I wouldn’t fit in at all

Feb 11th, 2010 1:44 pm | By

John Shook argues that morality evolved long before religion did, which seems right, but then he claims more.

If you were suddenly plucked from your life and sent back in time to live with people in Indonesia about 15,000 years ago (or even Ethiopia 150,000 years ago), you would be able to figure out what is going on. The basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to you, and you’d fit in pretty fast.

Oh no I wouldn’t – not fit in pretty fast I wouldn’t. I might be able to figure out what is going on, but I would also want no part of it. I would want no part of the social roles that would be imposed on me as a woman, and I would probably not be crazy about the civil rules to do with how slaves, foreigners, criminals, prisoners of war, and other inferiors or others were treated – in fact I would be a foreigner and thus probably a slave. I’d be a foreign slave woman, and I would ‘fit in’ pretty fast. No I wouldn’t! Not unless ‘fit in’ means ‘obey because I have no choice.’

Cultural anthropologists have long recognized how all human societies have similar basic norms of moral conduct. Marc Hauser, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has just published a paper about additional studies showing that people’s moral intuitions do not vary much across different religions all around the world.

But they do. People’s moral intuitions about the rightness of killing women for being raped, of stoning women to death in front of their children, of forced marriage, of killing witches, of killing gay people – the list goes on, and those moral intuitions do vary much.

Furthermore, basic morality is highly resistant to religious influence — most people easily reject religious rules that violate their basic moral intuitions.

Really? Then why do some ‘devout believers’ think daughter-murder is mandated by their religion under certain circumstances while other people don’t?

Religion and science are like totally the same

Feb 10th, 2010 5:51 pm | By

Mark Vernon has his own special brand of wool. I do not admire it. It is too unctuous.

Is science closer to religion than is typically assumed? Is religion closer to science? Might rational enquiry, based on evidence, share similarities with faith? These questions were raised by Charles Taylor, the distinguished Canadian philosopher, speaking at a Cambridge University symposium (pdf). He suspects that in the modern world we’ve bought into an illusion, one that posits a radical split between reason and revelation. Today, given the tension and violence that arises from misunderstandings about both, is a good time to examine them again.

It is annoying, and unctuous, that Vernon doesn’t mention that that ‘symposium’ was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Allow me to correct his omission: that ‘symposium’ was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. It was called ‘Faith, Rationality, and the Passions.’ It kicked off with Templeton Prize-winner Charles Taylor. It looks to have been a very templetonian symposium.

Vernon summarizes Taylor explaining that it’s all an illusion, because ‘when you examine the way science actually works you see that there’s a third factor’ which is intuition. You know what’s coming next, of course, even if you haven’t already read Jerry Coyne’s take, or indeed the Vernon article itself – you know that up next is Kuhn and the paradigm shift and normal science, and so they all are. Therefore, Vernon (apparently via Taylor) sums up, religion and science are both faith so ha.

…the neat distinction between science and religion unravels, for religion involves commitments made on faith too. You might protest: revelation purports to come from God and is untestable, two characteristics that the scientist would certainly reject. Except that regardless of its source, a revelation can only make an impact if it makes sense to people, which is to say that they test it against their lives…

Therefore, revelation really is tested, just the way science is, because people ‘test it against their lives,’ whatever the fuck that means, therefore there is no ‘neat’ distinction between science and religion, therefore we can just forget all about all this poxy modernity and reason and science and testing (except for ‘testing it against our lives,’ which is way easy and painless and you can do it while you sleep) and live happily ever after. All shall come first! All shall have prizes! Though probably not Templeton Prizes.

The wisdom of bishops

Feb 9th, 2010 2:44 pm | By

Nice. ‘Compassionate.’ Thoughtful. Caring.

The president of the US bishops’ conference has issued a reminder that New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that works with homosexuals and lesbians, “has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church.” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago added that New Ways Ministry fails to provide “an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching. Like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of church teaching,” the cardinal observed, New Ways Ministry does not speak for the Catholic faithful.

Because, of course, ‘Catholic teaching’ is that ‘homosexuals and lesbians’ are bad, nasty, dirty, ew, put it down, leave it alone, shun it, nasty, bad. Mind you it does of course hide and protect its own employees who stray into same-sex Sin, provided they do it with people who are underage and thus too weak to get the church into trouble – but that is not at all the same thing as treating adults who couple with other adults of the same sex as if they were human beings like any others as opposed to filthy criminals. The church knows what is right and what is not – thanks to its ‘teachings.’

Holding onto a shadow

Feb 8th, 2010 11:47 am | By

Der Spiegel takes a hard look at the Vatican’s secretive ways with abusive employees.

According to the instructions from Rome, the bishops were to deal very firmly with each individual case — so firmly, in fact, that everything would remain within the confines of the Holy Church…On the surface, the Vatican’s objective is to protect the sacrament of the confession. In reality, however, it is trying to uphold the Catholic Church’s claim to being a superior moral authority. Nothing can be allowed to besmirch this authority: not the sexual abuse of children and adolescents, committed by thousands of Catholic priests worldwide…

And there you have it – the Catholic church’s total moral failure, in a nutshell. The failure is total because if the Church actually had any superior moral authority it would instantly realize – it would be aware without even having to pause to realize – that this attempt was an effort to square the circle – was an exercise in meaninglessness. An organization cannot perpetrate gross harms on vulnerable people and then try to uphold its claim to being a superior moral authority by failing to prevent further such gross harms. It’s like trying to have your cake after you’ve eaten it by clinging like grim death to the empty plate. It can’t be done – it’s too late.

But the Church failed to realize that, thus revealing itself to be morally bankrupt, and actively assisting its employees to go on harming people. Secrecy about crimes against people have exactly that effect, and the Church cannot be such a moral imbecile that it is not aware of that fact. The result is that all it upheld is a façade of superior moral authority, behind which lurks suppurating moral rot of the most sinister kind. All it upheld is a glittering shell decorating a gang of child-abusers and their aiders and abettors.

Just get on with the gardening

Feb 7th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

Mark Vernon tells us that the key issue in Kant’s Critiques was understanding the limits of human knowledge.

When Kant said that Enlightenment was maturity this is what he meant, being able to live with this finitude and not reach out for false certainty. So we have Enlightenment humanism as scepticism and grappling with the reality of human knowledge and experience. This I would actually relate to a tradition within religion, though it is one lamentably in decline today. It is called the ‘apophatic’, meaning ‘negative way’. It stands in marked contrast to the ‘cataphatic’, meaning ‘positive way’, the strident assertions of indisputable religious dogma and divine truth. The apophatic is a way of approaching what is ultimately unknown by identifying what that unknown cannot be. In religion it says God is not mortal (immortal), not visible (invisible) – note, saying nothing positive about God.

Okay…but if you say nothing positive about God, how do you know it’s ‘God’ that you’re talking about? Or to put it another way, why is whatever the [?] you are talking about called ‘God’? Why that name in particular? Why not a different name, for a different subject, since this ‘God’ does seem to be a different subject. The ‘God’ that is usually meant by ‘God’ is not ‘that which no one says anything positive about’ – on the contrary. So why use that one name for two such different items?

Well, because we have to have ‘God,’ because it wouldn’t be respectable not to, so we have to hang onto it by simply doing away with all the rules and saying God is this, God is that, God is not this or that, God is everything, God is nothing, God is whatever. God is just whatever you want God to be, darling, and nobody can tell you otherwise. We can be apophatic one day and cataphatic the next and there is not a damn thing those pesky secular bastards can do about it.

Anthony Gottlieb is not much impressed by the whole ‘apophatic’ thing.

Consider, for example, “The Case for God”, the latest of 22 books on religion by Karen Armstrong, who was once a Catholic nun but now espouses a vague, universalist religion of compassion. In her opinion, God “is not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.” Her main idea is that the only authentic and defensible God is one who utterly transcends human understanding and therefore cannot be described at all…What is even more baffling is the idea that one can talk about a wholly indescribable God who cannot be said to “exist” but who nevertheless in some sense “is”.

Quite. Gottlieb goes on to Eagleton next (Armstrong and Eagleton should form an act of some sort, like Abbot and Costello). Same kind of thing. He concludes sagely: ‘A wiser response to the apparent inexpressibility of statements about God may be simply not to express them, and just get on with the gardening.’ That’s my view. If you’re going to be apophatic, why not just move on and do something else? What is the point of saying you don’t know and calling that ‘God’?

Drive-by insults

Feb 6th, 2010 4:48 pm | By

Andrew Brown does love to yank the chain of non-believers.

Judges are paid to discriminate among prisoners before them, and to distinguish those for whom prison is the right treatment from everyone else. Defendants of otherwise good character should obviously get different sentences to habitual recidivists. The real disagreement is whether being a devout Muslim (or Christian) is in itself a sign of good character. Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, though less important than his previously spotless record.

Right, Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, and by implication that its absence is a sign of bad character, or else why mention it at all? She didn’t say ‘you have a spotless record and you drink Ribena’ or ‘ ‘you have a spotless record and you wear trainers’; she didn’t make a random observation that no reasonable observer would construe as a claim about his character; she said ‘you are a religious man.


For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It’s evidence of bad character. For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It’s evidence of bad character.

Interesting, except that Sanderson said nothing like that (and much less did ‘those who think like him’) so one is left wondering how Andrew Brown knows it. No one isn’t, one is left marveling yet again at Andrew Brown’s fondness for the truculent and untrue passing insult.

In Sanderson’s world, judges should say things like “Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence.”

There’s another one. Not true, not pleasant, not justifiable.

I say this, of course, with the utmost affection.

This confusion of the epistemic with the political

Feb 5th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

Jerry Coyne and Orac have commented on Chris Mooney’s article on how to deal with anti-vaxxers but I’ll just add a thought.

Mooney asks what it would take to make the “vaccine-autism debate” (which isn’t a real debate) go away.

A Lancet retraction isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. For vaccine skeptics, that’s just more evidence of corruption and collusion in the medical establishment. Indeed, I doubt any individual scientific development has the strength to move these folks—because we aren’t dealing with a phenomenon that’s scientific in nature.

Quite right; we’re dealing with irrational immovable conviction. What to do?

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking…

As so often with Mooney, I have no idea what exactly he means by that. I do know vaguely what he means, because it’s obvious enough, and it’s all too typical – but I really don’t know exactly. I know he means we need everybody to be nice, and try to heal this ‘gap’ or ‘fissure’ or ‘polarity’ by being nice and looking into one another’s eyes and thinking ‘this is just another nice person like me, after all’…but I also know he doesn’t really literally mean that, because it’s too silly. But what does he mean? I asked in a comment there (which I can do there! because I’m not banned there! because it’s not The Intersection! it’s so exciting):

How? How is it possible to do that when, as you say yourself, “we’re really dealing with something very irrational here”? What does it mean to “encourage moderation” when one side won’t take any notice of evidence or argument? What does it mean to talk of a “polarized situation” as if the issue were fundamentally political rather than empirical? What use is it to import the language of political discussion and compromise into a pseudo-controversy over medical evidence? What reason is there to think that absolutely everything can be translated into the language of politics and “framing” and manipulation?

What does he mean by ‘moderation,’ do you suppose? What kind of moderation can proponents of vaccination resort to? Talking in really soft voices? Smiling while they talk? What? It is not clear, because Mooney (as so very often, or even always) didn’t make it clear. He just used some buzz words, and let it go at that. He’s very lazy about this stuff, when you get right down to it. He’s certainly not lazy in general; his first book was a triumph of energetic investigation. But he is very lazy about this; he thinks buzz words are all that’s necessary.

And he thinks everything is political. I think that’s where I disagree with him most profoundly – over this confusion of the epistemic with the political. I think ‘moderation’ on an empirical question is fundamentally meaningless, and I think making political noises about it just confuses things.

That’s the thought I wanted to add.

No ripples on the pond

Feb 5th, 2010 2:23 pm | By

Chris Mooney is seeking suggestions for his new gig.

I may as well make clear I am not going into this with the goal of having big arguments with leading New Atheists about science and religion.My position on this topic is well known…

No of course not – arguments are never what he wants. What he wants is to say what’s what, and have everybody listen quietly and nod soberly and say ‘Good idea, I never thought of it that way, I shall put your suggestions into effect immediately.’ He’s not at all interested in what people who don’t agree with him say. And if his position on this topic is not well known, that’s certainly not his fault, because god knows he’s been repeating it faithfully and imperturbably for lo these many months. That is precisely why I think he’s the wrong kind of person to host a podcast on inquiry. He’s not interested in inquiry.

The place for a woman is either at home or in the grave

Feb 5th, 2010 2:15 pm | By

Pakistan. A 13-year-old girl.

My brother used to tell me that the place for a woman is either at home or in the grave. I was always restricted to home. He said: “If you leave the house I’ll cut off your head and put it on your chest.” My brother had been to the local school and beaten the girls and the teachers. He said anyone who wanted to study was a friend of America. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted it so much that once I dreamt I was sitting in a hospital, working as a doctor. I wanted to help the poor, those who cannot afford medical fees.

Oh no – that’s not what her brother and her father had in mind for her, or for her younger sister, either.

My father and brother told me to carry out a suicide attack. They were pressuring me to do this. They told me: “If you do it you will go to paradise long before us.” I replied: “Why don’t you tell me I will go to hell long before you?”…They started beating me when I refused. They beat me non-stop. They made my life hell. I never had a single moment of happiness. They did everything other than kill me.

And as for that sister…

To the manner born

Feb 4th, 2010 11:32 am | By

Good old Charles, always stirring the pot, and doing it in such a grand aristocratic irresponsible way.

“I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment,” he told a conference at St James’s Palace. “I felt proud of that.”

Ah did you, you darling wee man. Well it’s easy for you, isn’t it, because if all the lights go out you can just get a lot of servants to hold the candles for you.

The Prince, who was talking at the annual conference of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment , went on: “I thought, ‘Hang on a moment’. The Enlightenment started over 200 years ago.”

He’s been studying Madeleine Bunting!

It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. It must be apparent to people deep down that we have to do something about it. We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment still apply now. I don’t believe they do. But if you challenge people who hold the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything, you do really upset them.

That would be partly because nobody holds that and people who do hold Enlightenment values get very stinking tired of being characterized in that stupid way. Nobody nobody nobody ‘holds the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything’ you ignorant git so why don’t you get it right if you want to say something?

Not to mention of course the absurdity of assuming that just because an idea is 200 years old therefore ‘we have to do something about it’ i.e. get rid of it. The monarchy is a good deal older than that but we don’t hear Chuck saying we have to do something about it, do we!

Instead, the Prince advocated a holistic approach to the world’s problems…“What is the point of all this clever technology if at the end of the day we lose our souls, and the soul of nature of which we are a part?”…The Prince also made an impassioned call for houses to be built so that birds, such as swallows and swifts, could make their nests there.

Holistic approach; souls; birds’ nests. For that he thinks he has to do something about the Enlightenment? I don’t see the necessity, myself.

Talk to Yggdrasil

Feb 3rd, 2010 12:36 pm | By

The Lancet has retracted Andrew Wakefield’s article that suggested that vaccines could cause autism. Therefore…

Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.

I see. Years of investigation that turned up conflicts of interest and ‘the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism’ will strengthen Wakefield’s credibility with many parents. What kind of thing would weaken it then?

…an investigation by a British journalist found financial and scientific conflicts that Dr. Wakefield did not reveal in his paper. For instance, part of the costs of Dr. Wakefield’s research were paid by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages. Dr. Wakefield was also found to have patented in 1997 a measles vaccine that would succeed if the combined vaccine were withdrawn or discredited.

Would that do it? No? I suppose it would take a shaman and Tom Cruise doing a joint press conference saying no it’s not vaccines it’s the anger of The World Spirit. Or something.

A short way with dissenters

Feb 1st, 2010 4:15 pm | By

Hey, why not ask the pope to host Point of Inquiry? He’s a reasonable guy – rational, thoughtful, fair-minded, generous, liberal.

The Pope confirmed today that he will make an official state visit to Britain this September – and immediately launched an attack on the Government’s plans to introduce stronger equality legislation for gay men and women. In the first official announcement from the Vatican that the head of the Roman Catholic Church will tour Britain, Pope Benedict XVI called on his bishops to continue campaigning against the Equality Bill which he said threatened religious freedom.

That’s nice, isn’t it? A German fella who’s the boss of a large church based in Rome is telling British bishops to campaign against equality legislation – because it’s really up to Ratzinger to decide what kind of laws the UK should have. Not to mention the whole business of making a big public show of resisting equality in the first place.

In a letter to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, many of whom are currently in Rome on an “ad limina” visit, Pope Benedict publicly criticised Britain’s equality legislation for the first time. “Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society,” he wrote. “Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.”

Yes, there speaks the voice of the papacy and the church – the one that likes to deliver occasional announcements about the ‘natural law’ that dictates that women are different from men and had damn well better not forget it. Reactionary bastards.

In a separate warning to any bishop thinking of deviating from the Vatican’s lead on such controversial issues, Pope Benedict also reiterated the need for the Church to “speak with a united voice. In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate,” he said. “It is the truth revealed through scripture and tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free.”

Yes indeed, and arbeit macht frei. There’s no freedom like the freedom of scripture and the Church’s Magisterium, so kindly recognize dissent for what it is and STFU.

Maybe Conan would like to do it?

Feb 1st, 2010 2:44 pm | By

This is not good news.

The Center for Inquiry has announced that there will be three new hosts for its popular podcast, Point of Inquiry. Joining the podcast are Chris Mooney, Karen Stollznow, and Robert Price…Mooney is expected to host about half of the approximately 50 new shows per year.

DJ Grothe, who was the host, left in December for a job as President of the James Randi Foundation. I was pleased at the time for DJ and for JREF, but worried for Point of Inquiry. DJ was a very good host.

Chris Mooney seems to me to be a very peculiar choice for that job. (He and Matthew Nisbet were both protégés of Paul Kurtz’s – Nisbet in particular used to make a great point of this, and for all I know still does.) Mooney is not: Thoughtful enough. Inquiring enough. Reasonable enough. Fair enough.

He’s especially, I think, not inquiring enough. He doesn’t even seem to get what it is to be inquiring – it’s not his thing. His thing is advocacy. Now advocacy is very useful, and it’s good that there are people who do it, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right people to host podcasts about inquiry. Mooney is if anything hostile to inquiry – he’s a results guy. I can’t see him having the right kind of curiosity and open-mindedness to do a good job with PofI.

And then the fairness issue I think is a major stumbling block. Since the recent regrettable events, I wouldn’t trust Mooney to be fair to anyone who had disagreed with him in the last eight months or so – and that covers a hell of a lot of people, many of whom are naturals for PofI. That’s a huge change from DJ. It really seems like an odd choice – and not in a good way.

Addition: here’s the Point of Inquiry I did in 2007. And here’s Russell’s from last October.

Summer camp or boarding school

Jan 31st, 2010 5:27 pm | By

Not good.

Ten members of an American Baptist Church are to appear in a Haitian court this morning after being accused of running an illegal adoption scheme. The group from Idaho said that they were carrying out a rescue mission and had accompanied more than 30 children as part of a plan to take at least 100 orphans out of Port-au-Prince to an orphanage that they run in the neighbouring Dominican Republic…She said that the group had documents from the Dominican Governmen but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities…

Why not? Did they try? Was it impossible in the circumstances? The article doesn’t say. At any rate clearly documents from another government do not amount to permission to take children out of their own country. If I decide to grab a child and take her to Ulan Bator, it’s not good enough for me to say I have documents from the government of Mongolia. Mongolia isn’t in a position to give me permission to abduct a child from a country that is not Mongolia.

The children, aged from a few months to 12, seemed to have little idea where they were being taken when The Times met them, with some saying that they had parents in Haiti. George Willeit, of SOS Children’s Village, a care centre on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where the children are now staying, told The Times: “What we know is that some of these children still have their parents. There was an older girl, aged 8 or 9, and she was crying and saying, ‘I’m not an orphan. I still have my parents’. This girl was thinking that she was going to a summer camp or boarding school. She didn’t know what was happening to her.”

No good. Bad. Help and rescue are all very well, but not in a hole-and-corner way. Not least, they have to make triply or quadruply sure to create ample records of what they’re doing so that the children can be found if relatives are looking for them. Even Idaho Baptists don’t get to take short cuts.

Deciding in advance

Jan 30th, 2010 1:55 pm | By

Wheaton College has a ‘statement of faith’ that everyone at Wheaton has to ‘follow.’ The statement is long, and specific, and detailed. It’s not a mere cloud of benevolent sentiments, it’s a list of concrete factual assertions prefaced by ‘we believe that,’ and agreeing to the whole thing is, as I understand it, a condition of employment and attendance. It includes (and ends with) ‘WE BELIEVE in the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust, the everlasting punishment of the lost.’

Yet Wheaton College considers itself an academic institution of some kind. Wheaton College considers itself a place of higher education, yet a condition of getting the putative higher education that Wheaton College offers is agreement with a long list of inherently absurd factual claims.

Those two facts don’t go together. They don’t belong together. Education is pretty much the opposite of swearing an oath to a particular set of unquestioned and unquestionable ‘faith-based’ assertions. Swearing such an oath amounts to swearing not to be educated in anything except the narrowest technical sense.

Rules of supermarket deportment

Jan 29th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

A brief frivolous interlude to consider one small aspect of daily life.

A Tesco store has asked customers not to shop in their pyjamas or barefoot…A spokesman said Tesco did not have a strict dress code but it does not want people shopping in their nightwear in case it offends other customers.

Or not so much offends them as makes them feel sick. That’s how it affects me. The sight of people outside in the world in their bedroom slippers, or with bed hair, or in their pyjamas, makes me feel very queasy indeed. It’s much the same if I see people flossing their teeth or cutting their toenails in public; or picking their noses, or applying unguents to a suppurating wound, or peeling a scab, or searching around in their hair in case there are any lice or ticks or fleas lurking up there. There are things people shouldn’t do in public, and those are some of them. I applaud Tesco’s attempt to maintain a vestige of dignity and seemliness in modern life.

Elaine Carmody, 24, a full-time mother of two young boys, described the ban as “ridiculous” and “pathetic”. She said she had regularly gone shopping at the store in her pyjamas until about a week ago when she was turned away when she went to buy cigarettes. She said she had been “popping in for a pack of fags,” but if she had been doing a full shop “then we obviously would have gone in clothed. But we only wanted fags and they still refused us to go in for a pack of cigarettes,” she added.

Ah isn’t that nice – Elaine Carmody is so frantically busy being the mother of two young boys that she can’t manage to put real clothes on before she goes to Tesco, so she regularly went shopping there in her unsightly pyjamas. Of course, she assures us, with her unerring grasp of the niceties, if she had been doing “a full shop” then obviously – obviously! – she would have put actual clothes on, but they ‘only wanted fags’ – she and her two young boys. Well of course they did, and what a cozy family group they do sound, running into Tesco in their jammies for a packet of fags and then running back home to smoke them. Yet Tesco didn’t find them appealing! It’s astonishing, isn’t it?

Elaine Carmody says quite a lot more; the BBC pretty obviously finds her hilarious. They thoughtfully provide a picture of her in her pyjamas, too, so that we can get an idea. We get one.

Village life

Jan 27th, 2010 5:14 pm | By

I have nothing to add.

A 16-year-old girl who was raped in Bangladesh has been given 101 lashes for conceiving during the assault. The girl’s father was also fined and warned the family would be branded outcasts from their village if he did not pay. According to human rights activists, the girl, who was quickly married after the attack, was divorced weeks later after medical tests revealed she was pregnant. The girl was raped by a 20-year-old villager in Brahmanbaria district in April last year…Muslim elders in the village issued a fatwa insisting that the girl be kept in isolation until her family agreed to corporal punishment.

Her rapist was pardoned by the elders.

No, I have nothing to add.

The mystery of the providence of God

Jan 26th, 2010 12:56 pm | By

The horrible slush keeps pouring out as if from a broken sewer pipe.

Instead of admitting that we do not know how to reconcile a loving God with terrible disasters like Haiti and Indonesia, some theologians come up with cruel solutions…We do not know the answer to this conundrum except to say that is the nature of freedom in an imperfect world and that is the mystery of the providence of God. God will work all things for our good even if we don’t understand. That is what faith is: the moment we say we understand, there is no longer any faith.

We do not know except to say – it’s always ‘except to say,’ isn’t it – it’s never just we do not know. What’s really meant is They don’t know but I do. We do not know except to say ‘that is the mystery of the providence of God.’ That’s knowing a hell of a lot! And it is of course knowing way more than we do in fact know. We don’t know if there is anything that matches the name ‘God’ and we certainly don’t know anything about what such a god’s ‘providence’ might be, or that what happened in Haiti is some of it. We don’t know jack shit, and saying ‘all we know is that that is the mystery of the providence of God’ is the very opposite of saying we do not know. It’s just part of the endlessly tiresome conceit of religious people to think they can get away with saying ‘we don’t know except for just this one big thing’ – to think they can get away with eating their cake and having it in that brazen way. I’m so humble, I know we don’t know, and also, I have the knowledge of ‘faith,’ so I do know, so I get the credit for both – humbleness and faithy knowledge.

And the upshot of this contemptible enterprise is still to end up in the same place – God will work all things for our good even if we don’t understand – so it’s okay that God crushed a lot of people to death at once and let a lot of others die very slowly in pain and thirst and fear. Well fuck that. It’s not okay. If God exists and did that, God is a monster. Don’t explain away horrors.

James Wood, in his alternately insightful and contemptuous Op-Ed article, concludes by dismissing the views of a Haitian bishop — who affirms that “what happened is the will of God” and “we are in the hands of God now” — as “little more than a piece of helpless mystification, a contradictory cry of optimistic despair.”…The bishop’s theology is neither mystifying nor contradictory, and in fact represents one version of a view held by many Christians and other religious people: namely, that God is deeply present in and through the events of the world — often inscrutably, but always powerfully and lovingly — and though we cannot for the life of us see how, even catastrophes include divine presence and power.

Yes, of course that’s a view held by many Christians and other religious people; it’s still both wrong and cruel. Dressing it up in unctuous churchy language doesn’t make it any less of either. Telling people that smashing tens of thousands of people to death is something to do with a God who is loving is just to sanctify a nightmare.

The perpetrator of that second one is an associate professor of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School.

Just say No to equality

Jan 25th, 2010 12:36 pm | By

The Church of England comes right out and admits it – it is opposed to equality. It’s politely regretful – or to put it another way, it politely pretends to be regretful. But when a choice has to be made, it chooses the principle of male authority, and that’s that. It would like to be all liberal and modern and right-on and all, but when the stakes are this high, it just can’t do it. So sorry.

The Christian Churches, alongside many other faiths, support the Equality Bill’s wider aims in promoting fairness in society and improving redress for those who have suffered unjust treatment.

Except for we don’t. We say we do – but then when we’re actually expected to act on it – we don’t. We wish we could – we would so love to – we wish you all the very best – but we don’t. So, so sorry.

The odyssey

Jan 24th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

James Wood doesn’t think much of theodicy.

But even when intentions are the opposite of Mr. Robertson’s, and in a completely secular context, theological language has a way of hanging around earthquakes. In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors

Which is why I wish Obama would leave the goddy stuff out. The intention was good, but really, if that’s the grace of God, what’s God thinking? That we have better building codes and more medical facilities and bigger airports so therefore God should do the earthquake in Haiti because that way it will be really worth watching on tv?

The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.”

Exactly. I said much the same thing in my essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief, though I said it in a slightly less respectful tone.

People seem to know that God is good, that God cares about everything and is paying close attention to everything, and that God is responsible whenever anything good happens to them or whenever anything bad almost happens to them but doesn’t. Yet they apparently don’t know that God is responsible whenever anything bad happens to them, or whenever anything good almost happens to them but doesn’t. People who survive hurricanes or earthquakes or explosions say God saved them, but they don’t say God killed or mangled all the victims. Olympic athletes say God is good when they win a gold, but they don’t say God is bad when they come in fourth or twentieth, much less when other people do.

Why don’t they? Why do people thank god for good things and look carelessly out the window when it comes to bad things? Why is it all thank you thank you thank you and never damn you damn you damn you? I suppose because once it gets to damn you damn you damn you it’s time to leave, so we don’t hear so much about it.