Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.

You mean women can talk?!

Aug 22nd, 2014 5:16 pm | By

Brilliant move. Have a panel to discuss expanding leadership opportunities for Buddhist women and…well, take a look.

Featured panelists – James Coleman, Gary Gach, Charles Prebish, Christopher Queen, Paul David Numrich, Justin Whitaker, Eisel Mazard. Photos go: man, man, man, man, man, man, man.


Rita Gross, an author and dharma teacher, wonders what they were thinking.

Earlier this week the website Patheos published a panel on the topic “2014 Religious Trends: Expanding Leadership Opportunities for Buddhist Women—Which Way Forward?” The panel introduction ended with this question: “What are the risks and benefits of opening Buddhist leadership to women?” As a Buddhist-feminist scholar who has watched and participated in the rise of female leadership in the Buddhist world for the past four decades, I have my own question to ask in response: Risks? What risks? What could possibly be dangerous about women taking leadership roles in Buddhism? We have been doing so in large numbers for quite some time and nothing untoward has happened to Buddhism or to Buddhists as a result. 

Oh come now. To talk about it only in terms of benefits would be unbalanced and extreme. You can’t expect them to just say “it’s time to do much more to expand leadership opportunities for Buddhist women” and then go on to do just that. They have to fret and consider and wring their masculine hands over it first. Changing the status quo without considering the benefits and the risks is never ever permissible.

Far more serious and problematic, however, is the fact that this panel discussion on Buddhist women includes no women! Seven men—but no women—were called upon to discuss the “risks and benefits” of opening Buddhist leadership . . . to women! Rather than solving any of the centuries-old problems of Buddhist male dominance and patriarchy, such a panel only perpetuates it. Someone who didn’t know better but encountered this panel might draw the conclusion that Buddhist women are too passive to speak for themselves and lack the knowledge to do so. 

Maybe, but on the other hand if you had women on the panel someone would be sure to pop up and say the women were there only because they had the right genitalia.

I do not fault the seven men who wrote short essays for this panel, in part because I suspect that they were not informed ahead of time that only men had been invited to contribute. I know some of these men and know that they themselves are supportive of expanding leadership opportunities for Buddhist women. But I most definitely do fault whoever put this panel together for unbelievable levels of ignorance and arrogance. If this were 1970, not 2014, such an all-male panel might be explicable, even relevant. But in 2014, it is too late to speak and act as if men alone are still in charge of everything and can creditably speak for and about women, as if no women were confident and competent enough to speak for themselves, and hadn’t already begun to transform Buddhism into its post-patriarchal future.

I suppose whoever it was just figured it was more of a guy thing.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Get a good look before you buy

Aug 22nd, 2014 4:49 pm | By

One of those zany Islamic “scholars” in Egypt has issued a very useful bit of advice in a video. (Is it still called a fatwa if it’s on a video? Is there some different word for it if it partakes of the novel technology? Is there a fatwa for that?)

Men can spy on women in the shower, an extremist cleric has argued in Egypt, prompting outrage from other Islamic scholars.

According to Osama al-Qusi, a Salafist or ultraorthodox preacher, peeping toms can watch a woman wash as long as they are interested in marrying her.

“If you were really honest and wanted to marry that woman, and you were able to hide and watch her in secret, and see the things that she wouldn’t usually let you see before marrying her, then it is acceptable as long as your intentions are pure,” Qusi said in an online video translated by the al-Arabiya news network.

Well sure. That makes sense. For one thing of course “you” are a man. “You” are never a woman, because women don’t count. It’s only men who do things and need fatwas so they know what they can do. Women are just things, for men to watch in the shower or not, depending on the fatwa. For another thing obviously mean need to know how good the tits and ass are before they buy. (It’s hard to see the genitals even in the shower, unless you’re peering from underneath through some clear glass, but in that case she might possibly notice you.)

Egypt’s minister for religious affairs, Mohamed Mokhtar, condemned the cleric “and his ilk”, saying: “Where is the glory and masculinity in watching a woman shower? Would you allow this to happen to your daughter?”

Mokhtar stressed that fatwas, or Islamic edicts, should only be issued by qualified clerics, and denounced Qusi’s claims as anathema toIslam.

The minister also confirmed plans to launch a grassroots campaign against both atheists and Islamic extremists. He has already banned tens of thousands of unlicensed preachers, accused of extremist teachings, from working in Egyptian mosques.

Maybe the “extremists” are there to make people like the minister look good, with his campaign against atheists.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A bit of Yes Minister

Aug 22nd, 2014 4:15 pm | By

“It’s simply subsidized self-indulgence.”


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: Because their religion demands it

Aug 22nd, 2014 1:01 pm | By

Originally a comment by Eric MacDonald on Guest post on Sam Harris and the duties of public intellectuals. (So yes, a meta-guest post.)

I think there are two sides to this story, and Atran’s claims cannot be taken as scientifically confirmed. For example, in the article Ophelia links entitled: “Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods,” Atran makes claims which, while true in terms of his own research, do not necessarily subvert some (at least) of Harris’s conclusions.

For example, Atran says: “Harris’s generalizations of his own fMRIs on belief change among a few dozen college students as supportive of his views of religion as simply false beliefs are underwhelming.” This is unquestionably true, as I have said before in connexion with Boghossian’s claims in his book “How to make atheists.” Specific beliefs, as such, are very often either very poorly understood or provide simply the background of religious action. But it does not follow that explicit beliefs do not underlie the actions of many religious people.

For example, jihadists may not consciously be following the classical interpretations of Islamic texts regarding jihad, but the motivation of whole groups may be based on such interpretations. Atran seems to think that questionnaires provide accurate answers to the question Atran puts to religious people: “Why are you acting this way?” But religious people generally act from within a social context the theological meaning of which many of them do not understand and accept on trust. Asked to give reasons for “the hope that is in you,” (to quote First Peter) people may not give standard theological answers, but those may nevertheless be the reasons underlying their actions. Asked whether they support abortion, most orthodox Roman Catholics would say no, but very few of them could give detailed answers as to why it is believed by the Roman Catholic Church’s moral theology that abortion is wrong. I find Atran’s analyses of the reasons why religious people do things very inadequate and shallow. Most religious people, when push comes to shove, do things because their religion demands it, even though they do not know why. Asked to give their own reasons, they will give the first answer that occurs to them, without adverting to the theological framework within which they are acting, so they will give the kinds of answers that Atran’s studies attract. But this does not mean that underlying the actions of (to take but one example) jihadists are not very complex arguments concerning the Qur’an and the Sunna. It just means that they have accepted these argumentations on authority. Their personal reasons may even be orthogonal to the arguments from authority, but do not in the slightest change the fact that theological authority at some point underlies their actions.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Choose your victims well

Aug 22nd, 2014 12:41 pm | By

The Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists remembers James Foley.

He was already well known to CPJ staff, who along with many other groups and individuals had advocated for his release when he was captured by pro-Qadaffi forces in Libya in 2011 and held for six weeks.

Foley had been with three other journalists when they came under fire near Brega. One, Anton Hammerl, a freelance South African photographer, was killed.

Captivity in Libya, and the death of a colleague who was working on a shoestring budget, seem to have intensified Foley’s passion to help fellow journalists, particularly those risking their lives in conflict zones without the training, equipment, and finances afforded by major news organizations.

In addition to the normal band of war-hardened reporters, the Libya conflict attracted many less experienced freelancers and newcomers. Journalists had to help one another. Even so, some were unlucky. Acclaimed freelance photographer Tim Hetherington bled to death after taking shrapnel in the leg in Misrata; none of his colleagues knew how to save him. This prompted his friend Sebastian Junger to set up an organization to teach reporters basic first aid–Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC.

James Foley attended the first-ever RISC course at the Bronx Documentary Center in April 2012. During that course, we sponsored the screening of a filmtitled “Bearing Witness” about five intrepid women journalists, including another victim of the Syrian war, Marie Colvin. When we spoke after the screening I wanted to hear about his experience, but Foley would have none of it. He wanted to talk about raising money for Anton Hammerl’s family. And he did more than talk.

He also helped to raise a bunch of money for Hammerl’s children.

Foley said he kept returning to the frontlines to follow Colvin’s exhortation to bear witness, but he went beyond observing. He helped. After documenting the toll taken on civilians, particularly children, by the fighting in Aleppo in a piecefor GlobalPost, Foley launched a campaign to raise money for the hospital he had filmed.

That’s the kind of person Islamic State thinks it good to murder by cutting off his head with a knife.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

What can cure Ebola

Aug 22nd, 2014 11:56 am | By

What can cure Ebola? Apparently if it’s prompt enough and intensive enough, aggressive supportive care has a good chance of curing it. The better the hospital, the better the cure rate. Poverty is key here.

The two American Ebola patients, medical missionaries Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly, have walked out of Emory University Hospital in Atlanta infection-free.

They were the first human beings to receive an experimental drug called ZMapp. But they are not the first people to have recovered from Ebola, and good hospital care is likely more responsible for their recovery than any mysterious “serum,” as the charities they work for termed it.

“They are the very first individuals to have ever received this agent,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, director of Emory’s Infectious Disease Unit, told a news conference. “There is no prior experience with it, and frankly, we do not know whether it helped them, whether it made no difference, or even, theoretically, if it delayed their recovery.”

But there is plenty of prior experience with dehydration and rehydration and electrolytes.

There’s no specific cure for Ebola, but doctors with experience treating it say they have found that if people get early supportive care, including saline solution and fever reducers, they are far more likely to recover.

Ribner says three weeks of treating Writebol and Brantly have shown them something else: Just like with cholera, patients have severe diarrhea and they lose important chemicals called electrolytes. Replacing these minerals — notably potassium, magnesium and sodium — helps patients recover better, he said.

“The key to resolving Ebola virus infection was aggressive supportive care,” he said. This level of care just isn’t available in most parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where clinics struggle to even provide clean water and beds for patients.

“We knew certainly we could do that at a better level than the facility that they were in in Liberia,” Ribner added. The equivalent, he said, would be if “we took all of our patients in the intensive care unit here and sent them home and see how well they survived.”

Heartbreaking, isn’t it. I suspected it and wondered about it, as I’m sure everyone did – was the sky-high death rate partly to do with the poverty of the medical infrastructure? The answer seems to be yes, it is.

The World Health Organization, the relief group Doctors Without Borders and other experts in Africa have all called on rich nations to help poorer countries, especially those hit by Ebola in Africa, to develop their health systems so they can provide better care to patients.

Brantly, who walked out of an ambulance into Emory three weeks ago and Writebol, who remains weak, according to her husband David, both started out in better physical condition than the patients they were working to help.

“And clearly for any acutely ill patient, nutritional status is extremely important,” Ribner said. “If you have somebody who’s well-nourished and somebody who is poorly nourished and they suffer the same illness, infectious or otherwise, the person with better nutrition has better survival outlook.”

Poverty kills, just as we’ve always known.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Setting a place for emotion

Aug 22nd, 2014 9:44 am | By

I’ve been very critical* of Richard Dawkins’s recent Twitter dictats on abortion and Down syndrome, but now I get a chance to defend him, and from some of his own ardent supporters at that.

As you all no doubt know, he posted an apology plus explanation yesterday. What I want to take issue with here is not the post but a comment replying to a pair of comments pointing out the importance of emotions and persuasion in discussions of moral issues.

Do you have a list of topics at hand about which we should avoid talking logically? That would be most convenient for everyone concerned. Even if you can’t see the absurdity of that, consider that your list would differ from everyone else’s list of sensitive topics and we’d end up with very little that we could indeed discuss rationally.

You say that you marveled at the Blind Watchmaker and were thrilled by the God Delusion. Did you find them to be well balanced between rational argument and emotional sentiment? I, personally, did not find any patronizing emotional arguments in those two, and if there had been they would not only be unreadable, but insufferable. Why should your sensitivities trump those who are offended by analyzing religion too closely?

The comment is actually somewhat confusing: it’s not clear if the claim is that logic and emotion should be combined and “balanced,” or that emotion should be excluded. I think, though, in context and given those last two sentences, it’s the second. The claim seems to be that the two books were refreshingly free of emotional arguments. I want to defend Dawkins from that charge, at least when it comes to The God Delusion. That book was not free of emotion at all, nor should it have been. It has plenty of indignation, and rightly so.

It starts with emotion. The first sentence is emotional. Don’t you remember? It’s one of those memorable opening lines, like “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” or “All happy families are alike…”

As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave.

As you know, that sets up an analogy to our situation with regard to religion: many of us hate it and prefer to leave (or, having left long ago or never entered, to stay away).

This is about feeling. It’s far from purely logical, and it’s not even purely cognitive. It’s not just about truth. It’s about aversion. And that’s appropriate. We are what we are and not something else. We’re not machines, not even computing machines. We have emotions, and they matter. We rebel against mandatory or socially coerced religion because we dislike it.

This is not to say (as I have seen some bemused or hostile onlookers claim) that arguments should be all emotion and no logic. It’s just to say that emotion can’t and shouldn’t be excluded from discussions of moral issues. (Technical issues are another matter. Feel free to exclude emotions from discussion of bridge-building.)

More from that preface:

As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave.
Years later, when she was in her twenties, she disclosed this
unhappy fact to her parents, and her mother was aghast: ‘But
darling, why didn’t you come to us and tell us?’ Lalla’s reply is my
text for today: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

I didn’t know I could.

I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there
who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy
in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in
its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’
religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an
option. If you are one of them, this book is for you.

You see? Indignation, sympathy, generosity, compassion. And those are good things.

*Note that that’s not a contravention of the joint statement on managing disagreement ethically. That was the whole point. We are going to disagree at times; that’s inevitable; we can’t possibly have or expect total agreement on every issue. We have to be able to do that without resorting to scorched earth tactics.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post on Sam Harris and the duties of public intellectuals

Aug 21st, 2014 6:02 pm | By

Guest post by Simon Frankel Pratt.

I think that Harris is good at presenting a kind of naive though not completely stupid position that many thoughtful but poorly informed secular Western liberals are likely to arrive at. In a sense, his positions should be the challenge or the foil against which informed experts and public intellectuals frame their answers. For example, Harris’s views on the links between religion and violence are almost entirely wrong, as scholars such as Atran have shown, but they are understandable.

The problem is, of course, that Harris does not engage with the experts.

He does not frame his views as naive or as questions in need of answering, but as the obvious answers. He does not consult with experts on his issues, and when experts tell him that he’s wrong, he either dismisses them impatiently (such as he did with Dennett on the matter of free will) or actually resorts to personal attacks and slurs (as he did with Scott Atran). Instead of offering a clear, concise, and well articulated starting position for us to engage in further enquiry and refinement of our views in light of the evidence, he sells his opinions as discussion-ending truths which we are foolish or harmful to ignore.

This bothers me a lot. It bothers me not just because I dislike Harris’s tone and disagree with his views, but because I see Harris’s actions as a violation of the duties and ethical obligations that public intellectual figures have to guide their audiences to more critical, self-aware, and historically/scientifically informed views.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Like a trucking company

Aug 21st, 2014 4:58 pm | By

Cardinal Pell is another one vying for the Zero Empathy Remark of the Year Award.

Cardinal George Pell has strongly defended the so-called Melbourne Response as Australia’s first comprehensive redress scheme for victims of clerical sexual abuse at the royal commission.

Appearing at the commission via video link from the Vatican in Rome on Thursday night, Cardinal Pell likened the Catholic Church’s responsibility for child abuse to that of a ”trucking company”. If a driver sexually assaulted a passenger they picked up along the way, he said, ”I don’t think it appropriate for the … leadership of that company be held responsible.”

What’s wrong with that analogy? Well let’s see…

  1. The Catholic church doesn’t pick up passengers along the way. Its relationship to its child parishioners is not similar to that of a truck driver to a hitch hiker.
  2. The Catholic church sees itself as the source of absolute moral truth. Trucking companies don’t see themselves that way.
  3. The relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and its priests is not like that of a trucking company to its employees.

But even more to the point, it’s just so…shoulder-shrugging, indifferent, blame-shifting, evasive.

Sean Cash, a lawyer for abuse victim Paul Hersbach, challenged the trucking company analogy, saying that because the Catholic Church was an organisation of the ”highest integrity” it owed victims a far greater legal and moral responsibility. He said it should not impede victims’ ability to receive full and fair compensation.

”We were among the front-runners in Melbourne in addressing these scandals and I would suggest to you that that is entirely consistent with Catholic tradition and the teachings of Christ,” Cardinal Pell replied.

Jesus had teachings about how the church should deal with rapist priests? I missed that part.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Aug 21st, 2014 12:38 pm | By

Dawkins is trending on Facebook again, thanks to his Most Recent Tweet of Infamy. At the top of the list I see (I assume the list is different for different people, because of their different Facebook histories) there are a lot of mainstream media stories and some Facebook posts by friends, and then after that…there is a long stream of right-wing, Christian, anti-abortion links.

Fabulous. Very very helpful.

There’s The Blaze.

There’s Christian News Network.

There’s Life Site News.

There’s Alan Colmes.

There’s Life News.

There’s Ray Comfort.

Richard Dawkins is being consistent again–with his Darwinian/Nazi ideology of “survival of the fittest.” This time he suggests that down syndrome children aren’t fit to survive, and he has the audacity to advocate the taking of a human life–in the name of morality.

May he find a place of repentance and trust in Jesus Christ, before he stands before the One in whom he doesn’t believe.

There’s Breitbart.

There’s End Time Headlines.

There’s Al Jazeera, Salon, Huffington Post UK, The Telegraph, The Mirror, The Evening Standard, The Guardian Australia, Sky News, ITV News, Fri Tanke…on and on. I haven’t scrolled to the end yet; maybe there is no end. There’s a lot. At any rate we can be damn sure this has done no favors to atheism or abortion rights.




(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Muslim “community leaders” churned out televised obfuscations

Aug 21st, 2014 12:02 pm | By

Maajid Nawaz wrote a piece for the Times yesterday. It’s behind a paywall, but even the extract posted by Quilliam contains good stuff.

The Isis man who apparently beheaded James Foley had a British accent. He is likely to be among the one out of every 800 British Sunni Muslim men of fighting age — around 500 of them — to have joined these jihadists in Iraq and Syria. This does not emerge from a vacuum. We in Britain have a deeply entrenched problem. Islamist extremism is poisoning our community relations, hijacking our youth, and we are doing very little to address it.

Throughout the Nineties our communities grew together, apart. This was applauded instead of being seen for what it was: fetishisation of minorities for those bent on romanticising “authentic” Eastern culture.

Foreign policy emerged as the popular cause for extremism, a half-truth at best, and Muslim “community leaders” churned out televised obfuscations in order to avoid addressing the obvious: what responsibility do Iraq’s slaughtered Yazidis bear for any foreign policy grievance? After much lobbying, David Cameron’s 2011 Munich speech finally recognised “Islamist extremism” head-on. But three years later and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was tasked with challenging non-violent extremism, has yet to publish a counter-extremism strategy. British Muslims going abroad to fight is not new: it happened in Afghanistan. The only difference is that the ideology has been allowed to take root in the UK since then, and we are not doing anything about it.

Now, without a hint of irony, even al-Qaeda uses religious anti-extremism rhetoric to condemn Isis. But it is not good enough for Islamists merely to condemn.

Our collective efforts must focus on encouraging all people towards democratic values, minority and gender rights, equality and reason. This requires a strategy. But engaging on values is exactly what we have not been doing. More British jihadists will feature in Isis decapitation videos. And as our government hears no evil and sees no evil, we are woefully unprepared for when these jihadist fighters return home.

It’s a gruesome, horrible, miserable situation. With the right influences and inspirations and role models, most of these guys could be working to build infrastructure in Bangladesh or to care for Ebola patients in Liberia, but instead they’re dedicated to killing as many people as they can.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Those defections do not have legal effect

Aug 21st, 2014 11:26 am | By

J P O’Malley learns that the Irish Catholic church will not let you leave.

From aged 12, I had no belief, whatsoever, in the concept of a divine being.

By the time I was in my 20s, I was a militant-atheist.

And after my close reading of the ‘Ferns’, ‘Murphy’, and ‘Ryan Reports’, I was fully convinced that this was not an organisation I wanted to be associated with in any way.

It came as a huge surprise to me, then, last October, after I wrote to Reverend Fintan Gavin, the assistant chancellor of the Dublin Dioceses, asking if I could formally leave the Catholic Church, to be told that it was impossible.

There’s this 1983 Vatican “law,” you see, that was supposed to allow members to “defect.” (To what? Why defect? Why can’t people just leave? It’s not parenthood, after all. You can’t just leave parenthood, unless you’re a Class A Shit, but you can leave groups and clubs and political parties and, yes, religions.) But then there was a new law later on.

Fintan Gavin reiterated that since canon law was changed in 2009 “those [former] defections do not have legal effect.” In other words: the Catholic Church refuses to allow its members to walk away voluntarily.

When one has no affiliation — culturally, spiritually, or otherwise — to such an organisation, it’s easy to read this letter with a dose of Father Ted-style humour. But while the Church and State are completely separate — in terms of the common law in Ireland — that relationship has never been as simple as either the Irish government, or the Catholic Church, presently define it.

Since the founding of the Irish State, in 1922, the Church has provided a free service to the Irish government: a de facto, bureaucratic invisible hand to keep the population under control. If the Soviet Union had the Cheka to enforce public morality through fear, Ireland had priests and bishops. The costumes may have been different, but the theme remained the same: unquestionable, totalitarian power.

While these methods of coercion were never legally recognised in the Irish Constitution, the country was, one could argue, unofficially a theocracy until the early 1990s.

It wasn’t an entirely a free service. The state actually paid the church for running the Industrial “schools” and the mother-baby prisons. The state paid per head, and the church made a nice little living off the payments. And the population was by god kept under control.

Helen O’Shea, the current secretary of Atheist Ireland, who was able to formally defect from the Catholic Church pre-2009 — before the law was revoked by the Vatican — says that in the interests of democratic accountability the Irish state must operate in a consistent manner for all its citizens in terms of religious freedom.

“[Many] Irish schools are almost exclusively controlled by Catholic management. And when places are limited, a baptism certificate is often required. This is unacceptable in a supposedly non-theocratic state,” she said.

“Atheist Ireland are currently investigating setting up a website, so people can document their wish to leave the Church formally. It’s very ignorant [of the Church] to insist on membership when an individual requests the opposite,” said O’Shea.

I think that should happen. It would be very good for the church to be embarrassed by a long long long list of people who have left the church but are still counted as members by that church.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Not a vessel

Aug 21st, 2014 11:01 am | By

There was a big turnout for a protest over Ireland’s abortion laws on O’Connell Street in Dublin yesterday.

UP TO TWO thousand people have gathered in Dublin’s city centre this evening to protest at Ireland’s abortion laws and call for a repeal of the controversial 8th Amendment of the Constitution.

Protesters held signs saying “Raped, Pregnant, Suicidal, Forced C-Section – Ireland 2014,” and “I’m not a vessel”, in reference to comments made at the UN  Human Rights Committee last month, where its chairman said Ireland’s abortion laws treat women who are raped as a vessel.

The protest was called in response to the case publicised in recent days involving a suicidal  young woman who sought an abortion after being raped.

Ashling O’Brien of Atheist Ireland was there and gave me permission to post her photos.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We cannot expect

Aug 20th, 2014 6:16 pm | By

PZ also has a post on the abortion and Down syndrome issue. In it he says this:

I recommend reading any of Michael Bérubé’s stories about having a child with Down Syndrome— he doesn’t have any regrets at all. Or you could read about how Bérubé schooled Peter Singer, and Singer did the right thing and changed his mind. He also wrote a book on the subject,reviewed in the NY Times.

I was thinking of Michael and Jamie Bérubé and of Peter Singer during all this, so I was glad to see that link, which is to a piece I read with interest at the time. (The time was December 2008.) Reading it again reminds me what a fiendishly good writer Michael is. Read the whole post, because it’s fiendishly good. I’ll just extract a little, because it’s relevant.

Surely you’ll recall—my post was only two months ago!—that in the passage at issue, Singer wrote, “To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child’s ability. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.”

Well, Singer wrote to me to say that my reply to this passage suggests that he is wrong about Down syndrome, whereas in fact it takes more than a couple of exceptional children here and there to challenge the general rule.  After all, the passage speaks of expectations, and although people do win the lottery now and again, it would be unreasonable to buy a lottery ticket and expect to win.  Professor Singer then asked me to direct him to some evidence that would indicate that Jamie is not anomalous—and, he said, this is not an idle challenge: if he is mistaken about Down syndrome, he will correct himself in the future.

They wrote back and forth, and Michael requested and got permission to quote his own replies.

Many thanks for noticing that blog post, and for taking the time to write.  Thanks also for your kind words about Jamie.  I do, in fact, enjoy a handful of Woody Allen movies here and there;Broadway Danny Rose is a wonderful piece of work, and I’m fond of Bullets Over Broadway as well.  But I do think “we cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen film” instates a distinctly Upper West Side-y performance criterion, and is worth critiquing on those grounds alone.  More seriously, I note that in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read.  OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films.  Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies—they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.”  Surely you understand my sense that the goalposts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion.

I do appreciate the fact that you’re not issuing an idle challenge.  I don’t think you would do that.  I have three responses to it.

Here is the second response:

The larger point of my argument with your claim is that we cannot (I use the term advisedly) know what to expect of children with Down syndrome.  Early-intervention programs have made such dramatic differences in their lives over the past few decades that we simply do not know what the range of functioning looks like, and therefore do not rightly know what to expect. That, Professor Singer, is the real challenge of being a parent of a child with Down syndrome: it’s not just a matter of contesting other people’s low expectations of your child, it’s a matter of recalibrating your own expectations time and time again—and not only for your own child, but for Down syndrome itself.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw a young man with Down syndrome playing the violin—quite competently, at that, with delicacy and a sense of nuance.  I thought I was seeing a griffin.  And who could have imagined, just forty or fifty years ago, that the children we were institutionalizing and leaving to rot could in fact grow up to become actors?  Likewise, this past summer when I remarked to Jamie that time is so strange that nobody really understands it, that we can’t touch it or see it even though we watch the passing of every day, and that it only goes forward like an arrow, and Jamie replied, “except with Hermione’s Time-Turner in Harry Potter,” I was so stunned I nearly crashed the car.  I take issue with your passage, then, not because I’m a sentimental fool or because I believe that one child’s surprising accomplishments suffice to win the argument, but because as we learn more about Down syndrome, we honestly—if paradoxically—don’t know what constitutes a “reasonable expectation” for a person with Down syndrome.

There’s more; it’s all that good.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Your majesty is like a doughnut

Aug 20th, 2014 5:07 pm | By

Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, George Bernard Shaw, and George V (or is it Edward VII?) discuss eugenics.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Choice is minimised

Aug 20th, 2014 4:00 pm | By

Iain Brassington comments on Dawkins’s Twitter adventure today at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog (which is a subset of the BMJ blog).

Look, I know that Twitter really isn’t the place for nuanced debate.  But, by that token, everyone else should realise that as well – especially intellectual superstars. So how, then, to explain Richard Dawkins’ spectacular foot-in-mouth moment earlier today?

Well, one leg of that explanation would be that actually Dawkins appears not to realize that. I honestly don’t know why, because 1. I know that people very close to him have told him it, and 2. it seems so blindingly obvious once you’ve been using Twitter for awhile, as he has. (Not to mention 3. doing so has blown up in his face about ten times now, and the last time was just three weeks ago.)

But another leg of it would be, I think, that he doesn’t realize it in the moment, and then when it all goes pear-shaped he gets irritated instead of getting quiet. SIWOTI, basically.

So why doesn’t he realize it in the moment? I really don’t know. I would think the problem with today’s would just jump right out at you, while you were typing. I don’t know why such things don’t jump out at him.

I do know a few people like that though – people who just say startlingly rude things to other people, apparently without any idea that they’re saying something rude. On the other hand none of them are famous best-selling Oxford professors.

Brassington quotes the infamous tweet.

Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.

Oh, crikey. He actually said it. I don’t want to raise the spectre of The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak, or even to delve into questions of procreative beneficence; what’s important about this is a deeply stupid thing to say in its own right. After all, you can think what you like about the permissibility of abortion, but I don’t think that anyone is really suggesting that a woman who is pregnant ought to abort. The most defenders of abortion would want to say is that it’s permissible to abort.   Procreative beneficence says that you ought to select against “disabled” embryos if only one can be implanted and one is going to be implanted; but it doesn’t say that you ought to terminate a once-begun pregnancy. Nor should it: to make that kind of statement is indefensible for more or less the same reason as a statement to the effect that a woman isn’t allowed to have an abortion - to wit, there’s light years between a right to abort and a duty to abort.  The former is about a woman’s ability to choose what kind of pregnancy she has, and what kind of child she’s willing to gestate; the latter is… well, it’s the opposite of that.  Choice is minimised.

A little dialogue ensued on Twitter:

Dr. Steve Cooke ‏@SteveCooke 2h
@IBrasso @OpheliaBenson it’s easy to forget (more so because Dawkins also forgets) that Dawkins is a scientist not an ethicist.

Synthetic Future(s) ‏@SynFutures 2h
@SteveCooke @IBrasso @OpheliaBenson Is it?!


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Searching and hoping for comfort

Aug 20th, 2014 11:50 am | By

A doctor with MSF, Gabriel Fitzpatrick, gives a heartrending account of working at the center of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

In the suspected cases ward I saw a small child getting his nappy changed by a nurse who was wearing a full body plastic protective suit.

The child was clinging on to the nurse, searching and hoping for comfort in a place which does not allow direct skin-to-skin contact. As a father myself, this image stuck in my mind.

On the same evening, a mother and her two children were admitted to the hospital with confirmed Ebola. Within days the mother and eldest child had passed away.

It is startling how quickly this virus can kill patients. The remaining child is still receiving supportive care but his chances are not good.

There are a few rules in the Ebola treatment centre that are sometimes difficult to remember and go against our natural instincts.

Firstly, shaking hands with anybody is forbidden, and you must keep a certain distance away from people at all times. This can feel isolating.

Especially, no doubt, for the patients. The child trying to cling to the plastic-covered nurse is just…crushing.

So let’s include some better news.

There are happier stories – some of those who catch Ebola survive. For some unknown reason their bodies beat the virus.

More than 300 patients have been admitted to MSF isolation centres in Sierra Leone. To date about 50 have recovered and returned home.

Every few days, patients who have survived are discharged from the hospital. This is a big occasion and is celebrated both by those who have recovered and by hospital staff.

Certificates are presented to these patients during a ceremony with somebody invariably performing a dance. West African music is supplied via a mobile phone.

It didn’t work; the clinging child is still in the foreground.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The cabal strikes again

Aug 20th, 2014 10:46 am | By

Oh dear. Here we go again. Another item for the big master list of things not to say on Twitter.

InYourFaceNewYorker ‏@InYourFaceNYer 2h
@RichardDawkins @AidanMcCourt I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.

The Independent is already on it.

Budding atheists wondering whether Richard Dawkins is in need of a little time away from Twitter to reflect on the past few weeks are about to have their (lack of) prayers answered.

The philosopher has managed to go one step further than his controversial comments on ‘date rape versus stranger rape’ to voice his opinions on what it would be ethical for a mother who is informed that her unborn child has Down Syndrome to do.

He started off his conversation with followers ethically enough, highlighting the plight of women in Ireland, where abortion is illegal, in light of the recent reports of the country’s refusal to provide a safe abortion to a suicidal rape victim. She was forced to give birth.

“Ireland is a civilised country except in this 1 area,” he tweeted, adding “You’d think the Roman Church would have lost all influence,” to caption a link to a similar article.

But then the provocateurs sent by the cabal of Secret Theocratic Underground Operatives got to work.

But after engaging in conversation with a number of users, his ethical values appeared to come a little unstuck.

“994 human beings with Down’s Syndrome deliberately killed before birth in England and Wales in 2012. Is that civilised?” @AidanMcCourt asked.

“Yes, it is very civilised. These are fetuses, diagnosed before they have human feelings,” Dawkins responded.

“I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma,” @InYourFaceNYer chimed in.

“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice,” he tweeted back.

Job done! All it took was two tweets! The cabal of Secret Theocratic Underground Operatives is laughing its fiendish collective laugh as atheism takes yet another broadside hit in the reputation.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Aug 19th, 2014 5:13 pm | By

Oh good god.

Via Godless Indian Feminists on Facebook.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Gentle, friendly, courageous

Aug 19th, 2014 4:42 pm | By

More on James Foley.

The BBC:

The Islamic State militant group has released a video online purporting to show the killing of a US journalist.

The victim was identified by the militants as James Foley, a freelancer who was seized in Syria in late 2012.

The militants said it was in revenge for recent US air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq.

The video has not been independently verified, but the White House said if it was genuine, the US would be “appalled by the brutal murder”.

Foley’s family wrote on Facebook: “We know that many of you are looking for confirmation or answers. Please be patient until we all have more information, and keep the Foleys in your thoughts and prayers.”

Foley has reported extensively across the Middle East, working for the Global Post and other news outlets including the French news agency AFP.

From the Guardian:

A friend of Foley’s and his fellow captive in Libya, journalist Clare Morgana Gillis, wrote in a 2013 essay that captivity was “the state most violently opposite his nature.” Gillis described Foley as gentle, friendly, courageous and impatient with “anything that slows his forward momentum.”

In a January 2013 interview with local television news near her Rochester, New Hampshire home, Foley’s mother Diane said her son was “passionate about covering the story in Syria, passionate about the people there.”

A talk that Foley gave in 2011:


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)