Category Archives: Philosophy

Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.


The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio

Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?

Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.

What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.

Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.


The Ten Commandments, late 19C, stained glass in synagogue, Alsace; image by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia. In accord with Jewish tradition, this image shows “I am the LORD” as the first commandment.

Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:

God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).

Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.

At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.

As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.

That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.

Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.

As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.

Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.

Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at

Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

You don’t really know your mind, or do you?

Reblogged from Plato’s footnote; a partial corrective to my own pessimism.

I commented, we ignore uncomfortable knowledge about our own minds, but then we ignore a lot of uncmfortable knowledge. But it is possible to be unconsciously influenced by a bias that one rationally reects, which is why orchestras audition beind screens to conceal the gender of the performer.

Footnotes to Plato

Recent psychological research has been interpreted as casting serious doubts on many crucial aspects of the human experience: that we have “free will” (it’s complicated, hence the scare quotes), that we are at the least capable of rational thinking, and even that we are conscious. Indeed, it has become both fashionable and a bit of a cottage industry to “show,” scientific data in hand, that all those facets of mentation simply do not exist, they are illusions, figments of our imagination (though nobody has really provided an account of why on earth we have them, as metabolically costly as the apparatus that makes them possible is). All of this, of course, despite the staggering crisis in the replicability of results from psychology, which ought to make anyone reading anything in that field a bit cautious before agreeing that we are lumbering rationalizing and self-deluded robots.

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9 questions atheists find insulting? Bollocks

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts

I’m an atheist, and I’m feeling insulted

Greta_Christina_at_SkepticonInsulted by Greta Christina’s article, “9 Answers to Common Questions for Atheists – So You Don’t Insult Us By Asking”, Insulted by the condescending and preachy answers offered on my behalf. Insulted that the author presumes to speak on my behalf at all, as if she were the privileged custodian of some kind of atheist credo. But above all, insulted by the suggestion that I am so intellectually fragile as to find the questions insulting.

For an atheist – correction, for me as an atheist, since I have no mandate to speak for others – it is a matter of deep principle that all questions and (unless there is reason to do otherwise) all questioners should be treated with respect. This is one of the ways in which, as I see it, atheism is morally superior to many kinds of religion, in which even asking certain questions is regarded as sinful, or even blasphemous.

Why am I discussing this?

I don’t often talk about the fact that I’m an atheist. That’s because it’s usually irrelevant, especially as I collaborate with diverse groups of believers and unbelievers, in my attempts to share my scientific interests, protect education from theocratic interference, and advance my humanitarian agenda. I also exercise reasonable tact in discussing emotionally laden issues. The existence or otherwise of gods is an emotionally laden issue, especially for believers, but there is no shortage of emotionally laden issues in other areas, from economic theory to football. And the idea that atheism needs special protection is, for me, anathema.

What are the questions, and what are my answers?

Ok, then, here are the questions to which Christina objects (I think it’s fair use in a review like this to just copy them), which she doesn’t want to hear again because she believes she has answered them once and for all, and, for what they’re worth, my own answers, which I promise you are a lot shorter than hers:

  1. How can you be moral without believing in God?
  2. How do you have any meaning in your life?
  3. Doesn’t it take just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?
  4. Isn’t atheism just a religion?
  5. What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community for something you don’t believe in?
  6. Why do you hate God? (Or ‘Aren’t you just angry at God?’)
  7. But have you read the Bible, or some other Holy Book, heard about some supposed miracle, etc?
  8. What if you’re wrong?
  9. Why are you atheists so angry?

1.We don’t derive our morality from God. None of us do. We derive it from social norms, and our shared humanity, and then use gods to rationalise it. How, after all, do we know that what God wants is good, unless we know what good means already? (This argument goes back at least as far as Plato, and is related to Hume’s observation that we can’t derive morals from facts alone, whatever Sam Harris may say.) One reason for the current decline of religion in the West is the clear superiority of morality based on humanity to that based on traditional religion, in attitudes towards women, gays, minorities, and dissenters.

2.No, I’m not going to give you a recipe for finding meaning. You have to find your own.

3.Russell’s Teapot. I cannot absolutely disprove the existence of a china teapot circling the Sun, but it requires a lot more faith to believe in its existence than in its nonexistence.

4.I can’t improve on Penn Jillette: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

5.I agree. The atheist and mainly atheist groups I belong to are united by such things as examining morality, improving education, and learning about current controversies. Atheism is not enough.

6.I have seen, and heard of, horrible things, and if I did believe in God, I would indeed hate him.

7.Of course I have. But as evidence, I don’t find it terribly convincing.

8.Pascal’s Wager. But what if there is a God who values integrity, who will reject those who accepted him out of hope for reward, and accept those who rejected him out of conviction?

9.I am very angry, and so should you be. I am angry about current inequalities of wealth and power; about the damage done by denial of global warming, evolution, and the usefulness of vaccines; and about the privileged access of Churches to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom, where I live. But I trust I would be equally angry about these things if I were, myself, a believer. I certainly ought to be, unless my religion had corrupted my morality.

And on occasions, like this one, I am angry at those who presume to speak for me.

Saving the worst till last

But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking.

No, I do not expect people to do an online search before I condescend to talk to them about my beliefs, or the lack of them. Perhaps, after all, they want a conversation, are interested in seeing how an actual person responds, want to get to know me better, or simply want to spend time over a pint. And I detest the collective “we”; it should be obvious from the above examples that the way I field these questions is very different from the way someone else might. We are, after all, discussing questions about how we as individuals view the world, rather than questions about how the world is. So it is the height of arrogance for any of us to speak for the atheist community, as if we were compelled to march in step. Nor do I see any bigotry in someone being genuinely puzzled as to how I can differ from them over any of these questions, and I do not think they are dehumanising me by wanting to know more. The very opposite, in fact.

As for ” religious privilege embedded in the very asking,” yes indeed, but the questioner is probably completely unaware of this fact, and the best way to make them aware is to answer the questions, in good faith, on their merits.

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts. And if we grant those we disagree with the common courtesy of putting forward their own views in their own words, and the further courtesy of actually listening to them, then we, too, might learn something.

Image: Greta Christina at Skepticon 2014, Mark Schierbecker via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence 4.0

Islam Evolving, by Taner Edis, Prometheus Books, June 2016

Cover(Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily)  This is an excellent review of an important but difficult subject, and a welcome change from the ill-informed bluster of a Sam Harris,* or the limp apologetics of a Karen Armstrong. It is the work of an author who is exceptionally well placed to appreciate the context of the mass of information on which he draws. Lucidly written, it is also a work of broad scholarship (there are more than 500 references and footnotes), and provides an overview of one of the most important developments of our times. Overall, it is a much-needed corrective to the popular view that these times are particularly violent, and that the roots of this violence lie within Islam.

It is also a very disturbing book, and I mean that as a compliment. While fully committed to secular Enlightenment values, Edis recognises that this cannot be the starting position in any worthwhile discussion of committed Islam. Secularism is neither historically inevitable, nor a logical necessity, nor a moral imperative. In his native Turkey, for example, secularism was the founding principle of the modern State, but has lost out to an Islamic pious modernity, whose advocates cannot simply be dismissed as deluded or wicked. Secularism cannot claim to be the more democratic option, where it is not what people would prefer. The secular ideal of rule of an impartial law is not neutral, since it places judges, members of the power elite, as arbiters. Moreover, Edis turns a critical searchlight on the ostensively secular United States, where he now lives and works, finds echoes there of much of what concerns him about Islam today, and challenges the West’s air of injured innocence in the face of violence. Ultimately, he regards Islam as a far smaller peril than a rampant neoliberalism that values individuals only as producers and consumers, sells political influence to the highest bidder, and still sponsors the denial of the world’s most urgent problem, global warming. He shows how the rhetoric of the “war on terror” is used, in the West as in his native Turkey, to suppress dissent, and is contemptuous of how western defenders of freedom have accepted the facile and counterfactual narrative of an inherently violent Islam. Most disturbing of all, he critically examines his own Enlightenment assumptions, which his readers, and mine, will generally take for granted. For instance, why do we regard free speech as good? To what extent do our own institutions follow this ideal in practice? And should we not be more aware of the degree of coercion implicit in our own social order?

Taner Edis is a Turkish-American professor of physics. He is also a philosopher, having published highly technical material with Maarten Boudry of the Ghent school of critical analysis, and he manages to bring a philosophical evenhandedness to a worldview as far as possible from his own naturalism. He repeatedly argues that secular liberals need to be more critical of their own positions. Secularist emphasis on the freedom of the individual has left us without defence against the excesses of neoliberalism and the realities of the economic power that has usurped political power. There is much to be learnt by examining thoughtful Muslim alternatives, and indeed, if we are not prepared to learn, there is little point even in discussion.

His parental family were freethinkers, so that his position towards Islam has always been that of the concerned outsider, but one who seeks productive ways of engaging with believers. His earlier books include The Ghost in the Universe (2002), in which he contrasts supernaturalism and naturalism, and discusses critically how his preference for the latter can be justified, and An Illusion of Harmony (2007), concerning the ways in which the Muslim world has reacted to the challenge of scientific modernity.

The present volume pursues these themes in a time where the questions raised have acquired a new urgency. There are times when I would have liked more specific details (how, for example, was Turkey, our ostensive ally, encouraging radical Islamist factions in the Syrian civil war?), but perhaps this would have led to a much longer book. Even as it is, it is not possible to do justice here to the author’s detailed arguments, and what follows is an amalgam of some of his main points, and my own responses.

The first chapter is entitled “Varieties of Islamic experience”, and I was surprised to learn how varied these experiences are. As well as Sunni and Shia, we have, among others, Alevi (mainly in Turkey) and Ahmadis, whose right to call themselves Muslims is contested (I would add the Alawis whose presence greatly complicates Syria’s current civil wars). Islam can also be linked to national identity, as Shi’ism is to Iranian nationalism, a fact with delicate consequences for Iraq and the other Gulf states.

Next, Edis discusses the special position of the Quran. This is a difficult book, written in the now-archaic Arabic of its time, and with no clear structural or chronological order. Nonetheless, Muslims bestow on it an authority that only the most conservative of Jews or Christians grant the Bible. Part of this enduring appeal of the Quran, Edis argues, is due to its powerful affirmations of monotheism, and to its concern for social justice.

The text of the Quran jumps about, its literary style is inconsistent, and its cosmology, referring to 7 heavens, was already centuries out of date when it was written. Its relationship to the accepted version of the early history of Islam is unclear, and relies heavily on later traditions and histories, even for such important episodes as the Night Journey. It is authoritative, but its application involves interpretation, and there are layers of tradition and legal ruling, of varying authority. Nonetheless, historical or “higher” criticism of the Quran, in the sense that we have now had two centuries of such criticism of the Bible, is in its infancy. So even modernising Muslims tend to defend their position by reinterpretation of the sacred text, rather than by treating it as a human artefact, product of its time and place. [1] Thus feminist Muslims argue, not that the lesser role of women in the Quran was addressed to an outdated patriarchial society, but that it is overridden by a more general appeal to justice within the Quran itself.

The addition of new layers of commentary is an on-going activity. Attempts like Turkey’s Nur movement to hark back beyond tradition to the original meaning of the text end up being theologically quite conservative; I am reminded here of the “Reformed” religion still very much in evidence in Scotland.

These introductory chapters lay the groundwork for the main theme of the book; the ways in which the Muslim world has responded to its ongoing confrontation with the technologically and militarily advanced West. These responses initially included secularism. The early twentieth century saw the establishment of a secular state in Turkey, whose borrowings from the West had worldwide influence on Muslim elites. Pakistan also was originally a more secular state, with “Muslim” being more of an ethnic than a religious identity, while the Arab nationalists in the ascendant mid-century restricted orthodox Islamic rules to personal and family law.

[Note added in haste: In the last few days, the already complex situation in Turkey has undergone further dramatic developments. Historically, the army had been the committed defender of secularism, even if this commitment was less thorough than claimed, and has used this more than once to justify imposing military rule. Last week’s reported attempt at a miitary coup against the current elected government might perhaps be regarded in this light. Nonetheless, the government blames Fethullah Gulen, whose support for political Islamism is repeatedly mentioned in the book. Gulen, now living in the US, has been at odds since 2013 with the government, which he accuses of corruption. He has denounced the coup, but that was after it had already failed, and if his movement really was involved, then this time the army units concerned were acting on behalf of one religious faction against another.]

This is not how things have since worked out. Modern Islam is a successful religion. Mosques are crowded, televangelists famous, and technology adopted within a world view based on divinely inspired design. Modernisation has not led to theological modernism. The Islamism of the last half-century has adopted Western technology while avoiding what Edis calls “the disenchantment of the world spearheaded by modern science.” Scientific naturalism offers us an uncaring universe where what happens, happens as the result of physical causes, and not at the bidding of some deity, let alone a deity that pays any attention to us. To a traditional believer, such a view is at best uncomfortable, and at worst blasphemous.

Far easier then to adopt a pious modernity that accepts the fruits of technology while still subordinating the scientific spirit of inquiry to the constraints of religion. This religion need not be theologically modernist.  Nor need it be hostile to organisational modernisation. The West has long had a powerful institutions, companies, and corporations, including ultimately the State itself, independent of religion and capable of long-term accumulation of wealth and ideas. Islamic law recognised no such entities. However, today, corporations have been absorbed into the religious framework. In the case of Turkey, this pious neoliberalism is strengthened by relationships with the United States and Europe. It is the ideology of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) whose very name combines the concepts of economic development, and Muslim morality. The disciplined workforce and the (ideally) socially conscious employer will share the same mosque.

In Turkey, urbanisation has meant greater popular knowledge of the more orthodox forms of Islam. At the same time, we have the view that since science and religion both tell the truth, science must be consistent with religion. So the Nur movement finds inspired prefigurings of modern science in the Quran, and embraces “Creation science”. It was systematic policy, and not, as I had thought, an aberration, that in the 1980s led Turkey’s Education Minister to invite contributions from the Institute for Creation Research [2] to the biology curriculum. We now have the spectacle of Turkish creationism, in the form of the Atlas of Creation by Adnan Oktar (“Mehmet Kaya”) uncritically absorbing Christian evangelical creationism of all kinds, including a Young Earth Creationism alien to Islam itself, and feeding it back into the West.

There are important differences in the status of religion between Turkey and the United States, which is the most religious among the advanced nations. Religion is strong in America, but American religion has a long tradition of religious modernism, and indeed the rise of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century was a response to this. Creationism may be popular among the uneducated, but US high culture is almost uniformly supportive of evolution, and regards creationism as disreputable. None of this is true in Turkey. There is not, or has not been for many centuries, an influential modernist movement within Islam, and creationism is common within the academy. Even relatively liberal thinkers are unwilling to accept total disenchantment, and tend towards views such as guided evolution.

The discussions of the role of sharia law, and the status of women, show the range of diversity of Islamic practice. There is general agreement that legal systems should accommodate sharia law. This may be no more than a vague sentiment, akin to the appeal to the Bible as a source of values in the West, but at the other extreme we have the Saudi barbarities of flogging, amputation for theft, and the death penalty for adultery and apostasy. Outside Saudi Arabia, the general attitude is that the Quran was addressing a society that lacked modern law enforcement and penal institutes. It is also worth remembering that the Quran itself does not specify a worldly penalty for apostasy, and that the Quranic penalty for adultery is 200 lashes. But of course everyone knows that the correct penalty for adultery is stoning, so presumably the verse justifying this was lost.

Worldwide, young Muslim women are dressing more traditionally, even as they become more likely to take up employment outside the home, and to dispute traditional patriarchal interpretations of the sacred texts. Fertility rates have been decreasing, and historically this also goes along with weakening of the patriarchy. There is even a specifically Islamic feminism, which appeals to the universal principle of justice that it finds in the Quran, and regards this as overriding specific prescriptions intended for a particular time and place. But all this is in the context of religious politics and cultural conservatism, and such conservatism within Islam (as elsewhere) tends to see the roles of men and women as complementary rather than equivalent. However, as Edis points out, “Islamic feminism can help support tangible improvements in the lives of women. This is no small thing.”

The distinction between the legal status of religion in Muslim majority countries and the West is less clear cut then we might imagine. With the exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, governments do not attempt to equate general law which sharia law, and even in Iran the identification with Islam, in this case specifically Shia Islam, is a matter of nationalism as well as religion. Moreover, religion has embedded privileges throughout the West, including tax advantages even in the United States, Government collected tax revenues in Germany, involvement with publicly funded education in many countries including the UK, and, I would add, formal representation in the UK’s Upper House of Parliament. However, I think that Edis overstates the similarities. Laws against blasphemy, for example, have been repealed or lapsed throughout the West, but remain on the books (and are often supplemented by murderous direct action) in many Islamic countries.

When accusing Islam of justifying barbarity, we should remember that the US has with the approval of most of its citizens indulged in torture, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, surveillance, and entrapment within suspect communities, and that Muslim communities have of late been the victims of these activities. Human rights organisations have gained credibility among Muslims for protesting against these actions.

Moderate traditionalists defend Islamic law as protecting the family, which they regard as a cornerstone of society, and criticise the libertine behaviour condoned by secular legal codes. Individuals are presumed to live within their various religious communities, deriving their human dignity from God, and this is very different from the libertarian concept of individual rights. However, divine law is seen as granting protection to the individual from oppression by the State (and, I would add, the Corporation). Edis contrasts this with the minimal role assigned by western neoliberals to the State, which “appears to cripple our ability to collectively decide on and institutionalise moral convictions about the good life.… The law becomes a device to make markets run smoothly, and where considerations of economic efficiency are decisive.” By contrast, “for many believers divine law is inseparably entwined with justice and order.”

Here I have a problem with Edis’s argument. He repeatedly tells us that modern Islam in countries like Turkey has formed an alliance with the very neoliberalism whose excesses he deplores. So how can he at the same time claim that respect for the divine law helps maintain more humane concerns of justice and order? After all, there is no shortage in the West of politicians who pursue neoliberal policies while loudly proclaiming their devotion to Christianity. And while Edis correctly deplores the hollowing out of public institutions, and the replacement of human by commercial values (here he explicitly mentions the lost ideal of a liberal education), these processes are clearest in the US, which is by far the most devout of all advanced nations. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent socially conscious secularists from arguing, as they do, that the State has a moral duty to safeguard the welfare of its citizens, and should use health and welfare programs, taxation, and minimum wage laws to counteract the brutality of market forces.

Sharia law impinges directly on marriage and family law, and this will be true even for Muslims living in the West, to the extent that they accept the values of their own community. I would point out that the problem is not confined to Islam. Devout Catholics will not consider themselves free to marry after divorce, whatever the law of the land may say, and the ability of a Jewish husband to obstruct religious divorce can lead to serious difficulties. A Muslim testator in the West is free to follow the sharia requirement that sons inherit twice as much as daughters, and defenders of this practice point to dowries as evening out this inequality.

In its treatment of women, the Quran is true to its roots in a fiercely patriarchal society, but once again the realities are more complex than they might appear. For instance, the Quran specifies that a contract may be witnessed by two men, or by one man and two women. However, some Islamic practice, such as the law that allows a man to divorce a wife at will, while a woman requires the consent of a judge to divorce her husband, is not Quranic but based on later traditions. These traditions take the same approach to women as the Victorians; they are more sensitive, more delicate, lest suited to public life, and in need of protection and guardianship. Thus in Victorian England married women did not acquire the right to dispose of their own property until 1882. Iran has public parks that only women are allowed to enter; do we consider this restrictive, or liberating? Pakistan, a fiercely Islamic state, elected a woman head of Government in 1988. [3] The UK had not done this until 1979, and at the time of writing the US has yet to do so. Women’s purity is essential to family honour, but the same was true until recently in Sicily. Edis also cites one recent honour killing in Turkey, where the family concerned were Assyrian Christians.

Consider a woman’s headscarf.  Islam demands modest clothing of both men and women. An observant Muslim man will not wear shorts. Definitions of modest clothing for women vary wildly, and reflect traditions and local attitudes. The Quran speaks of female modesty and covering of breasts, and covering of hair, let alone of the face, goes beyond this. Covering up can be said to make it easier for women to take part in public life, without being relegated to the role of sex objects. So when we ask whether a woman wears her headscarf voluntarily, or as the result of community pressure, the question is not well formulated. What if she is wearing it in response to community norms, but these are the norms of a community whose membership she values?

As Edis points out in a detailed careful discussion, some conflict between the ideal of a secular State, and the demand for religious freedom, is inevitable. And we cannot resolve such conflict merely by appealing to human rights, since actual arrangements must always be a matter for accommodation between competing rights. Should hospitals in receipt of public funds be required to provide contraception and abortion services, in violation of the principles of religious organisations that may be running them? Should State schools teach evolution, or facts about human sexuality, when doing so offends the religious views of some parents and students? And if they respond by retreating to private education, is it right that they are nonetheless forced to pay taxes for a service that they do not use and consider morally objectionable?

One solution is multiculturalism, state sanction of the exercise of power by religious authorities over their adherents. If Muslim parents object to their children learning about evolution or the Holocaust, and to female participation in sports, separate schooling can meet these objections. (Edis does not discuss, perhaps because they are too obvious to mention, the resulting dangers of communal isolation.) In the Netherlands, the state funds Muslim schools where the language of instruction is that of family origin, and separate Muslim housing, and consults with community leaders. In predominantly Muslim countries, multiculturalism would lead to the recognition of diverse communities, which some Muslim political thinkers regard as a strength. In the Ottoman Empire, different people congregated in different areas and managed their affairs as they saw fit. Noam Chomsky sees advantages to this over the “very unnatural system” of the European nation-state.

For many reasons, Edis is committed to the promotion of secularism, but he regards this as a personal political preference, rather than the expression of a universal ideal. Here many readers, including me, will depart from him. The religious are free to identify as deeply as they choose with their religion, but I see it as tyranny – even if, in some times and places, the tyranny of the majority – when religious organisations acquire any power beyond the power of persuasion. Moreover, as Edis points out, if the state compromises with private religious beliefs that run contrary to fact, this can cause public harm. People who rely on faith healing, or have religious objections to vaccination, undermine public health. So, I would maintain, are those who would censor teaching about sex, and in Scotland, where this aspect of education in state-funded Catholic schools is under the control of the Council of Bishops, this is not a trivial matter. And as Edis points out, those who, like creationists, feel free to ignore or subvert the scientific evidence for religious reasons may well feel free to do so for political and ideological reasons, like the US Religious Right denying global warming.

One huge difference between Muslim and secular attitudes arises when it comes to freedom of speech and belief. In the Quran, unbelievers are condemned to hellfire, but no earthly punishment is invoked, and Jews and Christians are at times spoken of as allies. Yet even in Turkey today, criticising religion can be classified as “hate speech”, while blasphemy laws up to and including the death penalty are in place, and widely supported, throughout the Muslim world, cartoons ridiculing Muhammad have provoked assassinations, and an epidemic of brutal assassinations of atheists and secular bloggers has claimed nime lives in Bangladesh since 2013.

Despite the lack of direct Quranic sanction, atheism is widely equated with apostasy, which in all traditional schools of Islamic law is punishable by death. If community cohesion depends on shared religious beliefs, then abandoning those beliefs is desertion. If the State possesses an Islamic identity, then atheism is a direct challenge to its legitimacy, and is indeed now equated with terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

There is also the problem of heresy. as seen in the exclusion of Ahmadis from public life in Pakistan, and the role of separate religious community identities in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The replacement in the last half-century of nationalist by Islamist politics has not been good for Christians, while the Jewish populations of Arab countries have almost entirely emigrated to Israel. Today in Arab countries there is a vicious anti-Semitism, backed by bloodthirsty traditional (non-Quranic) sayings, but essentially politically motivated, and linked to bizarre conspiracy theories. The attitude of religious leaders towards Jews and Christians is highly variable, with the influential Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar (“Mehmet Kaya”) having switched from promulgating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, to reaching out to Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem. (Disclosure: for reasons I never understood, I was at one time on his mailing list.)

For Edis, as I am sure for most readers here, freedom of expression is fundamental. But for many Muslims, disrespect towards religion is an abuse of that freedom, seeking to disrupt the social fabric. The freedom to criticise religion then runs counter to a claimed freedom to participate in public debate without being offended. So by a curious inversion the toleration in the West of criticism of the Prophet is portrayed as violation of Muslims’ human rights. And some discussions of Islam are indeed gratuitously offensive, characterising the religion shared by over a billion people as fundamentally and peculiarly evil. We too have our no-go areas, such as desecrating the flag to which American school children regularly pledge allegiance. Edis also cites the example of nudity; nudity does no harm, other than causing an outrage which is its own sole justification, and yet because of this outrage we confine it to restricted designated areas. To some extent, Academia functions in the West as a designated area for free speech, but even here, there are things that cannot be said and words that cannot be used.

Here I feel that he is reaching for a symmetry that does not really exist. The US Supreme Court has struck down legislation against flag desecration, and nowhere in the West is the use of racist rhetoric punishable by death, although in some countries hate speech or Holocaust denial is illegal. He does, however, have one very important point. If I put forward views strongly disruptive of current political and economic arrangements, I will not be censored, but nor will I be widely or sympathetically reported. On the contrary, I can expect to find myself ridiculed, marginalised, or simply ignored by all organs of mass communication, whose owners are, after all, doing very nicely with things the way they are.

Discussion of the treatment of non-believers leads on to the painful topic of sacred violence. This is the topic closest to the surface in the minds of many Westerners. After all, even while I was writing this review there were suicide bombings killing, between them, over 350 people in Istanbul and Baghdad, and as I prepare to post it I learn of more than 80 Bastille Day celebrators murdered in Nice. All the more important, and difficult, to keep a sense of proportion. The deaths at such outrages as those in France are comparable in number those every week there from traffic accidents, and so we might perhaps compare Muslim terrorism with IRA terrorism; nasty, but something that the UK learned to live with. I would unfashionably point out that the numbers murdered in the most spectacular and horrific of these crimes, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, are comparable to the numbers “normally” murdered in the US in a month. And the Western response completely dwarfed the initial outrage, and has done more to advance the aims of the hijackers than they would have dreamed possible.

What does the Quran say about violence? As usual, the answer is unclear. The bloodthirsty texts quoted by hostile commentators come from later traditions, which are also the only source of accounts of the numbers killed or enslaved by Muhammad’s armies, and there are verses in the Quran condemn fighting beyond what is necessary. And yet it is undoubtedly true that Muhammad was a successful military leader. Of course, we are told the same of Moses. Islam does not claim to be a religion of peace, as Christianity does, and Muslim scholars have not until recently devoted much attention to the concept of a “just war”. However, this has made little difference to either religion in practice, and one could say that Islam is simply less hypocritical.

There are many who criticise the core doctrines of Islam for making violence possible, but would not dream of blaming Judaism as such for reactions of the Netanyahu government, or Christianity as such for the widespread abuse practised by Catholic clergy. One soothing way to deal with this asymmetry is to declare that Islam is a religion of peace, perverted by those who commit violence in its name. It might be more honest to reverse the process; to acknowledge the influence of the Old Testament on Jewish nationalism, and the insult to human nature of the Catholic doctrine of priestly celibacy.

There is a long history of mutual violence in the relations between Christianity and Islam, and as Edis points out it would be futile to keep the score. Islamic terrorists have had links to Chechnya, victim of brutal attack by Putin’s (mainly Russian Orthodox) military, and when Greek Orthodox Serbs slaughtered over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, NATO troops failed to protect them. Secular ideologies, both left and right, have also been content to inflict massive death tolls by starvation, as in Ireland and in British India, in Stalin’s Russia and in Mao’s China. Most recently, the West (and the US in particular) has been responsible for torture, kidnapping and internment without trial, and a war that left at least 150,000 Muslims dead, and probably far more, all with strong public support. For me, claims to have done all this in defence of our values ring hollow while we are selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.

Islam originally expanded through war, and claimed to be legitimised by this military success, as did later Muslim empires. However, the spread of Islam in Malaysia, Indonesia, and until recently in sub-Saharan Africa has been based on influence rather than violence. Within the Muslim heartland, there was generally little occasion to invoke sacred violence, which has most credibility where Muslim majorities live under the control of foreign invaders, as in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Palestine. Its worst excesses are where extreme Islamist movements are seeking to take over power in failed Muslim states, especially Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Iraq, and the vast majority of the victims are their fellow-Muslims.

Suicide bombing may horrify us, but it is a rational way of pursuing asymmetric warfare. As Edis puts it, suicide bombers are the smart bombs of those without the wherewithal to deliver smart bombs. Nor do I find Muslim suicide bombers qualitatively different from the secularist Tamil Tigers or the Japanese kamikaze pilots, or even from those conventional warriors whom we praise for self-sacrificing bravery.

There is no denying the religious zeal of Islamic terrorists. And yet religion is neither necessary, nor sufficient, as an explanation of their actions. Acts of terror are not necessarily linked to religion, as I have already mentioned. And the vast majority of devout Muslims are not terrorists. Perhaps we should see the situation not as a crisis of religion, but of identity, with devotion to the point of self-destruction as the ultimate in selfless identification with the sacred cause.

Religious terrorists have one tactical advantage denied to their secular counterparts. They are much more difficult to infiltrate or subvert, because it is difficult to fake piety. And religious terrorism is frightening for another reason, namely its very unreasonableness. We can negotiate with a political extremist group, or persuade it that terrorism is not helping it attain its objectives (we have seen a mixture of both of these in Northern Ireland). But no such discourse is possible with a group whose aims are apocalyptic. Meantime, in what seems to me a strained comparison, Edis contrasts the situation of a mainstream Muslim with that of a secular liberal in the West. The Muslim will, like most of us, feel that fighting is sometimes justified, and will seek group loyalty and personal self-discipline while avoiding fanaticism. The secular liberal now has no difficulty in rejecting fanaticism, but faces the opposite problem of avoiding the complacency of disillusion, and keeping faith with the ideal of improving the world.

Meantime, we must retain perspective, and consider the effects of our actions on those most strongly affected by them. Our protestations of injured innocence are misplaced. Our visceral reaction to current horrors may well do more harm than good, and aerial bombing wins few allies.

True enough, but it is possible to under- as well as to over-react. Citing a 2009 source, [4] Edis writes of born-again warriors that “they are marginal actors who find themselves continually driven further from mainstream Islamic discourse.” One would not know from reading him that the intervening period has seen the emergence of a powerful organisation claiming the status of a state or even superstate, describing itself as the restoration of the caliphate, with control over millions of people and large areas in Syria and Iraq and with sympathisers in a dozen different countries, controlling major oil reserves and with sufficient acquiescence from its neighbours and the financial markets to export its oil and enjoy the revenues, and where dissent leads to beheading, homosexuals are thrown off buildings, and women are openly bought and sold as sex slaves. That this organisation is able to recruit by the thousand even (or especially) within Tunisia, one of the least fiercely Islamist of all predominantly Muslim countries. And that its devotees consider it virtuous to immolate themselves if at the same time they can kill a sufficient number of non-Muslims, or the wrong kind of Muslims, or Muslims who just happened to be visiting a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad. Through the long lens of history, which Edis habitually deploys, this may not amount to much (and for me, when we talk about gratuitous civilian deaths, Dresden comes to mind). But right now, to treat Daesh (a.k.a. “the so-called Islamic State”) as if it were just one more aspect of fanaticism, seems to me like discussing Europe in the 1930s as if Nazism were just one particular local variant of fascism.

Finally, Edis considers the future, starting from the present state of Islam in countries like Egypt and Turkey. Here Islamism has had no difficulty in coming to terms with neoliberal ideology and the pursuit of wealth. Was not the Prophet himself a successful merchant? While the previous Islamised generation studied science, the present one studies finance. Televangelism flourishes, as does well funded creationism. There is a Muslim management and self-help literature, similar to that based on Christianity in United States, and offering as little resistance to a dominant free-market ideology. Religion of any kind is better at injecting self-righteousness than self-criticism into the power structure.

Imposing our supernatural hopes on our view of the actual world invites disasters, such as creationism, alternative medicine, and climate change denial, which in the US is closely linked to biblical creationism. The denial of reality has consequences. And so, Edis argues, the defenders of scientific fact must shed their political naivety and find ways of relating to a general audience. I agree.

1] In the Shadow of the Sword, by the writer Tom Holland, presents a radical form of this historical criticism, in which both Muhammad and the Arabian origins of Islam are dismissed as political fabrications. For a critical discussion of this book, and references to scholarly work covering the same ground, see Glen Bowerstock’s blistering review in The Guardian.

2] The Institute for Creation Research argues that since the Bible is literally true, any science that appears to show the contrary must be misguided, and replaced with better science. And attempts to do so in its publications, in tediously contorted detail.

3] Benazir Bhutto, elected 1988 and 1993; assassinated in 2007 during an election campaign that she would almost certainly have won.

4] Islamic Radicalism and Global Jihad, D.R. Springer et al., Georgetown University Press, pp 28-29.

This piece first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on July 18 2016, four days after the coup attempt in Turkey, and I have decided to present it here unaltered. Meantime, of course, events continue to unfold.

*I regret using these words, since they have proved a distraction. I hold to my opinion; compare e.g. his much simplified discussion of violence in the Quran (End of Faith) with the chapter-and-verse analysis of the Quran’s confused position (as discussed by Edis), and his view of terrorism with that of Robert Pape at Others will differ.


Professor wants faith-based Christian universities for Scotland

ProfJamesFraserProfessor James Fraser CBE,  has called for the establishment in Scotland of universities that teach within “the pre-suppositional framework of a Christian world view”, as opposed to the “radical secularist” position that he attributes to the existing universities, and holds up the network of Christian universities in the United States as a model. This demand is ill-conceived and presumptuous, and should be resisted. Professor Fraser is a philosophy graduate who has spent nearly all his career in university administration; he, of all people, should know better.

Remember that Scottish Universities are very heavily dependent on taxpayer money, since Scottish students have their fees paid for them by the Government. So the proposed Christian universities would be funded, in direct competition with the existing system, at the expense of a general population of whom now less than half are Christian. But that’s the least of it.

Self-styled Christian universities do indeed exist in the United States, and the problems that they pose should be enough to make Professor Fraser think again. They require their faculty to be Christians, and teach from a Christian point of view. But who is to say what point of view is Christian, and what is not? The Free Church, whose General Assembly he was addressing, adheres to a version of Christianity according to which the world was made in six days, the entire earth and life science content of the school curriculum must be wrong because it contradicts the Word of the Bible, humankind is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good”, and all those who do not receive God’s grace are condemned to miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

Is this what Professor Fraser wants to be able to demand from his Faculty? There have been cases, in the United States, of distinguished Professors being sacked from these Christian universities, merely because they did not accept on faith the literal truth of Genesis. Is this what we are being asked to emulate?

presupapolocoverAs for a “pre-suppositional framework”, that is a technical term that Professor Fraser will not have used lightly. The pre-supposition involved is that all reasoning and all evidence must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the framework, which is itself sacrosanct. Such an approach to knowledge is the very opposite of everything that a university stands for.

And finally, the claim that existing universities are “radical secularist”. I honestly do not know what the learned Professor means. All points of view are represented within our universities, and that is how it should be. Religious viewpoints have, if anything, a privileged position. They have chapels for those who wish to use them, hold religious services, and provide facilities for chaplains of all faiths. And nothing could be more stimulating for believers and nonbelievers alike than to freely mix and to discuss their agreements and differences. Why would anyone wish things otherwise?

Image of Professor Fraser from University of Highlands and Islands news release

New theory explains mystery of excess of matter in our Universe

It’s being hailed as the most significant breakthrough since Hoyle proposed the Big Bang theory.


Horsehead Nebula in Orion (representative-colour image by NASA from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii)

Symmetry would require the production of exactly equal numbers of particles and their corresponding antiparticles in the earliest instants of the Big Bang, when radiation and particle-antiparticle pairs existed in equilibrium. However, these pairs would have irreversibly annihilated each other as our Universe cooled, eventually leaving nothing behind except the Cosmic Microwave Background. The persistence of matter is only one of several disturbing asymmetries; another such is the violation of parity in beta-decay, for predicting which Lee and Yang received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957.


Horsehead Nebula in U’ (calculated by the author)

Today, however, Dr Bubba Majntser, of Mierda de Toros University, has announced his Even Bigger Bang theory, according to which the formation of our Universe (from nothing, as so eloquently described by Krauss) was, of necessity, accompanied by the formation of an anti-Universe. The excess matter in our Universe U is then precisely balanced by an equivalent excess of antimatter, while the anti-Universe U’ must, according to the well-known properties of antimatter, be proceeding backwards in time. This ensures that U and U’ can never come into contact with each other, which is as well, since if they were to do so the result would be complete mutual annihilation. Moreover, each particle in our Universe is quantum mechanically entangled with its corresponding particle in the anti-Universe, so that if the descriptor of our universe violates some symmetry law, that law is nonetheless rigidly obeyed by the direct product U x U’ of the descriptors of Universe and anti-Universe. Similar considerations will apply to every other Universe in the Multiverse. Majntser has christened this principle Bifurcated Symmetry, or BS.

HawkingBookBut his theory, for all its elegance, has already attracted criticism. The Vatican has condemned it on the grounds that it violates Free Will; if a person in the anti-Universe is necessarily constrained by entanglement to behave in exactly the same way as the corresponding person in our Universe, they cannot both be functioning as autonomous agents. Shakespeareans have pointed out that the theory violates the fundamental maxim that “What’s done cannot be undone,” since according to BS, whatever is done in U is being undone in U’, and vice versa, and this happens all the time. There is also disagreement as to whether the expression U x U’ should be replaced by U* x U’, to cover cases where time is complex, or even under some circumstances, as suggested by Hawking, purely imaginary. Strict Occamists denounce the theory as involving unnecessary SevenDaysduplication of entities, while Richard Dawkins has already tweeted his opinion that it is insufficiently critical of religion. The Oxford theologian John Lennox, on the other hand, denounces the theory as undermining his attempts to reconcile science with Genesis, since it requires either 12 (6 + 6) or 0 (6 + [-6]) Days of Creation, whereas the correct number is, of course, 7.

The most serious criticism, however, comes from the UK’s National Union of Students, who are demanding that the author of this post be no-platformed for cultural imperialism, micro-aggression by ridiculing a non-Anglophone University, and using sexist and ageist language.

Hoyle himself could not immediately be reached for comment.


Atoms old and new, 1: Atoms in antiquity

What is now proved was once only imagin’d – William Blake

Really important ideas in science are not the work of a single individual or even a single generation. The idea of an atom, for instance, was developed by ancient Greek philosophers, revived by eighteenth century chemists to make sense of their discoveries about the composition of matter, and used by nineteenth century physicists to explain the effect of temperature and pressure on gases. Our modern idea of molecules, formed with definite shapes by joining atoms together according to definite rules, was developed by chemists studying naturally occurring substances in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the structure of the atom itself was explained in terms of more fundamental particles, while the last half century has seen advances that make it possible for us to directly sense, and even move around, individual atoms.


Roman fresco, illustrating front cover of R.E. Latham’s excellent translation

Atomic theory dates back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Leucippus and Democritus, who wrote and taught more than four hundred years BCE. The works of the pre-Socratics survive only in fragments, and in quotations by later authors. For example, Epicurus, some 130 years later, built this theory into his unified view of the world and morality. The views of Epicurus were beautifully expressed by the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived at the same time as Julius Caesar, in his great work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe). According to this ancient atomic theory, atoms are eternal and indestructible. All forms of matter are built up from a relatively small number of kinds of atoms.

What led the early atomists to theories so remote from simple appearances? Greek philosophers were greatly puzzled by the phenomena of change and motion. If something is real, how can it be transformed into something that it is not? If something is in one place, how can it move, since that would imply that it was no longer in that place? Besides, how can anything move without displacing something (if only the air) that is already there, in which case which one moves first? There are serious problems here, that were not properly solved until the mathematics of fluid flow and the theory of limits were developed in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

One radical approach to the problems posed by change is to say that change itself is an illusion, and that the world of experience, in which we live and act, grow and die, is in some important sense unreal. Plato was influenced by this approach when he compared knowledge gained through the senses to a mere shadow-play on the walls of a cave. Such a view is deeply hostile to science, which relies on observation, and the influence of Plato and his followers was to greatly hinder the development of scientific thinking.

An alternative view, that taken by the atomists, is that nature consists of two components; atoms, and the void. The atoms are eternal, since nothing can be created out of nothing. Everything that happens, happens according to natural laws, otherwise nature would not be predictable. The atoms have room to move because there is a void between them. The individual atoms are unchanging, but their arrangement can change, and the forces between atoms explain why objects have a definite shape. All natural processes are caused by collisions and rearrangements of atoms. The force of the wind, for instance, is attributed to the impact of the “atoms” (we would now say “molecules”) of air on objects. As Lucretius points out, the theory is consistent with common experience – for instance, the smell of a perfume diffuses through a room, so the perfume must be giving off invisible particles. Sheepskins hung up by the sea become wet overnight; this shows that “atoms” of water have found their way from the water through the air to the sheepskin’s surface. A pit dug a little inland from the sea fills up with drinkable water. This is because sea water contains more than one kind of atoms, and the jagged ones (which are also responsible for its sharp taste) stick to the ground through which the drinkable water flows (this is remarkably similar to the modern view, in which the ions that make up salt stick to clay). He could also have mentioned the way that things dissolve in water and can then be recovered unchanged when the water evaporates.

But let us allow Lucretius to speak for himself:

The headlong force of the wind lashes the body, overthrows great ships and scatters the clouds, then swiftly whirling strews the fields with tall trees … So there must be unseen particles in the wind, sweeping the seas, the land, the clouds of the sky.

Without seasonal storms, the Earth would not be able to give rise to the produce that gladdens us, nor could living things sustain themselves and propagate. So it is better to think that the same components occur in different things, much as the same elements occur in different words, rather than that anything could exist without an origin.

Some things are primary objects, while others are assemblages, but there is no force that can destroy the primary objects, for in the end they overcome through their own sheer solidity.

In other words, rain, plants and animals must be made of similar atoms in different arrangements, in order to explain the facts of growth and feeding (Lucretius, of course, had no idea that the plants needed carbon dioxide from the air, as well as water and minerals from the soil, but otherwise his account is surprisingly modern). The force of the wind, and its ability to carry clouds, is due to the impulse of the “atoms” in the air. All the changes that we observe in matter are due to the movement of atoms and their combining together in new ways. For Lucretius, as for Epicurus and Democritus before him, the atoms themselves are eternal and indestructible.*

I should mention that this is part of a moral, as well as a natural, world view. Lucretius was writing at a time of great civil disorder. The constitution of the Roman republic, originally designed for a small city-state, was breaking down even as the territory under Roman control grew. The central authority was increasingly unable to control its own generals, and the civil liberties enjoyed by the old governing class, to which Lucretius belonged, were being trampled underfoot. War, external along the expanding frontiers or internal between one ambitious general and another, seemed endless. At such times, individuals of spirit concentrate all the more keenly on the inner freedoms of thought and feeling. Thus Lucretius wrote to free the mind of superstitious fears through the light of understanding:

This fear and darkness of the mind cannot be dissipated by the rays of the Sun, nor by the clear shafts of day, but only by the perusal and understanding of nature.

His purpose, in short, was to demystify.

Why was there no progress from such a promising beginning? Bertrand Russell (History of Western Philosophy, Chapters IX, XXVII) suggests two types of possibility, one deriving from the way society was structured, the other from political circumstances.

In the world of Greece and Rome, there was a total lack of contact between the useful arts (cookery and brewing, dyeing, metallurgy, tanning, ceramics, even medicine), which were delegated to the laboring classes, and the speculations of gentlemen. When labor is cheap, there is little pressure to improve technology, and when thinkers despise manual activity, they will not develop any experimental technique. Lucretius himself often appeals to observation, but experiment involves more than simply observing what presents itself. It is the deliberate setting up of situations in order to observe them, and no Greek or Roman gentleman would be likely to soil his hands in such a business.

Secondly, there was what Russell calls a failure of nerve. Leucippus and Democritus were great intellectual innovators; Epicurus and Lucretius were not. Leucippus and Democritus wrote as citizens of free city states at their most confident, during and immediately after Greek successes in the Persian Wars. By the time of Epicurus, these city states had been subdued by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander. Lucretius wrote when the Roman Republic was degenerating by way of civil war into a despotic empire. Later centuries saw the decline and fall of Rome, the chaos of Europe’s Dark Ages, and the subsequent medieval reverence for authority and verbal argument rather than experience.

As Lucretius repeatedly reminds us, if everything happens according to natural laws, there is no need to fear the gods. Indeed, he regarded religious belief as a source of evil, and gave as an example how Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter to the gods in order to secure a fair wind for the Greeks on their way to attack Troy. He also regarded the mind as the product of subtle atoms within the body, rather than a separate immaterial entity. As for the murderous political struggles of his time, these were the expressions of misplaced ambition, itself the product of incomplete understanding.

Such views did not endear him to the early Church. Thus St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, claimed, four centuries after the event, that Lucretius’s death was suicide, that he had been driven insane by a love potion, and that his books, written in lucid intervals, had been reworked and corrected by Cicero. I have found no reason to believe that any of this is true.

.Further south and east, in the Islamic and Hindu worlds, science and mathematics continued to flourish. Muslim theologians developed their own extreme version of atomic theory, in which matter consisted of dimensionless atoms, while space was atomised into separate points and time into instants, but the scientists of the Islamic world generally followed the continuous matter theories of Aristotle. There were major advances in the practical applications of chemistry, while the alchemists made important discoveries of how different substances react. However, a proper understanding of molecules, atoms, and the relationships between them requires an understanding of the mechanics of moving particles, and quantitative understanding of chemical reactions. We would have to wait until the 17th century for the first of these, and another hundred years for the second.

*But it would be easy to see Lucretius as more modern than he really is. He believes that he can discover facts about the world using purely verbal arguments, and many of his explanations amount to nothing more than “This is how things behave, because such is the nature of the atoms that compose them.” Such reasoning gives the illusion of understanding, and is the enemy of scientific enquiry. He describes a fantastical cosmology, in which the Sun is composed of lighter atoms than the Earth, squeezed out into space when Earth first cohered. Here we should not blame him for being wrong, but should blame him for being too easily satisfied. And while Democritus regarded all directions in space as equivalent, Lucretius, following Epicurus, thought that there was an absolute direction of “downwards”, in which direction atoms were eternally falling. This although Plato, centuries earlier, had taught that the Earth was round, at the centre of things, and stationary.

Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily. Translations by the present author. An earlier version of this material appeared in the author’s From Stars to Stalagmites, World Scientific, 2012.

Even on his birthday, don’t say Darwin unless you mean it


From Darwin’s Notebook B, 1837

How Darwin’s name is taken in vain, with mini-reviews of some of the worst offenders

Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it. Above all, don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s like saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, the first thing regarding what they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded. (Dalton of course deserves further discussion in his own right, which I will be providing in a few weeks time.)


From John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808)

Imagine if a lot of people decided that atomic theory was against their religion. We would see a parallel world of sacred science, in which molecules were “intelligently constructed”, and real chemistry would be referred to as Daltonism, or possibly, these days, neo-Daltonism. The scientific dissidents from Daltonism would invoke Dalton’s name on every possible occasion, and draw attention to the many inadequacies of atomic theory as he presented it in 1808. Dalton didn’t know anything about the forces that hold atoms together, which depend on electrons and quantum mechanics. In fact, he didn’t even know about electrons. He was muddled about the difference between a molecule of hydrogen and an atom of hydrogen. He thought that the simplest compound between two different elements A and B would have the formula AB, so that water must be HO, not H2O. And of course he knew nothing about the origin of atoms, a problem not solved until the 1950s, over a century after his death. Obvious nonsense, the lot of it!

Darwin was ignorant of transitional fossils, and in words still quoted by creationists deplored their absence as the greatest objection to his theory. He was equally ignorant about the origin of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. And because he did not realise that inheritance occurred through genes, he could not explain why favourable variations were not simply diluted out. It would be decades after his death before we could even speculate coherently about the origins of life, and despite tantalising clues it remains a largely unsolved problem. But despite this, we have learnt an enormous amount since the publication of On The Origin of Species, and everything that we have learnt is consistent with, indeed requires, the key concepts of evolution and common descent.

ExploreEvolutionSo why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way his opponents want it. By identifying evolution with Darwin, they continue to breathe life into the controversies of the mid-19th century. At the same time, it helps them pretend that modern biology is just one individual’s point of view, rather than a mature science based on the work of thousands of investigators. Very recently, creationists have taken to invoking Darwin himself for their cause, in such titles as Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin Strikes Back. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical tool; if Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], is that not a puzzle to us “Darwinists”? Closely related is the device of presenting creationism under the guise of even-handed debate, as when a creationist pseudo-textbook (which mentions Darwin on almost every page, but not in the index) calls itself Explore Evolution; the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism, or in the list below, where a creationist comic goes by the name, What’s Darwin got to do with it? A friendly discussion …

And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful language, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of historical and continuing change over time, and of common ancestry. And if you find yourself in the position of explaining the difference between a scientific theory (coherent intellectual structure developed to explain a range of observations), and the use of the word “theory” in everyday use (provisional hypothesis), you have blundered into a morass. Back out again.

BlackBoxBut back to Darwin. You can see what I mean if you just look at the names of the books written by the enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. There are other examples, such as The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, I discovered an even more lurid book of the same name by John Darnton, which portrays him as a murderer. To be fair, Darnton does not pretend that he is writing anything other than fiction, although surely he was writing with half an eye on the creationist market.

To further test my idea, I went online to, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window (I regularly search on Amazon, but prefer to buy from The Book Depository or Wordery). Here are some of the books by creationists that I came up with; a lot of the names were all too familiar, but I never realized that Rick Santorum had actually got his name on a book.  There were also references to  “materialist neo-Darwinism”, but since I don’t pretend to know what a “materialist” is, and whether I or for that matter Darwin would qualify, I decided to let those ones go.

Darwin's DoubtGod vs. Darwin: The Logical Supremacy of Intelligent Design Creationism Over Evolution (M. S. King, 2015): “Ever since its inception, the edifice of Evolutionary Darwinism has rested upon a foundation of sand, propped up solely by media hype, public ignorance and extreme intellectual bullying.”

Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) For the fashioning of this phrase in the creationist quote mine, see here. For Donald Prothero‘s devastating review of the book, see here.

Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)

The Dark Side of Charles Darwin (Jerry Bergman, 2011) Blurb: “A single man stands behind the greatest deception in history.”

Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)

The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (David Berlinski, 2010; I have written about Berlinski here)

What Darwin Got Wrong (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) Apparently based on confusion between mutation, source of novelty, and selection, imposer of value.

The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Benjamin Wiker, 2009) 

Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)

Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against NeoDarwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007; this fraudulently misnamed creationist pseudo-texbook is discussed further here)

Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots (Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware, 2007)

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Michael Behe, 2007; since Behe clearly believes that biological complexity is the work of a designer who operates independently of natural laws, I include him as a creationist, although he would deny this)

DarwinDayDarwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science  John G. West, 2007)

Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward, 2007)

Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (William A. Dembski and Rick Santorum, 2006)

Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward and William Dembski , 2006)

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Jonathan Wells, 2006)

Reclaiming Science from Darwinism: A Clear Understanding of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, (Kenneth Poppe, 2006)

The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed (Antony Latham, 2005)

Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (William A. Dembski, 2004)

What Darwin Didn’t Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution (Geoffrey Simmons, 2004) Blurb: What Darwin Didn’t Know shows the human body to be a marvelous system constructed by an infinitely wise Designer.

darwinismDesignDarwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003) Blurb: if science education is to be other than state-sponsored propaganda, a distinction must be drawn between empirical science and materialist philosophy.

Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003) Blurb: many of the constructs of evolution are based on fantasies devoid of scientific credibility.

The Collapse of Darwinism: Or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life (Graeme D. Snooks, 2003)

Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Michael A. Cremo, 2003)

The Case Against Darwin: Why the Evidence Should Be Examined (James Perloff, 2002)

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Benjamin Wiker and William Dembski (Jul 12, 2002) Abortion. Euthanasia. Infanticide. Sexual promiscuity. And it’s all Darwin’s fault.

Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)

Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Cornelius G. Hunter, 2002) It’s just an excuse for atheism.

Darwin’s Demise (Md. Comninellis Nicholas and Joe White, 2001)

Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)

WhatsDarwinGotWhat’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (between a bright young creationist and a stuffy stooge; Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)

Darwinism Defeated? (J. I. Packer, Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux, 1999) (Lamoureux says no, by the way)

Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism (Harun Yahya and Mustapha Ahmad, 1999)

Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (James Perloff, 1999)

Darwin’s Leap of Faith: Exposing the False Religion of Evolution (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, 1998)

Darwin’s Enigma (Luther Sunderland, 1998) Blurb: No legitimate fossil evidence exists that shows one species changing into another

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)

Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)

In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order (Ian T. Taylor, 1996) Blurb: Creation Moments is pleased to bring you what has been hailed as the classic work on the creation-evolution issue!

Darwinism, Science or Philosophy? (Phillip E. Johnson et al., 1994)

Darwin on Trial (Phillip E. Johnson, 1991)

Darwinism : The Refutation of a Myth (Soren Lovtrup, 1987)

And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based Exclusively Upon Darwin’s Facts (T Warren O’Neill, 1879)

A shorter version of this post appeared here in June 2013

In defense of accommodationism

Respectfully reblogged from Pigliucci’s Plato’s Footnote. Historically, an accommodationist was a believer who, like William Buckland (Dean of Westminster), or the Free Church of Scotland theologian Henry Drummond, sought to accommodate their interpretation of their faith to scientific discoveries. More recently, the term has been used to refer to those who neglect to sufficiently disparage religion while expounding science, a neglect that some consider sinful.

Footnotes to Plato

science and religionA recent essay I wrote for The Philosophers’ Magazine online has, predictably perhaps, generated a minor storm (well, more likely a tempest in a teacup, but still). The piece is what I thought amounted to a mild, substantive criticism of a well reasoned piece by independent philosopher Russell Blackford, entitled Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion. Russell, in turn, was reviewing (very, very positively) the latest book by biologist and New Atheist Jerry Coyne, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. I am a known critic of New Atheism (though myself an atheist) so I figured I’d add my two cents once again.

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