Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Childhood Superstition of Secularism

I find myself mildly libelled by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. 'Not half as dishonest,' says Sanderson of John Humphrys' remark that the claim of militant atheists that believers know what they say is not true is dishonest, 'as the way Humphrys (or more likely Appleyard) is portraying it.' This is a professional slur implying I lied in my reporting of Humphry's words. Well, I didn't, I didn't even indicate sympathy. Sanderson also says - not libellously - that I am a 'notoriously superstition-driven journo'. Really? I am interested in superstitions, not least scientism, secularism and what Karl Popper called 'promissory materialism'. Indeed, I respect such superstitions. I am not subject to them myself, though, doubtless, I am afflicted by others. Sanderson says 'the establishment intelligentsia... have never been able to shake of their childhood indoctrination'. One wonders at the idea that belief/ superstition is an establishment attribute. One wonders further at the idea that there is some secular elite uniquely capable of shaking off childhood indoctrination. But then secular humanism was always an elitist faith, defined, primarily, by its dislike of humans.


  1. Come on, Terry, if you think you're hard.

  2. Its impertinent as well as libellous. Your interview of JH was a model of fairmindedness. They don't like it up em these militant God-bashers. Christopher Howse has a good piece on Dawkins/John Cornwell this morning. If I knew how to link it here I would. You are very, very right about the snobbish aspects of the God-bashers. I have rarely seen something so nauseating as prim little Dawkins mocking the afflicted at Lourdes.

  3. Mornin' Bryan.

    Didn't Terry Sanderson win the women's javelin gold medal in the 1984 Olympics? Or am I thinking of someone else?

    The obsession that religion has with sin, guilt, and punishment in hell, and the obsession that Christianity, in particular, has with the notion of original sin, bespeaks of a deep misanthropy.

  4. Ah, Gordon, but Christianity does not pretend to acquire its values from humans it hates.

  5. Bryan, people like you are particularly upsetting to the Sandersons, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc., because their project depends entirely on characterizing the religious as uneducated and superstitious and therefore not long among us once everybody is properly educated. The gentler among them may tolerate an elderly believer in a remote village on that basis, but the gloves are off when they are challenged on their own terms by someone who can keep up and actually might have some influence on younger minds. If there is one word that describes them all, it is "sneer", always the sign of a bully far less certain than he presents.

    Their speciality is mocking, but also insisting believers believe what they pronounce a believer must believe rather than what a believer says he believes. It is quite amusing, really. They all seem to yearn to be militant anti-clericals and Pope at the same time.

    Here is a lengthy, but excellent takedown of probably the most gruesome of the merry band of atheist militants--Daniel Dennett-- that reveals the modus operandi they all rely on and illustrates how they use hyperbole, sarcasm and rhetorical flourish to keep one step ahead of the better minds tracking them.

  6. So Christian morality pretends to acquire its values from a supernatural source, and applies them to humans it hates, whilst secular humanism pretends to acquire its values from humans it hates.

    There's certainly a ubiquity of misanthropy here.

  7. a pox on all their churches! the trouble with all these people is they always preach to the converted - apart from the jehovah's witnesses who can be a pain in the arse.

    am I the only true unbeliever? I just can't get enthusiastic about either viewpoint.

  8. Peter, you've immediately launched another ad hominem attack, and there can't be a more certain sign of a bully than that.

    You begin with the manifestly false claim that the atheism of Dawkins et al depends upon "characterizing the religious as uneducated and superstitious and therefore not long among us once everybody is properly educated." On the contrary, Dawkins and Dennett have gone to some lengths to explain the psychological mechanisms by which religious belief can survive and flourish, even amongst the well-educated. Dawkins, for example, famously characterises religious belief as a mental virus. Just as one organ in an otherwise healthy body can be infected by a physiological virus, so an otherwise rational and educated mind can be infected by the virus of religious belief.

    The human mind is highly versatile and highly modular. A single human mind is capable of being highly knowledgable and rational in one domain of application, whilst also supporting irrational religious beliefs.

  9. Apologies, Gordon, you are right. I shouldn't have libelled Dawkins et al. by asserting they think all religious folks are uneducated and superstitious. I should have pointed out they think some of them are diseased.

  10. It's a lovely day over here in the UK, Peter. The sky is a beautiful azure, it's warm in the Sun, and there's a subtle, melancholy hint of autumn in the air.

    I think I shall enjoy some of God's Good Daylight, and then watch the England football international for some unintended hilarity.

  11. Delightful, Gordon, have a good one. And don't despair, I'm praying for England.

  12. I am in West "by God" Virginia and it is truly lovely here. Perhaps it will be less lovely after I take college daughter shopping; she is currently reading her list off to me:

    TI89 calculator
    shelves, picture frames, etc.
    school supplies
    power strip
    storage bins
    shower rack
    clothes, clothes, clothes
    foods galore for microfridge
    more expensive hair products
    wall art

    ....Uh, I stopped listening awhile ago-- this is gonna be an expensive day

  13. Isn't it a bit superstitious to pay such attention to superstitions? If superstitions and "idiotic belief systems" are just fluff, why bother? Still, I guess a good prank would be to introduce, say, 100 black cats into Prof Dawkins' garden, ring the doorbell and then see what transpired.

    Often, I think, people tend to characterize religion by everything they don't like. What they do like they call something else.

  14. "Dawkins and Dennett have gone to some lengths to explain the psychological mechanisms by which religious belief can survive and flourish, even amongst the well-educated. Dawkins, for example, famously characterises religious belief as a mental virus. Just as one organ in an otherwise healthy body can be infected by a physiological virus, so an otherwise rational and educated mind can be infected by the virus of religious belief."
    I suspect others could propose other, less odd explanations of how such belief might survive. In fact, the particular "explanation" cited explains nothing: It is simply argument by analogy.

  15. It's not argument by analogy, Frank. The point is that a virus has certain formal characteristics, which can be instantiated by a number of different substrates. Viruses can therefore propagate in, for example, physiological systems, where the substrate consists of biological molecules, and in computer systems, where the substrate consists of electronic components and circuitry.

  16. Mark, you raise a very interesting point. The arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. are aimed almost entirely at a strawman, being the person who absorbed religion in childhood and who never either questioned his/her faith intellectually or matured it theologically in adulthood. It is the literal cosmology of a child, accepted unquestioningly, that they love to attack, but they really haven't the foggiest what to do about the intellectually-disciplined religious adult or the convert who grew up in an atmosphere indifferent or even hostile to faith. That is why they characterize it all as superstition. However, presumably they know full well that no one develops a belief in leprachauns or an aversion to the number thirteen at age thirty, but people can and frequently do acquire, develop and/or strengthen faith after childhood, in some cases after studying a great deal of science and natural history. The scattergun charge of superstition, like the drivel about viruses, is playing with the dictionary, but also a defensive lashing out at those circling too close to home.

  17. Peter, you claim that Dawkins et al characterize religion as a 'superstition', but the term doesn't occur in the index to Dawkins's book, 'The God Delusion', or the index to Hitchens's book, 'God is not Great'. The concept is therefore hardly central to their arguments, and you are consequently mis-representing their position.

    Earlier today, you accused Dawkins et al of using "hyperbole, sarcasm and rhetorical flourish," before proceeding to use such techniques yourself.

    You now accuse the atheists of "playing with the dictionary," after you earlier conflated the notion of a disease (a value judgement term) with the notion of a virus (a descriptive term).

    Rather than respond rationally to concepts and arguments, your responses are angry and emotional. Look at the way you merely denounce talk of viruses as "drivel", without any supporting reasoning.

  18. Yes, Peter, in a way aiming at religion is missing the point anyway. What, in the end, is the argument actually about? Nothing real, I would suggest.

    People tend to get terribly po-faced about it but many devout people eventually go beyond religion so that, paradoxically, while they are deeply spiritual, they've come to a point where "religion" is something they wear very lightly if at all. Laughing buddhas and all that.

    Anyway, life can be very tough and none of us is Superman. Sometimes it gets too much and people need a helping hand. Besides, living within a framework is usually (always?) a way to live life better. Self-evident propositions to many, and who the heck is any of us to say we know better?

  19. What you say, Gordon, about viruses is of course true - about viruses. Now kindly show me how it is true of thoughts - other than by analogy. That is, isolate for me a psychological virus, bearing in mind that the original entity we are talking about is defined as a submicroscopic particle. In other words, it is a physical entity. The discovery of such would be of great benefit to psychiatry.

  20. Oh, and Gordon, a computer virus is so-called by analogy.

  21. Frank, you claimed that the explanation of religion as a mental virus, is an argument from analogy, and I pointed out that it wasn't. The argument from analogy has the logical form:

    1) X possesses property p.
    2) Y is similar to X in some respects.
    3) Therefore Y possesses property p.

    The claims for the existence of non-biological viruses have a different logical form. They begin by generalising and abstracting the formal characteristics of biological viruses, to define a formal type, and then, through empirical investigation, attempt to identify particular instances of this type of thing in non-biological substrates, such as computer memory.

    Note carefully: I haven't at any stage endorsed the claim that there are cultural or psychological viruses, and I don't know enough about this field to assess the arguments for and against.

  22. Gordon:

    I'll leave you to Google "Richard Dawkins" with "superstition" and say no more.

    I'm sure we will never agree on religion, but let's have a go at English usage. Of course, scientists and social scientists habitually begin their treatises with formalistic definitions of terms as part of the systematic scientific method, definitions that are made up by the author with a view to communicating with an audience of fellow professionals. These definitions often vary from common usage--otherwise why make them up? The idea is to contain everything in a nice, self-contained paradigm that builds on previous work presumably well-known to that audience. I'll leave the intramural issues that arise from this to you and your fellow scientists, but Dawkins is a populizer speaking to the great unwashed and cannot be allowed to get away with it because he clearly wants to rely on the popular emotive connotations that go with his words to defend his worldview and generate scorn directed at his opponents. Words like virus and parasite are not positive or even neutral, descriptive words in the real world. Nor for that matter is "selfish". As the late philosopher David Stove (an atheist) said in his brilliant takedown of Darwinisn and Dawkins, in the everyday world, to speak of selfish genes is about as sensible as to speak of sex-mad prime numbers. Genes can no more be selfish than rocks, but if Dawkins had entitled his book "The Self-Replicating Gene", he would presumably be a much poorer man today.

    The old Marxist regimes were masters at this linguistic gobbledegook. It wasn't a harmless game.

    BTW, I hope you do understand my objections are not simply an opposition to non-belief, which has a long and respectable intellectual history. The man who says" "There is much in the world I don't understand, but I still cannot personally believe in anything beyond the material" is deserving of attention and respect. But Dawkins & co. are doing much more than simply rejecting faith or the notion of divine. They are basically saying something like: "We are scientists and as such are not only able to tell you what is real and what is not, we are in exclusive possession of the only reliable means of telling the difference. We have the whole story figured out. Anyone who doesn't see it our way is either stupid or evil and not to be listened to. It should be part of the general community project to root out their influence at best, especially with children. Hopefully, we'll avoid having to consider stronger measures in the name of Truth if that doesn't work."

    And in the face of such breath-taking and dangerous hubris, you want me to watch my manners and be ever polite?

    BTW, how did England fare?

  23. Peter, you're in the habit of persistently mis-representing the arguments of your opponents. You impute views to Dawkins et al which they simply don't hold. If the material between your quotation marks were an accurate representation of their position, then it would indeed be "breath-taking and dangerous hubris," but Dawkins et al do not hold any of those propositions.

    You need to analyse what Dawkins et al actually say, take literal quotations, placed within their context, and then, if you wish, construct a careful counter-argument.

    You even refer to me as a scientist! You can't even get your facts right when you're constructing your ad hominem attacks!

  24. Oh, and England did quite well. There was none of the entertaining, self-induced calamities to which they are normally prone.

  25. I believe, Gordon, that the argument as you state it is false, since it leaps from a statement of general similarity to a statement a specific similarity. More correct would be:
    X has property p
    Y has property p
    Y is similar to X in at least one respect.
    But the point that you are missing is that the non-biological viruses are so-called by analogy. They are not viruses. They are like viruses. Computer "viruses" can be shown to exist. Psychological viruses cannot be shown to exist, or at least have not been shown to exist.

  26. You misunderstand, Frank. The argument from analogy is a logically classified form of argument, which is exactly as I have characterised it. I am not claiming that it is a valid form of argument; in fact, as it stands, it is clearly not valid. (To make any argument from analogy valid, one needs to establish that X and Y are relevantly similar).

    Your second point, that computer viruses are only like viruses, and cannot actually be viruses, seems to depend upon the notion that there cannot be abstract types which are satisfied in different physical substrates.

  27. Nothing personal, Gordon, but I can't help imagining someone writng a systematic treatise on the economic consequences of our banking system that begins with a very careful, rational, objective, non-judgmental definition of the term: "bloodsucker".

    And I do apologize for the dastardly insult in calling you a scientist. It comes from frequenting your site and being much impressed, even awed, while undertanding almost nothing. Isn't that the definition?

  28. Hi again, Gordon:
    "These gangs will come to constitute a package, which may be sufficiently stable to deserve a collective name such as Roman Catholicism ... it doesn't much matter whether we analogise the whole package to a single virus." (Italics mine, the quote is from Richard Dawkins.)
    I am not the only one to preceive this. Here is John Cornwell writing recently in The Guardian: 'Dawkins parallels his viral analogies, moreover, with sinister medical analogies. "In the history of the spread of faith," he writes, "you will find little else but epidemiology and causal epidemiology at that." He refers to believers as "faith sufferers", and to himself and like-minded associates as "we doctors".' And no, my second point does not "depend upon the notion that there cannot be abstract types which are satisfied in different physical substrates." It depends upon the understanding that because A has things in common with B, A and B are similar, not identical. The heart may pump and in so far as it does it is like a pump. But it is not actually a pump, anymore than a pump is a heart.

  29. Superb, Frank, you've managed to argue yourself into a corner where you have to claim that the heart is not a type of pump!

    There is an abstract type, the pump, which is realised in biological substrates and mechanical substrates. And there is an abstract type, the virus, which is realised in biological substrates and electronic substrates.

  30. If I wanted to be accurate, Peter, I would say that science is the study of the empirical world, the world which can be detected, measured, and observed, and that scientists are the people who gain an understanding of the empirical world.

    But then, it appears that "hyperbole, sarcasm and rhetorical flourish", rather than accuracy, is more your type of thing.

  31. This seems to me to be a deliberate act of cultural vandalism. Starbucks didn't merely open an outlet in Dorchester; no, they wanted to take something which represented values antithetical to their own, something with beauty and architectural heritage, and demonstrate that they could acquire it, sever it from its historical roots, and replace it with their own brand values. A demonstration of cultural hegemony, if you will.

    McCabism, September 8th, 2007

  32. Did I claim, Peter, that I don't use hyperbole, sarcasm, and rhetorical flourish? I don't think I did. What I did do was to point out your hypocrisy in denouncing Dawkins et al for using those techniques, when those very same techniques are the only techniques you employ yourself.

    Try to combine those techniques, Peter, with other techniques, such as finding out facts, and engaging in careful, logical reasoning. You'll find it's a lot more difficult.

  33. No, Gordon, there is not an abstract type, the pump. There are pumps. Hearts work in somewhat the same way pumps work. Of course, if you want to go all Platonic on me, you could say that hearts and pumps (why do we have two words, I wonder) both participate in the eternal pumpiness in the mind of God. But then, you don't believe in God, do you. Though you certainly believe in what the Schoolmen called universals.

  34. Good lord (I use that word advisedly), boys: If we could harness your vehemence and turn it into electricity, folks in Baghdad would be able to take hot showers and read until late in the night.

    Gordon, why are you so sure Peter Burnet is attacking you? It's bizarre. I'm just a bystander with no dog in this fight, and I can tell you it does not look so to me.

    You've been touched at some sensitive point and you've gotta let it go.

    Now, all of you. Put your minds to captions!