Archive for December, 2007

December 23, 2007

tony blair goes catholic!

In an attempt not to be forgotten by the media, Tony Blair, the erstwhile top guy in Britain, disses the Queen’s church and sides with the German pope (What Would Churchill Do?).

I would be interested to know exactly why Mr. Blair switched. What the Catholic church usually has going for it is its tradition (it goes all the way back to the beginning, a religious topos if there ever was one). In (updated) theological parlance: catholic ecclesiology pwnz teh protestant version.

Mr Blair was received into full communion with the Catholic Church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, during Mass in the chapel at Archbishop’s House, Westminster, on Friday.

Mr Blair, formerly a member of the Church of England, has been receiving doctrinal and spiritual preparation from Mgr Mark O’Toole, the Cardinal’s private secretary.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said: ‘I am very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic Church. For a long time he has been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family and in recent months he has been following a programme of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion. My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together.’

December 23, 2007

Have yourself a pagan little christmas

According to Yahoo News early Christmas aficionados called upon the PR abilities of pagan roman sites (actually THE roman site par excellence, ie where Romulus and Remus got nursed by a wolf (for current wolf nursing news see here)) to spread the word about Dec. 25th.

ROME – The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 may have begun was built near a pagan shrine as part of an effort to spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.
Italian archaeologists last month unveiled an underground grotto that they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed Rome’s legendary founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus.

A few feet from the grotto, or “Lupercale,” the Emperor Constantine built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was first celebrated on Dec. 25.

thx ed.

December 22, 2007

McDonald’s River of Gods (AI)

As noted in my previous post, Ian McDonald’s book River of Gods deals with a number of religious topics. One is that of the intersection, and in fact concurrence of Artificial Intelligence and Divinity. This is nothing new in Science Fiction, but McDonald gives the topos a special and particularly interesting treatment.

In the book humans have developed AIs (he calls them aeais, which gives them further numinous character) that so far surpass humans that they are for all intents and purposes gods. The only difference is that they are so different in nature from human beings (being without bodies and being able to copy themselves at will) that they can hardly understand them.  Of course, humans get scared of their creations, outlaw them and hunt them down. So much for the plot.

What is most interesting from a religious (as opposed to IT) perspective is that the concept of a “god” can be so easily shifted onto what is in the end a computer program. And this says much more, i think, about our idea of a god than it does about AI. A god is (at least for McDonald, but he is obviously using widely held views) whatever is much bigger and stronger than we are, regardless if we created it ourselves or not. (Note that this is not the christian definition of a god as whatever we worship/serve.)

So what does this mean about the future of our concept of a god? I think we can learn from McDonald that a god is not actually what we might think it is. We might sooner than later want to call “god” some things that we might never have imagined – i.e. we might need to go from looking for something that fits our idea of a god (the standard proofs of gods existence do this) to calling a god something that fits our idea of what one is like. In the first case god is nothing new (he was there all along waiting for us to find him); in the second case, he might well be brand-spanking new.

A second thought about these AI gods is that they fit much better into a polytheistic worldview than a theistic one. In effect McDonald sees the future as polytheistic. Granted, his new god are not as transcendent as the old ones used to be, but a polytheistic world always is monist anyhow (the gods are part of the world, not external to it). River of Gods offers us a bunch of more or less mortal, very un-human gods that neither create worlds nor mess around with humans (overly much). But the concept of a god remains very useful though much modified, and in that at least i presume McDonald is right on the (future’s) money.

December 21, 2007

McDonald’s River of Gods (emotions)

Ian McDonald’s science fiction novel River of Gods takes place in India on the Ganges in 2046. There are two interesting features of the novel pertaining to religion and ethics with which i would like to deal. The first is has to do with emotions and controlling them. In the novel a new genre of human beings appears called nutes, people who have undergone extensive plastic surgery to remake them into asexual beings of immense beauty and accordingly short lifespans. (Btw, the idea seems most appropriate for a futuristic India inasmuch as there currently are scores of males castrated at birth running around dressed like women forcing money out of people for all sorts of reasons – though they usually leave westerners alone, especially if they are pretending to sleep in a third class sleeper train.)

What is interesting about these nutes is that the emotions associated with sexuality among others have been rerouted from their now nonexistent sexual organs to a set of controls on their arm. They can thus program in whatever emotions they would like to feel at any given moment.

This reminds me of both stoicism among other greek philosophies as well as hindu and buddhist meditation techniques. Stoicism wanted us to gain control of our emotions, though in order to eventually get rid of them. This meets half of what a nute can do (control yts emotions). Meditation, however, as far as i have understood it so far, actually seeks (among many other things, of course) to do exactly what these nutes have been fixed to do: a buddhist is supposed to learn through meditation to distance him or herself from his or her thoughts and emotions, though not in order to destroy them; rather in order to gain control over them. The point of meditation is to create a self that is no longer lost in its emotions and thoughts, but can view and thus direct them from a higher vantage point.

McDonald does not portray his nutes as superior versions of a human being, but just different types of people. Nor does he ever compare a nutes relation to yts emotions to how a woman or a man relates to emotion. I cannot however but help thinking that these nutes are somehow “more adapted” humans, something that some humans at least have aspired to becoming. I still think though that the meditation route is far superior to the plastic surgery route, if only for pecuniary reasons.

December 18, 2007

the numinously divine mystery … of the laws of physics

The NYT is at it again, wondering about the origins of the laws of physics. They don’t have an answer, or rather offer a whole slew of them, ranging from platonism, firey mathematics (i kid you not), russian doll universes (my favourite), random dynamics, etc.

The basic problem all these solutions are trying (rather unconvincingly) to solve is basically:

that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. “Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties,”

The theological question of who made the universe, the philosophical question of why is there something instead of nothing, is, in physics, that of why are there laws at all. It seems that physics is getting closer to answering the theological and philosophical questions with a good, solid scientific fact. Indeed, if they can explain to us why the laws of gravity etc. hold, how they appeared, etc. then we will be very close to “god”. And they might be able to modify our view of the world enough that we no longer need to thing in god-terms any longer. But, as any good scientific explanation, this will at best open up an entire new slew of problems.

As we are already seeing with Quantum explanations of the world, the ultimate answer the physicists are going to give us to this question might not help much to solve our more banal curiosity: it is unlikely that they, let alone we, understand the answer, however mathematically sound it will prove to be.

December 15, 2007

Four Horsemen on religion, atheism and everything else

On September 30 2007 an unmoderated 2-hour discussion took place between Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The very best quote is from Daniel Dennett: “Sophisticated theology is like stamp collecting. It’s a very specialized thing and very few people do it.” (24:48)

I’d like to go through the first hour’s worth and point out a few problems with these gentlemens’ arguments. I don’t disagree mostly with their conclusions, but i certainly take exception to how they get there. For all the brain power around that table, none of them seem to understand what religion is. They define it epistemologically, from the point of view of knowledge – i.e. from the point of view of science. Religion is bad science, it is believing nonsense, holding true unverified facts. This is, of course, miles away from how religious people understand what they are doing. Until the atheists stop defining religion however they well please, they will simply be talking right past their intended audiences. And that is a shame.

Dennett: “the religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them without being rude. They play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity.” (00:47)

Dennett: “There’s no polite way to say to somebody: Do you realize you’ve just wasted your life? Do you realize that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something that is just a myth?” (5:55)

This last comment shows that Dennett does not at all understand what religion is about. Whether or not all the details of Christianity are historically true is not a matter of great concern to most christians. Religion is not about verifiable statements, but about getting through life. Religious statements are good religious statements if they work, not if scientists can prove them true. Even if it turns out that the God of Abraham does not exists, a christian will not have wasted her life. Because he belief will have given structure to her life, will have provided her with friends, a community, reassurance, hope, love. Arriving at such things is never a waste, no matter how shaky and temporary the road you’ve taken to get to them.

It is true that many but certainly nowhere close to all religious people do themselves believe that they’re scriptures must be scientifically right for their religion to be at all valid and will therefore fight for creationism and literal interpretations of fabulously impossible passages. What a sophisticated atheist must realize though is that these people are mixing up their religion with science because they cannot distinguish between the function of science (to produce mostly useable knowledge)  and the function of religion (to live life well). The proof that these fundamentalists are mixed up (and that religion is not itself at fault) is that they do not understand what science is. They are willing to force their religious beliefs upon science in such a way as to turn science into religion (or at least an existential matter). Thus they prove that what is important to them as religious people is actually the impact of their beliefs upon their lives and not the truth of them.

Fundamentalists have mistakenly believed those who claim that religion is about truth as scientists define that term. And they have accordingly tried to defend religion against science, thinking both were on the same playing field. This assumption that religion is a type of science, which Dennett is here reiterating, completely misrepresents religion and is in part responsible for religion’s bellicoseness.

Hitchens suggests around 12:00 that what we need to do is separate between the numinous and the supernatural. This is actually a very interesting and worthwhile idea. Of course, he wants to say that the numinous is perfectly ok and that the supernatural is just plain false.  This is, of course, a matter of definition. The only caveat is that the numinous is just as religious a phenomenon as the supernatural. Getting rid of the latter will not dispose of religion, though it might fix some of its current problems.

Dennett: “I dont think many of them ever let themselves contemplate the question – which scientists ask themselves all the time – What if i’m wrong?” Hitchens disagrees and suggests that many religious people are in a “permanent crisis of faith” (15:00)

Hitchens is, of course, right. Dennett is again comparing religion to science with dubious results: the “What if i’m wrong?” question means something very different in the mouth of a research chemist as in the mouth of a clergyman. The first simply has to tweak her experimental apparatus or her equations. The latter has to reinvent his entire existence. You have to admit that the former question is substantially easier. A question of equivalent difficulty for a chemist as the above is for the religious would be: “What if i should have become a doctor? Should i drop everything and go back to med school?”

Around 27:00 these great minds show how limited their view of religion is. It basically is confined to believing silly things on faith. They’ve obviously not been to a church service in Tübingen, Germany! No one here believes much of anything in the bible is to be taken on face value. For that matter, theologians have been interpreting the unbelievable and irreligious portions of the Christian scripture since the first centuries of the christian era:

Dawkins: “They [bishops and vicars] do preach about what adam and eve did as though they did exist.”
Dennett: “Can you imagine any one of these preachers saying when such a topic is introduced: Um, this is a sort of theoretical fiction; it’s not true but it’s a very fine metaphor.’ No!”
Dawkins: “They kind of after the fact imply that that is what they expect you to know” Dennett: “But they would never announce it.”
Harris: “… These moderates don’t admit how they’ve come to be moderates. What does moderation consist of? It consists of having lost faith in all of these propositions or half of them because of the hammerblows of science…”

Harris’ last comment is of course what Charles Taylor’s 800 pages of A Secular Age was bent on disproving. Science doesn’t disprove religion, at best it forces religion to reinvent and review itself (which is a very good idea, and something religion desperately needs to do as soon as possible). A moderate is not a half-baked cookie. A moderate is a more flexible, self-reflexive religious person.

The fundamental problem with these four horse’s attempts is that they do not offer a substitute, an ersatz for religion. The very fact that they do not realize that they need to do so if they are to convince anyone. Simply put: these atheists do not realize that atheism is a sub-set of religion, that they do have a religion (perhaps a much more viable and simpler one), a (non-dogmatic and changing) metaphysical view of the world, sets of moral practices, general ways of getting through life. If only they’d tell us how they do it!

From the Friendly Atheist.

Here are the MP3s: Hour 1 and Hour 2.

And here are the links to Google Video: Hour 1 and Hour 2.

December 13, 2007

talking religion in politics

Good old Habermas (and yes, he’s 77 years old) is intent on us purifying our political talk of any religious vocabulary. He wants people to find non-religious arguments for every one of their political ideas. For one, I don’t think that is possible: too many people feel too deeply about religious matters. That means that for many people religious vocabulary is their primary thinking tool and they cannot easily switch to non-religious equivalents. For another, i don’t think that secular-only talk is desirable.

Let me explain. Religion is not something that can be reduced to ethics for all political intents and purposes. Rather, ethics is a type of religion. This means that arguing from religion is no different than arguing from Kant or Darwin, on moral/political matters. Let people make the arguments they want, however weak or dubious you might find them yourself. Because (a) they in turn find your arguments just as weak and (b) the point is not to be right in some absolute/scientific sense but only to convince (this is politics after all!).

The same argument from The Free Thinker commenting on a commenter named Tom:

“If there are pragmatic reasons… use those reasons; don’t give me quotes from the bible.”  But it is a very common practice in political discourse to quote a respected source.  I might quote an expert– an economist, or a scientist– as evidence of the soundness of a policy which we don’t have the time to elaborate the technical case for, or aren’t qualified to make the technical case for, or don’t think our audience could understand the technical case for.  I might quote a widely-admired figure, say, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, to inspire the courage or patriotism of my hearers and/or to show that greater minds that mine have agreed with what I am saying.  Tom implicitly insists that political discourse consist only of “pragmatic reasons,” which is an absurd restriction.  And the call for “pragmatic reasons” begs key questions.  Are “pragmatic reasons” the only appropriate reasons in politics?  Are ethics always inappropriate?  It seems to me that pragmatic reasons pertain to means, but what about ends?  How are those to be determined?  If Tom assumes that only utilitarian ends– more pleasure, less pain– are appropriate, he will have to find a way to disenfranchise most of his fellow-citizens, for most of them are not utilitarians.  What are we to do with the thirty, or forty, or, who knows, maybe sixty or eighty percent of the population for whom the Bible, more than any other book, illuminates man’s purpose in this world?

December 13, 2007

secular europe rocks (and america doesn’t).

from Roger Cohen at the NYT:

 ST. ANDREWS, Scotland. The cathedral here, on which work began in the 12th century, was once the largest in Scotland, until a mob of reformers bent on eradicating lavish manifestations of “Popery” ransacked the place in 1559, leaving gulls to swoop through the surviving facade.

Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. Some do not survive at all. The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor and decided some time ago, as a French king put it, that “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide. (thx ed.)

Now Cohen doesn’t actually say much except that he is worried about how politics are mixing into american politics. But perhaps that is all he needs to say. I, of course, have a few more cents to put in.

What should probably be noted, and which does not come out so clearly in the opinion piece, is that european secularism is not equivalent to the separation of church and state. The later does not mean (correct me if im wrong) that you cannot talk about god in politics, but only that you cannot legislate in favour of or against particular gods or religion in general. But arguing that we should ban X because god Y is against it is perfectly alright as long as god Y doesnt show up in the text of the law.

So, to work with habermasian concepts, separation of church and state allows you to talk in religious terms about politics and legislation, but the legislation itself must conform to Habermas’ injunction that it must be translated into purely non-religious, that is secular terminology (no god talk).

So Cohen is perfectly right to chide Bush for invoking god in his war talk (what was he thinking? for that matter, (what) is he ever thinking?) and Romney for his sidelining unbelievers. That is certainly a very dangerous infiltration of religion into politics. But the American habit of fighting religious wars by political proxy, while perhaps rather barbaric by european standards, does not seem to me to be condemnable by constitutional ones.

Now that doesn’t mean that i don’t find america’s political religion deplorable. But i don’t think we can blame it on an imperfect separation between church and state. What we can blame it on is an imperfect understanding of the role of government. As surprising at it might be, it think americans have here a more extensive view of government than europeans do. The latter believe that government should limit itself to legislating those matters which everyone agrees we should legislate (even if they absolutely disagree on how to do so); americans see it rather as an all-out moral battle, where the majority should be able to impose its morality, whether or not everyone else agrees that we should legislate morality at all.

In some (rather perverted sense?) americans are rousseauists, believing in the dictatorship of the majority. Europeans, on the other hand, have basically introduced an informal separation between morals and state.

December 13, 2007

Finishing Secular Age

Well i just finished reading Ch. Taylor’s A Secular Age and am convinced it would have all fit in 500 pages (ah, the days when i will be prof. emeritus and can write whatever i wish at whatever length and get grad students to read it nevertheless…!). That being said, the book is one well crafted and convincing argument. I believe it is about the same arguement as MacIntyre (in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry) and Hillary Putnam (in “The Truth/Value dichotomy”), namely that science-backed Secularism is on the same moral and epistemological playing field as (thoughtful) religion. The strategies these authors adopt are also similar: show that science/secularism are also founded upon a number or moral elements. The arguements have always convinced me, though Taylor, i think, offers the definitive one.

This leads me to my last point. I think you can view ASA as more of an argument as to why christianity has disapeared as an argument as to why secularism has appeared. Of course, this is the opposite of what Ch. Taylor says he’s doing. But when at the end he comes out as a catholic christian, it becomes clear why he didn’t include any of the other western religions (esp. Judaism): they don’t interest him. I don’t think this in anyway affects the content of his argument (which is mostly confined to part I), but it does make for an interesting new reading browsing through of it.

December 9, 2007

indian gods going to court

From Religion News Blog

An Indian judge has summoned two Hindu gods to help resolve a 20-year-old property dispute.

Sunil Kumar Singh has placed notices in newspapers in the coal mining town of Dhanbad, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, asking gods Ram and Hanuman to appear in his court next week to present their arguments.

“You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a messenger and later through registered post. You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally,” Judge Singh’s notice stated.

The newspaper notices were published, in keeping with accepted Indian legal practice, after two summons dispatched to the plaintiff deities were returned because their addresses were “incomplete”.


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