Freedom of speech means you must shut up

Aug 21st, 2007 12:22 pm | By

And while I’m at it, why don’t I just quarrel with Michael Shermer’s piece too. He doesn’t resort to the childish abuse of ‘the New Atheist Noise Machine,’ but there’s plenty to quarrel with all the same.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance…Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.

Oh really. Such as abolitionism for instance? Anti-war movements? Anti-imperialism movements? Some anti-something movements fail, others don’t. And the ‘new Atheists’ aren’t merely against something anyway, so it’s just more straw. (People do produce a remarkable amount of straw on this subject.)

Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested.

But…they do. What’s he talking about? Of course they champion science and reason. Does he mean to the exclusion of criticizing religion? But what if they think (as they do) that religion competes with and/or damages science and reason? Are they forbidden to discuss that? If so, why? How can that possibly be justified? Especially when that’s not usually said about other ideas – champion birdwatching but don’t criticize destruction of habitat; champion feminism but don’t criticize sexism or subordination; champion education but don’t criticize ignorance. That’s childish; it’s self-helpish nonsense.

Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

That’s the worst one of all, because it implies that criticism is incompatible with the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose – which is a stark contradiction, apart from anything else that’s wrong with it. But it’s also just damn silly, and an attempt at silencing or impeding free inquiry and criticism and thought. It is, frankly, deeply obnoxious to pretend that the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose somehow entails the silencing of people who think and believe differently and want to say so. It’s a completely inane thing to say, because it tells us to shut up so that other people can talk without hearing anything they don’t like. The logic is ridiculous, and the political import is revoltingly craven.

The Parochialist Noise Machine

Aug 21st, 2007 11:17 am | By

How nice – Matthew Nisbet has trotted out the old ‘atheists should be quiet’ number again, and nearly all the comments point out how absurd that is, and why. Good.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, echoes the very same warnings about the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign emphasized here at Framing Science…He argues against the irrational exuberance of the New Atheist Noise Machine…

No he doesn’t, because he doesn’t call it ‘the New Atheist Noise Machine’ – that bit of creepy snide namecalling is Nisbet’s contribution. It pisses me off, that kind of thing, because apart from anything else, what about the Theist Noise Machine? Eh? Why do Nisbet and Greg Epstein and the rest of the atheist-‘bashing’ hacks make such a (noisy?) fuss about atheism when the Theist Noise Machine has been deafening all of us for years?

Most importantly we alienate many moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with us on most social and scientific topics.

There it is again – that horrible blinkered parochial miniaturized view of the world which sees everything as a matter of US electoral politics. What does he mean ‘most importantly’? Is he so provincial and so one-eyed that he fails to realize that some people are interested in things other than US politics? Can he fail to realize that some people find US politics itself so provincial and narrow and childishly personal as well as greasily pragmatic that they turn away from it in revulsion?

Well, yes, apparently. He replies to a series of unconvinced comments with an even more parochial bit of wisdom:

The New Atheist Noise machine risks alienating the swing voters, moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with atheists on most issues.

Risks alienating the swing voters – there speaks the voice of truly infatuated narrowness of mind. What is he even talking about? Are ‘the new Atheists’ running for office? Are they working for Obama or Edwards? Are they even thinking about ‘the swing voters’? Of course they’re not, and why should they be? What do ‘the swing voters’ have to do with anything? And what is the logic of this way of thinking? That no idea should be discussed or advocated in a book if there is a chance that it might ‘alienate the swing voters’? (Alienate them from whom, anyway? What are they going to do, blame the Democratic Party for the books by four atheists? Why would they do that?) That all ideas and all books should be anodyne and empty because otherwise the ‘swing voters’ might be alienated? But if that’s the idea – then why bother? Why are we supposed to care who ‘wins’ if the price of ‘winning’ is that nobody ever expresses an idea that the swing voter might not like? What are we aiming for here, a thought-world that’s safe for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?

Deference to authority

Aug 20th, 2007 5:44 pm | By

Stephen Law asks a crucial question:

[M]y greatest concern is that the smoke generated by the battle over whether religious schools are a good idea has obscured a more fundamental question, a question about the kind of religious education schools offer: to what extent should schools be allowed to encourage deference to authority when it comes to moral and religious matters? To what extent should they be able to suppress independent, critical thought?

How about deference to authority and downright obedience of existing rules (no hitting, no knifing the teacher, no breaking windows – you know the kind of thing) in combination with no suppression at all of independent, critical thought about the rules? How does that sound? Obey the ones that are in place, and by all means think about them, discuss them, analyze them, along with other moral and religious matters. Sound reasonable?

Let me be clear that there are some excellent religious schools, schools that dare to educate rather than indoctrinate. But far too many, while officially liberal, are busy applying psychological techniques that, if not quite brainwashing, lie on the same scale. Some don’t even pretend to be liberal. The other day I heard the head of a British Islamic school agree that in any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”. Any school that insists its religion should be a given and never challenged should no longer be tolerated, let alone receive government funding.

Which suggests the idea that secularism and independent critical thought go together, and theocracy and authoritarianism do the same. That’s probably obvious enough, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools. Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel. I think it high time we got that sense of outrage back.

I’ve already got it.

Eight things

Aug 19th, 2007 4:01 pm | By

Jeffrey at Silence and Voice tagged me a few days ago. You’re supposed to list eight random facts about yourself and then tag eight more people. Let’s see…

1) I was born in Manhattan. 2) I just went for a 2 1/2 hour walk. 3) I’m wearing jeans and a blue, green and white striped T shirt. 4) I don’t like talking about myself. 5) I have a low boredom threshold. 6) My face looks sullen or even furious when it’s merely neutral. 7) I hate wearing hats. I do it, when it’s sunny or raining, but I hate it and pull the hat off in the shade or under a roof or overhang. 8) I like elephants.

So, eight people…Chris Dillow. Shuggy. Rosie Bell. Cam. Jean Kazez. Potentilla. John. Maryam.

So contract killing is legal in India?

Aug 19th, 2007 11:32 am | By

But why aren’t these guys just summarily arrested without bail as a threat to public safety? You can’t put out public hits on people! Can you? Except in failed states, and in violent hidden enclaves (where ‘public’ is only semi-public). You can’t just get together in a cozy pally group and say ‘Kill this person and we’ll give you a lot of money’ and be reported in the newspapers as saying that and just go chuckling about your business – can you?

Muslim clerics in Kolkata issued a “death warrant” against controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen on Friday, threatening her life if she did not leave the country where she lives in exile. The threat came after a meeting of dozens of clerics from prominent mosques in Kolkata – where the writer lives – who said she had invited their wrath through her “repeated criticism” of Islam in her books and speeches. While one prominent cleric said Nasreen had a month to leave, another said she had 15 days. Anyone who killed her would get a cash reward of 100,000 rupees ($2,400), they said. “Anyone who executes the warrant will also be given additional rewards,” said Nurur Rehman Barkati, a cleric of one of the biggest mosques in Kolkata.

So there they all are, with names, mosques, amounts offered all given. So why aren’t they all occupying a Kolkata jail cell? Why isn’t their ability to offer anyone a monetary reward for murdering a novelist severely compromised by their occupation of a room nine feet by six with bars on the window and door? Why don’t ‘clerical’ thugs who put out hits on people get instantly busted for incitement to murder?

Answers on a postcard.

“Truth” v truth

Aug 19th, 2007 10:42 am | By

Chris Dillow reviewed Why Truth Matters the other day. He said nice things about it, but he also made some claims that I respectfully disagree with – claims that are mostly about truth rather than about the book, so I hope my respectful disagreement doesn’t look too self-serving.

Many interesting “truths” might be merely fashionable beliefs; if the last 500 years are any guide, today’s “truth” is the next century’s nonsense.

Yes but the subject isn’t “truth” but truth. That is of course part of the point – that “truth” is one thing and truth is another, and that conflating the two is one way of claiming that truth doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist or is merely a rhetorical pat on the back. We’re not pretending to say why “truth” matters, but why truth matters. Truth is not mere belief, fashionable or otherwise.

One [problem] is their attempt to privilege truth because of its links with what makes humans unique.

We’re not attempting to privilege it, we’re attempting to explain why it matters, having already conceded that we don’t have a knock-down argument for that. We don’t really think there is such a knock-down argument; we say it comes down to preferences; then we try to explain possible reasons for the preferences.

Animals can grasp reality, in some senses, better than us: if you want to find the truth of where a mouse is, a cat is better than a human. Where humans are unique – insofar as we know – is in being able to problematize the truth, to tell stories, to mix myth with “reality.” It’s postmodernism that’s uniquely human, not the notion of an external truth.

Well, no. Reality isn’t the same thing as truth. Animals may well be able to grasp some particular bit of reality in a particular place at a particular instant better than any human could with the aid only of human senses – but that’s not the same thing as saying animals can ‘grasp’ or find or think about truth better than we can. Sure humans are unique in being able to tell stories, but they are also unique in being able to think and talk about truth. Both abilities depend on language (cognitive scientists think that animals can’t fantasize or imagine at all because that ability depends on concepts which depend on language). Both postmodernism and the notion of an external truth are uniquely human – along with a great many other things.

More seriously, Benson and Stangroom duck the real problem presented by relativism and scepticism. It’s trivial that “fire burns” is a universal truth. But what about “humans have rights”, or “democracy is the best government”? Are these universal truths? If so, how can we tell.

No. That’s the facts-values gap, the is-ought gap. The claim that humans have rights or that democracy is the best government are claims about values or oughts, not about facts; they’re ethical claims, not ontological claims. We don’t duck the problem, it’s just that it wasn’t the subject of this book.

Vast numbers of claims – “this £20 note is more valuable than a piece of paper”, “it’s 10 past 11”, “I have a right not to be tortured” – are “true” only because others agree that they are. Such “truths” are social constructs. Benson and Stangroom don’t adequately tackle the many problems this raises, not least for liberal interventionism.

Again – just a question of subject matter and space. Note (again) the scare-quotes on “true” – the subject of this book wasn’t “truth” but truth, so “truths” that are social constructs weren’t the subject matter of this book; the distinction between the two was part of the subject matter and it does get discussed, for instance in chapters 2 and 4.

The Tao of lawn-mowing

Aug 18th, 2007 2:54 pm | By

Another way to be silly.

[S]ome credible scientists contribute (knowingly or not) to fuelling irrational, mystical tendencies in public life. The fact this is so often done in the name of making science attractive to non-scientists only makes the damage harder to repair…The genre originated with the publication in 1975 of Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics, which suggested that the equations of quantum-field theory were somehow related to ancient, mystical Indian texts. This book struck me then (and still does) as a monumental joke…What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an illusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science – and The X-Files is science-fiction.

It’s all wrapping and shroud and insinuation, ambiguity and exoticicism and the paranormal – aimed at people who get little thrills of significance from ambiguous paranormal exoticism wrapped in illusory insinuating shrouds. There are a lot of people like that.

[T]he idea of an association between science and mysticism is now promoted by respected scientists rather than by journalists or charlatans – guaranteeing it more credibility than these earlier authors ever had…[F]or a well-known physicist to use science to feed the popular hunger for re-enchantment is – without doubting the sincerity of his beliefs or his project – to lend credibility to irrationalism…Scientists should challenge the indulgence of mysticism in their own backyards. For example, the journal Science devotes one-and-a-half pages to a review of The Physics of Immortality which offers no critical perspective on its fundamental thesis, and neglects to point out that its dozens of pages of equations (incomprehensible for most readers) are mere “fluff” that have nothing to do with the soul’s immortality; they serve only an attempt to “blind the reader with science”. It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions…The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God.

Not even Karl Rove.

Taner Edis

Aug 17th, 2007 10:06 am | By

So Steve Paulson asks Taner Edis how he would assess the state of scientific knowledge in the Islamic world.

Dismal. Right now, if all Muslim scientists working in basic science vanished from the face of the earth, the rest of the scientific community would barely notice. There’s very little contribution coming from Muslim lands…Especially in military and commercial areas, they have put their emphasis on applied science rather than basic science. So there are lots of medical doctors and engineers in the Muslim world. But the contribution to scientific research is much lower.

Does it matter? Can’t they just import basic science from the rest of the world?

It permanently locks the Muslim world into a subordinate position in those aspects of modern life that depend on creativity in technology and science. And this is a huge swath of modern life…This is not a controversial statement in the Muslim world. Even the most conservative Muslim realizes that the Islamic world is at a severe disadvantage right now in science and technology. The West has done a much better job. And somehow, Muslims are going to have to do better.

This bit is really interesting and suggestive.

It was harder for science to achieve intellectual and institutional independence. This was not restricted just to science. In the Western world, the institution of law achieved a kind of autonomy from religion early on. Some historians argue that this was really a precursor to science achieving autonomy as well. In the Muslim world, law was never entirely disentangled from religion. Islamic culture has not been as supportive of intellectual independence for different areas of life.

Intellectual independence…It’s probably hard to exaggerate the importance of that for both personal flourishing and for healthy public goods of all kinds.

One of the features of medieval Islamic science that some modern Muslim thinkers want to revive is the way of perceiving the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place. This tends to work against the independence of science from religious institutions. It’s precisely this autonomy that helped science make the breakthrough in the Western world. In the Muslim world, this is still a relatively controversial concept.

If you see the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place, then you can’t have real intellectual independence – not if you take that idea seriously. If the universe is a God-centered place, then God calls the shots.

They talk about the ‘scientism’ charge – “There are a lot of people in the United States…who also complain about what they call “scientism” — the idea that science explains all there is in the world.”

You can find Muslim thinkers making similar pronouncements. “Scientism” and “reductionism” have become stock accusations in religious circles. I don’t know if there’s much more content here than saying, “I don’t like naturalistic ideas.”

Snicker. Yeah.

Why infidelity is essential

Aug 15th, 2007 2:04 pm | By

I’m reading Infidel. I’m going to have to treat you to some samples.

This one is on p. 94. She’s been taking classes at school with a very strict Muslim teacher (though one who urges the children to think, rather than merely shouting dogma at them). She has noted that ‘Something inside me always resisted the moral values behind Sister Aziza’s lectures: a small spark of independence.’ She was troubled by the gap between the demands of the Holy Writings and the reality of daily life; she had asked how a just God could want women to be treated so unfairly; she had noted that she continued to read novels.

A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions and longings I felt when I read those books. A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an indivuidual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit: that is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside your mind.

Devastating final sentence, don’t you think?

He dies without seeing peace in Somalia

Aug 15th, 2007 11:00 am | By

Hell and damnation.

Press freedom groups worldwide expressed horror at the “savage” killings of two prominent Somali journalists on 11 August 2007…Six journalists have been killed in Somalia so far this year, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). “This wave of attack of killing and injuring media people is an intentionally organised mission to silence [the] journalistic voice in Somalia,” the union said…CBC News said HornAfrik has criticised both the government and the militant Islamic opposition, and has been shut down several times in the past few months. Reuters said the station was shelled in April, apparently from Ethiopian positions…In 2002 Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) gave its International Press Freedom Award to Sharmarke and HornAfrik’s two other founders, Ahmed Abdisalam Adan and Mohamed Elmi. All three had fled Somalia and come to Canada as refugees, but later returned to Somalia to start the station. The CJFE award recognised HornAfrik, the first independent radio network in Somalia, for persisting in the face of intimidation and threats…Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) urged Somalia’s transitional government to thoroughly investigate and punish those responsible for the killings.

They were all three safe in Canada, but they all went back to nightmare Somalia to try to make things better – and Sharmarke and Elmi were murdered for their pains. It’s appalling.

From the Globe and Mail:

Somali associates of the two HornAfrik journalists expressed outrage, saying both deaths were part of a deliberate campaign against the media. “This wave of killing and injuring media people is an intentionally organized mission to silence journalistic voices in Somalia,” the National Union of Somali Journalists said…The men came to Canada as refugees from the civil war in Somalia. After some calm returned to the African country, they opened HornAfrik, the first independent radio network in Somalia, in December of 1999. Reuters journalist Sahal Abdulle, next to Mr. Sharmarke at the time of the blast, was lightly injured in the head and face…”Ali was a good friend. I have known him a long time. He was committed to getting the truth out. He came back from Canada to promote democracy and give Somalis a voice. Today, he paid the ultimate price,” Mr. Abdulle added.

From the Globe and Mail again:

I have long feared the arrival of news that one of “my journalists” had been killed…Unidentified men pumped bullets into Mahad’s head Saturday morning as he entered CapitalFM’s studios, where his talk show had enormous popularity for challenging human-rights abusers and warlords and extremists…HornAfrik is a beacon of media courage and integrity in Mogadishu and all Somalia…I have learned how absolutely critical a reliable, responsible news media is to stabilizing conflict-stressed states. My respect for media workers in those places is now boundless…Among the tributes to him flowing this week between trainers and African broadcasters who were at Bujumbura, Niyoyita Aloys of Burundi recalls that “at the airport, he told me he believed one day Somalia would recover peace. He told me he was not afraid of warlords. Unfortunately, he dies without seeing peace in Somalia.”

As Ross Howard implies in that comment about how critical a reliable news media is, it’s all part of the same picture – liberalism, the rule of law, human rights, peace. When it breaks down, it breaks down; you lose the whole damn thing, and life turns to shit. I’m reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, and she lived through just this breakdown in Somalia. Some of it is hard to read – because it was so incredibly hard to live through.

‘We are all Hrant Dink,’ they said in Istanbul. We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Mahad Ahmed Elmi, we are all Ali Iman Sharmarke. We are all Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we are all Salman Rushdie, we are all Ibn Warraq, we are all Taslima Nasreen, we are all Tasneem Khalil. Back off – we’re connected.

The West Midlands Censorship Bureau

Aug 13th, 2007 5:48 pm | By

So the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service issued a joint statement condemning Undercover Mosque and announcing that the West Midlands Police had referred the documentary to Ofcom. The cops wanted the programme makers prosecuted for stirring up racial hatred. They seem to be slightly confused.

[T]he real story should have been about the alarmingly censorial and quite possibly libellous attack on investigative journalism. No matter, on Radio 4’s PM programme, it was Dispatches’ commissioning editor Kevin Sutcliffe who was subjected to a grilling, while Abu Usamah, one of the subjects of the documentary, was portrayed as a harmless victim…[H]ere is Usamah spreading his message of inter-communal respect and understanding, as captured in Undercover Mosque: ‘No one loves the kuffaar! Not a single person here from the Muslims loves the kuffaar. Whether those kuffaar are from the UK or from the US. We love the people of Islam and we hate the people of kuffaar. We hate the kuffaar!’

Who? The kuffaar – you know – everyone except ‘the people of Islam.’ You know, some five and a half billion people. We hates ’em! Because they are – kuffaar.

[L]et’s ask what conceivable context could make these quotes acceptable or reasonable? Was he rehearsing a stage play? Was it a workshop on conflict resolution? Or perhaps it was the same context in which a spokesman from those other righteous humanitarians, the BNP, might attempt to aid community relations by repeatedly stating that his followers ‘hate Muslims’.

Oh but that’s completely different. Hating the kuffaar is completely different from hating Muslims. It’s all about community cohesion, don’t you understand?

‘We hate the kuffaar’ is not a statement best designed for community cohesion, but whose fault is that – Abu Usamah’s for saying it or Channel 4’s for recording him?

The latter, of course. Duh.

Apparently what happened is, the police and the CPS tried to find out if prosecutions for crimes of racial hatred could be brought against the imams, decided they couldn’t, and by way of compensation, shopped Channel 4 to the broadcast regulators instead. That’s not actually their job, but never mind.

They had concluded that comments had been “broadcast out of context” and so they and the CPS had complained to Ofcom.They did not acknowledge, by the way, that at several points in the programme, the organisations and individuals concerned are given a right of reply, or that several moderate Muslim experts explain on air why they think the remarks shown are extreme. Do the West Midlands police side with Islamists against moderates?

Oh no no no no; good heavens no. Unless of course it seems like a good idea for community cohesion.

Let us, however, take the context point seriously. The context is, according to many of the preachers, that they are talking not about Britain now, but about the Islamic state that they seek…[E]ven if we accept that it is true, is it reassuring? The Islamic state envisaged by most of those featured is not an ideal, imaginary kingdom of heaven where the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

No it certainly is not. It’s an imaginary kingdom of hell where the lion shall persecute the lamb forever and ever amen.

Another Swift, another Pope, another Wilde

Aug 12th, 2007 4:13 pm | By

Good grief, as if I don’t have enough to do, now I’m having to fend off the ravings of a reader who seems to have suddenly gone stark raving mad. Although there was, to be sure, always a whiff of madness…But now it’s more like an old overfull garbage can at the end of a hot August day. He’s pissed off because I wrote something (something very brief) about Ehsan Jami the other day; he’s been bombarding me with emails telling me how awful he thinks Jami is; the one he sent today was so rude and condescending and aggressive that I became irritated as well as bored, and told him to stop lecturing me. He sent an even ruder (and longer) reply, to which I replied sharply and, I would have thought and expected, terminally; now he’s sent me a sarcastic apology, and guess what the basic premise is? That I’m an overbearing woman who expects men to grovel at her feet. Honestly! This loon sends me a stream of scolding emails and when I tell him to knock it off, he plays the Angry Male card! It strains credulity.

I can’t resist giving you a sample, it’s so ludicrous. I don’t have permission, but he doesn’t have permission to keep pestering me, either, so the hell with permission. Read and admire.

And really, very humbly grovelling of course, touching the forelock, mistress, speaking for myself (if I may, with your permission), my gifts are not fit for being thus in public and so in private, as your magisterial self, if I may say so without seeming presumptuous, of course, can do so well. Us mere male servants, mistress, with your permission, find this almost impossible to do. It is a major weakness of mine, if you excuse my impertence of speaking of myself. A mere simpleminded male such as I has the shortcoming of saying what he thinks, presumptuous as that is, IMHO…However, if I DO make a sincere, humble effort, mistress, you see that even such a one as me, can be brought, humbly of course, to reason, and to adopt the proper position of a mere male when faced with a proud female, such as you, of such commanding presence also: cowering, crouching, crawling in sincere and humble supplication, thanking the powers that be for her kind attention…So it is truly most remiss of me to have doubted the noble words of the public spokeswomen of Ayaan the Blessed. And therefore I must most humbly beg for forgivenness, for daring to presume that one as I (a mere male, and a Dutch one at that, o horror) could possibly see (if I may breathe it: Dutch) things more clearly than you or Her, mistress, for stealing your time, for defiling your mood, for being the suffering subject of my tedious rudeness and relentless unpleasantness. I merely thought, humbly, that such a one as I – humbly begging forgiveness for the mere presumption mistress! – could conceivably be perhaps, humbly in supplication and on my bare knees, be able to, by the merest accident of time and place, of course without any reflection on my baseness, moved by the merest waft of coincident conjunctive chance of time and place – well, I beg forgiveness – … if truth matters, see things a bit more clearly, perhaps?

Pretty good, don’t you think?

Good people here, bad people there

Aug 12th, 2007 3:49 pm | By

Shiraz Maher escaped from Hizb ut-Tahrir

Islamism transcends cultural norms, so it not only prompted me to reject my British identity but also my ethnic South Asian background. I was neither eastern, nor western; I was a Muslim, a part of the global ummah, where identity is defined through the fraternity of faith. Islamists insist this identity is not racist because Islam welcomes people of all colours, ethnicities and backgrounds. That was true, but our world view was still horribly bipolar. We didn’t distinguish on the basis of colour, but on creed. The world was simply divided into believers and nonbelievers.

Identity defined through the ‘fraternity of faith’ is not racist, good, but it does divide the world simply into believers and nonbelievers (or infidels, kufr, apostates, heretics, misbelievers, traitors), which is at least as bad. Dividing the world into just two is both dangerous and malevolent for an obvious reason: it means that the not-us part is seen as The Enemy. That potential always exists for any kind of evaluation or preference or allegiance, but it’s a lot weaker when the allegiances are multiple instead of single. Beware the people who divide the world in two.

Dreams of a caliphate

Aug 12th, 2007 11:37 am | By

Why would a caliphate be such a nice thing?

Hizb ut-Tahrir regards this as the ideal form of government, because it follows what it believes are the laws of God as set out in the Koran, rather than laws designed by [humans].

Right. And that’s why we don’t regard a caliphate as the ideal form of government but rather as the ulitmate nightmare. It’s because the ‘laws of God’ are beyond appeal and rational analysis and reform in the light of new knowledge or improved morality, whereas laws designed by humans are not. In practice, of course, the ‘laws of God’ are sometimes revised or reformed, but in principle they can always be and often are declared inviolable as ‘God’ is inviolable. That’s what makes them so damn terrifying. They are, in principle, beyond rational debate. That’s not safe.

Because they know it teases

Aug 11th, 2007 1:57 pm | By

Buried assumptions at work.

I immediately begin trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. “Who here is an atheist?” I ask. Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, “I am!” But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: “You would be.”


“Because you enjoy pissing people off.”

“Well, that’s true.”

It’s clear enough what we’re supposed to get from all that. One, it’s almost always a man who pipes up because men are pugnacious and competitive and obnoxious, whereas women are more tactful and co-operative and sweet and kind. Two, atheists are atheists because they enjoy pissing people off. Three, atheism of course pisses people off. Well, fuck that. I’m a woman, and I am not more tactful and co-operative and sweet and kind, as anyone who knows me will knock over chairs and hatstands in the rush to confirm. More to the point, I’m a woman and I hate like hell the idea that women are too nice to be atheist or rational or skeptical or anything else in that department of the store.

But more significant (and silly) is the assumption that atheism naturally and automatically pisses people off. That’s a very parochial assumption. Atheism does piss off a lot of people in the US, but the US isn’t the world, and in some places atheism is more boring and taken for granted than irritating. The existence of this unexamined assumption is one reason the ‘new Atheists’ are right that atheists need to speak up more.

Great Bullies of History

Aug 10th, 2007 11:35 am | By

Don’t forget, there is no compulsion in religion.

Lawmakers and members of a political party assaulted the exiled feminist author as she presented a translation of one of her novels in Hyderabad…Many Muslims have accused Ms Nasreen of ridiculing Islam…About 100 protesters, including three lawmakers, from the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party burst in, shouting that the author was “anti-Islam”. Ms Nasreen backed into a corner as objects rained down and she was threatened with a chair, witnesses said.

There is no compulsion in religion, but if an author is ‘anti-Islam,’ then men will throw things at her and offer to beat her with a chair, on the grounds that there is no compulsion in religion.

It’s quite understandable, of course, because people get incensed when someone is ‘anti-Islam.’

Muslim protesters assaulted the exiled Bangladeshi author and feminist Taslima Nasreen at a book launch in Hyderabad on Thursday, incensed by her repeated criticism of Islam and religion in general. Some radical Muslims hate Nasreen for saying Islam and other religions oppress women…On Thursday, lawmakers and members of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party attacked her at the press club in Hyderabad…An uneasy-looking Nasreen backed into a corner as several middle-aged men threw a leather case, bunches of flowers and other objects at her head and threatened her with a chair…Some of the mob shouted for her death.

That’s a pleasant mental picture, isn’t it? An ‘uneasy-looking’ woman (very brave of her to look merely uneasy – I would have been squalling in terror) backed into a corner by a lot of middle-aged men throwing heavy objects at her head and threatening her with a chair. And these are ‘lawmakers’! Lawmakers reminiscent of the great Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina who approached Senator Charles Sumner while he was pinned at a desk and unable to escape and beat him over the head with a walking stick. That kind of ‘lawmaker’ – and that kind of brave man. Brave, pious, devout, holy, ‘good’ men ganging up and assaulting one woman because they dislike what she has written, and her desire for women’s rights. Women don’t matter, principles about not ganging up on people and not assaulting people don’t matter, principles about law and equal rights and peaceful discussion and justice don’t matter, all that matters is ‘Islam’ and taboos against disagreeing with what some pack of bullies think it is.

Filthy traitor

Aug 8th, 2007 3:00 pm | By

Never forget, Islam means ‘peace’ – oh and also ‘there is no compulsion in religion.’ Got that?

Ehsan Jami, a local council member for the Dutch Labour Party and a former Muslim, has been afforded extra protection since Monday this week…The local politician, who also heads a committee established to fight for the interests of former Muslims, was the target of a violent, physical attack outside a supermarket near his home in Voorburg last Saturday…Jami was knocked to the ground and kicked by a group of three men: two young Moroccans and one Somali. During the incidents, his attackers called him a ‘filthy homo’ and ‘filthy traitor’. Mr Jami’s advisor, Afshin Ellian, later pointed out that it was not the first time he had been physically attacked: “He’s also been threatened before, attacked or beaten up, and he reported this to the police too. This is the third time.” Afshin Ellian, an academic and columnist, is also being protected by the authorities.

Heading a committee to fight for the interests of former Muslims – well naturally he’s been attacked three times. Former Muslims aren’t even supposed to exist, so if gangs knock them down and kick them and call them filthy, well they’re getting off easy, that’s what.

Another irregular verb

Aug 7th, 2007 2:30 pm | By

Contradict yourself much? Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail –

The big mistake is to see religion and reason as polar opposites. They are not. In fact, reason is intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible provides a picture of a rational Creator and an orderly universe – which, accordingly, provided the template for the exercise of reason and the development of science. Dawkins pours particular scorn on the Biblical miracles which don’t correspond to scientific reality. But religious believers have different ways of regarding those events, with many seeing them as either metaphors or as natural occurrences which were invested with a greater significance. The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the belief in the concept of truth, which gives rise to reason. But our postreligious age has proclaimed that there is no such thing as objective truth, only what is “true for me”.

Right – so – religious believers have different ways of regarding Biblical miracles, good, but our postreligious age has proclaimed that there is no such thing as objective truth, only what is “true for me”, bad. Hmmm.

What’s my motivation in this scene?

Aug 6th, 2007 5:20 pm | By

Have you read Allen’s article on PBS and Einstein’s wife? PBS is extremely irritating. It’s doing a bad thing. It’s ignoring its plain duty and responsibility. It’s not doing its job properly. It’s sneaking around. First it was stalling and delaying and making excuses, and now it’s sneaking around. It’s being bad. It has not only failed to take down the Einstein’s Wife website, despite the advice of its own ombudsman and despite telling Allen ‘We are looking for additional scholarly review to help us know how to proceed in making sure that the web site content is as accurate as possible,’ it has now commissioned Andrea Gabor to rewrite it. That’s like commissioning Michael Behe to rewrite The Origin of Species.

As Allen shows by quoting what three knowledgeable Einstein specialists said to him about the website and the ‘Einstein’s Wife’ documentary, PBS could very easily have found the best possible ‘additional scholarly review’ if it had asked for it, but instead of doing that, it asked a highly unscholarly journalist who is a partisan of the very (evidence-free) fantasy that is in dispute. PBS ignored the scholars who have the evidence on their side, and went with a hack who has none and doesn’t know how to evaluate evidence in the first place. This seems to me to be something resembling malpractice. PBS is supposed to be, in part, an educational site; it is not supposed to pass off made-up stories as ‘documentary’ truth; nor is it supposed to urge them on schools and teachers.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the fact that PBS have commissioned to re-write their “Einstein’s Wife” web pages someone so lacking in the scholarly credentials that should be a requisite for such an undertaking indicates that they are intent on preserving the essentials of their deeply flawed website, with its Lesson Plans that come close to being a brainwashing exercise…In the words of Robert Schulmann, who has knowledge in depth of the relevant material, it is unconscionable that PBS be a party to distributing dubious historical claims as classroom material to teachers and students, whose task it is to instruct and learn the proper use of evidence and respect for historical sources.

Annoying, don’t you think?

I wish this oceanographer thought so. He cites the story in a lecture on Science, civilization and society:

In recent years evidence found in personal letters between Einstein and his first wife Mileva Einstein-Maric suggests that Einstein developed the core ideas of relativity in close collaboration with her but did not mention her contribution anywhere and possibly actively suppressed her name from his paper on special relativity.

Allen asked him about that evidence (as well as about several other things) – only to be told this:

“Please cite the evidence …” “Please state what evidence you have …” – if it would only be as easy as that. Evidence is always helpful, but it is not always sufficient to find the truth.

But Professor Tomczak himself says in the lecture, as we’ve just seen, that ‘evidence found in personal letters between Einstein and his first wife’ etcetera etcetera; Allen merely asked him to cite the evidence he mentioned; once you have mentioned evidence, it doesn’t do to brush off requests for the evidence in question. You can’t say ‘evidence suggests’ and then raise a mocking eyebrow at requests for citation. That’s absurd. Imagine a trial lawyer attempting that. ‘We have evidence that my client was seven thousand miles away at the time.’ ‘Please present the evidence.’ ‘I won’t I won’t I won’t.’

The professor says other odd things too, which Allen points out neatly, one two three and so on. I don’t want to diss the professor, who is not PBS, after all – but I do find his reply interestingly…non-responsive. It’s an object-lesson in how not to argue straightforwardly. He shifts the goalposts, he wonders what Allen’s motivations are, he wonders what Allen thinks about Mileva Marić, he says Marić provides an illuminating example for the conditions of women at the beginning of the 20th century; none of which answers any of Allen’s questions.

It is clear – at least to me – that Allen’s painstaking investigation of “evidence” represents one end of the spectrum of opinions about the Maric case. But I do not understand what he wants to achieve with it.

What does Professor Tomczak want to achieve by putting scare quotes on ‘evidence’ as if there were something peculiar about painstaking investigation of such a thing? But even more, what is a scientist doing saying he doesn’t understand what another scientist wants to achieve by a painstaking investigation of evidence? What a very strange thing to say. He wants to find out if there is any evidence or not; he wants to investigate some truth claims that are in the public domain and in fact popularized in various media, such as Andrea Gabor’s book and the tv documentary. It’s sad and a little bit alarming that a scientist would find that hard to understand.

Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall

Aug 4th, 2007 5:30 pm | By

Best of luck, Haluk Ertan.

“Turkey is now the headquarters of creationism in the Islamic World. This is no longer only Turkey’s problem, it is now the problem of the whole civilized world,” says Haluk Ertan, a professor of molecular biology at Istanbul University. He’s one of a handful of Turkish scientists who have been working to counter creationism’s spread in the country.

But if you package pseudoscience nicely enough, it will win.

In the past year, BAV has blanketed several European countries and the US with its glossy “Atlas of Creation,” a lavish 768-page tome weighing more than 13 pounds, sending it to scientists, professors, journalists, and schoolteachers…”Every Islamic bookshop I know of stocks Harun Yahya’s material. It is so glossily produced. It is very attractive and very colorful and outclasses everything else,” says Inayat Bunglawala…”It is having an effect. Even among Muslim medical students there are a number now who are speaking out against Darwin.”

Oh well, doctors don’t need to understand biology.

The series includes titles such as “The Dark Spell of Darwinism” and “Why Darwinism is Incompatible with the Koran.” Oktar’s brand of creationism is not only religious, but also political and even messianic, seeing most of the world’s ills – terrorism and fascism among them – as stemming from Darwin’s theory of evolution…”Folks, there is no such thing as what you call evolution. If there was, it would be in the Holy Bible or the Koran,” added Oktar…”Scientifically speaking, the whole Harun Yahya corpus is a bunch of nonsense, but it is unfortunately very popular,” says Taner Edis, a Turkish physicist who teaches at Truman State University in Missouri. Professor Edis says the success of the Harun Yahya books, at least in the Islamic world, can be attributed to a need for harmonizing modern life with traditional Islamic beliefs.

Sure. The success of a lot of bullshit and nonsense can be attributed to a need for harmonizing fundamentally incompatible things. That’s why people go in for bullshit and nonsense: because they want to harmonize things they want to believe with some obtrusive bit of reality. The reality won’t give way to prayers or persuasion or gentle little dances and passes in the air, so the only thing left to do is harmonize. Then once people get their teeth into harmonizing, they want to pass the harmonization on to schools and universities and the mass media, and pretty soon the entire population has learned that there’s no such thing as evolution because it’s not in the Koran. Maybe if we all work really hard, in a few generations the whole population of the earth will be as ignorant as it was ten thousand years ago. Yee-ha.