A Level (A2) Predictions 2017 – OCR Philosophy and Ethics

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It’s that time of year again. Let’s see whether we can take a look at the previous questions and take an educated guess about what might come up. The truth is that this has become harder and harder to do. A few years ago there were a few topics that hadn’t come up. Now everything has pretty much come up in previous years. Still, I’ll have a go at predictions. Just remember the usual disclaimer: I am not psychic and I don’t know the future. These are *guesses*! Anything could come up! Please revise all areas, you just may want to have a little look in more depth at these topics. OK, that said here goes:

Philosophy:

Religious Experience: ‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss (35) (Click link for essay)

Miracles: ‘Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed’. Discuss. (35)  (Click link for essay)

Attributes of God: ‘God’s foreknowledge is incompatible with human free will.’ Discuss. (35)

Life after Death: ‘Resurrection is more coherent than reincarnation’. Discuss. (35)

Religious Language: To what extent does analysis of the uses and purpose of religious language overcome the criticisms of the logical positivists? (35)

Ethics

Free Will and Determinism: Critically evaluate theological determinism. (35)

Conscience: How convincing are Newman’s claims that conscience is the voice of God? (35)

Virtue Ethics: ‘Virtue Ethics is the best approach to environmental issues.’ Discuss (35)

Sexual Ethics: Assess the usefulness of religious ethics as an approach to the issues surrounding contraception. (35)

So why have I predicted these ones? Well, in philosophy, the only topics that have never come up as far as I can see are voices in religious experience, Hume’s definition of miracles (different from his criticisms of miracles, which has come up), and the uses and purpose of religious language. Then the other two from life after death and attributes have not come up for a while.

With ethics it was a case of choosing between quite a few options – as far as I can see, no-one apart from Butler has been specified in a question, so there could be a question on any of the other conscience scholars. Also never seen a specific question on predestination which seems odd? The two applied topics have never come up in that combination.

There you go – hope that helps with revision! Now to do ‘predictions’ for AS – a bit pointless really as it is the first year, so literally anything could come up! That hasn’t stopped other people from having a go at it though!

BTW – are you interested in a really useful revision guide for AS? Get mine here: https://rs.pushmepress.com/titles/as-religious-studies-revision-guide-for-ocr-a-level-religious-studies/trade-paperback-uk

 

 

Arguing With Internet Atheists Part 1

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Recently I have had cause to have fairly public discussions on social media with atheists about the nature of atheism and its entailments. To be clear from the start, these discussions did not centre on whether God exists or not, but rather on the much less controversial topic of varieties of atheism, eg. so-called New Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett et al.) contrasted with other versions of atheism that reject the scientism and reliance on humanism of the new atheists (put forward by Patrick O’Connor here).

I was unable to convince any of these atheists that atheism could not simply be the straightforward lack of a superstitious overlay to a clear-eyed and rational approach to life that they thought it was. I suppose I am naive for being surprised, after all, it is very comforting and a great temptation to think that you are the one that sees clearly, or is unable to be fooled like the masses. I don’t know whether I myself have always managed to avoid this temptation, a kind of Gnosticism, and would only count myself a person of good faith if I was able to say that I had.

Now, I’m not going to go into the reasons for rejecting the simplistic myth outlined above in this post; I will return to that in part 2. What I want to do here is just unpack something a lot more facile and poorly-considered on the atheism spectrum.

Someone who I know personally, but haven’t seen for years, has been reading some of my posts on this blog and sharing them on his social media profile with his own criticisms of them. When I say criticisms, I don’t mean he is correcting my grammar, rather, he is putting forward his own views on religion (negative ones of course) as they relate to the post. However, he is not particularly well-read in theology or philosophy (this sounds uncharitable, but I have to assume that this is the case, or he wouldn’t have made such flawed and fallacious arguments), and so many of his comments actually are only attacking straw men, if that. What he probably has done is read a few of the New Atheists, watched a few Youtube videos, and then decided he is the main authority on theology.

So I would like to share here a few of his comments with the links to my posts, so that you can see how not to argue against theism. In my next post I will tackle some of the issues raised by the question of worldviews and theism/atheism.

Here is a post I wrote for A Level students on Kant’s moral argument. As you can see, it takes the form of three different quality answers to the question ‘Morality has nothing to do with the existence of God. Discuss’. This kind of question on Kant would involve evaluating the way in which Kant believes that morality when properly understood requires us to postulate from practical reason the existence of God. Anyone who has studied the argument knows that Kant does not think that morality proves God, rather that when we see the nature of morality we would understand that it requires God to work. The atheist comments thus:
“The idea that God has some monopoly of morality is ludicrous and arguably rascist [sic]. The major obtuse implication is that cultures that are without God (historically due to geographic reasons) would be devoid of morality. This disproven belief has been used as justification for some very immoral behaviour from those who would act in the name of God. Buddhism could be said to be a very moral teaching as it professes empathy and reduction of suffering and strives toward nirvana (summum bonum) but this teaching has no God pulling the strings or passing judgement. I would say that Kant’slack of wordly experiences and cultural tunnel vision coupled by undoubtedly rascist higher ground typical of most western philosophers and psychologists has contributed to any number misconstrued arguments that attempts to pass as well thought out descriptions of reality.
Morality stems from an instinctual desire to please those in our social atmosphere to encourage cooperation. This is an evolved tendency acted upon by processes of selection and is not at all unique to human beings. All moral behaviour leads to a healthier, happier, more cohesive population that is better able to survive and reproduce. Religion’s role has been as an enforcer of society’s biological moral compass as an indivual may occasionally place their own ego ahead of the empathy required be good.” 

The first sentence is rather a massive misunderstanding of Kant. Kant in fact said the opposite to this – that morality was the result of pure reason – the categorical imperative results from reflecting on one’s duties and universalising one’s actions. It very much does not depend on God at all in this sense. Kant even went so far as to say that Abraham was wrong to obey God when He asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Morality for Kant can never be a divine command, it has to be worked out freely and rationally by humans, or we are mere puppets.

But let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt – surely that is what Christianity says? God has a monopoly on morality? I’ll be honest – I don’t really know exactly what he means here. Does he mean that Christians think that God gives us morals, and that without God telling us what they are we couldn’t be moral? That seems the general gist of his argument, for he then goes on to say that this would be “rascist” (racist I think) based on the fact that some cultures without God would be unable to be moral.

The first thing to say here is that it is an argument built on an incredibly crude understanding of what Christian ethics are. Not even the Old Testament says that the Israelites were unable to be moral before the 10 commandments (the revelation of God’s law) were given to them. Where would that have left Abraham, Noah and so on? These were recognised as good men, even before God spoke to them. Equally, in the New Testament we are given stories by Christ where he explicitly names cultures other than the Jews and shows members of that culture (which the Jews hated) acting in more ethical ways than priests from the Jewish religion (Parable of the Good Samaritan).

So clearly in no sense do Christians or Jews believe that God has a monopoly on morality, or that cultures without God would be devoid of morality. The Christian view is that as created beings we have all been given the ability to distinguish right from wrong by use of our reason. The ten commandments, and later the Beatitudes given by Christ function as moral guidelines, ways of perfecting our natural ethical reasoning. We can choose to obey them or not, and it is hardly fair to say now that there is any culture on earth that is not aware of them, or has not been affected by them – indeed, there is good evidence to show that Mahayana Buddhism has been influenced by Christianity at its origins as far back as the 5th century.

Equally, it would be very hard to show a culture without some kind of God or gods, and some kind of ethics, and this is really the same thing as saying that some kind of moral code tied to belief in the supernatural is as universal as you can get in the history of world cultures. No Christian has any problem with any of this. It follows from the belief that we are all creatures of God. It is only modern atheists who have had a difficult time explaining morality without reference to religion, as this website shows:

The issue turns fundamentally on whether it is plausible to believe that the Enlightenment humanist project of establishing a fully secular autonomous morality can be justified. According to defenders of the project of Enlightenment humanism, there are perfectly good nontheistic grounds for being moral; according to detractors, there are finally no such grounds, and the views of figures such as De Sade and Nietzsche are held to illustrate the failure of the Enlightenment project of an autonomous ethics”

Later, the atheist will follow something like Sam Harris’ lead in trying to outline a morality purely based in evolutionary psychology, so clearly he disagrees with atheists like Nietzsche on this. Anyway, this is enough to see simply from his first two sentences, that he has both massively oversimplified the theists position, and massively underestimated the capacity of theism itself to give answers to the questions he has posed.

So next he gets onto one of his favourite hobby-horses: that religious believers have acted immorally in the name of God, which proves precisely nothing about religion, but does show that human beings are so flawed and sinful that they will use anything as an excuse to be horrible to other human beings. I mean, yawn; ‘religion causes wars’ he whines, like one of my year 7 students. Yep, lots of things cause wars actually, and even if it could be shown that religion has caused more wars etc. than say greed, or desire for resources, that would be to ignore the tremendous force for good, order, and society that religion has been. If we take Christianity alone, it pretty much was the origin of hospitals, schools, benefits, and so much more that we take as the mark of a good enlightened society. I think this is a very weak argument that he puts there.

I like his linking of Buddhist nirvana with Kant’s summum bonum – he has that right at least, that they both function as a kind of ultimate to strive for, but although there is no God to provide judgement in Buddhism there is still karma to perform the same function, so why he has a problem with a personal judgement by a loving being over an impersonal judgement by a cosmic law I don’t really know.

He then has a couple of really funny lines where he says that Kant couldn’t do ethical philosophy well because he had lack of worldly experience and cultural tunnel vision/racist superiority! Hilarious ; makes him sound like Hitler! As one of the founders of Enlightenment humanism, Kant probably indirectly helped to bring about a more tolerant world, and ultimately the end of slavery, with his emphasis on the fact that reason is a universal human faculty, its surely the opposite of cultural tunnel vision? Then he dismisses most of the rest of western philosophers and psychologists with the same slur – erm…overgeneralisation? Ad hominem? Fallacies galore.

He then has a slightly incoherent final paragraph where he outlines a broadly evolutionary psychological approach to morality, favoured as I said, by Sam Harris, Dawkins etc. Such arguments usually manage to account for some of the general features of what we might call the lower forms of morality, simply looking out for those in your group etc. but tend to fall rather short as an account of why we should be moral. The commitment of ‘virtuous atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins to biological reductionism makes it difficult for them to say why humans should not follow their aggressive and xenophobic instincts rather than their cooperative and altruistic ones. They appear to be able to offer only an evolutionary explanation of the altruistic moral instincts, not a reason why they should be followed.

All in all, if you’re going to post my stuff with critical comments on it you’d better make damn sure you know what you’re talking about. This guy clearly doesn’t.

As Frys to Wanton Boys

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport” Gloucester – King Lear (IV. i. 36-37)

A lot of attention is being paid to a clip of Stephen Fry talking about what he would say to God if he died and found himself at the Pearly Gates.

There’s a few things I want to say. Firstly, the problem of evil is generally recognised as a very difficult, even intractable, challenge to theism – perhaps the one challenge which is capable of shaking even the strongest believer’s faith. That doesn’t mean attempts haven’t been made to solve it – they are called theodicies (‘God-justification’), but there is a great deal of debate about whether they succeed. One problem with trying to answer the problem of evil and suffering is that believers often fall into the trap of platitudes which underestimate the experiential force of evil and suffering – platitudes such as “God moves in mysterious ways”, or “everything happens for a reason”. Clearly such responses are not sufficient and deservedly provoke the mockery of atheists. Most theists however, don’t do this – Byrne, whilst speechless, at least didn’t try, and neither have recent Popes when asked.

Probably because of the way he was asked the question, the particular form that Fry frames it in here is as a protest against a cruel and capricious God. This kind of standpoint is usually called ‘protest atheism’. According to this position, God is taken as existing, but then evidence such as Fry presents is brought to show that no-one could justifiably worship such a God – supposedly all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing – who could allow such things to take place in His creation. I would guess that most protest atheists who use this argument now do not actually believe in God – they just use the argument as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the believer’s view. And of course we know Fry doesn’t believe in the God with whom he gets so angry in this interview, so I guess we have to take that as a piece of acting on Fry’s part (to me this seems rather insincere and hollow, I suspect Bertrand Russell’s similar response to the same question was not delivered with quite the same sense of fake outrage, but then again, Russell was a philosopher who had thought deeply about these things, not a media luvvy and actor with a large vocabulary…I know; ad hominem….).

It is my view that the case for what is called protest atheism has not actually been put very forcefully here by Fry. It has been much more strongly argued by the character of Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in the Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky, a man of faith, could hardly be called a polemicist or apologist for theism, but he has crafted his novel as an exploration of themes of freedom, suffering and faith. After  detailed historic accounts of horrific torture of innocent children Ivan says:

“… if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Fry, in focusing only on ‘natural evil’ – bone cancer and worms that burrow into eyes – in his argument, probably wants to avoid the classic move of theists when asked about human evil – that it is the result of free will. But in doing so he is presenting a weaker argument. There are two points to make here. Firstly, in a universe where random material processes have combined to create the conditions for organisms to compete with each other in a struggle for survival, there can be no such thing as evil or good, or if there are such realities they are simply the result of human subjectivity projected onto the world – what is evil for the blind child is good for the worm. Some might simply turn the challenge on the atheist here for them to explain what in their world view leads them to believe in evil as a reality ( and it is worth noting that some theodicies would simply point to the fact that natural evil is largely the result of the fact that there are general laws of nature which we can sometimes fall foul of – but that is bound to be the case in a universe which has a ‘way things go’) . However, it is worth remembering that the argument is focused against the believer – and it is their account of God and their account of evil which are claimed to be at odds with each other.

But secondly, even if we grant Fry the point – natural evil undermines belief in a good God – we would have to say that the examples of intentional cruelty by rational human beings against innocent children given by Ivan Karamazov are far more compelling as a challenge, simply because here we confront the reality of human evil in all its horrific strength. We are precluded even from arguing that it is justifiable on the basis of God needing to grant humans free will, or God building a future utopia on it – as Ivan says “too high a price is paid for harmony” if that harmony will somehow come out of the undeserved suffering of innocents. Surely intentional cruelty by free beings (beings who could have chosen not to inflict that suffering, and who must have known it was wrong even whilst doing it, unlike unconscious worms)  is a much more difficult problem to solve than ‘nature red in tooth and claw’? After all, a flawed natural order is only one side of the coin – there is also the existence of beauty and harmonious cooperation in nature, and simply to emphasise one over the other is misleading. The evidence is ambiguous in ways that Fry won’t admit – he would be the first to talk of marvel at the intricacies of the natural order, but he certainly wouldn’t use that to point to God. He is however happy to use disharmony in the natural order to point away from God, or at least to accuse God.

A flawed natural order has been recognised as one of the signs of the workings of an evil force in a world destabilised from its original perfection by the Fall, which begins in the heavenly hierarchies of the Angels. What I’m saying here is not that people within Christianity have tried to give an answer to this problem, but that the whole Christian vision of the cosmos is based upon the reality of suffering, evil and death and the sure and certain hope that they will not have the last word, that in God, all things will be made new.

So okay, meh to Fry. He thinks he gave God a bit of a kicking. I don’t think he did particularly, when I consider how Dostoevsky answers the more serious challenges which he sets up through Ivan. I’ll explain in a bit.

His mention of the Greek gods was interesting, which is a belief he says is far more honest because they can be seen clearly for what they are – projections of human inclinations and obsessions.  He knows that he would have nothing to say about bone cancer and so on if he died and went to Hades and met Pluto; the Greek gods would inflict cruelty on mortals for sport or curiosity. The take-away from this is clearly meant to be – basically all gods are projections because we can clearly see our own needs and desires written in them – but that evidence points to a pantheon of gods like the Greek ones, limited, flawed superhumans – not to the Christian God, who is as Fry notes meant to be wholly beyond our limitations as humans. Indeed, it is this very transcendence which sets him apart from all pagan gods. However, what Fry doesn’t mention is that the Christian God also became human, vulnerable, poor, broken and took on all suffering and pain. Christ crucified – this fact St. Paul famously describes as a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks – their wisdom paradoxically kept them from seeing to the real meaning of the cross; God wants to deliver us from all suffering, but he can only do this through love, which is an abiding-with, even amongst the shadows of evil and suffering.

There is no straightforward answer to the protest atheist’s challenge. There are narratives within which we can perhaps make some sense of the challenge though. I mentioned the Brothers Karamazov above. In a future post I will attempt to show how Dostoevsky frames the challenge as a conflict between rationality and love.