Above: Michael Coren exposes himself as a stupid bigot, even in this friendly interview
Standpoint magazine, a publication supposedly dedicated to enlightenment values, seems to be increasingly in thrall to religion – or at least to Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism. The mag maintains a hostility to Islam that I would describe as “healthy” but for the evident fact that it takes such a sympathetic line on other religions.
Last month’s edition carried a particularly crude and self-righteous attack on Richard Dawkins, penned by one Michael Coren (billed by Standpoint as “a broadcaster and columnist in Canada”). A clue as to where Mr Coren was, so to speak, coming from, might have been picked up from his comments about Catholic child abuse (involving “at most 3 per cent of clergy” and “the vast majority of cases were in the past”) as well as his approving reference to a particularly silly quote from the Catholic fake-”Marxist” Terry Eagleton. Oh, go on then: read it for yourself here.
Matters were made worse by the fact that the magazine (as part of its regular “Overrated … underrated” feature, compared Dawkins unfavourably to the egregiously overrated misanthrope and ontonologist, C.S. Lewis.
I intended to write in, mainly to point out Lewis’ grotesquely inflated reputation and all-round unpleasantness, but of course didn’t find the time. The eulogy to Lewis remains unanswered, but I’m pleased to note that at least two Standpoint readers have rallied to the defence of Dawkins and their excellent letters are worth reproducing here (especially as they don’t appear on the mag’s website):
Michael Coren’s foam-flecked hatchet-job on Richard Dawkins (Overrated, November) is one of the most singular examples of the pot calling the kettle black that I can ever recall reading.
He castigates Dawkins for having “this selfish, perhaps genetic, need to be noticed.” This is rich coming from a notoriously abrasive, attention-seeking controversialist who has regularly appeared on shouty talk shows on North American television such as Two Bald Guys with Strong Opinions.
Having sneered at Dawkins for having “suburban” views, he proceeds to accuse him of being “snobbish”, albeit in a context which suggests he is ignorant of the meaning of the word.
He claims that Dawkins would be anonymous were it not for his “ostentatious” atheism. His own Catholicism, as expressed in books entitled Why Catholics are Right and Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity, is no less ostentatious. Dawkins’ followers, he alleges, often act in a “cult-like manner”. What is the Catholic Church if it is not a cult? (OED: “a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object”.)
Dawkins, he further alleges, “is a man happy to silence those with ehom he disagrees”. Has no pontiff ever done this?
If Coren doesn’t enjoy the experience of being “ridiculed with contempt” by the likes of Dawkins, the remedy is in his own hands: he can refrain from slash-and-burn polemics in trying to defend the indefensible.
Martin Green, Bridgnorth, Shropshire
So for Richard Dawkins to expect that the prevalence of abusers in the Catholic clergy might be less than 3 per cent was for him to operate with a “deeply flawed premise”.
I am sure that Dawkins will have no difficulty in lowering his future expectation so that it more accurately reflects the empirical evidence. And he might do so even though “the vast majority of cases were in the past” because it is not as if they could be anywhere else.
However, for my own part, I think I shall abstain from expecting that an Emeritus Fellow and retired Professor for Public Understanding of Science be at the “cutting edge” of evolutionary biology. I would not wish to incorporate a false premise into my own arguments.
R. Thomas, Newcastle upon Tyne
Ive only just discovered QualiaSoup, an artist and thinker whose YouTube videos present the case for rational, critical thinking and the scientific method. It’s excellent stuff, that anyone with religious hang-ups, belief in the “supernatural,” tolerance of backward ideas in the interests of “open-mindedness” and indeed quite a few people who consider themselves “Marxists,” would do well to watch and ponder. Here’s an example:
P.S: It transpires that QualiaSoup has a brother, TheraminTrees (!)
How has it come to this? And how is that some who regard themselves as on the “left” not only tolerate religious bigotry and censorship of this sort, but actively promote it?
Statement from the British Humanist Association
LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society incident at freshers’ fair
October 4th, 2013
In a statement, the students have explained:
‘When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students.
‘At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts… After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room.’
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), commented, ‘The LSESU is acting in a totally disproportionate manner in their dealings with our affiliate society. That a satirical webcomic can be deemed to be so offensive as to constitute harassment is a sad indictment of the state of free speech at Britain’s Universities today. This hysteria on the part of the SU and University is totally unwarranted; intelligent young adults of whatever beliefs are not so sensitive that they need to be protected from this sort of material in an academic institution. Our lawyers are advising our affiliated society at LSE and we will be working with them, the students, and the AHS to resolve this issue.’
The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, ‘Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all. The AHS will work with our partners at the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society to assist our affiliated society and seek engagement with both the LSESU and LSE itself. It is the duty of universities countrywide to respect their students’ rights, not their sensitivities.’
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.
Above: Dawkins interviewed by devout Muslim Mehdi Hasan earlier this year
In case you missed it, Richard Dawkins caused a minor row last week with some comments he tweeted about Muslims, viz:
“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Noble Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
The twitter storm that followed included comparisons between Dawkins and David Irving and the suggestion that he be ‘no platformed’ as a racist.
Dawkins defended himself by pointing out that his comments about Muslims’ lack of (recent) scientific achievement is simply a statement of fact, and that Islamism is a belief, not a form of ethnicity. Both those points are plainly true and the suggestion that Dawkins is any kind of racist is plainly nonsense.
Nevertheless, his comments about Muslims (as opposed to other religious people) are worrying, and the reason isn’t difficult to fathom:
“Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in word-view to to be itself the cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human ot is an act of faith. Illustrationg Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious observers” - John Gray in the New Statesman, 30/11/12)
Here at Shiraz, we’ve previously had occasion to identify him as probably the most profoundly reactionary writer in respectable, mainstream journalism today. Gray can be difficult to follow precisely because his writing is vague, evasive and often illogical. In the New Statesman article from which the quote at the top of this piece is taken, for instance, it is difficult to discern even what he understands by the word “toleration” (as opposed, for instance, to “indifference”) and why he seems to think that irrational beliefs are a positively good thing. His repeated approving references to Nietzsche do, however, provide a telling clue.
Like Nietzsche, Gray despises humanity in general, and enlightenment humanism in particular. I’m not sure whether Gray would share his hero’s dismissal of democracy (“liberal” / “bourgeois” or otherwise) in favour of the artistocratic ideal of the Übermensch. Gray certainly seems attracted to Nietzsche’s emphasis (present from the first in in Die Geburt der Tragödie) on the unconscious, voluntaristsic ‘Dionysian’ side of human nature, as opposed to the rational ‘Apollonian’ side. Also, like Nietzsche, Gray is in fact an atheist, but seems to regard this as being entirely unconnected to any rational belief system, and simply a personal judgement that the ignorant masses cannot be expected to understand.
Gray’s contempt for humanism (and humanity) was well expressed in an earlier piece he wrote for the New Statesman:
“The idea that humankind has a special place in the scheme of things persists among secular thinkers. They tell us that human beings emerged by chance and insist that ‘humanity’ can inject purpose into the world. But, in a strictly naturalistic philosophy, the human species has no purpose. There are only human beings, with their conflicting impulses and goals. Using science, human beings are transforming the planet. But ‘humanity’ cannot use its growing knowledge to improve the world, for humanity does not exist.” - John Gray, ‘Humanity doesn’t exist’, New Statesman (10/02/11)
I’m not arguing, by the way that Gray’s views shouldn”t be published, or are unworthy of debate. I would question, however, what such an enemy of the Enlightement is doing as lead book reviewer in a publication whose strap-line is “Enlightened Thinking for a change.”
By the way, Nietzsche’s thinking contains an essential contradiction (explained by Antony Flew, thus): “Of course, Nietzsche goes on to use his views about the essentially ‘falsifying’ nature of language, and therefore of rational thought, to give theoretical backing to his favourite belief in the superior veracity of action and ‘will’. But here the central paradox in Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge emerges: he cannot himself, in all consistency, take that theory too seriously.”
Or as a letter to the New Statesman in response to Gray’s article, put it: “It is amusing to read yet again a rational man, John Gray on this occasion (‘Giant Leaps for mankind’, 30 November), arguing rationally for how very irrational we all are.”
Ophelia (“Butterflies and Wheels’) Benson on Gray, here
Above: One of the ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoons that have caused so much “offense”. Click on the picture for a clearer view.
By James Bloodworth, cross-posted from Obliged To Offend
Aside from the drinking, experimentation with drugs and casual sex, university life has traditionally been a place where young people have cut their teeth amidst a wealth of new and exciting ideas. Not every university student is lucky in this respect, of course – at the former poly I attended the closest I ever got to political activism was throwing rotten vegetables over the garden wall at our affluent neighbours – but as a rule, university students tend to leave with a better understanding of a number of political trains of thought than they had before they went.
The latest idea to be popularised at university, however, is not really a political idea as such, but rather a sensibility. It is not taught in lectures, nor as far as I am aware does it have any social societies to its name. It is backed, however, by a great number of the political activists universities up and down the country are famous for. I am talking, of course, about the idea that students require protection against being “offended”.
Lots of things, such as racism, homophobia and sexism, really are offensive. No one should be in any doubt about that. Nor am I in any sense trying to downplay the feelings of offense people feel from time to time about a wide range of things. Who, apart from an ice-cold sociopath, could never feel offended?
What I am referring to, rather, is the increasingly popular notion that a person has some sort of right not to be offended; to have their ears stuffed with cotton wool whenever anyone says anything that might bring their worldview crashing to the floor like a house of playing cards.
There have always been some who have sought to use force to silence those they perceive as blasphemers and critics, of course. Fortunately, our relatively free society has for the most part pushed such people to the margins, and it is no longer possible to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night over a poorly timed joke about a beardy chap (secular or religious).
It seems to have been learnt in some quarters, however, that if your feelings are hurt you again no longer have to actually bother challenging the argument of a rival at all, but can instead cling to the irrefutable and subjective notion of “deeply held belief” to silence your critics.
An example of this made the news recently when the President of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society at the prestigious University College London (UCL) had to step down after a furore erupted over the publication of a cartoon featuring Jesus and Mohammed having a beer.
The strangest thing about the whole affair was not the behaviour of the devout, which was depressingly predictable, but rather the reaction of much of the student political left – historically the very people supposed to be the defenders of free expression. The only Left group that put out anything defending free expression was the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of which I am a member.
In response to the “incident” (or the publication of a couple of scribbled pictures, whichever you think most appropriate), the LSESU Socialist Workers Society put up posters around campus that included the following pitiful statement:
“The Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.”
You may notice that they could not bring themselves to say outright that the cartoons were racist (because they were not), but instead sought deliberately to confuse the matter by saying the pictures “highlighted a festering undercurrent of racism”.
What was it Orwell once said about the use of this sort of language?
“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
When did the student Left become so conservative?
Christopher Hitchens has died of cancer at the age of 62, Vanity Fair reports.
The magazine said he died yesterday after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer last year while on a book tour.
I don’t call myself a ‘new’ atheist; I’m just an atheist. However, I won’t let that prevent me responding to what Giles Fraser says about new atheists who ‘simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism’. Being a humanist as well as an atheist, I was interested to see what this challenge is, so I read on and, my goodness, what a feeble challenge it turns out to be. It amounts only to two things: (1) putting in question an outlook inherited from the Enlightenment that, despite ‘the horrors of the first world war and the Nazi death camps’, persists with an ‘optimism about human nature and strong belief in the power of human reason and the inevitability of progress’; and (2) the following notions critical of humanism that Fraser takes from Louis Althusser:
There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness.
The only part of (1) that a humanist need sign up to is some belief in the power of human reason. It doesn’t have to be an exorbitant belief, such that reason is thought to be all powerful, but humanists think that there are human universals, there’s good evidence that the power of reason is one of these, and there’s much to be said, morally, for using reason to try to make the world a better place. That’s it. No humanist is obliged to be uniformly optimistic about human nature. This plainly has both good and bad sides, and while we should do everything we can to bring out the good and restrain the bad, a humanist would have to be a fool to let his or her humanism obscure the facts – so many and large are they – about the human capacity for doing serious wrong. Equally, humanists today can be cleverer than to believe in the inevitability of progress; we can just believe in the possibility of it, a possibility there are already grounds for thinking is not altogether utopian.
As for (2) the conjoint proposition ‘There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces’ is false. It is the result of taking the truth that we are all partly the product of external forces and turning it into the absurd claim that we are altogether the product of such forces; because only if we are that is it possible to maintain, against so much that is so obvious, that there’s no intrinsic humanity.
Three simple ways of seeing that this is false are the following. (a) Consider that, however hard you try, you won’t be able to get a collection of tomatoes to form a parliament, or find from amongst a population of bees a writer to emulate either Charles or Monica Dickens, or one to write essays on any topic whatsoever. (b) A human being forced to live on a diet exclusively of steel nails and blotting paper will die. (c) Given the choice between having a chat with friends and jumping into a blazing furnace, nearly all people in all cultures and at all times will choose the former. From (a) we learn that there are universal human abilities that distinguish us from other species. From (b) we learn that there are general human needs which must be met for survival. And from (c) we learn that there are all but universal human aversions.
These facts are so well known that only people in philosophical mood ever pretend or affect to deny them. But there is, thank goodness, better philosophy than the one governing that kind of mood. If Fraser’s account of the anti-humanist challenge is any guide, the latter should trouble no kind of atheist – or indeed non-atheist.