Skip to content

Ruminations in Oxford

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.


  1. If you have a chance, can you see what the relative proportion of Abrahamaic traditional religions versus non are in discussions and presentations? I understand much of this will involve in the interactions and development of Christianity, but I am concerned that this is overshadowing other religions, and that this may pepper the concept of religion with cross-shaped inclusions.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Owen Flanagan is about to discuss eastern religious traditions…

  2. John Fox John Fox

    I increasingly find you the blogging philosopher I tend to think is most reliably spot on. Power to your elbow. (Either elbow; your choice.)

  3. I know it’s hard to generalize about religions but don’t they all have one thing in common – belief in the existence of one or more supernatural beings?

    Yes, it’s true that there are some forms of Buddhism that are atheistic but we can treat those are exceptions … perhaps not even a true religion. 🙂

    The accommodationists like to point out that there are a thousand religions and some of them have very sophisticated beliefs and practices. They emphasize this point in order to show that no atheist is an expert on all these beliefs. This is supposed to be a demonstration that atheists are greatly over-simplifying the problem. The implication is that you can’t defend atheism unless you engage in a deep study of Mithras or Gitche Manitou.

    One wonders how the typical Christian who makes this claim has come to reject Gitche Manitou. Why are they atheistic about so many Gods that they haven’t studied? Perhaps you could ask Alister McGrath or Keith Ward why they seem to define religion only in terms of the God of the Christian Bible?

    My position is that the “problem” is belief in the supernatural and that’s all that’s important in the debate. The other stuff (e.g., the problem of evil) is just extra fluff based on the premise that God(s) exist. It’s the premise that’s being challenged.

    What’s wrong with saying that the one thing that religions have in common is belief in the supernatural? Are the conference participants comfortable with the idea that you could be religious and still be an atheist?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      In doing that sort of move you run the risk, and I think it is a real one, of cherry picking the phenomena you are prepared to include in the explanans. However, it is my view that there is one sense of religion, based on the Minimal Counterintuitive (MCI) view, that religions involve entities that are like us but have powers we do not have (in west semitic languages, the words for god are cognate with the words for power). However, this is not by any means the only sense in which religions exist, and many religions are almost god-free. Confucianism, in the initial sense if not the folk sense, does not have supernatural agents, and a number of Buddhisms do not either.

      That said, I think that almost nobody here thinks that any religions as practised in fact lack supernatural entities. The problem is that other beliefs that are not religious also do. Humans are effectively purpose machines, and so they attribute intentionality to all kinds of things (look up “resistentialism” if you want a laugh), so it is not sufficient to include all and only religions by pointing to supernatural entities.

      • A. Clausen A. Clausen

        You mention Confucianism and certain brands of Buddhism as being essentially “god-free”, but you also mention folk beliefs, and I think this is an important point. While in many (most) Western and Middle Eastern religions the ritualistic, theological and philosophical elements were by and large merged to create, to one degree or another, monolithic faith systems. In at least some Eastern religions, the philosophical elements remained separate, and thus Confucianism, Taoism and some breeds of Buddhism sit side by side with folk elements.

        The Abrahamic Religions of created the most successful mergers of these properties. A lot of us being Westerners are heavily influenced by the two thousand years (even longer if you count Hellenic Judaism) of the merger of Aristotelean thought and the Abrahamic ethics, theology and mythos.

      • The Wikipedia article on “resistentialism” has this link which I think is essential reader for all research scientists!
        Thank you Mr Wilkins

      • I wrote an argument once that any system of belief, including the non-existence of the supernatural, is religious. This was meant as dichotomous to the argument of agnosticism, where “relgion” defines a system of purported belief, and that a principle is “religious” if it is perceived to be true. Is this in any way sensible?

  4. Ribozyme Ribozyme

    Richard Dawkins is sitting in on this conference so far, and I have had a chance to chat a bit with him

    So, do you hate his guts less now? I think he is a very likable person, and you will agree with me that his charisma has contributed to the popularity of his writings.

    • J.J.E. J.J.E.

      Oh come now Ribozyme… I gather from this very blog that John is on rather friendly terms with PZ, who is rather more extreme than Dawkins. It would be entirely unsurprising that John personally liked many who disagreed with him or disliked many who agreed with him. Interpersonal relationships don’t necessarily fall along positions on an intellectual debate (though they can — Wilson v. Gould & Lewonton, e.g.).

  5. Professor Wilkins,
    It was wonderful to get a chance to meet you this week! I agree, the conference made very clear the complexities that arise in any conversation or investigation of religion, but also how fascinating such an interdisciplinary study can be! I’m curious to hear about the last day – did they manage to organize the panel discussion with Dawkins? I’ll be posting some thoughts on the conference on my own blog,

    The Beyond Belief series on the Science Network is particularly relevant, with many of the same speakers:

    Thank you, and I look forward to reading more evolving thoughts!

  6. jeb jeb

    “What’s wrong with saying that the one thing that religions have in common is belief in the supernatural?”

    It leads to some seriously bad assumptions being made with regard to the origin and development of religion.

    Ive interviewed a number of people who have no religious beliefs but who still claim to believe in the existance of the evil eye.

    I suspect this is not because they are irrational, but because the evil eye has rather practical social functions relating to in-group exclusion.

    This is the way they have learnt to discuss such matters. It’s a form of disguise.

    Ive no problem with the contemporary issues people have with contemporary religion.

    I have major issues when people feel they can use the past anyway they want to back up contemporary concerns. A number of popular academics have used religion and the supernatural in this manner. Making claims about the past which have no historical credability.

    Inventing historical bogey men is no better than inventing supernatural ones. Its a form of disguise.

  7. He is a curious kind of Catholic philosopher – a Wittgensteinian not wedded to Thomistic doctrine and quite sharply critical of the hierarchy…

    He sounds a lot like the later Herbert McCabe.

Comments are closed.