In which I once again play Grayling’s Bulldog, biting Peter Hitchens

As I noted yesterday, philosopher Anthony Grayling has published a new humanist and anti-religious book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.  This book (indeed, even its title) is guaranteed to raise the ire of those British faitheists and goddycoddlers, who, even in a largely secular nation such as England, come out of the woodwork to tout the benefits of religion.

The latest termite is, unsurprisingly, Peter Hitchens, the bête noire of his late atheist brother. Writing in The Spectator, Hitchens is far less charitable than was Bryan Appleyard—indeed, Hitchens is positively splenetic about Grayling’s book. In his review, “A C Grayling vs God,” Hitchens tries to make the following points:

The book is mean:

This work is full of negative. petti-fogging narrowness, devoid of sympathy for opponents, empty of generosity or modesty, immune to poetry or mystery. Seeking enjoyment in its pages is like trying to quench your thirst with dry biscuits. The rudest thing that I can say about it is that it is pretty much the same as all the other anti-God books. Like Scandinavian crime series on TV, these volumes trundle off the production lines every few months, asserting their authors’ enlightenment and emitting a nasty undertone of spite and intolerance.

Not nearly as much intolerance as the faithful show! And, of course, New Atheist books have sold well (only to the choir? I think not). Further, judging by comments on the internet, they’ve had a tremendous influence in turning people against religion.

Nowhere in Hitchens’s review does he engage the New Atheist arguments against faith, but prefers to emit bilious noises and tout the “poetry and mystery” of religion. (What about the “poetry and mystery” of the ancient Greek or Norse Gods?)

I can’t judge how Grayling’s text differs from other New Atheist books—my copy hasn’t yet arrived—but I suspect that it’s much heavier on secular philosophy as a replacement for religion.  And the other New Atheist books were quite different from each other. While some of the arguments in the books of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins were similar, the points they covered did not overlap substantively and their styles were very different. And Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell, did not resemble these at all: it was about the psychological and evolutionary origins of faith.

Grayling beats a dead horse: Christianity is on the way out anyway:

But the philosophers are complacent about such orthodoxies. They prefer to rail against the tottering remnants of Western Christianity, a dying force if ever there was one. The writers who take part in this assault do sometimes make rude remarks about Islam, and often make righteous references to Islam’s role in terrorism. But it is in Christian countries that they publish, and it is Christian advantages which they aim to remove or reduce — Christian state schools, Christian church privileges in law and custom, the primacy of Christianity in culture.

One would think that Hitchens had never visited America, where Christianity is not only alive and well, but invidious and dangerous. It intrudes itself into the public schools and into government, and indoctrinates children with fear and sexual repression. Is Hitchens ignorant of what the Catholic church does in Ireland and Africa? If he thinks that the remnants of Western Christianity are tottering, he should go to sub-Saharan Africa or South America.

And Hitchens is simply misleading when he argues that the books concentrate on Christianity alone.  Harris’s book is largely about Islam, which plays no small role in The God Delusion and God is Not Great. And so what if the authors live and publish in Christian countries (are the books not published in Israel)? If they aren’t published in Islamic countries, it’s not the fault of the authors.

Arguments against the truth of religious claims are unconvincing:

Like almost all atheists, he tries (and fails) to show that his belief is not a belief, but an obligatory default position. This ungenerous view damages him. As he rightly says: ‘One mark of intelligence is an ability to live with as yet unanswered questions.’ True, but one way of avoiding having to do this is to pretend that questions have been answered, when they have not been. While wholly satisfied with his own supposed proofs that God is not necessary for an understanding of the cosmos, he seems unaware that these formulae are as unconvincing to believers as ontological proofs of God’s existence are to atheists.

Religion, he says, is ‘exactly the same kind of thing as astrology’; religious believers are repeatedly equated with those who believe in fairies, goblins and dragons. This is no more use in serious discussion than jibes about Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is a closing of the mind. Why does he close it?

So a refusal to believe in gods, then, is itself a belief? What Hitchens doesn’t get here is that we don’t have a definitive disproof of the existence of gods—science and reason can never do that, especially for deistic gods—but we do have an absence of evidence for gods, when, according to theistic lights, there should be evidence.  Everyone pretty much sees that absence of evidence, for even theologians grapple with the question of why God is hidden.

At bottom, the evidence for God comes down to two things—revelation and indoctrination.  And those are far less compelling to any rational person than is the disproof of the ontological argument, which is simply a stupid concatenation of words that sounds good for about five minutes.  And how many religious people even know of the ontological argument? I’d wager less than 3% of American Christians. Their faith is based not on these slippery lucubrations of theologians, but on revelation and what their parents or preachers told them.

Nothing angers the faithful more than equating religion to Santa or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s because they know in their hearts that the analogy is pretty good. After all, Christians unanimously reject other gods, both living and dead, for lack of evidence: that’s the basis of John Loftus’s “Outsider Test for Faith.” The serious discussion can be summarized in three words: lack of evidence.

Atheism isn’t like “non-stamp” collecting.

‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’. At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.

But the comparison is flatly untrue. Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse. They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.

At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery.  There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.

The difference between stamp collecting and religion is that the former is a private activity, with no effect on anyone else.

If Hitchens doesn’t see the difference, he’s a moron.

84 Comments

  1. BilBy
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Also “bald men with glasses” – I take that as a personal insult, and I am merely ‘receding’. Seriously though, lovely riposte – I read Hitchens’ review and I hoped you would take it on.

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Hair growth slows or ceases where there is less decaying matter… and glasses are for those all intent on seeing clearly… ;-)

  2. Posted March 3, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    There is an article by Grayling in the Observer/Guardian. The first paragraph is especially wonderful: tinyurl.com/d3uznjt

  3. DekeBrodie
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Peter Hitchens writes,

    religious believers are repeatedly equated with those who believe in fairies, goblins and dragons. This is no more use in serious discussion than jibes about Father Christmas…

    Yet here is a private prayer, written in a diary, by another famous right-winger:

    “Dear God, You have given me so much… A lovely family, wonderful possessions, this incredible place… so I don’t like to ask you for things…But I want to go back to the House of Commons because I want to save my Party. And only you can so order this. Because of course you can do anything.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4729022/Wheedling-with-God.html

    Santa-god-god-Santa. What’s the difference again?

  4. gbjames
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I had a very similar response to Peter Hitchens’ stamp collector comments. I’ve been trying to remember the last time one came to my door to share the good news about rare sheets of 1921 Romanian Ferdinand 1B stamps.

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Jerry’s reply is a good one, as far as refuting Hitchens’ argument goes.

      BUT…really, Hitchens has simply missed the point of the analogy altogether. The point of the analogy is to demonstrate that atheism isn’t a positive position, isn’t a set of beliefs, isn’t a “religion” as so many theists insist, and that, therefore, the burden of proof doesn’t lie with atheism.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        The point of the analogy certainly isn’t to compare the nerdliness of stamp-collectors and theists.

        That’s just mind-blowingly obtuse.

      • Flaffer
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Exactly as I was going to say: Hitchens (weird writing that name in such a context) misses the analogy altogether to construct a straw man of Grayling’s use of it. And I would add that analogies are not arguments: they are illustrations to elucidate the reader of other points previously argued. I am sure Grayling says much more then that about the notion he is getting at.

        • Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          You could pull the rug from under Peter Hitchens’ criticism by noting that atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position. Now, atheists are the dull folks who aren’t getting any…

          /@

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Frankly I wouldn’t mind consigning the “non-stamp-collecting” analogy to the dustbin. A better analogy, it seems to me, is to say that atheism is like not dressing up in Star Fleet uniforms and uttering your marriage vows in Klingon. It’s like realizing that there are no Jedi Knights in real life, and no Ministry of Magic hidden off an alley in Whitehall.

      And New Atheism is like not wanting to remake society after the pattern of some children’s adventure story.

      • eric
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Frankly I wouldn’t mind consigning the “non-stamp-collecting” analogy to the dustbin

        Me too. I think the meme that its a scientifically negative or ‘merely skeptical’ position is old, outdated, and really needs to be retired.

        We know how a lot of things work. And every time we figure out how something works, God or the supernatural is found to play no part in it. F=ma is not simply a statement of absence of evidence, it is evidence of absence of God in kinetic force. His contribution to F is NOT unknown or undefined. It is very well known and characterized – its zero. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. No influence, no contribution.

        Atheists are not non-stamp collectors. They are the people who think stamps have value as postage and as trade items. Atheists are the ones who think stamps have measurable mass and physical properties, but no other magical or undefinable value beyond what we see. And the evidence is not neutral on that question. Its very clearly supportive of the atheist claim.

        • Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          This is why some (_rara avis_!) Christian physicist I met once insisted that the believer should have known in the 17th century that something like QM (and not Newtonian mechanics) must be true in order to allow god to do anything! I never did get to ask him why I should take that seriously, when people like Leibniz insist that “perpetual miracles” like that would be uncool, deity activity-wise.

          (Of course, both positions are ridiculous for other reasons, but …)

    • Occam
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:08 am | Permalink

      The 1921 Ferdinand 1B sheet simile is indeed most apt in regard to the output of Peter Hitchens:
      - lots of perforations all around;
      - multiple errors;
      - low accuracy.

      • gbjames
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

        (Of course, my 1921 Ferdinand example was upside down. The hypothetical guy at the door should have had good news about not collecting the 1B sheets.)

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Are any Gnu A books that tackle only Xtianity while keeping entirely silent on Islam published in Arabic? If not, they must be seen as making points that are only a stone’s throw from home.

  6. Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Peter has a peculiar hitch in his get-along and has spent too many years in the post office of apologetics collecting unfounded accolades via media rate at the expense of his brother.

  7. Matt Bowman
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    or rioting and killing when a stamp collecting book is burned, or saying that licking a stamp will remove your sins, or telling women to cover their bodies and to never touch stamps with their hands, or stoning those who desecrate stamps,

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      … nor do we see stamp collectors insisting that the most significant benefit of stamp collecting is that it allows one to avoid the dangerous trap of being a non-collector — a fate worse than death. No offense intended, of course.

  8. Marcoli
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Another example for why I wish spokespersons for the atheist camp to go forth early and often to write book reviews and other commentary in major newspapers and magazines — to counter and simply out-gun the pronouncements of the faitheist and religious spokespersons. Put the good word out where people who do not read these blogs will see it.
    It is also a shame for us that we have a rather different Hitchens around.

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      It is also a shame for us that we have a rather different Hitchens around.

      Positive proof that there is indeed no God.

      • revelator60
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Or that God found Christopher better company. He’s probably dreading the day Peter arrives in heaven. (“Tell that awful bore that I’m out smiting someone.”)

  9. Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Yikes, an embarrassing little screed if those excerpts are any indication. I like how Hitchens accuses the book of being immune to “poetry or mystery”, because clearly if you criticize theology poetry is going to be entirely lost on you.

    Then the bit about stamp collecting. I would presume with the analogy Grayling is trying to head off the silly argument that atheism is itself a religion. But Hitchens, in hilarious and full righteous indignation, chooses to interpret it as a mean atheist calling religious people nerds. He seems to be one of those people that make a profession of being aggrieved.

    I doubt but a handful of people in the US know who Peter Hitchens is, anyone have insight into how seriously he’s taken across the pond?

    • bric
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      I thought it was an oblique reference to Lord Rutherford’s “All science is either physics or stamp collecting”

    • Andrew B.
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Yeah, he completely misunderstood the purpose of the analogy. What a dope.

    • davidintoronto
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Aren’t there a whole series of those analogies? – e.g., if atheism is a religion then “off” is a TV channel, etc. There must be one of them that won’t offend religious sensibilities. Or maybe not.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Reminds me of this, from Bush II, trying to tell people to turn their tvs off:

        “Put the “off” button on.”

      • Walt Jones
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        I hadn’t heard this one, but it is particularly apt, given how many channels/religions/denominations there are.

    • Faustus
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      anyone have insight into how seriously he’s taken across the pond?

      Well his nickname is Bonkers Hitchens, if that helps.

  10. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Peter Hitchens, the unthinking persons Hitch.

  11. Dave J L
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I’m finding the atheist-theist back-and-forth just tiresomely frustrating these days: the same arguments are made by theists and repudiated by atheists only to be endlessly repeated by theists as though no counter-argument is forthcoming (and too often with an ‘I’ve never heard an answer to this question’ line). I can’t understand how people can obsess over one philosophy, one text or one figure so constantly and over their whole lives as, say, Christians do with Jesus: the endless re-reading of the same words seeking the final, correct interpretation (however they would know that it is the correct one), the weekly ritual of Mass, the daily prayer.

    I’m just frankly bored of Jesus (and religion in general, but as a Westerner Jesus is the local supernatural hero of choice of course). There are simply more interesting figures in history, more complex and intelligent philosophy, more valuable insights, better poetry, and more interesting and moral stories to found across the whole spectrum of human culture – but then once people have committed to a particular system’s set of rules and promise of eternal happiness it is very difficult to plunge into the exhilarating messy world of having to think for oneself.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:21 am | Permalink

      Very nice.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Which would be fine … except for the fact that all of the OTHER historical figures and philosophers don’t have undue influence in the halls of power.

      If religion — Jesus included — were just another philosopher, then it would indeed be just as you claim. And one can only wait for that day to come.

      But philosophers of Jesus — aka theologians, priests, ministers, et al — DEMAND that their interpretation of Jesus’ philosophy be seen as the only philosophy that is considered. Never mind that they can’t even agree as to even the smallest particulars about his philosophy.

      No, I think there’s a very very large difference. And that difference is the expectation of authority.

  12. Uncle Ebeneezer
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    The Santa/FSM analogy is brilliant because it gets to the very heart of the problem with belief in something for which NO evidence exists. Unfortunately religion is exempt from any analogy because no matter what you compare it to, the fallback is always “but religion is different!” And “you’re making fun of us!” Even in argumentation, religion is entitled to be treated differently than any other concept/view. Ugh…

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I like comparing jebus, the saints, mohamed, etc. to super heroes like superman, captain america, etc. and the devil, satan etc. to their arch enemies, lex luthor etc.

      It’s fun watching people trying to get their heads around that.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      I think that the best analogy is that believing in God is like believing in vitalism. Or, perhaps, like believing in psychic powers.

      Because when you think about it — that’s not really an analogy, is it? And yet many ‘sophisticated believers’ like P. Hitchens think they’ve rejected both hypotheses as unscientific nonsense. No they haven’t. They haven’t rejected them all the way down.

  13. watson
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Brilliant points refuting the (seemingly misunderstood) stamp collecting analogy. I look forward to reading Grayling’s book when I can get it. It is interesting to me–having read WEIT, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, Breaking the Spell, Godless and several other books in the last year–how believers accuse the authors of being mean, negative or rude. Certainly some of the less science-focused books contain some sardonic languange, but for the most part I found them to be generally kind and reasonable. It isn’t meanness, it is frustration at willful ignorance despite the availability of information. As to the poetry of religion: hogwash. There is so much poetry in reality that it reduces platitudinous religion to soot.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      What’s rude is that the atheists are addressing the public but aren’t reassuring everyone that they don’t want to take away anyone’s faith — because having faith is such a wonderful quality. No, atheists don’t grant that it is. That drives the critics up the wall.

      We’re supposed to say “well, we personally choose not to have believe … but it’s only our opinion after all.” We’re not supposed to try to convince people. That’s rude; it’s like telling them their personal choices are bad.

      It’s like hitting below the belt. They should be safe when they admit faith is fragile. They don’t think this means their views are now even MORE open to attack.

  14. Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    we don’t have a definitive disproof of the existence of gods—science and reason can never do that, especially for deistic gods

    I think this is bit debatable. From the standpoint of logic, yes, we can not deliver a definitive positive proof that Gods do not exist. (But we can get pretty darned close, especially considering the incoherency of the concept).

    But from the standpoint of the scientific method, we can go one step further. A hypothesis for which there is no reliable evidence, and for which there is no epistemic need of the hypothesis, is a false hypothesis.

    If it can be shown that the search for the evidence which failed to present itself in favor of the hypothesis was reasonably diligent and broad in scope – then is it not fair to say that the hypothesis has been disproved?

    Surely we would not say that the existence of garden fairies is still an open scientific question? From a scientific standpoint, the existence of garden fairies has indeed been disproved.

  15. Ray Moody
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    The Guardian has, apparently, an excerpt from Grayling. I find this enormously appealing.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/03/humanism-religion-reason-our-best-hope

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      FWIW, same link as in comment #2.

  16. cuttle
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    You should all have a quick look ay his blog and see his position on evolution

    • gbjames
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      “His” = P. Hitchens? A.C. Grayling? (We know it isn’t J.A.C. since he has no blog.)

      • cuttle
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Sorry , PH blog, check the index , basically he choses Christianity because he wishes to live in a purposeful universe with an ultimate authority. He thinks evolution is atheistic in purpose, so pretends tgere is insufficient data, go read a few posts

        • Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:09 am | Permalink

          Someone please put PH out of his misery, and stuff a pacifier in his mouth, swaddle him in some baby clothes, and put him in a crib. OH, yeah, don’t forget to give him a plush Jebus with which to fondle. He will be happy, and we will be happy. Win/Win!

          Seriously, do these folks who crave purpose given to them on a platter, and who proudly parade their squirming grovelling under the thumb of absolute authority have no idea how unappealing they appear?

          • darrelle
            Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

            Nice! Very well said.

          • Chris
            Posted March 4, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

            Out of our misery, you mean. I assume that he’s pretty happy the way he is!

  17. stabbinfresh
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to go with “Peter Hitchens is a moron.”

    • Marella
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and a particularly bitter one since his brother was such a genius. It can’t be easy growing up in the shadow of such brilliance. I get the feeling that Peter is very much determined to be in the limelight, but with little to offer of any real substance, hence religion; the last resort of the mediocre.

    • Occam
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      I’m going to peterhitchens Peter Hitchens:

      Like Scandinavian crime series on TV

      The petty-fogging, narrow-minded brunnmigi and jötnar who dismiss “Nordic noir” are not fit to acknowledge the magnificence of creation. They who do not admire and worship Lena Klingström, Sarah Lund, and the most sublimely autistic of Malmö’s finest, Saga Norén, must be afflicted with phimosis of the soul. They are beyond redemption, beneath contempt, forever doomed to the soapy swampiness of EmilyVancampy blah.

      • Xray
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        I’ve been much enjoying the Swedish “Martin Beck” tv series (with English subtitles), broadcast (i.e. over the air) out of Fairfax,Virgina. Nice and melancholy, the way I like it.

  18. Gordon Hill
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    “The difference between stamp collecting and religion is that the former is a private activity, with no effect on anyone else.”

    To the seriously religious, their religious practice is a personal matter, not because they choose it, rather due to the fact(?) that every human mind is unique biologically and comprehensively, hence, if one’s quest to live a meaningful life leads them to religion or not, it is strictly personal irrespective of organizational edicts. All one need do is look to the Roman Catholic excommunicants like Meister Eckhart or Matthew Fox to see the evidence.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Like almost all atheists, he tries (and fails) to show that his belief is not a belief, but an obligatory default position.

    Claim in need of evidence, which certainly P. Hitchens is unable to provide. The best he can do is to make another unasserted (and obviously erroneous) claim, that the statistical null hypothesis is of the same usefulness as “ontological proofs”.

    This is what modern religious hand waving has evolved into – PHitch-flapping.

  20. kelskye
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The reason for the comparison to dragons / fairies / santa / etc. is that they are things that are to be believed without evidence. If one finds it unfair that God fits into the category, they would have to explain why God is different. Otherwise it’s just a fallacious case of special pleading.

    To say it has no serious place in discussion is how I feel about things that are faith-based. (Once you concede a belief is beyond evidence and reason, there’s nothing left to talk about.) I don’t want to be discussing the ontological status of unicorns, nor the properties of unicorn horn. I don’t want to hear about the inspiration that unicorns have provided artists and cultures, and how I shouldn’t be so arrogant to presume that my limited epistemology cannot definitively rule out unicorns. It’s silly, and Peter Hitchens rightfully recognises it as silly in the case of unicorns. If only he would extend that logic to God…

    • kelskye
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Funnily enough, on an online discussion of God I compared arguing over God’s properties to arguing over the number of horns unicorns had. To my surprise, people actually started arguing over what unicorns were – including one person who claimed that unicorns did exist but that they were a probably some sort of buffalo. Talk about missing the point!

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        Ah, but how many points?

        /@

        • kelskye
          Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:25 am | Permalink

          Did you cringe while writing that? ;)

          • Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:33 am | Permalink

            Not at all! :-D

            /@

            PS. Typical depictions of unicorns as simply horses with (single!) narwhal-ish horns sprouting from their foreheads annoy me. Real unicorns had cloven hooves, beards like goats’ and tails like lions’. Dave Sutherland (DCS) got it right in the original AD&D Monster Manual.

            • Occam
              Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

              “Real unicorns”!
              I must bow very low indeed.
              The essence and spirit of theology epitomised in the deadpan conjunction of just two words! :)

              • Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                All I can say is that mediæval heralds were very clear on this.

                But then these were the same people for whom a lion became a leopard by turning his head to face out of the shield. ;-)

                /@

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I actually know some people who believe (or claim to believe) in fairies.

      Part of their justification for this is a comparison with believing in God. So contra phitchens, they don’t find the analogy insulting at all.

      They’re very nice people, by the way — and fairly intelligent in general. This is what ‘faith’ does to a normal ability to reason. It leads you into a culture where you learn to sneer at a Grayling-style analysis and focus instead on ‘poetry and mystery.’

      • kelskye
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        The goal is to find something they agree with to be false, then ask why what they hold to be true is any different. It’s actually quite difficult to do this because people who hold one faith-based belief tend to hold multiple faith-based beliefs, and even if they reject a particular belief it’s not for good reasons. (For example, someone may reject physic powers not because it’s absurd, but it’s the work of the devil.)

        It’s weird when I’ve argued using obvious examples of absurdity like homoeopathy and astrology to have people come back and say they believe in those too. That strategy backfires too easily as it assumes a part of rationality towards beliefs other than their own – and for some of faith it’s woo all the way down.

  21. exsumper
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Peter Hitchens and unfortunatly, his late brother Christopher: despite his atheist leanings. Are part of a peculiarly British phenomena, that of Rich, privelidged and spoilt public schoolboys who embrace extreme left or right wing politics merely to be contrarian.

    The anthem of similar leftists leaning individuals being “The working class can kiss my arse I’ve got a labour MP’s job at last” The last part can also be substituted for “I’ve got me snout in the trough at last” Sung to the tune of the “Red Flag”.

    The most recent exponent of this attitude being John Prescott; Now Lord Prescott of Hypocrisy. Hypocrisy being the name of the small village he lives in; other residents being Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Having read “Hitch 22″, I can reasonably dismiss your assertion. C. H. was neither rich or spoilt, unless attendance at British public schools qualifies as “spoilting” by definition.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        Some would see attendance at a British public school (an independent school; ie, not a state school; quite different from “public school” in the U.S.!) as being spoilt.

        Others, merely aspirational – or just “necessary” if you feel the local state school is underperforming.

        Hitchens’ mother is quoted as saying: “if there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it”, as justification for sending him to Mount House and then Leys.

        /@

        • gbjames
          Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          As I recall, considerable scrimping was required by his parents to allow him his education?

          • gbjames
            Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

            Argh. “.” not “?”.

          • Posted March 3, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            Oh, yes. I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. Only that some people regard those who attended British public schools as privileged and elitist and spoiled regardless of how much their (the pupils’) parents had to scrimp and save to pay for it.

            Many of the pupils’ families are rich, of course. As some friends have noted, having such school-friends can suddenly inflate your daughter’s expectations for Christmas and birthday presents… “But Tabitha’s parents bought her a pony!” I dare say some of those children are spoilt!

            /@

  22. peter
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    “…far less compelling to any rational person than is the disproof of the ontological argument, which is simply a stupid concatenation of words that sounds good for about five minutes…”

    Jerry’s writing is mostly very strong in general in this response, as it usually is. And the Ontological Argument for the existence of anything like ‘god’ is not at all convincing to me. But I think statements like the above quote are not entirely well-considered, and may do more harm than good in trying to sway fence-sitters who take the trouble to try to understand all serious discussion in the past about that topic. For example, what people like Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and even Russell took the trouble to say things seriously about is for them more than just “a stupid concatination of words”.

    Those guys are philosophers, and I have been very negative about philosophy here, much more than Jerry I think, and it is true that all but the last of those four lived long before Darwin. Furthermore I’m not saying they bought Anselm’s version of that argument—they didn’t, but didn’t agree with each other either.

    It seems to me that it would be much more accurate and effective to say something like

    ‘…far less compelling to any present-day rational person than is the observation that, despite various versions in modern logic of the ontological argument being formally correct, their translation into statements about reality completely fail to be at all convincing about the existence of anything remotely like ‘god’ as conceived by the even faintly religious…’

    • MorsGotha
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      Or you could be less verbose to fit it into a blo…..website post by saying:

      “…far less compelling to any rational person than is the disproof of the ontological argument, which is simply a stupid concatenation of words that sounds good for about five minutes…”

      • peter
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        With your extraordinary precision, you should tell us, in a few words, your analysis of the argument (and why you think the two sort-of-quotes in mine do say the same—I didn’t think so). This will help some of us not to incompetently waste words. It’s really a shame that so many scientists and logicians do waste so many, and bother writing unnecessary detail. I assume you yourself disagree with the Ontological Argument, but you don’t really say, do you? Perhaps you could give us also your proof of Fermat that fits into his famous margin, as long as you are briefly and devastatingly demonstrating the incompetence of Descartes and Spinoza from around the same era.

  23. Wowbagger
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    The comments in the Guardian article where people are dismissive of Grayling as elitist are especially grating; having met and spoken to the man twice, I can say – given I am not myself not especially well-versed in philosophy – he is one of the most approachable and easy to talk to of nearly all of the ‘big names’ in the atheist community I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter.

    To say otherwise is a transparent dodge to avoid dealing with the many very salient points he’s raised.

  24. s.k.graham
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I thought I would address just one point you make:

    “After all, Christians unanimously reject other gods, both living and dead, for lack of evidence”

    I think this is actually not true of most believers. They do not believe in the gods and miracles of other religions because they already believe their own religion, and the other religions contradict their religion. In other words, their non-belief in other religions is based on exactly the same thing as their belief in their own religion: faith.

    Some religious people may attack the beliefs of other religions using the tools and language of skeptics — but I think that is just a rhetorical stratagem, and has little to do with the real reason they choose their particular religion over all the others.

    I used to think the following quote was quite insightful, spoken as an atheist to a believer (I don’t know the origin): “Once you understand why you do not believe in the gods of all other religions, then you will understand why I do not believe in yours.”

    Now I realize that religious people disbelieve in gods other than their own for quite different reasons than I disbelieve in all gods.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure that’s true. Seems to me that educated Christians disbelieve in Zeus not because of the First Commandment, but because it’s obvious to any educated person that Zeus is a myth. Which is the same reason I disbelieve in Jesus.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you have to be careful. Surveys will often show that the religious will reject things like astrology and tarot cards, for example, but when they say they “don’t believe in it” they don’t mean what a skeptic means — that these things are not true as revealed by scientific investigation. They mean that they are forbidden, wrong. It’s like saying “I don’t believe in nuclear power.”

  25. tumara Baap
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    “a nasty undertone of spite”

    It’s all Peter need say to rubbish the book, and not say a word more. This is an incredibly powerful sentiment amongst the lay American public. I’ve come across its blindingly bright glare in personal conversations. And it shows up in pop culture (the sharp tongued godless biologist who gets eviscerated by an apocalyptic nut in an episode of Dexter is a prime example). As with a lot of people the strength of one’s opinion on any given subject correlates rather poorly with how well informed they are. Most people holding these clearly defined and entrenched opinions on atheists have never read anything like The God Delusion, and never will. Yet any hazy accusation of a mean spirited atheist hell bent on making others feel stupid for no good reason has such enormous resonance with folks it simply eclipses all other points being parried about. Once you acknowledge how counterintuitive atheism can be to most people – and it is- not just in coming to grips with various concepts, say algorithmic compressibility for one, but also how neuroscience fundamentals play out like how we stamp a sense of “know” and “certainty” to the things around us. Whether you like it or not, for most scientifically illiterate Americans it’s an impossibly high wall to climb over. It makes the the challenge before atheists an exponentially more difficult one.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The greatest challenge we face is getting the general public to recognize that religion is a hypothesis about reality and therefore should be critiqued and criticized. It’s not a series of values held by simple and vulnerable people who need to trust themselves and not be undermined.

  26. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    “In which I once again play Grayling’s Bulldog, biting Peter Hitchens”

    Careful! We don’t want you to come down with rabies!

  27. Arthur
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    >”At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery. There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.

    The difference between stamp collecting and religion is that the former is a private activity, with no effect on anyone else.

    If Hitchens doesn’t see the difference, he’s a moron.”

    I heartily agree that Religion or atheism should be private matters for people to use in theri own ways. However, this line of argument raises some very difficult questions;

    What should the critria be for any government of the people supporting any organization under the 501 (c)3 tax law? The government supports not only religious institutions under that law, but academic institutions, of which most are secular, scientific research institutes, and countless secular charities that operate under its rules. The government redistributes enormous numbers of tax dollars to fund the arts (which convey no empiric truths, but rather help people to respond to them) and to fund scientific research. What should we measure to decide whether these institutions or projects are worthy or unworthy of using people’s hard earned money for their purposes? Do all of the insitutions, artists, thinkers and researchers operating with these benefits provide adequate value to the people served by our government? How do we know? Do all of the people in these institutions, or all of these researchers operate in an honest, ethical and “moral” manner? How should we assure that they do?

    The arguments quoted above seem to have less to do with the scientific “truth” of religion (which like the arts does not convey empiric truths, but rather helps people to respond to them) than with political decision making about it. Those are two very different lines of argument, and in fact, probably have little to do with each other. I would ask what empiric evidence has been gathered that would value artistic responses over religious responses to the natural world? Could it be that both methods of responding have unique value, and that each serves different purposes for different people?

    • Sastra
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I think we could gather empiric evidence from religious people themselves: do you care if your religion is true, or is it only important because of how it makes you feel?

      If they admit that well, yes — the value of religion really does rest on its truth value, then we can add that into the politics. Perhaps it’s a bit like homeopathy or fortune telling: legal as long as there’s an open admission that it’s not intended to actually cure anything — for amusement purposes only.

      • Arthur
        Posted March 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Sastra,
        I would love to see that study done, provided the questions were well designed and the sample size large enough. While many religious believers value their belief for what they call its truths, those truths are clearly not empiric. On the other hand many believers I know accept their religious faith as a response to empiric truths that they accept as such, and hold onto the hope that there are other truths that transcend them.

        Also, I am not discussing the legality of religious belief, I am discussing the value of a government supporting it, or supporting other non empirically-based cultural endeavors, like the arts, or the academy. I think Dr Coyne mentions that there is an overlap of ideas between religion and secular humanism. How do we know which of the activities of either realm deserve government funding?

  28. Kevin
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I can’t wait to get my copy of Grayling’s book. It must be pretty darn good to generate this amount of bile.

  29. Sastra
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    AC Grayling is such an interesting gentleman: writing brilliant new atheist literature while decrying the new atheists. Perhaps he can reconcile this conflict by shifting his stance from “I’m different from them” to “I’m the best of them!”

    That might be debatable — but it’s surely less confusing to his fans.

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      “decrying the new atheists” – does he? He certainly considers Richard Dawkins to be a “chum”.

      /@

  30. Posted March 23, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I ordered Grayling’s book, “The God Argument” from Amazon and had to wait a couple of weeks for it to be delivered to my Kindle. It is worth the wait. I will review it separately but I wanted to comment on a point that Grayling makes, that agrees with something Jerry said and contradicts something I suggested in another post about Jonathan Haidt’s and others’ ideas about a possible genetic basis for religion. Grayling points out in the first section of his book that the Chinese are without religion (except for the few successes of missionaries and some others). Confucianism for example is not what we would call a religion per se. Most Chinese just are not religious at all. This is a huge proportion of the human population. Jerry made the same point on his blog about Europeans, who certainly at one time were very religious but who are no longer “in the fold.” So even if it is possible in principle that cultural evolution could lead to genetic selection favoring religion, it is clear that religion is a cultural phenomenon, a collection of memes in Dawkins’ sense. Whatever merits or defects religion may have for society depend almost exclusively on cultural transmission.


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