Monthly Archives: August 2014

Christianity: A Cold-House for Philosophers & Lesbians

This week the Christian singer-songwriter turned religious commentator Vicky Beeching has “come out.” The Independent printed a fascinating interview with her here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

I’ve read the article and have been fascinated by some of the comments flying around cyberspace. From what I can gather most of the Twitterverse has rallied round, and I’m sure Beeching has been buoyed by the reception she has received. Of course, as is patently clear in her interview, Beeching knows all too well the suspicion and downright religious hatred that is often directed towards homosexuals by Christians generally and Evangelicals in particular. She was quite rightly nervous about how the news of her sexuality would be received.

Thus far, from what I can tell, she’s done well. Most of the reaction has been supportive, and many people were moved by the interview (if you haven’t read it stop reading my ramblings and read it), with some claiming to have shed tears at what she has struggled through from a very early age. I can’t claim to have shed any tears myself, but one particular episode she recounts had me almost shaking with rage (I’m from Belfast, we don’t cry, we just get mad!). At age 16 she attended a large rally, seemingly the kind of charismatic shindig where people are told that Jesus has the power to deliver you from all sorts of bondage. Being confused and guilt-ridden from feeling same-sex attraction and trying to live within a conservative faith community which condemns it, Beeching went forward for prayer only to find herself surrounded by horribly overzealous charismatics praying in tongues and trying to cast evil spirits out of her. This maddened me so much I was almost swearing in tongues.

When you read the interview you are struck by just how harmful and abusive certain forms of Christianity can be. And the question was inevitably raised in several comments: why on earth would you stay true to a church or a faith that has wounded you as much as this?

I have often pondered the same question in my own case. I’m not gay, but I’ve seen and been victim of my own fair share of ecclesiastical abuses. I spent 10 years in the horribly abusive charismatic movement, I’ve witnessed enough church abuses to last me a lifetime from manipulative, greedy preachers to the cultish behaviour of certain faithful church members. In my own case I’ve experienced rejection and alienation simply because I’m not an “easy believer.” Being a philosopher can be a difficult business when it comes to church. The kind of questioning and critical nature of the average philosopher isn’t often welcomed in churches. To a great extent I’ve lived in isolation from Christian culture, feeling I don’t fit in. I even deleted my Facebook account a few months ago largely because I was growing weary of other Christians I know. I was weary of having my faith constantly called into question because I didn’t sign up to the party-line on some given issue, or because I questioned the public comments of some fundamentalist preacher. More than that I felt many of these Christians were embarrassing themselves in front of my non-Christian friends with downright idiotic comments. In fact, one of my closer non-Christian friends remarked to me: “Do you not think you’re on the wrong side?”

And thus the question comes back: why bother with an institution or with a faith that has wounded you so much, that has caused so much grief to you?

Beeching has stated that she wants to be an agent for change in the church, and that she remains a passionate Christian believer. And that’s exactly the right answer, I think. In my own case I remain a Christian because I believe the central tenets of Christianity are true. It’s not about how it makes you feel, or about how the behaviour of other adherents affects you. At rock bottom the best (only?) reason to hold to any belief is if you are convinced of its truth. Some of the adherents of Christianity can be rotten, blinkered, petty-minded, bigoted, intolerant and about as much fun to be around as a grizzly bear with a migraine. In fairness, there are many also who are kind-hearted, compassionate, hard-working, helpful, fair-minded and self-sacrificing. But we’re not Christians because some Christians are nice. Nor should we abandon faith because others are nasty. Christianity – like any worldview or faith system – stands or falls on the grounds of truth. Insofar as Beeching is convinced of the truth of her faith she is quite right not to abandon it despite the horrendous suffering she has endured at the hands of those who really should have done better.

Stephen J. Graham

Stephen J. Graham

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Kids, Philosophy & Religious Objections

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” – Robin Williams (as John Keating), Dead Poets Society

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of philosophical education for children in schools, and was delighted to find this recent article written by Stephen Law, a philosopher at Heythrop College: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/religion-and-philosophy-in-schools.html

In this article Law defends the teaching of critical thinking skills to children against some common objections. What is most amazing to me is that we should have to defend the teaching of critical thinking skills at all. And yet there really are people – Law cites a popular British columnist and a leading Rabbi – who are very influential, should be intelligent, and yet who oppose it. Law points out that many religious people would be absolutely fine with such a programme of education, and yet (as I too find in my own research) those who oppose it are typically religious.

But let’s look at a few positives first. It’s my own view that philosophy is of such fundamental importance that we should consider it alongside traditional staples of education such as mathematics or English. At its most basic philosophy is about reasoning well about all manner of subjects – from every day run-of-the-mill issues to the big questions of life, existence, meaning and morals. It can help us to cut through nonsense and waffle, spot reasoning mistakes in the work of news reporters, journalists, politicians, and even teachers, as well as analyze complex concepts and entire worlds of thought. In a mini interview Guy Longworth, a philosopher at Warwick University, captures neatly the importance of philosophy: “Many important questions – including truths about morality, aesthetics, the very general structure of reality, and our relation to that reality – can be known, if at all, only through philosophy.”

I recently took an IQ test (130 if you’re interested, and even if not I’m bragging) which included questions that the vast majority of the population gets wrong, and yet in order to get them right all you need are basic reasoning skills – the sort that understands nothing more complex than modus ponens or modus tollens. Apparently the failure to spot elementary reasoning mistakes is widespread. I’m reminded of an article I read a number of years ago which reasoned that because most rapes were committed by men that therefore most men were inclined to be rapists. Quantifier shift fallacy. Logic 101. Of course, philosophers also make mistakes and propound invalid and unsound arguments (I’ve propounded a few myself), but rarely so glaring and basic, and are typically more willing to abandon (or able to correct) a poor argument when the mistake comes to light.

Reasoning skills are vital. Does anyone seriously suggest that a lack of reasoning skills is a useful thing? Is it a bad thing that children learn skills that will assist them in analyzing complex problems, read carefully, critically assess all kinds of ideas, and explore the big and most interesting questions of human existence? Is there some supposed problem with teaching children to express themselves with clarity and precision, or how to construct a solid case for something? Learning to think for oneself is an important part of maturity and intellectual growth, the skills for which can be taught from quite an early age. I routinely use Lego to explore philosophical topics with my 7 year old son – ranging from free will, to right and wrong, good and evil, and the existence of God (see my blog post here: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/category/lego/). And none of it goes over his head. Kids tend to respond incredibly well to philosophical issues and problems, and often display a creative intelligence and curiosity that, sadly, many adults have long since lost. Whilst some people claim that we run the risk of raising a bunch of argumentative brats, I would argue that when properly taught philosophy should increase one’s levels of intellectual humility. After all, in philosophy we’ll see incredibly intelligent opponents stating their case, we’ll come to appreciate that even seemingly obviously wrong positions aren’t quite as silly as they look at first, and that when dealing with ultimate questions the answers are rarely straightforward.

The strength of philosophy as a discipline is well known. For instance, recent studies in the US have shown that university students who have studied philosophy at undergraduate level exceed other graduates on standardized professional and graduate school admissions tests (such as the LSAT, GMAT and the GRE). Incredibly enough philosophy graduates even perform better on verbal skills than English graduates, and unsurprisingly outstrip all other graduates on analytical skills. The following link and the graphs contained therein illustrate just how strongly philosophy graduates perform in contrast to other disciplines:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/12/verbal-vs-mathematical-aptitude-in-academics/

And thus it’s really no surprise to find philosophy graduates in all manner of careers from law to banking to journalism. So, it seems that philosophy is massively beneficial (though, of course, the philosophers reading this will point out that perhaps it is the case that smart people choose philosophy, not that philosophy makes one smart!). This evidence isn’t conclusive of course, but it’s highly suggestive that it’s a great discipline to study and master if one wishes to excel at a range of skills that are valuable both in life and to potential employers.

As beneficial as studying philosophy seems to be, there are opponents; and as already stated these opponents tend to be religious. This baffles me – a “non-Calvinist Presbyterian!” I first attended university to study chemistry but found I wasn’t interested in it enough to study it. I decided to switch to what I was interested in: theology and philosophy. I remember the look on the face of a church elder when I told him I was going to study theology – sheer delight. I remember how his faced changed when I added “and philosophy” – sheer horror. “You’ve got to watch that philosophy!” was his advice. To be honest, in my experience, the study of philosophy is much more conducive to religious belief than studying theology. Theology was often dry and tedious, not to mention full of shockingly poor reasoning. I ended up approaching the subject primarily as a philosopher than a theologian, choosing theology modules that were more philosophical in nature – such as Christian thought and world religions, though admittedly the Old Testament always fascinated me. Philosophy, by contrast, was much more of an “adventure of the mind.” It was in my philosophy classes that I met authors who forever changed how I think – William James and Alvin Plantinga being particularly influential on me. Moreover, they changed how I think as a theist in ways that theologians rarely did (though I happily give a nod in the direction of NT Wright, one particular exception).

So what lies behind this suspicion of philosophy on the part of many religious believers? I suspect the biggest problem is simply ignorance – ignorance of what philosophy does. Or perhaps ignorance that considers it synonymous with rabid atheism. Ignorance too of the fact that there are many philosophers who are both religious and of the highest academic standing: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, Evans, Davis, Pruss, Helm, Hick (deceased), Wolterstorff, Alston (deceased), McGrew, Stump, Leftow. So many, in fact, that atheist philosopher Quentin Smith complained that God is alive and well in His one academic stronghold – philosophy departments.

But I think more than ignorance is at work. I detect a strong level of fear: the fear of risk. What if we study philosophy and it turns out that the case for God crumbles and atheism appears to be the truth? Some Christians prefer the discipline of apologetics to philosophy of religion for this reason. Apologetics is about defending what one believes. Philosophy of religion is about seeking the truth wherever that may lead, even if it leads away from the beliefs that one currently holds. There’s no real way to assuage such fears – such a risk will always be present in any truth seeking discipline. But as a theist I honestly cannot imagine being in the position of having to give up theism. It’s a risk, sure, but a small one, I’ve discovered. In any event if one is sure of one’s faith what is there to fear of any discipline that seeks to discover truths about reality?

The teaching of philosophy would be greatly beneficial to children. So important, I think, that the fears of a largely religious minority should not have veto power over it. Thus it’s difficult to disagree with Stephen Law when he concludes: “all children should, without exception, be encouraged to think critically – and thus philosophically – even about the moral and religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom. Religious parents should not be able to opt out.”

Stephen J. Graham

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