Saturday, December 12, 2009

more assertions

Canto: Okay so let's move on to other claims by Williams. A whole section of his essay has the title 'Mere assertion', no doubt echoing Mere Christianity, as Williams seems to be fond of C S Lewis. Of course, Williams is accusing Grayling of making assertions without providing evidence, but there are plenty of assertions of the same kind made by Williams. Well, not of the same kind, actually, because, to me at least, the assertions Grayling makes seem eminently reasonable, while many of Williams's assertions are frankly ludicrous.
Jacinta: Let me provide the examples. He asserts that belief in God [i.e. Fred] is reasonable, that belief in miracles is reasonable, and that religious thinkers are generally smarter than non-religious ones. For this last assertion he borrows the words of a cheap polemicist I've had occasion to deal with in the past, namely John Gray:
One cannot engage in dialogue with religious thinkers in Britain today without quickly discovering that they are, on the whole, more intelligent, better educated and strikingly more freethinking than unbelievers (as evangelical atheists still incongruously describe themselves)
Gray is a kind of modern, dumbed-down and pedestrianized version of Friedrich Nietzsche, who prides himself on giving all and sundry a serve, changing his own position at whim in order to do so. The good thing is that his polemical swipes can shake off your complacency and make you wonder if what he's saying might actually be true. So you go off and examine some contemporary religious thinkers, find that they're trotting out the same old bullshit, and you also investigate the secularists, none of whom, of course, are going around calling themselves unbelievers, and many of whom are doing very interesting empirical work on the psychology and evolution of religion, for example.
Canto: Mere assertion indeed. What does 'better educated' mean?  Better educated in theology? A lot of the debate these days revolves around the religion-science nexus, and it's pretty clear from Gray's writings that he knows bugger all about science, so he probably rejects the idea of scientists as properly 'educated'. And 'freethinking' - there's a useful term for allowing anything in. Maybe it's 'freethinking' to argue that the virgin birth is plausible...
Jacinta: Oh yes, let me tackle that one. Williams claims that Grayling's sceptical remarks on the immaculate conception of Jesus...
Canto: Wasn't it an angelfuck?
Jacinta: Whatever, that they were 'pure bluster'. Presumably that's mere assertion with a dose of inarticulacy added to the mix. Here's Grayling:
‘ask a Christian why the ancient story of a deity impregnating a mortal woman… is false as applied to Zeus and his many paramours… but true as applied to God, Mary and Jesus… Do not expect a rational reply; an appeal to faith will be enough, because with faith anything goes.’[39]
Canto: Oh, so the god did it then? I wonder if she struggled. We could have him up for rape.
Jacinta: Don't distract me. We now come to the funniest part, because Williams then cockily proclaims that 'unfortunately for Grayling, this sweeping generalization is demonstrably false.' He claims this because he knows of a Christian philosopher who has argued that there's evidence to support the truth of the virgin birth. Unfortunately for Williams, those arguments are rare and usually vapid, and don't at all undermine the general claim that most Christians, when pushed, will fall back on faith on this issue.
Canto: Yes, it seems Williams is mucking up the distinction between a generalization and a universal truth. Grayling is clearly not saying that it's universally true that Christians appeal to faith on the virgin birth, but that they generally do.Williams's finding of someone who has tried to argue about the evidence doesn't negate the generalization.
Jacinta: Yes, and Christians would do better to stick to faith than to try to reason their way out of this one, if Keith Ward is anyone to go by. He's the Christian philosopher in question, and here's his best argument:
 ‘The strongest argument for the veracity of these accounts is that it is very hard to see why they should have been invented, when they would have been so shocking to Jewish ears… there are two independent sources of the virgin birth stories; and that increases the probability that they were founded on historical recollections.’[40]
 Canto: Wow, that's really convincing. I mean we are talking about a supernatural entity impregnating a woman, right? Two sources - what does that mean, two eyewitnesses to the fuckery? I'll bet not. And most Jews would be shocked by the idea, so it's unlikely it was made up. Fuck, surely he's joking. Or, yeah, maybe he's one of those delightful freethinkers Gray gets excited about.

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