Interfaith week (or, ‘my change of mind’)

In this post I’m going to be a little bit personal (no not another post mentioning black metal) and talk about something close to what I actually do in some of my real life. For the past few months I’ve been involved (initially just for work experience reasons) with an interfaith organiation. One thing I’ve found as a generality in London is that there are a great amount of similar organisations which often focus around a geographical locus. For instance, for some reason, there are loads of thinktanks in Victoria; lots of the public sector is organised around the general area around Westminster (I suppose that’s for obvious reasons – no need to claim much on taxi fare); and for a reason unbenkownst to me, there are a lot of interfaith organisations and initiatives around Kentish Town.

This week closing was Interfaith week. Interfaith means a lot of things to me, even if I don’t really understand much about it (I mainly help by sorting out their information systems). I used to be involved with a lot of secularist and atheist-friendly campaigning, and to some extent we in Noumenal Realm still keep connections, and are quite passionate about the overlapping interests of the secularists and atheists with issues of science and pseudoscience, scientific method and the public role of the intellectual. Getting involved with an interfaith organisation back in May/June was an odd decision to say the least, especially because someone like me might be considered ‘the enemy’ or if they knew more about my past credentials I’d perhaps feel some hostility from them and possibly vice versa. A lot of this is about misunderstanding, and I suppose, the point of many of these interfaith organisations is to overcome such misunderstandings.

In an environment of Britain today where the ongoing narrative of what was once the ‘War on Terror’ and the so-called axist of evil led to difficulties with marginalising practicioners of Islam, and more distinctively, the ethnic groups that make up the main body of Muslim believers in the UK such as Pakistani and Arab-descent Britons; so-called ‘Islamophobia’ promted in no small part by negative media representation as well as the other issues general to immigrants of integration  and prejudice. In such a difficult climate interfaith relations really makes its mark in the name of social cohesion.

During my incubation years with the Jesuits; I was thoroughly introduced to Catholic approaches to Christian issues and general ways of thinking about the world (there is for instance a distinctly ‘Catholic’ cultural sensibility, or a ‘Catholic’ philosophical way of thinking – perhaps a topic for another post). One of the ‘Catholic’ approaches that I learned about interfaith relations came from a certain University lecturer on I had on Kant and modern theology who was also an international expert on Catholicism and other religions. The Catholic difficulty of inter-religious dialogue was to accept the unique claim to their Christian truth while acknowledging other faiths. This kind of approach was well-meaning in some ways, but also far too intellectualised; involving only theologians and men of the collar. Dialogue between religions is not only a matter of ‘who claims spiritual truths’ and some John Hick-esque parable about an elephant being felt up by blind people; but a matter of real social and political significance.

The issue of religion affects people on the high street level and the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus (I hate that phrase, but since I actually live near Clapham I think I’m justified in using it). In recent years, the Islamic community has been a target by various groups who in turn have almost as radical and violent opponents. I find the phrase ‘anti-facist’ just as threatening as a ‘facist’ organisation, as either seem to inevitably lead to violence. So here we see two distinct kinds of approaches. One, intellectualised approach which is not relevant to anyone except people with PhD’s and ‘SJ’ after their name, which strives for understanding in a somewhat genuine level of philosophical and spiritual dialogue. On another, is a non-dialogue of violence which rather than highlights the issues clearly; aggrivates the fact that there is an urgent issue of social integration and a need for peaceful dialogue with those in faith communities and the secular world in general.

Enter the contemporary interfaith organisation. Inter-religious dialogue has moved on a bit since the days of John Hick and my aging lecturer who knew as much about Kant as he did about how to account for other cultural communities.  See this article by Stephen Shashoua for a particular snapshot of contemporary activities. Interfaith organisations target a wider group than university educated priests and theologians who sometimes visit a Gurdwara or Mosque once in a while. Interfaith organisations target groups and geographical areas for which are very sensitive to the issue of cultural integration and social cohesion. Young people from primary schools to Universities are invited to discuss issues and are encouraged to discuss issues from misunderstandings about other religions to real social issues such as social mobility and drugs in a way that is relevant to them and also gives them a wider perspective on the world and how they fit into it, almost religious as it were (if I were a Hegelian I’d almost call such an apprehension to pertain to the geist).

I am writing this post because I find a certain amount of conflict with another public event that had occured this week. In Canada was a public debate between Christopher Hitchens who has been favourably tackled in previous posts by us, and Tony Blair, famous spokesman for Tesco and overpriced public speaker. The question of debate was ‘is religion a force for good in the world?’ After my experience with interfaith organisations, and a wider appreciation of the work they do, I feel unable to think as clearly on such a question as I once did. In a sense, it is a public-intellectual style discussion about ideology and appeal to spiritual beliefs which in a sense is not as helpful. On the other hand, what else is a religion but its beliefs and spiritual components? I suppose there’s a difference between the people and the beliefs.

I must admit that I’ve not seen or heard the debate except for snippets. If anyone reading this has any link to it I’d love to give it a look/hear it fully. There are a great many nuances to issues of how religions and their believers relate to geo-political disputes and difficulties, but this much seems certain to me: faiths can ‘from within’ make an effort to establish greater cohesion and relationships with other communities, and a debate on such issues should appeal more to a localised setting of the people for whom it is directly relevant rather than relying on second hand putative conceptions of religions and the ‘ivory tower’ approach to inter religious dialogue which involves only the intellectual believer. Also, you can be a secularist and support inter religious dialogue. Call me a contradiction if you may.


Three Polemicals: The cultural merit of religious culture

There seems to be two ways (inter alia) in which we can distinguish the views of Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins.

1. The issue of ‘Brights’

From what I’ve read, it seems that both Dennett and Dawkins believe that it is a good thing to come out as an atheist, agnostic, secular or ‘rationalist’. This is good as a statement of solidarity against religious belief and its prevalence in the world. Dawkins asserts that coming out as a bright is comparable to coming out as a homosexual in the 1960s-70s, in that its a minority affair and people are still stigmatised for it. This is an interesting analogy to make, especially given both the fight that gay rights still has to make, and the progress it has made so far.

Hitchens differs on this issue, stating that irreligiousity is no position at all. To be an anti-theist (the preferred term) is a negative, and it is pointless to be assertive about a thesis that essentially does not have any propositions except negations. Hitchens gives the conciliartory example of Hume, who had friends and amicable relations with religious persons and his views, while challenging through the written word, did not encapsulate him as a person. This is an issue of, what some people call ‘Freedom of the Pen’. Both points seem to be correct, although Hitchens’ justification seems like a red herring here. It is contingently true that in many parts of the world, coming out as a secularist leads to much unpopularity, in that sense, there is a political and ideological significance, at least contingently, for ‘coming out’.

2. Should we abandon religion and religious belief?

Hitchens makes this point very strongly, and so does Dawkins to a lesser extent. What I find interesting and convincing in the argument of Hitchens and Dawkins is the unifying component of the explanatory thesis ‘religion ruins everything’. Dawkins addresses how a lot of evil comes from religious belief, such as New Labour policies, the deleterious notion of ‘diversity’ (although not developed as well as I would have wanted this point to be), and intolerance. Hitchens’ line of thought on this issue is persuasive in that he points out how many of the recent global incidents are related to religion. The violence in Serbia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and historical Europe are almost entirely fuelled by religious figures, in such a way where it is exceptionally difficult to give the defence of distinguishing between the ‘official doctrine’ and ‘misinterpretation’.

There are ways in which wars are not labelled as religious, and keeps a certain kind of truce in war, by re-labelling the nature of the conflict. Factions divided by ethnicity gloss over the fact that this division is also religion-based. ‘Eth nic cleansing’ is a terrible phenomena, but even more terrible is the fact that it is just as discriminatory against religious groups than it is an ‘ethnic’ one. It is uncouth to acknowledge a religiously based war where there is one, compared to the more packageable and media-friendly ethnically based hatred. There are a lot of other appeals that Hitchens makes, such as the horrors of childhood genital rituals. Hitchens gives the example of how children had died from a circumcision ritual which involved manually removing the foreskin with his teeth; some children had contracted genital herpes as a result.

By making the moral and social corruption of religion total, there is a sense in which Hitchens (and Dawkins) assert that religion must go. It is by trying to argue for the totalising negative effects that such an argument can work; Dennett by contrast, remains agnostic on the issue that religion needs to die. Dawkins does establish that religion has an very important cultural significance; Dawkins goes into great detail to describe how there are many phrases in English which are derived from the King James version, there are also a great many literary references that cannot be understood without familiarity with the Bible. Consider the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ (Plath), which is an interesting twist on the miracle story of ressurection.  Hitchens is perhaps the most notable in this kind of argument because he almost accepts his own inner conflict on this issue; while religion ruins everything, a life without the reference to the past, and the past’s preoccupation of religion and religious ideas is untenable. Our cultural heritage stems from these many biblical references, and these influences make our culture rich.

Consider the case of Yiddish culture, it has been said and reported on that there is a state of decline in Yiddish culture. Most of Yiddish culture seems to be based around New York City. Although Yiddish culture seems to be fighting for its continuation by the few proponents it does have, there are many influences in New Yorker culture that have been exported, this ranges from inflections or synonyms for male to the music and harmony of George Gershwin. There is a sense in which, our deference to religious culture, in terms of how it has influenced people and still continues to influence us in popular culture or even high culture, is important for the continuation of great music, comedy, poetry etc. This seems to be the biggest concession of the New Atheists; but not one that is harmful to their argument. It is this concession that seems to make the notion of an aggressive atheist seem redundant (granted that they acknowledge this issue).

As a side point, I have heard that many historians of ancient and medieval philosophy tend to have a religious background; Martha Nussbaum being the popular example. This seems to make more sense to me when considering Hitchens’ point that he earlier made, that skills such as biblical referencing, memorising passages are skills of exegesis, that is, the critical, expositional and interpretative abilities that are transferrable from the study of religious texts to say, the works of Aristotle. I’ve found, for instance, that every particular historical thinker has their own set of exegetical problems and issues, here are a few of them:

1. Authorship – as there are questionable authors in the Old and New Testaments, there is also the similar problem of authorship in Aristotle scholarship
2. (mis)Translation – there are issues in Kant scholarship between translation that is readable in english, or translation that is accurately verbose, syntactically complex that genuinely reflects the complexity of Kant’s original German – consider that, with modernising the bible to account for modern english to the point of diluting it.
3. Consistency – Leibniz changes his views throughout the corpus of his work, such to say that a systematic view is difficult or perhaps not desirable. Whether there is a unified view, or a series of works that enable thought and encourage certain ways of thinking is a disputed issue. Why does the work have to be systematic anyway? A similar point can be made in Nietsche studies
4. The significance of writing style/role of interpreters: Song of Songs is a poetic love story, whereas the letters of Paul tend to be more didactic; does the differing writing style entail a different method or presentation of dogma? Catholicism deals with this by stating dogma through the various encyclicals and systematic theologies which present ‘how to read the Bible’ . Another movement attempts to study biblical texts in historical ways. Aristotle studies has a comparible history; there are the interpreters who had seemed to have a high status in disseminating Aristotle’s works with elaboration and guarding a certain kind of reading. Catholicism too has its doctors, like Augustine and Aquinas, who carry the ‘recieved view’ of Catholic beliefs. There are also ‘hereticals’ who interpret differently. Difference in interpretation can be treated with eccentricity, respect, or as a view in its own right, consider the case of Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein.

In short, there is a certain cultrual and educational import, but this is apparently a small concession for the New Atheists, as it is not a concession on beliefs, but the cultural impact of religions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an argument used ‘against’ atheism.


New phrases: The “New” Atheism

Well, seeing that Sinistre* and Antisophie have given their own posts on new words and phrases (and how typical for S* to use pwnd as a word! I considered one of my own. I, along with many other philosophers, have recieved an invitation to write articles for an internet encyclopaedia, and one of the articles that they asked for writers on was: the “New Atheism”. Given that I spend most of my house in solitude reading modern philosophy by candlelight, I hardly get to come across new words, or people, for that matter.

The notion of a “New Atheism” on the one hand was new, that there was such a phrase, was, at one, a sort of validation of this phenomenon that is going on; namely, of the sudden emergence of writers and publications who write on the issues of religion and secularity and things around it. But on the other hand, I thought it such an odd term; what is new about the new atheism?

One response is to say that it reflects a growing acceptance, and change in shift of societal trends. Back in Jesuit school, it was heresy of the highest order to say one was an atheist; now, apparently, I look at many of my friends facebook profiles and find they are an atheist. Many people think I am an atheist, but, as with most things, I can’t just give a straightforward answer. Normally when I think of something, I try to reflect on it, see how it impacts on other issues, and see various facets and tensions of an issue, very often either I just stop thinking about it or get confused, or just follow a thought until the phone rings, to say that I ever come down on an issue and say something like “I have such and such …. as a position” is far too flippant. I don’t work that way.

For instance, once, someone asked what do you think of error theory? I didn’t give a one-sentence answer, I just thought out loud, what did they mean? what is at stake? what issues are at hand here? By default I tend not to favour error theory, but not because it is an anti-realist thesis, but because of its specific denial of truth condition statements of morality. But I may reply to say error-theorist about what?

I don’t do this whole thing about “having a position”. Yes, I may come down consistently on the same conclusions on the same issues, for instance, Metallica is a shit band. But I will always be willing to put my cards on the table and see my hand before I put them down to play. Cos sometimes the hand may not be good enough to win and we have to stick. I find that this “New Atheism” consists of many philistines, both culturally and intellectually. Oft repeating arguments that need not be repeated, just read Hume and you shall find this argument there, you are not original, furthermore, if you learned from the past you avoid repetition, further to that, you avoid their own pitfalls that you yourself may invoke.

That’s what I liked about the Jesuits, always cultured, always aware…