Varieties of Belief: A Reply to New Atheism

Traditionally the atheist has denied the existence of God or some sort of supernatural dimension to the world more generally. At the turn of this century, however, a new brand of atheism  emerged, led by a group of public intellectuals who have been dubbed the New Atheists. Their bull dog was the late Christopher Hitchens, a master of condescension. Emboldened by advances in science and the growing secularisation of society, these men – all its renowned proponents are male – not only deny the existence of God but also argue that religion itself is pernicious. More exactly they contend that history demonstrates that religion is a major source of conflict that has encouraged its various believers to commit heinous crimes in its name. The violence is the result of the primitive irrational foundations of religions such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which are their principal targets, especially the latter in virtue of the new atheists belonging to the traditionally Christian countries of Britain and the USA. The irrational foundations of religions make them morally bankrupt and a barrier to a less violent and happier way of living. Therefore, the world would be a better place all round if we were to abandon religions. Below I don’t present some opposing religious view to defend against new atheism. Rather I offer a critique of the new atheists’ views themselves, suggesting that they misrepresent the nature of religious beliefs.

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On the Matter of Facts

Many fear that we are entering a so-called post-truth era, where public discourse is no longer concerned with what is true. During his presidential campaign in the US and in office, for example, Donald Trump has made plainly false utterances that he has refused to retract. Indeed, by all appearances he has made things up on the spot during his speeches and interviews, e.g., he doubly lied when he claimed Sweden had experienced a terrorist attack and then that two days later people had died in a subsequent riot there. Likewise those campaigning to persuade UK citizens to leave the European Union made the wild and unsupported claim, among others, that the union was costing the nation £350 million per week. In both countries, despite being called out on these falsehoods, an alarming proportion of their populations accepted the claims as true. Such displays of mendacity have always existed in politics, so why the fear now? The fear is also fueled by a recognition that the influence and authority of the mainstream media are being usurped by alternative online news sources. Perhaps the majority of adults in western democratic societies now receive their news through social media. These sources are unreliable. Indeed, increasingly items passed off as news are simply fictitious, that is, fake. It is very difficult to stem the tide of unreliable and phony news reports. But most worryingly many suppose that the truth or falsity of our claims in general cannot be objectively determined, and so whether a news report is true or false comes down to a difference of perspective. Your facts may simply not agree with my facts, as it is sometimes put. Hence fighting against this tide of misinformation and lying is futile. It is this pernicious relativism I want to take up and argue against.

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Dark Angels

Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most famous political prisoners in recent history. She was under house arrest in Yangon for years, and was prevented from seeing her dying husband in the UK. As a result of a series of political events in 2015 she became the leader of Myanmar, albeit under the watch of the powerful Burmese army. Currently the muslim minority in the Rakhine region in the west of the country – known as the Rohingya – has been subjected to severe oppression, including the burning of homes, rape and killings by the army. The region has been cut off from the rest of the country. Tens of thousands of the Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. There is animosity towards these muslims in a predominantly Buddhist country, and consequently there is little sympathy for the Rohingya’s plight. That lack of sympathy, it is reported, is shared by Suu Kyi herself.[i] Indeed, to the dismay of many who have seen her as a champion of human rights, she has done nothing to stop what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. But as any observer of history will point out, she is hardly unique in this respect. History is replete with figures who were personally decent, and sometimes even courageous, but who were nonetheless complicit in heinous crimes, usually committed by states. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of these dark angels as I shall call them.[ii] To be clear, most of us are dark angels to some degree, that is, morally upright at a personal level yet willing to acquiesce with respect to – and in some cases support or enable – heinous crimes such as mass murder. Below I explore the contrastive relationship between our personal moral probity and our toleration or licensing of large scale crimes sometimes committed by the corporations and governments we form. Continue reading “”

Do We Own Our Decisions?

Not all of our actions are by choice. For example, Petra might go to the hospital because she has broken her hand in a cycling accident. She doesn’t choose to go, she has to go. Yet, in another respect she does decide to go to the hospital insofar as she moves or wills herself to go, even if she would rather not. Not everything we do is by choice, but most everything we do is willed. Willing in this sense is the act of deciding for oneself to do something – no one else or no outside force is the cause of this act. We ourselves are the cause. If we were not, then nothing we do would be decided by us. Instead, we would be akin to puppets whose strings are the external forces. We are obviously not puppets. I got up this morning, for example, and I decided to brew coffee. Nothing or nobody forced me to decide to do this. Very often I am said to have decided this of my own free will. But I won’t talk in these terms directly because the concept of free will  itself leads one into a thicket of arguments in which most soon lose their way. I want to keep the discussion as conceptually basic as possible and hence manageable, both for the reader and myself. Continue reading “”

Artistic Creativity: Divine, Profane or Mechanical

Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer is noted for his arrogance, or what some might call his hubris. In a self-portrait made at age twenty eight Dürer depicted himself in a pose deliberately echoing that of Christ. He was signalling his divine-like powers of creation. But why should he have thought that his creativity was divine? History has produced countless notably creative people, e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, Jane Austen and Vincent van Gogh, none of whose powers we normally associate with the divine. Well, if we think of creativity in general as the power to produce something out of nothing, then it is understandable to associate it with the divine. One definition of a god – or God for the monotheist – is an initiator in this sense.

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The Raging: A Genealogy of Inner Life

  1. Introduction

Biologists, neurologists and an assortment of other scientists reveal in ever more detail the workings of our bodies. Books, magazines, journals and videos brim with illustrations of these workings, from the quantum level up to the neural networks of brains that govern our capacities to think, see and so on. But for all this science one thing remains a mystery, a puzzle so enigmatic that we can only formulate it by figure of speech. It is to ask: What is it that gives us an inner life? We are after all made of the same materials in kind as rocks and toaster ovens.

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Deconstructing Anti-Physicalism

The arguments against physicalism with respect to consciousness, e.g., the knowledge argument, and the challenges to them present a familiar story. But it is seldom asked whether anti-physicalism is in itself a tenable view in terms of maintaining an internal consistency. Below I argue that on close inspection there are reasons to doubt that the view is tenable in this sense. There is, I contend, an internal tension to anti-physicalism that centres on a conflict between its principal conclusion, i.e., experiential properties are non-physical, and the fact that no one, including the anti-physicalist, doubts that others are conscious. It is a tension, I argue, that the anti-physicalists have overlooked, but which they may not have the resources to defuse. What follows is deconstructive analysis of the seminal arguments (texts) of anti-physicalism. It reveals a problematic ambiguity in their use of the terms relating to conscious states that, I submit, is the source of this tension.

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