What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead!

We are perturbed that British Gymnastics appear to think that we Muslims need more protection than others, and that it seeks to prevent anyone offending us. This seems to treat us as if we were children, as though we are so immature that we must get upset and perhaps violent if our religion is questioned or mocked. Quite the contrary, our response to such mockery is the join with Voltaire in declaring that we disagree with such speech, but, in the interests of the freedoms that we all cherish, we will defend the right of people to speak.

We thus thank British Gymnastics for their rather paternalistic concern, but declare that it is not necessary. We strongly suspect that British Gymnastics would not have disciplined an athlete who had been filmed laughing at The Life of Brian, and we ask them to rescind the ban applied to Louis Smith.

We are also perturbed that the video was taken at a private event. It is fair for British Gymnastics to regulate the conduct of athletes when participating in public events where they would be directly representing British Gymnastics, but it is an intrusion too far for such a body to concern itself with their private and lawful speech.

When Parliament repealed Britain’s blasphemy laws — a relic of the time when the state was held to have the right to regulate a citizen’s religion — and when it passed an Act against inciting religious hatred, it wisely sought to protect free speech. Thus Parliament declared that nothing in the Act “shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents”. British Gymnastics should not take it upon itself to re-impose a blasphemy law that is beyond its competence and that the country does not want.

Parliament has upheld the long tradition of free speech in this country. Recognising that it is the very freedoms of this country that have attracted and still attract many to seek a new life within these shores, we, as citizens, have adopted this tradition as our own. Our religion will be mocked!

The Southern Poverty Law Center brands Maajid Nawaz an “extremist”

So the Southern Poverty Law Center have now declared that everyone must submit to Islamic rules about blasphemy, and that if one does not then one is an “anti-Muslim extremist”. How have we come to this? How can it be that those who think that participation in a religion should be a free choice, and that we should not be obliged to submit to the rules and diktats of someone else’s religion, are now regarded as “extremists”?

It used to be the case that “free speech” included the right to speak in ways that upset people. The point was often made that speech that upsets no-one does not need protection; it is only speech that someone else does not want you to say that needs support from the fundamental principle that in a free society we need to be able to speak our mind and criticize others.

But no, “free speech” now has clear limits. If someone else is at all upset by anything you say, then you are making them “feel unsafe”, and making them feel unsafe is an act of violence. And if you want to pursue your speech down that road, then you are an extremist, the sort of person whom the Southern Poverty Law Center was set up to oppose.

Yet people who espouse that doctrine are making me feel unsafe! They seem to be heading for the sort of society where the thought police can come knocking on your door, and inform you that someone has reported that they were made to feel “unsafe” by some comment that you made, and that you are now suspended from your job and are being taken away for “re-education”. But, of course, me feeling unsafe is not held to matter, because I am not from any of the groups that are regarded as “oppressed”, and indeed being white and male and Western I am too privileged for my feelings to matter.

But let’s now consider people who are brown or black, and who may indeed be female, and who belong culturally to the Islamic communities. Surely they are “oppressed”, and surely their views matter? Well yes, exactly. Except, not if they are moderates. Not if they want to reform Islam to make it more tolerant. Not if they exercise their right to doubt the truth of Islam. Not if they think that there should be no blasphemy laws and act accordingly.

You might think that the moderate reforming Muslims and the ex-Muslims who want secular societies would be among those seen as friends and allies by Western left-leaning liberals. But if you are so naive as to think that then you’ve not been paying attention. Quite the opposite. The allies of the left-leaning liberals are now the hard-line Islamists who want to impose their austere and intolerant version of Islam on whole populations, whether those populations like it or not. They are the authentic voice of true Islam, they are the oppressed people, whose right to impose Islamic diktats on others must be accepted because they (the imposers!) are the oppressed people here.

It follows that anyone who does not want Islam imposed on them (though they may want it as a choice), or who wants a more moderate and tolerant version of Islam, is then the extremist. By speaking against the diktats of Islamists they are oppressing those poor Islamists even more. And that makes them extremists.

So you might think that Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist and member of the hard-line Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who has since rejected his former hardline ideology, and who now argues for a moderate and tolerant version of Islam and has founded the Quilliam Foundation to promote moderate Islam — you might think that such is a journey from extremism to moderation that would be welcomed by left-leaning liberals. Wrong! No, no, no! In the minds of the SPLC, that is a journey towards extremism. In that journey, Nawaz has become the oppressor!

So exactly how is Nawaz now oppressing Islamists? Well, chief amongst his vast legion of sins, was this. He tweeted a “Jesus and Mo” cartoon:

Nawaz's tweet of a blasphemous Jesus and Mo  cartoon.

If you’re not thinking the right way you might struggle to see anything oppressive about that rather innocuous cartoon. But the point is that hardline Islamists don’t want anyone to draw Mohammed at all. They want total control over how people think about Mohammed and Islam, and they want to enforce that with strict blasphemy laws.

And not accepting such diktats quite obviously oppresses the poor Islamists. Arguing in public for a moderate version of Islam makes the world “unsafe” for the hardline Islamists, because speaking against them makes it harder for them to impose their intolerant version of Islam on others. And, since that would upset them, only an extremist would do it. Which makes Nawaz the extremist.

That’s how we’ve arrived at the situation where moderates who want a free and pluralistic society along with free speech, and where religion would be a choice, not something to be imposed on others, are the “extremists” in the eyes of the SPLC, who presumably still think of themselves as “liberal” and as doing good in society. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

Deathbed conversions and the argument that Christians like best

Christians really don’t like atheists. Since their worldview is founded in faith (as opposed to evidence) the absence of faith worries them. Their defence mechanisms include denying that atheists exist (they’re just angry at God), or believing that when the chips are down atheists will revert to belief (“There are no atheists in foxholes”). Another tactic is to denigrate atheism as an intellectual position; it’s not enough to disagree with Dawkins’s God Delusion, it needs to be dismissed as puerile and lacking any knowledge of the topic. Or they try to maintain that atheism is a faith position just like theirs (“It takes more faith to believe that all of this arose by blind chance”). Atheism as a faith position doesn’t worry them, any more than other religions worry them, since that would accept the central role of faith. But atheism as a considered lack of belief, owing to the lack of evidence, is anathema.

Hence a favourite tactic: wait until a prominent atheist dies, and then declare that they had a deathbed conversion and died accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The beauty of this tactic is that said atheist can no longer speak up and refute the suggestion. Further, if any other atheist publicly doubts the claim, they can then be accused of dogmatically rejecting the claim for ideological reasons. Christians thus invent such stories about anyone they dislike, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Paine. In fiction, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, they can do deathbed conversions for real (as it were).

I was reminded of this by the recent claim by evangelical Christian Larry Taunton that Christopher Hitchens was seeking God as he approached death. The book has been roundly panned by the critics, but will still warm the cockles of those who want to believe that even the most strident of the New Atheists secretly longed for a God that surely had to exist. The fact that there is no evidence of this, other than Taunton’s self-serving claims, need not trouble them, since the claim is not about evidence, it’s about faith.

But there is one argument that Christians like even more than deathbed conversions. And that is the apologetic line: “I too was an atheist until …”. The claim is usually accompanied by describing their past atheistic life as one of empty drifting, wallowing in meaningless depression. Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Malcolm Muggeridge, C.S. Lewis, Edward Feser: has there ever been an evangelical who has not tried this tactic?

Theologian Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism claims five or six times in the first few pages that he is a former atheist (though this seems to have been only for a few months in his late teens), and his whole argument that atheism is in its “twilight” seems to be along the lines of “Well, I’ve stopped being an atheist, therefore …”.

The weird thing about such accounts, when read by actual atheists, is that they show such little awareness of how typical atheists tend to think that the claim of having been an atheist doesn’t ring true, and seems to be more of a rhetorical device, a parable. But, no matter, such books are not intended to be read by atheists, they are there to shore up the faith of the faithful, who are comforted by the notion that people who have known the (supposed) nihilism and despair of atheism have at last found their way into the bosom of Christ.

You can be sure that, whenever a Christian talks of apologetic works such as Strobel’s The Case for Christ, the first thing they mention, gushingly, is that “he is a former atheist you know”. The claim can be finessed further: Josh McDowell claims to have been an “angry” and “strident” former atheist, who set out to refute Christianity, but then found himself, totally against his will, being convinced by the evidence for Christianity.

But, the puzzled atheist asks, if that were really true, how come the arguments in his book are so pathetically bad? How come they are the sort of arguments that only appeal to those who already believe, rather than being something that would actually give an atheist pause? Again, that matters not, the audience is not the atheist, it’s the believers, who will lap up such works uncritically. The mere suggestion that atheists do eventually find their way into faith is all the “argument” that they need.

Hitchens deathbed conversion

Reflections on Brexit and the moral presumption of the EU

Well that was a surprise; like most people I’d presumed that the British people would “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” and so vote, grudgingly, to remain in the EU. Among the acres of comment on this topic I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of Brexit — I have mixed feelings and would have preferred to stay in a reformed EU, if that were on offer — instead I’m going to completely ignore the economics and reflect on just one aspect: the presumption that joining in with and being part of a larger state is somehow morally virtuous in its own right, rather than being something to be decided on pragmatic considerations or purely by cultural preference.

“I’m sure the deserters will not be welcomed with open arms” said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, as though membership of the EU were a moral obligation from which non-compliance would be rightfully punished.

The presumption that “ever closer union” of Europe is morally mandated has had dire consequences, including the notion that the righteousness of the project justifies doing it badly, and — more seriously — that its righteousness overrides the lack of democratic assent. Thus the EU’s leaders are currently anxious to prevent further referendums — preventing their people from having any say — since that might reveal deep dissatisfaction with the EU much more widespread than the UK. No matter, the democratic will of the people is less important than the moral principle of ever closer union. Continue reading

The evolutionary argument against moral realism

Having abandoned Divine Command Theory around the age of 12, when I realised that I was an atheist, I then read John Stuart Mill at the impressionable age of 14 and instantly became a utilitarian. I remained so well into adulthood; it seemed obvious that morality was a matter of objective wrong and right, and that utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number — was the way to determine such facts.

Of course I also became aware of the unresolved problems with utilitarianism: there is no way to assess what is “good” except by subjective judgement, and there is no way to aggregate over sentient creatures (should a mouse count equally to a human?) except, again, by subjective judgement. Both of those rather clash with the desired objectivity of the scheme.

Periodically I would try to fix these flaws, but never succeeded. Such mulling led me to the realisation that I didn’t actually know what moral language actually meant. “It is morally right that you do X”, can be re-phrased as “you ought to do X”, but what do those mean? I realised that I didn’t know, and had been proceeding all this time on the basis that what they meant was intuitively obvious and so didn’t need analysis.

But that’s not good enough if we’re trying to solve meta-ethics and understand the very foundations of morality. And so, I eventually arrived at the realisation that the only sensible meaning that can be attached to the moral claim “you ought to do X” is that: at least one human, likely including the speaker, will dislike it if you do not do X. “It is morally right that you do X” then becomes a declaration that the speaker will approve of you doing X and disapprove of you not doing X. Continue reading

Reductionism and Unity in Science

One problem encountered when physicists talk to philosophers of science is that we are, to quote George Bernard Shaw out of context, divided by a common language. A prime example concerns the word “reductionism”, which means different things to the two communities.

In the 20th Century the Logical Positivist philosophers were engaged in a highly normative program of specifying how they thought academic enquiry and science should be conducted. In 1961, Ernest Nagel published “The Structure of Science”, in which he discussed how high-level explanatory concepts (those applying to complex ensembles, and thus as used in biology or the social sciences) should be related to lower-level concepts (as used in physics). He proposed that theories at the different levels should be closely related and linked by explicit and tightly specified “bridge laws”. This idea is what philosophers call “inter-theoretic reductionism”, or just “reductionism”. It is a rather strong thesis about linkages between different levels of explanation in science.

To cut a long story short, Nagel’s conception does not work; nature is not like that. Amongst philosophers, Jerry Fodor has been influential in refuting Nagel’s reductionism as applied to many sciences. He called the sciences that cannot be Nagel-style reduced to lower-level descriptions the “special sciences”. This is a rather weird term to use since all sciences turn out to be “special sciences” (Nagel-style bridge-law reductionism does not always work even within fundamental particle physics, for which see below), but the term is a relic of the original presumption that a failure of Nagel-style reductionism would be the exception rather than the rule.

For the above reasons, philosophers of science generally maintain that “reductionism” (by which they mean the Nagel’s strong thesis) does not work, and on that they are right. They thus hold that physicists (who generally do espouse and defend a doctrine of reductionism) are naive in not realising that.

“The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty is only that the exact application of these laws leads to equations much too complicated to be soluble.”     — Paul Dirac, 1929 [1]

The problem is, the physicists’ conception of reductionism is very different. Physicists are, for the most part, blithely unaware of the above debate within philosophy, since the ethos of Nagel-style reductionism did not come from physics and was never a live issue within physics. Physicists have always been pragmatic and have adopted whatever works, whatever nature leads them to. Thus, where nature leads them to Nagel-style bridge laws physicists will readily adopt them, but on the whole nature is not like that.

The physicists’ conception of “reductionism” is instead what philosophers would call “supervenience physicalism”. This is a vastly weaker thesis than Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction. The physicists’ thesis is ontological (about how the world is) in contrast to Nagel’s thesis which is epistemological (about how our ideas about the world should be). Continue reading

Hume’s subjective morality: Making value judgements about value judgements

One theme of this blog has been my arguments — as a disciple of Hume — that morality is subjective, thus rejecting that idea that moral claims can be assigned truth values and that they are independent of human judgement on the matter. (For example, see my posts: Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and Science can answer morality questions.)

This idea, though, often meets strong intuitive resistance. A common complaint is that, if moral claims are “merely” people’s opinions, then one cannot say that the morals of a virtuous man, living a blameless life and esteemed by his fellows, are any better than those of a delinquent mass murderer.

The suggestion is that, if morals are human sentiments, rather than being objective statements of fact, then we must value everyone’s sentiments and morals equally.

This, however, is a non-sequitur. There is nothing to stop us making value judgements about value judgements. Indeed we commonly do so. There is nothing at all preventing us from respecting and lauding someone we regard as a moral paragon, or from deprecating someone we regard as a delinquent.

Stated like this the point is perhaps obvious, yet many objections to the idea that morality is subjective amount to the idea that one needs permission to make value judgements, permission that can only come from a reference to an objective standard, and that in the absence of such a standard one must regard everyone’s opinion as “equally valid”. Continue reading