The Meaning of Things

Virtues and Attributes

Foes and Fallacies


Christians have burnt each other quite persuaded that all the Apostles would have done as they did.


Christianity is an oriental religion whose irruption into the classical world overwhelmed it and changed the course of its development. It is fruitless to speculate how the history of the West might have proceeded if Christianity had expired, after a short time, as merely another version of that common Middle Eastern theme - from Egyptian mythology to the Orphic rites -of the dying and reviving god. But we can make a guess, as follows.

For one thing, Plato's and Aristotle's academies in Athens would not have been suppressed in AD 529 on the grounds of their 'pagan' teachings. The delicate irony attaching to this occurrence is that their suppressor, Justinian, named the great church he built in Constantinople 'The Church of the Holy Wisdom'. For another, there would have been no Christians to put a stop to the Olympic games in AD 393 because they disliked the athletes' nudity. Gymnos, from which our 'gymnastics' comes, means 'naked'.

Apologists might say that without the accident of Christianity's becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, we would be without the glorious Annunciations and Crucifixions of Renaissance art. But in balance with the sanguinity of Christian history - its crusades, Inquisinons, religious wars, drowned witches, oppressive morals and hostility to sex - this seems a minor loss. In place of Annunciations we would have more depictions of Apollo pursuing Daphne, the Death of Procris, Diana Bathing, and the like. By almost any standards, apart from the macabre and gloomy ones of Puritan sensibility, an Aphrodite emerging from the Paphian foam is infinitely more life-enhancing an emblem than a gloomy Deposition from the Cross.

The religious attitude is marked by a robust refusal to take things at face value if inconvenient. Take this passage from the Book of Samuel - in its King James robes, a wonderful piece of prose - and ask how attractive it makes religion seem: 'Then said Samuel, "Bring ye hither to me Agag, King of the Amalekites." And Agag came to him delicately. And Agag said, "Surely the bitterness of death is passed." And Samuel said, "As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.'

If the mincing of Agag wrought divine pleasure, then it is surely the Prometheus of Goethe who has the gods' measure: 'I know nothing more wretched under the sun than you, ye gods! Scantily you feed your majesty on sacrifices and the breath bf prayer; and you would starve if beggars and children were not hopeful fools.'

Leslie Stephen pointed out that while religion flourishes, ethical enquiry is restricted to casuistry, that is, the science of interpreting divine commands. The ultimate justification of these rests on a logical fallacy with a forbidding Latin name, the argumentum ad baculum, which can be explained as follows. The religious reply to the moral sceptic's question, 'Why should I behave in such-and-such a way?' is simply 'Because God requires it of you.' But this is merely a polite way of saying, 'Because you'll be punished if you don't.' This is what the argumentum ad baculum comes down to: the use of a threat, literally 'an appeal to force'. But a threat is never a logical justification for acting one way rather than another. If there exists a deity with the punitive vengefulness of the Judaeo-Christian variety, then it might be prudent to obey it, and thus avoid the flames of hell; but the threat of punishment is not a principled reason for obedience.

Religious apologists claim that our motive for acting morally should not be the threat of divine vengeance, but love of God and our fellow man. But this is pious camouflage, however well meant. For in the religious view, if someone chooses not to act on the prompting of such affections, or fails to feel them at all, he is not therefore excused exile in the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He will suffer the fate of the fig-tree which, we are told in a pre-environmentally-sensitive biblical text, was blasted for bearing no fruit out of season.

A secular moralist would say: If love (in the sense of the Greek term agape: in Latin, caritas, hence 'charity') is the reason for being moral, what relevance does the existence or non-existence of a deity have? Why can we not be prompted to the ethical life by our own charitable feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing to our moral situation, other than an invisible policeman who sees what we do (even in privacy and under cover of night), and a threat of post-mortem terrors if we misbehave. Such additions are hardly an enrichment of the moral life, since the underpinning they offer consists of fear and threats of punishment: which is exactly what, among other things, the moral life seeks to free us from.

This prompts the question: Why are the churches given a privileged - almost, indeed, an exclusive - position in the social debate about morality, when they are arguably the least competent organisations to have it?

If this claim seems paradoxical, it is because we have become used to giving, as if by reflex, a platform to churchmen when moral dilemmas arise. This has come about in an odd way. The churches have always been obsessed with a small range of human activities, mainly those associated with sexuality. They have always sought to channel and constrain sexual behaviour, and it is their vociferous complaining about human turpitude on this score that has somehow made them authorities on moral matters in general. But it can easily be shown that they are either largely irrelevant to genuine questions of morality, or are positively anti-moral.

In modern developed societies approval is given to such values as personal autonomy, achievement in earning a living, providing for a family, saving against a rainy day, and meriting rewards for success in one's career. Christian morality says the exact opposite. It tells people to take no thought for the morrow - 'consider the lilies of the field, which neither reap nor spin', and to give all their possessions to the poor. It warns that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a well-off person to enter heaven. It preaches complete submission to the will of a deity, which is the opposite of personal autonomy and responsibility. Such a morality is wholly at odds with the norms and practices of contemporary society. Most people simply ignore the contradiction between such views and today's ethos, and the churches keep quiet about it. But if anyone bothered to examine what a Christian - or indeed any religious -morality demanded, he would be amazed by its diametric opposition to what is regarded as normal and desirable now, yet he would see - independently of whether it is the Christian or the contemporary morality which is 'right' - the reason why the former is irrelevant to the latter.

But religious morality is not merely irrelevant, it is anti-moral. The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease. The churches' obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appears contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need. By distracting attention from what really counts, and focusing it on the minor and anyway futile attempt to get people to conduct their personal lives only in ways the church permits, harm is done to the cause of good in the world.

But religion is not only anti-moral, it can often be immoral. Elsewhere in the world, religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorise in the name of their faiths. It is a mistake to think that our own Western milk-and-water clerics would never conceive of doing likewise; it is not long in historical terms since Christian priests were burning people at the stake if they did not believe that wine turns to blood when a priest prays over it, and that the earth sits immovably at the universe's centre, or - more to the present point - since they were whipping people and slitting their noses and ears for having sex outside marriage, or preaching that masturbation is worse than rape because at least the latter can result in pregnancy. To this day adulterers are stoned to death in certain Muslim countries; if the priests were still on top in the once-Christian world, who can say it would be different?

Because so much religious energy is devoted to controlling sexual behaviour, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened, we have the spectacle of righteous people writing letters of complaint about televised nudity, while from the factory next door tons of armaments are exported to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war. With such examples and contrasts, religion has very little to offer moral debate.

Defenders of religion are quick to point out that church-based charities do much good at home and abroad. And so they do; their work, like that of secular aid organisations and charities, is welcome and needed. But three thoughts press. One is that secular organisations are based on humanitarian promptings, and need no appeal to beliefs about supernatural agencies to explain their source or give them their impetus. The second is that no secular organisation is going to use overt or covert means to claim some of those they help for a particular world-view - Roman Catholicism or some other denomination or faith. And thirdly, the sticking-plaster of charitable concern shown by religious organisations does little to compensate for the massive quantum of suffering with which religion has burdened the world historically, and which is by far the larger part of the fruits by which we know them.

No doubt the churches are as entitled as any other interest group to have their say on matters that fall within their range of concerns; but they are an interest group nonetheless, with highly tendentious views, and big axes to grind. Asking them to take an especially authoritative line on moral matters is like asking the fox to set the rules for fox-hunting. Churchmen are people with avowediy ancient supernatural beliefs who rely on moral casuistry which is 2000 years out of date; it is extraordinary that their views should be given any precedence over those that could be drawn from the richness of thoughtful, educated, open-minded opinion otherwise available in society.

When a bishop says that the interests of morality are best served by setting aside considerations of religion and God, it is appropriate to sit up and take notice. The bishop in question is the Right Reverend Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Church of Scotland - aptly so entitled, as it happens, as a frequent cooker-up of controversy, and one who sets fire to much debate in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere for his liberal views on sex, homosexuals, drugs and  abortion. These very issues form the focus of his book Godless Morality, in which he makes a plea, liberal in inspiration, for what he calls a 'morality of consent'. Despite the secular connotations of the book's title, the bishop's plea is chiefly aimed at countering moral conservatism in the Christian churches; to already convinced secular liberals his arguments have long been familiar.

The first source of dismay for any members of the Bishop's flock will be his argument that moral debate does better without God. One reason, he says, is that unbelieving but principled people are insulted by the claim that we have to be religious to be moral, and moreover the history of religion's many and scarlet crimes against humanity makes that claim profoundly suspect. But his chief reason is the excellent one that an ethic should stand on its own feet, recommending itself to reason and goodwill, needing no support from divine threats of retribution to force compliance. Holloway argues that morality once took its cue from social arrangements in which authority was a matter of command from above - for example, from a king - but that times have changed: the loss of tradition and authority in society, and the passing of an unjust dispensation in which the female half of humanity was deprived of full human status, means that 'command morality' has to be replaced by 'consent morality', in which moral considerations are sensitive to the often irreconcilable pluralism of modern life, and to the demands, sexual and otherwise, of Nature in our make-up.

One immediate effect of detaching morality from religion, Holloway shows, is a grateful deliverance from the concept of sin. Sin is disobedience to God; morality is about relationships, responsibility and concern. Religion deals in absolutes; but in the wide variousness of the human condition there are no absolutes, only competing goods and desires. One of Holloway's key points is that this fact makes a turn to 'consent morality' indispensable. And once we make that turn, we find a better and more humane way to think about the central foci of moral anxiety in contemporary society - chief among them sex, drugs, abortion, euthanasia, and human fertility.

In arguing for a more liberal and permissive attitude to each of these matters Holloway employs the idea of 'ethical jazz', by which he means 'playing it by ear' in dealing with individual dilemmas as they arise. He insists, absolutely rightly, that when you know the special circumstances of any given case, you are far more likely to be sympathetic than when opposing an alleged form of immorality as a type. In a nice touch he characterises his view thus: 'let's motor; but let's keep the brakes in good working order'. This summarises what he also calls his 'middle way': prohibition of drugs is counter-productive, but complete licence would be harmful; abortion is not always murder; fertility treatment should be welcomed as helpful to those in genuine need of it.

Among the Bishop's views the most welcome is his positive attitude towards homosexuality, and the most interesting is his belief that contemporary sexual mores do not signify a deepening of immorality.

He holds the former view because he is a churchman who wishes the church to be open to all, to include rather than to alienate. In line with this view he often champions the cause of gays and lesbians in the church, and he repeats the case here.

His view about sex is more complex. He thinks that what young people call 'shagging' - viz. opportunistic, casual, recreational sex - does not interfere with the belief held by the same young people that commitment to a relationship means sexual fidelity and monogamy for the long term. And he thinks (adopting their terminology) that shagging is not outlawed by the Bible, which not only abounds in it but in forms of it (such as incest) which have completely lost the respectability they seem to have enjoyed in the days of Judah and Lot. Moreover, he blames Gnosticism for Christianity's unhealthy and deeply hostile attitude towards sex, implying that the New Testament is not much less tolerant than parts of the Old Testament in these respects.

Now, this interesting view is the precise point at which problems with the Bishop's stance arise. As mentioned, his book is really an argument with Christian conservatives; his target audience is the flock of Christians wavering between his own liberal line and the conservatives' more austere and traditional view. Truly secular liberals in moral matters would find nothing original or surprising about the Bishop's position, which they would regard as straightforward, humane common sense. By issuing a polemic against the conservatives Holloway demonstrates the continuing strength of their position. They say that the church's truths are for all time, and that when it is written 'to lie with a man as with a woman is an abomination' and 'women must cover their heads and keep silent in church ... and must obey their husbands', these injunctions are marmoreal: disobey them and you are punished in hell. So Holloway has to say that the Bible is allegorical, was written for the social circumstances of its time, and anyway has no single, stable point of view from which a morality can be deduced. Holloway has thus to be a trimmer to adapt the church to modern times; his book is proof of the fact that religion has to be reinvented practically out of recognition if it is going to stay alive and speak to changing times.

Moreover, in trying to save sex from Christianity, Holloway is not entirely ingenuous in unloading the blame on Gnosticism. St Paul, and the Church Fathers with their slavish acceptance of Platonism's depreciation of the body at the expense of the soul, have far more to do with it. Christian fear of sex and correlative hatred of women runs deep, almost as deep as the sexual impulse itself in human nature; which is why the former seems increasingly irrelevant as the latter surfaces into the fresh  of common sense and scientific understanding.


Faith, like a jackal, feads among the tombs,and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.


Some religious devotees feel so embattled and entbittered by-the questioning or rejection of their cherished beliefs that they are prepared to resort to murder, even indiscriminate mass murder, as happens wherever fanaticism mixes with resentment and ignorance to produce the hateful brew of what is done in the name of belief. 'Faith is what I die for, dogma is what I kill for,' as the saying has it; and the trouble is that all faith is based on dogma.

It is a curious fact that responsible enquiry, of the kind conducted by scientists and expected in courts of law, is careful in drawing its conclusions, and open-minded about the possibility of contrary future evidence, whereas, in sharp contrast, matters of faith are tenaciously regarded as inviolable, irrefutable, and unrevisable. The careful and open-minded procedures of science have given us electric light, antibiotics, central heating, television and computers. Science has often been perverted to bad uses - bombs and gas-chambers - but it is politics and politicians, not science and scientists, who do that. Religious belief, meanwhile, whatever it might do in comforting the fearful in the dark, has always and everywhere brought war, intolerance and persecution with it, and has distorted human nature into false and artificial shapes. Some try to palliate or even excuse the criimes committed by religion in human history by invoking the glorious art and music it has produced; to which the answer is that Greek mythology and secular avocations have done the same, without burning anyone at the stake in the process.

Faith is a negation of reason. Reason is the faculty of proportioning judgment to evidence, after first weighing the evidence. Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence. Søren Kierkegaard defined faith as the leap taken despite everything, despite the very absurdity of what one is asked to believe. When people can doggedly choose to believe that black is white, and can, in their utter certainty, go so far as to shoot you because you do not agree, there is little room for debate. 'Faith, fanatic Faith, once wedded fast to some dear falsehood, hugs it to the last,' says Thomas Moore's 'Veiled Prophet of Khorassan'.

In the branch of philosophy called 'epistemology' - the theory of knowledge - knowledge is defined as belief which is both true and justified. One main theory describes knowledge as a relationship between a state of mind and a fact. The content of the mental state is a judgment responsibly made, and the fact is (for example) some arrangement of the world which, when the judgment is true, is what makes it so. Belief differs from knowledge in that whereas the latter is controlled by the facts, and depends upon the right kind of relationship between mind and world, the former is all and only in the mind, and does not rely on anything in the world. One can, in short, believe anything: that pigs fly, that grass is blue, and that people who do not believe either are wicked. This is what makes St Augustine's remark that 'faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward for faith is to see what you believe', so sinister; for if one can believe anything, one can 'see' anything - and therefore feel entitled to do anything accordingly: to live like an Old Testament patriarch, which is silly, or even to kill another human being, which is vile.

It must strike even desultory readers of the Old Testament that the god it depicts - a tribal deity - is a bully and a tyrant of the first water. The contrast with the New Testament's avuncular deity is striking. But what readers might not know is that some biblical texts have a decidedly questionable history. Consider Deuteronomy, which in the midst of yet another doctrinal quarrel within Israel, was suddenly and conveniently 'found' by workmen refurbishing the Temple; and of course it gave unequivocal support to one side of the argument. Yahweh often entered on cue like this, apparently unable to resist politics; and invariably on the winning side.

Jesus's divinity affords another example. In Mark's Gospel he is a man; in the theology of St Paul he is the medium of the New Covenant; in the fourth century AD, after a massive controversy - over the Arian 'heresy' - Arius of Mexandria had argued that Jesus must be less divine than the Father - he became a god in human form.

An intriguing argument is offered by Karen Armstrong concerning the rise of Islam, which, she claims, resulted from an Arabic sense of inferiority. Arabs, she says, felt 'mingled resentment and respect' for Jews and Christians because they had enjoyed direct communication with God. Leaders like Zayd ibn Arhr longed for their own people to receive a divine revelation. It came at last to Muhammad ibn Abdallah in a terrifying experience on Mount Hira outside Mecca, in which the angel Gabriel instructed him to 'Recite!' The result, produced at laborious intervals over the following two decades, was the Koran, the 'Recitation', whose sheer beauty of language is reputed to have been a frequent instrument of conversion in its own right.

But as with Christianity, splits and controversies followed, and Islam's early tolerance towards other religions soon vanished, as did the early freedoms enjoyed by its women. And again as with Christianity, the long-term legacy includes the familiar horrors of intolerance, bigotry and persecution which characterise all organised religion.

The concept of God, as these thoughts show, is a gerrymandered affair. It is an invention of man, because humans are spiritual creatures, and spirituality matters. Some of us argue that only art and affection can appease its hungers. Rather than seek new definitions of deity, or 'New Age' religions, we do better to dispense with theologies altogether, and place our hopes in the best of things human instead.

If one wished for a particular illustration of why, no better example could be adduced than that of Urbain Grandier, a man who made a fatal mistake long ago, in the year 1618. Grandier's wit, his intelligence, his worldly ways, the romantic scandals in which he became embroiled, would not by themselves have ensured his downfall, even though he was a politically active priest in a region of France where relations between the Catholic Church and the Huguenots were tense. But his wit was of the satirical kind, and when in that year he ridiculed a government minister called Armand Jean du Plessis, he did not know how high his enemy would eventually rise, nor how unforgiving his enemy's powers of memory would prove; for Armand was the future Cardinal Richelieu.

Twelve years later Grandier was accused by the nuns of the Ursuline convent in Loudun, where he was priest of St-Pierredu-Marche, of conjuring demons into them. The nuns knew that Grandier, tall and handsome, and a spell-binding orator, counted among his notorious liaisons a love affair with Madeleine de Brou, to whom he dedicated a treatise on why it is theologically permissible for priests to marry. Bewitched by him psychologically, the nuns came to think they had been bewitched by him literally. Following a visitation of the plague in 1630 there was a series of hysterical outbreaks in the convent, which began to coalesce around references to Grandier, and finally into accusations that he had summoned the devil to possess not only the Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges, but most of the other nuns. The result is well known, in film and story, as the 'Possession of Loudun'.

There was an inquiry after the first outbreak among the nuns, but local scepticism and the more influential disbelief of the Bishop of Poitiers and the Archbishop of Bordeaux put an end to it. Not long afterwards, pursuing a general policy of demilitarising France's provinces, Richelieu sent his agent Laubardemont to Loudun to supervise the demolition of its fortifications. This policy was unpopular in Loudun as elsewhere, for in depriving provincial towns of their defences it exposed them to the depredations of mercenary armies. Demolition of the walls was therefore resisted, and in Loudun one of the leaders of the opposition was Urbain Grandier. Laubardemont reported back to Richelieu, who instantly saw his chance to remove an impediment and settle an old score simultaneously. He instructed Laubardemont to reopen the demonism enquiry, and a terrible inexorability entered the picture.

Three exorcists - a Capuchin, a Franciscan and a Jesuit - set to work on the nuns of Loudun, interrogating the devils in Latin and Hebrew. Such writhings of bodies followed, and such lewd displays and language by the contorted women of the Ursuline convent, that all France was set alight. The demons were ordered to reveal who had summoned them into the nuns' bodies, and with one voice they replied 'Urbain Grandier!' The proceedings were public; up to 7000 people at a time witnessed the devil-prompted indecencies committed by the nuns. The Jesuit exorcist himself became possessed by devils, and Jeanne des Anges, when she had recovered from her ordeal, became a national celebrity, travelling all over France to speak of her adventures.

The principal evidence against Urbain Grandier was a contract he had signed with Satan and assorted subordinate devils, all of whom - Astoroth, Beelzebub, and Leviathan among them - had put their signatures to the document too, in flourishing calligraphy. On such conclusive evidence Grandier's case was hopeless. Before being burned alive at the stake (lesser felons were strangled before the flames were lit) he was tortured in the 'boots', a contraption designed to crush the prisoner's feet and lower limbs. His exorcists, fearing that the common executioner would not be strong enough to overcome the resistance of the devils in Grandier, wielded the hammers themselves. He was dragged from the torture chamber to the stake, and even as (according to one witness) the blood and marrow from his mangled legs left a trail on the cobblestones, some of the nuns took pity on him and tried to recant. To the exorcists this was proof that the devils were not quite yet banished.

To read about the terrible fate of Urbain Grandier is to follow -step by inexorable step - a black story of intrigue, politics, malice, duplicity, credulity, suffering and madness. Mas, it is not unusual in the history either of human folly or the crimes of religion.

Grandier's fate is the fate of a man lost under the joint government of religious superstition and human malice - a natural and ancient partnership. Malice will always be with us, one supposes, but a question can be asked about the other half of the equation. Does religious superstition any longer deserve a place in the intellectual economy of the world?

The history of human knowledge shows that it does not. Religion is the legacy of our cave-men ancestors. Religious beliefs constituted their science, religious practices their higher technology. As the former it offered them explanations of wind and storm, the origin of the world, the meaning of the stars. As the latter it offered a means of avoiding drought, curing illness, and winning wars - by prayer, sacrifice, and the careful observance of taboos and rituals, all aimed at pleasing or at least appeasing the mysterious and often terrible forces which seemed to them to govern the world.

God, accordingly, is the name of our ignorance. As real knowledge and mastery advance, there is diminishing need to invoke supernatural agencies to explain the world. Deities inhabit the dark places over the horizon of knowledge, and retreat as light approaches. Yet the priests of these ancient ignorances, claiming their authority, exhort us to restrict our behaviour in a variety of ways, some of the restrictions being merely odd (avoid meat on Fridays) and some demonstrably harmful to our well-being (frustrate your natural affections).

Perhaps the most striking conflict between ancient ignorance and modern knowledge is found in the competing accounts they offer of the origin and nature of the universe. Each of the world's many religions has its own version of a tale in which some or other supernatural agency acts upon chaos to bring the world into being, the task taking anything between an instant and a week. Few of them offer any account of the agency's origins, which are left in mystery. For most religions the creation story is a fact of faith, an absolute truth. Contemporary science hypothesises an evolutionary tale of physical forces. I say 'hypothesises', note; hypothesises on the basis of good evidence, severely tested, with many aspects of the accompanying theory successfully applied to daily life - as exemplified by the light you read by, the computer you work on, the airplane you fly in. The great advantage of science's careful and thorough hypotheses, always ready to yield if better evidence comes along, is that it makes use of no materials or speculations beyond what the world itself offers. Religions, in sharp contrast, offer us eternal certitudes on the basis only of ancient superstitions.

Some scientists, amazingly, are religious, and they are apt to say that the best argument they can give for having religious beliefs is the so-called 'argument to the best explanation', which in this case says that, given the inconclusiveness of our state of knowledge, the best account we can give of the world is that there is a God.

This argument is famously weak. Two thoughts show why. One is that it is very far from clear that theism is the best explanation for the existence and nature of the world, especially as by citing the existence and activity of a deity to answer questions about why there is a world and how it came into being, it simply shifts the problem back a step - to questions about why there is a deity, and how it came into being. Secondly, there is the simple fact that even if, improbably, appeal to the existence of a deity were the best explanation human intelligence could invent, the fact is that what looks like the best explanation in any subject matter can be wrong. Such arguments are intrinsically feeble; they amount to saying, 'This is the best we can do to explain such-and-such in our present state of ignorance.' And ignorance is the key: gods invariably inhabit the shadowy realm of ignorance beyond the horizon of knowledge, a horizon which recedes before us - taking its supernatural baggage as it goes - as enquiry advances.

Science, one would think, has put the ancient superstitions to flight. A mighty battle was fought in the nineteenth century over this matter in respect of Christianity; its history is a complicated one, but religious missions - not just to Africa and the Far East but to the slums of London and New York, in all cases proselytising the ignorant and unlettered who had not heard of science - saved the churches and laid the basis for the many fundamentalist denominations prevalent in the world today among peoples once colonised by the European powers.

Religious apologists speak much about beauty and goodness, personhood, and subjective experience. These are indeed the things that matter most. But apologists make the standard mistake - and often wilfully make it - of conflating these high and good matters of human experience with anything super- natural. Humanity's sense of beauty, and dlecency, our power to love, our creativity - all the best things about us - belong to us, to human experience in the real world. They neither need, nor benefit from, some alleged connection with supernatural agencies of one kind or another. They are ours, just as much as the evil, stupidity, greed and cruelty which they oppose. Indeed: why do not religious apologists say that these bad things come from the gods, the better things from man, rather than - as they always claim - the other way round?


Men talk about Bible miracles because there is no miracle in their lives. Cease to gnaw that crust. There is ripe fruit over your head.


The happy fact about miracles is that they require no support lin the way of evidence or rational evaluation. Indeed, they do better without them. Mark Twain illustrates this by relating how an enquirer asked a celebrated professor whether recently-received reports (it was then 1909) claiming that Dr Frederick Cook had discovered the North Pole were true. 'The answer, yes or no,' replied the professor, 'depends entirely upon the answer to this question: Is it claimed that Dr Cook's achievement is a Fact, or a Miracle? If it is a Miracle, any sort of evidence will answer, but if it is a Fact, proof is necessary.' 'Is that the law?' asked the enquirer. 'Yes,' said the professor, 'it is absolute. Modifications of it are not permissible. A very pertinent remark has been quoted from the Westminster Gazette, which points out that "the golfer, when he puts in a record round, has to have his card signed, and that there is nobody to sign Dr Cook's card; there are two Eskimos to vouch for his feat, to be sure, but they were his caddies, and at golf their evidence would not be accepted." There you have the whole case. If Dr Cook's feat is put forward as Fact, the evidence of the two caddies is inadequate; if it is put forward as Miracle, one caddy is plenty.'

Miracles are standardly described as supernatural abrogations of the laws of nature. Some believers hold that they are not abrogations of nature's laws, but only seem that way to ignorant humanity. In any event they are extremely non-standard events. Obviously, the concept of the miraculous is very useful because it can be invoked to explain anything whatever. But therein also lies its weakness; as David Hume pointed out, when one weighs the evidence supporting the regular functioning of natural laws with evidence supporting claims that there has been a singular violation of them, the former must always so far outweigh the latter as to render them nugatory. And he added that it is infinitely more likely that a person who claims to have witnessed a miracle is mistaken, or deluded, or lying, than that the relevant laws of nature should in fact have been abolished temporarily for some local purpose.

There is another and better sense of 'miracle', a colloquial one, denoting what is wonderful in both nature and human nature at their best. No gods are needed to explain them, and the only faith required is in the world's own capacity for good -a capacity which, in its variety and extent, is itself miraculous.


Study prophecy when they are become histories.


It seems that the third prophecy of Fatima, kept secret until recently, concerned the assassination attempt on the Pope in 1981. Heaven's choice of what to alert us to is a mystery - the famines, genocides, earthquakes and plagues provided by the divine mercy since Fatima were not advertised as forthcoming in its bulletin, yet the assassination attempt was. According to a Cardinal who is the Vatican secretary of state, a complete text of the prophecy will be published after what he unblushingly describes as 'appropriate' preparation, so perhaps the special significance of the event will be explained.

Still, the banality of most Christian messages from heaven since St John (the Apocalypse is a hard act to follow) is something of a relief in comparison to those in other religions, which seem mainly to encourage the murder of heretics (i.e. those who disagree with the leaders of the faith in question).

News that the third prophecy of Fatima was fulfilled two decades ago suggests that the Vatican know Thomas Browne's remark, quoted above. Prophecies are always more plausible when their futures are in our pasts, so that we can interpret them historically. As with Rorschach blots, the past is very generous in the interpretations it admits. If, as with the quatrains of Nostradamus, the prophecies themselves are couched in maximally obscure terms, a happy marriage results:

all prophecies can be made to come out true.

In biblical times, and for a long period afterwards, 'prophecy' meant interpreting the will of God. A prophet was a teacher, a moralist, as well as a forecaster. All religions and traditions have their seers. Apollo, frustrated in his passion for the chaste Cassandra, cursed her prophecies so that no one would believe them. Tiresias the blind seer saw more and further than any sighted man. Soothsayers have never been short of work because humans are superstitious and life is uncertain - a profitable combination from the soothsayer's point of view. The church condemned many seers as votaries of Satan, on the grounds that attempting to know the future is sinful. This applied only to prophecy not licensed by the church itself, of course, and represents a market strategy for undermimng the competition.

Prophecy in the sense of foretelling the future makes sense only if determinism is true - that is, if the future history of the world is alieady settled and fixed. Theologians have their work cut out reconciling the free will required for sin with the omniscience of God who, knowing everything, knows what is to come. The medieval Schoolmen devised elaborate explanations of how human freedom and divine foreknowledge can coexist. For sheer ingenuity their arguments earn high marks.

Prophecy has a respectable and necessary cousin, which is rational forecasting based on past experience and current data, with a view to assessing what is more probable than not in such matters as tomorrow's weather, next year's social trends, and the long-term effects of cigarette-smoking and pollution. All life is movement into the future, and therefore planning and preparing is essential if life is to be worth living. The premise of this view is the exact opposite of the one underlying belief in prophecy: it is that the future does not yet exist, but is ours to make - and that we can make it best on the basis of intelligent understanding of the past and present.

Even in antiquity the examination of auspices was not always seen as predictive, but as revealing the current state of the gods' attitudes. If the gods were hostile, the likelihood was that the proposed venture - a battle, or the builing of a palace - would fail. But enough libations and sacrifices could change the gods' minds, securing success. Some ancient philosophers recognised the startling implication of this idea. It is that if we can influence what will happen, we are therefore responsible for what will happen, for even doing nothing is a choice. Regarding the future as open therefore makes us the captains of our fate. To think the opposite - that prophecy is possible, and that therefore the future is fixed - leaves us merely fate's victims.

Amenities and Goods


Reason can wrestle with terrors, and overthrow them.


The conflicts which attract most attention in the news tend either to be political and military in nature, or they involve the struggle between people and the natural environment when, in floods, drought and plague, it turns hostile. But behind these, and detached from them because it is a struggle whose proportions are those of history itself, is another struggle, a profound and consequential one because it shapes long-term human destinies. This is the struggle of ideas, expressing itself in terms of ideologies, politics, and the conceptual frameworks which determine beliefs and moralities. Our understanding of the human situation, and the choices we make in managing the unruly and difficult complexities of social existence, are founded on ideas - usually, ideas systematised into theories. Ultimately it is ideas that drive people to peace or war, which shape the systems under which they live, and which determine how the world's scarce resources are shared among them. Ideas matter; and so therefore does the question of reason, by which ideas live or die.

On one view, reason is the armament of ideas, the weapon employed in conflicts between viewpoints. This suggests that in some sense reason is an absolute which, rightly used, can settle disputes and guide us to truth. But  reason so understood has always had enemies. One is religion, which claims that revelation from outside the world conveys truths undiscoverable by human enquiry within it. Another is relativism, the view that different truths, different views, different ways of thinking, are all equally valid, and that there is no authoritative standpoint from which they can be adjudicated. The great debates between science and religion are classic expressions of this underlying conflict between competing conceptions of the place and nature of reason.

Most science and philosophy is on the side of the argument which says that reason, despite its imperfections and fallibilities, provides a standard to which competing standpoints must submit themselves. Reason's champions are accordingly hostile to currently fashionable 'postmodernist' views which say that there are authorities more powerful than reason, such as race, tradition, nature, or supernatural entities.

Human traits and values were once thought to be constants, but social and other forms of engineering have turned them into manipulable variables, with the result that we have lost premises from which to reason about aims and means. The power of technology offers us many choices, and thus usurps the fixed starting points of old; so we are afloat, undecided as to values and goals alike. In such circumstances, siren voices grow louder: let us, they say, believe in gods, or potions, or planetary configurations, to findour way. Or, in postmodernist Newspeak, let us recognise that there are only 'discourses', each as valid as any other.

It might be true that human experience is now more fragmented and beset by ironies than it once was, thereby undermining confidence. But still, say the champions of reason, reason remains by far the best guide in the search for knowledge, so despite its failings and limitations we must cling to it.

There are many who reject  this view outright.Western civilisation is in crisis, they say, precisely because we believe in reason. We live in thrall to a Utopian ideal of rational society, first mooted by Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth century; but the result, contrary to the hopes of such as Voltaire, has not liberated humanity but enslaved it to a bureaucratic corporatism which stumbles, unconstrained by moral purpose, from one disaster to another.

The anti-rationalist argument goes something like this. Enlightenment philosophers sought to rescue people from the arbitrariness of royal or priestly power and to replace it by the rule of reason. But their dream collapsed because of reason's own limitations. All that happened was an increase in the influence of technical elites. The world, in short, became the fiefdom of managers. Owners of capital do not control capital; voters do not control politics; everything is run by managers who alone know how to manipulate the structural complexities of society. And the managers' goals - profits, election victories -are not shaped by morality.

This technocratic corporatism applied as much to the now-collapsed Eastern bloc as it does to the West. Indeed the East-West distinction, like that between Left and Right, is not a real distinction at all, such critics argue, but a fiction of the managerial strategy by which the Age of Reason sustains itself.

Simply by listing the problems of contemporary civilisation anyone can make telling points. Reason's critics do so eloquently enough. Politicians, they remind us, get away with speaking literal nonsense because what counts is the manner, not the content, of their utterances. Governments brazenly continue despite their failures because the concept of responsibility no longer applies. Television, advertising, and the worship of artificial heroes such as soap-opera stars blind people to the world's predicament.

These phenomena, and many besides, are symptoms of deep malaise. Worse still are such examples as the arms trade, encouraged by governments who make pious pronouncements about peace and freedom, but who subvert both by their participation in what amounts to legal gun-rurrning. And this is only part of a story in which military establishments flourish, drunk on obsessions with management and technology; and in which many parts of the world are perennially engulfed in war.

Although this compendium of problems contains nothing new, restating them serves to keep us alert. But blame for the world's problems rests not with a concept - still less the Enlightenment's favourite concept of reason - but with people. Reason is merely an instrument which, correctly employed, helps people draw inferences from given premises without inconsistency. Choosing sound premises is what matters, and it is solely a human responsibility. Blaming 'reason' is as meaningful as blaming 'memory' or 'perception'. It was the racism of Nazis, not the logic they applied to put their hatred into effect, which caused the Holocaust.

Do critics mean that the use of reason is bad without qualification? I imagine them at their word-processors, answering the telephone, taking antibiotics for their sore throats, flipping switches to get warmth and light as cold night falls. Are all these products of reason contemptible?

The muddle in the thinking of reason's critics appears when we examine their alternative. They offer us a list of virtues to put in reason's place: one such reads 'spirit, appetite, faith, emotion, intuition, will, experience'. One immediately notes that all but the last, if ungoverned by reason, are exactly the stuff which fuels fanaticism and holy wars. Here lies the poverty of the anti-rationalist's account.

Related Articles

Ordinary Miracles

A guardian on your shoulder?

The Mothman Prophecies

The Prosecutor's Fallacy

Bayesian Probability

Bayes Theorem


Boolean Algebra

Occam's Razor

Church's Lambda Calculus

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem

Kolmogorov Complexity