During the week an acquaintance of mine reminded me of a passage found in Bernard Williams’ (1929–2003) last book “Truth and Truthfulness” in the chapter entitled “Truthfulness, Liberalism, Critique” (Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 216). Williams writes:
‘Moreover, the Internet shows signs of creating for the first time what Marshall McLuhan prophesied as a consequence of television, a global village, something that has the disadvantages both of globalization and of a village. Certainly it does offer some reliable sources of information for those who want it and know what they are looking for, but equally it supports that mainstay of all villages, gossip. It constructs proliferating meeting places for the free and unstructured exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies, and suspicions, entertaining, superstitious, scandalous, or malign. The chances that many of these messages will be true are low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower. In this respect, post-modern technology may have returned us dialectically to a transmuted version of the pre-modern world, and the chances of acquiring true beliefs by these means, except for those who already have knowledge to guide them, will be much like those in the Middle Ages. At the same time, the global nature of these conversations makes the situation worse than in a village, where at least you might encounter and perhaps be forced to listen to some people who had different opinions and obsessions. As critics concerned for the future of democratic discussion have pointed out, the Internet makes it easy for large numbers of previously isolated extremists to find each other and talk only among themselves.’
Williams’ words struck me powerfully when I first read them some eighteen years ago but they particularly struck home this week because, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us have been forced to make much more use of the internet than we had before. Shopping, work, meeting people, getting our news, finding out about this or that, all is now being done more and more online.
In terms of our local community here in Cambridge the most obvious example of this is seen in the closing of our buildings, the cessation of our face-to-face meetings and the beginning of our meeting on Zoom. In order to continue to let people know what we are currently up to, our activities are now almost exclusively advertised online via social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and our own website.
This, in turn, throws everything we publish, say, do and think into a global “machine” run according to the workings of algorithms designed, for the most part, by people who care for little else than “pure” profit and economic, financial and political influence, power and control. They have written algorithms which log all our searches/likes/dislikes and then begin to manipulate the kinds of things we will get to see the next time we go online to do anything whatsoever.
If, like me, you’ve been keeping an eye on this over the past few years the preceding information will come as no surprise to you. However, more recently, this kind of manipulation of data has got far, far worse and we’ve begun to see very disturbing examples of how these algorithms are now regularly being used to influence elections and referenda in entirely inappropriate (and actually often illegal) ways, especially through the propagation of what has now become known as fake-news, alternative-facts and deep-fakes. Once the algorithms have logged your current passions/preferences/prejudices then you will be actively targeted to receive content that simply feeds and enflames your current passions/preferences/prejudices, whatever they are, and it won’t matter a fig whether the content you receive is true or false.
Things are now getting so bad that even employees of a notoriously secretive company like Facebook are becoming more willing to break ranks and speak out about the dangers inherent in this way of proceeding. Indeed, I hope that all of you will have read some of the stories which have broken in the last couple of years, for example, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. But one story, by the investigative tech-journalist Casey Newton, broke this week which, I think, strongly resonates both with Williams’ words and which also speaks directly to what I see as a significant difficulty currently facing a community such as our own which was born out of the dissenting, free-thinking, liberal religious, Enlightenment tradition which privileged truth, truthfulness and the use of cool, critical reason in matters pertaining to religion/philosophy/politics over mere inherited hot prejudice and putative, unsubstantiated divine revelation/s.
Casey’s story included an interview with a Facebook engineer who has worked on Facebook groups, i.e. pages meant for users with common interests where they can share information/knowledge/beliefs on that subject. Any person or organisation can create a group about any topic, cause or event and, not surprisingly, many liberal religious communities have started such groups, some open to public view, others not.
Casey was told by one engineer that they found the group recommendation algorithm to be the single scariest feature of the platform — the darkest manifestation, they said, of data winning arguments. Here’s what the engineer said:
‘“They try to give you a mix of things you’re part of and not part of, but the aspect of the algorithm that recommends groups that are similar to the one that you’re part of are really dangerous,” the engineer said. “That’s where the bubble generation begins. A user enters one group, and Facebook essentially pigeonholes them into a lifestyle that they can never really get out of.”’
Now, usually, when a writer like me from an avowedly liberal tradition begins to write about these subjects their concerns are mostly focused on the kinds of lifestyles being encouraged by groups that are obviously antithetical to liberals and their usual concerns. Not surprisingly I do have such concerns because it is now possible to see — both in the media and out on our actual streets — how right-wing, anti-democratic, anti-vax, COVID-denying, authoritarian, nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and, yes, fascistic groups, are currently being emboldened everywhere to make their presence known. But, as Jesus memorably and wisely reminds me, before I make any attempt to remove the speck in my neighbour’s (or enemy’s) eye, I must firstly do my level best to remove the many logs that are undoubtedly lodged in my own eyes (Matthew 7:5). And, during lockdown, boy have I found logs by the decimated forest load.
Over the past six months, not surprisingly, I have tried my best to begin properly to think through some of many huge implications of what is going on and how, in liberal religious circles, we might best negotiate the pandemic and its aftermath. As part of this process I began to visit some of the many conversations going on in various public, liberal religious, Facebook groups in the hope that I might find there some useful pointers. Alas, what I all too often discovered were exactly the same problems as those found in right-wing groups and which were predicted by Williams eighteen years ago. I found groups that were full of mere gossip and (internal and external) virtue-signalling and which were, as Williams feared, clearly ‘constructing proliferating meeting places for the free and unstructured exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies, and suspicions, entertaining, superstitious, scandalous, or malign.’ I saw very little concern to structure the conversation gently and firmly through the disciplined use of cool reason and evidenced-based arguments and, as I read though various posts, it was as clear to me as it was to Williams, that the chances that many of the messages already posted (or soon to be posted) will be true were low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones was even lower. Unsubstantiated and over-heated opinion and superstitious, uncritical belief could be found bursting out all over the place and nowhere was there any proper, sustained, evidenced-based, reasoned calling out of this. On the few occasions I saw such an attempt made (alas, often clumsily made by a person clearly at the end of their tether) all too often there merely followed a collective feeding-frenzy claiming that the person being critical had shown themselves to be disgustingly illiberal by their willingness to point that idea X or Y was, actually, little more than mere superstition and arrant nonsense.
When our online (putatively) liberal religious fora cease any longer to be places where prejudice and superstition can be effectively (if always gently and sensitively) challenged through the use of cool reason and evidence, where are we, or where on earth are we heading? This is especially pressing when we cannot easily or safely meet face to face.
In the eighteenth-century our communities became widely known as “rational dissenters” and, whilst it is true we could at times wildly overdo the rational element (after all there are obviously limits to reason as there are limits to everything else), the use of reason and empirical evidence was a sine qua non of our religious/philosophical practice. It was one of our own, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who in 1787 memorably wrote to his young nephew, Peter Carr, about religion, saying:
‘Your reason is now mature enough to receive this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. [. . .] In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject any thing because any other person, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision.’
Today, not only do I not see any reason not to continue to affirm Jefferson’s basic approach (albeit with certain modern nuances/revisions), I see countless reasons why we MUST continue to affirm it. Consequently, I hope that here in Cambridge we will continue confidently to embody this practice and never allow people wishing to join our community the impression that here they have the unconditional right to believe whatever they like but, instead, to insisted that people who wish to join us fully understand and accept that, here, they only fully have the right to believe what they do on the basis of the careful use of reason and a proper, collective, peer-reviewed, critical examination of what the available evidence actually allows us meaningfully to believe about the world.
This three-centuries-old approach means that our local community has always preferred to err on the side of displaying a healthy scepticism towards all maximal religious beliefs and to keep its own religious practice as minimalistic and practically orientated as possible. In practice for us this has meant agreeing (but never slavishly or uncritically) to follow the ethical example of human Jesus and, to set aside as being central to our community, belief in almost everything else metaphysical, up to and including belief in a deity. Naturally, individual members of this community will have all kinds of their own privately held, maximal, unevidenced beliefs about all kinds of things but, together, we need to make it clear that those same unevidenced maximal beliefs can never take a central place in our community’s collective practice/identity. Always the primary arbiter amongst us must be the cool application of reason and evidence, the only oracle that has ever been (and is likely ever to be) available to us.
As I explored with you a couple of weeks ago in my piece entitled ‘A passionately cool political/theological meditation on Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”’ this means that, as your minister, I continue to take with the upmost seriousness an insight borrowed from the twentieth-century English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990), and encourage us only to use those poetic, philosophical, religious and political tools/strategies which tend, not towards inflaming passion by giving it new objects to feed upon but, instead, those which inject into the activities of already too passionate men and women an ingredient of moderation; those which offer ways which deliberately restrain, deflate, pacify and reconcile and which do not stoke the fires of desire, but damp them down.
In our current, transmuted version of the pre-modern world which is clearly getting way too over-heated (physically and ideologically) and increasingly being driven by unsubstantiated prejudice and superstition, our job as heirs of the rational dissenters is, surely, and quite literally, to cool it.