Madeleine Bunting, fifth-rate accommodationist

July 2, 2009 • 7:05 pm

Really, just when you think the hopper of stupidity has emptied itself for the day, something happens to fill it back up. This time it’s the ever-reliable Madeleine Bunting and her minions. Over at the Guardian, Bunting reports on an accommodationist conference at Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her column is, as the Brits say, a dog’s breakfast.

She first laments that so much time is being wasted by discussing accommodationism:

So what happens when there is an attempt at a very different kind of conversation which is not around the extremes of belief and non belief but largely amongst thoughtful believers, many of whom might be scientists? That was the proposition behind Lambeth Palace’s gathering of scientists, philosophers and theologians yesterday morning.

The discussion can be framed around two very basic, crucial questions put forward by the audience. Firstly, what’s all the fuss about? It reflected a strand of anxiety in the multifaith audience that, frankly, there were bigger questions to worry about. Surely believers should be discussing individualism, consumerism and other social problems rather than indulge in this kind of philosophical reasoning.

Why, then, has Bunting devoted so many of her columns to this very issue? But she regroups and quickly begins reciting the traditional mantras of the fifth-rate accommodationist:

But the Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, “beware of the power of nonsense”. Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were “different ways of knowing” and “what you come to know depends on the questions you start with”. Different questions lead to “different practices of learning” – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

I am still waiting patiently for someone to tell me one thing that religious people know is true, and that the knowledge whereof came uniquely from faith. Do we know if Jesus was the son of God? If so, what about Muslims who know something different? Frankly, I am losing patience with people who make this ludicrous argument, because they never specify what religion can help us know.

Oh well. Simon Conway Morris then rears his head:

Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology, argued that the polemical hostile debate which dominates public debate – “the fuss” – is really about a failure of nerve of both science and religion. The response of both is to retreat into their own forms of dangerous literalism – religion into creationism and science into a fundamentalism. Challenging the current deference to Darwin in this anniversary year, he warned that aspects of Darwin’s thought can be taken into very dangerous territory; he cited a diary entry of Josef Goebbels’ in 1942 on the “parasitical Jews” in the struggle for survival. Science needed ethical thinking.

I used to respect Conway Morris for his achievements in paleontology, but it’s hard to maintain that respect in the view of this nonsense. Since when is the idea of “parasitical Jews” an “aspect of Darwin’s thought”? Conway Morris, it seems, has planted himself firmly in creationist la-la land along with Henry Morris, Phillip Johnson, and Ann Coulter. Can’t we just declare a moratorium on the assertion that the road from Darwin to Hitler is straight and unerring? But if we must pursue this line of argument, let us not forget that it was the Jews who were the unique objects of Nazi opprobrium. Why is that? Because they were the despised killers of Christ.
Not content with that, Conway Morris offers this:

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness.

To which one can reply only “not bloody likely!” If religion has ever given rise to any fruitful scientific methodology, I don’t know of it. This suggestion smacks of desperation.

Finally, out of desperationville rides John Houghton:

John Houghton, the climate scientist, took the question in an entirely different direction. It was science which had established the nature of global warming and science would play a role in inventing the innovations which could mitigate its impact, but religion also had a role as an agent of change of personal behaviour. It had a crucial role because religion essentially concerned itself with relationships to other people, to the rest of humanity and to the natural environment.

Perhaps Bunting, and Houghton, have forgotten that much of the opposition to the idea of global warming comes from religion, especially from those evangelical Christians who see humans as having been given dominion over nature. No secularist makes, or can make, such a claim. Has Bunting not observed the remarkable confluence of creationists and global-warming deniers?

I guess I read Bunting for the same reason that I sniff the milk when the carton is two weeks past its sell-by date: you know it’s bad, but there’s a perverse pleasure in making sure.

17 thoughts on “Madeleine Bunting, fifth-rate accommodationist

  1. The comments on this typical Bunting piece are interesting. In particular, some form of Buddhist posts a set of lines by Eckhart, and then claims bullying when someone asks what they are actually supposed to mean… And then one of the moderators pops up to endorse the claim that rationalists are bullying the poor mystical innocent. Fairly illuminating about the whole Guardian ‘CIF Belief’ setup that Bunting posts under.

  2. OH. MY. DOG!

    Such muddled thinking.

    Surely believers should be discussing individualism, consumerism and other social problems rather than indulge in this kind of philosophical reasoning.

    This is just such a laughable statement.

    “beware of the power of nonsense”

    Was the Archbishop of Canterbury looking in the mirror as he spoke this?

    I guess you are right, Jerry, reading Madeleine Bunting is good for a big laugh.

  3. So much woo; so many wasted intellects. It made me angry that there were no atheists in the audience to simply shout “BULL****” at appropriate points.

    Can anyone (apart from Bunting) see the inherent contradiction in the two phrases “thoughtful believers” and “multifaith audience”.

    The Archbishop of Canterbury said “Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous.” But why? No reason was given. Does “science” really claim that, or is this simply a trite little strawman sentence signifying nothing?

    Simon Morris: “The response of both is to retreat into their own forms of dangerous literalism – religion into creationism and science into a fundamentalism”. Bull. There is no retreat by science – in fact the opposite. Science takes the arguments straight to the theists, but never gets a straight answer. Literalism? Fundamentalist? It is religion and its holy texts that has no built-in way of self-correcting its views, thereby directly producing fundamentalist literalist dogmas. Science does not have this problem.

    Morris prattled on, saying the future of science is a series of imponderables, and it may require a set of scientific skills “of which we have no inkling at the moment.” And the reason for this opinion? And any evidence to back it? None offered. It is typical theist and accommodationist murkiness to raise unsupported hypotheticals as arguments against any certainty of anything, as if that somehow proves their point.

    Conor Cunningham asked what were the circumstances and conditions which enable the fittest to thrive, to help us deal with environmental crisis. Some people just like to throw out questions, not at all interested in the answers. These are Dan Dennett’s “murkies”. Anyway, is this a question for religion or science, and which is equipped to answer it? The answer is obvious.

    There are limits to knowledge, admitted Archbishop Williams, and we have to accept that knowledge is “corrigible” – that we can be wrong. Exactly!!! That is why we have the scientific method. Obviously – demonstrably – religion has nothing to match this.

    A frustrating read, because I just wanted to slap those people!

    My call to accommodationists is this: If you don’t want to be run down by the science locomotive, get off the tracks!!!

  4. Bunting, (n):
    1. a hooded sleeping garment for infants
    2. a coarse, open fabric
    3. patriotic and festive decorations made … in the colors of the national flag

  5. Religion is the #2 reason for global warming and they have the nerves to declare that it will help us change our behavior?

  6. “I am losing patience with people who make this ludicrous argument, because they never specify what religion can help us know.”

    I think (it’s so hard to tell what point she’s trying to make most of the time) Bunting herself had a crack at this a few years ago:

    “Many areas of science are legitimising religious thought in ways regarded as inconceivable for much of the past century and half. Quantum physicists question our understanding of reality and Hindus respond: “So what’s new?”; neuroscientists formulate understandings of consciousness and Buddhists retort as politely as possible: “We told you so.””

    Seems to me that what she’s saying is that making up a whole bunch of stuff and getting a couple of bits right by accident = valuable contribution from religion.

  7. “let us not forget that it was the Jews who were the unique objects of Nazi opprobrium”

    Errr, no.

    They suffered the greatest losses, but the Nazis also targeted: Romani (Gypsies); the disabled; homosexuals; and ethnic-Poles.

  8. I would like to make some general points about the science v religion debate. Firstly, let me say that I’m an atheist and that I agree with you 100% in your arguments against the creationists and “accommodationists”. The arguments you are making certainly need to be put forward, especially in the USA, where the creationists and their attacks on education are a bigger threat than here in Britain.

    But the problem is that it is often impossible to defeat religious views by directly confronting them with rational, scientific arguments. The philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that you could defeat religion in this way, and so does Richard Dawkins today. Darwin, on the other hand, realised the difficulties with this view when he wrote that:

    “…direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science.”

    But to understand why it is difficult to win people away from religious prejudices by direct argument, we need to look at what Darwin’s contemporary, Karl Marx, had to say. Marx focussed on the social role of religion. He pointed out that it is used by the powerful to keep the masses under control. (“The Divine Right of Kings”, for example.) But he also pointed out that it can inspire the downtrodden in their rebellions. For example, even we atheists must acknowledge that the Christianity of Martin Luther King was a very different thing from that of George W. Bush.

    Marx is also known for writing that religion is the “opium of the people”. But the full quotation is:

    “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

    In other words, oppressed and alienated people who are prevented from living full lives often turn to religion as a comfort. It fulfills a need for them. It is therefore difficult to win them from their religious views by logical argument.

    I agree with Marx that the best way to undermine religion is to change society in order to remove people’s need for religion. In a society without alienation, inequality, and oppression, religion would wither away.

    Of course, we need to defend science from attacks by the creationists. But the long-term solution can only be achieved by working for a better society.

  9. I just emailed Lambeth Palace with the following:

    “Dear Rowan Williams,
    If the opportunity arises, do you think you could explain how religion is a way of knowing?


    I doubt it’ll even get read by the ArchBish, but it seemed worth a try.

  10. “thoughtful believers” – what an arrogant oxymoron.

    I don’t have any children myself, but I have a cousin near my age who has a five year old daughter I’m watching grow up. Her mother is probably the most non-materialistic person I know, but also the poorest. Her daughter will almost certainly go to the public schools. What is more dangerous for this girl’s well being: consumerism or creationism? Can Bunting really tell me that it’s consumerism? If so, then Bunting and I have very different value systems.

    Where were all the thoughtful believers a decade or so ago when the mindless believers were making their grab for political power?

    Thank you Simon Conway Morris for helping the far right ensure that the children of the lower 90% in the United States grow up in ingnorance.

  11. Since when is the idea of “parasitical Jews” an “aspect of Darwin’s thought”?

    What’s more, this has to be the most classic Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy ever!

    And since when does science have to take the blame for the Josef Goebbels of the world? How many totally new pieces of scientific technology do you suppose the United States employed in Bush’s little “wipe-out” of Iraq? Hey, it’s science I tell you. We need to put an end to technological innovations.

    How much would you bet that I, with little more than a high school education, know 10 times the evolutionary theory of my time than Goebbels knew of it in his? So a bunch of sociopaths who took power in Germany mumbled some fucking phrase they had heard like “survival of the fittest” or “natural selection” by way of justification and we’re to think that these church attending, god adoring assholes were simply doing science?!

    Oh, for fucks sake. These are supposedly intelligent people? We really *are* in trouble, kids.

  12. I think I know what Conway Morris meant by religion helping with the problem of consciousness. About two years ago a friend of mine attended a talk by Conway Morris, given to the Jesuit Society in Dublin. While most of the talk was straight-forward science the question of consciousness came up in the questions and answers where Conway Morris declared that his opinion is that the brain works as a sort of radio receiver for a non material consciousness – the soul, I guess.
    Descartian dualism for the 21st century – is that all religion has to offer?

    1. There are not very many other gaps for their ghosts to hide are there?

      Of course, even radio waves are measurable.

  13. Huh – so the idiots are still trying to blame Darwin’s theory for Hitler. Well, the vatican city was right in bed with Hitler – they must have colluded to blame Darwin for their planned extinction of the jews. It was so convenient; the church finally had an ally to kill off the god-killing jews. The church also claims that god came back to life again, so what’s the big deal? If anything the jews were the victim of a capricious god.

  14. She writes what?

    She writes on a wide range of subjects including politics, work, Islam, science and ethics, development, women’s issues and social change.

    Life the universe and everything?

    Marco Ferrari

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