Not much of a believer – a world exclusive interview with Ophelia Benson

OPHELIA Benson, co-author of Why Truth Matters and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, associate editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, is perhaps best known for the website Butterflies and Wheels, where since 2003 she has taken delight in verbally scourging, flaying, and generally humiliating any relativist or religionist unfortunate enough to catch her eye. Thousands of devoted readers log on every day to Notes and Comments to watch her dispatch her latest deserving victim with her trademark combination of humour, erudition, and cool, clear reason.

Although Ophelia is located about 6,000 miles away from Freethinker HQ, we contrived through the miracle of electronic communications to ask her a few questions, which she graciously answered. Here is the result of our exchange:
ophelia benson
The Freethinker: B&W’s tagline is “Fighting fashionable nonsense”, a reference to the anti-science, relativist thinking prevalent in academia and a certain section of the left. But half the website – and more than half of the blog – is concerned with the idiocies and contradictions of organised religion. Is this a deliberate shift of focus? Or are the two targets closely related?
Ophelia Benson: It’s not exactly a deliberate shift of focus in the sense of having been decided in advance; it was more of an evolution. I think the two targets are closely related, in various ways – they both have a willful, chosen quality that interests me. Just getting things wrong is one thing, but being deliberately credulous is another. It’s not always possible to know which is which, of course, but there are some obvious markers. Making a virtue of faith and a vice of reason is one; talking pityingly about the ‘reality-based community’ is kind of a give-away. I’m interested by people who in some sense ought to know better, deciding to believe things for no very good reason and then making careers out of defending these not very well-warranted beliefs. In that sense popes and postmodernists have a lot in common.

More specifically, I kept finding more and more material about cultural relativism and especially about the tension between cultural relativism and women’s rights, and that subject is inseparable from religion. What cultural relativism turns out to mean, nearly all the time, is being protective of religion at the expense of women’s rights. The more I bumped up against irritating sentimental blather about ‘faith communities’ when the faith communities in question seemed to consist entirely of men, the more worthwhile it seemed to point out that the truth claims that underpin ‘faith communities’ are not based on much of anything. Once I started doing that, it became something like a continuing investigation. I’m still interested – fascinated, really – by the fact that people like to claim that grown-up religions are sophisticated and reasonable, when day after day month after month the top clerics in the mainstream religions publish articles in newspapers and say things on tv and radio that are… not well reasoned. I’m still waiting to see something impressive and convincing from a priest or an imam or an apologist. I keep being surprised by how consistent it all is, how consistently thin and unargued and contorted and ad hoc and uncompelling. So – when a fresh example turns up, I tend to add it to the pile. It has a shooting fish in a barrel aspect, I suppose, but I don’t really care, because clerics do get a hell of a lot of unearned deference and attention and credence, they do get their voices heard on abortion and stem cell research and ‘family values,’ they do get seats on ethics committees despite a total lack of expertise and even ability to think clearly, they do have a wildly disproportionate ability to tell people what to do – so however easy it is to keep saying ‘Why should we believe that?’ I think it’s worth doing.

FT: Have you ever been religious, or believed “implausible things for epistemically questionable reasons” (to use your own pithy phrase)?
OB: No, not really. Not since childhood anyway, when what I did couldn’t really be called believing, I just took in what I was told (which was rather vague in any case). I detested Sunday school and wasn’t made to go for long (in my memory it seems to be no more than twice, but I’m not sure that’s right). I also loathed church, and we didn’t do that much either, and not at all after I was about 8.

I feel as if I really ought to come up with at least one implausible belief, because it seems so conceited to say no. I’ve had silly political beliefs – I used to be way too uncritical about underdog nationalism (the IRA, other separatist groups, that kind of thing), for instance – but I can’t think of any big implausible factual beliefs. That can’t be right; I must have had some; you’re welcome to assume that I’m flattering myself. But I can’t think of any. That’s not because I’m so damn clever – I think it must be more a matter of temperament. I think I’m just not much of a believer in general, by temperament. (Which perhaps means I ought to be kinder to priests and imams, who have different temperaments, which is not their fault. All very well, but they lay down the law in public, so the rest of us get to push back.) I’m a minimalist about belief, I think, so odd ones don’t tend to stick to me.

FT: How would you describe your personal philosophy?
OB: I’m not sure I really have anything as grand as a personal philosophy – I think I have more of a methodology. It could be boiled down to not wanting to be taken for a sucker, or in more philosophical language, to a dislike of bullshit. I hate dishonest manipulative language of all sorts, and I spend a lot of time sniffing it out and then making fun of it.

But on the affirmative side, I am in favour or a lot of things, if that adds up to a philosophy. It might be more what the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein in her novel The Mind-body Problem called a mattering map. Freedom and autonomy matter to me, as do rights. So do poetry, music, starry nights. Like Richard Rorty trying to unite Trotsky and wild orchids, I’m not sure how to connect the two – so I just put them on the mattering map.

FT: Please describe your typical working day.
OB: The working day starts with some reading and writing before I go near the computer. There’s a different feeling to that, and I like it and try to hang on to it. I’ve always liked writing longhand best, and when I’m writing for publication I usually do the first draft in longhand.

After that first two or three hours, it’s all type type type, read read read, edit edit edit. I look for news for Butterflies and Wheels, maybe write a post, maybe edit and format an article for B&W, maybe do some work for The Philosophers’ Magazine, maybe work on a book. God it sounds boring. It’s interesting to do, but boring as hell to read about!

FT: So is there no truth in the rumour that you moonlight as a barmaid in the pub patronised by Jesus and Mo?
OB: Oh, I’m not going to say that. I get far too much innocent pleasure from the rumour to do anything so silly as to deny it. Anyway for all I know I am the barmaid. No one can prove that I’m not…

FT: Is it true that your upcoming book, Does God Hate Women?, was turned down by the first publisher because in was too critical of Islam?
OB: Yes, a publisher did turn it down for that compelling reason. It wasn’t exactly the first publisher since it never actually accepted it, but it was very interested, got Jeremy [Stangroom, the co-author] in to have a chat etc (I live six thousand miles away or I would have gone along for the chat too, whether they’d invited me or not) – then said they’d decided no because one mustn’t criticize Islam.

FT: How did you feel about that at the time?
OB: A mix of amusement and disgust, I think – amusement at the docile predictability, disgust at the crawling. I also felt even more convinced that the book was needed, precisely because a publisher would turn it down for such a reason. What publisher, you wonder? Verso.

FT: Does God hate women?
OB: The God of most of the people who think there is a God certainly hates women. The God of some of them hates women with a weirdly obsessive neurotic hostility – so weird and petty and obsessive that one wonders what this god would make women for if it hates them so much. If it wants them covered up all the time, why didn’t it make them out of a bale of cloth? If it doesn’t want men looking at them, why didn’t it make men without any eyes? These are deep theological questions.

And with those deep theological questions, dear reader, we will leave you pondering. Do not forget, you can get your daily dose of OB on the B&W blog.