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Categorical Errors? 15 October 2013

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Language, Life, Ponderings.
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In my Twitterfeed this morning I noticed the following from the scientist Jim Alkhalili (presenter of the rather good BBC Radio4 programme, The Life Scientific):

Hmm, that’s stumped me. “@<deleted>: @jimalkhalili @cambridgeunion hey if your an atheist why wouldn’t you just kill yourself?”

(For non-Twitterati the portion within the speech marks is a quote attributed to ‘@<deleted>’ and referencing both the scientist’s Twitter account and that of the Cambridge Union.) Playing a straight bat, just in case derision was not intended I chipped in:

@jimalkhalili cos being is something we’d miss, non-being something we’re in no rush to become, irrespective of existence of higher Being?

I will admit that brevity may be the soul of wit, but Twitter is brevity writ large (or extremely small!) I was attempting wit, and may not have succeeded too well.

The physicist’s follow-up tweet ran thus:

I apologise to guy I retweeted with my glib response. Should’ve known he’d get loads of stick from my followers. Not very humanist of me.

It brought to mind the continuing issues of the way we use language. It is not intended as an ad hominem attack or piece of polemic, just a train of thought! Setting aside the difficulties of conveying certain emotions and intentions in written form, it struck me that the short exchange nicely illustrated two errors that bedevil conversations that involve the interactions between science & faith (or if you prefer, between different faiths or belief systems.)

Firstly we have a clear demonstration of the difference of understanding the reasons for being. “If you are an atheist then surely you have no purpose to live, so why bother?” would seem to be the most likely interpretation of the question, irrespective of any intended or unintended nastiness. An implication is that the questioner holds the view that our sole purpose is to give glory to a supreme being, or at least that life is meaningless without the presence of such a being.  (Such a position is not uniquely confined to certain more or less vocal strands of Christianity). Nevertheless the response, which is understandable, that the answer is worthy only of ridicule, is still a reply, an engagement, rather than the simple ignoring of the question. I would worry that such a question stems from a member of what I would expect to be an erudite audience but that’s a different issue (as I am not in possession of the full facts). There is a clear disconnect between the two viewpoints, a lack of clear desire to understand, perhaps?

Maybe more interesting to me is the follow up. Within the phrase “not very humanist of me” there is contained either a false dichotomy, made for the brevity of twitter, or a very sophisticated response. Some folks of a certain age and mindset might have stated that an attitude wasn’t very Christian, based on the presumption that the speaker was a Christian, either nominally or in reality. I’m wondering if that phrase is lurking in the mind of the writer as he makes his apology, as it’s definitely how I interpreted it on first reading. If so the error here is in the implied opposition between faith and humanism, that in effect faith is incompatible with humanism. Yet I don’t see that humanism or faith is the issue here. Surely instead it’s about the human facility for empathy or compassion, a value that is valued irrespective of faith. The flip side of the interpretation, the sophisticated one, would involve remembering that although the words “secular” and “humanism” are so often run together as a synonym for atheism (not “humane atheism” interestingly, as it appears presumed that atheism is humane …) they are not inextricably linked. You can be humanist without being secular. Erasmus, the “Prince of the Humanists”, was very clearly a Christian, as were others who contributed to the growth of Renaissance humanism, such as Luther. While I am no scholar of Islam I would be most surprised if there were no eminent Muslin humanists.

I would so value further respectful conversations that recognise both the differences and similarities between atheists and people of faith, that take the time to engage and discover. I would like them to take place within the university where I work, which has neither Philosophy nor Theology departments! (And that’s not even starting on the issue of whether science seeks to explain “how” and religion “why”!)

This all made perfect sense when I started this line of thought this morning. Now I’m not so sure, but I’ve spent too long thinking around this that it seems a shame not to publish it!

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1. Essays - Atheism - Kittysneezes - 15 October 2013

[…] Categorical Errors? […]

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[…] Categorical Errors? (drmoose.wordpress.com) […]


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