Thursday, 20 February 2014

Feed the hungry and kill the infidel, says God

Two pieces of faith news:

'Forty-three Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, have signed a letter urging David Cameron to ensure people get enough to eat'. Their hearts seem to be in the right place and so, up to a point, are their heads - as this piece in Ekklesia shows, the churches seem to be engaging with some actual facts and figures while, in a notable piece of role reversal, it's the Prime Minister who's sanctimoniously delivering vague, preachy boilerplate about his 'moral mission' and 'helping people to 'stand on their own two feet.'

Elsewhere, the hearts and heads of some believers aren't in such a good place:
Leading British-Asian politicians, academics, human rights campaigners and Islamic scholars are calling for a mentally ill Scottish pensioner sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan to be released from prison on humanitarian grounds.
The people who are trying to relieve the plight of Britain's food bank generation and the ones trying to get a vulnerable old man killed are all ostensibly believers in one God (although I'd personally describe the non-fanatical ones as functional deists).* But if we do accept the self-descriptions of both liberal believers and fanatics as followers of God, who are trying to do God's will, then the general concept of  God seems so elastic and contradictory as to be almost meaningless. It turns out there's a word that covers this specific type of objection to religion - "ignosticism":
Ignosticism is the view that any religious term or theological concept presented must be accompanied by a coherent definition. Without a clear definition such terms cannot be meaningfully discussed. Such terms or concepts must also be falsifiable. Lacking this an ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the existence or nature of the terms presented (and all matters of debate) is meaningless. For example, the term "God" does not refer to anything reasonably defined nor is there any conceivable method to test against the existence of god. Therefore the term "God" has no literal significance and need not be debated or discussed.
I'm not sure that I'm a strict ignostic - I don't think it impossible, in principle, that somebody might come up with a meaningful, coherent, possibly even testable, definition of God that could be rationally debated. But I reckon that I'm close to being a functional ignostic, given that there seem to be almost as many idiosyncratic definitions of the word "God" as there are believers. As the philosopher of religion, Theodore Drange put it:
Since the word "God" has many different meanings, it is possible for the sentence "God exists" to express many different propositions. What we need to do is to focus on each proposition separately. … For each different sense of the term "God," there will be theists, atheists, and agnostics relative to that concept of God.
In other words, the debate about the existence or non-existence of a deity could go on for ever, without ever reaching a conclusion, because there's no commonly-accepted definition of the entity whose existence is being debated. So I'm a functional ignostic, in the sense that I don't see any particular reason to believe in a deity and don't have the time or patience to debate every possible variation on the proposition that "God exists" in an endless game of theological whack-a-mole. I'm just happy that the more reasonable people on the believer side of the fence seem to be spending more time engaging with real facts and social problems than in trying to convince people like me of the existence of an entity without any fixed, coherent definition.

*I don't, by the way, subscribe to the idea that Christians are necessarily more liberal, or followers of Islam are necessarily more fanatical. Clearly there are wide variations of attitudes and behaviour within both religions. At this historical moment, Islam has more actually existing fanatics and intolerant theocracies, but there have been times when the balance of fanaticism and tolerance was reversed (the crusades, the Inquisition, the expulsion of religious minorities, forced conversion, the Thirty Years' War, yada, yada).

Via this guy (about whom I'm rather conflicted - on the one hand, he's formidably intelligent, curious and open-minded enough to question his own beliefs, but on the other hand he says 'I still consider Ayn Rand to be the strongest influence on my philosophical views' *shudder*).


Dumb Scientist said...

Thanks for that interesting article. It's great to see ignosticism being discussed. Maybe eventually I'll be able to self-identify as an ignostic without having to define the term.

As you might be able to tell from my discussion with Objectivist MichaelM, I'm also rather conflicted about Ayn Rand. She's only the strongest influence on my philosophical views by default because I basically stopped reading philosophy.

As you say, philosophical debates can go on forever. That seems pointless, so I chose to focus on science instead. Sadly, the grass is always greener on the other side...

Andrew King said...

Thanks for finding the term "ignosticism" in the first place - and for sharing some really interesting stuff on your site.

I should have given you more credit for a nuanced view of Rand. I guess my biggest beef with her is political – specifically, the hijacking of objectivity.

Clearly politics needs to have an evidence base - if you don’ know what’s going on, you can’t fix it.
Rand argues, passionately, for what she feels to be the most efficient and moral way to organize society. Nothing wrong with that, except for the way that her views hardened into an unacknowledged ideology.

I think ideologies are a necessary evil for people living in society.
If we were still hunter gatherers, we could get by with trying to make good decisions and trying to treat everybody in the extended family group fairly, but when politics involves millions of others, all with slightly different rational self-interests, complex economic questions that often flummox even the experts and a generally irreducible level of complexity, well, you still have to make judgments and decisions, but those judgments are necessarily of a best-guess-at-this-moment, balance of probability nature, mixed in with our own notions of morality and self-interest.

It is, I think best to acknowledge that we’re using this messy thing which I’d define as ‘ideology’ rather than pure, unquestionable reason. At least then, we might have the humility to take John Maynard Keynes' advice ('When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?').

But an ideology like Objectivism, that starts to believe that it is not an ideology, becomes a dogma. In some ways Objectivism is a strange mirror image of the Soviet dogmatism that Rand fled from. The Soviets took Marxism, a description and critique of economic power relations and institutionalised it as the only objectively true and valid way to look at the world. The ironic thing, is that once you declare an ideology to be the objective truth, it becomes less and less like anything a reasonable person would see as objective. The layers of irony were slightly different in the Soviet case, where Marxism-Leninism ossified into the state religion of an atheist state and became, like the Pope, infallible because … well it just is, right?*

In the Soviet case, the ideologues didn’t actually deny that they had an ideology, they just insisted that their ideology was the only one that gave a true and accurate description of the world – which is as good as saying ‘this isn’t ideology, just objective fact.’

The self-contradictory nature of such positions isn’t confined to the Objectivists or Marxist-Leninists – I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard politicians of all stripes condemning some statement or action they don’t like as ‘politically motivated’, without apparently noticing the irony.

But, of all the current strands of thought, Objectivism seems particularly prone to the vice of defining its own ideas as self-evident truths and anything that contradicts those views as self-interested, subjective special pleading.

I also find the constant banging on about objective ‘morality’ tends to tip over into the sort of preachy moralizing you’d expect to hear coming from a pulpit, yet another layer of irony in a movement founded by an atheist. Michael Shermer’s phrase ‘the unlikeliest cult’ sums it up pretty well.

*Or because the Gulag. Rand deserves some credit for renouncing physical coercion as a political method, although she’s blind to the idea of economic coercion, which Marx still deserves kudos for highlighting.

Dumb Scientist said...

I completely agree. Objectivism might have appealed to me because I was raised Catholic, which provides a very certain, objective morality and worldview. Losing that foundation when I realized I didn't believe in God was disorienting, so I grabbed the nearest objective worldview that didn't depend on God. But over the years I noticed many of the corrosive effects you listed. A little subjectivity definitely seems like the lesser evil.

I still find a lot of her ideas compelling, in spite of the fact that she considers them to be objectively correct. For instance, I once described her moral system as follows:

"Enlightened self-interest over sufficiently long time spans is indistinguishable from altruism."

While I don't think Rand's morality is objectively correct, it's interesting that benevolence (which most would call altruism) can be justified solely on the basis of enlightened self-interest. As I mentioned to MichaelM, it's also interesting how similar Objectivist morality is to Immanuel Kant's morality, but that's just another layer of irony.