I taught them everything they know

Oct 30th, 2009 3:50 pm | By

Chris Mooney explains that journalists often get things wrong.

Why is Richard Dawkins, promoting his new evolution book, regularly being asked about his atheism, and why he is “strident,” “polarizing,” etc? Is it the media’s fault–or is it Dawkins’? I would actually say a bit of both.

Journalists can be quite irresponsible, and even when they’re not outright irresponsible, they love to be provocative and to stir up conflict. To them, Dawkins is “Mr. Big Atheist,” and thus instinctively seen as a polarizing figure. Many radio or TV hosts, and even print journalists that Dawkins encounters on his tour, will not have read his books carefully; instead, they will be going on impressions and what they’ve heard.

Ahhhhhh yes, that sounds quite likely. Many naughty journalists will be going on impressions and what they’ve heard. And what would those be? Why – partly, they would be impressions assiduously created by none other than Chris Mooney himself! It would be what they have heard from that indefatigable pursuer of Mr Big Atheists, Chris Mooney. As far as I know, Chris has done more over the last five months to create exactly that impression than any other single source of impressions – so it has the faintest whiff of crocodile tears for him to talk of irresponsible journalists going on impressions and what they’ve heard. Didn’t he want them to? Wasn’t that the idea? If not – why was he so dedicated about it? Why so many articles, in so many places? Flogging the book, of course, but he and SK could have done that by talking about Pluto, or Hollywood, instead – but it was atheists atheists atheists, and Dawkins leading the pack.

Finally, atheism is, to a trouble-making journalist, potentially a much sexier topic than evolution. It’s divisive. It’s controversial. It’s much easier to create sparks with culture war questions than it is to patiently allow Dawkins to explicate science…That Dawkins would, after The God Delusion, be framed as a scientist-atheist combo, or even the icon of atheistic science, was as inevitable as night after day. It’s the media equivalent of a law of nature.

Really? Nothing at all to do with the efforts of one Chris Mooney? Or is Chris Mooney writing about himself in the third person – yes maybe that’s it. He’s explaining that he’s part of something that is the equivalent of a law of nature so it was all inevitable and nobody should say he was being ‘divisive’ and ‘controversial’ himself while rebuking everyone in sight for being divisive and controversial. They could all do otherwise; Chris Mooney, being a journalist, was helpless in the onrush of a natural event.

Thank you, Doc, but we’ll just go with our instincts

Oct 29th, 2009 11:25 am | By

Scientists tell government some pesky facts about drugs; government brushes aside pesky facts, makes decision on other grounds, ‘having taken account of “public perception” and “policing priorities”.’

The refusal to accept the expert views of a council set up to judge the relative harms of different drugs went down badly with the scientific community in general, and Professor Nutt in particular. Today, he warns of the negative consequences of what he calls, a “highly politicised” process…The government view, though, is that they should adopt a precautionary principle. “Where there is… doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public,” as Jacqui Smith put it last year. Professor Nutt attacks the ‘safety first’ approach arguing that “it starts to distort the value of evidence and therefore I think it could, and probably does, devalue evidence”. He recalls the scare about the MMR vaccine. “People were concerned, on the basis of false science, that the triple vaccine might cause brain damage. This led to a reduction in vaccination uptake and now children are getting lung and brain damage from measles,” he states. “The precautionary principle with MMR has been clearly shown to be wrong,” he continues. “It has harmed more people than it has helped.”

In other words the precautionary principle isn’t really precautionary, it just seems to be. It seems to be because people so often forget to take into account the risks of doing whatever the alternative is. They think (apparently): MMR, risky; no MMR, no risk. But ‘no MMR’ itself has risks, so thinking all the risk is on one side of the ledger is a mistake.

The old school noose

Oct 29th, 2009 10:44 am | By

Nick Cohen takes a look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The FCO was not and is not standing up to the totalitarian ideas of the Islamist extreme Right, as it stood up to the totalitarianism of the socialist extreme Left in the second half of the 20th century. On the contrary, the establishment has appeased political Islamism abroad and interfered in the domestic affairs of its own country by mounting a covert operation to aid and abet it at home.

Well…perhaps they had some good reason?

The achievement of political Islam in Britain has been to suborn the liberal Left and cut off the most promising escape route for dissidents in the process. An abused woman, a young man fighting religious authoritarianism, an Iranian exile seeking to gain support for the campaign against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s and Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of Sharia law or a British Bangladeshi trying to bring the Islamist criminals who massacred civilians in the war of independence to justice, would once have looked left for succour. If they do so now, they will find that progressives take their cue from the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, rather than the best of the liberal Left’s traditions, and dismiss Muslims who fight for values they profess to hold as being at best irrelevances and at worst stool-pigeons for imperialism.

Ah. Well…perhaps it’s just a small enclave of loonies?

Do not make the mistake of believing that such attitudes are confined to the FCO. Only recently, the supposedly left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research was trumpeting “non-violent” Islamism as “the best organised and most popular opposition to existing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East”.

Ah. Oh dear. Well…I’m told the climate is nice in Antarctica.

Shh, be nice, it’s the Vatican

Oct 27th, 2009 3:38 pm | By

Randy Cohen points out an oddity:

Last week the Vatican invited Anglicans who are, as The New York Times put it, “uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops” to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church. If a secular institution, Wal-Mart or Microsoft, for example, made a similar offer – Tired of leadership positions being open to women and gay employees? Join us! – it would be slammed for appealing to bigotry.

To say the least – in fact it would also be in trouble with the law, and in this administration I daresay the law is likely to be enforced. But the Vatican, of course, is well known not to allow women to do the jobs that matter and to protect pedophile priests while banning adult males who would be attracted to other adult males. That’s not okay for a secular commercial enterprise but it’s quite all right for the dear old Vatican – not exactly a good thing perhaps, but absolutely not anything to make a fuss about, much less try to change. Why? Well because Jesus…erm…had twelve guys going around with him. That’s why. If women were supposed to be priests there would have been some Mariams and Esthers mixed in with the guys. There weren’t any. Therefore, that’s how things were meant to be forever.

Yet despite the risk of provoking the ire of believers, we should discuss the actions of religious institutions as we would those of all others — courteously and vigorously. This is a mark of respect, an indication that we take such ideas seriously. To slip on the kid gloves is condescending, akin to the way you would treat children or the frail or cats…My political beliefs, my ideas about social justice, are as deeply held as my critics’ religious beliefs, but I don’t ask them to treat me with reverence, only civility. They should not expect me to walk on tiptoe. It is not as if religious institutions occupy a precarious perch in American life. It is not the proclaimed Christian but the nonbeliever who is unelectable to high office in this era when politicians of every party and denomination make a public display of their faith.

Discussion should be free and open. That’s not to say it should be stupid or merely raucous or like sitting at the lunch table with the rowdy section of the third grade class – it’s just to say it should be free and open.

Don’t believe everything you’re told

Oct 26th, 2009 11:37 am | By

I’ve been tactfully silent about Chris Mooney lately, but I have to murmur a few words about stories and anonymity and credulity and skepticism and how we know what to believe and what not to believe and how necessary it is to pay attention to the difference between the two.

The background is a post a few days ago quoting an anonymous commenter at The Intersection saying

Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.

I saw it at the time, and was tempted to comment, but didn’t. But if I had commented I would have said that I find that anecdote highly incredible on its face (even before we get to the issues about the reliability of the witness). It just sounds stupid. It doesn’t sound like the way real people really behave in public places – it sounds like someone’s bizarro-world idea of how mean horrid nasty wicked ‘new’ atheists must behave because they’re so new and mean and wicked. It certainly doesn’t sound like the way academics behave in public gatherings with conservationists, even if the meetings are held in churches or temples or mosques. It sounds like the way children behave when they’re excited and acting up – but it does not sound like the way sane adults who have jobs in reputable universities behave.

And the commenter is in fact anonymous – but he insists that he is a biologist at “a large, well-known research university” and he expects everyone to take his word for it. But there is no reason for anyone to take his word for it, and it is not reasonable to expect people to do so, and people refused to do so. Hence Mooney’s new post on the subject today.

Last week, the New Atheist comment machine targeted the following post, in which I republished a preexisting blog comment from a scientist named “Tom Johnson” (a psuedonym). In the comment, Johnson had related how some of his New Atheist-inspired scientist colleagues had behaved toward religious folks at bridge-building conservation events. The comment obviously reflected one individual’s experience and point of view, and nothing more. But it struck me as worth highlighting, in light of my many well known concerns about the New Atheist movement.

No, that won’t quite do. The comment ‘obviously reflected’ one anonymous individual’s account of a purported experience, an experience which was implausible on its face. Chris Mooney is a professional journalist – surely he ought to know this very well indeed. Surely if someone phoned him and in a heavily disguised voice gave an avowedly false name and told an implausible story about a controversial subject – he would know that the story was not automatically reliable. Of course he would! Yet this is taken at face value, and not only that, but a group that Mooney dislikes is given a carefully offensive epithet for being skeptical about this story.

So we have a journalist, a member of a profession that is supposed to be trained to be skeptical of anonymous stories that don’t ring true, and one who has just co-written a book about science literacy. Basic science literacy surely ought to include knowing when skepticism is called for!

But mere credulity and verbal abuse (‘the New Atheist comment machine’) aren’t enough – there’s an even more sinister implication.

I’m a bit surprised how much hoopla the simple elevating of a comment into an individual post, with minimal additional commentary, has caused. Clearly, Johnson really touched a nerve. Accordingly, my post unfortunately subjected him to various attacks; fortunately his real identity remains unknown (though I am aware of it).

Geddit? Anonymous Johnson was subjected to attacks by those violent belligerent atheists, but fortunately his identity is still a secret, because otherwise those new atheists might go burn down Johnson’s house or kidnap and torture Johnson’s children or tear Johnson into little pieces while laughing their fiendish laughter.

Nasty stuff.

Don’t forget the supermarket

Oct 26th, 2009 10:32 am | By

I’ve had my disagreements with Steven Poole, but his review of three pop-philosophy books is really funny.

I put my theory of the dentist’s waiting room – at once social microcosm and place of interminable transition – to an attractive young woman beside me who was holding the side of her face and wincing. When she did not reply, I embarked upon a lecture on stoicism. The woman scowled and told me to piss off. She was quite ordinary after all.

It’s all worthwhile, because once armed with suitable wisdom, ‘one may face down absurdity and the inevitability of death in all those locations that irresistibly evoke them, such as airports, dentists’ waiting rooms, gyms, dog kennels, and hot-air balloons.’ Quite.

Come on in, the sharks are friendly

Oct 24th, 2009 5:33 pm | By

Mary Wakefield assures the nervous frightened Anglicans who can’t stand the thought of female bishops but aren’t quite sure about this Catholic church thingy either even though it does do an admirable job of keeping women in their place – Mary Wakefield assures them, I say, that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself. That, and the sharks, of course.

Well, come on in, I say. The water’s warm. I converted two years ago now, full of cowardly fear about what people might think, and to my surprise, I haven’t regretted it since. But though the water is warm, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few sharks around.

Ah. There are sharks around, but come on in? Er – thank you for the thought, but I’m busy that day.

As Catholicism seeps back into Britain (St Thérèse of Lisieux’s UK tour this year, the Pope’s in 2010, the probable beatification of Cardinal Newman, etc), so too our national rage against Catholicism is on the rise…Yes, the church’s history is bloody and corrupt, but so is England’s, and that doesn’t preclude patriotism. Like most other powerful institutions, the church has done some appalling things, but it has also championed women’s rights, campaigned to end slavery, opposed the Iraq war, fed and clothed the poor and sent more and more effective aid to Africa than any other charitable organisation.

Championed women’s rights? The hell it has! It has issued papal declarations that women are Special and Different and Must Not try to deny their femininity and be like men. That’s not championing women’s rights. And how much campaigning to end slavery has it done, when, where? It’s news to me that the catholic church has been prominent in this struggle – and I have a feeling Wakefield is making it up, or just assuming it must be the case. Everybody campaigned to end slavery, nobody supported it, it was all just a big fluke, so of course the catholic church must have been right out there on the front lines next to William Lloyd Garrison.

Anyway that breezy little skip past ‘Yes, the church’s history is bloody and corrupt’ won’t quite do, since a lot of the bloodiness is very very recent, not to say on-going, and the corruption isn’t altogether over either.

I inched towards the Catholic church, baulking like a nervy horse. From the outside, it looked crazy: a mix of dodgy doctrine and arcane ritual. But the closer I crept, the saner, the more light-hearted I felt, and once inside, even transubstantiation made perfect sense.

Once inside – well yes. That’s the problem with going inside.

Homo novoatheiensis

Oct 23rd, 2009 8:51 pm | By

Karen Armstrong is awfully bossy for someone who talks so much about compassion.

Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

That’s a terrible non sequitur, it seems to me – the quest for meaning continues, so God isn’t going anywhere. Eh? The quest for meaning doesn’t necessarily end up at God; God is not the only kind of meaning there is; one can ‘quest for’ or construct meaning without resorting to God. Besides – if the quest for meaning continues, then God must not be much of an answer to the problem, or the quest would have ended, because meaning would have been found.

Anyway, I always hate those ‘like it or not,’ ‘it’s always been this way and always will,’ ‘you might as well get used to it’ announcements. They piss me off. You don’t know what’s always going to be around, you don’t know what can or can’t be changed, and you don’t get to tell me what to get used to and put up with and quit struggling against. My quest for meaning involves fighting doomed battles, okay? You might as well get used to it.

I like PZ’s take.

In some ways, I’m always flattered by this argument that we need to define humans as a species by their religious beliefs, because I don’t have them…which means I get to claim that I, and my fellow atheists, are a new species. Let us go forth, my fellow Homo smartiepantsius, and take over the hominid niche.

Yeah! I’m a new species! Beats being a new atheist any day.

The Sisters of Cruelty

Oct 21st, 2009 10:24 am | By

Another pretty story from Ireland.

Kathleen, with her her sisters, Sarah Louise and Lydia, were taken from their mother in a dawn raid on their Dublin tenement home and found guilty in the children’s court of being “destitute” and “having a parent who does not exercise proper guardianship”…“The people who took us from Mummy were paid a bounty by the religious orders because the nuns in turn received half a man’s wage per week for every child they took. It was a business. They called us destitute and uncared for, but that’s what they condemned us to — we were loved and cared for, but they took us away”…The regime at Moate was unremittingly grim. “I learnt to be quiet and not draw attention, that’s how I survived. We were the O’Malleys from Dublin, dirty jackeens from the slums was how they described us…It was drummed into me that I was worthless. We had our own nice clothes taken away and we were put into rags and worked from dawn til dusk in the laundry. We never played, we were sterile, we were given nothing. There was a rusty tap in the yard where we were allowed out for half an hour a day. We got an egg a year, a sausage a year, the rest of our food was slop and bread. We were allowed one half-hour visit a year from our mother, who would make a three-hour journey to see us and they wouldn’t even give her a glass of water. The annual visit took place in what was called ‘the poor-man’s room’ and it was supervised, with a nun present, so nobody could say anything they really wanted to say. It was horrible; there were always tears.”

And even all that isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was even worse than all that.

“The worst part of the whole experience was how they actually poisoned my mind against my mother. The unforgivable part is that they told me and my sisters that my mother had given us up, that she didn’t want us. And we believed that for years. I only discovered in later life how hard she fought to get us back. She suffered so much. They bad-mouthed her to us, calling her a ‘streetwalker’.” One of Kathleen’s greatest regrets is having torn up the only photograph of her with her mother, at a time in life when she really did believe all the nuns had told her.

Yet Karen Armstrong would have us believe that compassion is central to all religion, and she never wearies of ordering us to agree with her about this. On page 307 of The Case for God, for example, she asserts that

The new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms.

We don’t mention it because we don’t believe in it. It’s that simple. We don’t believe it counts, because there is so much of the other thing. (Though there are exceptions. If Quakerism counts as one of the monotheisms, it’s an exception.) We don’t believe it’s good enough for religions to ‘espouse’ compassion while behaving like monsters of cruelty, and we also don’t believe that people should claim that religion stands for justice and compassion in the light of the history of Irish industrial schools, among other things. If it were really true that justice and compassion are central and important to religion, then the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and the ‘Christian Brothers’ could not have acted the way they did. They would have recoiled and revolted. They didn’t recoil and revolt; they fell to the work with energy and dedication. Justice and compassion were foreign to the whole enterprise. It’s hard to come up with anything less just and less compassionate than tormenting children for the crime of being poor and born to a single mother – so the Irish catholic church on its own falsifies the whole idea that religion, of its essence, teaches compassion.

That a millstone were hanged about his neck

Oct 20th, 2009 11:55 am | By

Behold the deep compassion of the Irish Catholic church.

[T]he Catholic Church in Dublin operated a jurisdiction within a jurisdiction based on one consistent rule: protect the institution at all costs. Those costs included the exposure, and indeed sacrifice, of vulnerable children, again and again, to predatory abusers…The Dublin inquiry has involved a sample of 46 priests and 19 bishops, including four archbishops. From what is known, its findings are damning. Bishops in Dublin moved priest abusers around from parish to parish, again and again, in most instances informing no one in the parishes, even its priests, of the newcomer’s proclivities. In most such instances, too, they moved the abuser priests into poorer, working-class areas, where people were more trusting and less likely to ask questions and where, as elsewhere, it was the children of the most devout who were taken advantage of.

Clever – but not noticeably compassionate. ‘Let’s see: how do we protect ourselves? I know – we do the dirty work in places where people are the least likely to challenge us and the most likely to let us do whatever we like on the grounds that we are god’s ambassadors on earth. In short we take advantage of poverty and inadequate education to allow those of us who like to sexually molest children stay out of prison, avoid exposure, and…not that we are happy about this, but it can’t be helped…still have the ability to molest children. God will surely smile in approval as we protect His church from exposure and shame at the expense of credulous human beings and their unfortunate children.’

NPR says ‘ew’

Oct 19th, 2009 11:08 am | By

NPR proudly joins the vast majority of good decent centrist moderate sensible okay acceptable Americans in saying how horrible atheists are, especially the ones who don’t keep their atheism a tactful secret.

Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

No, that’s wrong, and tendentious. What atheists celebrated on Blasphemy Day was the freedom to say anything we like (barring incitement to murder and similar) including but by no means restricted to perceived denigration and insult. NPR was careful to trash ‘atheists’ in the opening sentence, so that nobody would be in any doubt even for a second that NPR is opposed to atheism.

They quote Stuart Jordan, a science adviser at the Center for Inquiry, tutting about the painting of Jesus doing his nails.

Jordan says the exhibit created a firestorm from offended believers, and he can understand why. But, he says, the controversy over this exhibit goes way beyond Blasphemy Day. It’s about the future of the atheist movement — and whether to adopt the “new atheist” approach — a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers.

Well, there you go, you see. We don’t think ‘aggressive’ is the right word (let alone ‘belittling’). We don’t think we are aggressive, we think we are no longer silent, which is a different thing. That’s the rock on which these two streams always separate – what is aggression and what is perfectly reasonable non-secrecy. It’s the same rock in Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, obviously. It was the same rock in the Civil Rights movement, and in feminism, and in gay rights. We don’t think we are obliged to be quiet, so we speak up, and the people who think we are obliged to be quiet then call us ‘aggressive’ for not being quiet. Then we get annoyed that mere speaking up is called ‘aggressive’ so we speak up all the more – so this kind of labeling backfires when it comes to silencing us but it works a treat when it comes to making everyone else think we are bad aggressive people. It’s a very loaded word, ‘aggressive’ – it’s one of those words it pays to be suspicious of, in case it’s being used in peculiar and dubious and even sinister ways.

The reporter got Paul Kurtz to make some unpleasant accusations about nameless ‘new atheists.’

Kurtz says he was ousted in a “palace coup” last year — and he worries the new atheists will set the movement back. “I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”

Who are? Who are all these ‘they’? Dawkins, Hitchens? That would be odd, since both have been affiliated with the Center for Inquiry and written columns for Free Inquiry for many years. Ron Lindsay, who replaced Kurtz as CEO of CfI and disagreed with him about Blasphemy Day? Possibly. Everyone else who’s ever been called a ‘new’ atheist? Possibly – but does Kurtz really know that all of those people are mean-spirited? No of course not – and he should have been more cautious than to let the pious NPR reporter bounce him into making such a claim. I’ve been called a new atheist, and Paul Kurtz didn’t act as if he considered me mean-spirited when I was at CfI in 2007. He told me how terrific he thought B&W was, too. He did talk about wanting atheism and humanism to be affirmative, but he didn’t talk about it as contrasted with any kind of fundamentalist or aggressive or mean-spirited atheism; not that I heard.

But things change, of course. That was then, this is now. The Great Sorting continues.

In Oklahoma

Oct 19th, 2009 10:28 am | By

Misogyny gone wild.

Women seeking abortions in Oklahoma are to be forced to reveal an array of personal information, such as the state of their relationships, how many children they have and their race, which will be posted on an official website…Abortion rights groups have filed a lawsuit to try to block the new law, which requires women seeking abortions to provide doctors with answers to 34 questions including their age, marital status and education levels, as well as the number of previous pregnancies and abortions. Women are required to reveal their relationship with the father, the reason for the abortion and the area where the abortion was performed. Doctors are obliged to pass the information on to the Oklahoma health department, which will post it on a public website.

In other words…a pregnant woman has no rights at all, she is public property because she is pregnant and therefore everything about her is public property and nothing about her belongs to her and no one else. In other words she is not a real person – she is a vessel for a real person, not a real person herself, and her life and her wants and needs are of no significance. It’s everyone’s business whom she had sex with and under what circumstances, why she wants to end the pregnancy, and anything else that The State feels like asking.

Last month a judge struck down a state law requiring a doctor about to perform an abortion to carry out an ultrasound with the screen positioned in front of the mother and to then describe the developing limbs and organs of the foetus. The woman could not be forced to look at the screen but would have no choice but to listen to the doctor’s description. The law required that the ultrasound be carried out vaginally if the pregnancy was in its early stages in order to get a clear picture. Rape victims were not exempted.

In other words the state mandated that women be raped by a machine if they were getting an abortion.

Let’s close for David Koresh’s birthday

Oct 18th, 2009 10:36 am | By

Two councils in East London have irritated a lot of people (and perhaps pleased a few, though that looks doubtful) by instructing all schools under their control to shut for the annual celebrations of Eid-Ul-Fitr, Diwali and Guru Nanak’s Birthday. They have their reasons.

The council has said that the policy is intended to “raise awareness of different faiths and cultures within the school community, which in turn supports cohesion for the wider community”.

Dear god – do people just swallow nauseating bromides in pill form so that they will belch them for a stipulated period afterwards? Do they get them inscribed on the inside of their eyelids? Or am I over-thinking this – is it simply a matter of learning five or six key words and then just trotting them out on all occasions so as not to have to think at all ever under any circumstances? I ask because that sure is what it looks like – and it frankly makes me want to punch something. Community community community, pause, cohesion. Then again – community community different, cohesion community different. Let’s raise awareness of our differences so that we can have more cohesion. Are you sure about that? Are you sure that’s how it works?

Especially when, if the Telegraph is right, there are more Jews in Waltham Forest than there are Sikhs, yet ‘schools have not been told to close for any Jewish holidays.’ What’s that about?

I have a question, too. I don’t understand this usage:

Parents and teaching unions have joined in the criticism of the Waltham Forest policy, which affects all community primary and secondary schools in the borough, although not Church of England or Catholic schools.

What on earth does ‘community’ mean there? Is it a euphemism for secular? If so, why is a euphemism needed? It presumably doesn’t mean ‘state’ since C of E (and Catholic?) schools can be state schools…right? Or am I confused? Does ‘community’ just mean ‘without specific religious affiliation’? Is that the normal way of saying that? Is it new?

What the Vatican will allow us to say

Oct 17th, 2009 11:34 am | By

A priest who works for something called ‘the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’ doesn’t like the way secularists use the word ‘tolerance’. He says that ‘neutrality toward world views cannot be truly tolerant and respectful’ – which could be because he is inflating ‘tolerant’ to mean ‘respectful’ and ‘respectful’ to mean ‘obedient’ or ‘groveling’ or ‘slavish.’

When secularized citizens act in their role as citizens, they must [not] deny in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth.

Ah yes – you’d like that, wouldn’t you. You’d like us to stop – when acting in our role as citizens, which presumably means doing anything at all public, such as writing for magazines or on blogs – pointing out that there is no reason to believe that ‘religious images of the world’ have anything to do with ‘expressing’ truth. You’d like us to pretend that the Catholic ‘image of the world’ is just as reasonable as any other ‘image of the world’ – despite its long-established refusal to check its world-image against the real thing and its long-established habit of building up its world image out of authority and tradition and selected bits of a very old book and its long-established contentment with just asserting things about the world and human beings and ‘God.’ Of course you would like that, because then you could go on asserting things and laying down the law without any interference from people who think you don’t know what you claim to know. But you don’t get to have that. You get to have a huge amount of power and influence and authority, and money as well; you don’t get to have universal submission. Suck it up.

In the shadows

Oct 16th, 2009 5:17 pm | By

Oh dear, poor Tony Blair.

A couple of days ago Matthew Parris went to visit the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux which are paying a neighborly visit to Westminster Cathedral. It was all very festive.

Already there was a near-carnival atmosphere surrounding the bones. A temporary fish-and-chips stall had sprung up beside a smoothies-and-coffee tent.

And that’s not the only treat.

Next, a big notice. “The Plenary Indulgence … A plenary indulgence is the complete remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.” Apparently Pope Benedict has declared a special grant of indulgences to pilgrims to these relics at Westminster. “One plenary indulgence may be gained each day and may be applied either to a soul in Purgatory or the pilgrim himself or herself.”

Ooooooh I do like a nice bit of magic.

And then the relics. Or rather the casket containing the relics. Or rather the big arched glass box containing the ornate wooden house with little tiles, embracing the sealed alabaster box in which the bones lay. Or rather were presumed by the pilgrims to lie.

Well naturally – would you have them strain at a gnat and swallow a camel?

At the front of the cathedral, among the departing pilgrims, was a man apparently alone. It was Tony Blair. He half-acknowledged me, and walked away. Blimey. Can these relics help a man become president of Europe? This was no photo-opportunity: our former Prime Minister and warrior for Western values had not expected to see a journalist — his expression betrayed that. So he really means it. Means it not just about God, but the God to whom Catholics think they have access.

Oh lordy. Poor Tony Blair – wanting to do that, and doing it, and being caught by Matthew Parris doing it.

What is interesting and what is not

Oct 15th, 2009 5:26 pm | By

Another thought from Tom Clark on supernaturalism.

If one takes the “ontological features” of consciousness, free agency, rationality, and moral knowledge to be fundamental to reality – as resident in an all powerful God – then of course it’s no surprise that God’s favored creations should also possess such features. But absent independent evidence-based reasons to believe in God, and given competing naturalistic explanations that meet high standards of coherence, verifiability, transparency and simplicity, Moreland’s supernatural hypothesis has little appeal for those wanting to know how things really work. It’s their evidential and methodological constraints that make naturalistic explanations worth pursuing, and it’s the lack of such constraints that makes the supernatural hypothesis facile, uninteresting and ultimately empty.

That’s just it. A hypothesis that is not tethered to anything – a hypothesis that does not, to use Tom’s metaphor, have to pay any attention to a net – is fundamentally uninteresting because it doesn’t come to grips with anything. It is the coming to grips with something that is interesting, and it is the refusal to do so that makes supernaturalism uninteresting. You get this from reading about Ardipithecus, or scientific discussions of the evidence for human dispersal, or any other in-progress scientific or otherwise empirical investigation. If there is no net, if anything goes – then what’s there to think about?

Leave Barry Manilow out of this

Oct 14th, 2009 12:58 pm | By

I was reading Tom Clark on the emptiness of supernaturalism and was prompted (not for the first time) to think about the idea of objective morality.

…it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to find in impersonal Nature any sort of validation for our moral intuitions, intuitions which evolutionary accounts suggest had adaptive value, whether or not they reflect objective values. Yet we ordinarily suppose our moral norms do reflect something objective, something that’s independent of them but which they accurately reflect. This moral logic says murder is objectively and intrinsically wrong, period, so we’re right to strongly feel that it’s wrong.

We do strongly feel that murder is wrong, but that’s because we’re the kind of beings we are; a different kind of being wouldn’t. Imagine for instance a being with thoughts but no feelings – literally no feelings. Not a being with slightly flattened feelings like Spock, but one with no feelings at all. A being like that wouldn’t, by definition, strongly feel that murder is wrong, because it wouldn’t feel anything, but it also wouldn’t because it is feeling that makes it wrong. The putative objective moral sense actually cashes out as the feeling-capacity. It depends on things mattering. Without that, murder is no more immoral than unplugging a lamp. If the being with no feelings were a whole species rather than an individual, murder would be a matter of indifference, like everything else. Murder is wrong because we value our own lives and those of other people – if none of us valued either one in the slightest (and assuming no harm to any other feeling entity, etc) then murder wouldn’t be wrong. I find this thought quite interesting.

Even she doesn’t pray to it

Oct 13th, 2009 4:23 pm | By

Just what I keep saying – Karen Armstrong’s ‘God’ is all very well but it’s not what most believers mean by ‘God’ – to put it mildly. If a ‘United Church of Christ and American Baptist minister’ (you’re allowed to ride two bicycles like that?) doesn’t buy her version of god, why should anyone else?

[H]er pastiche construct of the divine, intended as a greater god, reduces the divine to an ethereal “it” describable in ethics as compassion and as transcendence in metaphysics, but unrecognizable in any of the world’s living religions as God. Even she doesn’t pray to it.

Just what I keep saying. Yet Armstrong is pretty emphatic that her pastiche is the real ‘God,’ is ‘God’ properly understood, is the One True Scotsman.

And even if she were right it wouldn’t make any difference. The god that matters now is the god that people believe in now and for most people that is not Armstrong’s pastiche, or any other ‘sophisticated’ abstraction, whether Terry Eagleton’s or Paul Tillich’s.

The United Baptist American of Christ minister likes Armstrong in other ways though.

The virtue derives from her giving God some needed press-coverage among the chattering classes…As a public intellectual in media coverage, Armstrong is a refreshing counterpoise both to old literalists (who confuse words with truth) and to the so-called New Atheists (who narrow truth down to facts)…providing some needed public-square intellectual respectability to religious thought.

Bollocks. Needed press-coverage among the chattering classes? Needed public-square intellectual respectability? Please. God gets plenty of press-coverage among the chattering classes and public-square intellectual respectability. Plenty. Look where this very article appears, just for a start – it’s in the regular ‘faith’ column in the Washington Post. There is no regular atheism column in the Washington Post! How much more press-coverage and intellectual respectability does Willis Elliott want? All God all the time?

The Cardinal on atheism: he’s against it

Oct 12th, 2009 5:30 pm | By

Cardinal Francis George, who is President of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference, has noticed that the natives are getting restless. He observes that US secularism is moving from taming religion to rejecting it.

The new atheism has its followers…In Chicago, we now have atheist clubs in high schools. We didn’t have those five years ago. Kids I would have confirmed in the eighth grade, by the time they’re sophomores in high school say they’re atheists. They don’t just stop going to church, they make a statement…I think it’s something of a fad, because of the aggressiveness of this new atheism. It captures people.

Yes? Well what does the Catholic church do? It ‘captures’ people, doesn’t it? At least, if atheism does the Catholic church does – since atheism doesn’t throw big nets over people, or shoot tranquilizer darts into them, or put opium in their soup and then drag them away to the Scary Atheist Compound, never to be seen again.

Oh yes but you see that’s quite different because…because…er…give me a minute, I’ll think of it…

‘It is highly evangelical, isn’t it?’ simpers the interviewer helpfully, and the cardinal is happy to agree.

Yes it is, sure. Everybody has said that, and it’s true. It’s the mirror image of a kind of fundamentalism, because it’s very restrictive in its use of reason. It’s also very triumphalistic and self-righteous.

While Catholicism, on the other hand –



Oct 11th, 2009 12:14 pm | By

Obama has an ‘adviser on Muslim affairs,’ Dalia Mogahed; she appeared on a British tv show hosted by a member of Hizb ut Tahrir, Ibtihal Bsis. Mogahed is on ‘the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships,’ which is something the president shouldn’t have in the first place. On this tv show she said, according to the Telegraph, that the Western view of sharia is ‘oversimplified’ and ‘the majority of women around the world associate it with gender justice.’

Well if they do they’re crazy, but I don’t believe they do. The majority of women around the world aren’t Muslim, for a start, and not all Muslims are fond of sharia, so Mogahed’s statistic sounds made up.

Mogahed appeared alongside Hizb ut Tahrir’s national women’s officer, Nazreen Nawaz. During the 45-minute discussion, on the Islam Channel programme Muslimah Dilemma earlier this week, the two members of the group made repeated attacks on secular “man-made law” and the West’s “lethal cocktail of liberty and capitalism”. They called for Sharia Law to be “the source of legislation” and said that women should not be “permitted to hold a position of leadership in government”. Mogahed made no challenge to these demands and said that “promiscuity” and the “breakdown of traditional values” were what Muslims admired least about the West.

That’s bad. That stinks.

She said: “I think the reason so many women support Sharia is because they have a very different understanding of sharia than the common perception in Western media. The majority of women around the world associate gender justice, or justice for women, with sharia compliance. The portrayal of Sharia has been oversimplified in many cases.”

Well that’s just wrong – it’s not about the common perception in Western media, it’s about the real-world implementations of sharia. As far as I know – and do correct me if I have this wrong – there have so far been no implementations of sharia that were mild and egalitarian and obviously just. All the implementations of sharia that I know about – in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Somalia, in Sudan, in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, in Malaysia, in northern Nigeria – have been harshly punitive and grossly unequal as between women and men. Seriously – if there is an example of sharia in the world that treats women fairly and doesn’t inflict savage punishments on people and especially women – do point it out. But in the meantime – there’s something revoltingly irresponsible about pretending that sharia is misunderstood, in the face of the horrible cruelties and injustices that we know about.

In that context, it’s worrying that the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has lost its funding.

For the past five years, researchers in a modest office overlooking the New Haven green have carefully documented cases of assassination and torture of democracy activists in Iran…But just as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center was ramping up to investigate abuses of protesters after this summer’s disputed presidential election, the group received word that – for the first time since it was formed – its federal funding request had been denied…Many see the sudden, unexplained cutoff of funding as a shift by the Obama administration away from high-profile democracy promotion in Iran, which had become a signature issue for President Bush.

It’s actually not a matter of democracy but one of rights. If a majority in Iran favored torturing protesters, that wouldn’t make it okay. In any case, I don’t like to find myself preferring a Bush policy to an Obama policy, but in this case it seems that I do. I also find myself agreeing with Joe Lieberman and somebody at the American Enterprise Institute. Come on, Barack, don’t put me in this position! Reach out, good; talk to people, good; but don’t abandon human rights and women’s rights.