The conference proceeds apace. I have met some very nice and interesting people: Pat Churchland, Owen Flanagan, Ara Norenzayan, whose paper I ineffectually commented upon, Robin Dunbar, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Tony Coady, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, and a number of people who I previously knew but am pleased to reacquaint myself with.
One core theme that comes out of this is that “religion” is not a singular natural phenomenon, but at best a family resemblance cluster, and at worst a number of disparate phenomena that are grouped simply because they happen to co-occur in one religion – Christianity. Today, Walter will talk from an eastern perspective, but Dunbar and Harvey Whitehouse both made the point that religion is not something we can talk about unqualified.
I also should mention The Science Network which is covering the conference and will eventually put video and interviews up. This is an excellent resource for those who are interested in these topics, and more closely to my heart, those who teach these topics to naive students. Video always brings subjects alive.
Richard Dawkins is sitting in on this conference so far, and I have had a chance to chat a bit with him, but I still think that he takes too simplistic an approach. It’s not that I disagree with him about the conclusions he reaches, generally, but that he fails to appreciate – at least in print – the complexities of religion and society. These were, however, displayed in an excellent talk by Ben Kaplan, a historian, on the ways in which coexistence was achieved in the early modern period between Catholics and Protestants even though they loathed and did not tolerate each other. I think I must read his book. The degree of particularity in historical work shows how generalisations are hard and I would even think impossible to make about social relationships of this kind. I only objected to his dismissal of the history of ideas, but I was assured by him in conversation that he didn’t mean the kind I did, of course…
Tony Coady is a philosopher at the University of Melbourne who spends a lot of time in Oxford. Oddly, I never met him when I did my PhD there (I was a part time student working full time). He is a curious kind of Catholic philosopher – a Wittgensteinian not wedded to Thomistic doctrine and quite sharply critical of the hierarchy (he remarked that it takes the Vatican some time to come to the conclusions of the laity, and then they suffer a kind of historical amnesia, that they never actually said, for instance, that liberal democracy was insane). I like him a lot, but I still think that he cherry picks his “good” Christians and ignores the “bad” in order to assert that “true religion” is not dangerous. I’m sure that liberals and radicals in Franco’s Spain might disagree.
Today is day three, and when I finish this coffee I’m off to hear more. It has turned out more interesting to this moral black hole than I expected. I want to know how things evolve and develop, while the focus has been on what the moral outcomes are. It’s good for an amoralist like myself to be forced to attend to such matters from time to time, but I promise not to make a habit of it.