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.
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.
A recent discussion reminded me of how often I hear arguments for God’s existence that stem from a lack of any explanation for our existence. I can see the appeal of such a position, and it used to be just about the only thing I could cling to when religion made no sense. The universe must have come from somewhere, therefore God.
In more sophisticated forms, or possibly in the hands of skilful bluffers, this argument would also incorporate claims that there is no experimental or observational evidence for abiogenesis, for example, or some similar position. Fundamentally, though, the argument remains the same and has the same flaws.
Even if we have no answer to the question of the origins of life and/or the universe (and on these matters, I’m happy to defer to people with much greater expertise than me), God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power. Under this approach, God is just the name we give to the things we don’t (yet) understand – God of the Gaps rides again.
Supposing I live in a primitive culture and don’t know why the sun comes up every morning, so I say it’s pushed by a beetle. Quite apart from being completely wrong, what practical difference would that make to my knowledge? Or if I don’t know why boiling water becomes steam, so I say pixies do it – it’s not an explanation, I’m just dressing my ignorance up in different words.
If we’re going to actually understand anything, the concept of God (or sun-beetles or pixies) needs to be rigorously defined and tested as science. Otherwise, it’s no more enlightening than an exaggerated shrug. Maybe some people find it helpful to give the gaps in their knowledge a special name, but it doesn’t actually change the level of our knowledge, and William of Ockham starts looking distinctly cross.
For God to be an answer to these questions, there would have to be scientific explanations for who or what God is, how He created everything, why He can be defined as having no prior cause when His existence was only postulated because the universe must have a cause, and so on.
And that’s without addressing all the claims about God which aren’t necessary for a First Cause but tend to sneak in under the radar – all the “Omnis”, for a start, and then moving swiftly on to all the various different religions and their particular individual beliefs.
There’s a reason why God of the Gaps is such a discredited approach. It chases its own tail in ever decreasing circles as the niches for God to hide in get ever smaller, with a desperation that resembles cherry-picking more than seeking after truth. It’s not just bad science, it’s positively anti-science, as further discoveries are feared and avoided lest they shrink God’s domain even further.
When I don’t know the answer to something, I try to find the answer. That’s how we make progress, both individually and as a species. Not by saying anything we don’t understand must be magic.
“Science answers the how questions, and religion answers the why questions” – that’s a common claim from people who are arguing that science poses no threat to religion, or that they’re Non-Overlapping Magisteria, in Stephen Jay Gould’s rather grand phrase. It’s another one of those many ideas and beliefs that I’ve previously accepted, but am now starting to question.
It’s not controversial that science tells us how things work. The precise position is a little more complicated than that, because the scientific method only really draws provisional conclusions, and is more about the best way of finding out how things work, rather than dictating that this is right and that’s wrong, but it’s perfectly reasonable to say that if a question begins “How”, you’ll want to turn to science to answer it.
There’s more of a problem with “Why” questions, because they aren’t all the same. A question that begins “Why” could be asking about cause and effect (“a. Why did the building fall down?”) or the intent of an agent (“b. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”) Either could be taken as questions of either cause or intent as written, but they’ll do as illustrations.
A third category sits ambiguously between these two, asking a question that isn’t obviously about either (“c. Why do we have two legs?”) Interestingly, it’s category c, the most ambiguous one, which is generally intended in the context of the how/why distinction.
Category a, the direct cause of an event, is clearly a scientific question. The only possible way of defining it as outside the realm of science is by assuming a priori that there could be an explanation that would be entirely impervious to scientific investigation, and even then, religion has nothing to offer as an alternative.
Category b, on intent, is a question that could be answered in the language of history, sociology, psychology and probably many other disciplines. Science could have plenty to say about it, while religion has little to offer. Religion might say that a murderer killed because of sin, but this is a pat response with no explanatory power, simply restating the question in different terms.
As for category c, in the example given you can either trace our evolutionary history back through many millions of generations, run models to show the competitive advantages of bipedal locomotion, or you can say that God made us that way. The same pattern is apparent whenever questions like this are asked.
The trick is this: the religious answer to a “why” question only has any validity when there’s an overarching moral purpose guiding events. Fundamentally, a religious answer to any “why” question is going to begin “Because God”. But in order for that to make any sense, there must be a God in the first place.
If there is no God, there is no higher purpose and no directing agent, so the question has no religious meaning, and the only possible meaning is a scientific question of cause and effect. The reason for the how/why distinction being commonly raised for category c type questions is that it equivocates over the true nature of the question being asked and answered. A “why” question is either a “how” question in different words, or it’s begging the question.
I have nothing against religion offering answers to questions of purpose, but would prefer more transparency. The only questions for which religion is better equipped than science are those which assume the existence of an agent outside the universe whose actions need to be explained, an assumption which is very much open to question.
To paraphrase Laplace’s possibly apocryphal words, I have no need for that hypothesis.
I’ve long been of the opinion that weak or negative atheism (a lack of belief in any gods) was a rational, defensible belief, but that strong atheism, also known as positive atheism (a positive belief that there is no god) was an insupportable claim that not only overreached, but betrayed a certain degree of arrogance. (Yes, the arrogant atheist thing – it takes time to shake off all those old ideas.)
Looking at the question again, I see my error. Obviously, from a logical and philosophical point of view, it would be making a big mistake to claim that a lack of satisfactory evidence of a being means that it definitely doesn’t exist. At this point, theists usually mention black swans as something that was wrongly supposed not to exist, but for every black swan there’s a Russell’s Teapot. Beliefs don’t become any more sensible just because they can’t be conclusively falsified.
And anyway, we don’t generally deal in precise logical and philosophical terms. I’m quite happy to say that homeopathy doesn’t work, psychics are frauds, and unicorns aren’t real. Strictly, I’m wrong to show such confidence, because I haven’t exhausted all possible avenues. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and all those beliefs could be demolished with just a single example. But if I was presented with an example that disproved my claim, I’d change my mind.
It’s easy to see a bald statement that something doesn’t work/exist as arrogant and closed-minded, but that’s not how we talk in practice. When I say unicorns aren’t real, I’m drawing an inference based on the sum total of the evidence currently available. I don’t hedge it with caveats, just like I don’t say “According to current scientific theory” before any explanation of how something works, because those assumptions can be taken as read.
Suppose I’d repeatedly investigated mediums and found them wanting. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that mediums don’t talk to the dead? It might not be watertight as a logical conclusion, but it’s hardly unrealistic. I’d be far more worried about someone in that position who blandly said that they hadn’t found any genuine mediums yet, because they sound like the words of a potential mark.
As ever, there will be quibbles about exactly how sure you should be before saying that something doesn’t exist, the correct interpretation of the available evidence, and what would be necessary to change your mind. And there are undoubtedly some strong atheists who have no interest in evidence, and would never change their minds. That’s down to them, but it doesn’t affect the principle.
When I consider strong atheism now, it seems like a fancy name for a perfectly ordinary position. The only reason I can think of for someone not to identify with strong atheism is the inevitable and tedious attempts by theists to reverse the burden of proof because “it’s a belief”.
The Independent recently ran an article gushing with praise for the Alpha Course, calling it “British Christianity’s biggest success story“. I can understand that in a world where results are what gets you noticed, but having attended an Alpha Course once upon a time, I still find it both appalling and wryly amusing that the church is putting so much weight on a course that’s so fundamentally dishonest.
I went on the course at a time when I was feeling uncertain of my faith, the best part of ten years ago. I thought a return to the basics might be just what I needed, so I booked myself in and prepared to ask my questions.
Before I go any further, and to forestall common defences of Alpha, I want to emphasise that I was under no illusions about the theology of the course, but that was what I wanted at the time, and I desperately wanted to believe. I also know that courses vary massively in tone and content, even though this is against the wishes of Nicky Gumbel and Holy Trinity Brompton, but the course I attended worked through the standard videos and books. What I experienced was the very core of Alpha.
The first couple of weeks were pleasant and inoffensive. Gumbel’s video talks were relatively vague and platitudinous, but our group had some interesting discussions. Some knew nothing about Christianity, some knew quite a lot, and one guy was always asking about Islam, which was a bit odd, and suggested he was probably attending the wrong course. The one thing that puzzled me was that no one was prepared to correct obvious errors and misunderstandings.
That all started to change soon enough. When Gumbel introduced the Bible, suddenly all the fluff was moved to one side. A couple of weak, hackneyed arguments about the provenance of the Bible were rushed through as if they had a train to catch, and from that point on, it was expected that any question could be resolved by appealing to the Bible as an infallible book of rules.
It was also about this time that the course organisers started to get far more involved. From not correcting misunderstandings, suddenly they were pretty obviously starting to tell everyone what to think. I’ve since read Gumbel’s book on running an Alpha Course, and this is what they’re told to do – avoid correction or criticism for the first few weeks, then start hitting them hard with the party line. It’s a deliberate strategy.
When I’m asked to describe Alpha, the phrase I use most often is bait-and-switch. The whole thing is based on the idea of friendly discussion, but quickly becomes an RE lesson. We have some old fragments of parchment containing copies of Biblical texts, therefore we can assume that it’s all 100% true. We’re just going to talk about some issues, except for when we go off on the Holy Spirit Weekend!
The what? Yes, you read correctly – the Holy Spirit Weekend.
I could say a lot of things about the Holy Spirit Weekend. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I think it’s also deeply cynical and manipulative. Everyone goes away somewhere to learn about the Holy Spirit. Why do you need to go away for a weekend? Because the unspoken intention is that the new hothouse environment will facilitate a spiritual experience that will get you hooked. One session is even called “How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?”
Clever churches get some church members to come along as well, ostensibly to help out on a more intensive weekend, but it also has the handy advantage of helping to create the right atmosphere. A bunch of confused Brits aren’t an ideal group if you want to encourage ecstatic spiritual experiences, but throw in a few people who know the drill (trust me, there is one) and it tips the balance considerably.
The weekend is at the heart of the entire course. The first few weeks deal with some basic housekeeping and weed out timewasters, and then they want you to be hooked as soon as possible. So they take you off somewhere strange, fill the place with music and people speaking strange languages, and wait for the payoff.
After that, the rest of the course seems slightly dull, stacking additional layers on top of what’s previously been discussed. If you’re in by this point, you’ll lap it up. If not, it’s just more data on what Christians believe, which will probably leave you cold, but might possibly be enough to convince you to “graduate” to church at the end of the course.
You might have gathered that I’m not a fan. I think the course is dishonest in its advertising and its arguments, sometimes manipulative, and always cynical. Finding out quickly moves into being taught, and then into emotional exploitation in unfamiliar group settings, all step by step, like a frog being boiled alive.
If a recognised cult was behaving like this, you wouldn’t be surprised.
Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is big news these days. Last year Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, led a delegation from the UK, an officially Anglican state, to meet the Pope, and the result was a bit of a multifaith love-in. And just recently, I read about a new trend of Convergence Christianity, specifically described as not simply blending into a moderate middle, but rather being more open to discussion and adopting elements of each other’s practices, despite differences.
Ecumenical relations are often held to be a good thing, a sign of increasing religious liberalism and willingness to compromise. That’s a fairly obvious conclusion to draw when different religious traditions are prepared to talk and listen instead of condemning each other, but there’s another angle that may be worth considering.
What this trend suggests to me is not that these different religious traditions are more ready to admit that they may be wrong (although that’s probably true in some cases), but that they need the strength and safety in numbers that comes from identifying with a wider group. Given the chance, these groups would cheerfully fight each other, as Christians and Muslims have been for the last thousand years or so. The primary motivating factor here is not compromise and willingness to admit error, but weakness.
Take a look at Baroness Warsi’s statements at the time of the Vatican delegation. Her motivation is hardly obscure – she’s calling in reinforcements in the battle against those nasty “militant” secularists who object to religion having a privileged position in society. The battle’s being lost, so religious traditions that have barely been on speaking terms for centuries are huddling together for warmth. Pope Francis’s recent pronouncements have had a similar air, despite trying to include even atheists in his “big tent”.
Everyone believes their position is the right one (obviously), and important (hence the objection to secularism), so why align with a different group? Because they can agree on enough to unite against the common enemy, like Tom and Jerry fighting a new cat in the house. They don’t see eye to eye, but arguments between religions are a luxury they can ill afford when their most basic assumptions are threatened.
The less influence a particular sect, denomination or religion has, the more important it is to form alliances to protect their territory. That cuts the other way as well – as a group gets bigger, it has less need of the greater influence that comes from unity, leading to splits and schisms like the ones that have emerged within atheism in recent years.
When considering any apparent interfaith initiative, there are simple ways to tell the difference between genuine liberal discussion and self-interested coalition building – is it open to people of all faiths and none, and is it independent of any attempt to prop up the position of religion in the public sphere?
If the answer to both of those questions is yes, there’s a good chance that genuine progress and dialogue is being achieved. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just a cynical ploy.
He’d had a good innings, there was no doubt about that, but there’s more to life than longevity. He’d had ideals and dreams, he’d led a great movement, but in the end, nothing had changed. No one followed him these days. He still commanded a certain amount of respect, but no more than that. What good was it for a man to live forever yet achieve nothing?
At one time, years before, it had seemed that he was at the centre of a movement that would change the world. But that was the problem – it relied on him. There was no one who could take over as he became too old to travel very far to speak to different crowds, and he was acutely aware that he was cutting an increasingly forlorn figure as his hair greyed, his shoulders hunched and his voice began to fail him.
The people around him had always been decent and well-meaning, but there was no one he could really trust to take over and remove some of the burden from his shoulders. He’d tried to get them involved – they’d had opportunities, and they’d tried their best, but it had never really worked out.
It was hardly surprising that people talked dismissively of his movement as a personality cult – it was a fair description. And what happens when the personality becomes more withdrawn and less imposing? When he just can’t get out as much as he used to? The movement dwindles, and finally dies, of course. He didn’t need reminding.
His thoughts returned, as they often did these days, to that day half a century earlier. The day when he’d thought he was going to die. It was such a relief at the time, and he’d expected that his brush with death would inspire him even more. Carpe diem! The reinvigorating feeling that every new day was a gift would surely lead to a greater urgency and dynamism.
But everyone gets old.
When he thought of that day, he often wondered how things would have turned out if he hadn’t survived. How would he have been remembered? How would the movement have done without him? He sardonically considered that dying young was often a very smart career move from a certain perspective. How many members of the 27 Club would have been so highly regarded if they’d lived to 70, still scratching a living by butchering the few decent tunes from their youth?
Maybe somewhere out there, there was a parallel universe where he’d died. In a strange and slightly morbid way, the thought comforted him. Not that he wanted to die, but at least somewhere out there might be a world where people remembered him from his prime, not the doddery old man he’d become.
He couldn’t help wondering what it might be like.
No no, it’s alright – I know, he’s a bit big and he looks quite scary, but he doesn’t bite – Down, boy, down! – he just wants to play. He loves old people, he’s always fussing around them wagging his tail, hoping for a treat. And children, too – he just loves children. Actually, now I think about it, maybe he loves children a bit too much…
Anyway, he’s a lovely pet, and really nice to have around. He’s so friendly, and he loves playing. I suppose you could say he’s got a bit of a one-track mind and I don’t think he handles complexity or change very well, but give him a familiar environment and he’s fine. Look, boy – see the relic – go fetch! Fetch it! Good boy. Aren’t you clever? Yes you are. What a clever boy.
He is a little bit needy, though – he always likes to follow you around, and it’s really hard to get some private time for yourself. It’s like he’s making sure we don’t get up to anything! And he does whine if you eat without him. He’s fine if you give him a bit – about a tenth usually shuts him up – but it’s a bit of a nuisance. He just likes to think he runs the house.
And I should warn you, he does have some funny habits. He barks angrily at pictures of Richard Dawkins, for example. Not just a picture, anything that looks like him or sounds like him – I have no idea why, it must be down to some sort of early trauma.
Oh, and while I’m on that subject, don’t use the “G” word. You know the one, don’t make me say it. No, it’ll set him off! Alright, I’ll spell it – G-A-Y. Down boy, sit! Stay! No, he really doesn’t like it – sends him absolutely mental. So it might be best if you don’t let people of the same sex hold hands, or even sit too close to each other, because I don’t know how he’d cope with that.
Apart from that, he’s fine.
Picture the scene: a number of young and otherwise healthy people are dying due to the failure of a single organ, a different one in each case, and no organs are available for transplants. An enterprising doctor suggests killing the next healthy person to walk through the door, and harvesting their organs. It’s an outrageous suggestion, but it would take one life to save many. Isn’t that a good deal?
This is the sort of thinking that’s usually being attacked when people criticise utilitarianism, and no one but the odd provocative philosopher or fifth-form debater ever seriously proposes it, but it’s hard to explain why it’s a bad thing. Wars are conducted on very similar ethical grounds, for example, with death accepted for the greater good. It’s not just consent – civilians don’t consent to be “collateral damage” either – but the obvious difference is that the death in this case is obvious and necessary, not just something that may happen.
As Philippa Foot’s trolley problem and its many variations suggest, our ethical instincts can be hard to explain, but we consistently balk at specifically using a person as an object, a means to an end. When it’s apparent that a person’s being used like this, all but a handful of Act utilitarians reject the suggestion as unethical. Essentially, a single deliberate death is far harder to accept than thousands of unintended but likely ones.
Now I’m getting to the important question: what if you’re omniscient? If you know with absolute clarity every single result of your actions, isn’t every single negative consequence just as apparent and exploitative as if you were picking on the poor guy who walked into the hospital at the wrong moment? Free will is usually claimed as the greater good that justifies death and suffering, but if God’s truly omniscient, He knows exactly what the personal cost will be, including abuse, starvation and agonising medical conditions.
So God’s happy to make people suffer as part of His grand plan. It’s as if He was behind Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, about a community endorsing one person’s suffering so that they can live in comfort. But this contrives to be even worse, by creating some unfortunates just so they can spend eternity in Hell. Effectively, their souls are harvested so that others can have nice, happy lives and live forever in paradise.
Understandably, we tend to be repulsed by this sort of calculation. Maybe our moral instincts are completely wrong, but wouldn’t that be down to God, who we’re told both wrote His law on our hearts and gave us His own set of specific moral instructions? It also raises the question of whether it would be in any way acceptable, let alone praiseworthy, for us to start harvesting the organs of healthy bystanders for the greater good.
It’s ironic that Christians are so often dismissive of any form of utilitarian ethics, when their own description of God and His motivation points towards utilitarian arguments having at least some value. Even without my input, answers to the problem of evil tend to rely on appeals to a greater good, usually free will. If there’s suffering, an omniscient God must either be pursuing a greater good or allowing needless and gratuitous suffering – utilitarian or monster, take your pick.
Congratulations, apologists – it looks like you might be utilitarians after all.