Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Monday, January 23, 2006
That's the trouble with the internet. When one writes a blog post it feels like one is having a therapeutic coffee-time grouse to one's mates about what's in the paper - and then the subject of the grouse turns up at the door two years later with a printout of one's remarks under his arm and the glint of battle in his eye. Of course the trouble with the internet is also one of its glories.

In February 2004 I criticised a piece in the Times by Professor Anthony Grayling. (The Times has relaxed its rules about letting you see old articles, so my warning that Professor Grayling's piece would soon disappear is inoperative.)

Professor Grayling has written back.

Dear Natalie Solent

A correspondent passed to me some comments you made in your blog about a short piece I wrote in the Times a year or two ago, about the contrast between the fruits of science and religion. I wonder whether you remember your interesting suggestion that you could rewrite what I'd said about science thus:

'It is said that we shall know a thing by its fruits. A striking fact about the adventure of religion, whenever it escapes the attentions of those who pervert it to an instrument of power rather than faith, is how well it serves mankind.'

The express implication of my original formulation was of course that there are precious few ways in which religion does not do serious disservice to mankind, and many ways in which the benefits of science outweigh the disservice it can be used to do. The defenders of religion like to point to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Bach's sacred cantatas (etc), together with the solace afforded the old, ill and lonely (etc again), as a kind of equivalence to the payoff of science's positive fruits against Zyklon B (to use your own & well-chosen example).

But the enthymematic point I was making is precisely that even if religious art (invariably a product of devotion? or of the fact that the church had the money to commission it?) and the deceiving solaces are counted into the equation, the massive burden of conflict, psychological no less than in the way of wars, inquisitions, crusades, burnings of heretics and the rest - egregious among them the Holocaust - for which religion is directly and indirectly responsible, makes for a massive weight of harm to humanity which dwarfs these benefits. Accordingly it would be a bold individual who sought to claim that just as the hundreds of millions saved by (say) antibiotics can be invoked as some compensation for the (say) millions whom advanced weaponry has killed (adamantly granting that ONE person thus killed is too many), so the (say) Sistine Chapel and Joe Smith's comfort at having his bible under his pillow make the historical excesses of (say) anti-Semitism OK, to say nothing of the wholesale enslavement of mankind to falsity which religion by its nature seeks to impose, and too often succeeds. (And here, you see, how hollowly it would ring to say 'and just ONE person thus victimised would be too many' - for religion does the contrary of concede that this is victimisation). Yet - can it be these last that you were implying by your rewrite of my remark?

My good wishes to you - Anthony Grayling

Professor Grayling has put me out of countenance by being much nicer to me than I was to him. I hereby resolve to be a nicer blogger so that I won't be embarrassed again.

Speaking of his original article, Professor Grayling said it had (1) an "express implication", which I shall summarise as "religion bad in many ways, science much more good than bad", and (2) an "enthymematic point" that even if the good things of religion are factored in, the harm religion does massively dwarfs the good. Accordingly, he concludes, it would be a bold individual (by which he clearly means too bold) who said that "just as those benefited by science can be credited against those harmed, so those benefited by religion can be credited against those harmed."

Some rather bitty responses follow.

  • Well, it lasted longer than some of my new year resolutions. Could Professor Grayling put his hand on his heart and swear on the collected works of Hume that the omission of arguments unfavourable to his cause is really best described as having made them, but "enthymematically"?

  • Now, I am confident that Prof Grayling and I would both agree that this business of issuing a good and bad scorecard to each of two teams called Science and Religion, and having them go head-to-head isn't the pinnacle of human thought on these things. His article was only a newspaper article and my blog post was only a blog post, after all. Still, if you are going to play the game, then both sides should operate under the same rules.

  • But Professor Grayling treats the two teams differently. Science gets hundreds of millions saved (antibiotics) counted against millions killed (weaponry). Religion gets the painted ceiling of a famous building and one man's rather childish comfort counted against anti-Semitism. Like, all of it.

  • The reader is forestalled from flaring up at the comparison of good and bad results of science by the carefully modest phrasing of the linking term in Science's equation("just as the hundreds of millions saved by (say) antibiotics can be invoked as some compensation for for the (say) millions whom advanced weaponry has killed"). In contrast, the crudity of the linking term in Religion's equation ("...make the historical excesses of (say) anti-Semitism OK") invites rejection - but that's from the choice of words, not from any strength of argument.

  • "...among them the Holocaust - for which religion is directly and indirectly responsible." Whoa, "Directly or indirectly responsible" is a very wide net! With a net equally wide I could (and did) put the Holocaust down in Science's column for the Zyklon B - or for the identity cards and other bureaucratic tools that allowed the victims to be rounded up and processed. Or I could use another argument to get the same result: it was the scientific worldview that made the eradication of entire races or classes and the mass production of death easy to contemplate. Or I could put the work of Darwin or Herbert Spencer at the back end of "indirectly responsible".

    As before, I'm not saying that these are my arguments. (The factors I have mentioned must feature in a list of causes of the Holocaust, just as centuries of Christian hatred of Jews must feature.) I'm saying that they are arguments no worse than the Professor's.

  • Professor Grayling seems to be giving religion full bad marks when it changes behaviour for the worse - e.g. causes people to persecute the infidel - but diluting the good marks if the motives for desirable behaviour were not wholly religious - e.g. he observes that religious art may have had motives of display as well. Motives for religious evil may be equally "impure." The Jews of York were slaughtered, in part, so that their creditors would not have to pay them.

  • I only really mentioned religious art and music to parallel his mention of scientific devices that produced entertainment and music. Much more important in my list of good things that religion has done is the uncountable number of acts of benevolence it has prompted (whether individual paupers fed or great public campaigns such as the anti-slavery movement) or acts of evil that religious scruples have restrained. Professor Grayling has not, to my mind, engaged with this argument at all.

  • The question of whether religion or the desire to persecute came first brings me to a point that has been made a million times before. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be made again: Communism, an ideology officially dedicated to scientific atheism, has killed more people than all the holy wars and holy tortures ever made. And here is a minor point I forgot to make about the survey of the US quoted in the original article: although I find it disconcerting if (I'd like to know the exact wording of the questions) the survey is correct to say that so high a proportion of Americans take the Old Testament literally, their example does show that it is possible for a society to be highly religious in a fundamentalist way and yet be by historical standards one of the most humane and tolerant societies that there has ever been.

  • Since Prof. Grayling is an atheist he naturally holds that religion is false and counts this as one more tick on the bad side of its scoresheet. I am not saying that this is an illegitimate form of argument. But it doesn't quite belong with the Sistine chapel, or antibiotics. Too tired to tease out exactly why not right now.