Oh God. It’s Rowan…

by Unity    
6:09 pm - January 31st 2008

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I fear that Sunny may has spoken a little too soon (see comments):

I doubt very much we’d run general Richard Dawkins style posts calling all people of faith ‘delusional’ just to have a big slagging match.

…because yours truly and the Archbishop of Canterbury are about to have a bit of a ‘falling out’ over some of the content of his James Callaghan Memorial Lecture.

(I should qualify that opening by saying that I’m not about to call all ‘people of faith’ delusional – that’s a subject for a different time and venue and a matter for philosophical rather than political discussion – and I’m not trying to simply generate a ‘slagging match’ either – although one can never quite guarantee that one will not ensue when taking a pop at religion and religious thinking, but what follows does have more than the odd hint of Dawkins/Hitch/Grayling about it in the sense that I’m about to take a shot at dismantling some poorly constructed ‘religious’ arguments advanced by the Archbish, so consider yourself warned in advance and don’t assume that anything that follows is necessarily easy or straightforward as we’re delving in philosophy for part of this).

The full text of Rowan William’s speech has rapidly been transcribed and appears on his website here, which means that, for once, I’m not going to have to rely on second hand quotations drawn from media sources where its difficult to ascertain the extent to which reporting has been editorialised and what follows is not a full-on fisk as I’m intending to work with extracts that illustrate the points I wish to make.

So let’s start at the beginning and note that the subject of the lecture is ‘Religious Hatred and Religious Offence’ and that William’s is heading off down entirely the wrong track right from the outset with his opening gambit:

The question of whether and how a society should defend religious belief against attack, ‘defamation’ or abuse has become more and more current in recent years and even months.

Let me stop you there Rowan… defend religious belief against “attack, ‘defamation’ or abuse”???

A free society is under no obligation to defend any kind of belief – religious or otherwise – from attack, defamation or abuse. Benjamin Franklin expressed this idea best, in my own estimation, in a letter to Richard Price dated 9 October 1780 in which he advances the view that:

When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

To talk of a society explicitly defending religious belief is quite clearly to call upon a ‘civil power’ for help, which in Franklin’s estimation is a sign of a failing (or perhaps) failed belief.

What a free society may reasonably be obligated to defend is right of individuals to espouse, manifest and express their religious beliefs under conditions in which all are afforded the maximum possible liberty that is consistent with the maintenance of similar liberties for others – to pinch some phrasing from Rawls – and to defend individuals (and groups) from assaults on their rights, person(s) and legitimately held property generally, which covers those occasions in which such assaults are predicated on their holding of certain beliefs – but there is no obligation, whatsoever, to defend religious belief itself – that has to stand on its own two feet and fights its own corner in the marketplace of ideas.

Skipping ahead a couple of paragraphs we find Williams at it again:

The announcement in January of a consultation on the abolition of the offence of blasphemy in English law was a predictable step towards a rationalising of the existing legal position; but it leaves open a number of questions about the nature and the significance of offence to religious belief and the ground for legal restraint – as also the broader and vexing question of what a society might properly expect morally speaking of its citizens in regard to religious belief and practice.

Inchoate notions, such as that of simply causing offence to religious belief provide, in themselves, no grounds for legal restraint whatsoever. What one can reasonably consider and, therefore, contemplate in terms of what may be appropriate by way of legal restraint, is the manner in which contention between beliefs (and between belief and non-belief) may give rise to actions which cause unjustifiable harm and, of course, the nature and consequences of those actions.

My open expression of non-belief in a god of any description, here, may quite easily cause offence to some religious believers but the action to stating my non-belief does not give rise to any consequences which might reasonably be thought to justify or warrant the imposition of legal restraint. Were I to argue for the murder of religious believers (generally or by reference to a specific religion) or even that such a group deserves to be hated with sufficient ferocity that such murders would be justified and do so in such a way as it might reasonably thought that it might cause someone to act upon my arguments – i.e. actually attempt or carry out such a murder – then that would be a rather different matter and its from this latter scenario that one can derive the basic premise for an offence of incitement not simply from the premise that my remarks may, or do, cause offence.

As for what might be expected in moral terms, this is an entirely separate proposition – morality and law are by no means synonymous, other than in the context of a theocratic (and unfree) society – and what might constitute morality, how and on what basis its constituent elements may derived or identified and what societal expectations, if any, this might legitimately engender are all eminently contestable points.

After this somewhat shaky start, Williams does, to give him credit, settle down into a reasonable exposition of the liberal dilemma that underpins this issue, which is no more (and no less) than Berlin’s ‘Two Liberties’ and complexity of issues, questions and value judgements that must necessarily be weighed in seeking to balance the demands of negative and positive liberty in what is, by default in the modern era, a pluralistic society.  Where problems creep back in to his argument, as they tend to do in all such arguments, is at those points in the discussion in which he he begins to attempt to solve this dilemma and, in doing so, begins to expose the underlying assumptions that drive his solutions, not least in considering the role that religion plays in shaping the believer’s sense of identity

For some – and this is especially true for believers from outside the European or North Atlantic setting – religious belief and practice is a marker of shared identity, accepted not as a matter of individual choice but as a given to which allegiance is due in virtue of the intrinsic claims of the sacred.  We may disagree; but I do not think we have the moral right to assume that this perspective can be simply disregarded.

Yes, this seems a reasonable proposition albeit one that, again, can be legitimately contested but then we move on to…

Both the dismissal of the possibility of actual mental suffering and the assimilation of belief to a matter of choice reflect a worryingly narrow set of models for the human psyche – or, in plainer English, a lack of imagination. It is one thing to deny a sacred point of reference for one’s own moral or social policies; it is another to refuse to entertain – or imagine – what it might be like for someone else to experience the world differently.

Whoa there, Rowan.

For one thing a refusal to imagine or entertain what it might be like for ‘someone else to experience the world differently’ is hardly something that is either unique to or a function of the denial of a ‘sacred point of reference for one’s own moral or social policies’. Religious believers of all descriptions do perfectly well in exhibiting this same lack of imagination on the basis that the someone else’s sacred point of reference is not quite identical to their own and on premises that, to say very least, look rather tenuous to us non-believers – like whether or not mumbling an incantation over a piece of bread cause its to turn, magically, into a portion of the body of a long deceased holy man.

Spectres of colonialism, ‘Orientalism’, and, once again, anti-Semitism are roused when this insensibility to the otherness of the religious other goes unquestioned.

Sorry, Rowan, but isn’t there something in your book about only those who are without sin being in a position to start lobbing stones? Its only in the last couple of hundred years that ideas have circulated on which its been possible – by hopelessly bastardising them in many cases – to pin spurious justifications for prejudice, discrimination and worse. Before that bigots had to rely almost exclusively on religion and religious differences to excuse them while they were getting their prejudicial jollies, so lets not be quite so hasty in trying to lay claim to the moral high ground here, Rowan, because we’re still very much in pots and kettles country.

What we have here is a variation on an all-too-common piece of intellectual solipsism that’s been doing the rounds for a while as an alleged means of defending the position of religion in modern society, the kind which argues that religion and culture are notionally inseparable such that most, if not, all post-religious attitudes and values (i.e. those of non-believers) are rooted in and derived from religion (specifically Christianity)… but – and here’s the twist – only in so far as this ‘process’ has given rise to positive attitudes, values and morals. All the negative stuff – prejudice, racism, xenophobia, blah, blah, blah, that’s all stuff us non-believers managed to figure out all by ourselves as if non-belief is, somehow, Christianity’s moral landfill site.

And behind this is the nagging problem of what happens to a culture in which, systematically, nothing is sacred.  We may have moved on from the confidence of Chief Justice Hale in claiming that civil loyalty of any kind had to be built on religious foundations; but the uncomfortable truth is that a desacralised world is not, as some fondly believe, a world without violence, but a world in which there can be no ultimate agreement about the worth of human or other beings. There may be a strong, even practically unbreakable consensus about the wrongness of torturing prisoners or raping children; but there will be no very clear sense of what, if anything, beyond the dignity of an individual is being ‘violated’ in such cases.  This is not to make the facile claim that morality needs religion, only to note that a morality without the sacred is bound to work differently.  And a post-religious morality that has simply lost any imaginative understanding of what the sacred once meant is dangerously impoverished.

Ah yes, its the moral consequences of atheism argument, for which we turn to J L Mackie for illumination.

From Mackie, there are four core frameworks in philosophy from which one can derive a systematic model of morality and moral values.

Two rely on ‘God’ – morality is either derived from the commands/requirements of a god (or gods) and backed up with promises of rewards and the threat of penalties, either in this life or in some variety of afterlife, or morality is a set of objectively valid principles (in Kantian terms) but these are some way created, and their existence sustained by a god, or gods.

The other two place no reliance on a god or gods, whatsover, these being Kantian rationalism (morals are objectively valid and autonomously authoritative prescriptions which are formulate and/or can be discovered by human reason and intellect) and Humean naturalism (morality is a human social construct developed out of a process of biological and social evolution the persistence of which is due to the fact that enable us human beings to survive and flourish by mediating the mixture of competitive and co-operative forces that surround us).

Now as Mackie pointed out, if one has a starting point of deriving one’s moral view from either of the principles that rely on a god or gods for their authority then disbelief in god has marked consequences – it undermines the foundations of your moral outlook by robbing them of the basis of their authority.

If, however, one starts from either Kant or Hume, disbelief in god has no appreciable effect on your moral outlook, because that outlook was never contingent on the existence of god in the first place.

Moreover, the second of the two ‘god-based’ moralities, that which postulates morals and objective values that are somehow created or sustained by a god or gods is not far removed from being no more than Kant ‘with knobs on’ – if the values are themselves, objective, it should be possible to derive them rationally from first principles in Kantian terms. That they have, supposedly, been handed down directly by god is just a short-cut which saves us humans a bit of thinking time, so in no sense does it follow automatically that a ‘post-religious morality’ is necessarily either going to be different from a religious one or that it will be impoverished by a lack understanding of what ‘sacred’ once meant, not to mention that there’s no reason to suppose that any future definition of ‘sacred’ will serve us any worse – it might not be any better either but that’s not something we can predict.

Moreover the very notion of connecting morality to god presents problems by way the Euthyphro Dilemma, which in monotheistic terms ask the question, ‘Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?’

If its the former them morality operates independently of god such that not only is god bound by morality but his status is no more than of a passer-on of moral knowledge, which reduces the status of god considerable in addition to implying that god is subject to limitations and cannot, therefore, be omnipotent.

If the latter is assumed then the problems really kick into gear. If good is defined only be reference to god’s command then the concept of good is entirely arbitrary – god could conceivably command that rape, murder, torture and all manner of other things were to be considered good and virtuous and we humans would be in no position to disagree. There is, in this assumption, also no non-tautological sense in which god could be considered good – the best you could argue for is consistency – and it also wanders right into the is-ought problem by way of relying on a naturalistic fallacy.

With this in mind for Williams to profess that ‘this is not to make the facile claim that morality needs religion’ is self-contradictory, his argument is constructed precisely for the purpose of advancing just such a claim not least in making the central dichotomy of his argument explicit that of belief and non-belief while, at least to this point, excluding any considerations of the manner in which different beliefs are at least equally prone to coming into conflict.

Williams is speaking here as a religious believer on behalf of the generality of religion but the context in which he is speaking is that of a cleric of a particular strand of religious belief which enjoys a privileged position in civil society over and above not only that of non-belief but above that of all other beliefs. To mount a defence of religious belief in general terms in such a context is, in addressing (implicitly) his remarks adherents of other beliefs, to advance the argument that ‘all religions are equal’ while knowing full well, but not admitting, that his religion is rather ‘more equal’ than the rest.

The importance of this observation becomes apparent when we come – at last – to the point that Williams professes that he most wishes to emphasise, his definition of what constitutes justification for the use of legal restraint.

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

Note, first, that Williams’ own language has suddenly shift from talk of causing offence to religious belief to ‘language and behaviour offensive to religious believers’ – the implication being that what he is arguing for is the creation of an inchoate criminal offence predicated on a subjective definition of ‘causing offence’.

In the first instance, then, we are to placed under the vicissitudes of the religious believer’s capacity to deem themselves to be offended by what we have to say and how we say it and this principle is to be come into force where such utterances are made with ‘intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society’.

Now to be visible and audible in the public life of society is certainly a right that a liberal society should be seeking to guarantee – it is, after all, primarily the right to freedom of speech and expression as supported by other ‘political’ rights, those of thought, religion (yes), conscience, association, etc.

But, then, these are all rights which this particular liberal society already provides for, although one can legitimately argue whether it, at times, does enough to protect those rights and whether, in some instances, those rights are in reality guaranteed to the Rawlsian standard of the maximum possible liberty consistent with the provision of similar liberties to others. So what is Williams actually proposing here, over and above what is already in place.

Well, clearly he is making an appeal to the concept of positive liberty, asking not just for the religious believer to be afforded the space to be visible and audible in the public sphere but to afforded a protected space within the public sphere on which it is not only permissible to encroach but in which protection is afforded by means of legal restraint. Such a request must, of course be justified, and its acceptability or otherwise can only be measured against the circumstances by which he proposes that this should be deemed a necessary innovation – to provide any group or individual with a protected space in the public sphere is, by extension, to deny others access to that space, i.e. it entails a curtailment of their negative liberties and what Williams advances as justification is this:

the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

This is a familiar enough argument in legal terms – what justifies the creation of such an inchoate offence is that the potential ramifications of inciting hatred, whether on religious, racial or other grounds, stretch beyond the mere possibility that such incitements make result in an individual or group acting upon their (incited) hatred to comment offences against individuals belonging to the group against which hatred has been incited, sparking off reprisals that threaten the wider order of society.

This is, in legal terms, not an unreasonable proposition when coupled with a normatively objective standard of proof of the capacity of words, whether spoken or written, to incite hatred. Even the US, with its first amendment guarantee of free speech accepts this premise, albeit in the limited context of affording no constitutional protection to what it deems to be ‘fighting talk’ – what is required in the US is that its shown that the incitement has an immediate (or near immediate effect) as if someone were to leave a meeting after hearing a speaker incite them to hate a particular group and look immediately for a member of that group to victimise.

What is much less reasonable (and acceptable) is William’s attempt to connect this principle to the idea of language and speech which causes offence in the subjective opinion of the religious believer, which implies that what he is favouring here is not an objective standard of proof but a subjective one predicated on the what the believer believes may incite hatred against them and not what might be thought to have that capacity by a reasonable, but otherwise, disinterested party – this being the normal standard of required for an offence of incitement.

That a line of argument that one could argue has some measure of traction in relation to expressions of ‘hatred’ – a concept that, itself, is difficult to define – which a reasonable person would consider to be entirely lacking in foundation, i.e. when predicated on race, gender or sexuality in which there is no prospect of the individual or group reasonably becoming anything other than what they are  – unless you’re Michael Jackson, of course – but not a sustainable proposition when applied to an altogether more contestable matter, such a religious belief, not least because the construction of Williams’ arguments suggests the presence of an implicit assumption that religion believers will seek to ‘protect their own’ in constructing their subjective standards for what causes offence in the sense of being less inclined to complain of being offended by the activities of other religious believers in order to protect the less salubrious elements of of their faith/scriptures while being more severe in their standards in dealing with ‘offence’ caused by expressions of outright non-belief.

Whether William personally appreciates that possibility is open to question, but the possibility is there that if religion is permitted to determine the standards of proof required to activate legal restraints in purely subjective terms the a spirit of ‘we’re all in this together boys’ may emerge resulting in the application of differential standards when dealing with different sources – and if that emerges it is by no means certain that all religions will receive equal consideration either as, in a culture in which monotheism predominates as the primary form of religious belief, the benefits of being ‘members of the club’ may well accrue most readily to those who beliefs are most in concert with the dominant cultural form.

In such cases, justice and the interests of equal liberty for all can be served only by demanding an objective standard of proof and by setting the bar at a necessarily high level in determining what does (and does not) reasonably constitute and expression of hatred, ruling out the subjective use of  having caused offence as a basis for making such determinations.

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments

1. Innocent Abroad

I’m not sure that this critique is entirely fair to Williams, whose central point seems to me to be that the exercise of liberty is an exercise of power. More specifically, both the giving and taking of offence are examples of the exercise of power. He wants to argue this because he wants to have some way of knowing when it is, and is not, reasonable to take offence, e.g. at the statement (which I happen to think true) “only an intellectually confused liberal Christian would agree to become an Archbishop”. (I would justify it by arguing that of the two Anglicans who have recently done so, Williams and Jenkins, one is no longer a liberal and the other no longer a Christian.)

Williams seems to think that this is not a remark to which he should take offence because I have less power than he does. This does seem remarkably confused to me, since I presume he is in favour of empowering the powerless (in some general sense) – yet he also seems to me to want to impute some kind of moral worth to powerlessness itself.

This conundrum arises because he wants to be able to make an a priori distinction between those cases when offence is wrongly given and those when it is wrongly taken. Even if such an a priori distinction is possible (rather than a shifting cultural sandbank – think of the history of the word “queer”) it seems to me odd that a Christian would not interpret the doctirne of suffering to hold that offence is only taken, never given. Football crowds often chant words which, taken in isolation, seem to give offence to the opponents’ fans, but those fans never take offence. (Football violence so far as I know is almost always pre-meditated before the match even starts.)

Surely the only distinction the law can hope to make successfully is that between offence (about which it can say nothing useful) and threat – has there, for example, ever been a conviction under anti-harassment legislation of any kind where the prosecution could not convince the jury that there was an element of “threat” involved? I doubt it.

Two things strike me immediately on perusing the Archbishop’s outpourings. First, he understandably claims the right of Christians to preach that Christianity is “unequivocally true” – a quaint choice of adjective – and to publicly question the validity of other faiths. I have been participating for the past couple of months in a still ongoing dialogue on Stephen Law’s Philosophy blog with Ibrahim Lawson, the headmaster of an Islamic school, who had said the following in a broadcast interview:

ER: Ibrahim Lawson, how would you define the purpose of your Islamia school?
IL: Well, the essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.
ER: You use the word “inculcate”: does that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?
IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really. The reason that parents send their children to our school is that they want them to grow up to be very good Muslims.
ER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?
IL: That’s right…

So there would appear to be plenty of scope for bitter conflict, possibly escalating to hatred, between Christians and Muslims as to who has the religious ‘truth’.

Second, the Archbishop repeatedly referred to Muslims in Britain as a victimised group who feel unfairly ‘excluded’ from wider society. They do indeed portray themselves, very successfully, as a victimised group; but whether they wish or intend to espouse the values of our wider, liberal, secular society and play a constructive role in it is far from clear. All too often, their vocal spokesmen heap contempt upon it.

The Rawlsian principle is of the greatest basic liberties compatible with like liberties for all, not the greatest liberty compatible with like liberty for all. The point of the distinction is that otherwise you can’t explain why it’s more important that you have the liberty to speak without interruption than you have the liberty to shout down anyone you don’t want to hear. It is not clear that you have a basic liberty to go round deliberately and gratuitously insulting people on the basis of their faith (or lack of it, for that matter). If, as for Rawls, you come up with your list of basic liberties on the basis of protecting people’s ability to pursue plans of life, then it is at least an open question whether or not preventing certain kinds of offence on the basis of people’s religious faith (or lack of it) is going to on balance increase or decrease people in general’s ability to pursue plans of life, given the centrality of religion (or the lack of it) to some people’s plans of life.

You also misread Williams on the consequences of the decline of religion for morality. His point seems to me that whilst agreement on a central range of moral cases is possible and indeed likely, that agreement will not extend to the reasoning behind those cases. You and I may both agree that torture is wrong, but we will not agree why. Further, there is going to be a wide range of cases about which there is not just going to be explanatory disagreement, but also disagreement about content, and that if we are going to share a society with each other, that requires that we exhibit certain kinds of understanding; specifically, atheists and agnostics need to understand what difference it makes to the way morality is experienced if it is understood as divine command. This is the same point he is making when he talks about denying the sacred as a point of relevance for one’s own moral experience and denying it as a point of relevance for anyone’s moral experience. This is not so far from Rawls: the emphasis on the demands that moral pluralism makes on us, the willingness to see that there are some things that we cannot require people to give up and so on. There’s a point in Political Liberalism where Rawls says something like ‘anyone who wouldn’t protect freedom of religion just doesn’t know what religion is’. Williams seems to be making that sort of plea about questions relating to the freedom to be (deliberately) offensive. Neither has to be read as demanding that the religious get everything they might want.

Also, I know I’m hardly one to go on about this, but 13 line sentences?

One point I do agree with the Archbishop about is his lament at the decline in CIVILITY in controversy, a coarsening of the style of public debate, and lack of what I would term ‘empathy’ in much current public discussion in the media [and I would add on blogs]. What he conveniently doesn’t point out is that a great deal of this stridency comes from religious zealots. Speaking for myself, I think I understand only too well what difference it makes to the way morality is experienced if it is understood as divine command. Such an understanding or belief gives all too many believers a supposed godly sanction to ride roughshod when they are sufficiently powerful to do so over the beliefs and lifestyles not only of the irreligious, but also of people of other faiths.

surely the euthyphro dilemma is not restricted to religion either? surely one can also express it in the following terms:

“is what is moral agreed on by rational people because it is moral, or is it moral because rational people have agreed it is moral?”

or am i just being mr thicky here?



Hello. Since you talked about the Euthyphro Dilemma, I thought you might like to read this article: “A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma” http://www.theologyonline.com/forums/showthread.php?t=47024

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