Laurence Boyce: j’accuse (UPDATE)

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I had intended to respond to Laurence Boyce’s handbagging in response to me calling him a bigot a while ago. Not wanting to get dragged into the comments thread (which appears to still be getting longer and longer…), I meant to post a riposte here last week but I got knocked out by the lurgy for a few days. Not sure how of interest it is to people now and I’ll try to keep it brief, but here goes…

First, it should be pointed out that when I originally called him a bigot, I was half-joking. Indeed, for me, I was being nice. The incident occurred, m’lud, at 11.15 on the evening of Monday 7 January 2008. The fact that I called him an “equal opportunities bigot” might possibly give the reader a clue about me having my tongue in my cheek at the time. The point I was originally making was simply that while Angus Huck didn’t like Islam, Laurence Boyce didn’t like any religion. It was as simple and as prosaic as that and I’m not convinced I particularly left myself open to interpretation. It is rather ironic, to say the least, to now find my target – an outspoken critic of fundamentalist religion – has interpreted me so literally. I certainly didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

But since I’m a repeat offender, I won’t try to wriggle out of it that easily. My objection was to Laurence stating that “Islam is a vile, pernicious, and utterly false ideology (just like every other religion).” If you find the word “bigot” a bit strong I will happily substitute it with “factually wrong and inflammatory” – it amounts to the same thing.

Why would I, as a fellow atheist, think such a thing? Because one of the things I least like about organised religion is that it tends to deal in absolutes, and this description is an absolute. However much Laurence might try to wriggle out of it, anyone who practices a “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” must themselves be vile, pernicious and utterly without merit; how would they be able to withstand the power that Laurence attributes to it? If religion is truly “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” then we surely have a moral imperative not merely to establish a secular state, not merely to try and stop people from being exposed to it and to “convert” people away from it, but to ban or at least severely restrict it. That’s broadly how I feel about Nazism. If Laurence truly believes his description, then surely he feels the same way about Sufism, Bahaism and the Society of Friends?

To assert something as being an “utterly false ideology” is also to imply that there is such a thing as a “true ideology” or at least an unfalse one. Again, isn’t this the sort of language we complain that practioners of religion adopt? Is it not also to suggest that a religion could hypothetically be founded on “truth” and therefore avoid the mistakes of all the others? Isn’t that pretty much what every single religious founder has set about doing since the dawn of time?

And where does this falsehood reside? There are obvious factual assertions made by various religions which science has shown quite comprehensively to be wrong, and there are those who cling onto these facts as if their whole faith is underpinned by them. But for others, this is less crucial. Indeed, both Lambeth Palace and the Vatican have, individuals aside, had very little problem adapting to the theory of evolution. The real challenge to religion was Galileo and Copernicus. Mainstream religion is rather adept at incorporating scientific theory into its world view. Fundamentalism (which I would broadly accept as being pernicious in character) is a modern phenomenon: Christian fundamentalism is a 20th century creed while Wahhabism only dates from the 18th. They have grown in popularity, and are growing, not because of something inherent in religion but because of something inherent in modernity (future shock?). Shouldn’t we be denouncing modernity?

And while we’re on the subject of modernity, can we really excise religion from all progress in science and philosophy? These spheres didn’t just evolve despite religion but frequently under the patronage of it. If religion were “utterly vile and pernicious” why did it so happily allow Greek philosophy and Islamic mathematics to flourish? The Renaissance was a complicated period in which religion showed its ugly side more than once, but it also inspired great art, engineering and architecture (hand in hand with capitalism of course, but that’s another story). You don’t have to be Tristram Hunt to acknowledge the important role that protestantism has played in the development of liberal democracy. Only the most crass analysis (step forward Mr Hitchens) can categorise all these leaps as somehow alien to religion rather than one of its many aspects.

Laurence also objected to my comment that “religions are ultimately what you make of them. Secular ideologies are too,” and my assertion that the fact that Marxism is what you make of it is “self evident”. Here I feel he has got completely the wrong end of the stick:

Let us get one thing straight: Marxism is not simply what you might choose to make of it. While the task of nailing down the principles of Marxism might not be entirely trivial, we can nevertheless be clear in the main about what Marxism does and does not entail. For instance, it is surely uncontroversial to assert that Marxism comprises a belief in the common ownership of property and the means of production (a terrible idea by the way). Now I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody from saying, “I’m a Marxist, though I don’t believe in the common ownership of property and the means of production.” But on the whole, I prefer the simpler, “I’m not a Marxist.” It’s brief and to the point, and has the compelling advantage of not stretching the meaning of words beyond the bounds of reason.

Note that I didn’t say “Marxism is what you want it to be” but “Marxism is what you make of it” – sorry to have to resort to semantics but there is a crucial difference as the former is how Laurence has chosen to interpret it while the latter is explicitly about action, not belief.

I wasn’t claiming that you can define Marxism however you want (although for what its worth I think Laurence defines it rather poorly here: Marxism is at its heart about class struggle and historical materialism more than anything else; Laurence’s definition leaves most Marxist academics out in the cold); I was arguing that what matters is what you do with it. It is possible to believe in common ownership of property and not feel compelled to take up revolutionary struggle in order to achieve it. Indeed, most Marxists don’t. Not every Marxist is a Stalin. Not every Marxist is even a Tony Benn. And not every Wahhabi Muslim is Osama Bin Laden. It seems remarkably obvious to write it but apparently it isn’t “self evident” so clearly I need to spell it out.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re a secularist and a liberal what matters fundamentally is what people do, not what they think. That isn’t to suggest that thoughts don’t lead to action or to endorse a mushy relativism where there nothing can be said to be wrong. I’d even agree that some ideas and creeds are very vile and pernicious indeed. But to claim, as Laurence does, that religion is somehow sui generis from liberal, enlightenment and secularist thought is to dismiss its origins, ignore history and flirt with notions about thought crime. Strip those noble ideals from their context and I would suggest you have something potentially very ugly indeed.

Ultimately, I think there is a better way than religion. The theos model really ceased to have any meaning once we realised Ptolmy was wrong. The fact there is good in religion (and there is plenty of good) doesn’t get away from the fact that it requires several logical backflips (the God of the gaps and its like) to fit in which what we have clearly established using the scientific method. While science can never disprove religion’s claims to be able to explain “why” we came to be, it superceded religion’s ability to explain “how” a long time ago.

That tension has lead to a culture clash with plenty choosing to deny modernity instead of accepting the moral superiority of honest intellectual inquiry. Those individuals are currently locked in an all-too mundane political battle across the world, from the US Presidential race, through to the Anglican Church and of course the Middle East. While I don’t expect him to man the barricades, I wish that people like Nick Clegg didn’t feel they had to apologise for their lack of belief, implicitly ceding the moral ground to organised religion which I do not believe it has any claim to.

But it is plain ignorant to label religion as a whole as evil. In doing so we perversely absolve the responsibility of those individuals who do evil in its name. And I am more comfortable with theists who do those logical backflips and manage to have a liberal world view than those atheists who seem to indulge in categorising the world into black and white in the very same way that they accuse religion of doing.

UPDATE: Laurence has chosen to elongate his already overlong and impossible to follow thread over on Lib Dem Voice.

There’s no way I can even attempt to offer a line by line rebuttal in the way he seems to have infinite time to do. There is something slightly bizarre in arguing with a “secularist” who lobs his own sacred texts by Dawkins and Harris at you rather than engaging in the debate itself.

He says “polls have show that around 36% of young British Muslims think apostasy should be punishable by death. As a matter of interest, how high would that figure have to go before ‘vile’ and ‘pernicious’ becomes about right?” This is of course to completely miss the point since if Islam were so vile and pernicious, 64% of Muslims wouldn’t be able to disregard this core belief. Of that 36% I have no doubt that most of them don’t really believe in apostacy beyond paying lip service to it. Certainly none of them seem to be in any hurry to start lobbing stones about. And of course what about all those Jews and Christians? If religion is so vile and pernicious, how come they don’t all support apostacy too? After all, it is as much a part of those religions as it is in Islam. How come you’re still alive Laurence? How come I am?

Laurence links to an article by Dawkins about religion being a Virus of the Mind. What’s most interesting about this theory of Dawkins is how unscientific it is. He’s on shaky ground to start with when he redefines religion not as analogous to a biological virus, which are increasingly being found to have all sorts of useful applications in medicine (d’oh!) but a computer virus. That is to say, it is like something that has been specifically designed, by a human, to parasitise on a computer system. He talks about computer viruses being unlike computer programs because they are “not useful” – but that depends if you’re the programmer or not; the only non-useful computer virus is one that do what it was intended to do. And of course, unlike either a biological virus or a computer virus, we can’t map the code of a “virus of the mind”.

It’s sad to see Dawkins do this because his idea about memetics really was quite innovative and forces us to think about the promulgation of ideas in a different way. He’s a victim of having his metaphors deliberately misunderstood in the past, the “selfish gene” for instance, so why he went out of his way to come up with such a sloppy metaphor here is anyone’s guess.

Back to Laurence, he makes the claim that “if a religious moderate espouses a belief that we perceive to be of disturbing consequence, we just keep quiet about it.” Er, really? When did I do that? Didn’t this debate start because I decided to criticise the Bishop of Rochester, a man whose views on Islam Laurence appears to find much common cause? I seem to spend much of this blog slagging off religious “moderates”.

He goes on to include a long quote from the Book of Harris, which contains this insightful gem: “There is no telling what our world would now be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.”

Deep stuff, eh? Anyone notice the word “might” there? Because, you know, we “might” also have invented the nuclear bomb and we “might” also have destroyed civilisation before the internet even got a chance. The problem is Harris, and by extension his loyal disciple Laurence, are playing a silly game here where ideas can be shorn of their historical context. How would this “kingdom” (sic – think about it) of Reason have come about? Spacemen arriving with tablets of stone? If you can’t answer that question then resorting to counterfactuals is just pathetic.

I mentioned Aquinas in the comments below so I’ll mention him here: without wishing to over-egg it, this man is both one of the most important figures in theology but also philosophy. No Aquinas, no classical revival, no age of enlightenment. No golden age of Reason, monarchy or not. Yet the man was also a religious fanatic.

Martin Luthor, too, who Laurence chooses to quote, was a fanatic. Yet this doesn’t undermine the importance of protestantism in the Glorious Revolution whatsoever. For all its faults, the idea underpinning protestantism was intensely democratic.

I could go on, but it’s far too late. The point is that the history of thought is inextricably bound up with the development of religion. It is an incredibly rich and evocative background that we forget at our peril. Reducing this all down to “reasonable” white hats and “religious” black hats isn’t just reductionism of the worst kind, it’s downright unscientific. When Dawkins calls religion a virus, or a drug, my response is to demand hard, testable evidence. Talk of “Reason” as if it could have emerged without the hot and bloody crucible of religion, politics and economics is meaningless, frankly laughable, and smacks of mysticism.

It is notable that Laurence has avoided answering my fundamental charge, that he deals in the language of absolutes which is one of the main things that is wrong with the religion he criticises. Perhaps Sam Harris hasn’t written a chapter on it?

9 thoughts on “Laurence Boyce: j’accuse (UPDATE)

  1. A good piece James, and I agree with the broad thrust of it. I will take issue with a couple of particulars….

    I don’t see religion happily allowing Greek philosophy to flourish. It was more or less forgotten up until the enlightenment, and only rediscovered then because it had been preserved in the interim by Muslim scholars. Where are all the writings of Epicurus? Somebody burnt them. Even today there appear to be two Epicuruses, one debauched and amoral, and the other who enjoyed nothing more than a good piece of cheese and discussing philosophy with his friends.

    I agree on the role of protestantism, largely with Tawney’s arguments in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Not that it was the doctrines or ambitions of protestantism that were necessarily better, initially at least, but that it had less control over the state.

    I don’t see why an ideology can’t be utterly false (or true). If a claim is incapable of being true or false, then it is meaningless. I think the problem with Laurence is that he treats a certain kind of religion as “true religion” in order to attack religion in general. Yet of course he does not believe that “true religion” is true. If you insist on arbitrarily crediting one of a range of false doctrines as being the true false doctrine, you might at least save that honour for our liberal allies among the religious.

  2. Regarding the Greeks, perhaps it would be better to say that philosophy’s relationship with religion was complex. I’m not sure it was religious oppression which lead to us nearly losing them, more societal upheaval. As you say, they were preserved by Muslim scholars and later with Christians such as Aquinas (would we have the modern scientific method if it hadn’t been for Aquinas?).

    When it comes to talk about “truth” and “falsehood” I become immediately uncomfortable, although I accept they both have mundane, less absolutist meanings. I’m just not convinced it is a useful test as opposed to, say, “disproven” and “not disproven” (choosing my words carefully there) or pro-liberty and anti-liberty (choosing my words less so). I recognise I’m in danger of sounding very relativist there and I’m trying not to be; I just want more sophisticated tests to judge things by than “truth” which seems to cover a wide range of different factors and which no-one seems to agree on the meaning of anyway.

  3. The construct of an infinite and unknowable other is an intellectual development that resolves the problem of moral relativity and which is described by Levinas.
    Rejection of religion as the officially sanctioned or recognised version of this social conception, however, is quickly followed by its replacement with another cult, be it of a personality, of celebrity, or of a golden calf as the embodiment of unfailing characteristics by which we can use to measure ourselves up against, but with all the attendant flaws involved in each – a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater then kidnapping other’s in replacement, you might say.
    It is a trait found in the process of all revolutions, and the same was found to be true after the liberation of Europe when the unity of the resistance was breaking down and Levinas was developing his thoughts.
    Today, as unity in Europe is being forged and the world becomes increasingly integrated the purist certainties of previous generations are being replaced with more ambivalent idols who vye for our affection (and disposable income) in a similar way as the pantheon of Greek deities came to represent the unity of identity (and therefore purpose) of the people of the independent Greek city states against their warring overlords.
    I don’t see this as a case of religion allowing philosophy to flourish, but of religion allowing diplomacy to flourish, the countertrend of which was political and artistic debate about philosophy.

    There is an old tactic of asking false questions which is used by opponents of liberalism to divide us on issues of style and opinion for their purposes of obtaining the power to decide the actual matters of substance which we really care about.
    It plagues us come election time when the subject of a potential coalition rises, while we can currently see it used against us on the issue of a European referendum.
    It is a tactic of which we should be more aware, so as to be able to counter it more effectively whenever and wherever it is encountered – so ideas like religion must be neatly sidestepped in order that we concentrate on our true goals.

  4. James, I take the point about the “usefulness” of truth. As I see it judgement of an idea is pretty much working out how likely it is to be true, or how useful it is in understanding other stuff. Truth is not so much useful for judgement in that if we knew the truth, we would be past the judgement stage. And even then it would be of no use in discourse with people who are still judging.

    But I think it is important, in trying to answer a question that you are looking for a true answer, rather than an answer that fits some other criterion.

    Could a religion then be founded on truth? Perhaps. Perhaps there is something in the charge that some of us treat science like a religion. Of course any who do are not understanding scientific method.

    The way to advance knowledge is to welcome criticism of your ideas, to discuss, to change your mind when you appear to be mistaken. Authoritarians don’t like this sort of thing. And relativism has given up the discussion altogether. Both say that you shouldn’t argue.

    Much but not all religion is authoritarian in this sense, but so, possibly, is Kuhnian science – as opposed to, say, Popper or Lakatos (the good guys) or Feyerabend (the relativist).

    Paul, like Thomas Aquinas?

    ““In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. So that they may be urged the more to praise God. The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens to the damned.” ”

    Sorry, I’m sure your comment was good natured, but I couldn’t resist.

  5. Laurence, you’ve outdone yourself. Absolving the “noble and heroic” 9/11 terrorists of blame while pinning it all on the religion itself is remarkable, even by your standards.

    What I don’t get is, how is attributing religion such quasi-mystical abilities to control people’s minds any different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden?

    I would also suggest you need to look up what a Christian fundamentalist actually is. I don’t think your case that the Inquisition were a bunch of protestants actually holds much water.

  6. Laurence: I’m not going to keep letting you add your spam links to your fisks here – it’s just rude apart from anything else.

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