It’s considered very important to have an open mind. Everyone wants to be considered open-minded, or at least not to be considered closed-minded, which is the ultimate insult to anyone’s intellectual honesty. I’m not about to argue with that – being prepared to be corrected or change your position in response to the evidence is the most basic element of the scientific method – but it’s a phrase that carries a lot of subtext.
Obviously, examining the evidence without fixed preconceptions – with an open mind – is a fundamental part of science. But when was the last time you heard a scientist pleading for someone to keep an open mind? Maybe it happens sometimes, but I can’t remember a single example. I find that very interesting.
The people who tend to put the most emphasis on people keeping an open mind are a different group entirely. They’re the conspiracy theorists, the woo-mongers and the like, people who ironically tend to be very, very certain of the truth of their chosen beliefs. Nevertheless, this poses a curious problem – if an open mind is such a good thing, as it is, what should we conclude from the fact that it’s generally advocated by fringe groups with wacky beliefs, and not mainstream scientists?
The answer becomes a little clearer when the question’s reframed slightly: Why would you appeal to someone to keep an open mind? Clearly, because the evidence isn’t sufficient to convince on its own. If there was good reason to believe something to be true based on the evidence, only an imbecile would neglect that to make an appeal which encourages people not to reach a firm conclusion. As the legal adage goes:
If you have the law, hammer the law. If you have the facts, hammer the facts. If you have neither the law nor the facts, hammer the table
If I wanted to persuade a flat-earther that the world really is round, I could appeal to the easily observable curvature of the Earth, photos from space, people who’ve circumnavigated the globe and webcams demonstrating that it can be night in one place and day in another. And that’s just for starters. What I wouldn’t do is plead for them to keep an open mind.
Scientists rarely if ever appeal for people to open their minds, not just because an open mind is the most basic of assumptions, as self-evident as breathing, but also because having an open mind is only part of the answer. The point of having an open mind is to ensure that you’re not clinging dogmatically to a position which isn’t supported by the evidence, but that still requires the evidence to make it work.
Having an open mind is a good thing, all else being equal, but perversely, if someone’s encouraging you to keep an open mind, it’s probably a good reason to be suspicious of their claims. In this context, an insistence on having an open mind most likely means that there’s no decent evidence to support their position, and what’s more, they know it.
It’s Eurovision time again, that special time of year when cheese is on the menu all over Europe. If you don’t watch it, and especially the semi-finals where so many memorably bad acts go out, you’re missing out on either a massive celebration of Europop or a hilarious parade of some of the most awful songs ever, depending on your perspective. I usually view it as about half and half, but it’s never dull.
Interestingly, though, a straw poll suggests that the first thing most people think of in connection with Eurovision is political voting. “They all vote for their mates” is the general gist of the popular belief, concluding that the entire process is both corrupt and pointless, as well as implying that we are entirely innocent of such favouritism. Even allowing for a certain amount of humour and hyperbole, this reveals an impressive range of cognitive biases.
Given that the near neighbours who are most often accused of always voting for each other tend to be those who have very strong historic reasons for being rather antagonistic towards each other, it should be obvious that there’s more going on here than a simple arrangement to swap votes between friends, even without noting that there have been 13 different winners in the last 13 years.
There are clear reasons why there might be patterns of neighbouring countries voting for each other, as demonstrated by our typical interest in Ireland’s song. Countries in the same region generally like the same sort of music, and take a special interest in each other’s entries, in much the same way as football supporters always want to know how their local rivals did.
Strangely, even as a rivalry this interest can be a significant advantage in a contest of about 25 songs, based on positive votes for an absolute favourite. To get votes, a song has to stand out from the others. Quality and a catchy tune are helpful, but the most important thing is to stick in the mind. People taking an interest, even a moderately hostile one, is likely to help any song.
As well as local interest, there’s a possible mechanism for some degree of bias in the use of telephone voting. Countries aren’t allowed to vote for their own song, but in regions where there’s been significant upheaval and/or border changes in recent years, there may be a lot of people who are able to vote for “their” country, the one they identify with, because they now live in a different country. This was a substantial influence when voting was entirely through telephone polls, but juries now provide a little more balance.
Another factor that can cause assumptions of bias and collusion is the growing trend of marketing songs very heavily in certain areas in the months before the contest. To anyone who’s hearing a song for the first time, it might seem like an unremarkable example of Europop, but to those who have been listening, singing along and dancing to it for weeks, it’s far more than that. It isn’t necessary to invoke politics or even taste to explain the popularity of a song you personally don’t find particularly special.
Most of all, there are our old friends selection bias and confirmation bias. Selection bias first, and this is something I sometimes still do myself. Each country’s ten favourite songs are read out in ascending order, from tenth through to first. So by the time each top choice is announced, nine countries have been eliminated from the pool and there’s often a single song from the remainder that’s pretty clearly scoring better in the contest so far than the others.
At this point, it’s very easy to say that obviously, Lithuania will give top marks to Latvia, for example. It looks impressive when you’re right, and whenever the association between the countries tallies with your expectations it will be taken as confirmation. But the deck’s heavily stacked in your favour, as any other likely candidates (assuming a back-scratching vote) will probably have been named already to rule them out.
And of course, any vote will either be added to a mountain of evidence of political voting, or simply disregarded. We remember the times when Croatia gave their top vote to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s folk-style nose flutes, but not when Sweden surprisingly awarded 12 points to Malta, because one fits the pattern and the other doesn’t. Classic confirmation bias.
These factors do have an influence at the margins, and all things being equal it’s handy to have a few votes you can rely on, but it’s not the conscious back-scratching conspiracy of popular myth, and given the scale of the contest, it’s rarely going to decide who wins. More important is to have a song that’s distinctive, and particularly that isn’t tapping into the same genre as several other entries, like the usual bandwagon-jumping imitations of the previous year’s winner.
I could explain the flaws in that approach with reference to game theory, but that would be a whole different subject.
God is very concerned about what we do, and wants to make sure that we do some things that he likes, and especially that we don’t do things he doesn’t like. When we don’t do what God wants, it’s called ‘sin‘. Sometimes, these are things that almost everyone agrees that people shouldn’t do, and sometimes they’re things that most people don’t see a problem with. But God says they’re bad anyway, and that’s all that matters.
When the first people were made, they never did bad things, so everything was fine. Then one day, they did a bad thing by eating from a tree, which meant that they were always going to do bad things and so were all the rest of us. That doesn’t make sense to me, but they were told to do it by a talking ground-animal, so maybe that explains it.
Some things that God doesn’t like are done all the time and no one seems to care. People keep and even eat animals that aren’t clean, and they wear clothes that are made of different things. Some things, like killing people, are done quite a lot and everyone agrees that they’re bad things except when they’re not. When people call something ‘sin‘, it usually means they don’t like it and don’t want to think about it. God might not even have said that it’s definitely bad.
When you do things that are bad, the Big Book of God says that it’s like being dead, and that it makes us a long way away from God. The Big Book also says that we’re all as bad as each other, and a long way from God. But we should try to do what God wants, even though we can’t manage it and we still get in trouble for having the wrong thoughts. The important thing is to try. Then it’s okay as long as we say sorry and mean it.
Image courtesy of intruso4, used with permission
I don’t think there is such a thing as a patron saint of the gullible (as there’s one for the internet, it might be unnecessary duplication), but if there were, Thomas should be right at the head of the queue.
Strictly speaking, it would probably be more precise to call him the patron saint of easy marks, but however it’s phrased, it probably strikes you as unfair. After all, Thomas was the one disciple who’s named as being dubious of what the others told him about the resurrection. It was an outrageous claim, and he was justifiably cautious. If anything, shouldn’t he be associated with scepticism?
But consider what happens next. John’s gospel says that he met Jesus and instantly changed his mind, going from 0 to credulous in the blink of an eye. His previous justifiable disbelief was forgotten in a single moment of astonishment, and he became a true believer. He even seems from John’s account to have turned down an open invitation to verify that the person in front of him – who apparently materialised in a locked room – was real. Hardly a poster child for careful, cautious investigation.
There’s a sense in which this is possibly harsh on Thomas, as we have little idea how others reacted, but there’s a reason why I bring this up – his behaviour is typical of a certain sort of convert, the kind of person who seems to apply critical thinking consistently up to a certain point, but drops everything and changes their opinion completely as soon as they personally experience something they can’t instantly explain.
It’s so common that it’s become a cliché – I never used to believe in UFOs until I saw one myself, I used to be an atheist until I felt God’s love, and so on. These solipsistic sceptics had previously heard endless testimonies from people who believed in their latest flavour of woo, but rejected it all because they knew that our feelings and senses are unreliable. Then as soon as they themselves get a funny feeling or see something unusual, they become enthusiastic converts.
Contrary to appearances, this isn’t a sign of careful scepticism or critical thinking – you don’t get credit for an instant reaction of disbelief to everything you’re told, and in the end, Thomas did absolutely nothing to verify the facts. For all his talk, his instant, immediate reaction was to believe that his perception and interpretation were both entirely accurate. Even if they were, that wouldn’t make his behaviour sensible or rational, it would just mean he got lucky.
His previous doubt doesn’t make his sudden belief any more reliable, it just means he’s more confident in it. Despite his headlong rush to believe, it would seem to him that he thought about it rationally, and he would confidently claim not to have been fooled in some way. What’s the betting that Thomas’s own account would have been along the lines of all those other stories of former doubters, now converted to their particular cause? “I used to doubt, but then I saw the light.”
No, sorry. Previous doubts don’t mean anything if there’s no evidence of scepticism or critical thinking in your conversion. If anything, it makes you more likely to be fooled, out of a misplaced confidence in your own critical faculties. Frauds and charlatans love people like Thomas, because they have a misplaced confidence in their ability to question what they’re told, and will believe all sorts of things rather than admit that they could have been fooled.
Richard Feynman put it best: “The first rule is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
First, a confession. When I brought this book home after finally grabbing a copy from the library, my wife gave me one of those half-amused, half-offended looks and pointed out that not so long ago, I’d been dismissive and even scornful when she’d mentioned that it sounded interesting. I’d forgotten that, but she’s right – I think I’d previously read some comments by Francis Spufford that didn’t impress me, and a whole book of the same thing seemed less than appealing.
But when I got started (mainly, it has to be said, out of curiosity and with the intention of carefully dismantling it), I began to feel rather well-disposed towards both book and author. Spufford’s style is a disarmingly conversational faux-dialogue, answering questions he expects you to ask, waxing lyrical, spinning yarns and quoting liberally from sources as unlikely as Monty Python and Hannibal Lecter. If nothing else, it’s very readable.
While I’m on the subject of things that surprised and attracted me about the book, I should also mention that it’s quite impressively sweary, with a generous helping of profanity throughout, and dropping the f-bomb as early as page 7. In fact, I can safely say that I’ve never read a book on religion that even comes close. Given that my reading list over the last year has included a book by Marcus Brigstocke, that achievement must be worth something.
To say Spufford writes well would be to damn him with faint praise. Some passages are little short of majestic, willing the reader to live every moment along with him. This is the book’s great strength, dealing with his thoughts and feelings and doing an impressive job of describing the indescribable. If you want to know what it feels like to pray, look no further. What faults there are lie elsewhere.
When he addresses various common criticisms of Christianity, Spufford makes some valuable corrections to the received wisdom, but he also explains away some objections with a pedantic delicacy that borders on special pleading. Opinions will vary on how many (and which) arguments belong where, but his points are generally worthy of consideration.
Spufford says the book isn’t about apologetics, but even ignoring his publisher’s claim that he takes on Dawkins and Hitchens, that’s not quite true. When he’s describing how it feels to sit in a church pew, he’s still engaging in apologetics, still defending his beliefs, but he prefers to deal in feelings and needs rather than rational or philosophical arguments. That’s probably as well, because when he strays into that territory (as he does from time to time) the results are hit and miss.
His complaint that Russell’s Teapot is a non-argument because “It’s not as if anyone has bothered to publish The Teapot Delusion” misses the point by an embarrassing margin. Lest I should be accused of allowing my views to colour my perception, his dismissal of C.S.Lewis’s trilemma (which I join Spufford in hating) is little better, even contriving to omit one of Lewis’s three options.
Oh yes, didn’t I mention that? Spufford spends much of the book criticising the theological arguments of “his” side, maybe even more so than the atheism he rails against, and does so very well in places. Many of his objections are things I’d not only agree with, but would be happy to publish here, not least his demolition of the standard theodicies attempting to answer the problem of suffering. And then he returns to justifying his belief.
This, confusingly, is the consistent pattern of the book. It seems Spufford knows the arguments, understands them, even agrees with them by and large, but then he doggedly insists that you can’t prove that it isn’t true, and comes back to describing his feelings and considering the implications if he does happen to be right. He’s the Fox Mulder of Christianity – the message that comes through loud and clear is “I want to believe”.
At times, I was reminded of the joke about the economist on a desert island trying to open a can. Spufford seems to be much more comfortable when he can forget about awkward details like whether things are true, and start from the assumption that God exists. Understandably so – it’s always easier when you can skate past some claims that you’d struggle to justify – but I began to wish the book had been subtitled “assume a spherical cow.”
Throughout the book, I found Spufford’s apparent hopeful agnosticism to be a haunting reflection of my own past, although his past journey from atheism to Christianity was in the opposite direction to mine. I recognise the resigned acceptance that the evidence is against you, the desire to believe, and especially the delicate footwork required to justify a belief you want to cling onto even while acknowledging that it’s probably not true. As for whether that makes me more or less sympathetic towards him, I have no idea.
As I was reading, I badly wanted to challenge him over various claims that seemed inaccurate or unfair, as well as sections of the book where he seemed to gallop through a series of points that deserved further consideration. And I get the feeling from the style of his writing that if we were in the same room, with him making these arguments in person, he’d cheerfully stop and discuss every objection and aside at some length.
The book wasn’t really my thing – I know all about what it feels like, and I’m more interested in the evidence – but it may be more to your taste. As long as you aren’t looking for a careful logical defence of Christianity, it’s worth a read. But my main conclusion at the end of it was that while I may find Spufford a frustrating apologist, I love his writing and I’d find him a very stimulating sparring partner and conversationalist.
If he ever happened to be in the area, I’d be happy to stand him a pint or three and spend some time chewing the fat.
Unapologetic is published by Faber and Faber, priced £8.99
There’s a nice place in the sky where God lives. If we’re good and don’t do bad things, or if we do bad things but say sorry for them, we get to go there when we die. It’s not really in the sky, because if it was we might be able to find it and try to get in. Like all nice places, the people who go there don’t want lots of people bothering them in their nice place when they’re trying to have fun.
The nice place in the sky must be really fun, because it’s meant to be a good thing to go there for all of time. I think I’d get bored of even the best places in the world if I had to be there for ages and couldn’t go somewhere else. I usually want to go back home by the end of a couple of weeks away, even if I went somewhere really nice. It would probably be better if I didn’t need to worry about running out of spending money.
A lot of people don’t know that the Big Book of God suggests that there might be more than one nice place in the sky. Maybe that’s so people can move around and not get bored, or it could be to keep all the different groups of God-liking people away from each other so that they don’t fight. I do that with my children sometimes.
Some God-liking people think this means God has an important part of the nice place in the sky just for Him. Maybe He doesn’t like people hanging around His home.
Image courtesy of trublueboy, used with permission
Doctor Who is a simply wonderful series. Much like religion, I grew up with it and now have an ongoing love/hate relationship with it, but it remains one of the best things on television. Even better, I recently realised just how much it had taught me about religious claims and ideas, at least after a fashion. I trust all the parallels are self-explanatory.
1. One person, many faces
Despite apparently being the same person, the Doctor can have entirely different appearances, approaches and even characters at different times – Marcionites take note. He can even occasionally meet himself, despite the apparent logical and chronological problems, in as many as five persons at once.
2. Impossible is nothing, or possibly everything
The difficulty with any series involving time travel is that anything happening in the past is a known quantity for the audience. We know certain things happened in the past, and we know the world wasn’t blown up, because it’s still here. So to maintain dramatic tension it was necessary to explain that time is complicated, and things can happen this time that didn’t happen before. That was fine, but then one day the plot required an event to be unchangeable, so this was described as a fixed point in time. With these two tools in place, any event can be explained away in whichever direction is more convenient, perfect for smoothing over those awkward plot holes.
3. Bafflegab is your friend
If you talk nonsense with enough confidence, it sounds like an explanation. Which is quite handy if you need to map the probability vectors, identify a spatio-temporal hyperlink, or reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, to remotely unscramble the different timelines and break a timelock for just long enough to do some technological jiggery-pokery. Or even explain how someone can be his own father without causing a time rift or running up against the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.
4. Everything revolves around humankind
The Doctor could go anywhere or anywhen in the infinity of time and space, but spends a huge amount of his life (or lives) hanging around Earth, having repeatedly expressed a deep fondness for humanity. Alien races are constantly attempting to invade/enslave/destroy the planet, even though they always fail because, you know, the Doctor, and even though other planets disappear completely with less fanfare than the death of a single Ewok. Assuming they’re not all being completely irrational, Earth and its inhabitants must be uniquely special in some way.
5. Consistency isn’t that important
There’s a huge amount of history, some of which already appears completely contradictory, and trying to make everything fit in with the existing content would be both thankless and futile. Whatever you do, there’s always some geek who remembers a line from 1971 which clearly demonstrates that you’ve got it wrong in some way. But if you’re going to sin, sin boldly – if you cheerfully acknowledge the inconsistency, and hint at very good reasons for it, you’ll have an army of Whovians coming up with ingenious post hoc reasons why it isn’t actually inconsistent at all.
6. Canon is only half the story
I know it’s a cliché, but there are great non-canonical stories out there, some of which contain fascinating ideas. The details contained in Lungbarrow alone would be enough to keep Steven Moffat in teasers and dramatic revelations for years. Rightly or wrongly, though, it’s pretty clearly been left out of that club. Which might be good from the point of view of consistency and ongoing development, but it’s still something of a shame.
7. Women, know your place
In the old days of Classic Who, women didn’t have a significant role. They were patronised by the Doctor and captured by aliens (often with excessive screaming), but rarely did anything else. These days, they try, and things have definitely improved, but despite some fine words and obvious changes, women still often seem to be second-class citizens, and the top job remains out of reach.
8. Reboots are cool
You can get away with a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks of emphasis, even in the limited timeframe of 50 years, but if you need a change that goes beyond a coat of varnish and a couple of new characters, there’s nothing wrong with a reboot. The best thing about this is that you can claim a continuity of history and use as much of that heritage as you like, while ignoring anything that’s inconvenient.
9. Play those emotions with music
You’ve set everything out exactly as you wanted it and told your story with skill and verve, but what if that isn’t enough? You need to stir the emotions, and the best way of doing that is with a stomach-churning, pulse-racing, tear-jerking soundtrack turned all the way up to 11. After all, if you don’t get enough of an emotional response, people might start thinking about whether the story actually makes sense.
10. Paradox is inevitable
Even in the most careful hands, time travel and paradox go together like a horse and anachronistic nuclear-powered antigravity carriage, and Doctor Who takes more liberties than most. This is a universe where your future self can come back in time to rescue you from an eternal prison, but was only able to do so because his future self had done the same thing, and his future self before him (or possibly after him), and so on and so on. It’s future selves all the way down. Once you’ve swallowed this, anything else will look positively rational.
11. Put yourself in charge and you can get away with anything
How many rules has the Doctor broken because it seemed like a good idea at the time? How many times has he forbidden other people from doing something he went on to do himself? If he was writing a list of a specified length, he’d add an extra one at the end just to show that he could, especially if it happened to bring the total up to a significant number, like (for example) the number of Doctors. Above all, he knows that if people are going to let you tell them what to do just because you act like you’re in charge, they’ll still accept it even if you show yourself to be the sort of scoundrel who doesn’t follow his own rules.
One of the strangest things about looking back at the past is noticing how certain I was about everything. It’s hard to explain, and people often have a hard time understanding it, but during the period when I really, truly believed, I was absolutely certain that I was never going to change my mind. I felt that I’d finally found the truth, and that could never be undone.
It wasn’t as if I was moving in line with a different worldview, more as if I’d discovered a new fact. People can change their opinions, but why would I ever think that France wasn’t a country, now that I knew it was? I didn’t usually talk of knowing, but that’s what it comes down to – I had special knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine that ever changing.
As an example of this certainty, I remember being told by someone with a “prophetic gift” (yes, I confidently accepted that as fact as well) that I was going to go through some rough times. I forget the precise phrasing, but my instant reaction was that this referred to a crisis of faith. However, the idea that I might ever have the slightest doubt was just inconceivable to me, so I ended up casting around for some other possible meaning.
Looking back, it seems ridiculous, but I genuinely thought there was no way I could ever doubt my faith, even though I just accepted the prophetic claim at face value. It all felt true – it really was as simple as that. In the end, I became convinced that something was going to happen to my wife (then fiancée), mainly because that scared me more than anything in the world, which seemed to fit the dire tone of the warning.
Over the next few days, I spent every free moment crying out to God. I stopped eating, and I didn’t even drink anything for over 24 hours. I thought of it as a fast, with the aim of asking God to stop whatever was going to happen, but it was really a clumsy, rather desperate effort without any clever theology behind it. I just knew that I had to do something.
Eventually, three days in, I got a sense that something had changed (more likely, I snapped out of it), and slowly started to eat again. But for that, which may just have been a basic self-preservation instinct, I think I would have gone on until I became quite seriously ill. And why did I do it? Because I got the idea, based on nothing at all, that something bad was going to happen.
Even after all that, despite that sense of change, I didn’t feel content or comfortable. I’d stopped because I felt that whatever would be would be, and there was nothing more to be done. The sense of fear and dread had lost its urgency and become less acute, but it was still there, gnawing at me. It faded in the end, but only after many months, and it scarred me badly.
When I have one of those moments when I start to miss the sense of certainty and purpose that I used to have, I remember this episode and remind myself that certainty isn’t all that great after all.
When we do bad things, we should do something to make it better. If we don’t, God is allowed to do bad things to us to make it even. We do a bad thing that he doesn’t like, so he does a bad thing that we don’t like. God likes blood to make it better, but there aren’t enough animals for all the bad things we do, so Mr Jesus died so that there would always be enough blood to make God happy. Now all we need to do is say sorry.
Now when we say sorry, God promises that he won’t hurt us, even if we did really, really bad things. You just have to mean it when you say sorry, like I tell my children. I don’t think they always really mean it, even then, but God knows everything, so he can probably tell if you’re only pretending to be sorry. Maybe if that happens, He makes you sit on the step until you really mean it.
There’s only one thing that God won’t let us off if we say sorry, which is being mean to the air-God-person. No one really knows what that means, or why the air-God-person gets more bothered than the other God-people about people saying bad things, but Mr Jesus was very sure about it, even if he didn’t explain it very simply. If there’s only one thing that God really doesn’t want us to do, you’d think he’d be clearer about what it is.
God still seems to think people should be locked up when they do bad things, even if they say sorry and promise not to do it again, which is quite strange. That means people who hurt and kill other people or take their things can never be trusted to be good while they’re living, even if they’re really sorry, but they’re allowed to run around like everyone else in the nice place in the sky for as long as they want.
Maybe it’s okay because there isn’t anything to take or kill in the nice place.
Image courtesy of bacon_pola, used with permission
I’m going to assume that anyone who’s interested in Richard Dawkins’ latest spat on Twitter already knows all about it, but in summary, he mocked Mehdi Hasan as a journalist (and the New Statesman for publishing him) over Hasan’s belief (common among Muslims) that Mohammed was carried up to heaven on a winged horse.
Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist—
Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 21, 2013
This caused a lot of fuss, with reactions to it ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, before Dawkins posted a more thorough explanation of what he meant by his tweet, without the constraint of a 140-character limit.
I don’t see any benefit in revisiting this in detail, but the question that’s been on my mind, given that there have been various accusations of atheist Islamophobia recently, is how atheists, particularly Western atheists in broadly Christian societies, should handle Islam and the beliefs of Muslims, and when rational criticism becomes prejudice and bigotry.
My position isn’t fully formed, but I take it as a given that all people are equal, and the existence of a different culture shouldn’t, in itself, be a reason for turning a blind eye to dangerous, wrong or unjust things that are going on in that culture. I won’t have any patronising relativistic crap about respecting the brown people’s religion/culture because they don’t know any better. But nor is it helpful or reasonable to criticise an entire religion/culture for the actions of a small minority of its members.
I say religion/culture like that because while they’re clearly different things, in practice they’re pretty much inseparable. Religion drives culture, and to a large extent, culture also drives religion. To accurately and reasonably separate them is a complicated business, so you can probably assume here that any mention of either religion or culture includes the other.
Dawkins is well within his rights to criticise nonsensical beliefs, and he rightly observes that:
If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot” … The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege.
But this is only half the story. Nor would he be called a vile racist bigot if he commented on the views of a Christian journalist who believes in Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection or ascension, but he didn’t do that. The difference, rightly or wrongly, is that criticising a typical belief of a completely different culture makes the charge plausible, at least.
If Dawkins wanted to discuss the double standards that see irrational non-religious beliefs mocked while equally bizarre religious ideas are respected, as he says, there were better ways to do it – as a scientist, he should understand the importance of eliminating confounding factors. A similar example of a Christian could have served perfectly well to make the same point without bringing the distraction of cultural difference and charges of Islamophobia, justified or not, into the equation.
This is where I think Dawkins gets it wrong. A belief may well be utterly nonsensical and worthy of criticism, but if you reserve your most scathing criticism for beliefs which are foreign to you, in any sense, you may be allowing your unfamiliarity to colour your views, and run the risk of being perceived as prejudiced, whether you are or not.
The difficulty is that we all have cultural expectations. However much I reject my previous beliefs, there’s a sense in which I’m still Christian, Protestant and low church in descending order of importance. That’s my background, what I suppose I’m arguing against, and it influences me in all sorts of subtle ways. In particular, the further an idea is from my former beliefs and experience, the more ludicrous it seems.
It’s easy for me to dismiss transubstantiation, because I never believed it and always regarded it as an alien belief, something “they” believe. Even easier is to mock beliefs that no one I know has ever held, like (for example) winged horses carrying people up to heaven. But from an objective point of view, they’re no more ridiculous than some of the things I once believed, and some of my friends and family still do. The difference is my exposure to the beliefs, and my degree of empathy for people who believe them.
My rule of thumb, as far as I have one, is that specific live issues relating to “foreign” religions like Islam (such as the burqa or Sharia Law) should be addressed on their merits, but general statements about the nature of those religions, something which has become increasingly commonplace with regard to Islam, not least from Dawkins and Sam Harris, are dangerous because of the “foreignness” of the beliefs and the risk of the criticism being misinformed, prejudiced or perceived through the lens of an ongoing culture war.
Islamophobia isn’t a word I like to use, because of its chilling effect on any criticism of Islam. It’s clearly inappropriate in this case, and I’d say that it should only ever be used in the most extreme cases of bigotry, if at all. But mockery isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, and flame wars are rarely good ways of raising issues for discussion. It’s a matter of pragmatism.
However satisfying it may be to lay into beliefs you consider ridiculous or dangerous, aggressive criticism from outside a group is very likely to strengthen those beliefs and make them more extreme. Ironically, strong criticism of Islam prompted by Islamic extremism may itself be responsible for breeding a new generation of extremists.
The one thing I’d like western atheists to do in relation to Islam is to maintain the scepticism they apply to the beliefs, but also turn that same scepticism on their criticisms, and ask whether they’re effective, balanced and helpful.