Monday, June 30, 2008

Comment on Copson piece

Andrew Copson has responded to Christina Odone's report on faith schools. Copson begins:

According to a pamphlet published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, penned by Cristina Odone, they [faith schools] are under threat as never before from "a government … aligning itself with a stridently secularist lobby".

Here's my comment [further developed 3/7/08] on Copson's excellent piece, which I just posted at comment is free.

The UK has seen a huge increase in the number of religious schools over the last decade. Having looked into how they are monitored, I was shocked to discover just how little monitoring there is. There are no national statutory requirements, not even for state funded schools; there are some non-statutory guidelines for state funded schools but they are toothless waffle (focused mainly on providing kids with knowledge of some other faiths). State funded schools are guided by the local Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE) made up mainly of local teachers, religious folk and some council people. These SACREs set up an RE curriculum for schools in their area. This local curriculum typically reflects the waffly, non-statutory guidelines.

See here for those guidelines.

So state-funded schools have a "curriculum" set by the local SACRE, based on these guidelines. Generally, the SACRE requires schools teach kids about some other faiths (as the guidelines recommend). But there's invariably no requirement that e.g. children be encouraged to think critically about religion, etc. etc.

Independent schools are not even answerable to a local SACRE. Indeed, they cannot be faulted at all, whatever they do. Not even if they refuse to teach children about other faiths, as the guidelines recommend.

As a result of all this, even a state-funded school run as a religious brainwashing factory (perhaps chucking in, "Oh, and by the way, this is what Muslims and Jews mistakenly believe.") can often point to its glowing OFSTED report and say "But look at our wonderful inspection report!"

When I expressed concern on the R4 Today prog about the lack of standards and monitoring of what goes on in religious schools, a member of one of the Standing Advisory Comms. on Religious Education contacted me to say thank goodness I was bringing this issue up - and he was himself religious. On his, view, a significant proportion of religious schools are, so far as religion is concerned, functioning as little more than factories of indoctrination. He was particularly concerned about some Jewish, some Catholic, and many Islamic schools.

I speak regularly at schools, and have noticed that over the past decade or so there has been a shift towards more extreme religious views being expressed by pupils. And even by some staff. Most schools now seem to have at least a handful of children who believe that the entire universe is six thousand years old. Many schools have teachers who believe that too (I recently discovered that the supply science teacher at a very famous public school is such a creationist).

I don't deny there are some excellent religious schools. The problem is, we know far too little about what's going on in most of them. Many seem not to be fostering the kind of clear-headed independence of thought and robust critical defences that kids are going to need when they step outside the school gates and encounter people with wicked and dangerous belief systems. All children, whether in a religious school or not, need those kind of defences, and unfortunately many religious schools go about deliberately suppressing them. That, I think, is perhaps the most serious danger such schools present, no matter how well-intention such schools are, and no matter how noble the values they're promoting.

I think there should be robust minimum standards all schools should meet when it comes to RE, whether they be religious schools or not, state funded or not. The IPPR a few years ago recommended that all children should be encouraged to think critically about the religious views they bring with them into the classroom. The Telegraph and Melanie Phillips went ballistic. But the IPPR, it seems to me, is right.

If you think traditional religious education is still acceptable, try taking my faith school challenge.

[POSTSCRIPT: A couple of anecdotes.

A state funded school just down the road had until recently, a Muslim school within its grounds. The Muslim school was for girls only, and was based in the cricket pavilion. The Muslim school was organized so that the pupils never mixed with non-Muslims. Indeed, they had different start and finish times to ensure this. To what extent would these girls grow up feeling integrated into British society, I wonder?

A recent poll revealed that 36% of young British Muslims think that any Muslim who leaves the faith should be killed. Clearly, their schools, religious or not, did not do a very good job of explaining the importance of the value of freedom of thought and expression, and that it is the right of every individual to accept, or reject, the religion in which they are raised. This is the sort of value all schools should be promoting in religious ed., surely. Indeed, shouldn't promotion of this value be mandatory?]

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Problem of evil

OK enough silliness. let's get back to the problem of evil. We did not yet properly tie up the discussion of the Rev Sam's various strategems for dealing with the problem. I'll do that next...

The causes of atheism

Conservapedia explains the causes of atheism... in my case it was moral depravity rather than an absent or abusive father.

Philosophy in Schools seminar

I am involved in the launch of Philosophy in Schools, a book about - philosophy in schools. If you wish to attend next Wednesday (free wine), see this link, or below.

Flyer for book here.

Philosophy in Schools Seminar

What is Philosophy in Schools?

Philosophy in Schools is a collection of original philosophical essays that together make a robust case for teaching philosophy in schools. Leading philosophers of education explode the myth that philosophy is somehow too difficult or abstract for children to set out a series of compelling articles for its inclusion in the school curriculum.

Philosophy in Schools Seminar
When: Wednesday 2 July 4PM - to 6PM
Where: Clarke Hall, Institute of Education, University of London

Professor Robert Fisher (Brunel University)
Dr Michael Hand (Institute of Education)
Dr Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London)
Dr Judith Suissa (Institute of Education, University of London)
Dr Carrie Winstanley (Roehampton University)

The seminar will be followed by a wine reception sponsored by Continuum. Copies of the book will be available at a 35% discount.

How to book:
RSVP to or

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jessel the Trifelge Putinard

While we are gently, or not so gently, pulling the legs of the religious, here's Adam Buxton's (of the Adam and Joe show) rather amusing video of a recent inauguration (in case you missed it).

This video perhaps inspired the following addition to the bishops making their way into the cathedral for the recent Icelandic synod (thanks to BHA for link) [image right].

Clearly Buxton is not going to heaven.

The invisible pink unicorn

I am ashamed to say I have only recently discovered the invisible pink unicorn - rival to the flying spaghetti monster. And possibly a more sophisticated deity, as, like the Judeo-Christian God, it involves profound mysteries - such as the mystery of how it can be both pink and invisible. In the words of an early follower:

"Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them."

The invisible pink unicorn "raptures" socks - which explains why they go missing.

For more see:

wiki entry

The Revelation of St. Bryce the Longwinded.

Virtual temple of the Invisible Pink Unicorn

Evangelical Outpost on the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Here is a post from Evangelical Outpost:

You have to pity the modern atheist who attempts to present arguments for her cause. Unmoored from any respectable intellectual tradition, each generation is forced to recreate anti-theistic arguments from scratch. The result is that the claims which they believe to be clever and damning often turn out to be, to use a technical philosophical phrase, just plain silly. Take for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. According to Wikipedia, The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the deity of a parody religion founded in 2005 by Oregon State University physics graduate Bobby Henderson to protest the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to require the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to biological evolution. In an open letter sent to the education board, Henderson professes belief in a supernatural Creator called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which resembles spaghetti and meatballs. He furthermore calls for the "Pastafarian" theory of creation to be taught in science classrooms, essentially invoking a reductio ad absurdum argument against the teaching of intelligent design. (The FSM has been popularized by the otherwise charming and intelligent folks at BoingBoing.) What Henderson actually showed was (a) a profound ignorance of the design argument, (b) a profound ignorance of what the Kansas board was actually proposing, and (c) that OSU should require physics graduates to take courses in philosophy. But what Henderson was trying to get at, though he doesn't seem clever enough to grasp his own point, is similar to what Bertrand Russell was arguing with his "celestial teapot" analogy.... [continues here or if that doesn't work, here:]

The critic seems confused. Russell's teapot analogy is, I think, designed to show that the fact that something is possible (not disproved beyond all doubt) does not make it reasonable (or even, not unreasonable: the teapot hypothesis remains very unreasonable indeed!). It's also designed to illustrate this point (in Russell's own words):

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

The FSM analogy, on the other hand, is focussed specifically on design arguments, and is, as Wikipedia here explains, designed to bring out that, even if design arguments are good, it's a huge further leap to the conclusion that the designer is the Judeo-Christian God, rather than, say, a flying spaghetti monster.

The religion was founded in 2005 by Bobby Henderson to protest the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to require the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to biological evolution. Because intelligent design implies the existence of an intelligent, but not necessarily omnipotent or omniscient designer, some, like Henderson, argued that this designer could, in fact, be anything imaginable.

The design arguments, by themselves, even if good (which they are not - certainly not the ID ones), no more support the Judeo-Christian God (JCG) hypothesis than they do the FSM hypothesis, so if the design arguments, by themselves, justify getting the JCG hypothesis taught in school science classes, then they justify getting the FSM hypothesis taught in school science classes too.

That point, it seems to me, is sound*, and the author of the EO piece seems to miss it. Or do they? I can't tell.

Henderson threatened to sue if ID was included on the Kansas curriculum but the FSG hypothesis was not.

*except that Kansas didn't actually require the the JCG hypothesis be included on the science curriculum, merely that ID etc. be discussed (via "teaching the controversy"). But ID is officially neutral between the JCG hypothesis and the FSM hypothesis. There are clearly layers of detail involved here that I should probably know more about.... What Henderson could say is - if the JCG hypothesis can be discussed in science class (and you can bet it is), then surely so can the FSM hypothesis - something many Christians would baulk at (but then some Christians might bite the bullet and say "OK the FSM can be discussed - but it's presentation cannot be obligatory: but then we are not making presentation of the JCG hypothesis obligatory either; we just want to allow it to be discussed in science class.")

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sally Morgan - more bullshit

Incidentally, following on from previous post, I just checked out psychic Sally Morgan's amazing video of her identifying, while blindfolded, the famous owner of a jacket at the Hard Rock Cafe London "vault" (where they keep several prized rock and roll relics: jackets, guitars, etc.). Sally fondles the jacket and gradually figures out - he's was an artist, he's dead. "I am seeing Paul McCartney." "I can see the Dakota building in New York - it's John Lennon!"

Even Sally is amazed at her astonishing ability. "Isn't that unbelievable? I can't believe I've done that!"

Well, maybe she went to visit the Cafe vault the previous week - entry free - and saw Lennon's jacket there, a prized possession, hanging in a case. Then when she runs her hands all over it in this clip, she quickly figures out which of the exhibits it is.

This is just embarrassing crap. Go here to see the jacket.

I have already commented on Sally Morgan's other amazing video clip on her website - involving Kim Marsh.

I'm not sure this sort of thing shouldn't be illegal.

Go on Sally - if you are that good, take Randi's challenge!

P.S. As you can see, Sally Morgan seriously pisses me off.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Challenging the psychics

Sally Morgan, the gifted psychic who appears in her own TV show (her website here offers live readings by one of her "hand picked psychics" for £1.50 per minute - note the disclaimer "entertainment purposes only") could easily pick up over two million dollars in prize money. On TV, Sally can provide quite astonishing bits of information. I was particularly impressed with the way she could pair six or seven dogs with their owners, without any prior knowledge of either.

Yet, despite the fact that Sally, and countless other spectacularly gifted psychics, demonstrate these abilities, very very few submit themselves to scientific scrutiny. None whatsoever have ever passed James Randi's (magician and psychic debunker) $1,000,000 challenge.

The challenge is simple: demonstrate your occult power under proper scientific scrutiny, and win. The form of the test is to be determined by an independent scientific body, to be approved by both the Randi organization and also the subject.

I have to say I much admire Randi's guts in putting his money where his mouth is.

It was particularly good to see the famous U.S. psychic Sylvia Browne fall foul of Randi's challenge:

The foundation wants to provide the public with the TRUTH about "psychics" such as Sylvia Browne so that she doesn't take advantage of grieving families. This is why James Randi publicly challenged Sylvia Browne for the Million Dollar Psychic Challenge in 2001. With a proper double blind test Randi wanted to prove that her so called powers were no more then a guessing game. In March of 2001 she accepted the challenge on Larry King Live, and on September 3, 2001 she accepted the protocol for the test. To date Sylvia has not contacted Randi to make arrangements to take the test and claim her million dollars. Her best excuse, "I don't know how to get hold of Randi". Hmm, how about a phone book, or a google search for R-A-N-D-I. (source here)

Fact is, Randi, as a former magician, and sceptic, knows that no one is ever going to win that million bucks. Currently, there's more than another million dollars on offer from various other sceptical sources. Rather than charging punters a piffling £1.50 a minute for phoning her "hand picked psychics" (are they based at a psychic call centre, I wonder?), Sally could simply take the challenge and (if she's as good as her TV show makes her seem) clean up! So why doesn't she?

The magician Harry Houdini also offered a challenge, to communicate with him posthumously, and receive a secret message which, when presented to the Houdini estate, would win you a prize. Despite there being hundreds - perhaps thousands - of psychics communicating for cash with people's dead relatives on a daily basis, none ever won the prize.

But perhaps the gutsiest challenge comes from Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist who spent years debunking his country's superstitions. Frustrated at the continuing gullibility of so many Indians, he simply challenged India's foremost black magician Pandit Surinder Sharma to kill him on TV. Millions watched as Sharma unleashed his psychic forces on Edamauku (see image above) with absolutely no effect whatsoever....

Part 1:
Part 2:

Rationalist International reports:

Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.

During the next three hours, India TV ran announcements for The Great Tantra Challenge that called several hundred million people to their TV sets.

The encounter took place under the open night sky. The tantrik and his two assistants were kindling a fire and staring into the flames. Sanal was in good humour. Once the ultimate magic was invoked, there wouldn’t be any way back, the tantrik warned. Within two minutes, Sanal would get crazy, and one minute later he would scream in pain and die. Didn’t he want to save his life before it was too late? Sanal laughed, and the countdown begun. The tantriks chanted their “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili….” followed by ever changing cascades of strange words and sounds. The speed increased hysterically. They threw all kinds of magic ingredients into the flames that produced changing colours, crackling and fizzling sounds and white smoke. While chanting, the tantrik came close to Sanal, moved his hands in front of him and touched him, but was called back by the anchor. After the earlier covert attempts of the tantrik to use force against Sanal, he was warned to keep distance and avoid touching Sanal. But the tantrik “forgot” this rule again and again.

Now the tantrik wrote Sanal’s name on a sheet of paper, tore it into small pieces, dipped them into a pot with boiling butter oil and threw them dramatically into the flames. Nothing happened. Singing and singing, he sprinkled water on Sanal, mopped a bunch of peacock feathers over his head, threw mustard seed into the fire and other outlandish things more. Sanal smiled, nothing happened, and time was running out. Only seven more minutes before midnight, the tantrik decided to use his ultimate weapon: the clod of wheat flour dough. He kneaded it and powdered it with mysterious ingredients, then asked Sanal to touch it. Sanal did so, and the grand magic finale begun. The tantrik pierced blunt nails on the dough, then cut it wildly with a knife and threw them into the fire. That moment, Sanal should have broken down. But he did not. He laughed. Forty more seconds, counted the anchor, twenty, ten, five… it’s over! (source here).

Friday, June 20, 2008

The meaning of life - part II

Following on from the previous post on this theme, and your many excellent comments...

When the religious insist God, and only God, can make life meaningful, they often exhibit a pattern of thought that crops up again and again in religious circles. First, they spot a philosophical puzzle regarding e.g. ultimate meaning, or the justification or ground of ethics, or source of existence, or whatever. “What, ultimately, makes things right or wrong?” “What, ultimately, gives life meaning?” etc.

They then say, “God is what solves that puzzle”. E.g."God is what ultimately explains the meaningfulness of life"," God is what ultimately explains all existence", "God is what ultimately lays down right and wrong” or whatever.

But rarely do they actually explain how God solves the puzzle.

In fact, usually the puzzle is merely postponed, for the same old problem crops up again at the level of God.

That’s what happens with the divine command theory in ethics, for example (Ophelia’s example of the Euthyphro dilemma). The same postponement crops up here too. God is the external something that bestows meaning on our lives, but then, as Rayndeon asks, if meaning requires an external meaning-giver, what bestows meaning on his existence?

Of course, they want to make God the “exception to the rule” so far as, say, the existence of things requiring an external explanation, or an external meaning-giver, or whatever.

But what’s the justification for making God the exception? That’s the bit of explanation they rarely provide (which is not to say it cannot be provided).

“God just does explain it”, they say, without bothering to explain how, or indeed, even think about how.

God just becomes an excuse to stop thinking.

Rather than provide a genuine solution, they just say, in effect, “It’s mysterious God magic! Problem solved!” Then they add – “Now, what’s your solution?”

Very irritating.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Israel, Palestine and Terror - Honderich's piece

Ted Honderich's highly provocative contribution to my collection Israel, Palestine and Terror can be found here. Honderich defends the Palestinians' right to use terrorist methods.

My response is here.

Who Owns Britain?

I spoke last night in London at a meeting of Central London Humanists, which was great fun. One of their organizers, Josh Kutchinsky, mentioned an upcoming event which looks v interesting so I plug it here. Contact the London Interfaith Centre (details below) to get yourself invited.

29 June 3-5 p.m.

Who Owns Britian? (I)

… democracy … secular state … social cohesion … established church … faith communities … human rights … theocracy … shared values

A conversation led by Josh Kutchinsky, Trustee of the British Humanist Association.

Chair - H.E. The High Commissioner of Belize, Laurence Sylvester (in his personal capacity)

To be part of this conversation, RSVP to London Inter Faith Centre: or 020 7604 3053, so we can add your name to the invited guest list.

See also ‘Who Owns Britain? II’ on 5 October 2008 from 5 - 7 pm with the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The meaning of life

The Rev Sam says here:

"What does it mean to believe in God? Specifically, what does it mean for a Christian to believe in God? As I understand it, the essential element is about meaning or purpose - to believe in God is to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference, it is something that stands outside of our desires and it is something to which we need to conform in order to flourish."

That may be true. But I just want to point out that having an objective, externally given purpose does not necessarily give life a meaning. Even if it does help us flourish.

In his book Atheism - A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini has a nice analogy, which I now develop somewhat here.

Suppose it turns out that we do have a purpose. Human beings are being bred on Earth by aliens. And for a purpose too. To clean their toilets. They are coming next week to pick us up and take us to where we can fulfill our true purpose - to forever toil, cleaning the enormous toilets of the giant three-bummed aliens of Avatar! It's a purpose for which we are extremely well adapted. Indeed, when we start doing it, we find everything about us starts to make sense. Our bodies just fit perfectly into the role. Indeed, we find we gain a profound sense of satisfaction from cleaning their giant bogs - for we are designed find the smell their excrement extraordinarily addictive. We never want to do anything else! We flourish and finally feel "fulfilled" in a way we have never felt before!

You know that "hole" we all feel deep down inside - that yearning for we-know-not-what? - it's finally fulfilled... by alien poo!

Would this make our lives meaningful?


I am reminded of the cow-like beast in Douglas Adam's The Restaurant at the End of The Universe - a being that is bred to want to be eaten "Which bit of me what you like to eat, sir? Perhaps my rump, chargrilled?" - whose death and consumption is what it's designed for, and what it desires above all else. Is this creatures' life meaningful? Does having an externally given purpose make it meaningful?

Not necessarily.

The question is, why should the discovery that we were made by God for a purpose - to love and worship him - make our lives meaningful? Theists almost always just assume this would make our lives meaningful - but it's not at all clear why it should.

They really need to explain why it would. Can they? I am guessing they can't. But then it turns out they no more have an account of what makes life meaningful than does the atheist.

Personally, I'd find it pretty dreadful to discover my purpose is
endlessly to adore, worship and obey someone that designed me - be it an alien or God. Certainly, the discovery wouldn't make me feel that my life was now more meaningful. If anything, it'd make me feel it was now rather less meaningful.

POSTSCRIPT: Incidentally, the assumption that having a God given purpose is the (only) thing that can make our lives meaningful is very typical of the kind of lazy thinking theists typically get away with. How many of them have ever subjected this assumption to critical scrutiny, I wonder? Very, very few, I'd guess. Yet they are typically very keen on subjecting atheist and humanist views on meaning to the minutest critical scrutiny.

Rev Sam on Evil - latest comments

The Rev Sam continues his discussions with me on the problem of evil on his own blog. Go here. I'll comment shortly....

Monday, June 16, 2008


[from The Great Philosophers]

Peirce, like William James, is not always consistent in his remarks about truth and reality. What I present here is the “consensus theory” of truth that Pierce does, in several places, appear to advance.

The consensus theory of truth

What do we mean by truth and reality? These questions lie close to the heart of philosophy. Peirce offers some very surprising answers.

Suppose several scientists are investigating the speed of light. They use different methods and experiments. But gradually, though their answers may diverge to begin with, they will gradually close in on the same answer. The more research they do, the closer to a consensus they come, until finally, agreement is reached.

Now Peirce defines truth in the following way – it is what those who investigate a matter will all eventually agree on.

The opinion which is fated to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth and the object represented by this opinion is the real.

Note that what Peirce is offering here is not just an optimistic claim about truth – that the truth happens to be what we all end up agreeing on. He is offering a definition of truth, of what “truth” means. To say that something is true just is to say that that is what we will all eventually agree.

A counter-example?

The suggestion that truth is, at root, whatever we agree it to be might seem open to a very obvious sort of counter-example. Suppose I manage to convince both myself and others that Earth is ruled by Lizard-people from outer space. If the truth is what ever we end up agreeing it to be, then it is true that the Earth is ruled by lizard people from outer space. But of course, this is ridiculous – we can’t just make a claim true by collectively agreeing to it, can we?

The role of scientific inquiry

Actually, Peirce’s view entails that, actually, if only we could all agree that world was ruled by alien lizards, then it would, indeed, be true. However, Pierce thinks that, as a matter of fact, the only way we will ever achieve consensus is by engaging in scientific inquiry. Why?

Well, Peirce believes that we will only agree if we collectively appeal to something independent of us. If we observe the external world, that world will impose the same kind of experiences on all of us. It forces certain experiences on us, and thereby, in the end, it forces us to agree. Without this appeal to scientific method and objective reality, no agreement will be reached.

A worry

But hasn’t Peirce now helped himself to a very different theory about truth – isn’t he saying, in effect, that beliefs are true just in case they correspond with how things stand in objective reality – the reality that forces us to agree about it over the long term? He’s not defining “truth” in terms of agreement or consensus after all, but in terms of correspondence with how things stand in this mind-independent reality.

The social theory of reality

Actually, this would be a misunderstanding. Yes, Peirce does want to say that there are “real” things and an “objective” external reality, but it turns out to be “objective” only in the sense that Peirce supposed it to independent of what any individual might take it to be. If I think the world is ruled by lizard people but no one else does, I am mistaken. For the “objective” fact is that the world is not ruled by lizard people from outer space. But if everyone were agreed that the world is ruled by alien lizards, then it would be true. Indeed, it would be an “objective fact.” Peirce offers a “social theory” of truth and reality, on which truth and reality is whatever the community ultimately agrees on. As Peirce puts it:

My social theory of reality, namely, that the real is the idea in which the community settles down.

A worry about Peerce’s theory of truth and reality

One of the tensions in Peirce’s thinking is that, once Peirce has acknowledged that objective reality is essentially social – it is whatever we finally agree it to be, it is no longer clear how it can force us to agree about it. How can it force us to agree, if its not there to force us until we agree?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Israel, Palestine and Terror

Jerry Cohen's chapter from the new book is available on-line here.

I think it's one of the strongest pieces in the book.

My own contribution (three thousand words) is pasted in below.

Terror in Palestine: A Non-Violent Alternative?

Stephen Law

In this volume, the philosophers Ted Honderich and Tomis Kapitan argue that Palestinians have a moral right to use terrorism. Honderich’s and Kapitan’s arguments differ. For example, Honderich’s is rooted in his Principle of Humanity, while Kapitan develops a justification within something like the framework of ‘just war theory’. Nevertheless, both arguments conclude that Palestinian terrorism has been justified in at least some instances. And both rest on a key premise: that the Palestinians have had available to them no viable alternative to the use of terrorism. Honderich writes:

that the Palestinians' only means to a viable state has been and may still be terrorism is something about which I myself have no doubt. Evidently it is a factual proposition in need of support. There is enough in the history of Palestine and Israel to lead me to think that the disinterested people who say the Palestinians had and have an alternative to terrorism are less moved by history and fact than by abhorrence for terrorism. The feeling cannot settle the question (Honderich 2008, xx).

Kapitan argues that non-violent methods are unlikely to end the existential threat he believes the Palestinian community faces. He says,

[t]he Palestinians have repeatedly used techniques of non-violence in combating the Israeli occupation… and have sought and received the help of like-minded Israelis, but to no avail. (Kapitan 2008, xx)

Here I raise a question mark over this denial that there is an effective, non-violent alternative to terror open to the Palestinian people.

What is non-violent resistance?

Most non-violent resistance falls under one of three broad headings:

Acts of protest and persuasion. These include vigils, public meetings, marches and demonstrations. Protesters may wear badges, put up posters, place flowers in guns.

Non-cooperation. Citizens may refuse to cooperate socially, politically and economically. They may boycott sporting events, refuse to pay taxes or carry identity cards. They may refuse to work, or, if they are in the armed forces, to fight.

No-violent intervention. This includes actions designed to frustrate the activities and institutions deemed to be unjust. They include sit-ins, occupations and blockades.

These are just a few illustrations. There is a huge range of non-violent techniques protestors can apply. For those interested, Gene Sharp, an academic and leading advocate of non-violence, has listed one hundred and ninety-eight non-violent techniques. (The list is available at

How does no-violent resistance work? There are two main mechanisms. First, non-violent resistance can frustrate the activities and institutions of the oppressor, making it difficult or even impossible for that oppression to continue.

Some proponents of non-violence, such as Sharp (1980), take as their starting point the idea that the political power of a state is derived from its subjects. If a people refuse to obey, its leaders are rendered powerless.

Certainly, massive, non-violent action can make a people ungovernable. When an incredulous British Brigadier asked Gandhi whether he expected the British simply to ‘walk out’ of India, Gandhi replied,

In the end, you will walk out. For you will come to realize that 100,000 British cannot control 500 million Indians if they choose not to obey.

There was, indeed, an inevitability about the success of India’s non-violent struggle. However, when those engaged in non-violent resistance form a less overwhelming majority, success is no longer guaranteed.

A second way in which non-violence can be effective is by changing attitudes. It can raise awareness and highlight injustice. It can also harness the power of shame.

Even when non-violent protest fails to shift the views of the oppressor, it may still succeed in persuading a wider audience that the protestor’s cause is just and that it should be supported. As a result of non-violent action by an oppressed people, international pressure may be brought to bear on their behalf.

Non-violence can work

Non-violence can work. We know that Gandhi and his followers succeeded in releasing India from the grip of the British by wholly non-violent means, and that Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent protest was pivotal in establishing greater justice for black people in the U.S. Non-violence has been used with effect around the world, including in the former Eastern Bloc, in South Africa, and in the Philippines, where ‘people power’ toppled the Marcos dictatorship.

Indeed, proponents of non-violence suggest the world has been shaped far more by non-violent action than most of us imagine. The non-violence proponent Walter Wink claims that

In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations ... If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa ... the independence movement in India ...) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world.

Still, even if Wink is correct about the impressive track record of non-violent methods, there’s little doubt that such techniques can and do fail. The non-violent resistance of the Tibetans to Chinese occupation was met with devastating brutality, as were the non-violent protests in Tiananmen Square.

Factors impacting on the effectiveness of non-violent action

Common sense suggests factors likely to enhance the effectiveness of non-violent action include the following:

(1) Commitment on a massive scale. Where non-violent techniques are applied sporadically and half-heartedly, they are unlikely to succeed.
(2) A clearly stated aim. Widespread nonviolence is less likely to achieve an aim if that aim is amorphous. Actions that merely give protestors an opportunity to express their displeasure at the current situation are less likely to be effective than those that state, consistently and unambiguously, a desired alternative.
(3) Organization, strategy and leadership. Non-violent action undertaken on a massive scale may be more effective if governed by a consistent, overarching strategy to which all are committed. In addition, a charismatic and inspiring figurehead can be a great asset to such a movement, particularly after it has inevitably experienced some initial frustration, when doubts about the non-violent strategy may otherwise begin to set in.
(4) A publicly avowed commitment to pursue exclusively non-violent methods. In the absence of such a commitment, the absence of violence may be viewed by the oppressor, and any wider audience, as a largely accidental, and perhaps temporary, feature of the struggle. An explicit, principled commitment to wholly non-violent means is likely to enhance the moral authority of protestors.

Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s movements strongly checked all four of these boxes.

Non-violence in the first intifada

Kapitan and Honderich maintain that the Palestinians have tried non-violent techniques and that they have largely failed.

Non-violence has certainly been tried. The first intifida began in 1987 as a spontaneous, grass roots uprising. It was triggered by an incident in which an Israeli trailer crashed into two Palestinian vans, killing four and injuring ten. There was suspicion among Palestinians that, far from being an accident, this was a deliberate, vengeful attack. At the funeral, hundreds demonstrated. Israeli soldiers shot another Palestinian youth dead. The intifada developed momentum, becoming a massive, popular uprising lasting until 1993. The first intifada was largely characterized by protest and civil disobedience, though there was some violence too (much of it non-lethal, e.g. throwing stones at tanks). Here I pick out three noteworthy episodes relating to non-violent action (my main source here is Holmes 1995).


Mubarrak Awad, a Christian Arab, born in Palestine and educated in the U.S., founded the Palestinian Centre for Non-Violence in Jerusalem in 1985. Awad advocated non-violent civil disobedience. His methods were embraced and recommended by the intifada leadership that emerged. Even before the intifada, the Israeli authorities perceived Awad to be a threat to their control of the occupied territories. As Holmes notes,

The Christian Science Monitor reported on 24 November 1987 that ‘Many Israelis concede that a Gandhi-style campaign by Palestinians in the occupied territories would have a devastating effect on Israel’s ability to control those areas.’ It quoted one Israeli as saying, ‘If the Palestinians all start doing what Awad proposes, the occupation will crumble in three days.’(Holmes 1995, 212-3)

Awad himself writes (with Kuttab):

The Israelis know how to fight against an armed antagonist, but have no understanding of how to deal with non-violent resistance. They expect, and need, the Palestinians to be either submissive or violent. A non-violent approach would neutralize much of Israel’s military might. (Kuttab and Awad)

After the beginning of the intifada, Israeli efforts to remove Awad intensified and he was deported in 1988.

Beit Sahour

The town of Beit Sahour, a small, largely Christian town of about 12,000, became an early symbol of early, non-violent resistance to the occupation. It began to organize itself so as to be less reliant on Israel. An agricultural committee was created and every home developed its own vegetable garden. As Holmes notes, (1995, 213) Jud Issac, a professor and former chairman of the biology department at Bethlehem University, was jailed without charge for five months for encouraging the planting of the gardens. These ‘intifada gardens’, and the boycotting of Israeli produce, was followed by the refusal of many inhabitants to pay taxes (intifada leaders had insisted ‘no taxation without representation’). The Israeli military imposed a curfew on the town, blocked food shipments, cut telephone lines and eventually seized property from 350 inhabitants to auction off in Tel Aviv. The inhabitants still refused to pay their taxes. The Israeli blockade was lifted after six weeks, shortly before 120 members of The American Friends of Beit Sahour were scheduled to arrive to show their solidarity. In 1990, the town was awarded the annual Danish Peace Foundation prize for its commitment to non-violent methods of resistance

The ship of return

In 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) organized a ‘ship of return’. A vessel was purchased to take 130 Palestinian leaders expelled by Israel, along with journalists, peace activists, jurists and politicians, from Cyprus to Israel. The ship never left Cyprus. It was mined while still in harbour. The three Palestinians who had organized this non-violent action were assassinated. While Israel denied responsibility, its transport minister warned that, were another ‘ship of return’ organized, it would meet the same fate.

Further examples

Palestinians, and supporters of the Palestinian people, have engaged, and continue to engage, in non-violent resistance on a daily basis. A few more examples will give a flavour.

Palestinians adopted, and operated in accordance with, their own time zone, one hour different from Israel’s. Palestinians reported that Israeli soldiers would ask them the time, and, if Palestinian time was given, would then smash the Palestinians’ watches.

Activists in the Grassroots International protection for the Palestinians People (GIPP) have, at their own expense, made visits to the occupied territories, planting olive trees, attending lectures and demonstrating. In Ramallah, an entirely peaceful demonstration involving thousands of Palestinians and 400 foreign GIPP delegates was fired on with tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Other foreign activists have received still rougher treatment. In 2003, 23 year old Rachel Corrie, a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, was run over by an Israeli soldier and his commander in a nine ton Caterpillar bulldozer while she stood - unarmed, and highly visible in an orange fluorescent jacket - protecting the home of a Palestinian physician slated for demolition by the Israeli army.

We should remember, too, that the Palestinians have also received support from Jews both in and outside of Israel. After the beginning of the first intifada, thirty Israeli-based organizations protested against the violent repression of the uprising. There were public rallies and acts of civil disobedience by Jews in Israel. By June 1988 more than 500 Israeli military reservists had signed a petition refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

Given that non-violent action has always been part and parcel of Palestinian resistance, given this non-violent resistance has often been dealt with brutally (as illustrated above), and given that no viable Palestinian state has been forthcoming, are we justified in concluding that non-violent methods are unlikely to achieve that aim?

Some reasons why non-violence may have failed, but might still work

I’m not sure we are justified. After all, both Honderich and Kapitan believe violent methods – including terrorism – may well work. Yet violence has also repeatedly been tried, with little success (I don’t deny that, like non-violence, it has had some limited success). Given the rather poor track record of both violent and non-violent methods, why conclude that while non-violence is unlikely to work, violence probably will?

In fact, given what has already been said regarding the effectiveness of non-violent action, there are a number of possible explanations available for why non-violence has not worked up till now, but might yet work in future. Here are a few.

1. Violence

First, while Palestinians have engaged in a great deal of non-violent action, it has always been accompanied by violence. During the first intifada, while 1100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers, 160 Israelis also died. Violence and sensational images of violence are typically of far more interest to news media than is non-violence. For this and other reasons, Palestinian violence has succeeded in largely obliterating from the minds of Americans – a key audience – any awareness of the non-violent action that has taken place. In the minds of many U.S. citizens, the word ‘intifada’ conjures up an image of a masked youth wielding a slingshot or Molotov cocktail, or more recently, wearing an explosive vest. Palestinian violence also allows Israel to view itself, and present itself to the outside world, as the victim, not the oppressor. As a result, Palestinian violence has neutralized much of the effectiveness of their non-violent action.

2. Lack of a consistent, clearly-stated aim

Second, Palestinian non-violent action has not been accompanied by an agreed, clear, consistently-stated aim or strategy. What, exactly, do the Palestinian people want? A state, yes. But on what territory, precisely? And under what conditions? In the absence of a clear and consistent answer, the answer ‘The destruction of the state of Israel’ is likely to be supplied for them (by both Arabs and Jews). At which point their cause is doomed.

3. Lack of organization and strategy

Third, while organizational structures have emerged, non-violent resistance is not nearly as well-organized as it might be. Awad and Kuttab believe that the lack of organization is at least in part down to a lack of sufficient commitment to non-violence on the Palestinian side:

There continues to be great interest in non-violence. What is lacking is an overall strategy and commitment to do it on a massive scale (Kuttab and Awad)

Moreover, those key, well-respected and charismatic Palestinian figureheads – the Palestinian Gandhis, if you like – who might have kept Palestinians on the non-violent path have been removed. Stephan writes that by 1990, Palestinian commitment to non-violent resistance was crumbling. Why? Because

Israel’s policy of arresting, detaining, and deporting… moderate Palestinian leaders effectively removed those Palestinians whose presence and leadership were needed to maintain nonviolent discipline. (Stephan 2006, 69)

4. Lack of explicit commitment to non-violence

Fourth, Palestinians have rarely explicitly committed themselves to non-violent methods. As a result, to the extent that it is even noticed at all, non-violence is widely perceived to be a merely accidental feature of their resistance. This has further eroded its effectiveness.

So yes, non-violent action has not proved particularly effective in Palestine. But there are several plausible explanations why. Were a different approach adopted – an approach combining a total absence of violence, a massive, well-organized commitment to non-violent action, an explicit renunciation of violence, and a clear, consistently stated aim – it might, perhaps, prove more effective.


Let’s now return to the question: is there, and has there been, a non-violent alternative open to the Palestinians? I am not entirely confident I know the answer. I am fairly confident, however, that an affirmative answer has not yet been ruled out. It seems to me that, at the very least, one premise of Honderich’s and Kapitan’s arguments – that non-violent methods cannot, or are unlikely to, work here – requires more support (certainly, more support than they provide in their contributions to this volume).

But, to be fair to Honderich and Kapitan, perhaps we need to distinguish two questions. Here’s the first. If the Palestinian people were, collectively, to engage in such non-violent action, would they succeed?

I suspect the answer to this question is – quite possibly.

But a second question is also relevant. Perhaps Honderich and Kapitan might concede that such a wholly non-violent movement could well be effective, yet still consistently argue that the individual Palestinian may yet be justified in resorting to violence and terror.

Here’s that second question. How likely is it, now, that any such wholly non-violent mass movement could actually form, given the ever-worsening political situation, the growing levels of hatred, fear and distrust among Palestinians, the manner in which their non-violent protest has been received in the past, and so on?

Suppose the answer to this question is: very unlikely indeed. While such a mass-action might succeed, it’s utterly unrealistic to expect it ever to happen.

The suggestion, then, might be this: that an individual Palestinian might justifiably conclude that, given that the Palestinian people are collectively now highly unlikely ever to engage in such action, they, as an individual, are morally within their rights to join the ranks of the violent, violence now being the only viable and effective alternative.

The upshot of such an argument might even be the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that while the Palestinian people are not collectively justified in resorting to violence or even terror (there being a viable alternative open to them collectively), they are individually.

Whether this suggestion might be developed and made to work is not a question I’ll pursue here (though I very much have my doubts).


Holmes, R. (1995) ‘Non-Violence and the Intifada’. In Bove, L. and Kaplan L. (eds.) From The Eye of The Storm. Amsterdam – Atlanta: Rodopi. 209-222.

Honderich, T. (2008), ‘Terrorisms in Palestine’. This volume.

Kapitan, T. (2008), ‘Terror’. This volume.

Kuttab, J. and Awad, M. (undated) ‘Non-violent Resistance in Palestine: Pursuing Alternative Strategies’. Available at

Sharp, G. (1980), Politics of Non-violent Action. Boston, Mass.: P. Sargent.

Stephan, M. (2006), ‘Fighting for Statehood: The Role of Civilian-Based Resistance in the East Timorese, Palestinian, and Kosovo Albanian Self-Determination Movements’. Forum vol 30:2. 57-79. Available at PDF/Fletcher_Forum_MStephan.pdf.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sam's vanishing solution to the problem of evil

A final thought on the often made suggestion that atheist critics of religion, such as myself, don't understand what we are criticizing. (I am thinking of Alisdair McGrath's "I don't believe in that God either" riposte to Dawkins, and the Rev Sam's suggestion, following Hart ["It would have at least been courteous, one would think, if he had made more than a perfunctory effort to ascertain what religious persons actually do believe before presuming to instruct them on what they cannot believe."], that we critics don't fully comprehend what Christians understand by "God" and, if we did, we would see the problem of evil is not such a problem after all).

As a matter of fact I was raised in a religious household, and my father trained to be a minister, though never took it up. I also attended a church school. So as a teenager I read lots of e.g. C.S. Lewis, Tillich, etc. And since then I have read a ton of philosophy of religion, including D.Z. Phillips, etc. I have swum in the "sea of faith". So it's irritating, and really rather unjustified, to have my criticisms of religious belief swept aside on the assumption that I can't really understand what the religious mean when they talk about God.

In any case, the onus is really on Sam to explain why, given how he, at least, uses "God", the problem of evil ain't really so much of a problem.

Having spent ages trying to figure out what Sam does mean, and ploughing through his allusions to Wittgenstein and "forms of life", we finally discover he never actually had any such explanation.

It's all been smoke and mirrors.

Of course, I don't think Sam's a terrible person, and I don't think he is intending deliberately to dupe us. I suspect this sort of strategy - of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority - is just a habit of thought he has rather uncritically adopted having spent too much time hanging out with a certain sort of intellectually pretentious theist.

Patronizing of me to say so, I know. But it's what I think...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rev Sam pulls on Wittgenstein's mantle

Sam has been trying to get himself off the hook re. Celtic Chimps's perceptive comment on this blog, produced below:

"I eventually had to give up arguing with Sam. His beliefs are so vague and insubstantial that I have come to doubt that Sam himself knows what he believes. I think 'God cannot be the member of any set' was the straw that broke the camels back. I offer fair and honest warning to anyone with a healthy respect for actually taking a definable position. Debating with Sam is like going to the movies to see a film. There are tons of adverts for forthcoming movies and then the credits roll."

Sam's response to Celtic Chimp is to invoke Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein said it is a mistake always to look for philosophical definitions of terms, i.e. in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Sure, we can define "triangle" and bachelor" like that ("A bachelor is an unmarried male" - gives singly necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for bachelorhood), but most words cannot be defined in this way. If you want to know what they mean, suggests W, look at how they are used.

Rev. Sam takes solace in this thought that some terms cannot be defined, and that their meaning is often best explained by looking at how they are used. He says:

"The reason why the Chimp finds me evasive, and others call me 'more slippery than soap' is because a) I don't believe we can define God, b) I don't think definitions are the be-all and end-all of fruitful discussion, but most of all c) because I accept that 'practice gives the words their sense' - and it is only by attending to the practice of Christian life, most of all in the Eucharist, that Christian understandings of God can be found."

But this doesn't get Sam out of trouble.

The key point that Sam overlooks is that Wittgenstein thinks that the meaning of our words is clear, and can be explained clearly, in various ways, e.g. by ostensive definition (e.g.pointing and saying the word), and/or by giving examples of its use, and so on - i.e. the ordinary everyday ways we explain what we mean to each other.

There's nothing "mysterious" at all about what words mean. Nor is there anything more to the meaning of our words than can be explained in such ways. We just need to avoid insisting that only a philosophical definition (in terms of nec and suff. conditions) of a word will do.

Trouble is, not only does Sam not give a necessary-and-sufficient-condition type definition of "god", he refuses to give ANY clear explanation of what he means by "god".

Now Wittgenstein would not endorse that! W's view, remember, is that there's no mystery about what our words mean.

Yet Sam's is clear that the meaning of "god" is very mysterious indeed! Indeed, Sam makes a virtue of this mystery, and uses it to endlessly sidestep criticism. That's not only profoundly unWittgensteinian, it's downright evasive!

Wittgenstein would surely say that, to the extent that the meaning of a word is not, or cannot be, explained in such a familiar, everyday, public manner, it has no meaning.

But that "god" cannot be explained in such a way seems to be precisely Sam's point. Wittgensteinian conclusion: it has no meaning.

Your move, Sam. Either explain clearly what you mean by "god", or else have us Wittgensteinians conclude, along with Celtic Chimp, that, as you use the term, it doesn't really have much, if any, meaning.

Then we can go and have a discussion with Richard Swinburne who does, at least, have the balls to say up front, clearly and precisely, what he's talking about.

POST SCRIPT: I imagine Sam will now point to the word "god" being used in the Eucharist etc. and say: "There you go, that's how the word is used. And meaning is use. So that now clearly explains what "god" means!"

But of course this doesn't help with the problem of evil, not until Sam tells us what's being done with the word in this context. All that pointing to the Eucharist establishes is that "God" has a use. But what is that use? How is it being used in that setting? Is it being used to make claims, to express emotional attitudes, to express linguistic rules, or what?

It's not until Sam fills out these details - and explains how this usage means that the problem of evil is solved or diminished - that he can claim to have provided any sort of response to the problem of evil.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Rev Sam on evil - a bit more....

Let’s return to Rev Sam’s response to the problem of evil. To most of us, many theists included, the problem of evil looks like a very serious problem indeed for theism. Indeed, to me, it looks fatal to belief in a good, or worship-worthy, god.

Now Rev Sam’s response is to suggest that it isn’t such an insurmountable problem after all. The problem is figuring out exactly what Sam’s response to the problem amounts to. So far, my impression is that he’s got two key responses.

The first is to say that “God exists” etc. is not used propositionally:

“I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life.”

The other is to say (about my point that a God who, say, buries thousands of children alive, and unleashes literally unimaginable horror on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years, is surely not worthy of worship):

“I suspect the logic of worship works the other way around anyhow - it is good to worship God, _then_ we talk about the 'goodness' of God, or not.”

These are very, very vague claims. How do they help as a response to the problem of evil? Sam doesn’t explain. As per usual, he makes us do all the work for him. We are forced to ask: “So Sam, do you mean this, or that? If you mean this, then there’s this problem; if you mean that, there’s this other problem.”

If Sam recognises we have a valid objection to something, he can say “Oh, that’s not quite what I meant” or “But I also meant this too…” and so on. In this way, Sam can keep us tied up in knots forever.

Now, can Sam successfully defend the reasonableness (or whatever) of what he believes by means of this strategy? No, of course not.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem for Sam. On the face of it, the problem of evil is a very powerful argument against what he believes. So the onus is on HIM to explain CLEARLY why it is NOT the problem we (and indeed even many theists) take it to be. He has never done that. Until he does, it is his position that stands discredited, not mine.

Nevertheless, we might offer to do some of the work for him, so far as explaining what he means is concerned.

Let’s look at the first suggestion again:

“I think the biggest difference is that you see religious beliefs as abstract and propositional, whereas I see them as gaining sense from what they do in the context of a life.”

This points very vaguely at Wittgenstein on "forms of life", and perhaps also at expressivism, etc. Let’s look at expressivism a moment.

Perhaps the best-known expressivist theory is the “Boo-hoorah theory (emotivism) in ethics. It says that when we say “X is morally good” or “Y is morally bad” we are not making a claim. Rather we are expressing an attitide, a bit like going “Hoorah for X” and “Boo to Y”. As “Hoorah to X” makes not claim, it is incapable of being true or false.

Of course, “X is good” looks like “Ted is tall”. Now the latter sentence does make a claim, and is thus capable of being true or false (it will be true if Ted is, as a matter of fact, tall). But the former makes no claim, and so truth and falsehood do not apply.

Overlook this difference in the way the sentences are used, however, and you may start looking for the “moral fact” that makes the former sentence true, and then become philosophically baffled by your inability to find it. "If you find yourself baffled in that way", says the emotivist, "what you need is some linguistic therapy. You need to look at how the sentence is actually used, in its appropriate context.".

We might give a similar expressivist account of religious language. It is used, we may say, not to make claims, but to express certain attitudes towards life, etc. "God exists" may, in effect express something like "Life - wow!" (or no doubt something much more complex and subtle). As such, it puts forward no claim (or, as Sam puts it, proposition).

But if that's correct, then “God exists” is also incapable of being true or false. In which case, it does not require some "God fact" to make it "true" (notice how this fits with Sam's insistence that :

"I would deny that the statement 'God exists' is expressing a claim about a matter of fact in the world."

) And, (and here's the relevant bit) if "God exists" is neither true nor false, it cannot be shown to be false, or probably false, by, say, empirical evidence. Problem of evil solved!

Now, this expressivist account of how "God exists" functions might be the sort of thing Sam means, or it might not. I kind of doubt it is, though.

The expressivist view makes religious “belief” amount to little more than a sophisticated way of expressing an attitude. There’s no claim being made with which we can disagree (though we might still question the appropriateness of the attitude).

Yet, despite denying “God exists” is propositional, Sam clearly does want to be able to say contentful things about God, such as that “God is worthy of worship”, etc. etc. He surely sees our dispute over whether "God exists" to boil down to rather more than just what sort of attitudes he and I hold towards life, etc.

There seems to be a muddle in Sam's thinking here, in fact. Yes, you can immunize any belief, such as “God exists”, against being falsified by the evidence (such as the problem of evil) by saying that the sentence expresses nothing more than an attitude (even if a very complex one). But the price you pay for avoiding the problem of evil in this manner is that, when the critic has gone away, you can’t then consistently start saying the kind of things Sam clearly wants to say about God.

So Sam – what’s your position? My guess is you'll now say "Oh no - that's not quite what I meant." So what do you mean, then?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

CFI London

I have been asked to head up the new Centre for Inquiry in London (in effect, in charge of all academic programmes), and I have agreed. Will be planning various talks and events once we get it going. Should be a lot of fun, I hope. I'll be soliciting suggestions....

You will have the option of joining the mailing list and/or becoming a "friend" for a modest sum (about £30 I think).

Website here.

I do not yet have an appropriate title. I was thinking "Grand Poo-Bah Extraordinaire" or "Supreme Authority". You may have suggestions.....

Incidentally, one of the reasons I am very pleased to be associated with CFI is that a founder was the late, great, Carl Sagan, whom I idolized as a kid (remember "Cosmos"?). I hope we can put on some really interesting events that avoid just preaching to the choir.

Israel, Palestine and Terror

Israel, Palestine and Terror is out at Edited by me, it features contributions by many very eminent philosophers (and also myself). Noam Chomsky, Igor Primoratz, William McBride, Jerry Cohen and Ted Honderich, among others. Some very fiery and provocative papers among them. Tony Benn was kind enough to provide a flattering comment for the back cover.

Back to the vanishing God shortly....

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Problem of evil - Rev Sam again

Following on from previous post - we are trying to get to grips with the Rev Sam's contention that the problem of evil is not really such a serious problem for believers.

He's made two suggestions, I think. The first is that "good" when applied to God, means something other than what it means when applied to humans. God is "beyond good and evil", yet God is still something the Rev Sam wishes to worship.

"what's at stake is what is meant or understood by 'God' in that sentence. I'm not persuaded that we can put much flesh on the bones of 'good' when that term is ascribed to God; the God I worship is beyond good and evil, he doesn't fit within those categories. Though I'd still want to call him 'good'..."

Quick comment from me: But, notwithstanding your reluctance to put much flesh on the bones of "good" when applied to God, you do think God worthy of worship, right? But then there's the problem of explaining why a being that would, say, bury thousands of children alive, and cause hundreds of millions of years of unimaginable pain and horror, etc. is worthy of praise and worship. This play with word "good" doesn't make that very basic, and surely very serious, problem go away.

BTW, in any case, the semantic ploy you are adopting here can also be used to defend belief in an evil God (see my God of Eth): you see, Evil God really is maximally evil. True, he creates love, laughter and rainbows, etc. but you must remember that "evil", when applied to him, is used differently. God's "evilness" is compatible with him creating such things.

You would, of course, see straight through this ploy in defence of an evil God, and indeed dismiss it for the cheap sleight-of-hand with words that it is. So why do you take it seriously when it comes to defending the good God hypothesis? Why should we take it seriously?

Your second suggestion is, I think, that, for you, belief in God plays a "foundational role". Perhaps Sam would say with Plantinga that this belief is "properly basic". Possibly, Sam is making a Nelson Pike type move and saying that, if you have a priori grounds for believing in God, or even just faith, then the problem of evil ain't so much of a problem - yes there's the problem of explaining the amount of evil in a manner consistent with God's existence - but having faith means being sure this can be done, even if we cannot see how.

Is this the sort of thing you have in mind Sam? I can see why you might not want to get into details, of course, for as soon as you commit yourself explicitly to a particular claim, you render your position vulnerable to criticism. But I think you should take the plunge - go on, commit yourself to something!