Friday, May 29, 2009

The old “root of ethics” shuffle

The Arch-Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was up to his old tricks bashing Atheism and Secularism again (but as ever in such a nice fluffy way) this week; I came across this article in the Guardian today covering the Hay Festival and the discussion that he had with AN Wilson regarding Williams' new book which is entitled "Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction", I have not read the book so cannot comment on that but the author of the article illustrates the main thrust of it in his article and it is an utterly familiar one.

In Dostoevsky's work "The brothers Karamazov" the theme of life without God is explored, and there is one famous line in it which religious people seem to trot out at every opportunity seemingly thinking that a line plucked from a piece of 19th century fiction holds some mystical weight. The line in question is "without God everything is permitted", ok, I understand the point but every time I hear it I cringe and think, well, that's demonstrably crap for starters. Personally I think these guys should bring their arguments up to date, why not pick a more modern piece of entertainment to derive your philosophy from, star wars for example, wouldn't it be great to watch these jewel encrusted old men wondering around saying "may the force be with you" to each other, it would have just as much significance for me.

In the article Rowan is reported as saying that Atheists can clearly be good (at least he's not as deluded as the Catholics on that one) however he then immediately contradicts himself by claiming that without God there is no foundation for ethics and no ultimate source of goodness, what a lot of poppycock. Has Rowan never seen a David Attenborough documentary, has he never seen animals like Chimpanzees or Lions cooperating together to achieve a common goal, has he never read a book on evolution or seen a paper on the psychology of social animals, where on earth has he been since scientists started studying animal behaviour way back in the 50s?

It is hard for a rationalist like me to read something like this and still take such views seriously, clearly Rowan is a very educated and articulate man but how can anyone fall for this kind of double-speak. The cynic in me sees a sub-plot of obfuscation designed to enable religion to cling onto power, it might just be possible that religious leaders like Rowan are running scared at the upsurge in secularism and atheism in our society (particularly in the USA) and clearly if that trend continues these guys will be out of a job. Spreading a little fear, uncertainty and doubt coupled with liberal sprinklings of the "bogey man" of Stalin and Mao seems to be the stock in trade of these religious leaders, and the FUD machine is in full swing.

The article finishes with another gem of a conclusion which I just have to reproduce here and add to my ever growing library of religious leaders meaning mangling prowess, here he is talking about Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" books and somehow manages to flip the real message of these books 180 degrees to make a rational view of reality appear to be the "bogey man".

Pullman himself has the church in mind when he describes that dehumanising programme, though Williams interprets the action more generally to include any force – cultural or institutional – that seeks to turn human beings into automatons. Totalitarian regimes are one example. The scientistic conception of human beings as gene-transmitting machines would be another.

Notice how we have the straw man of "gene-transmitting machines" (no scientist, including Dawkins ever says this is "just" what humans are) and made up words "scientistic" to provide the illusion of credibility. Pullman originally modelled his totalitarian organisation called the "Magisterium" on the Catholic Church, which absolutely is an organisation that seeks to turn human beings in to (Catholic) automatons, the fact that we actually do transmit genes from one generation of human beings to the next (although oddly Catholic priests deny themselves this perfectly natural function) is simply an expression of scientific fact, why is this so threatening to him?


Elizabeth said...

he's such an old fogey.

Steve Borthwick said...

E, I can't argue with that!