25 April 2008

Waters' watery nonsense

John Waters' current output is a threat to The Irish Times reputationAwed admiration
Sometimes you just have to let the jaw drop in awed admiration at the ability of a very large proportion of the opinion writers in the Irish papers to unblushingly say the most obvious nonsense imaginable.

The moment I saw the first sentence of John Waters' piece in today's Irish Times was one such occasion. When I saw the second sentence was another, and so on for the whole length of the article.

The overall effect is that of a slavish premature obituary for the present pope, with a touch of Book of Revelation, a dash of paranoid fantasy about media conspiracies against religion and topped off with a good old-fashioned whopper of an embarrassing factual error.

The temptation is to take the whole thing apart line by line, but I have neither the time nor the energy to do that, and you probably have neither the time nor the inclination to read the result. Allow me, however, to give you a few of the lowlights of his effort.

Breathless praise for the pope
For hagiographical nonsense, check this out:
If we care to contemplate the irrelevance of chronological age, let us consider that last week marked the 81st birthday of the most radical voice in modern Europe. Benedict XVI, now three years into his papacy, has already confounded his enemies and delighted his admirers in a pontificate that glitters beyond all expectations.
"...the most radical voice in modern Europe"? What is he talking about? This pope has done practically nothing at all in updating the doctrine of the roman catholic church since his elevation to the Holy See (with the possible exception of allowing the publication by a catholic body of a document that made the very unradical claim that limbo, after all, doesn't exist). His encyclicals have been all on subjects carefully selected as uncontroversial and his public statements have been if anything more circumspect than they were in his time as god's Rotweiler.

As for a pontificate that "glitters beyond expectations"? Where does that come from? Even Eoghan Harris wouldn't talk in such terms about Bertie's time as Taoiseach. Perhaps what Waters means is that his first three years on the throne of Peter hasn't been quite the disaster some of the church's pessimists predicted it would be. But his performance wouldn't need to be glittering to have exceeded some of those expectations.

Magdi Christian Allam is under death sentence for apostasyExplaining reference to the pope's "radical voice" later in his gush, Waters tells us that the "baptism of Magdi Christian Allam is an example of Pope Benedict's radicalism" but fails to tell us why (though he does characterise it as a gesture "worth a hundred million words").

Some people become catholics, and if they are prominent enough, get to be baptised by the pope. That the pope did the honours on Allam is supremely unsurprising.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now permanently in hiding
Now if the pope meant the baptism as the ecclesiastical equivalent of a two-fingered salute to islamic absolutists, then bully for him, but it was hardly a particularly radical act for him to personally receive a celebrated journalist into the arms of the church (no more than was his welcome for Tony Blair to the one true religion). The act was far less radical -- not to mention less original -- than the Dutch Liberal Party were when they accepted at least equally brave (but at that time far less prominent) ex-muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a parliamentary candidate. If the Dutch Liberals could be accused of opportunism (an accusation that surfaced more than once -- from christian circles, amongst others), then the same could be more easily said of the Holy See.

Incidentally, Waters crassly misrepresents Allam when he characterises him as believing that Hitchens and Dawkins are leading us blindly to "the suicide of our civilisation". What Allam was in fact referring to when he used the phrase was the awful habit of the liberal left to use an ethic of multi-cultural tolerance as an argument against expecting civilised behaviour from conservative islamic immigrants to Europe (see John Hooper article here, which quotes Allam in context). Allam apparently sees such tolerance of intolerance as extremely dangerous. Waters knows (or should know) that Allam's not the first person to say this. Indeed he's only agreeing with Hitchens and Dawkins, who have both been saying precisely this since well before 9/11.

Here's another piece of breathless nonsense (and there's literally one in nearly every sentence)

...what has emerged is what was implicit in his magisterial writings over several decades: a supreme intellect mounted in a most animated humanity, a man who in his lifetime has watched mankind lurch between great good and the greatest evil, and seeks to reconcile these observations with the truths he has inherited.
On the subject of Benedict's "supreme intellect" and his "magisterial writings" have a look a previous blog of mine, Benedict's love of truth. In this blogger's humble, the material associated with the Regensberg and La Sapienza controversies at least look more like political watchyourbackery than intellectual brilliance -- cuteness rather than acuity. He may have written more interesting stuff, but I ain't seen it yet.

The love and hope apocalypse
For Waters' analysis of where the modern world is going astray, take a look at this:

The two most pressing issues of our time [are] the haemorrhaging from public language of, respectively, love and hope.
No reason to believe this to be a burning issue is offered. He doesn't give us an explanation of what he (or the pope) even means by it. The assertion simply leaves you at a loss. Perhaps there's something poetic going on and he simply wants to paint a picture of hatred and despair in contemporary society, possibly to provide support for his notorious nostalgic streak (which got a withering mention recently in Roy Foster's 'Luck and the Irish'). Personally, I don't see either term being used less often in public than when I was a smaller and less aggressive, but even if it did, I'm not sure it would worry me more than climate change, or the newly emerging global food-supply crisis, or the appalling state of matters in the Middle East, or in Sub-Saharan Africa. The workings of Waters' mind are mysterious indeed.

This bit sounds like a more typical apocalyptic vision, more suitable to the end of the 10th Century than the start of the 21st:

[The 60's revolution] adherents, ... alarmed by the listlessness of their
children and the imminence of the darkness[!] they have themselves summoned, now cry out for reassurance to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens...
Just who's looking for reassurance here? Is he trying to convince himself that those who agree with Dawkins and Hitchens are in a way religious too, or are at least searching in vain for the religion that Waters has found? Either way, he's fails to offer us any reasons why we should think so too.

The evil media
Waters (despite the fact that his attitudes are typical of a very large part of the Irish journalistic establishment) has it in for the media.

[at the time of his elevation] Benedict was, by the secular media analysis, a stop-gap and a throwback, a "reactionary", a "right-winger", an obscurantist.
Leaving aside who exactly said all this (the majority of the Irish media, despite the misgivings of many, stayed largely, and in my opinion a bit too tamely, silent -- though they did occasionally quote catholic liberals' misgivings on the church's choice of CEO), Waters implies that these secular media were wrong. But if they did indeed have such attitudes then they were pretty clearly right in almost all respects. The pope obviously wants to turn the clock back on many of the achievements of the Enlightenment (or, in Waters' wince-inducing euphemism, to "spearhead a new Enlightenment"). What words other than 'throwback' or 'reactionary' would describe such an attitude better? And the same pope intervened publicly on many occasions in favour of the parties that cluster around Silvio Berlusconi and not once in favour of the Italian left or centre before the recent Italian general election. What expression fits better than "right-wing" for such behaviour?

As for this:

One of the many paradoxes of being pope in the modern world is that you must speak through a megaphone controlled by your enemies.
The pope runs a radio station, effectively controls hundreds of others, has thousands of publications in his pocket, tens of thousands of well-placed friends in the media willing to do all in their power to see that he looks good and is subject to a general (completely unearned) respect from the not-particularly-bothered journalistic majority by virtue of his position at the head of the single most important religious organisation in the world. How he can justify such a melodramatic description of an obviously sympathetic world media as a megaphone controlled by his "enemies" is entirely beyond me. Maybe church 'enemies' Eamonn McCann and Emer O'Kelly are able to pull some very secret and very useful strings in very influential media circles.

Funny thing is, at least in Ireland, the mainstream media is brimming over with commentators (and David Quinn, Breda O'Brien, Waters himself, Rónán Mullen, Mary Kenny and William Reville are just a few of them) who repeat ad nauseam the accusation that the established media have a deeply-felt and completely unfounded hatred of religion. Indeed it sometimes seems that this particular section of the media establishment sees it as its most important single task to inform the general public of this shocking factoid. And they all do it as if they were a frail, ragged figure, calling from the wilderness. Yet they all get to appear regularly on RTÉ.

20th century history according to Waters
Waters' take on the 60's is quite simply as wrong as you can get:

The unarmed coup of the 1960s, ... sought to install scientific rationalism as the guiding light of the age
What the 60's are justly famous for, apart from free love and the Beatles, is a revolution in thinking that was aimed precisely against scientific rationalism. The 60's were the years when the anti-rationalist ideas of post-modernism and its allies reached a tipping point that would eventually result in them becoming mainstream in university humanities departments. It seems to me that part of what Hitchens and Dawkins and Hirsi Ali and the like are attempting to do is to at least partially restore the relationship between reality and truth that seemed to be lost in the 60's. Benedict and Waters claim to want the same, but Waters at least seems mixed up about what he's arguing against -- scientific rationalism or its great opponent, 60's style relativism.

Just as an aside, Benedict and Waters should be careful what they wish for. The defeat of 1960's relativism implies the defeat of the idea that all world views are equally valid. In relativism's hypyothetical absence each world view will need to provide a justification for itself. The most obvious justification of a set of beliefs is evidence and, as Benedict surely knows, evidence is not on the side of roman catholic orthodoxy.

The newspaper of record
Whatever about that, Waters' article is unbearably shrill and full of the most slavish cliché-ridden sychophancy. It also manages to be essentially empty of content and factually inaccurate at the same time. It also contains a nasty misrepresentation of the words of one of its main subjects.

It's what's commonly known as a pious rant. That it appears in Ireland's national newspaper of record is, to put it as delicately as possible, a source of concern. Nor is his latest effort a one-off. Waters' involvement with the Italian-founded catholic charismatic movement, Communion and Liberation (announced in his just-released book and alluded to in his most recent articles) may or may not have something to do with it.

The Irish Times' reputation depends on the quality of its journalism. Articles like the one Waters wrote today (and like William Reville wrote yesterday -- check here) are a threat to the paper's status as Ireland's most serious newspaper simply because they're impossible to take seriously. Geraldine Kennedy should take care if she doesn't want to wake up one morning and realise that her paper has slowly let its reputation for quality opinion journalism ebb away. In this blogger's opinion some serious damage has already been done.

24 April 2008

Reville's theology is back at the Irish Times

I'm reeling. I thought that after the drubbing Prof William Reville got the last time he started introducing theology to the science page in the Irish Times he'd made a firm resolve to limit himself in future to harmlessly cutting and pasting internet articles on the nutritional benefits of bananas and non-benefits of multi-vitamin supplements.

But alas, I'm sad to announce that, as of today, Thursday 24 April 2008, the good professor has once more fallen off the wagon. The occasion of his downfall this time was the temptation to argue for protecting "the embryo back to the point of conception". Like any good addict, he makes excuses for this all-consuming need of his to engage in theological musings in inappropriate places. His own version of 'I only do it on health grounds' is that he has "biological reasons" for doing so. It doesn't take much, however, to see this as the rationalisation typical of the addicted mind that it assuredly is.

Have a look at the article (as always, on condition you pay for your IT on the web -- if not, try look over someone's shoulder on the bus, or in extremis buy a copy).

For the benefit of those who drove, cycled or walked to work, what Reville can't resist saying to us today hangs on the following thread:

...it seems to me to be wrong to arbitrarily pick any point on this continuum [of life between conception and old age] and claim that it marks the boundary between the preceding "not fully human and not deserving of protection" section and the succeeding "human enough to deserve protection" section.

The point at which human life begins, we are to understand, can only be picked at the very start of the continuum, i.e. conception. Anything else is arbitrary.

So far, so very familiar. The trouble is anyone with a bit of knowledge of the philosophical, ethical and scientific issues surrounding protection of embryos knows that it's nonsense. For a start, conception isn't a single point on a continuum -- for an egg to be fertilised is a process that takes some time.

But when should the moment of conception be defined according to the theologians? The moment when a sperm breaks into the egg (which is what most of us imagine as conception)? W ell no, that can't be it, as quite often more than one sperm manages to enter the egg cell and, through some not fully understood process, one set of chromosomes is later expelled and the other is fused into the egg's DNA over a period of half an hour or so. This fusion process itself is prone to disturbance too. So should the sublime moment be defined at exactly the time the fusion process starts or when it's complete?

While the above looks like nonsensical how-many-angels question, the point of introducing it here is to make clear that the moment at which conception is deemed to have happened is also to some extent arbitrary. For a conception-obsessed theological ethicist, the question might even be of practical relevance to the work of scientists who have reason to fiddle around with sperm and eggs at various stages of mingling. For the rest of us though, the question is nonsense. Incidentally, for most biologists, the term 'conception' is so irredeemably confusing, it is not used at all. The preferred term for the process of combination of male and female DNA in an egg is 'fertilisation'.

What is important is the observation that the moment of conception is an absurdly early point for defining the beginning of human life.

For example, my beloved (who, incidentally, is the mother of my equally beloved child) happens to share a single moment of conception with her identical twin sister (indeed the only reason I can tell them apart visually is the fortunate fact that my partner sat on her sister's ear for the whole of late pregnancy, thus giving the latter a slightly longer, narrower head). Just ask the question as to when the life of each of them began and you begin to feel the pull of the whirlwind of uncertainty (and absurdity) surrounding the standard 'at conception' view.

Besides this, it is technically possible (or will probably be soon) to create people without giving them a moment of conception. Let's consider the example of scientists (with half an eye on squaring the theological problems surrounding experimentation on zygotes) who take animal eggs, evacuate their nuclei, and replace the missing DNA with a sample from say, a skin cell from the nearest lab technician. Part of the reason for doing this would to be to deal with a shortage of fertilised human egg cells, but researchers looking at this option have half an eye on squaring the theological problems surrounding experimentation on zygotes in their efforts to check out the potential of embryonic stem cells.

After all, an animal egg cell (fertilised or not) is held by no theology to be a sacred human life, and neither is any component scraping of Lee Chang's or Siobhan Murphy (PhD)'s edidermis. But the point of the exercise is to produce something that is as near as possible identical to a fertilised ovum, to let it grow a little, and then to harvest stem cells from it. There is nothing in principle (apart from ethical principle) that would stop the ovum from being implanted and growing into a person with an uncanny resemblence to Lee or Dr. Siobhan. But this person would never have been conceived. Conception was therefore clearly not when life for this hypothetical person began. I should emphasise that there is no question of any of this actually happening amongst reputable scientists, I'm just making a point about the logic of the conception argument.

The professor's official photo from the UCC websiteIndeed, the adult stem cells that Reville (very optimistically) claims to be an alternative to embryo stem cells are not all that different. With a bit of tinkering (which may indeed be necessary to make them useful for some sorts of stem cell research) they could become as much potential human beings as much as any ovum with the full complement of human DNA. After all, it is the very flexibility of stem cells that both makes them so interesting therapeutically and so full of potential to grow into any type of human tissue (even the full set in the correct sequence -- i.e. an adult human).

Besides, it's been known for some time that more than half (some say a lot more than half) of ova fertilised by the standard route (you know what I mean) are expelled from the potential mother's body without ever implanting. If Reville's argument based on no arbitrary lines being ethically justifiable were to be taken seriously, then medical science would have as great a responsibility to save these human individuals from death as they would an eight-year-old suffering from leukemia. After all, by an argument practically identical to Reville's, it would seem tobe wrong to arbitrarily pick any point on the continuum of life between conception and old age and claim that it marks the boundary between the preceding "let nature take its course" section and the succeeding "human enough to deserve the full protection of the best that medical science can do".

Reville should know all these arguments (and the fact that he mentions twins in his article could be interpreted to suggest that he's at least subconsciously aware of one or two of them).

In a typical bit of sophism (typical of roman catholic apologists, that is) Reville tells us:

... the biological fact is that the early embryo is "a human at his/her stage of a microscopic ball of cells". [the inexplicable quotes are his]

Biology does nothing of the sort. What it might do in this regard is tell us what we already know, i.e. that an embryo is certainly human in the same sense as Dr. Siobhan's skin cells are, but has no position on its status as a human individual. That's a job for philosophy (which Reville is evidently unqualified in).

One would have thought that a scientist of the eminence of Prof. Reville would be above mixing the noun clase "a human" with the simple (and very different adjective "human".

Unfortunately for Reville's desire for a clear point at which humans beings become human beings, such a point doesn't exist.

My own view (for what it's worth) is the following: A fertilised egg is much more than just equivalent to a skin scraping, and should therefore never be treated in a cavalier fashion. An early embryo is obviously deserving of even more respect. As the embryo develops it will accumulate features that increase its status as a being, until it reaches a stage where this status is effectively equivalent to a fully recognised human being. If an arbitrary line need be drawn (and for judicial and other reasons it may be necessary) then it should be drawn early. But, for reasons already outlined, not as absurdly early as conception.

Reville's reach for the theological bottle was by his own account occasioned by the RTE's broadcast on stem-cell research as part of the "Science Friction" series, which Reville informs us was unbalanced. Since the full program isn't available on the RTÉ site I can't make a judgement on its objectivity, but the pots and kettles principle would seem to apply to Reville in this respect. As editor of the Irish newspaper for record's weekly science section, should he not also have a duty to provide balance? Yet, not for the first time, Reville's article is severely unbalanced. It is also either surprisingly uninformed, or intentionally suppresses much relevant information available from biology ... which, as public awareness of science officer at UCC he surely has an obligation to keep us informed.

Woman priests
Also in the Irish Times today is a letter that magnificently illustrates that any unlikely change of policy of the Vatican on the question of woman priests would not necessarily lead to an improved attitude amongst the clergy to 'the laity' (or vice versa). Elisabeth Roddy wants woman priests, amongst other things, to "galvanise those members of the laity who think it is enough to sit like suet puddings, waiting for the clergy to pour spiritual custard over them".

I wonder which members of the laity she means. Perhaps those who, having profited from long experience, would run a mile at even a sniff of spiritual custard. Or perhaps she means those that couldn't be bothered about the catholic church, even to the extent of making it clear that they are no longer part of it. There's a lot of that about.

23 April 2008

Iona's incredible spin on Red C poll

A friend of mine who's relatively friendly to the liberal wing to the Irish catholic church (though he admits to doubts as to whether this wing has effective existence anymore) recently told me more or less this about the typical Irish parent of the hoi polloi: "they do nothing but complain about church high-handedness, secrecy and dirty-mindedness, won't get involved in church activities nor make any effort to change it from within (it is after all their church), but when the time comes that Johnnie or Aisling has to go to school, they expect the church to come running as it always did".

Now there were so many levels on which he had got it wrong, I was inclined out of concern for both our pockets to let him away with it (he had rung me from the midlands on my mobile in Berlin), but I couldn't resist the temptation to put him right on one proven fact: the idea that the vast majority of Irish people want denominational education for their children is nothing but a myth. It is even possible that it's been nothing but a myth for a very long time. I told him about a survey on the subject (see next paragraph). He simply didn't believe me.

In late summer 2004 there was a minor blip on the media radar when The Educational Research Centre, a crowd of education specialists based at St Patrick's College up in Drumcondra beside Bertie and the Archbishop of Dublin, published the results of a survey on attitudes of the Irish public on education. Attentive Questions & Answers viewers may have a vague memory of the General Secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, Msgr. Dan O'Connor declaring from the audience (rather defensively it seemed to me) that the majority of parents were satisfied the current system of education in Ireland. [I'm nearly sure it was Q&A but I can't find the programme on the Q&A site, if anyone can send me a link (or put me right) I'd be very grateful.]

Dan O'Connor was right. It would be pretty shocking if a greater number of people were less than unhappy about the Irish education system. But the figures are quite impressive: more than 69% of respondents were either completely or somewhat satisfied with primary schools and 72% with secondary schools (only about 10 and a half percent were dissatisfied in both cases). Have a look at Table 17, page 33 of the report (for which you'll need a pdf reader). This was the source of justifiable pride for Dan. Though when you look at the distribution of those completely satisfied (16 to 19 percent) and those only somewhat satisfied (50 to 55%) it becomes clear that few enough thought the current system was perfect.

What got less coverage (and what Dan didn't mention) was a more surprising finding, which neatly illustrates one of the ways that Irish people think their education system is less than perfect. At a time when over 98% of primary and secondary schools in the country are denominational, 61% of interviewees agreed (either strongly or somewhat) that schools should not be denominational (about 25.5% disagreed and 13 and a half percent didn't have an opinion). Check out Table 20 on page 35. Almost 50% of respondents agreed that denominational religious instruction should not form part of the school day at all, and should be exclusively imparted outside school hours (only 35 and a half percent disagreed, and the rest didn't have an opinion).

This surprising data is weakened just a tadge when respondents are asked the same question with a wording presented the other way around: "Groups of parents should have the right to be provided with separate schools that reflect their culture and/or their views on religion" (i.e. the status quo). About 46% agreed with the same number against (though the number in strong disagreement was almost twice as large as the number in strong agreement). Obviously the way the question is framed will strongly affect data on the preferences of Irish people in relation to the participation of religious groups in education.

But there is no getting away from the fact that (unless there was some severe methodological fault in the survey) about half the population of Ireland are opposed to the model of education that dominates the country. In other words, at the very least a plurality of Irish parents, far from expecting the Catholic Church to provide education for their children, would really rather they didn't.

The problem at the moment, of course, is that at the moment they have no choice.

More recently (in March of this year, in preparation for a conference the were organising in defence of denominational education, which took place on 4 April last), David Quinn's IONA Institute got pollers Red C to do a similar exercise (perhaps in the hope that the Educational Research Centre had got it wrong, who knows?).

From what's available to this blogger, the results seem essentially identical to the 2004 data (including the observation that the whole subject is extremely sensitive to how the relevant questions are framed). But the spin that Iona put on the findings is would make you dizzy (go to the IONA site, click on News and go to 26/03/08 -- "Iona poll shows large majority support parental choice in education" to see the press release for yourself). The headline chosen for their press release was that an overwhelming 73% of the Irish people are in favour of having parental choice in education, with parents being even more heavily in favour of having a choice (78%).

To make this banal fact look interesting Iona included an allegation that John Carr of the INTO disagrees with 78% of parents, and favours a "one-size-fits-all" system "to promote social integration". Now I'm not sure, but I think what they're referring to is an opinion piece by Carr published on the INTO website on 25 March (though I suppose Quinn could have had a chat with him over a pint). If I'm right, Iona's characterisation of his remarks is a gross misrepresentation of what he said. He says absolutely nothing that could be interpreted in this way. He simply opposes any veto by the church on people employed to teach religious education and calls for an open discussion forum on religious education. There is perhaps a clue here to what Iona objects to in his view. Is the veto what Iona want to protect? They certainly don't say so.

Whatever about that, the "one-size-fits-all" model is a paper tiger. No-one worth listening to advocates anything like what that expression conjures up.

Now I haven't got access to the raw data of the Red C survey, but it is interesting that Iona couldn't distill from it anything more useful to their case than the unastounding observation that parents want choice (who doesn't?). Their press release is an indication that the results were bad news for them. Luckily, the relaease does tell us something useful: that 37% favoured state-run schools where all religions are taught (as against 47% who preferred catholic schools) and "only" 11% preferred schools where no religion is taught.

Quinn, in a non-sequitur of Rónán Mullenian proportions (read the press release if you don't believe me) interprets the result as follows: "... there is very little support for those who want to replace publicly funded denominational schools with State-run multi-denominational or non-denominational schools".

What? A total of 48% percent prefer multi or non-denominational schooling (currently provided in 2 to 3% of schools).

What's more, of the 37% who want all religions taught in schools, there is no indication as to whether this teaching is to be primarily denominational religious instruction (aka indoctrination) of children into the religion of their respective parents (which is what IONA wants) or the simply provision of information and discussion opportunities on religion as a human phenomenon (which, is clearly what many parents mean to say). Indeed there is no indication as to whether parents who want denominational religious instruction want it provided as part of the normal school day, or outside regular hours.

Okay, according to the survey (and again, we don't know the exact wording used) the most popular choice is catholic schooling, but 95% of schools are currently catholic, which would seem rather excessive to cater for 49% of parents (though presumably such parents will on average have slightly more children than those more interested in their children mixing in -- I don't know the precise figures). What's clear, despite Quinn's inexplicable interpretation, is that according to parents there are far too many catholic schools and far too few non or multi-denominational ones.

I've asked IONA to send me technical details on the survey, so I'll let you know if I get some explanation. Don't hold your collective or individual breaths.

Of course, the Indo, having their own in-house IONA contact (Quinn himself) reported the news exactly as IONA wanted it reported.

Weirdly, Quinn himself is on the record having given up on a monopolistic role in education for his church. In fairness, he knows that the game is up. This would suggest his absurd denial that there is a demand for non-catholic schools has been forced on him (perhaps by a collective of croziers or simply by the head-in-the-sand Mullenites). It's certainly not what he believes. If this Indo article is anything to go by, what he does advocate is a strategic withdrawal by the church into teaching only for the minority of parents who want to send their children to catholic denominational schools, withdrawing from a proportional number of schools and taking the maximum possible amount of resources with them: "If it turns out that 70% of parents today don't want a robust Catholic ethos in their kids' schools, then they need to get out of 70% of schools. The logistics of this could be worked out with the State, which would have to somehow compensate the Church for handing over so much property."

Well, not quite 70% have given up on denominational education yet, but his view is clear.

A more popular strategy by church sympathisers, if recent press is to be believed, is to defend "multi" rather than "non-denominational schooling", thus keeping a foot in the door for the church through in-school religious teaching and allowing them to control the religious education curriculum of 'catholic' children, to the extent of claiming power of veto over teachers of religion. In primary schools, as Carr points out, teachers teach everything, so this is effectively claiming power of veto over all teaching appointments. The question naturally arises: is the unfounded misrepresentation of Carr as favouring some monolithic, inflexible educational conveyor belt connected to his well-argued opposition to this veto?

All Iona's disingenuous posing is done in the name of parental choice. Despite the attempts to muddy the waters, it's clear that neither Iona nor their religious superiors could give a tuppenny damn about parental choice. Their extraordinary analysis of the results of a survey they themselves commissioned proves that in education they are simply in the business of preserving church power.

When the state eases the church out of a large proportion of the schools in the country, as it sooner or later surely must, it should be sure that the church is compensated fairly, and no more than fairly. More concretely, they should keep in mind that, while the church ended up owning most of such schools, they were mostly paid for by the taxpayer. The Dept of Education and Science should buck their past record in negotiating with the church, and drive as hard a bargain as they possibly can.

What's more, the new model and the new religious education curriculum should be based on what parents want and not just well-financed lobbies and the long-established and at least partially church-sponsored educational establishment like St Patrick's College and the rest. It should do what Iona did -- ask parents. But, unlike Iona, it should listen to what they say.

Post Script:
Incidentally, in relation to vetos over teachers, the European Commission seems to have given up on its plans to take Ireland to the European Court for allowing discrimination against non-catholics in catholic schools. Its grounds for doing so are apparently that it doesn't want to antagonise Irish voters before the Lisbon referendum. Judging by the results of Red C's Iona poll, the Commission's decision not to enforce European law on employment rights is likely going to antagonise as many Irish voters as its original decision to pursue its case.

22 April 2008

Aggressive secularism in the salons of Dublin

(This was submitted to Village for publication on 11 August, 2007. It wasn't published.)

Ireland is still religious
It's funny how those conservative religious commentators are capable of pointing out the obvious and dressing it up as if it were some sort of revelation. So it was this week with David Quinn, who's back writing for the Irish Independent after a short break in other pastures.

Quinn reveals to us the information that something like 40% of Irish people still go to church of a Sunday and that therefore religion is still strong in Ireland. This pretty unsurprising message is in itself a harmless enough reminder of the fact of continuing religious belief in Ireland, and while one could argue with Quinn's assumption that this a good thing, he's unlikely to find anyone disagreeing with him on the statistics. Disconcertingly, this is precisely where he decides to pick a fight.

The "many commentators" fiction
He informs us that "many commentators" do not recognise the continued religious convictions of a much larger number of Irish people than, say, in Sweden or the former East Germany but fails to specify exactly which commentators he's talking about. Now yours truly hasn't been living in Ireland for a while, but for my sins I do try to keep up with what the Irish media have to say about religion, and have never ever come upon any commentator anywhere who thinks that Ireland has become anything like central or northern Europe in terms of levels of religious belief and practice. In fact I'd be surprised if anyone in the Irish media has ever said anything of the sort.

Now this indiscriminate use of the term "many commentators" is a central part of the armoury of Quinn and his allies. "Many [establishment] commentators" in the Irish media also have an destructive anti-religious bias, it seems. But if Quinn et al were forced to put together a list of names for this sinister group of opinion writers they'd come up with very few names: For my own part, the only two genuinely anti-religious opinion writers I can think of off-hand are Indo commentator, Ian O'Doherty and his courageous stable-mate, Emer O'Kelly (whose opinion pieces, incidentally, seem to be appearing far less frequently lately). Apart from them, there only a few mad bloggers and letter writers like myself (indeed, come to think of it, there's not too many of us either).

What Quinn and his pals are trying to do (with relative success unfortunately) is to equate criticism of the Catholic Church, whether or not it's accompanied by a benign disinterest in the "spiritual", with a general hostility to religion. In painting this picture, of course, the interests they are trying to serve are not those of religion in general, but the more sectional interests of the Catholic Church.

The real targets
Quinn's unnamed targets, i.e. Mary Raftery, Patsy McGarry, Fintan O'Toole, Vincent Browne and the rest of the notorious 'Irish Times establishment' are emphatically not anti-religious in their work. In fact, while they have all been witheringly critical of the Catholic Church in the past few years, they have all expressed admiration for religious attitudes and practices, and many of them participate in religiously-inspired initiatives and support religious charities by word and deed. Even Browne, who made his non-religious views clear in his recently-axed radio programs, could never be described as opposed to the spiritual side of life. Indeed he has always discussed religion with what I would call an exaggerated respect (though sometimes with understandable incredulity). Anyway, for all the accusations of anti-religious bias thrown at RTE explicitly, Browne was outnumbered there dozens to one by the Marian Finnucanes and Joe Duffys of this world.

As for the left-wing politicians that they accuse (again without giving names) of attacking religious views, such politicians simply don't exist. There is certainly no-one in Irish politics willing to criticise religious belief openly. Even emphatically non-left-winger Liz O'Donnell was careful to limit her notorious 2005 criticism of the Catholic Church to matters of abuse of power and excessive influence, and made no comment on the theology or philosophy of anyone (except perhaps on the any-way-the-wind-blows philosophy of the Taoiseach). And yet O'Donnell's statement was greeted with almost universal disapproval, and was described as everything from 'intemperate' to 'opportunistic'. The latter adjective has proved pretty ironic in the light of the last general election. (Incidentally, one RTE reporter even got away with saying that Bertie's response to O'Donnell was an attempt to "restore balance to the debate", notwithstanding any obligations to provide balance and fairness in broadcasting.)

In short, there is no anti-religious bias in the media. None at all. Quite the opposite. It's almost impossible to get non-religious views on the subject of religion published in the mainstream media, whether in print or on the airwaves (just check the Irish media for positive reviews any of the recent blockbuster books attacking religion). By way of contrast, it is almost laughably easy for hagiographies of obscure 19th century missionaries to be published (see the Irish Times, 7 August) and to report "verified" miracles as fact (see both Indo and Times coverage of the the canonisation of Charles of Mount Argus in late 2006, for example), while it is seemingly quite acceptable to clog up the science section of a national newspaper for weeks on end with slavish repetitions of roman catholic theology on the relationship between religion and biology (as Prof. William Reville astoundingly did last year in the Times, of all papers).

Writing disapprovingly of religion is as unacceptable in Ireland as writing scathingly about the behaviour of the Catholic Church is unavoidable. Real anti-religious writing rarely gets further than the letters pages. For the vast majority of journalists, to write hostilely about religion per se is quite simply a one-way ticket to a career outside journalism.

A fashion?
Which brings me to one of the other major weapons commonly used by the religious right: the claim that anti-religion is 'fashionable' in modern Ireland. In a previous blog I discussed John Cooney (a predecessor of Quinn's as religious correspondent for the Indo, and incidentally no ultraconservative) using this argument, but it's also been wheeled out regularly by Quinn and by his co-religionary Breda O'Brien (also in Irish Times!), as well as the newly elevated Senator Rónán Mullen (in his truly incredible -- though thankfully now defunct -- articles in the Examiner), amongst many others. They all somehow feel justified in arguing that it's somehow a clever career move to jump on some imagined anti-religious bandwagon (a bandwagon which a moment's thought will tell you doesn't exist).

This is an argument that I'm afraid I take personally.

Neither profitable nor popular
I hope I'm a modest enough person, but I have the idea that I can occasionally write sense (though with varying degrees of elegance). I've been writing as a non-religious person on religion to and, just occasionally, in the print media on and off for the past 20 years, and I can vouch for the fact that a clever career move it is not now nor ever was. While some of my writing has been published, and occasionally praised, I have never made a penny for any of it. However, this hobby of mine (and I wish it was more than that) has on more than one occasion got in the way of me making a few bob even in completely unrelated jobs, has caused a fair degree of strife in my family, led to me being lampooned in letters pages and caused unwelcome and unfair comment to be made about me to my loved ones behind my back.

Now I'm not looking for a new form of victim status - my main point in mentioning all this is to make clear (to adapt a Mylesian cliché) that it is neither profitable nor popular to be anti-religious in Irish journalism.

The salons
It may well be that, in certain circles despised by Quinn and his friends (it should be said that the collective status of these circles as the Irish cultural establishment is at the very best controversial), disapproval of much of the behaviour of the universal church is -- well -- universal; and it may even be that within such circles religious belief might even be under-represented in comparison to the general Irish population. But in my relatively limited experience these circles' most usual response to religion is at the very worst a sort of patronising tolerance. This goes nowhere near being hostile either to religion in general or to the religious convictions of any individual or community.

Discussion of the merits or demerits of religious faith is quite the opposite of fashionable. Most people in these circles and others are simply not interested in the subject. Now, to be uninterested in someone's pet subject (in this instance a pet subject that it seems Quinn and I are unfortunate enough to share) may give rise on occasion to resentment, but is not the same thing as being hostile to that person's opinions (whether they think like Quinn or like me). Nor is dishing out well-deserved criticism of the actions and attitudes of any religious organisation anything like attacking the religious views either of members of that organisation or of any other believers.

Still and all, there are a lot people (including Quinn) in the Irish media doing relatively well out of writing on the subject of religion. What all successful journalists specialising in religion seem to have in common is that they are generally in favour of it. For journalists outside this specialisation benign indifference is the rule. For religious journalists to say that those digging away in the opposite trenches are doing it out to be in with some imagined in crowd is either a self-serving fantasy or a paranoid illusion. There simply are no trenches opposite. And those few that do take potshots from whatever cover they can find are not the toast of the Dublin establishment. From personal experience, I can report that such guerrilla activity is relatively lonely and unprofitable.

19 April 2008

Benedict's love of truth

News on the recent kerfuffle surrounding the Pope's cancellation of his visit to La Sapienza University in Rome seems to have roused John Waters' ample capacity for outrage. In his typically precise fashion, he had a quick look at the internet on the subject, checked that all his prejudices were firmly in place and then distilled the results of this tried and tested workflow into an article the Irish Times (21 January), telling us as usual precisely the opposite of what sensibly needs to be said about the issue.

Some of the academics at the ancient university had apparently been unwilling to provide a platform for Benedict, thus giving rise to the cancellation, and Waters, passionately concerned to defend honest truth-seeking, finds them guilty of making a savage attack on that quest. He is in very good company -- a great number of other people who should know better swallowed the same tired line -- but he couldn't have got it more wrong.

It might be useful to draw in a little background to the story. In March 1990, Joseph Ratzinger (wearing his well-used academic hat) addressed an audience in Parma with a speech (more than a little presumptuously) entitled "The Crisis of Faith in Science", in which he (in a nebulous sort of way) defended his church against that old secularist champion chestnut: viz. the way a 17th Century Pope treated Galileo when the latter stubbornly insisted that the earth orbits the sun rather than the other way around.

Now the secularist legend (as recounted by the then future Pope) goes as follows: Galileo, brave, enlightened and clever scientist, worked out that it made far more sense to follow Copernicus' theory that the sun was the centre of the solar system than to continue to believe the old Ptolemaic system that everything revolved around the earth. As soon as Galileo went public on this, Pope Urban VIII, an opinionated, know-nothing relic of the dark ages, made him take this view back and took away his freedom for the rest of his life as punishment for his presumption.

Ratzinger goes on (albeit extremely fudgingly) to try and debunk this "myth", recruiting for this purpose German Marxist thinker, Ernst Bloch, and firebrand Austrian philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Unfortunately for his case, the Galileo myth he outlines is by all serious accounts accurate in all relevant respects (though Galileo's own disastrous lack of diplomatic skills probably contributed to his fate). The truth is that Galileo did indeed write a work defending heliocentrism and ridiculing its rival theory, he did indeed incur the wrath of the Inquisition on this account and was indeed made recant and put under house arrest for the rest of his life. Also clear is that his trial court and the Pope who pulled its strings judged him not on the basis of evidence, but solely by reference to medieval interpretation of scripture.

Now all this is a matter of historical record. It seems strange having to repeat it, but unfortunately the crafty revisionism of the present Pope (amongst others) makes the repetition necessary.

But I jump ahead of myself. Stripped down to layperson's terminology, Ratzinger paraphrases Bloch as saying that Galileo's sun-centred theory wasn't a demonstrable thesis, but merely the result of Galileo's natural (but, it's implied, not altogether reasonable) desire to keep his maths simple. Further, whatever about the tidiness of Galileo's calculations, Einstein's theory of relativity, we're told, "cancelled" Galileo's reasonings anyway.

Therefore, the argument concludes, it's now legitimate to say , for example, that "in relation to human dignity", the sun actually goes round the earth (whatever that means -- apart from being an extremely soggy metaphor).

Ratzinger then goes on to quote Feyerabend's statement (notorious then and now to even the flightiest second-year philosophy student) that the Church at the time was "was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself" and that the trial decision on Galileo was "reasonable and just".

Of course, the then cardinal doesn't explicitly endorse either of these views, as to do so would be to put him in debt both to an important prophet of a heretical view he has been long famous for opposing, i.e. Liberation Theology (Bloch), as well as to one of the most important icons of his diabolical arch-enemy, Relativism (Feyerabend). To agree with them both openly would be equivalent to running with both fox and hare at the same time as chasing both victims in the company of two distinct packs of hounds. He sensibly doesn't attempt this feat and instead very skillfully abandons his "exploration" hanging in mid-air, thus leaving an impression that he takes a dim view of the classic Galileo myth yet at the same time preserving a position of complete deniability (which was to come in handy in the more recent propaganda battle). I don't know what Ratzinger's attitude to the Jesuits is but, to paraphrase James Joyce, he would seem at least as slippery as one.

But it should be emphasised (in contradiction to what Waters and others tell us) that Ratzinger does not disassociate himself from Feyerabend's position, in his speech or anywhere else. He describes the philosopher's position as "drastic", but neglects to give his own opinion on whether the drastic conclusion was justified. Despite the Vatican's subsequent apology for Galileo's treatment (issued by John Paul II in 1992) Ratzinger has still not clarified what his own opinion in fact is.

It was therefore unsurprising, if rather belated in 2008, when a large group of the academic staff at La Sapienza University in Rome took strong exception to the Pope's implicit approval of Bloch's flamboyant scientific illiteracy. In this they were quite justified -- though, as Waters' colleague on the Irish Times, Paddy Agnew, speculates (also on 21 January), their motivation may have been sharpened by an understandable left-wing irritation at the Pope's more recent repetitive one-sided interventions in Italian politics.

But, sticking to the historical facts (or, if you like, to the truth), the argument whether the planets make a regular, stately orbit around the sun or a mathematical rollercoaster ride around the earth has been satisfactorily settled at least since the time of Newton and is hardly affected at all by Einstein's theories of relativity (which, contrary to what Bloch is cited by Ratzinger as believing, have nothing to do with the Newtonian notion that movement can only be made sense of in relation to an object from which the movement is observed). As for Galileo's insistence on tidy maths; that's neither more nor less than his concern to fulfill an essential requirement for valid inductive reasoning (i.e. the famous Occam's razor), without which no useful scientific or even common-sense knowledge of the world would be possible.

But what the same Roman academics concentrated their wrath on was the present Pontiff's inability or refusal to disassociate himself from Feyerabend's extraordinary historical revisionism (to the effect that it was "reasonable and just" to make Galileo a prisoner in his own home for the rest of his life for the crime of openly asserting a position that contradicted revelation as interpreted by Roman Catholicism).

The professors therefore effectively disinvited Ratzinger from their university. The Pope's PR people then responded with the publicity counterattack which was apparently picked up on by Waters, and which very effectively steamrollered the whole theme under the laughably inappropriate rubric of "freedom of speech".

Unconsciously underlining Benedict's mala fides, Waters mentions in passing the Pope's unelaborated comment on C.F. Von Weizsacker, a German philosopher and nuclear scientist: "... Von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a 'very direct path' that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb."

Now neither Waters nor Benedict explain what this sentence was doing in the speech. Its only apparent purpose was to add to the already murky brew an extra tone of innuendo that implicates the Scientific Enlightenment (represented by Galileo) in the very worst that humanity can create. The comment, like the rest of the speech, has no concern with establishing truth under any rubric. Indeed it brings to mind the way various religious and post-modern, full and part-time allies of the Pope's (for example, the Late Cahal Daly or English philosopher John Gray) crassly attempted to blame Nazism on secular Enlightenment values (despite the obvious fact that that foul ideology clearly owed far more to nationalist, anti-enlightenment romanticism than to anything else, and that it was at least as religious as it was otherwise).

The upshot of all this is the following: the whole affair neatly illustrates a few important issues that need to be highlighted in dayglow colour.

Firstly, it exposes a couple of instances of the extraordinary low quality of what in the 20th century all too often passed for philosophy. For a start, it might even be that Bloch's other work was admirable, but his philosophy of science as interpreted by Ratzinger was palpably not so hot. As for Feyerabend, while his philosophy of science was important enough to cause an intellectual battle royal in the 70's and 80's, his sense of proportion and fair play was certainly out of kilter when wrote the line on Galileo that Ratzinger found so fascinating.

Secondly, a further possible reason suggests itself as to why some of the staff of the University of Rome may have felt uncomfortable about Benedict visiting their campus: i.e. they were quite understandably unwilling to lend academic respectability to the Pope's archly evasive and essentially empty verbiage.

The language used by the academics, included a vocabulary of victimhood that they would have done better to avoid (they were, for example, "offended" and "humiliated" by the Pope's comments). However, their observation that it would be "incongruous" for such a figure as the Pope to give a speech at their university is right on the button. Someone who makes guerrilla attacks on scientific method and historical truth with the only apparent purpose of defending a world view he is already unconditionally committed to isn't playing the game of truth-seeking that a university should cherish, but another game altogether.

This brings me neatly to the third issue that this bruhaha has (or at least should have) laid open, and it is the awkward issue of the philosophical merits of the Pope's academic work (both before and after his elevation). The offending lecture still looks much the same as it did in 1990: i.e. a transparent attempt to trawl through the "canon" for quotations that seem to buttress a previously decided-upon position (i.e. the historical correctness of orthodox Roman Catholicism). This approach is depressingly common in contemporary academia, and is the very negation of any truly honest search for truth -- whether scientific, philosophical or moral.

The Parma speech wasn't a once-off either: his side of a famous recent collaboration with Jürgen Habermas, "The Dialectics of Secularisation", is a similar airy blend of the obvious with the absurd and the evasive. And who can forget the infamous 2006 Regensburg lecture? (Reminder for those who have forgotten: that was a predictably destructive speech, in which the Pope quoted one of his predecessors' nasty medieval comments about Islam without bothering to tell his audience what he thought of the opinion quoted, except to say that it was "forceful" -- he could equally have repeated the term "drastic".)

Perhaps one of the greatest shocks of the Sapienza episode is well described by Agnew, "In the end, that which had once looked like a major setback for Pope Benedict turned into a considerable triumph". La Sapienza's academics seem to have underrated the power of the Vatican's massive publicity machine, whose flattening progress was hugely facilitated by the same sort of taboo-revering self-censorship that prevents anyone in the media from questioning the pontiff's academic credentials.

That Benedict's words, "I am linked to [the academic world] by a love of the search for truth, a love of dialogue and confrontation, based on mutual respect for different positions" were taken automatically at face value the world media (despite copious evidence that respect for the rules of honest academic dialogue is not his strong point), is a sure sign that his status as the world's foremost religious leader keeps him effectively above criticism in the minds of far too many influential journalists.

On the basis of this evidence, one begins to suspect that the Pope's reputation as a philosopher of dazzling insight might just be less a product of his work's inherent quality and more the result of the stamp of approval given to his output (and a hell of a lot of output very similar to his) by the powerful organisation he leads. After all, this organisation has very substantial influence over university standards, subjects and appointments all over the world. It is, like its leader, protected by a supernatural force field from all but the most caustic of criticism (this armour apparently doesn't fully protect against accusations of clerical child abuse, for example).

If there is anything in this suspicion (which. drastic as it may be, requires no conspiracy theory, as anyone who's been about in Maynooth, Pamplona or Leuven can honestly confirm), the question automatically arises as to whether and how the church's influence in academia could and should be reduced, especially in cases where public funding is suspected of involvement in propping up either transparent nonsense (for example, that the sun circles the earth "in relation to human dignity") or dangerous demagogery (for instance, that it ever may have been "reasonable" to lock people up for publicly -- even rudely -- preferring to trust their reason than to put their faith in established church dogma).

My own personal response to Waters' bleating, is the following: the Roman academics attempt to prevent Benedict from further reinforcing his unearned reputation as a disinterested seeker of truth should be seen as a service rather than a disservice to that truth. However, it was probably not so politically clever to pick on a 17-year-old speech, however appalling and however unretracted, as the centrepiece of the academics' argument.

Whatever about that, as Agnew says, "... it seemed there was something faintly ridiculous about [La Sapienza being accused of censorship of the Pope] ... Far from being gagged, Pope Benedict has a high-tech [he could have said 'kryptonite-proof'] megaphone trained on the entire world." The professors simply attempted to subtract some academic respectability from Benedict's sly evasions. They were right to make that attempt, and I think it's a pity that their own tactical mistakes, a load of well-aimed Vatican claptrap about truth-seeking and the spineless or credulous swallowing of said claptrap by far too many professional journalists conspired together to stymie their efforts.

Another effect of the affair that will be regretted (at least by Italians more concerned with public ethics than private morality), is the contribution it undoubtably made to putting Silvio Berlusconi's dubious hands back on the wheel of power.

Cooney and “God bashing”

(recycled from the now defunct blog section in the Village magazine website -- first published on 18 July 2007)

Knowing what John Cooney has achieved in the past writing against ultra-conservatism in Irish religion, it’s a little sad how dismissive he was of Christopher Hitchens on 30 June in his review of his book “God is not Great” in the Irish Independent.

Also disturbing is his characterisation of the current run of books by atheists on the subject of religion as “trendy” and a “fad”. This attitude betrays a lack of generosity of the sort that liberal Christians like him claim a special access to, but it also betrays a lack of historical perspective and a wilful inattention to contemporary world politics.

For one thing, the fact is that such “fashionable” arguments about religion were quite impossible to have right up until the very recent past, at least in Ireland. Cooney forgets this despite his own participation in breaking the taboo against criticism of the institutional church in Ireland (not least via his devastating biography of John Charles McQuaid).

So it’s an irony and a pity that he is so dismissive of Hitchens’ views as those of a “secularist ranter”. He’s actually using the same sort of language in his argumentum ad hominem that was thrown at Church critics (including him) in the past. The taboo against criticism of religion no longer precludes pointing out abuses by Church institutions, but what seems at least shakily still in force is the ban on pointing out holes in the philosophies and theologies underlying religious belief. As usual in Ireland, it is foreigners like Hitchens and his allies that are (albeit only incidentally) beginning to break this taboo. Long may they prosper, say I.

Besides, this “fad” for anti-religious argumentation is anything but confined to Ireland; it is a worldwide phenomenon that has popped up independently is several places. Two recent events that have nothing at all to do with the vagaries of fashion – the 9/11 bombing and the rise of creationism (aka intelligent design) – are far more likely explanations for such arguments. There is a very close relationship between religion and said events, to such an extent that it would be surprising if a fair amount of political opposition to religion (described by Cooney as “God bashing”) would not have emerged in their wake. That God has a prima facie case to answer in both areas is obvious. Cooney’s dismissal of Hitchens’ book as a fashion accessory for this year’s summer on the beach, apart from being irrelevant, is therefore unfair, shortsighted and maybe even a little disingenuous.

An even greater pity about Cooney’s review is that he largely misses the opportunity to present his case against Hitchens’ atheism. As I mentioned on a previous blog, Hitchens’ own book possibly loses points for not really addressing the sort of moderate religion that Cooney would presumably defend, but Cooney fails to gain the same points because he effectively fails to argue at all, limiting himself to doling out a fair amount of relatively harmless bile and … well, not much else of substance.

Where is his case against Hitchens and in favour of God? Surely not in his petulant expression of distaste for Hitchens’ arguments (including a cringe-inducing comment that Hitchens’ attack on the Crusades and the Inquisition constitutes a “sneer”. Nor does he seem to make any defence contra Hitchens for the existence of God other than a rather strange argument from authority: that the great Hans Küng once countersigned Cooney’s copy of his book “Is there a God? An Answer for Today” with the word “Yes”.

Obviously, Cooney can’t accept Hitchens’ nasty God of the Bible as the God he worships, and indeed his fairly innocuous denial of this God indeed takes up a fair bit of his review. But the trouble is that Cooney doesn’t even give us a hint what sort of supreme being he does in fact believe in, except maybe the hint that it might be something along the lines of Küng’s vision of God. But, if you take the trouble to do a bit research, I think you’ll find Küng’s own vision turns out to be pretty foggy too. And when you finally manage to shine a light through the mist on the sort of being Küng has in mind when arguing for his/her/its existence, you’ll end up with rather less in your hand than Küng’s sonorous prose seems to promise. (At least in the English translation it’s pretty sonorous – check out the atmo conjured by this pretty typical example: “[belief in God] has a basis in the experience of uncertain reality itself, which raises the first and last questions of the condition of its possibility”.)

In the book Küng signed for Cooney, he talks of a “trustful” relationship with reality as being essential to leading an ethical life. Whatever he means by this, he admits (with enormous generosity) that some atheists could have such trust, and are thus capable of leading moral lives. What God is, according to the great theologian, is the justification for this trust – so to speak the practical backup that provides grounds for our ethical behaviour. And, em … when you’ve finished clearing away the undergrowth, that’s it. Atheism leads ineludibly to nihilism because, though atheists can indeed behave ethically, their “trusting” relationship with reality (upon which their ethical attitudes are based) is unfounded, and they are therefore ever prone to having the rug pulled out from under them. This “trusting” relationship must therefore have a foundation. And that foundation is what Küng calls God.

Küng seems basically in agreement with many a Nietzschean post-modernist that for morality (or ethics) to have a secure foundation, there must be a God – and that without a God, ethics (or morality) will therefore sooner or later end up going out the window. Where he differs with Nietzsche, is that he doesn’t think God has actually expired yet. The trouble is that his reasons for this belief require him to redefine God as simply the underlying reason that people believe it’s both necessary and desirable to behave ethically – stripping him (her/it) of all traditional attributes. The white beard, the disposition to sadism with Job and Abraham and the maleness (of course) are all gone, along with any personality traits whatsoever.

Now if all of this seems to you to be so much eyewash, then join me in the clubhouse. If I were to ask what causes the rain and were told that it was God what done it, and then asked what this thing called God was, only to be told that God was what caused the rain, I’d probably feel a bit short-changed (at least I would if I weren’t overawed by the reverberating tone in which the questions were answered).

And so it is here. Whatever it is that explains and justifies ethical values is God, and this God turns out to be defined as whatever it is that justifies ethical values. The thing that’s eating all the red rocks turns out to be the red rock eater, so to speak. Explanatory power, nil.

Where it gets even more confusing is that Küng admits that his case is very much dependent on there being no other way of explaining or justifying ethical behaviour other than God. As we’ve seen, Küng makes it clear that his intention is to save us from nihilism (for him, and for much of post-modern thought, the eventual consequence of atheism). But there are a number of explanations of ethical behaviour that have recently come out of the (mainly biological and anthropological) sciences and scientifically inclined philosophy, and none of them look much like what anyone would be inclined to call God. They are all, of course, the subject of much debate, and there is not yet any clear consensus on where and how the debate is going, but to argue with Küng that such natural, rather than supernatural, explanations are either a priori impossible or irrelevant is both ill-informed and unargued.

It is fairly unsurprising that Cooney doesn’t even try to give a summary of Küng’s God argument, limiting himself, as I say, to an appeal to Küng’s authority as a famous theologian of the right sort (i.e. those progressive types who tend to get into trouble with the conservative Christian establishment). Potting up Küng’s thinking into words likely to get past the editor of the Independent would seem to run the risk of exposing his argument for what it surely is: an old-fashioned empty tautology.

Incidentally, Cooney’s reluctance to actually put his case is a common tactic amongst defenders of religion in Ireland: For example, Brendan Purcell, Marian Finucane’s philosopher if not in residence then just across the road, does a fairly similar trick more or less every time he gets on the radio: when faced with an argument against religion he doesn’t wish to handle, he makes some vague mention of Heidegger’s “discoveries” about “being”, and/or throws in the non-question, “why is there something rather than nothing”. This invariably happens at the end of the program, so that no one gets the chance to ask what it actually was that Heidegger found out about being, or what it would mean to answer his non-question. One suspects that the answer in both cases is “not much”.

Well-dressed nonsense though all this may be, Küng’s (and presumably Cooney’s) vision of God as the only possible foundation of ethics, which goes back at least to Nietzsche for its origin, is very much still around amongst other thinkers. Richard Dawkins’ late opponent, the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (in “Rocks of Ages” – not, by the way, his best book) talked of religion as a “magisterium” or “domain of competence” dealing with human ethical values parallel to the separate magisterium of science, with which it did not overlap. Philosopher Mary Midgley, a Dawkins opponent who’s very much still with us, sees religion in a similar way, as a sector concerned with values as opposed to facts, though she thinks the two magisteria certainly do overlap, the world of science being much affected by the world of ethics and vice versa.

Now it’s hard to argue with the separateness of the magisteria of science on the one hand and of ethics on the other, and the extent to which the two disciplines might or might not have a legitimate influence on each other is an extremely interesting subject, but what seems to walk on air is the assumption both Gould and Midgley make, but neither of them seem to think it necessary to argue for: ie, that the subject of religion and the magisterium of ethics belong in the same pigeonhole. In his own way, and with rather more sleight of hand, Küng is essentially doing the same thing. His argument for the existence of God is not too far from simply taking the term “ethics” and telling us (if “telling us” is the right expression, given all the theological obfustication surrounding his argument) that it is essentially synonymous with the word “God”.

It is hard not to believe that there is politics somewhere behind this tendency to conflate religion with ethics. The reason that people like Midgley and Gould don’t mind conflating the two terms is presumably that neither of them sees anything particularly wrong with organised religion becoming the main centres around which discipline of ethics is discussed. People like Dawkins and Hitchens (and, for what it’s worth, me) have objections to the English language being treated in such a cavalier way as to redefine the word “God” so that it means roughly “what the good guys do”. However, the main reason for opposing this unlikely conflation would be on the ground that the contemporary institutions of religion probably couldn’t be a worse set of bodies to entrust with decisions on what the rest of us should consider right and wrong. Perhaps the recently deceased pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty had a point when he described his opposition to religion as being based more what he saw as a well-founded “anti-clericalism” than a disbelief in any argument about God (whatever that turns out to be).

While most atheists will readily acknowledge that there are excellent people practicing all sorts of religions whose views on ethics are as worthy of consideration as anyone else’s, the idea that religion should have any sort of special role in this area is pretty frightening to some of us at least (though it didn’t seem to bother Gould, despite his agnosticism).

Even John Cooney will admit that there are good reasons for our objections. Our “sneering” at the Crusades and the Inquisition are only side issues, as are our objections to the behaviour of the Biblical God towards Job, Lot’s wife and the rest of them (up to and including his own son). Much more important, for example, is the much more recent behaviour of the Catholic Church in relation to child abuse or contraception, the extraordinary moral impotence, turpitude and illiteracy displayed by Islamic “scholars” in the face of Muslim extremism, the ignorance and grotesque intellectual dishonesty of mainstream American Christianity in response to the science of evolution, as well as the slightly less shocking absurdities of the Anglican Church while discussing the participation of women and/or gay people in their priesthood.

This not to say that everyone involved in religion is a fool or a potential tyrant, but it does suggest that modern religious organisations are anything but competent in guiding humanity on the difference between right and wrong.

Cooney and Küng are both welcome to use whatever vocabulary they are most comfortable with, but if they do insist, for example, on using the classical term “God” with the unorthodox sense roughly outlined above, it would be useful if they could make a little clearer that their meaning is nowhere near the standard usage.

Of course, the suspicion is that they will never give this clarity, for the very good reason that they mess around with these terms precisely to create unclarity – to erect a smokescreen to disguise from their alleged co-religionaries, from us and perhaps even from themselves that their views on religion are basically incompatible with the beliefs demanded by the institutional church they are both still obviously at least emotionally attached to, as well as contradictory to beliefs that they had set out in the first place to reassure themselves of.

While we are going about breaking religious taboos in the Irish media, one we could add to our to-do list is the one that prevents eminent progressive theologians from being subjected to any sort of criticism in print. This is not just an Irish taboo. Even Dawkins and Hitchens have so far respected it, by not engaging direct attacks on anything but the most old-fashioned, non-right-on and most obvious theological nonsense. The taboo is reinforced by the difficulty in talking about the subject intelligibly in the media (a task not helped by sometimes wilful obfustication), but this is surely not the only explanation for the absence of atheist voices on religion worldwide. To see that the taboo is still at least partially in place, just remember the equivocal response in the media to the infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed.

It’s time the media started trying to get a hold of the sort of slippery philosophy/theology that Küng (for example) writes and Cooney admires. Taking the term “political” in its broadest sense, the topic is of huge political importance. On it depends nothing less than how and by whom the subject of ethics is studied, and how and by whom the results of such study are broadcast and (if the arbiters judge it necessary) enforced.

Hitchens and his two acolytes

(recycled from the now defunct blog section in the Village magazine website -- first published on 28 June 2007)

In the last couple of weeks, Ireland’s two self-styled print media enfants terribles, John Waters and Kevin Myers, have both had a run-in with the Irish wagon of Christopher Hitchens’ publicity train for his new book, God is Not Great. Waters was duped into taking the role of Hitchens’ floor wipe at the Gate Theatre on 17 June in a public debate on the merits of religion (Waters being in favour of God and Hitchens against) and Myers imposed on Indo readers two extraordinarily pretentious articles about evolution, Hitchens and faith, apparently arising out of a stroll he took with the British journalist through Temple Bar.

Now the said Hitchens has had the term “intellectual” appended to his name in various places, so you would have thought the oh-so-obvious aspirations of Messrs Waters and Myers in the same direction would have benefited by their recent association with him. Unfortunately though, the quality of their respective contributions to the debate (along with, in Myers’ case, the dubious aesthetic sensibility he exposed in choosing Temple Bar for a scenic Dublin stroll with an illustrious visitor) has kept them out of the running for membership of the intelligentsia for the moment.

In the case of Myers, I hope he will one day blush at his depressing demonstration that he hasn’t the foggiest idea of the basic principles of evolutionary theory. “I certainly don't accept Darwinian theories of evolution, as currently posited” he informs us self-importantly as if he had a PhD in the subject, and then goes on to provide us with the information that he “cannot see how 'evolution' was accidentally able to create hundreds of proteins, any molecule of which consists of maybe 1,000 different amino-acids, in precisely the right sequence”, thus in a single sentence revealing to anyone with the slightest notion of the subject that the insights of the modern synthesis between Darwin’s ideas and modern genetic theory have gone completely over his head.

In order to fool us into thinking he hadn’t lifted his argument wholesale from some American website he replaces a jumbo jet with the Taj Mahal in his version of the fatuous Christian fundamentalist metaphor that a wind going through a junkyard could never spontaneously assemble something as sophisticated as a modern jet liner (or a white marble temple to love if you like), never mind a human being or a dinosaur. The letters page of the Indo this week would suggest that this demonstration of ignorance didn't go unnoticed.

Waters, who has declared himself in the Irish Times to be the implacable scourge of precisely the sort of "aggressive secularism" advocated by Hitchens, on all accounts just lay prone before the master on the night of the debate, just managing to get in a plea for acknowledgement of the role of Christian tradition in the development of enlightenment values. The fire instilled in him by philosopher John Gray (whose pretentious neo-Nietzschean anti-enlightenment effort Straw Dogs Waters is recorded as having read in preparation for a discussion with Ivana Bacik on RTÉ a few months ago) was all gone, along with his passionate opposition to liberalism, which he recently redeclared as part of his cack-handed effort to back up Bertie Ahern’s unintelligible and incoherent views on some undefined aggressive secularist threat or other to somebody or other's freedom of religion or something.

What you’d expect from Myers and Waters is that they’d admire Hitchens. You’d guess he’d be exactly the sort of journalist they’d aspire to be. And such indeed seems to be the case – Waters’ supine attitude to the man and Myers’ extraordinary overblown praise for his book – “… God is Not Great is easily the most brilliant and fascinating contemplation upon the role of religion in human society in recent times, the Das Kapital of a tolerant, if exasperated, atheism” – would seem only explainable as boyish hero worship.

But in fact there is nothing particularly brilliant about Hitchens’ book. In style and content it is essentially the same as last year’s atheist blockbuster The God Delusion by Prof. Richard Dawkins. Nor is there anything particularly challenging about the arguments it contains: just like the Dawkins book (which is by no means the genius professor’s best) it fails to land punches with any real force on any type of pro-religious view other than the sort of literalist nonsense found in American mainstream Protestantism, Roman Catholic orthodoxy, conservative Islamic thought and the like. Now I’m not saying these targets don’t deserve a bit of punishment, but it has to be said that Hitchens' arguments display nothing even close to the originality or imagination required to describe them in the sort of superlatives that Myers uses.

Indeed the barn doors that were Hitchens' particular targets have been bashed off their hinges since soon after the publication of The Origin of the Species in the middle of the 19th century. As sources of any serious intellectual stimulation, they have been a right old bore for a very long time indeed.

Now there probably is some point in discussing effective political strategies to combat antediluvian, religious-inspired belligerence, bigotry and chauvinism, but the fact is that neither book makes any serious attempt to suggest antidotes to the recent resurrection of religious conservatism in Western political thought. They don't seem to do much more than lament forlornly at the seemingly unstoppable irrational tide (Hitchens’ own now ludicrous view that the invasion of Iraq was likely to be a help in stemming this tide is mercifully left out of his book). The problem is not so much as that their message is fundamentally a negative one — ie, fundamentalist religion is nasty — but that it is also childishly obvious to anyone likely to be picking up their books.

But it’s not as if there’s nothing interesting to say on the subject. Kim Sterelny is right when telling us, in a very useful book explaining the long-running (and much misunderstood) controversy between Dawkins and the late palaeontologist Steven Jay Gould, that “… Dawkins is wholly untouched by the postmodern climate of current intellectual life”. Indeed the way Dawkins talks freely about “facts” and “truth” as if the concepts were entirely unproblematic indicates either his ignorance of or his lack of interest in the preoccupations of the most fashionable currents in 20th century philosophy, collectively known as “postmodernism”. He simply ignores them.

It is precisely the problematic status of such terms as “truth” and “reality” that has defined the main battle lines at least in philosophy of knowledge in the second half of the 20th century, and especially in philosophy of science, and it is to a large extent this unfinished argument that has permitted the return of religion as a powerful force in the West.

Hitchens, on the other hand, is surely conscious of these issues, and perhaps this is why his argument against religion, if it can be distinguished from Dawkins’, depends a tiny bit more on the effects of religion on human behaviour and a fair amount less on demonstrating the falsity of his opponents’ metaphysical claims. Neither author, however, even begins to deal with the bundle of issues that gave rise to the mishmash of attitudes and doctrines and works that make up the postmodern canon.

I suspect that both Dawkins and Hitchens share philosopher Daniel Dennett’s famous disdain for many of the pretensions of postmodern thinking. (By the way, the same Daniel Dennett has written a far-superior book criticising religion, Breaking the Spell, one of its virtues being that it does at least contain at least one sensible political suggestion in discussing religion — namely that we should insist on challenging religious people’s uniquely exaggerated sensitivity to criticism of their opinions, continually defying them to discuss of their most cherished beliefs rationally, no matter how much it might hurt them.)

Still and all, Dennett too failed to tackle the postmodern challenge: he tantalisingly dismisses to certain unnamed European philosophical trends as "obscurantism", but declines to tell us why (one suspects that he feels it's not worthwhile).

Simply ignoring postmodern thinking, however justified your disdain for it may be, is hard to justify as a serious intellectual strategy, and it certainly isn’t a respectable response if the political debate you’re participating in is being played out precisely on territory marked out by postmodernism.

And postmodernist attitudes are central to the challenge to such thinkers as Hitchens and Dawkins. Even opponents who'd run a mile from many of the “discoveries” of postmodernism slip easily into and out of postmodern thinking in defending their view of religion. Belfast-born professional Dawkins-basher Alister McGrath refers to atheism as "a belief system" rather than "a factual statement about reality" (whatever that means). Pope Benedict XVI, amongst others, is very fond of referring to scientists unsympathetic to religion as "positivists" (a favourite term of abuse amongst postmodernists). While we can have our suspicions about such tactics, it is not a trivial task to sort out where they are legitimate and where they're used simply to muddy the water.

One of the special difficulties for non-postmodernists about postmodern thought (especially in its various continental European incarnations), is that many of its heroes write extremely opaque prose (the suspected fraud, Nazi sympathiser and acknowledged postmodern hero Martin Heidegger once described any demand to make his writings intelligible as "suicide for philosophy"). The unwillingness of many in the postmodern tradition to pin down the meanings of the words they use is also notorious, as is their frequent disrespect for traditional conventions governing the structure of philosophical arguments.

For defenders of religion, such styles of argumentation are very useful, and extremely frustrating for potential opponents, hence the understandable reluctance of the latter to condescend to dealing with what they see as intentional obfustication. However, given the state of play in 21st century intellectual debate — with postmodernism firmly established (even dominant) in humanities (and sometimes even natural science) faculties of universities all over the western world — such people as Hitchens and his allies have no choice but to join battle on postmodernist home territory.

It is here that the heavy intellectual lifting needs to be done — and difficult and dirty work it is, too. Neither Hitchens nor Dawkins have yet really turned their minds to it. I presume they share my suspicion that the postmodern emperor dresses relatively lightly, but to see just how little he has on you have to enter the palace.

As to Myers and Waters, before they try to put on the clothes of Ireland’s intellectual elite, they should make sure their underwear is clean — it might save them some embarrassment.