Recently I attended the annual conference of Christians in Science, which took place in Oxford. The theme of the conference was miracles. There were several presentations, all of high quality, and discussion times. Since then I have been turning this subject over in my mind.
I would be willing to be called theist in the sense described in this previous post, and I would like to encourage others to try to understand what that means. I hope that this will help other people to find for themselves a better sense of their own role and possibilities. I also affirm the right of atheism to express itself in the world, with full rights of citizenship, and to earn all the respect it can by motivating good lives and work for peace, justice, science and all the arts.
This post is a continuation of a theme I addressed in a piece on fascism on August 23rd. You may ask, why did I include a piece on fascism in a blog about science and religion? It is because I think I can detect totalitarian thinking in some of the material published and positions advocated in this area. I already discussed one issue related to this, namely the attempt to suppress dissent by redefining the very words that other people have adopted:
[Changing the meaning of words]
In this post I will expand on another issue: assessing people not by how they behave but by how you label them.
[image from https://www.instapainting.com/requests/56455ed390f1f8204b8b45c7]
In this post I want to offer a short definition of the word ‘Theism’. I think I am some sort of theist, but I find that most of what is written on the wikipedia page for this word is quite alien to me. It says there that theism is “the belief in the existence of …” where for the dots you can put some sort of entity called a ‘deity’. But that is not how it works in my experience, and that is not how a lot of careful thinkers and writers have expressed it. The thoughtful theist does not consider that there is another ‘thing’ to be added to the set of all things, after one has exhausted what there is in the physical universe. It might seem like that, but I find it to be more subtle and hard to describe. The one Whom we learn to encounter is not ‘another thing’ but that which makes all things possible. As I say, it is rather subtle and quite open-ended.
[image: text from 1984 by George Orwell]
The most effective way to gag an opponent is to refuse to listen to him/her, and then, within your own community, to redefine the words he/she uses. George Orwell illustrated this with great perception and power in his book, 1984, shown above.
No one is currently trying to say things like “freedom is slavery”, but a contemporary example of an attempt to change the meaning of an important word is the attempt to redefine the word “faith” to mean “belief without reasonable evidential basis”. In other words to define it as delusion or wishful thinking. I mention this here because I have now seen that nasty redefinition taken for granted not just in populist rhetoric but even in some academic philosophy. This is a clear example of a word with a perfectly good etymological basis in trust and loyalty, and which certainly does not and never did mean assent without a reasonable case based in evidence, now being forced into a very different meaning. I say very different, because it makes the difference between sense and nonsense.
In its early days, the movement called National Socialism in Germany did not look like a horror story about to happen. It looked ok to most people. You had to be discerning to smell a rat. Here are some of the features that fascism was showing before it swelled into outright violence and totalitarianism.
We all know that asking questions is important. Asking the right questions is at the heart of most intellectual activity. Questions must be encouraged. We all know this. But are there any questions which may not be asked? Questions which should not be asked? Although many a young undergraduate might initially say “no: never! All questions must be encouraged!” I think most thoughtful people will realise there is a little more to it than that.
Last term I was privileged to be invited to give a sermon in Exeter College chapel here in Oxford. Here I am posting an extract from that sermon, with minor modifications to fit it to the blog format.
I began by talking about the fact that we all find it hard to know how to talk about God. Two ways which don’t work are as follows. First there is a rather obviously muddled way, in which people talk about something that has the appearance of being like other entities, only bigger and more powerful, located somewhere called ‘heaven’. Secondly there is an attempt to be more careful, but which often fails to carry real weight. This is when people speak in a more philosophical way, bringing in terms such as ‘omniscience’ and ‘omnipotence’, but all held at arm’s length, so that it all seems a bit artificial, like a word-game.
(the extract begins here)
The attitude I am promoting in this blog is to admit that what passes for “religion” in the world is a mixed bag, some of it bad, terrible; some of it good, wonderful. It runs to both extremes (and so does atheism). I have also offered other words as a help to get at what “religion” is meant to be about. I have offered the word “reconnection”, for example, which I got from Brian McLaren’s helpful book, “Naked Spirituality”. My own favourite word for it is “recognition”. You can see a longer definition on the Home page of this blog.
In this post I want to comment on the practice of demonizing religion. To “demonize” is to portray as wicked or threatening, and the term is especially appropriate when this is done thoughtlessly or automatically, as if it is an agreed thing.
This is the second part of a presentation of a philosophy paper by Peter van Inwagen. You can find the first part here.
In the first part, I presented van Inwagen’s specific reaction to a certain specific argument. This argument presents the claim that the pain of the world gives a prima facie case for the hypothesis that the ultimate source of the world is indifferent to it. Van Inwagen replies simply by showing that the case fails because the premises do not entail the conclusion. However, this discussion is unsatisfactory as it stands because it is too dry. It doesn’t really grapple with the problem of pain. It grapples only with the structure of a certain logical (or illogical) argument.
I have been reading a paper by Peter van Inwagen, called “The problem of evil, the problem of air, and the problem of silence”. It is published in Philosophical Perspectives 5: 135-165 (1991) and you can find a copy at the following site, which gives a useful collection of van Inwagen’s papers:
Peter van Inwagen wrote the paper in response to Paul Draper, Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists, Nous 23, 331-50 (1989). It considers the argument that the nature of the world, with all its pain and suffering, indicates that the source of the world is indifferent to it, or, at least, that this is more likely than that such a source cares about the world.