19 November 2007


With New Humanist on our side ...

The leading article in the Nov/Dec issue of New Humanist, illustrated with a Rowson cartoon, which also features on the cover, is an attack on fellow humanist Richard Dawkins (a "distinguished supporter" of BHA) and fellow "new atheist" Christopher Hitchens , by another humanist, Richard Norman, who is a former Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, and is a member of the Humanist Philosophers' Group:


There is also a discussion on their blog about the offensiveness or otherwise of the cartoon:


In a comment on the blog I wrote: "The issue here in my view is not the cartoon but the article by Richard Norman that it illustrated. It is an attack on one humanist figure (Dawkins) for being a humanist by another (Norman) who wants to pussy-foot round the poor religionists in case we upset them too much. There is far too much of this in thehumanist movement. We should be attacking the enemy, not our supporters."

Another commenter claimed that I hadn't read the article. To demonstrate that I have, I give here my detailed objections to it. Quotes are in italic.

He begins by claiming that "the 'New Atheism' is not really new" and "we need to beware of fighting old battles in a world which has moved on". The world has indeed moved on, scientific knowledge has moved on, and that is why a new atheism is needed - there are new battles (of ideas) to be fought.

He cites "islamist-inspired terrorism" and "resurgence of creationism" as immediate causes, of the new atheism, but of course there are many equally obnoxious but less headline-catching revivals of religious influence. He claims that "it would be foolish to let our attitudes to all religions and all religious believers be coloured by a small set of specific outrages". True, but that's not what we are doing. We are recognising the danger inherent in treating religious belief with a respect it does not merit.

He thinks that "In some parts of the US it takes courage to come out as an atheist. But ... in Britain today, for most of us, it’s a doddle". Well it may be a doddle for a Professor of Moral Philosophy in Kent, but it is not for many muslims in Leicester. But the issue is not just coming out as an atheist - it is making the little steps that lead to that result - such as learning to think for yourself, or getting up the courage to question and to express divergent views. This applies as much to many Church of England parishioners as to muslim women.

He then writes of Dawkins and Hitchens "over-generalising about religion and about religious believers", saying that "In the 'religion' that Dawkins and Hitchens relentlessly attack I simply do not recognise the many good, sensitive, intelligent and sometimes wonderful religious people I know". Well if Norman wants to redefine 'religion' to mean such activities as meditation, cultivating oneness with nature, philosophising about the origin of the universe, and agonising over the moral issues in the world he can do so, but this is not the religion, based on faith and wish-fulfilment, that is being attacked by the new atheists. If these are the only religionists he knows, he should get out more!

Norman claims that "For Dawkins the problem is that all religious believers are committed to faith rather than reason." and later that "He thinks that the real divide is between science and religion". This is not so. Everyone is capable of reason, it is needed to cope with everyday life. Religious people are not totally irrational - but the faith component in their thought is delusional. I like to use the phrase that their minds are 'god-befogged'.

After trying to redefine 'religion' Norman's next approach is to redefine 'faith'. He says: "In some cases faith is no more or less than a set of overarching beliefs with which people make sense of the world." So, why not call it 'belief' then, or a 'world-view' if that's what it is? He continues: "All religions are faiths" (in his new sense) "...and so is humanism, though most of us would prefer not to use the word because of its other connotations." So, why use it then! Humanism is a belief or worldview. OK. He concludes: "There’s no necessary opposition between faith in this sense and reason." True enough, but no-one except Norman is using it 'in this sense'!

He tries another tack: "But faith can also refer to our readiness to accept beliefs on grounds which are not conclusive. This covers a range of cases, from a hunch which you think will be confirmed, to a well-founded expectation based on past experience." and: "It’s a perfectly legitimate sense of the word – a belief backed by previous experience, for which further confirmation is sought." Well then, why not call it a 'hunch' or a 'hypothesis' in these cases?

He claims: "there are plenty of religious believers who would say that they have faith in this sense." OK, so they have a hunch or a hypothesis - so what - the question is where do they go from there? But he continues: "They can’t prove that there’s a god, so their commitment goes beyond the evidence, but it’s not unsupported." But if it's not unsupported (which means it is supported) then that means they must think they have evidence of some kind - presumably personal experience. If their commitment goes beyond the evidence then it's faith (in the original sense) - if they have evidence or think they have then its a hunch or hypothesis.

The next part of his argument goes into philosophising in the light of modern cosmological theories about the origin of the universe, using such arguments as 'fine tuning'. But this is not the type of personal God that most religionists believe in.

Speaking of Swinburne's argument that divine creation is the 'simplest' explanation he says: "The argument fails. But it is still an argument. As so often, deciding whether an argument succeeds is a matter of judgement – of faith ... But a mistaken argument is still an argument, still an appeal to reason and evidence." For a Professor of Moral Philosophy this seems to me a very wobbly bit of reasoning. I can provide a pretty good argument to show that 1 = 0, but it is a mistaken argument because it involves division by zero. But according to Norman it is still reasonable to believe it if we have faith enough!

Of Hitchens he says: "He has no difficulty compiling an appalling catalogue of all the terrible things done in the name of religion." But this is not what Hitchens does. He lists terrible things caused by faith-biased belief, not merely done 'in the name of' religion. "And the length of the list demonstrates, for Hitchens, that religion poisons everything." Indeed it does.

Having thus misrepresented Hitchens, Norman asks: "What about all the good things done in the name of religion?" and accuses Hitchens of circular reasoning. "If they’re really good, that just shows that they’re not really religious." Norman's error here is that not all things done 'in the name of' a cause are motivated by the tenets of the cause. Most things done by most people most of the time are rational things motiviated by a clear-sighted understanding of the facts.

Finally, he argues that Humanists should be prepared to cooperate with others who share the same values, even if for religious reasons. But Dawkins and Hitchens already do this, and have not argued against it. There is no inconsistency in this. Being honest with people, pointing out that their faith is nonsensical to us, and that some of their attitudes are as a result, objectionable to us, is not intolerance. On the contrary, pretending that they don't offend us is hypocrisy.

He concludes: "if religion is so contradictory, that’s probably because human beings are a deeply contradictory species". Well, if that's the case perhaps we humanists should devote more effort to sorting out our contradictions rather than tolerating them.

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