Friday, February 16, 2007

Replies to Beast Rabban

These are my replies to a discussion here that has grown too dissassiated with the original post.

Beast Rabban, you seem to have misunderstood a few of my comments, so most of my responses will be clarifications.

Firstly, yes, I understand that there is a separation of church and state in the Constitution. However, the interpretation given to this is that the Founding Fathers wanted 'freedom of religion', rather than 'freedom from religion'

I've never seen a document from any of the founding fathers that suggested that. If you know of one, please let me know. There's quite a lot of evidence that some of them were specifically not the god-fearing Christians today's moral-reformers make them out to be. For example, from the Treaty of Tripoli that John Adams signed into law: “[T]he Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...” And certainly Jefferson would have accepted "freedom from religion" as a legitimate interpretation: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.”

It might, therefore, be beneficial to non-Christian children to learn the basic tenets of Christianity in order for them to understand, and not be excluded from, the common culture of their nation.

I'd agree with that more strongly than you might imagine. However, prayer in school is not an effective pedagogical means of doing that. Neither is direct religious instruction. Historical, literary, psychological, and anthropological methods would suit better in an educational setting.

Then there is the question of what constitutes 'meaningful instruction'. As a Christian, I'd strongly argue that religious education does constitute exactly this.

I assumed that - like in every school I attended or taught in - when a portion of the students are excused to participate in some religious study or activity, those left behind are give worksheets or other busywork that are not only contraindicated by many studies on effective practices but aren't even graded, since most of the class is out of the room at the time. Effectively, while some students are singing about Jesus, the other portion are learning nothing.

You mention in connection with history lessons on comparative religion teaching facts, rather than opinions or guesses. Presumably you mean that in their approach to religion, an atheist, philosophical physicalist approach be made to religion, rather than a religious interpretation. This is, however, merely another opinion or guess.

I'm not entirely sure what your accusing me of here, but by facts I mean things like "this is was X believe, this is what X do" with a focus on the real and meaningful divisions and issues within each religion (e.g., not teaching Islam as "normal Moslems versus terrorists" but from the more important division between Sunni and Shi'ite). I've seen people of a Christian background pay lipservice to religious diversity without ever making an effort to understand how religion functions in other cultures. To avoid that, I think a thematic rather than geographic approach to units would do much better (e.g., a unit on religious revelation, another on religious responses to modern biology or physics, another on how religions adapt to changing social contexts). The comparative aspect would come across much better that way.

Also, historians will tell you that history isn't about facts, but argument and interpretation, and the histories of different events and periods can vary widely, all based on the same basic facts.

Yes, and a good history class presents the different viewpoints held by historians and lets students come to their own conclusions - conclusions that should be drawn from evidence, not simply religious insight.

History is only one aspect of what I'd want the class to cover anyway. Social psychology and cognitive science should have nearly equal roles.

Regarding the teaching of religious history, this might actually strengthen religion, particularly in the field of science.

Yes, perhaps. Remember though, that its only recently that anyone in US society has even been able to say that they are atheists freely and publicly without suspicion, and even then we had the brief setback in the 1940s-50s when all atheists were presumed to be communists. There was even a tradition among deists in claiming that atheism was a logical impossiblity. That Christians have been and are involved in European science is expected in such a climate.

I wonder whether the relationship between religion and science would do better in a history class or science class. I have a feeling that a history class would neglect to show things like how even great mind's like Newton have historically used religion - the existence of god in particular - as a filler for the gaps that the contemporary theories failed to explain. These explanations - though common - are routinely dismissed as not being scientific, since they make no empirical claims. Just like ID is being dismissed today by mainstream biology.


Beast Rabban said...

Hi BH - Thanks for doing me the honour of including a response to my comments on the debate over at Atheism Sucks on your fascinating blog. You raise some good points and tackle some deep issues, both here elsewhere. I'll see if I can give you a satisfactory answer.

Firstly, you certainly have the advantage over me regarding the question of religious instruction and the American Constitution. I'm British, and can only go by what I've read and been told by American friends.

Now, I always understood that the leaders of the American Revolution were Deists, and it came as a surprise to me that there was evidence otherwise. It does seem that many of the signatories to the Constitution and delegates to the Continental Congress were active participants in their churches, rather than keeping aloof. Jefferson's statement that he didn't care if a person prayed to one God or many actually doesn't necessarily prove he was a Deist. As I understand from my own reading of American history, when William Penn founded Pennsylvania he deliberately intended that people of all faiths should be welcome there, even Muslims. It was a courageous attitude at the time, and perhaps remains just as much today with the world's current religious tensions post 9/11. Yet Penn himself was a Quaker, and his tolerance came from his conviction, as a Christian, that the magistrate should have now power to affect issues of conscience.

Regarding the particular issue of the Treaty of Tripoli, J.P. Holding analyses whether it does have anything to say about the foundation or otherwise of America on Christian values in the essay 'Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Flub' at

Beast Rabban said...

Regarding the specific issue of religious observance in school, this was covered a few months ago in an issue of Time magazine, or perhaps one of the New York literary magazines, which covered the controversy over a teacher in California who had been dismissed for passing out Evangelical Christian leaflets at his school in California. I'm afraid I've misplaced the article, though if I do managed to dig it out, I'll let you know. :)The article did go into the historical debate over the provision of religious education in schools and quoted the various constitutional authorities interpreting that part of the Constitution which has been interpreted as forbidding it in school. As I understand it, the separation of Church and State was introduced into the Federal Constitution so as not to interfere with the religious orientation of the individual states, many of whom did have an established church, though friends of mine have pointed out that even at the time established churches were becoming unpopular and anachronistic in America.

Beast Rabban said...

I also got the impression that the American public school system, although secular, is not necessarily antireligious. As I said, I'm not American, and have had no direct experience of the school system over on your side of the Atlantic. However, some of the teachers at my church school over here had taught in America. One of my parents was a teacher in this country, and she has American friends in the profession from the time their schools ran an exchange programme. The impression I had is that your country's teachers and mine are both motivated primarily by a desire to simply teach and educate, rather than engage in any particular programme of social engineering or ideological inculcation.

Having said that, I can well appreciate the reaction of those on the Religious Right to those incidents where Christianity has specifically been banned or been the subject of official disapproval by teaching staff. It reminds me of some of the controversy over this side of the Atlantic a few years ago with the very PC teaching in certain 'hard left' schools in Britain, such as Brent and Lambeth in London.

Regarding the teaching of evolution in schools, this should be less of an issue than it is. As I mentioned, I went to a Church school here in Britain, and we were taught Darwinism as an example of 'how, not why' God created the wonderful plethora of creatures on our world.

Now clearly it would make the truth claims of Christianity and Judaism more persuasive if there was obvious palaeontological and geological evidence for the account of Creation as it's described in Genesis. However, the President of the Association for the History of Science once told me that there were more people writing books in the 19th century attempting to reconcile Darwinism and Christianity than doing otherwise. Jeffrey Burton Russell, a historian at Cornell, points to research amongst scientists that showed that of those who lost their faith, only two did so through evolution. It's why I take issue with people like Richard Dawkins who insist that evolution disproves religion. He's welcome to his views, but I do think they're mistaken and as much a reading of his own philosophical convictions into the evidence as much as science.

Sorry for the digression, but I thought it might help if I explained my own particular perception of the American school system from my own peculiar British perspective, as sometimes a different perspective can bring issues into sharper focus, even if it doesn't necessarily bring a solution or agreement. :)

Beast Rabban said...

Regarding children not learning anything through prayers and religious worship, it's a moot point. Certainly when I was at school I sat through enough boring assemblies in the morning. By law British school children are supposed to go through a Christian-based act of worship in the morning, much as Americans I understand begin the school day with the pledge of allegiance. As British society has become more secular, morning worship has become increasingly controversial and some schools have tacitly dropped it.

Yet religion isn't just about what people of a faith believe, it's also about what they do, and religious people do pray, celebrate communion or perform healing ceremonies. Sometimes to understand what something means, you have to do it, or observe those who do.

Regarding religious education itself, it's become increasingly broad in the United Kingdom and there have been calls for it to include Atheism/Humanism. I have seen a textbook written for the curriculum which covers other faiths, with a chapter for Humanism. One of my friends in the teaching profession specialises in RE, though she's not a Christian.

From whatever perspective it's taught, however, I do think some form of religious education in schools is beneficial. Cardinal Newman argued for it in his influential essay 'The Idea of a University' that something like theology marks education out from instruction. RE is something which should broaden minds and teach children the bigger questions, rather than just what they need to go out to be yet another cog in the social machine.

I'm afraid if I seemed rather defensive on the topic of religious education, it's because I'm used more to atheists demanding it be abolished - which is the stance of Richard Dawkins - or be replaced by 'atheistic education' of some kind, as practised in the former Soviet bloc. The recent statement by the Richard Dawkins Foundation that they were preparing atheist educational material to supply to schools did lead me to fear that they also had something like this in mind, though I would certainly not accuse Dr. Dawkins of being a Communist or otherwise politically extreme.

Beast Rabban said...

You mention that it's only recently that atheist Americans have been able to declare their beliefs publicly, except for the 1940s and 1950s when they were tainted with Communism during the McCarthy era.

I can well believe it. Over this side of the Atlantic it was illegal in the 19th century to be an atheist, and I believe Charles Dilkes, a Liberal politician, was actually prosecuted under that legislation.

In the early part of the 20th century, my grandmother's cousin, who was a local councillor in this part of the world, turned down the offer of being mayor of my town because he was an atheist or agnostic, and so could not take the oath, nor worship in the Lord Mayor's chapel, which has been a traditional part of the mayor's duties since the Middle Ages. I respect the man's deep convictions, and definitely don't agree with the persecution of atheists.

In the case of America in the mid-20th century, however, in some ways it was inevitable that atheism should get tarred with the same brush as Communism. Ludwig Feuerbach, one of the leading ideologists of modern atheist thought, had strongly influenced Marx, though he only belatedly joined the German Social Democratic Party in the 1870s.

I believe that Madelaine Murray O'Hair claimed that she decided to found American Atheists after being refused entry into the Soviet Union. And in those highly reactionary decades, it was almost inevitable that anything even remotely tainted with left-wing politics should be accused of Communism.

I get the impression that many American atheists come from the left side of the political spectrum, rather than the right, despite the influence of Ayn Rand. Of course, this does not mean that left-wing politics or policies are necessarily atheistic, any more than a politically right-wing stance is necessarily godly.

Beast Rabban said...

You also raise some interesting points about the 'God of the Gaps' arguments in science, and the fact that some Deists found atheism literally unimaginable. Both true, and worth further comment.

Yeah, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz and many of the other scientists of the Early Modern period did use God to plug various epistemological and scientific gaps in their hypotheses. We can smile at them today as mistaken and naive, and, as Gilbert Ryle said, 'A God of the Gaps is no God', which is why most theologians and theist scientists are reluctant to use this approach.

Yet they may not have been wrong to do so. For example, Descartes believed that God himself supplied inertia to the universe as part of His work of supporting its continued operation, as required by Christian dogma. Now as I write, scientists have yet to find the Higgs-Boson which particle physicists have posited is the carrier of mass in the universe. Now it could be possible, following Descartes, that it's mass that the good Lord supplies to the universe instead, and that the Higgs-Boson will never be found, as it does not exist.

Similarly, regarding the origin of sub-atomic particles themselves, there is a minority view that rather than there being an increasing number of infinitesimally small particles - 'quarklets in the quark' - progressing ad infinitum, each subatomic particle mirrors the other, and can generate others as required. Paul Davies in his book, God and the New Physics, states that this challenges the existence of God. I beg to differ.

It reminds me instead of the theory of monads - tiny particles which were part atom, part soul, suggested by Wilhelm Leibniz. These monads have no direct contact with each other, but are all directed towards God, and each monad knows and responds to what the other monads are doing because although no two monads are the same, they all mirror each other in their own natures.

Now Leibniz's monads were quite rightly rejected because, unlike Newton's atoms, you couldn't make predictions about them. But if subatomic particles do mirror each other, as suggested by this minority view in modern physics, it would suggest that Leibniz was partly right and strengthen further the plausibility of his wider arguments about God and His relationship to the Cosmos.

Now, I don't suppose I'm right on these points. I suspect that either the Higgs-Boson will be discovered, or that the Standard Theory of sub-atomic physics will have to be revised, rather than be plugged by God. And I have the same views regarding Leibniz's monads. However, this does not mean that it is irrational to use a Cartesian/Leibnizian approach to these problems, or that they're necessarily wrong.

Beast Rabban said...

Regarding your comments about some Deists finding atheism incomprehensible - yes, I've no doubt you're right. Robespierre, who set up the Cult of Pure Reason in Revolutionary France to replace Christianity stated very firmly that 'L'atheisme est aristocratique'. Yet they did so on a purely utilitarian basis, to solve problems in social theory that still exist today.

Essentially, democracy is based on each person possessing the same God-given rights, as expressed in the Constitution. However, if God does not exist, then the claim that all people have the same inalienable rights to life, liberty and property, to use Lock's words, is weakened. Thus, the French Revolutionary regime, in drafting its constitution, declared that it was necessary for society that God existed.

Now I've accounts of atheist political philosophers today which have suggested that that problem hasn't been solved, and that some of these philosophers are suggesting that although God doesn't exist, it is necessary to behave as if He does in the strictly limited sense of still believing in innate human rights.

A same problem affects those philosophers addressing the problem of the human soul. The notion of freewill, which comes from an immortal soul, is intimately connected with democratic notions of liberty, personal responsibility and justice. Bourgeois democracy demands that people exercise their personal liberty and have freewill to choose their own destinies and regimes.

Yet if no transcendent self exists, and people are just machines without freewill, as proposed by LaMattrie, Baron d'Holbach, and the British psychologist Dr. Sue Blackmore, then notions of justice, political liberty and punishment become increasingly contentious. It's such a problem that I have seen atheist philosophers consider that although we do not have souls, nevertheless we should still continue as though we had. 'If God did not exist', as Voltaire said, 'it would be necessary to invent Him'. So we're back to the French Revolutionaries demanding the existence of God because society needed it.

Beast Rabban said...

Sorry if I wandered a bit off-topic in responding to your blog entry. As I said, you raise some good questions, and sometimes one's mind wanders. I hope you'll forgive me.

Right, back to the subject of your posts. You mention that it's not surprising that in the context of European culture European Christians should be involved in science. Actually, that's not the case. There was real surprise amongst the scientific community over here in 1996 when it was reported that 40 per cent of scientists had 'strong' or 'very strong' religious views. This is precisely the same percentage of atheist scientists. It was all the more surprising, as the percentage had not changed since the poll was first taken in 1906 or so. It was a surprise then, as it was considered at the time that scientists, as paragons of Naturalistic rationality, would not believe in God, although there were exceptions, like James Clark Maxwell.

The philosophical foundations of part of modern atheism lie back in the 1920s with the rise of 'Logical Positivism' which regards any talk about God as, quite literally, nonsense. I got the impression that A.J. Ayers, who wrote the classic Logical Positivist text, 'Language, Truth and Logic', was vehemently atheist.

Logical Positivism, on the other hand, was an attempt to import the Naturalistic approach of science, as formulated by the Vienna School, into philosophy. Logical Positivism was probably the dominant strand of philosophy in Britain until its demise in the 1980s. I can remember being taught it at College during that decade. In this intellectual climate, it is therefore surprising that British and European Christians are scientists.

B H said...

Some great points, thanks for responding.

There are only a few things I can think to say immediately is that I meant we shouldn't be surprised a fair number of European scientists were Christians historically. As you pointed out, at various times its been illegal to not be a theist. At some points, it's even been illegal to be a Christian of the wrong sect. Hence the division of church and state in the US.

Second, I didn't mean to say that Jefferson was not a deist. I only wanted to show that there were government officials at the time who wouldn't read a difference between "freedom of" and "freedom from" religion. Jefferson was not a member of Congress at the time the bill was drafted and passed, but he was in close contact with Madison the whole time.

I wasn't aware of the dispute around the Treaty of Tripoli text. I'm not buying the argument that it was inserted over century later, but considering our contemporary congress, I certainly accept that it's likely none of the representatives read it!