The Samovar

Grayling on faith: the plot inspissates
November 11, 2006, 5:03 am
Filed under: Politics, Religion

Note this article has been retracted in its current form following comments by Prof. Grayling. That said, my feelings about it are much the same but for slightly different reasons than the ones stated in my entry. Please read the comments below for the full story on this entry. The original text follows, with the particularly contentious statements which I have retracted highlighted in grey.

A. C. Grayling has written an article on CiF attacking the notion of ‘fundamentalist atheism’ (and indeed the word atheism itself). I think it’s easy, as an atheist, to read a piece like this and nod your head because its conclusions are ones we agree with, but in this case, this is a poor position to find yourself in. The arguments are weak, and the article as a whole is self-contradictory.First of all, in an article devoted to extolling the virtues of rationality over religion, Grayling uses an incredible array of different forms of rhetoric. I could go through this article paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence and even word by word and prove this point, but I think it would be more valuable to leave it to you to do that. If you’ve already read the article, read it again thinking purely about whether or not each argument is really a good one or just one whose conclusions you agree with, and about how he presents it. To get you started, what do you think of this use of language?

We understand that the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation…

What is he attempting to convey here and in the rest of this sentence? What specifically is the rhetorical function of the word inspissated?

One of his major points is that the word atheist doesn’t mean someone who believes in the non-existence of god, but someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of god. This distinction is an important one to make, but Grayling’s usage is not the ordinary one (as a little dictionary work makes clear).

Later, Grayling urges that we drop the term atheist and instead focus on the issue of rationality. His point here is essentially one of pragmatism. The point is not to focus on the truth or falsity of beliefs, but to focus instead on how one uses knowledge in our interactions with the world. If I am understanding him correctly, this is a valid and important point. It ties in with his point about secularism. Keeping the church separate from the state is important because the state should focus on politics, which is to do with making decisions, particularly those decisions where there is a conflict of interests or beliefs.

So far so good, but this is where his argument falls apart. If politics is about making decisions where there is a conflict of interests or beliefs, you cannot simply exclude a large proportion of the population which have a particular set of interests or beliefs on the basis that they are in your view wrong. Theos is arguing for an active involvement of religion in the political process, which on the basis of the pragmatic view of politics outlined above is absolutely warranted by the fact that large numbers of people are in fact religious.

The term ‘fundamentalist atheist’ is appropriate for people who argue in this way because they are guilty of the same crime they accuse their opponents of, that is wishing to exclude people who they think are wrong from the political process.

As a postscript, it might be worth my pointing out that I think it is completely right that atheists (or whatever you want to call them), should argue against religious belief. I am not opposed to robust and strongly argued attacks on religion and faith, but we should not use means which are antithetical to the spirit of rational enquiry, and we should not praise weak arguments just because we happen to agree with their conclusions. Finally, as I have argued before, I do not think that right now the battle with religion is the most important one, and it distracts us from more important battles.


Dear Samovar
I write in connection with your comments on my Guardian piece “Gotta Have Faith”. I’m always happy to be corrected when wrong either in fact or reasoning, and therefore read your comment with anticipation, in the hopes of being offered an opportunity for improvement. Alas. First, if it is right to charge that a given argument is weak or contradictory, put your money where your mouth is and demonstrate it. It is surely a principle of debate not to level unsubstantiated criticism – an old rhetorical trick (as your implied knowledge of rhetoric suggests you know) but not a worthy one. Secondly, you seem not to have read my piece, or alternatively not to have understood it. For with regard to the one charge you actually specify, namely, that I wish to exclude religious people from the public debate, you are provably mistaken: Re-read the paragraphs on secularism, which you will see say that secularism is in the interests of religious groups themselves, each of whom will have an entitlement they would not have in a non-secular dispensation, namely a chance to exist and have their say as individual interest groups among others. How do you contrive to get from that to charging me with a contrary view?
You mention two other points specifically, about the definition of atheism and the matter of rationalism. You describe a distinction I draw regarding the first as “important”, and the second point you describe as “valid and important”. Amidst this welter of praise I wait in vain for indications of the contradictions, rhetorical tricks and weak arguments you allege. Now I am absolutely serious about this: I really wish to learn, from people who think clearly and sharply, where I am wrong when wrong: I really wish to learn this because I’m not interested in point scoring, but in getting things right and understanding things properly. If someone can take my arguments to pieces I am grateful; if someone corrects me on matters of fact I am very pleased to have been put right. At the same time I deprecate the lazy and dishonest use of ad hominem argument and unsupported accusations. The blogosphere is a marvellous opportunity for us all to learn, be corrected, debate vigorously, and make progress. It is also an opportunity for the cheap stuff, and everyone who participates in the blogosphere should pounce on those who abuse its privileges.
Some people disagree with a point of view, and set out their reasons for doing so. Some see faults of logic or fact, and state them. Others – too many: you among them – feel the need to asperse: thus, arguments you disagree with are “weak” and positions you oppose are “contradictory”. Well: such is rhetoric indeed: feel (regrettably) free: but back it with proof.
From all this it follows that if you stick by what you say in your opening remarks, you are obliged to substantiate them, and to read my response. I look forward to it. (Your blog came my way by accident so I’d be grateful if you would send your response to my email address, provided.)
Anthony Grayling

Comment by A. C. Grayling

One of the problems with reading and writing blog entries at 5am is you look back the next day and realise you didn’t really say what you meant to say. In the next day or so I will remove the sentence that said your arguments were weak and contradictory, and the paragraph where I wrongly suggested you wanted to exclude religious people from the political process. I’ll put the original wording in as a postscript to make this conversation more intelligible to anyone who reads it in the future.

I stand by my point about rhetoric. Your article is not a good example of clear and reasonable argument. You use emotive and dismissive language: “the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation, through the swirls of which it is hard to see anything clearly”, “a simple lesson in semantics might help to clear the air for them”, “once they have succeeded in understanding these terms”, “if religious organisations had any sense”. You imply they hold beliefs which they don’t hold (see below). You use an appeal to authority, the “tu quoque” fallacy as “classified in logic”. You bring up “astrology, fairy tales, supernaturalistic beliefs, animism, polytheism, or any other inheritances from the ages of humankind’s remote and more ignorant past”, these serve to ridicule your opponent by association rather than illustrate your point.

You accuse the authors of the Theos report of not understanding the terms atheist and secular, and proceed to enlighten them. However, your usage of ‘atheist’ is non-standard and your usage of ‘secular’ actually agrees with what it says in the Theos report, and you are therefore attacking a straw man. In the foreword for example, it says “[The report] argues that the secular public square, properly understood, is a Christian legacy and one that requires an ongoing Christian presence in order to remain true to itself.” They are not arguing, as you seem to suggest, that they should be dominant and have the “ear, or the levers, of temporal government”. Indeed, they say “Those who are serious about their religious beliefs tend to be serious about the need to debate, negotiate and compromise.”

So I shouldn’t have said that your arguments were weak and contradictory, that’s not really the point. The point is that they have no bearing on their apparent target (Theos), and that the article seems to be a vehicle for derisive scoffing at religious beliefs. By explaining the meaning of the term secular and saying that religion should not want the “levers” of temporal government, you imply that they stand for something other than what they in fact say that they stand for.

I don’t disagree with everything in your article, but I don’t really think it does us any good. It fails to pick Theos up on a mistake, because they don’t make the mistake you suggest they make. The arguments against religious beliefs are fine but they’re nothing we haven’t heard before, and they say nothing about Theos in particular. My concern is that whilst it seems that many theists are attempting to engage with people who disagree with them and have an inclusive debate, many atheists are being much more divisive. I don’t think this does any of us any good in the long run. The term ‘fundamentalist atheist’ is, I think, supposed to bring to mind the way that a fundamentalist theist will not listen to those they disagree with. I think it’s supposed to be funny rather than deadly serious (but with a point as well).

Perhaps I could ask you a question. When you wrote your article, did you expect it to change the mind of anyone who didn’t already agree with you?

Comment by Dan Goodman

I respond to the relevant points in your response as follows:

1. Remarking on the use of an informal fallacy of logic is not an appeal to authority. This latter (the argumentum ad verecundiam) is, ironically enough in the context of this exchange, the basis of all three “Religions of the Book” premised as they are on the authority of revelation in their scriptures. The “to quoque” argument at stake here is that each of the major religious contains (and in one case wholly consists of) “fundamentalists” in the self-given sense of those who assert the scriptural fundamentals of their faith; by calling atheists “fundamentalist” they are retorting the imputation upon their opponents. This is the fallacy; it is compounded by the fact that in saying “you are one too!” they appear implicitly to be accepting a charge to the effect that it is a bad thing to be a fundamentalist.
2. The main point of my reply was to iterate the point, often enough made before, that rejection of theistic or supernaturalist beliefs is not itself a belief, and cannot therefore be fundamentalist or otherwise. A blogger on the thread generated by the article put the point exceedingly well by reminding us that “not collecting stamps is not a hobby”: the point cannot be made more succinctly.
3. As the preceding makes clear, my reply was not an examination of the Theos document, but a response to the Archbishops’ claim in its preamble on the point just mentioned. As this entails, I do not discuss the view of secularism taken by the author of the report, and a fortiori do not attack it, straw man or otherwise.
4. It is however a clear implication of what I say that history and contemporary events unequivocally demonstrate that when a religious organisation has temporal power, it has a tendency to what I call Talibanism; I would be pleased to see an example of an historical or near-contemporary theocracy which actively promotes pluralism and toleration for long.
5. There is no difference between the credentials of astrology, animism, fairy tales, polytheism and the belief complexes of the main currently existing religions; the latter’s membership of the class of such belief systems indeed impugns them by association; you call this “ridiculing” them. You give no reason for regarding the current main religions any differently from astrology, animism &c. Those who discriminate in their favour in this regard almost certainly do so because the religions are institutions in the way that fairy tales and astrology have ceased to be, and have an appearance of respectability which the others now lack. The others, however, once had it in full. (This you will accept as regards astrology; to avoid an unnecessary dispute over belief in fairies as once widespread and serious, I need only remind you that so indeed it was, as you can easily verify if you care to.)
6. My use of the term “atheist” is prescriptive, as is obvious from the fact that I reject the propriety of its employment, given that it is a term of art historically coined by theists. In strict fact, it means “without god”, though dictionaries (which report general usage, not efforts at increased philosophical precision) take “non-belief in a deity or deities” as a core standard meaning. Since this preserves the theists’ endeavour to keep the debate on the ground of belief and disbelief in the existence of a god or gods, I reject it, as you will find increasingly many rejecters of religious belief systems and practices likewise do.
7. You say early in your reply that I impute beliefs to religious organisations that they do not hold, and request that I “see below”: I think you forgot to recur to this point, and would be pleased to know what you meant.
8. When I wrote the article, did I expect to change anyone’s mind? Yes: I take it that there are many people who are following these debates in the process of making up their own minds, and who might be interested to see commentary on the use by religious dignitaries of expressions like “fundamentalist atheists” – not just on the propriety of the expression, but on the impugnable strategy of people who should know better than to employ it. And I take it that they might also like to see what cases can be made on either side of the issue. I ask you a question in return: because the Archbishops and the author of the Theos report are unlikely to change their minds, is that a reason to remain silent?
They will not change my mind; should they therefore have remained silent in their turn? I am under the impression that at least as regards them you wish to see them have their say.
Anthony Grayling

Comment by A. C. Grayling

The following is a brief response to your points, as my experience in these sorts of exchanges is that it is easy to let them get out of hand if everything is responded to in enormous detail.

1. It is a sort of appeal to authority in the sense that I think for most people the way it is written reads as “logic says this argument is wrong, hence it is wrong” rather than saying why it is wrong. In this particular case, given that the theist would undoubtedly claim it is not possible to live without ‘faith’ in some sense, it seems highly pertinent whether or not atheism is or is not a faith position.

2. I agree. In fact I would go further and say that I believe the question of the existence of god is not even meaningful (which may be a point you yourself made in your article). But this discussion would take us off into murky epistemological waters.

3. It was the archbishop’s preamble that I quoted in my first reply above, and therefore his view of secularism.

4. Agreed, but irrelevant because nobody was discussing the possibility of religions holding temporal power (at least until you mentioned it). Incidentally, I think calling it Talibanism is a rhetorical usage.

5. I think there is an issue here of whether or not religious belief can develop over time or not. I think the recent developments over the issue of the existence of ‘limbo’ show that it is possible in the Catholic church. Other religions incorporate interpretation of texts very explicitly. Also, you ignore the concept of revelation in making a distinction between contemporary monotheist beliefs and the list you gave.

6. I would also prefer it if the term atheist was used in the way you describe, but since it generally is not, to suggest that you are giving a lesson in the meaning of the term to the theists is disingenuous.

7. I only meant that you imply that the theists want what you call ‘temporal power’ when in fact they say they don’t. (No doubt some do, but the ones we are talking about seem not to, quite possibly for the same reasons as the mediaeval churchmen you mentioned.)

8. Sorry if my question came across as hostile, it was a genuine question which I wanted to know the answer to. In answer to yours, I certainly did not mean to suggest that you should stay silent (and indeed I said so in my original entry).

If you wish to respond, please let me know if you want a further reply, or we can leave it there, as you wish. I’m conscious of the fact that you’re probably a lot busier than I am.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Dear Dan
Have another think about point 6: I think it is a matter of significance to
understand the tendentious nature of the term “atheist” which, I repeat, is a
coining by theists that throughout its history – including today – is intended
to have a strongly negative connotation. This explains why the “Brights”
movement sought a different term to serve as an identifying label for those
whose world-view contains no reference to putative supernatural agencies. –
Also, I’d say that if an appeal to logic is an appeal to authority, it is the
only appeal to authority that never needs justification and can never be a
fallacy! – We can leave the exchange there if you’re happy to do so. Good
wishes – Anthony

Comment by A. C. Grayling

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