Tag Archives: Christianity

On Theos on thinking about religious freedom

The UK-based Theos think tank have published a paper by Nick Spencer on How to think about Religious Freedom.

Theos Director Elizabeth Oldfield says:

This guidebook is unapologetically Christian, meaning its foundation and internal logic rest on a commitment to Christian scripture and theological reflection.

Given that society-wide rights need to have a widely-based foundation (i.e. a secular one, it might be better to develop an approach that could be widely agreed, rather than an “authentically Christian approach to religious freedom”. Still, this paper is well worth reading, and indeed in its 76 pages there is much that non-Christians can agree with. But, first, some notable issues that are nowhere addressed.

In commentary on the work, Jonathan Chaplin (Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) writes:

British citizens have long taken it for granted that they enjoyed as much religious freedom as they wanted and as much as anyone anywhere the world.

I suggest that this actually means that British Christians have long taken it for granted that they enjoyed as much religious privilege as they wanted. What Christians regard as “infringements” on their “freedoms” are often just a withdrawal of privileges and an insistence that other people matter as much as they do. Continue reading

William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence

William Lane Craig — Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology — has set out in the latest edition of Philosophy Now his eight “best” arguments for the existence of God (non-paywall access here). For an atheist these are worth reviewing if only to marvel at how bad such arguments — touted as the best of a “renaissance of Christian philosophy” — actually are. All show the pattern of deciding ones conclusions on wishful-thinking grounds and then using any amount of special pleading and spurious argument to defend them.

They are the sort of arguments (following in a long tradition including C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and many others) that only convince those who already believe. Their general tenor is actually to make things worse, trying to “explain” something by pointing to something that is even harder to explain. Only, the believer doesn’t ask that question because at that point they’ve already got to their god, and so stops.

(I) God is the best explanation why anything at all exists

Right, so in order to “explain why anything at all exists” you start off with something unexplained, namely God. Anyone can “explain” why something exists if you’re allowed to start off with something!

Admittedly, even Craig can see that flaw, so he uses special pleading. While claiming that everything needs an explanation, he then exempts his god, which of course doesn’t need explaining. He does this by claiming a distinction between “contingent” things (which need explanation) and a “transcendent personal being” (which doesn’t). Thus his argument becomes:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

A 14-yr-old could see the flaw: “So, what caused God, then? And if we’re allowed to say that God doesn’t need an explanation then why not just say that the universe doesn’t require an explanation?”. Continue reading

Religious freedom and equality in a nutshell

Reading the British newspapers each morning I’m often irked by the reporting of religious-freedom cases. I’ve posted before about how misunderstood the concept of “religious freedom” is — it shouldn’t grant anyone extra rights, that would violate the equally important principle of equality under the law. In a nutshell religious freedom means this: you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons. That’s it.

Of course society can have every right to impose on you for good, secular, non-religious reasons, even if these impositions affect your religious practice. Such restrictions, if they apply to everyone, are not a violation of religious freedom. But no-one may impose on you for reasons motivated by religion, either their promotion of their own religion or their dislike of yours.

Treating people equally, regardless of their religious views, is as important as religious freedom. Indeed the concepts of religious freedom and religious equality are entwined and inseparable. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the first and finest declarations of the concept, Thomas Jefferson declared:

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry […] opinions in matters of Religion […] shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

The word “enlarge” is as important there as the word “diminish”. Continue reading

Why the non-religious are getting “overheated” about British “faith” schools

The Bishop of Oxford and the Theos Think Tank are complaining that the debate over state-funded “faith” schools in the UK is getting “overheated” and too “ideological”. So let me explain, from the non-religious perspective, why this is so.

First, the number of people attending a Christian church in a typical week in the UK is down to about 6%. Yet fully a third of taxpayer-funded schools are handed over to be run by Christian churches. This means they can discriminate on religious grounds over which pupils they admit, and further, they then get frequent opportunities to proselytise to the captive-audience pupils and can compel them to participate in Christian worship.

Despite the fraction of the population attending church being in long-term decline, and despite the number of people regarding themselves as “non religious” rising fast, the number of “faith” schools is increasing, with thousands of new religiously-restricted places being set up each year.

Why are the non-religious getting “overheated” about this? Firstly, we regard the very concept of taxpayer-funded schools being able to choose pupils according to their parents’ religion to be morally wrong in a modern society that should treat all citizens equally. The fact that this requires a special exemption from the 2010 Equality Act is revealing. Continue reading

Yes, Theos, secular law is both possible and desirable

The Theos think-tank have posted an article “Is Secular Law possible?” that follows hard on the heels of the Chief Rabbi’s denunciation of Europe’s progress towards secularism (see replies by Jerry Coyne, the Heresy Corner and myself). At root the Theos article is making the same claim, that Judeo-Christianity is needed for the health of society.

In discussing whether secular law is desirable, the writer — lawyer, university lecturer and Christian David McIlroy — produces three definitions of secular law.

The first he calls “secularist” law and says it means law that is “free from any religious influence whatsoever”, law that is indeed opposed to religion and seeks to root it out, in which “religious voices are silenced and anti-religious views are imposed”. Clearly that is a strawman, and not something that any secularists actually advocate (past communists may have liked totalitarianism, Western secular atheists don’t).

McIlroy’s second attempt is even more bizarre, he suggests that the “dominant interpretation” of secular law is law that “seeks to take no moral stances whatsoever, to rely on no contentious claims about the nature of human beings, about morality, or about values”.

Sigh. How does one respond to this? It is of course another strawman, and, worse, it’s the standard religious claim that doing without religion equates to doing without morality. McIlroy spends a lot of time arguing that a society and a law without morals and having no values is unworkable. Really? Who’d’a’ thunk it? I never would have guessed! Continue reading

Chief Rabbi Sacks is thoroughly wrong on atheism

Is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks worth rebutting? Jerry Coyne has already done so, but Sacks is influential so let’s join in. Atheism has “failed” according to Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Spectator.

I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists.

Well that’s nice, nothing like starting with a gratuitous insult! I hope he doesn’t think that we atheists find religious “thinkers” profound. (Oh look, I can do snark also.)

Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true […] that the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards …

Does Sacks seriously think that any atheist actually thinks that by refuting literalist religion one can vanquish all religion. Does he really? Is that the superficial level of debate at which Sacks thinks? This is straw-manning, attacking a straw-man version of your opponents because you can’t deal with their actual beliefs.

Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists …

Oh it’s all there Rabbi Sacks! And much of it drives the ongoing and remarkable progress of science, which is pretty much atheistic nowadays. The fact that you fail to recognise intellectual depth in atheists is your limitation not theirs. Continue reading

Einstein the atheist on religion and God

In his autobiography Prince Hubertus zu Löwenstein recounted that, at a charity dinner in New York, Einstein had remarked:

There are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.

This story was published in 1968, which was 13 years after Einstein’s death, when he could not comment on the veracity of the quote. Löwenstein was a Catholic activist, decorated by the Pope for his services to the Church, and the autobiography’s title, “Towards the further shore”, indicates its apologetic intent. Was Löwenstein accurately reporting Einstein? We don’t know, though he is hardly a disinterested party and the quote is thus suspect. What we do know is that many people, as shown by this example, want to deny that Einstein was an atheist.

Such claims also circulated when Einstein was alive. In 1945 Einstein received a letter from Guy Raner, saying that a Jesuit priest had claimed to have persuaded Einstein to abandon atheism. Einstein replied (letter to Guy Raner, 2nd July 1945):

I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.

Another example comes from 1954, the year before Einstein’s death. A correspondent had read an article about Einstein’s supposed religious views, and wrote to Einstein asking whether the article was accurate. Einstein answered:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.    [letter 24th March 1954, from “Albert Einstein: The Human Side”, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann, Princeton University Press. Hereafter “AE:THS”]

Despite the above, many people point to Einstein as a rebuke to atheists, a supposed example of a preeminent scientist flatly rejecting atheism. People who are prepared to accept that Einstein lacked belief in a personal god, nevertheless insist that he was not an atheist, and that he did believe in a god of some sort. Continue reading