success, which gives their theories rather more credence in this area imho.

    Incidentally, this comment by Bateson is really pushing it:
    “psychoanalysis remains as the outstanding contribution, almost the only contribution to our understanding of the family”

    Really? He came up with a theory of the family. There are many others. Some of them may even be true.

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