The TLS osculates Christianity

I used to write a lot of reviews for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), but I do that no longer. But as far as I’m aware, the TLS is turning into an organ of religious-osculation, with piece after piece making nice to faith. Now I may be wrong, as I don’t subscribe and have to depend on what people send me (surely a biased sample), or what is free online.  But what is free online now is pretty dire: an article by Rupert Shortt called “How Christianity invented modernity.” (Note: it’s free this week only.)  Shortt is in fact the religion editor of the TLS, so one can get an idea of what their attitude is to religious books—OSCULATION OF FAITH. Shortt is a Christian whose written a book called , Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack, and, as this interview shows, is clearly afflicted with a Christian persecution complex . He’s also written a book about the former Archbishop of Canterbury: Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop, and a theological book called God is No Thing: a Coherent Christianity, which appears to be a polemic against New Atheism.

In this piece Shortt reviews two books: The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values, by Nick Spencer, and Sceptical Christianity: Exploring Credible Belief, by Robert Reiss. The two things you discover on plowing your way through this review is 1. It’s not really a review, but a sermon, setting out Shortt’s views on Christianity and his opprobrium towards nonbelievers (at the end Shortt lapses into full Jonathan Edwards mode) and 2. for a literary editor, Shortt can’t write very well. You’ll see that from the excerpts. I’ll give a few from different areas (indented, with emphases mine), so you can see how his “sophisticated” views consist, as with Sophisticated Theologians™, of academic prose veiling a simple will to believe.

New Atheism: In shortt, he doesn’t like New Atheism because it gives us no purchase for morality. Further, Shortt raises the usual canard that New Atheists criticize only a strawman: a simplified version of Christianity.

First, is secularism really robust enough to carry the freight once shouldered by the Church in Europe? Ask politicians or NGOs about the functional aspect of human rights, say, and you’re likely to get an assured answer. Ask about the source of those rights, or about deeper questions of truth and purpose, and the replies are coy. Second and more significantly, is Moran’s apparent assumption that we are simply dancing a minuet around the void actually true? Armchair philosophers – many of them far less acute than James or Moran – regularly announce that the centre cannot hold. As Terry Eagleton among others has emphasized, such people can purchase their unbelief on the cheap, usually by setting up a straw man version of religion no thoughtful believer could accept, before felling it with a single puff. To counter that things do not fall apart may take courage, or insight of another sort – or maybe just the innocence of a child.

. . .A forward glance – this time taking account not just of postmodern discontents, but also of the formidable forces arrayed on Murdoch’s side of the argument – might reference the work of Charles Taylor or Alasdair MacIntyre in the English-speaking world. Murdoch’s spiritual leanings were idiosyncratic. She accepted tags such as Platonist and Christian Buddhist. But MacIntyre and Taylor, standing at different points on the Catholic spectrum, have set out with greater clarity a revised humanism based on the creative agency of human beings over and against reductive and instrumental patterns of thinking. Their work rests on a potentially far-reaching awareness: that if we are not self-created, we are answer­able to a truth we don’t make. 

First of all, what does he mean by “answerable to a truth”? Morality is not an objective truth, at least not in my view. Our ethics are devised to conform to our preferences, informed by empirical observation. Throughout the article, Shortt is distressed that there’s no basis for morality without God, and Christianity in particular. The response to this is to show that atheists are at least as moral as religionists, which seems to be the case. If that weren’t true, most of Northern Europe would be a den of perfidy and criminality.

Social contributions of Christianity

Liberalism’s theological pedigree has been forcefully set out by Christopher Insole in The Politics of Human Frailty (2004). He also points to elements of secular thinking in areas like law that a Christian can own and celebrate, for instance John Rawls’s emphasis on the importance of reciprocity, the withholding of coercive power, and the difficulty of making moral judgements given the tangled nature of experience. Here we get a glimpse of Christianity’s protean character. Theology has spawned many schools of thought, both complementary and competing, including secularism itself. 

Is that a contribution of religion, or a reaction against religion? I think the latter. Shortt has some chutzpah to give credit to theology for secularism! But don’t forget justice!:

. . . (Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae contains a far more detailed treatise on justice than anything Aristotle provided. It addresses a host of topics including homicide, unjust enrichment, injuries against the person, slander, fraud and professional misconduct.)

Yes, and he also believed in divine punishment, consigning sinners to hell, which is a form of ‘justice’ founded on wish-thinking and social control. I’ll let those more learned than I comment on the nonreligious social contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas. But wait! Shortt gives Christianity credit for almost everything!

In brief, it is no accident that developments including the rule of law, the market economy, democracy and the welfare state have flourished most strongly in traditionally Christian societies. Within the past few generations, the UN Declaration of Human Rights emerged mainly from the hands of Catholics and Protestants working in tandem, while faith-based conviction has mobilized millions of people to oppose authoritarian regimes, inaugurate democratic transitions, and relieve suffering on a grand scale.

What he means is not “traditionally Christian societies”—for much of Western Europe is not Christian now, but is still capitalistic and all that other stuff—but “the West”. And of course Marxism and Nazism, as well as nuclear weapons, also arose in traditionally Christian societies. Further, democracy arose in ancient Greece, not to my knowledge a Christian society.

If Christianity gets all the credit for stuff that arose in the West, then it must take the blame as well. And faith-based conviction has also motivated millions of people to construct and obey authoritarian regimes, and to inflict suffering on a grand scale. (I refer to the Catholicism Shortt lauds.) What galls me most, though, is that Shortt gives Christianity credit for science:

The scientific contributions of Christianity 

What is true of social developments applies in large measure to science. Taylor’s A Secular Age (TLS, February 1, 2008) is among the most important works of revisionist scholarship to have overturned religion-versus-science clichés. For all the obduracy of certain theologians and church leaders, modern science did not arise in opposition to religion; on the contrary, it grew in a godly crucible. Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz and countless other pioneers were nothing if not serious Christians. The secularist turn only arose later. In establishing his thesis, Spencer supplies bite-sized introductions to the work of contemporary figures including Stephen Gaukroger, Peter Harrison and David Bentley Hart.

My guess is that from the 19th century on, scientists were, by and large, far more atheistic than the general public, a finding clearly documented in modern society. Once again Shortt gives to Christianity everything that arose in the West. The notion that all of these men wouldn’t have made their discoveries if they weren’t religious is dubious, with perhaps the exception of Newton. Note that neither Gaukroger, Harrison, nor Hart are scientists: they are theologians, philosophers, and historians (none is all of these).

Finally, Shortt might be asked, “Well, even if Christianity made those contributions, is it true? Or doesn’t that matter?” It surely does matter, for if the truth claims of Christianity be false, then there’s no reason to prize Christian morality above secular morality—or the morality of any other faith. And Shortt lays out the reasons we should believe in God (clearly the Christian God). For the life of me it all sounds like pure gibberish, but of the academic species:

You cannot (to posit a crazy thought experiment) add up everything in the universe, reach a total of n, then conclude that the final total is n + 1 because you’re also a theist. God belongs to no genus; divinity and humanity are too different to be opposites. By definition, then, no physical analogy will describe our putative creator adequately. We are migrating off the semantic map. But light is among the more helpful. The light in which we see is not one of the objects seen, because we apprehend light only inasmuch as it is reflected off opaque objects. From a monotheistic standpoint, it is the same with the divine light. The light which is God, writes the philosopher Denys Turner, we can see only in the creatures that reflect it. “Therefore . . . when we turn our minds away from the visible objects of creation to God, . . . the source of their visibility, it is as if we see nothing. The world shines with the divine light. But the light which causes it to shine is itself like a profound darkness.”

In other words, we know God exists because humans are godly and the world evinces divinity. But those aren’t the humans and the world I know.

Shortt also recycles the “first cause” argument, though he pretends it’s something else:

Given the hostility of many believers – let alone atheists – to the philosophy of religion, it is important to be clear about what theistic arguments amount to. They do not “prove” the existence of God. Apart from anything, a deity established on the Procrustean bed of human reason would be a small thing by comparison with the Creator who immeasurably surpasses our imaginings. To those who accept any of them, arguments such as Aquinas’s frequently misinterpreted Five Ways establish a more modest premiss: that theism is a valid inference of metaphysical reasoning, because contingent existence is not its own cause. There is no such thing as pure potentiality; even a quantum vacuum is not nothing. It is an entity within a structured cosmos. That God defies definition should neither surprise nor trouble enquirers. Reason infers the existence of causes from the existence of effects, without always being able to specify the nature of the causes from the nature of the effects. Perceiving God’s presence is a far cry from knowing what God is.

That’s just the old argument of “everything had a beginning, and the Beginning of the Beginning must have been God.” But that begs the question, because God is defined as not having a contingent existence. Finally, there’s always that good old “leap of faith”: you accept God’s existence simply because you want to. Here Shortt tricks that notion out a bit, but it’s still wish-thinking:

None of this, then, is to downgrade the importance of a leap of faith, better termed a leap of the imagination. Many take a lead from figures including Luther and Pascal here. Pascal thought that God can be expected to appear openly to those who truly search, but to remain hidden from those who do not seek. His work points to the importance of the motivational heart and will, rather than just the mind or the emotions. This path in turn connects with the gospel summons to newness of life.

Well, I’ve looked for God, and I haven’t found him. Why does He hide himself from me? Is it possible that a “seeker” is someone who is predisposed to find God? More tautology afoot.

I am weary of theology, and swore I wouldn’t discuss it much after I wrote Faith Versus Fact. Theology is pablum for intellectuals, an unworthy enterprise on a par with learned discourse about fairies. As Dan Barker quipped, it’s a subject without an object. So I’ll end with an excerpt from the end of the review. Here Shortt puts on his dog collar and steps into the pulipit (he’s not just summarizing a book’s thesis). It’s embarrassing, and I weep for the TLS of old:

Over and again, Jesus indicates that the question of how people relate to him will govern how they relate to the God he called Father. In effect, he is re-embodying and radicalizing God’s call to Israel at the dawn of the biblical drama. The message of the early Church is that a new phase of history has been ushered in by the cross and resurrection. God is not to be seen as a monad, but as a pattern of loving relationship (the awareness refracted in language by the doctrine of the Trinity). God invites humanity to share in this mutual exchange of love – that is, to partake in the divine life – as daughters and sons by adoption. The Church is the community on earth representing a “new creation”. It is both a human society with a sometimes woeful history, and a divine society called to implement God’s will for universal reconciliation.

There is much else that Reiss might have conveyed more vigorously. For example, that although the Scriptures as a whole are humanly written and developed history riddled with ambiguities and dead ends and fresh starts, they nevertheless form powerfully challenging calls to humanity to grow and reform itself. Or that because of the conviction that God’s world helps make itself at every level, the believer can fit into one picture evolution and its costliness, and the Christian redemptive answer to human and natural evil. Or that, in the words of the Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst, God is not only the background and the presupposition of human experience; “he is the foreground, the personally access­ible sense in human terms of the human search for the absolute beginning and the absolute end”

That last bit is, as far as I can see, meaningless. Readers are welcome to torture themselves trying to interpret it. And with that I’ll end.

48 Comments

  1. Judie Sigdel
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I think that there is some truth to this: “s it possible that a “seeker” is someone who is predisposed to find God?” I know that I am hardwired to seek AND to find, though not in keeping with the mainstream. Thank you for sharing this review. It saved me from reading a bad book.

  2. Robert Bray
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    It’s like the movie ‘Groundhog’s Day.’ One keeps waking up to the same refuted nonsense thrown at one again. It won’t die or even go away, while its authors pretend their voices are original cries in the wilderness of ignorance. That they can make a living thus is pretty darned amazing, especially in Britain.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Bit of ambiguity here, from misplacing a modifier! It’s amazing (to me) that such writers can make a living IN BRITAIN, not amazing in Britain. . . er. . . oh, hell, I give up.

    • ploubere
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it gets tedious. In the end, the the christian apologists are just boring.

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Yup. I don’t see anyone seriously engaging with the scholarship on the “scientific revolution greats” and their actual religious beliefs.

      To recap:

      Descartes only once attended a church as an adult, denied that the natural philosopher (scientist) should look for final causes in nature and wrote a deistic, Copernican-inspired cosmology.
      Newton denied the trinity and thought that space was something like the “sensorium” of God.
      Leibniz … is complicated, but he worked to reconcile Protestants and Catholics.
      Galileo wrote a pamphlet explaining biblical miracles in naturalistic terms and rejected the account of properties and qualities necessary (officially) for the Eucharist, etc.

      All of these are from standard (recent) work, and are in many cases also checkable directly from the original texts.

  3. Posted December 17, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    “Throughout the article, Shortt is distressed that there’s no basis for morality without God, and Christianity in particular. The response to this is to show that atheists are at least as moral as religionists, which seems to be the case.”

    This isn’t at all the answer. Shortt’s point is that secular humanism provides no basis for a SYSTEM of morality—a point I would agree with. INDIVIDUAL morality is simply a matter of following one’s conscience—not, as you suggest, one’s “preferences”—and has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one believes in God. In my experience, many atheists are not only “at least as moral as” but far more moral than many religionists.

    • Posted December 17, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but what the Christian “system” of morality is is simply following a farrago of God’s dictates. That’s not a “system” except that everything follows God. And if you have a philosophy underlying your humanistic morality, like Harris’s revised utilitarianism, then it is a system.

      Besides, who cares whether there’s a system or not? The important thing is that people act morally, no?

      • Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        “Sorry, but what the Christian ‘system’ of morality is is simply following a farrago of God’s dictates.”

        Only if you consider one’s conscience to be a “farrago of God’s dictates.” The most fundamental principle of the Christian (or at least Catholic, which is all I can speak to) system of morality is the primacy of individual conscience. Aquinas, whom you refer to, specifically states that one must follow one’s conscience even if it is in error. Under no circumstance is one to violate one’s own conscience, not if the Pope demands it, not if anyone demands it.

        “The important thing is that people act morally, no?”
        Yes. Actually the important thing is that I myself act morally. But if we want to establish cultural norms for acceptable behavior, then a “system of morality” comes in handy.

    • Brian Salkas
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Would something like deontology, utilitarianism, or virtue ethics be considered systems? If so, then secularists have options, but are not required to follow these systems. One can even take good moral lessons from holly books and incorperate them into ones daily life if one so chooses. I see no advantage in basing all of one values on a single (and often self-contradictory) religion.

    • Carl
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      This isn’t at all the answer. Shortt’s point is that secular humanism provides no basis for a SYSTEM of morality—a point I would agree with.

      This is not true – Spinoza’s Ethics provides a profound counter example. Not only does it provide an excellent atheistic system of morality, but (along with his Theological-Political Treatise) shows the deep weaknesses of religious morality and religious beliefs in general. If that isn’t enough, he goes on to argue for the whole spectrum of values that have made liberal democratic republics heaven on earth compared to what they replaced.

      For his trouble, Spinoza was considered the embodiment of evil, cursed and reviled throughout the century after his death by nearly the entire intelligentsia of Europe. But a funny thing happened on the way to his post mortem burning at the stake – a refutation of Spinoza, the arch atheist of Europe, was a requirement for serious intellectuals and theologians. So they read Spinoza, and propagated his views in their refutations, and the Enlightenment was born.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 18, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Shortt’s point is that secular humanism provides no basis for a SYSTEM of morality—a point I would agree with.

      Neither naturalism nor supernaturalism provide a basis for any specific system of morality, though they technically provide the foundation for whatever ethical system is chosen. Secular humanism, like sectarian religions, narrows the systems down — but only a bit. And that’s more the case with an Enlightenment-based humanism than with a theism which contains both divine command theory AND humanism.

      It’s telling I think that Shortt proudly refers to “Christianity’s Protean character” when it comes to morality. That’s just another way of saying that Christians often leave theology in order to find an ethical philosophy which really stands with or without God and Jesus. Again, as Jerry says, making a virtue out of necessity.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      “Shortt’s point is that secular humanism provides no basis for a SYSTEM of morality—”

      I don’t understand why not. Secular humanism asserts that humans themselves are the only source of prescriptive morality, which seems self-evident. From here it seems to me a natural progression to moral “systems” like Sam Harris’s, which basically derives morality from that which results in the greatest good (in terms of well-being) to the greatest number of people. (Which, in its simplest form, ultimately brings us back to the Golden Rule…) Before Harris, Paul Kurtz wrote extensively on what secular humanism should logically entail based on the idea that humans have the cognitive and emotional capabilities to determine what a humanist morality should consist of. Any conception of humanism, it seems to me, has a much better claim of being able to arrive at a logical “system” of morality than any “supernatural” based dictates like those of religion.

      • Posted December 19, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        “Paul Kurtz wrote extensively on what secular humanism should logically entail based on the idea that humans have the cognitive and emotional capabilities to determine what a humanist morality should consist of.”

        I will agree with you, and Kurtz, if you’re willing to concede that there are no such things as “inalienable” or innate—or what some folks would call “God-given” human rights—i.e., rights that can’t be bestowed or taken away by other humans or human institutions. If rights are simply “preferences” arrived at by a consensus of humans using their “cognitive and emotional capabilities,” and if this is what you mean by a “system” or what Kurtz means by “eupraxsophy,” then yes, this is indeed a logical system of morality. Problem is, if these cognitive and emotional capabilities determine by consensus that a humanist morality consists in exterminating the Jews, then how does one counter this?

  4. Claudia Baker
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    “…God can be expected to appear openly to those who truly search, but to remain hidden from those who do not seek.”

    Oh,how fucking convenient.

    • Simon
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Just like Bigfoot then.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 17, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        So, if I find god, then I’ll also find Big-athletes-foot as a deistic encrustation?

    • Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Ha ha. Just like the spirits won’t appear if there are any skeptics around the table.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 17, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        Spirits don’t appear when this sceptic is at the table and I don’t blame them. They’ve seen too many of their fellows disappear to a hell of dissolution and digestion down my throat.

        • Posted December 17, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          Ah yes, those highland sprites do not loiter at my table either.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted December 17, 2016 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

            I ain’t no Trumpet (sorry, Ben, not your fault). I’ll take on spirits from anywhere. Hell, I’ve even metabolised at least two American spirits.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Precisely!

  5. Barney
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    The strange thing is the contrast between his Sophisticated Theologian’s dismissal of atheists with “a straw man version of religion no thoughtful believer could accept” early on in the article, and his final criticism of Reiss’s book – as you say, in Jonathan Edwards mode, where he attacks Reiss as a Sophisticated Theologian while claiming the gospels should be taken as good history. Which seems to be embracing the straw man and proclaiming it as The Truth, to me.

  6. nicky
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes Jerry, you nailed it, mainly “gibberish”
    (worthy of Sokal and Briquemont)

  7. Gamall
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    TYPO ALERT:

    “Shortt is a Christian whose who has written a book called …”

    • bobkillian
      Posted December 18, 2016 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Also pablum, a ™ brand name for pabulum.

  8. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    “First, is secularism really robust enough to carry the freight once shouldered by the Church in Europe?”

    That would be the same church that tortured people until they confessed to consorting with the devil for those person’s “own good”.
    The same church that sold indulgences, attacked the Jews throughout history, and during WWII, helped the Nazi’s determine who were Jews by giving them church records.

    The same church who’s priests travelled with the Conquistadors and not only blessed the most horrific acts, but directed them.
    The Churches long sanction of slavery.
    And so many more acts that belie a system of morality.

    Being more moral than the churches in Europe doesn’t appear to be a very high bar, and those church officials and followers had basically the same bible (including the New Testament) that is used today.
    Which still seems to be no impediment to today’s European churches from committing moral wrongs, including hiding child raping priest from prosecution, or abusing young (and killing) unwed pregnant girls and women in Irish church run institutions.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I give him zero credit on the first point and half-credit on all the others.

    1) The atheist “straw man” argument would carry more weight if it weren’t for the fact that this fellow’s beloved Terry Eagleton almost certainly set up an atheist straw man!! Both Eagleton’s and Hedge’s rebuffs to the New Atheism are full of sweeping over-generalizations, with bland assumptions that all New Atheists think alike. (In this respect, I still admire liberal Christian author Frank Schaeffer’s “Patience for God” with its far far more careful parsing of the diversity of atheist positions.)

    2) I’ll grant him that Aquinas thought about morality more deeply than Aristotle, but he still owed a great deal to Aristotle.
    But even more bothersome then Thom/Aq’s belief in hell is his belief is that one of the joys of heaven is hearing the cries of torments of the damned.
    ((IIIa Supplement to the Third Part of the Summa, Questions 94, 97, 98 & 99) – “1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.”)

    3) Yes, Christianity gave a boost to science, but to a significant degree by its by way of appropriation of pagan Greek philosophical monotheism.
    Aristotle In chapters 6 to 10 of book 12 of the Metaphysics argues for an unmoved mover, which centuries later Christians would identify as God. They also so identifies Plato’s “Demiurge” (worker).
    The three primary formulators of scientific method were all Unitarian Christians (Newton, Locke, and Bacon), who like later semi-deists such as Benjamin Franklin combined a God belief with a thorough rejection of classical Christianity, especially its Calvinist and Catholic variety. (Franklin seems to have believed in a Providential God to which one could pray but his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” clearly rejects all classical Christian notions of atonement and salvation.)

    4) Pascal’s wager carries with it an idiotic threat of hell. The distant-cousin leap of faith advocated by William James is far more palatable if you really want one.

    Finally, I give theology sufficient credit as an enterprise to say that rather than state it is like writing about fairies, I will say it is like writing about 19th-century ether, the alleged universal medium required to propagate light, which Einstein disposed of. Unlike sound, light turns out to be a (sometimes) wave requiring no external medium to propagate itself.
    And it is such an ether-like presupposition which drives theologies that talk of God as a Ground of Being, and the final bold-faced bit in Shortt’s esaay, which unlike JAC I don’t find meaningless.
    It is a restatement of Paul’s dictum that we move and have our being in God, like fish in water. But if we are going to talk that way, I’ll take Jane Goodall over many Christians any day.

    And post-finally, TLS has always had stuff like this now and then. I don’t think this represents anything new on their part.

    • stephen
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      re: “And post-finally…” Quite so,the London Review of Books is no different,nor the literary sections of the more “serious” news and comment publications.

    • Carl
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      I think a solid case can be made that Locke and Franklin were atheists. That they wanted to appear to be Christian or religious is another matter.

      • Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Why do you think Locke was an atheist? I’m just curious: as far as I can tell he was likely an Arian, like his (second) hero, Newton.

        He did get into a lot of trouble for saying things like (paraphrasing): “Of course there can be vacua! Of course there can be matter that thinks! God can do anything, right?”

        • Carl
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

          Why do I think Locke was an atheist?

          I don’t make a distinction between atheists and deists of that period, as long as the deist beliefs are restricted to a non-teleological God that does nothing beyond creating the universe – has no, will, no desires, no cares, doesn’t listen to prayers, etc.

          The first place to look is a paper by the Dutch Scholar Wim Klever, titled Locke’s Disguised Spinozism. Klever cites Locke’s well annotated copies of the entire body of Spinoza’s work, then sets out a large number of side by side textual comparisons.

          Being a follower of Spinoza in that period was dangerous to health and career, so Locke heaped on the God talk, in order to appear Christian. Leibniz, for one, wasn’t fooled. Others suspected, but Locke, for the most part, pulled off the deception. Some of Locke’s immediate successors, like Anthony Collins and Shaftesbury followed in Locke’s path. Hume famously gave up on religion “after reading Mr. Locke.”

          The most compelling treatment of the issue is Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God, The Heretical Origins of the American Republic – a book that can’t be praised highly enough.

  10. Zado
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Funny how Christians raising the “foundation of the West” canard always forget about the millennium that Christianity dominated Europe before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Also funny: they don’t count Coptic or Orthodox communities as “traditionally Christian societies.”

    Another believer vainly trying to rationalize his fear of death.

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      That’s always the bottom line. Pure hubris.

  11. kurtzs
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    And of course the deity is male. Gee, I wonder why that is? 😉

  12. Posted December 17, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    This is another reminder why the church is so keen on religious instruction in schools — so that children learn that it is normal and acceptable for certain people to talk like Shortt; and so that they learn to keep their mouth shut and look at their shoes if they don’t like.

    • Posted December 18, 2016 at 1:50 am | Permalink

      Indeed. And grounding religion in society has the effect that even if it doesn’t convince everyone, it still has the effect that such views aren’t laughed off immediately as the ridiculous balderdash they are.

  13. bric
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    ‘In brief, it is no accident that developments including the rule of law, the market economy, democracy and the welfare state have flourished most strongly in traditionally Christian societies.’

    Yes I have noticed how the welfare state has flourished in the very Christian United States, as opposed to, say, Sweden or Denmark

  14. Carl
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    According to Shortt:

    modern science did not arise in opposition to religion; on the contrary, it grew in a godly crucible.

    Let’s give him most of that. Not only science, but the entire modern world grew out of a godly crucible – as a reaction against the common religious view of things.

    Only after the philosophers of the early modern period (not so much the scientists) dispensed with miracles, prophecy, divine books, teleology, superstition, the soul, and God did the modern world emerge.

  15. John
    Posted December 17, 2016 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    First, apologies for commenting not on the specifics of your post, but on this general observation:
    You use the term “indented” to describe the way you’re using italics to identify quoted text. Indentation is “start (a line of text) or position (a block of text) further from the margin than the main part of the text”.
    Maybe this is what you’re intending to do, but, on the browsers I use, such text doesn’t appear indented, only italicised. Either you mean italicised, or the indentation is being lost.

    • Carl
      Posted December 17, 2016 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      It’s your browser. Chrome (on Windows 10) shows it indented.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 17, 2016 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

        As does Chrome & Win7.

      • harrync
        Posted December 17, 2016 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        There is indented text on my Apple in Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

      • Gamall
        Posted December 18, 2016 at 12:39 am | Permalink

        Chrome on Linux as well.

  16. Posted December 18, 2016 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Perhaps of interest and topical, “The Legend of the Christian West” (PDF), as debunked by the Giordano Bruno Foundation.

  17. Mike
    Posted December 18, 2016 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I read the TLS, but only online and only the Mary Beard Column, as for the piece above,seems like a lot of waffle to attempt to prove the benefits from, and existence of ,an imaginary friend, sorry, don’t buy it.!

  18. Sastra
    Posted December 18, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    “… Or that because of the conviction that God’s world helps make itself at every level, the believer can fit into one picture evolution and its costliness, and the Christian redemptive answer to human and natural evil. Or that, in the words of the Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst, God is not only the background and the presupposition of human experience; “he is the foreground, the personally access­ible sense in human terms of the human search for the absolute beginning and the absolute end”

    What does this mean?

    1.) God exists, so everything we learn in science must fit in with this fact, and any other sacred facts we know are true.

    2.) We must believe God exists because “God” is equivalent to “Reality” and thus contains everything there is, including us and our desire to know and find out what’s true.

    3.) Given this, atheism is not just wicked, it’s really dumb.

  19. jardino
    Posted December 18, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    You know, if I were an entirely neutral alien visiting Earth and trying to determine if there was a Christian god or not, I would base my judgement on the clarity of expression of the proponents of either side.

    On the one hand you have Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and, of course, our good host, Coyne.

    On the other hand, you have the likes of Shortt and the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, who said something like “we are just waiting for the question”. (I guess we’re still waiting).


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