Archive for August, 2008

Freud vs God; Round 2

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

I said I would look at the second of Freud’s categorical errors when discussing belief, and here it is. He thinks that idiots believe in the same sense as intellectuals: that what they say about God is an unclear expression of a clear propositional thought which represents the real content of their beliefs and can be criticised. Everything we have learned, from politics, science, and sociology since he wrote (in 1929) says that this is just not true, and especially not true in the sphere of religion. When undisciplined people talk they are not inferring what they say from a hazily understood set of beliefs about the world. We, the listening critics, are inferring the existence of these beliefs from what they feel compelled to do or say. They act, or talk, as if they believed certain things, but actually they are merely saying whatever the situation seems to demand.


Freud vs God: round 1

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

I have been reading Freud, for the first time in decades: Civilisation and its Discontents, which I have in a nice Dover paperback. Some of it is thought-provoking, and some is self-parody: “Psychoanalysis unfortunately has hardly anything to say about the derivation of beauty … All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling.” You have to admire that use of “certain”.

But the thing that really caught my eye was his attack on religion, because it states very clearly two of the central New Atheist rhetorical moves. The first is to define religion as the belief system of ignorant fools, the people whom Freud, writing in a much less democratic age, did not hesitate to call “the common man”. He is concerned, he says, less with

“the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion–with the system ; doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able rise above this view of life.”

Yet this, he says, is “the only religion which ought to bear that name.”

Why? I really don’t see this. Intelligent, cultured and brave believers do pose a real problem for atheists, but it’s not one we can honourably solve by simply denying their existence. Freud goes on to dismiss anyone with the brains to see that a God who is merely an enormously exalted father can’t be worth worshipping — yet who still isn’t an atheist — on the grounds that they are not getting real religion at all:

“It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living to-day, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. One would like to mix among the ranks of the believers in order to meet these philosophers, who think they can rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle, and to address them with the warning words: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!’ And if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.”

Well actually, we don’t. If he means to imply that they were liberal theologians out of fear, he knows nothing of the history of religious persecution during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, in which the liberal or latitudinarian was as dangerous to strict orthodoxy as the atheist, and a damn sight easier to catch and persecute. If they were orthodox out of fear, they were not liberals. It is the utter refusal to grant that his opponents may be sincerely mistaken which strikes me here. It’s very different from the subtle condescension of Gibbon. It seems to me that something changed in atheism in the nineteenth or early twentieth century in response to a change in Christianity (and Judaism). It became necessary to ignore and disparage liberal religion in a different way to the treatment handed out to the conservative stuff. And this won’t do. If we start from the premise that religion is a purely human activity, then it can only sensibly be defined as what believers do and think. The overwhelming majority of believers have never been fundamentalists. They couldn’t be.

Freud is clearly the ancestor of Dawkins and Sam Harris in his arguments here. But does any reader know an earlier instance of this definition of religion as something that only idiots can believe, with its corollary that if you’re not an ignorant idiot than you can’t be a real believer?

I said there were two important rhetorical moves in his argument, and the reader who is still awake will have noticed only one. That’s true. The second will go into a later post.

Bloody Nokia

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

I just bought — well, changed my contract to — a Nokia 6220: a very flashy phone with a nice camera, a GPS receiver, and in fact everything you could possibly want in a phone — except one tiny thing: any phone numbers.

For some reason the software that comes with it won’t import from anything except Outlook, and Lotus Notes. This is not software that I use. It won’t read normal interchange formats like CSV or even vcard. I have my contacts in several places on the PC, but all the phone numbers are at the moment consolidated in google contacts. This worked well enough with my old Sony Ericsson phone, but to make it work on Nokia, you have to subscribe to a service called goosync. I did that. All my calendar entries were imported flawlessly. The 540 or so phone entries, on the other hand, came in with all their detail except the phone numbers. Further attempts failed in ever more baroque ways, so that there is at present one entry in the contacts book of the phone: it’s called “unknown” and has no telephone numbers of any sort. I would like to complain to tech support at goosync, but in a remarkable refinement of customer-unfriendliness, they only accept complaints through a web board interface, after you have registered, deciphered a captcha — yes, a captcha to make a support request — and then responded to the email sent automatically. Except that the email has not been sent.

I know that bits of their system are working, as the email thanking me for my money turned up five minutes after I had filled out that form. But the request to be allowed to log into their support forum and ask for help was made six hours ago and I still haven’t had a reply. I’m wondering whether to send the phone back. It’s no use to me at all right now.

Interesting graphs

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

One of the most thoughtful bloggers on religion is Razib, over at Gene Expression, and he has stuck up a whole series of badly formatted but thoroughly interesting graphs based on solid American statistics about the effects of religious belief on behaviour.

Who we, white man? (part xxxvi)

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Larry Moran quotes an interview with Dan Dennett:

“The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn’t accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions”
This shows up very neatly the second great systematic weakness of Dennett on religion (the first, of course, being the belief that “memes” have any explanatory value). He is extremely parochial. The “We” for whom he speaks are post-protestant liberal North Americans. An admirable tribe, but one losing influence everywhere. We live in a time when there are supposed to be more slaves alive than every before. Someone, somewhere, clearly finds slavery perfectly acceptable, and is probably fortified in this by their religious beliefs, though of course the great twentieth century slave empires were avowedly atheistic.

Human sacrifice in its old form is, I admit, almost everywhere out of fashion, but I think you will find a residual enthusiasm for sacrificing our enemies can be found in even the most respectable quarters. You might try a poll question in America on whether God is pleased by the death of a terrorist.

Tour dates

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

I will be performing on the radio tonight, when the Viking slavery programme that Louise and I made is featured on Radio Four’s Pick of the Week: this would be your chance to learn why every smart Ukrainian family would have had a British maid a thousand years ago; tomorrowe, I am in Edinburgh, at the book festival, performing with Daniel Kaldor at 8.30pm and before that, at 5.30 doing a reading for Amnesty though I can’t remember where either of those take place. Still, if they can tell me, they can probably tell curious punters too. So if you’re in Edinburgh tomorrow, welcome.

A visit to Ammarnäs

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

The most important thing I saw this trip was a lynx, galloping across the road in front of the car about 40 km from Ammarnäs. The back legs seemed longer than the front ones, which made it look almost ungainly, as well as stocky, but it moved with a wonderful fluidity.

The most important discovery was Air Berlin, which costs about 50% more than Ryanair and is an immeasurable improvement. There is legroom. You can book particular seats. When you reach the seat, it reclines. There is quiet. There are newspapers and magazines in several languages. No one tries to sell you overpriced tat from overloud loudspeakers. Flights leave from the parts of Stansted Airport that are not a fifteen minute walk from the terminal. The airports it serves are close to the cities of the same name. The baggage allowance is much more generous, and less rapaciously enforced. Fishing rods are carried free. The other price is that I had to change planes in Berlin, but I don’t mind. Tegel is a smallish, civilised airport.

On the other hand. Swedish railways, which used to be really quite efficient, were shockingly bad, though cheap and with nice restaurant cars. None of the trains I took were on time; my wife was three hours late coming down from Luleå to Stockholm, and I was nearly an hour late going from Östersund to Göteborg.

And that’s  enough reminiscence.

Back: fantastic reviews

Thursday, August 7th, 2008
I was watching the girls’ under 50kg arm-wrestling competition when my daughter texted me with the news of the Paxman review in the Guardian.
A beguiling account of one man’s absorption in and by a country. … He writes a terrific travelogue, capturing the grey light on the emptiness of the lakes, birch forests and bogs. The narrative is peppered with pithy observations and memorable characters.
Then, in fairly quick succession, there was Paul Binding in the Independent on Sunday,
marvellously seamless fusion of personal memoir and politico-cultural survey … This is a brilliant book, formidably intelligent in its control of complex material yet shining with humanity, and with the old Swedish belief that we all deserve a just, yet kind society.
Christina Patterson in the New Statesman:
Fishing in Utopia is a wonderful exploration of a social experiment that did not entirely succeed, and did not entirely fail, and of a country that can stifle with its worthiness but still enchant, and of a man who loved and lost and loved again. It is also a book about learning to write clearly and honestly and well. And a beautiful, poetic, wise lesson in how to do it.
And a review in the Daily Telegraph which I am not sure I have got right, so I won’t link to it. Anyway, all this is marvellous (and the New Statesman review has a bonus photo of the author with hair and beard.)

I will post another piece about my travels shortly, but, alas work gets in the way of blogging these days, too.