Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Mock the Meek

Someone called Barbara King interviewed Richard Dawkins on NPR, with a clear anti-ridicule agenda. She is concerned about the feelings of the faithful, I presume, and she thinks Richard's famed 'stridency' is counter-productive in any dialogue with them. 

This common refrain from some non-believers (as we've seen from Julian Baggini) perhaps stems from a misguided idea of how civilised discussion should be conducted. Obviously, gratuitous rudeness is not something we encourage, and it's clear that accommodationists perceive Dawkins's many blasts at religious beliefs, and those who hold them, as gratuitously rude. In fact, in this interview Dawkins says he's sorry if he's been rude about anyone, and that he really aims to mock their beliefs alone. This seems like an unnecessary apology to me; if someone mocks my beliefs I think that's much the same as mocking me, and would treat it the same. So they may as well mock me.

And so what? As one grows up one gets mocked repeatedly, and this has a formative effect on belief - how could it not? If ridicule is such a bad idea, then someone needs to tell every single one of my teachers from primary school to grammar school that their every sarcastic put-down was militating against their pedagogy. I suspect 'Pengy' West and Frank 'Hitler' Collins might disagree. And while I and my fellow pupils did not enjoy the put-downs at the time, it made their points memorable and gave the rest of the class a laugh to boot. If it's such a bad idea, then someone should tell every satirist, from Horace to Juvenal, Moliere to Voltaire, Swift to Hogarth, Dickens to Wilde, Dorothy Parker to Peter Cook, that they are simply wrong to do it. I would love to hear their responses.

Barbara King herself draws a distinction between those who are open to discuss evolution and young earth creationists, whose belief she does not respect. I suspect young earth creationists would find her lack of respect for their belief offensive and would treat it as an attack on their very person, just as the 'moderately' religious find Dawkins's attacks on their nutty beliefs offensive. (I put scare quotes around moderately just to indicate that there is nothing about religion that allows us to define someone as extreme or moderate - that metric is not determined by faith, but by reason and evidence).

So I don't think that King is behaving any differently in kind to Dawkins, by adopting what she has decided is a more reasonable approach, so why does she think she is behaving any better than Dawkins? The most obvious conclusion is that she is a victim of our cultural prejudice against non-belief, even while she is a non-believer herself. And this isn't so surprising, being a child of a society that places religion beyond criticism, into a sacred place where it should not be challenged. It's the only belief that we are criticised for the very act of criticising.

But as I hinted at above, even 'moderate' believers believe recklessly. If they are not applying critical thinking to their beliefs, allowing some of their beliefs freedom from the shackles of reason and evidence, then they are accidents waiting to happen. Three Christian MPs, Gary Streeter, Gavin Shuker and Tim Farron, have apparently sent a letter to the Advertising Standards Authority challenging the Authority's ruling against faith healing adverts. They say:
We are writing on behalf of the all-party Christians in Parliament group in Westminster and your ruling that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions.
We write to express our concern at this decision and to enquire about the basis on which it has been made. It appears to cut across two thousand years of Christian tradition and the very clear teaching in the Bible. Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible.
On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?
You might be interested to know that I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since. What does the ASA say about that? I would be the first to accept that prayed for people do not always get healed, but sometimes they do. That is all this sincere group of Christians in Bath are claiming.
It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene?
We invite your detailed response to this letter and unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.
It's hard to believe that grown men, let alone Members of Parliament, could pen such a dreadfully thought out  letter, and I fear for democracy if they apply the same shambolic thinking processes to matters of state. Is it appropriate to respect their belief that praying works? Or should reason and evidence be applied to determine the truth of the matter? Of course, Gary Streeter does have reason and evidence for his belief, but it's a bad reason and it's poor evidence, and when we give the shorthand reason and evidence, we mean good reason and good evidence. How could this man have got to the age of 56 without being taught how to think? Is that too strident? I don't know, but, when he's liable to place lives at risk with such dangerous nonsense, I don't care, and I don't think Barbara King should either. The more often this man's laughable thought processes are called out the better, because it will save lives. To whimper about the evils of ridicule in such circumstances is to be complicit in the harm these beliefs cause.

I'm pleased to see that Martin Robbins throws the book at them:
The implication of prayer-healing is that special people can demand that God heals someone, and he'll just do it. That only makes sense if you believe that a) God is a bit absent-minded and doesn't really notice all the sick people until some clever human points them out to him, or b)God is the fourth emergency service (the AA come fifth in this world-view), and we're entitled customers who pay with prayer and should damn well get some service.
Either way, the message from faith-healers - and the hapless morons who support them - is clear: "Fuck God's plan, He's our bitch." I'm not a Christian myself, but if I were, I think I'd be pretty frustrated with this sort of selfish, arrogant attitude, and I'd laugh in the face of people who claimed to have some divine right over His powers.
Steady, Martin, you called them morons; we wouldn't want to alienate them, would we? But surely ridicule from all is exactly the appropriate response to this anti-scientific avalanche of bullshit. Should we say, yes, Mr. Streeter, because some chronic pain in your right hand disappeared after some prayer, we should all adopt prayer as a tried and tested principle, to be advertised for its efficaciousness? Is there no reason why this datum should not be taken at face value and treated as hard science? But if that's the case, I could write to the authorities pointing out that since I read their letter to the ASA there has been a dull ache in my head, but thankfully ridiculing  its contents has eased the pain. Therefore, please prescribe regular ridicule of religious idiocy on the NHS. At least there's a clear causal link in my anecdote compared with Streeter's.

But, of course, as Robbins points out:
The ASA quite rightly say in their ruling that "testimonials [are] insufficient evidence for claims of healing." To which I would add, "...and I am never going to vote for you, Gary Streeter, you utterly gullible buffoon."
Is Streeter gullible? Plainly. Is he a buffoon? I suppose it's possible he just hasn't had the gumption to investigate all the studies that have been performed on the efficacy of prayer, in which case he's a buffoon to write the letter, or he has seen them but prefers his own anecdote, in which case he's a buffoon to write the letter. 

Sorry to mock, but sometimes there's really no alternative.


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