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Religion and Science: an Argument

Why do science and religion antagonise each other? Why do they so often seem to be at each other’s throats?

Well, imagine a man, Jones, pops out to buy a Sunday paper from his local shop. He hasn’t bothered to spruce himself up for the trip – he’s just thrown on some tracksuit bottoms and a scruffy jumper he snatched from the bedroom floor. He’s unshaven and his hair is greasy and only hastily brushed. But what does he care? He’s buying a paper, not meeting the Queen.

But now, while Jones is deciding which paper to get a second man, Smith, stands beside him at the periodicals shelf. Smith is wearing an expensive, freshly-pressed lamb’s-wool suit. He is immaculately groomed, his shoes are polished and (unlike Jones) he smells of exclusive cologne rather than last night’s beer. Neither says a word to the other. Neither suggests by facial expression, posture or gesture that he has any distinct opinion of the other. They are simply two strangers who happen to be in the same shop at the same time.

And yet what is Jones thinking while he stands there? Perhaps nothing at all. Or perhaps he quietly admires Smith’s suit and thinks he would like one for himself. It might be, however, that in some way he finds difficult to define Jones feels got at by Smith’s smart appearance. It’s as if Smith’s mere presence is a kind of rebuke to his own slovenliness. “Only an idiot goes to such lengths to buy a Sunday paper” he thinks in an attempt to justify himself before his imaginary tribunal. And maybe it’s the same with Smith. Maybe Jones’ mere presence makes him feel stuffy, square and over-dressed. “What a scruff!” thinks Smith, addressing his own tribunal. “Has the man no self-respect?”

And perhaps as the two men stand there an increasingly palpable tension develops between them until at last one of them can bear it no longer and makes a slightly cutting remark about the other’s appearance. “Ha-ha!” thinks the other, “So I was right: he does despise me!” Stung, he makes a cutting remark in return. This, of course, produces a more direct criticism from the first person. The criticism is returned with interest and the next thing you know Smith and Jones are having a blazing row in the middle of the local corner shop.

A parable.


Stealing a Book

Two distinct areas of my life recently intersected in a surprising way.

First, I’m in the middle of writing an ever-expanding piece (seven thousand words and counting) outlining a Wittgensteinian approach to the ongoing debate about science and religion. This grew out of the fact that I frequently found myself getting involved in online discussions where I’d typically be taking exception to comments by atheists despite the fact that I’m an atheist myself. It’s a tricky position to explain properly, especially on a forum like Twitter, so I thought it might be helpful to have a more considered account of my views that I could point to where necessary. (Actually, in writing the piece I’ve realised that I’m not so much expounding my views as discovering what they are.) So off I went. I sketched out a plan, started making notes, stumbled into difficulties, realised I’d have to do some background reading, realised I’d have to do some background reading on the background reading, realised that no mere essay could do justice to the issues, realised I’d need to set up a blog (this blog) to discuss things properly, and… well, five months later here I am. I hope to publish the piece in the early New Year, so watch this space.

The project is taking up most of my spare time and I don’t have much of that because I work forty hours a week in a warehouse, quality-assuring mobile phone repairs. It’s a grinding, low-paid job but I really don’t mind it; I’ve certainly done worse. Now, as you might expect, the warehouse is not exactly a hot-bed of intellectual debate. It’s a working-class place full of working-class talk: sport, cars, food, booze, drugs, sex, gossip, video games, pop music, TV and – above all – grumbles about work itself. Still, it can be surprising what you find there. For example, there’s a couple of shelves of books (just by the toilets) donated by staff for people to read during their break. In amongst the chic-lit and “dark romance” novels are books by Anthony Trollope, Moby Dick (in hardback) and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. How did they get there? What’s their back-story? It’s both sad and oddly appropriate that I’ll never know.

Anyway, a few months back, shortly after I’d started the Wittgenstein/religion project, I had a quick look at the “library” and was amazed to see a thick book called Christian Theology by Alister E McGrath. Talk about serendipity! Straight away I wanted to read it, but I knew it would be pointless trying to pick through it during my half-hour dinner break (besides – dinner break is for two things: eating and smoking). I wanted it for myself. So I left it there and checked on it from time to time to see if anyone seemed to be reading it. As far as I could tell, nobody was. And then last night after my shift (I work 2pm-10.30pm) I decided the time had finally come: I slipped the book into my carrier bag and took it home with me. Selfish, I know, but to compensate I shall donate my copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Karma!

The reason I mention all this is because of a curious turn my mind habitually took when I contemplated stealing the book. I was always struck by the thought “God wants me to have it”. Isn’t that a strange (yet perhaps not unusual) thing for an atheist to think? Now, it’s certainly true that I fastened upon the thought with a good deal of playfulness; I was far from being in earnest – indeed, I think it would be a pretty facile sort of Christian who would believe such a thing. And yet at the same time I’m not sure it would be accurate to say that I didn’t believe it either. Intellectually, I suppose not. But there was an emotional or psychological element in me that was by no means so sceptical. There was simply something too pleasing about the thought not to invite it to make itself comfortable once it had introduced itself. And anyway, in what sense can I say that I disbelieved it when I used it (in part, at least) to guide my actions? I’m almost inclined to say that I fastened upon the thought without either believing or disbelieving it. Is such a thing possible? Well, our minds are very subtle and strange sometimes.

Oh, and by the way: straight after thinking “God wants me to have this book” I’d always follow it up with: “Or maybe the Devil has set a trap for me”.

Nietzsche, Dawkins, Morality and Religion

In section 40 of The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche suggests that absolute moral laws are merely useful customs whose utility has been forgotten or suppressed. Society hits upon a helpful form of behaviour and, over time, this condenses into a moral imperative: “stealing is wrong“, “thou shalt not kill”, etc. Subsequent generations have the law drilled into them from childhood onwards and as a result quite forget its origin in utility. Indeed, they carefully separate such laws from utility and place them above mere consequential reasoning, which is seen as somehow tainted or less worthy.

Is this correct? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it reminded me of a theory Richard Dawkins advances in The God Delusion concerning the roots of religion and its continued propagation. In Chapter 5 he suggests that the trusting nature of children (a feature which is useful from an evolutionary point of view) means they swallow pretty-much any old nonsense their parents tell them about the world and then go on to tell the same nonsense to their own children when they grow up. Thus ideas such as religion continue to be believed even though (for Dawkins) they prevent us from seeing the truth about the world around us. The evolutionary benefit of gullible children outweighs the evolutionary drawback of religion.

Now, in a sense Dawkins is neither blaming nor praising religion here; he’s simply trying to understand how it developed and why it continues to be such a widespread phenomenon (although his assumption that religion is a drawback to us as a species is a pretty heroic one; he really ought to hire someone to remind him daily that not everybody on earth lives like a successful fellow of New College, Oxford). All the same, it’s hard to escape the feeling that somewhere in the background lurks the following idea: religion shouldn’t be believed because it developed naturally rather than by godly fiat.

I think there’s a parallel with Nietzsche’s theory here, and one which should give Professor Dawkins pause for thought. Nietzsche, like Dawkins, is suggesting a natural, self-serving process by which we come to have something that’s frequently regarded as regally superior to the squalid bargaining of everyday life – in this case, absolute moral standards. And there’s no doubt that at the very least Nietzsche wants his argument to undermine our faith in the specialness of these standards. Moreover, even if he’s wrong in the details, surely there’s some correct naturalistic account of absolute morality’s development – especially for an evolutionary biologist like Professor Dawkins? Yes, indeed: Chapter 6 of The God Delusion is devoted entirely to such an account. So does Dawkins, like Nietzsche, want to undermine our faith in morality? On the contrary! His naturalistic account is intended to justify morality, not undermine it. Morality is good (for Dawkins) because it’s natural; it doesn’t need any religious hogwash to prop it up.

And so we get the following two positions:

  1. Morality is good because it is natural. 
  2. Religion is bad because it is natural.

A curious state of affairs.

Anyway, let’s end with a photo of Nietzsche, just because he had one of the great moustaches in the history of philosophy.

The Ubertache

The Ubertache

Some Thoughts on Handel and Bach

Handel’s music is splendid in its way, but clearly more “public” or “civic” than Bach’s (I was shocked to find out they were near-contemporaries when I looked them up – I’d always assumed Bach was at least a generation older). With Handel it’s like gazing at a well-ordered city-scape – not today’s urban jungle, of course, but something more elegant with plenty of parks and tree-lined avenues to maintain an agreeable balance with nature. A public in agreement with the world and with itself – that’s the impression.

Bach, on the other hand, gives us a human heart in balance with nature. For that reason his music sounds more profound to us today; we’ve lost the Enlightenment sense of true civic pride – the sense that something new and splendid was being created, that after millennia of blind toil humanity had finally “cracked it”. From here things could only go onwards and upwards. And this civic pride explains what is for me the besetting sin of 18th Century music: self-satisfaction, presumptuousness, smugness. I often hear it in Vivaldi, for example, and even in Mozart: “What clever fellows we are, to be sure!”

Of course, in this respect I’m judging them by what they couldn’t have known: the things that came after. And the best of them (certainly including Bach and Handel) managed for the most part to produce music that was confident and dignified rather than conceited. Oddly, for both composers, it’s their religious music that I find most in danger of slipping into conceit. 15th and 16th Century choral music was all about God. God and nothing but. God in all his transcendent, awe-inspiring, terrifying majesty. But even in Bach, 18th Century religious music somehow suggests that God is just one (albeit important) part of a satisfying, benign, rational whole. God, in other words, has been put in his place.

Why does it sound that way to me? In part I think it’s to do with the incorporation of the chamber orchestra. That provides an ingenious interweaving of disparate sounds – a whole comprised of discrete elements. By contrast, 16th Century choirs blended many voices into something that was fundamentally one. On top of this, there’s the introduction of the solo human voice. Leaving aside the fact that I personally find the sound of the classically trained solo singer grating and artificial (the singer has turned himself into an instrument in order to be heard above the orchestra), it always strikes me that a choir sings to the individual whereas the solo vocalist sings to a public. Here again I suppose time has altered our vision. We (or at least I) have lost the feeling for the broader religious community; for us it is a deeply personal matter. I don’t mean we have no religious communities today – of course we do. But they are oddities cut off from society in general. In Handel’s time it was society itself which formed the religious community. Yet already in the Messiah you can hear the “religious” aspect giving way to the “community” part. Well, that’s what I hear, at any rate.


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