The quality of mercy

Apr 24th, 2007 10:26 am | By

It’s a very merciful religion if you try to understand it – we’re told. Is that right?

A community debate over religious freedom surfaced in Western Pennsylvania last week when Dutch feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has lived under the threat of death for denouncing her Muslim upbringing, made an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Islamic leaders tried to block the lecture…They argued that Hirsi Ali’s attacks against the Muslim faith in her book, “Infidel,” and movie, “Submission,” are “poisonous and unjustified” and create dissension in their community.

Thus artfully demonstrating just how open to discussion and criticism ‘the Muslim faith’ is, at least according to them.

Imam Fouad ElBayly, president of the Johnstown Islamic Center, was among those who objected to Hirsi Ali’s appearance. “She has been identified as one who has defamed the faith. If you come into the faith, you must abide by the laws, and when you decide to defame it deliberately, the sentence is death,” said ElBayly, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1976.

Of course Hirsi Ali didn’t ‘come into the faith’ in the sense we would normally understand that: she was born into it; that is, she was born to Muslim parents and raised as a Muslim child; that’s a physical kind of coming into it, but it’s hardly an intellectual kind. And that’s even before you get to the question of whether any intellectual commitment should be irrevocable on pain of death, to which I would with all due modesty and uncertainty answer ‘No.’

Although ElBayly believes a death sentence is warranted for Hirsi Ali, he stressed that America is not the jurisdiction where such a crime should be punished. Instead, Hirsi Ali should be judged in a Muslim country after being given a trial, he added. “If it is found that a person is mentally unstable, or a child or disabled, there should be no punishment,” he said. “It’s a very merciful religion if you try to understand it.”

That’s an interesting idea of mercy.

When in doubt, issue a press release

Apr 23rd, 2007 6:34 pm | By

This guy is worse than I thought – this ‘humanist chaplain’ guy. I thought he’d just been talking to a reporter about ‘atheist fundamentalists’ – but no. He (and perhaps other people tangled up in the ‘Harvard chaplaincy,’ whatever that means) put out a press release on March 6 that started right out with that stupid inaccurate (indeed oxymoronic) phrase, along with the fact that the humanists were having a conference for the very purpose of ‘taking on’ these here ‘atheist “fundamentalists.”‘ This wasn’t some chat with a journalist at Starbuck’s, this was the subject of a conference. These humanists are so distraught about the ‘militancy’ and ‘fundamentalism’ of Dawkins and Harris that they’re holding an entire conference to ‘take them on’ – and they issue a press release whose first sentence features that tendentious and inaccurate phrase – albeit, notice, with ‘fundamentalist’ in scare quotes, so that everyone would know they didn’t mean it. Well if they didn’t mean it, why hold a conference to take it on?

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist “fundamentalists.”

This stalwart fella Brian Flemming called them on it.

[C]ertain humanists have a very weird strategy for bringing us all together. One prominent humanist apparently believes that the way to achieve this unity is to hurl brainless epithets at his allies.

Just so. Then Flemming nails Epstein’s refusal to apologize, not to mention his use of an epithet that he himself doesn’t consider accurate –

Of course, Epstein doesn’t actually believe that Harris and Dawkins deserve the appellation he used (“I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists”). Which, to put it simply, makes his claim that they are “fundamentalists” an intentional false accusation. I think it’s safe to call using an intentional false accusation in the first sentence of a press release a really stupid thing to do. Especially to people you claim to want as allies. Especially if it’s obvious that you did it to frame the argument in a way that favors you (My Reason vs. Their Dogma: discuss).

Stupid, and also morally dubious. Or contemptible, to put it a little more harshly.

Then Flemming got a very informative email from frequent B&W contributor Joe Hoffmann. It’s an amusing read (and posted with permission).

Humanist chaplain talking nonsense

Apr 23rd, 2007 1:35 pm | By

Hey guess what! News flash! Red hot item fresh off the presses that no one knew before – sit down before you read it, or the shock and surprise might kill you.

Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who’s leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.

Oh, gee, really? I had no idea, and neither did anyone else. Sharp reporting; well done.

Among the millions of Americans who don’t believe God exists, there’s a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called “New Atheists.” Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on verge of explosive growth, but are concerned it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism.

‘Militancy,’ of course, in the very special terms of this particular endlessly-recycled talking point, means ‘actually disagreeing with the truth claims of religion.’ Kind of a funny way to use the word, as if actually disagreeing with the truth claims of religion were much the same thing as bomb-throwing or at least a bit of window-breaking; but there you go; that’s how talking points are.

Epstein calls them “atheist fundamentalists.” He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

Does he? Really? If so, he’s not paying attention to either group. But he probably doesn’t really see the matter that way, he probably just says he does because it sounds emphatic (or something), and because it’s such a cliché that he can’t resist it. (Compare, for just one instance, the scene in ‘The Root of all Evil’ in which Dawkins asks the gay-obsessed minister why it matters so much, what is the harm in homosexuality, why is it a problem? And the minister says because it’s a sin. And Dawkins doesn’t even retort; he lets it go at that. Are the two of them really equally rigid in their dogma? I don’t think so.)

Some of the participants in Harvard’s celebration of its humanist chaplaincy have no problem with the New Atheists’ tone. Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker said the forcefulness of their criticism is standard in scientific and political debate, and “far milder than what we accept in book and movie reviews.”

Just so – but have the effrontery to apply it to religion, and notice how the rules change.

But Epstein worries the attacks on religion by the New Atheists will keep converts away. “The philosophy of the future is not going to be one that tries to erase its enemies,” he said. “The future is going to be people coming together from what motivates them.”

There it is again – that chronic hyperbole about atheists. Do the ‘New’ atheists try to erase their enemies? Please. And as for people coming together from what motivates them – well some of us are motivated by, for instance, a preference for open discussion, free inquiry, rational argument, caution about belief-formation, curiosity, and respect for evidence. That kind of preference causes us not to want to ‘come together’ with people who have no such preference. Unity isn’t everything, mass agreement isn’t everything, groupthink isn’t everything, conformity isn’t everything. So have fun with the humanist chaplain thing, Mr Epstein, but knock it off with the straw man stuff.

It does make a difference

Apr 22nd, 2007 10:46 am | By

What is it about this kind of thing that is so irritating? Why does it activate all my resistance equipment? Why does it make me snarl?

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins…Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.

Well there’s one reason right there – that breezy command to leave aside the validity question in order to focus on the important bit, which is what the public cannot be expected (by whom? according to whom?) to differentiate between. I hate that kind of thing; it’s a good thorough example of the kind of thing I hate. First the casual bracketing of the validity question, as if it doesn’t matter. But, excuse me, it does matter. If the argument is over the colour of Tinkerbell’s socks or what is Badger’s favourite ice cream, then fine, bracket it; but if it’s over something that matters, it does make a difference whether or not there is good reason to think it is true. If it’s about Tinkerbell’s socks it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says about it, but if it’s about the nature of the world and where it came from and what we can know about it and how we can know and if we can know – then it does matter what everyone thinks and says about it, and it’s asking a lot to say ‘leave it aside for a moment’ in order to tell atheists to shut up about it because ‘the public’ won’t understand. That’s one irritation-source; another is that stupid ‘the fact remains,’ which implies that the public’s putative incapacity is supposed to trump questions of truth. The article just starts from that patronizing manipulative ignorance-mongering assumption and goes on from there. That’s a bad place to start and a bad place to go on from. I’m sick to death of this babying coddling coaxing minimalization of public discourse, and its accompanying attempts to make everyone either shut up or talk baby talk. I hate all this creepy instrumentalism – it’s all method and no end product.

More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality.

So what? What if we are not primarily focused on what 80 percent of anyone believes, what if we are simply more interested in doing our best to get at and tell the truth, instead? What if we don’t think majority opinion should determine what people think and say and write? What if not everything is an electoral campaign? Why does that possibility not seem to occur to Nisbet and Mooney?

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

Yes – and? They were very, very stupid to do that, those of them who did (saying ‘Americans’ did that as if we all did is a tad sloppy, and feeds the tendency of people outside the US to say Americans elected Bush when some of us in fact didn’t vote for the guy) – they were very very stupid to do that and the fact that they did that is not a reason to join them in being stupid, so what’s the point of saying it? Some Americans asked whether Bush was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with, therefore Dawkins should shut up about atheism? It doesn’t follow. And even if it did follow, it would be a creepy pandering anti-rational ploy, and I say the hell with it.

So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge…And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.

Maybe it would, but if part of your concern is in fact with belief and thinking themselves, then that’s beside the point. If you think religion tends to interfere with the ability of believers to think rationally about many subjects, then asking if science and religion can’t just get along is obtuse. ‘Can’t science and credulity just get along?’ Well, no, and that’s the point, so what’s with the pretense that it’s just a side issue which can easily be ditched?

That’s at least some of what is so irritating.

Stop. You don’t know that.

Apr 21st, 2007 10:31 am | By

Matthew Parris points out that skeptics can and sometimes should be impassioned about it; for instance, when confronted by nonskeptics who are impassioned about that.

It is the worst who are full of passionate intensity. Look at the evangelical movement in America, and to some extent, now, here. Look at the Religious Right in Israel. Look at fundamentalist Islam. What they share, what drives them, the tiger in their tanks, is an absolute, unshakeable belief in an ever-present divinity, with plans for nations that He communicates to the leaders, or would-be leaders, of nations. They are the very devil, these people, they could wreck our world, and their central belief in God’s plan has to be confronted. Confronted with passion. Confronted because, and on the ground that, it is not true.

Along with the wrecking our world part – very much along with that. It’s seriously irritating to have one’s world wrecked by people who are passionately and immovably convinced of childish bullshit. If you’re going to wreck our world at least do it for a better reason than that!

Disbelief can be passionate. Sometimes it should be. Agnosticism can be passionate. A sense that we lack certitude, lack evidence, lack the external command of any luminous guiding truth, may not always lead to lassitude, complaisance or a modest silence. Sometimes it should provoke a great shout: “Stop. You don’t know that. You have no right.”

Eg-zactly. I’ve been thinking about that lately; writing a few notes about it. That’s because there’s this Center for Inquiry ‘Beyond Belief’ shindig in July, at which I’m supposed to say some words, so I’ve been thinking about what kind of words to say; I’m planning to say words along those lines. I like those lines. ‘Stop. You don’t know that. You have no right.’

Many people of course think they do have the right; many of those people think that it is the unbelievers who have no right. Many people just know – what they don’t and can’t know, but that doesn’t stop them. Many people just know what they don’t and can’t know, and consider people who say ‘You don’t know that’ arrogant and dogmatic. That’s why we need some passion and energy in order to go on explaining that that’s not how it should go.

Thought experiment

Apr 18th, 2007 2:10 pm | By

Jeremy has a maddeningly interesting thought experiment at Talking Philosophy. It’s interesting partly, I think, because it’s full of holes – if that’s a meaningful thing to say about thought experiments, which perhaps it isn’t, since the terms are whatever the experimenter says they are. And yet – some inspire people to say ‘Yes but’ and others don’t. This one seems to inspire a lot of ‘Yes but’ (although I have to admit that a lot of the ‘Yes but’ting is mine). But it’s also interesting partly because of the issues involved. Quick summary (read the original for the details, it’s not long): imaginary world: harmoniously religious, and happy; no real education; renegade group which educates some children about “a new-fangled way of finding out about things called ‘Science’” so “they’re taught all about scientific procedure (you know, hypotheses, evidence, testing, black swans”. After a few years they go back to their world and try to pass on what they’ve learned but can’t, and they alienate everyone; they miss their old life but can’t return to it; “they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives.” Questions: were they brainwashed? And were they victims of child abuse? And are there any implications for our world?

Part of what interests me is the fundamental implausibility of the imagined world, especially as portrayed via the children’s nostalgia for it:

It is a thoroughly and harmoniously religious country (though in fact belief in God is no more rationally justified in this world than it is in our world). People live happily. They sing hymns together. Burn incense. They share the fruits of their labours…The converts’ initial enthusiasm diminishes, and they find themselves longing for the old ways: for the happy singing, the joy of worshipping the God they no long believe to exist, the togetherness engendered by a shared belief.

I try dutifully to imagine such a world for the purposes of thinking about the thought experiment, but it’s hard, because we’re not like that (and, I suppose, because it seems to give religion the credit for being able to do something that in fact can’t be done, so it makes me twitchy). There is no human group (let alone entire country) that is all happy, all joyous, all blissful togetherness. Some of us are temperamentally too damn fond of apartness for that to work, just for one thing, even before beliefs come into play. But more to the point, there is never that much uniformity and agreement. There are always dissenters, doubters, novelty-peddlers, rebels, askers of questions, jokers, teasers, runaways, stirrers up of trouble.

Another part of what interests me is the (delayed) revelation that the point of the experiment is not (as I thought it was) the question whether or not social isolation is too high a price to pay for (say) enlightenment, or education, or scientific education, but that scientific education is indoctrination. I dispute that, but to no avail. (Well, say not the struggle naught availeth; I think I’m right, so that will have to do.

I’m interested in the first question though. I think the answer is much more mixed and patchy than it can be in this experiment. Social isolation is a higher price for some people than it is for others, and enlightenment or education is worth more to some than to others. It is simply an assertion that “they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives” – that is the thought experiment; but in reality, people in such a situation would have a more mixed experience. Some might be lonely and miserable but others might be a little lonely and not miserable and excited about the new mental horizons they’d discovered, and others still might be actually happy. Education can cut people off from others, that’s well known, but it can also unite them with different others, and/or give them other and very satisfying rewards. It’s the same with religious belief – not having it can cut people off from others, but so can having it. It’s never a matter of X plus all good things on one side and Y plus misery on the other (well, almost never). So the experiment is interesting in being irritatingly oversimplified, so that it provokes thought.

Justice and reconciliation

Apr 18th, 2007 10:37 am | By

Is there something in the water in Cambridge, or what? Is everybody crazy there? Crazy as in stark raving mad?

A Cambridge University student who sparked a huge row when he published anti- Islamic material has issued a grovelling apology. The 19-year-old second-year Clare College student went into hiding after he printed a cartoon and material satirising religion in college magazine Clareification…A Clare College spokesman said: “Because of the gravity of the situation and the diversity of views expressed about the best way of handling it, the Dean of Students set in train procedures for convening the Court of Discipline. As events unfolded, however, a collective decision was taken to pursue instead a course of restorative justice and reconciliation. The general and the guest editor were both formally reprimanded by the Dean of Students, and were also interviewed by the Master. The guest editor was required to publish an apology, and also to meet any students who asked to see him as well as senior representatives of Cambridge religious communities.”

The ‘gravity of the situation’? What gravity? What situation? Why was there any need to ‘handle’ it at all? What business did anyone have convening a Court of Discipline when no crime had been committed? (Had it? Please tell me Cambridge doesn’t actually have a law on the books against publishing cartoons. Please, please, please tell me that.) And what on earth makes them think there is any need to pursue ‘a course of restorative justice and reconciliation’? That kind of language is used in contexts of mass murders, years of systematic oppression, torture, war crimes, genocide. It’s not usually wheeled out because someone published a fairly mild cartoon! The imbecilic writer of the article can talk about ‘anti- Islamic material’ but no one is obliged to take that ridiculous phrase at face value.

A note of apology was distributed to all college members. The college is now arranging a meeting for next term to discuss the problem of maintaining free speech while avoiding offence.

Oh good. Splendid. That should be one hell of a long meeting. As a commenter at Mediawatchwatch wondered, ‘is that at the same meeting that the head of the Maths Department intends to square a circle?’

Thanks to Ben Goldacre to alerting me to this one.

Who’s depriving?

Apr 17th, 2007 1:00 pm | By

We’ve been puzzling over some apparently sweeping language of Martha Nussbaum’s, especially her claim that ‘the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society…requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ What does she mean by ‘not adopting a public conception’? Does she mean, narrowly, a public conception for purposes of political deliberation? Or does she mean, broadly, a public conception in the sense of any public statement or writing? It would be charitable to think she meant the former, but on the other hand, it seems to me, if she meant the former she should have used much more careful language.

But in fact she has a tendency to use tendentious language on this subject; surprisingly tendentious, I think. I was looking through Women and Human Development this morning and was taken aback by some of her wording.

She concludes an extended criticism of what she calls ‘secular humanist feminism’ by saying (p. 180):

To strike at religion is thus to risk eviscerating people’s moral, cultural, and artistic, as well as spiritual, lives. Even if substitute forms of expression and activity are available in and through the secular state, a state that deprives citizens of the option to pursue religion has done them a grave wrong…

To strike at religion? What does she mean ‘strike at’? And what does she mean ‘deprive’? Why does she equate ‘secular humanist feminism’ with a state that deprives citizens of the option to pursue religion? If you think she makes that clear in the book, forget it; she doesn’t. It looks like just pure rhetoric to me, and rather distasteful rhetoric at that, the all too familiar kind that translates disagreement as attack and forthright views as state power. And she goes on doing it.

When we tell people that they cannot define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way – even if we are sure we are right, and that their way is not a very good way – we do not show full respect for them as persons. In that sense, the secular humanist view is at bottom quite illiberal…[E]ven if a certain group of religious beliefs (or even all beliefs) were nothing more than retrograde superstition, we would not be respecting the autonomy of our fellow citizens if we did not allow them these avenues of inquiry and self-determination.

There it is again. What does she mean ‘allow’? Who is telling people ‘that they cannot define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way’? What is she talking about? She seems to be taking opinion and discussion to be exactly equivalent to state power and law – but what on earth is she doing that for? A philosopher of all people! Does she take every claim she offers as exactly equivalent to state power? That would be a tad megalomaniacal, surely.

I don’t like this stuff. I think it’s sinister, and stealthy, and illegitmate. It’s also a peculiar way of attempting to coerce people to shut up by pretending they are trying to coerce people by speaking. That’s a popular move, but I’m surprised to see Nussbaum resorting to it.

DIY Justice

Apr 17th, 2007 12:25 pm | By

Oh – so if the victims are all morally corrupt, then murder is not murder, or perhaps it is murder but the murderers are not guilty. Interesting jurisprudence.

Iran’s Supreme Court has acquitted a group of men charged over a series of gruesome killings in 2002…The vigilantes were not guilty because their victims were involved in un-Islamic activities, the court found. The killers said they believed Islam let them spill the blood of anyone engaged in illicit activities if they issued two warnings to the victims.

Illicit according to whom? Illicit under what and whose definition?

According to their confessions, the killers put some of their victims in pits and stoned them to death. Others were suffocated. One man was even buried alive while others had their bodies dumped in the desert to be eaten by wild animals. The accused, who were all members of an Islamic paramilitary force, told the court their understanding of the teachings of one Islamic cleric allowed them to kill immoral people if they had ignored two warnings to stop their bad behaviour. But there was no judicial process to determine the guilt of the victims in these cases.

And even if there had been, would it then be standard procedure to hand the guilty victims over to an Islamic paramilitary force to be tortured to death?

Now the Supreme Court is reported to have acquitted all the killers of the charge of murder on the grounds that their victims were all morally corrupt.

Well aren’t we all. So let’s hope this fashion for letting vigilantes murder morally corrupt people does not catch on.

The duty of inquiry

Apr 16th, 2007 2:44 pm | By

I’ve just re-read W K Clifford’s ‘The Ethics of Belief’. The first paragraph is well known.

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first…Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections.

He rationalized them away, and was content. In reading that paragraph again, I was struck by a parallel – a very strong parallel. Feynman on the Challenger. The first paragraph there:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?”

Fascinating, isn’t it? Clifford’s example is imagined, and Feynman’s is real, and the mechanism is identical. Wishful thinking in action. ‘Oh, it’s okay, it’s fine, it’s done pretty well so far; bye bye.’

Clifford takes an ethical view of the matter.

What shall we say of [the shipowner]? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

That’s the whole burden of the essay: he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. It’s not a popular view, but I think it has a lot to be said for it.

Allah-o-akbar, thwack, crunch

Apr 16th, 2007 10:22 am | By

Honour is a beautiful thing; so is devoutness; right? Seven or eight men knocking a woman down and then kicking her and breaking several of her ribs – what could be more beautiful and holy than that? Few things I can think of, for sure.

Norwegian-Somalian Kadra, who became famous in Norway for exposing imam support of female circumcision, was beaten unconscious on Thursday…”I was terrified. While I lay on the pavement they kicked me and screamed that I had trampled on the Koran. Several shouted Allah-o-akbar (God is great) and also recited from the Koran,” Kadra told VG. Kadra linked the attack to recent remarks in VG where she said that the Koran’s views on women needed to be reinterpreted. Kadra said that the gang of Somali men attacked her around 3 a.m. in downtown Oslo on Thursday. A medical examination found that she had several broken ribs.

Several broken ribs. Broken ribs really hurt, and they can’t be immobilized the way most fractures can. What a charming idea of ‘God’ these men must have, to think it wants them to shout how great it is while breaking the ribs of a small thin woman lying on the street.

Devout annexation

Apr 13th, 2007 12:32 pm | By

Quarreling with Martha Nussbaum.

I think that in all religions there are people who want to live a traditional life and people who want to be part of modernity, and we ought to make room for both and show both equal respect.

That depends on what you mean by ‘live a traditional life’ and what you mean by ‘show both equal respect.’ Or to put it another way, that sounds nice, if you don’t pay too much attention; it sounds very kind and caring and generous; but what if ‘live a traditional life’ means ‘raise their children to believe that women are inferior to men’ or ‘coerce their daughters into marrying strangers’ or ‘forbid their wives and daughters to leave the house’? Those are among the things ‘live a traditional life’ can mean, and I have no intention of showing equal respect to any of them, and furthermore, I think we ought not to show them equal respect.

What is Nussbaum doing talking in such sweeping vague terms? She knows better than that, so what’s she doing?

What we see in some nations, then, is not Islam itself, but a politicized version of Islam that is not a necessary interpretation of those religious texts. That point has been made repeatedly by dissidents in the societies in which this politicized version of Islam is influential, such as Shiran Ebadi and Akbar Ganji in Iran. Both are devout Muslims, and both insist, with convincing argument, that there is nothing in their sex-equal democratic proposals that is incompatible with Islam.

That’s good, and I hope they win the argument. I really do – but does it need to be pointed out that they’re not winning it at the moment, and that there are a lot of other ‘devout Muslims’ around who insist very much the opposite?

Perhaps a good democracy is one where people express themselves in their own way, and still live with one another on terms of equal respect. I’m just finishing a book on the USA tradition on the topic of religious liberty, and I think for once that there is something to be said in favour of the traditions of my own nation. Namely, people who are different from the norm not only get scrupulous fairness under law, which even John Locke advocated, they also get what is called rights of “accommodation”, namely, they do not have to observe certain laws that burden their conscience, unless there is a “compelling state interest”. In other words, if you are a Jew and you receive a subpoena to testify in court on a Saturday, you may refuse without legal penalty…I believe that this tradition of “accommodation” expresses a spirit of equal respect for minorities living in a majority world. Writing to the Quakers about why he was not going to require them to perform military service, our first president George Washington says, “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness”. I wish I saw more of this delicacy and tenderness in Europe today.

I think that’s disgusting stuff, because of the implicit endorsement of the idea that conscience is religious, or that ‘conscience’ deserves special, extra (‘tender’) accomodation when it is religious that it does not deserve when it is not religious. Well, why? Notice that she never says why. (If she does, the editor dropped it.) Notice also that she chooses the easier cases (the elided ones are comparatively easy too). Notice that she chooses a Jew refusing to go to court on a Saturday; how often do courts sit on Saturdays? What about people who refuse to go to court on a Friday or a Wednesday, when courts do sit? Why doesn’t she use that as an example? But much more important, why on earth does she choose to perpetuate the idea that ‘conscientious scruples’ are a monopoly of religious people and hence that atheists don’t have them? And where does she get off dressing up that nasty bigoted coercive prejudice in the glow of self-righteous disapproval? Why is she so pleased with herself for wanting to give special privileges to religion and religious believers that atheists don’t get? Why is she so smugly boastful about identifying conscience with religion?

I’ve questioned this talk about delicacy and respect from Nussbaum before. There was this, in Hiding from Humanity:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

Well there’s some classic respect creep (to quote Simon Blackburn again) for you. Here’s an earlier and more carefully argued example from Sex and Social Justice (page 110):

US constitutional law has standardly granted special latitude to religion, by contrast with other forms of commitment and affiliation. Religious reasons for exemption from military service, or for refusing to work on a particular day, are granted a latitude that is not granted to other forms of conscientious commitment, such as the familial or the artistic or even the ethical. This remains controversial for the way it appears to privilege religion over nonreligion…[T]his is not the place to make a normative argument on such a complex and vexed matter. Suffice it to say that such privileges given to religion, though highly contestable, can be strongly supported by pointing to the special importance of the liberty of conscience as a fundamental right and the consequent need to give religious freedom special protection from the incursions that, throughout history, have threatened it.

I couldn’t agree less. That works only if you take ‘conscience’ to mean ‘religious conscience,’ and why would anyone take it to mean that? It doesn’t mean that. I looked it up in the Concise Oxford: the definition doesn’t mention religion. Religion does not get to help itself to the word ‘conscience’ and pretend it has the thing while non-religious people don’t; ‘conscience’ is about morality, not religion, and religion has no, repeat no monopoly on either one. Both conscience and morality are secular terms, secular ideas, secular principles, and religion has no business trying to annex them, and Nussbaum has no business helping them do it.

I used to admire Nussbaum, but I’ve gone right off her now. I’m really allergic to this annexation thing.

History matters

Apr 12th, 2007 12:15 pm | By

What children in Japan learn about their own recent past:

We’ve learnt that Japan fought a war with China and colonised parts of the country. Sometimes the Japanese were a bit cruel, forcing places to adopt Japanese names and forcing people to adopt the Japanese language. But we didn’t really get into the details of what actually happened. I feel my understanding of the war is a bit thin.

Yeah, it is. It’s those textbooks we keep hearing about – the ones that infuriate the Chinese and Koreans (and Indonesians? Indians? Burmese? Thais? We don’t hear so much about that) because they radically minimize what Japan actually did when it ‘fought a war with’ (i.e. invaded) China (and the rest of East Asia). It involved a little more than forcing places to adopt Japanese names and forcing people to adopt the Japanese language. Forced labour in lethal conditions would be one item.

Turkey, Japan, Serbia; denial denial denial. Not good.


Apr 12th, 2007 11:11 am | By

What a nice birthday present – Jesus and Mo complaining about me over the urinals. They are so sweet to say so – I’m tactless, my language is disrespectful and offensive, I’m a rude aggressive fundamentalist atheist. [dabs eyes with silken hanky] I know; everyone says that; but when it’s Jesus and Mo themselves, it means something. And then on top of it all Jesus says I have a point. I always said he was a shrewd bastard.

Segregation is integration, slavery is freedom

Apr 12th, 2007 9:20 am | By

Terry Sanderson notes that the sums don’t add up.

The enquiry set up by Communities minister Ruth Kelly aimed at finding ways to challenge “barriers to integration and cohesion” has published an interim report, that can only be described as contradictory and counterproductive. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion’s report suggests that “faith schools” play no part in segregation while at the same time admitting that school is probably the best way to break down barriers between communities.

Well see that’s because…’faith schools’ are of course obviously a good and cuddly thing (if they weren’t they wouldn’t have the word ‘faith’ in their name) so they can’t play any part in segregation because that would be a bad uncuddly thing, and at the same time of course obviously school is the best way to break down barriers between communities because all of that is good and cuddly too so it’s good and cuddly to say so. ‘Faith’ schools don’t segregate, schools break down barriers between ‘communities,’ ‘communities’ are harmonious and unified and the source of identity and self-esteem and warmth and strong teeth, all ‘communities’ love each other because they are all so well-equipped with harmony and unity and identity and warmth so there are no problems so they have no reason not to all love each other so everything is good and cohesive. Just keep saying the words ‘faith’ and ‘community’ over and over and over and over and everything will be fine. Really. Promise. That will fix everything.

Some people have told us that they see faith schools as a significant barrier to integration and cohesion. Others, especially from faith communities have said faith schools are vital to helping their young people develop as strong and confident British citizens.

Really?! People from ‘faith communities’ tell you ‘faith schools’ are a good thing – you don’t say! So you listen intently and, being madly in love with ‘faith’ yourselves (apparently), you believe them and ignore the people who tell you the other thing. You also ignore quite a lot of recent history. [whispers] Northern Ireland comes to mind…

It is clear that the authors of this report are listening only to those they want to hear. They say that the “faith communities” have told them that faith schools are a good idea. Of course they have. “Faith schools” are the last hope of survival for “faith communities”. This enquiry will achieve nothing – indeed, will make things worse if it is to continue to be conducted in this blinkered way. If it uncovers evidence and then dismisses it because it doesn’t fit in with the government’s policy of promoting faith schools, then it is downright dangerous.

Ah yes the old ‘ignoring evidence because it doesn’t fit with what you want to do’ trick. I think this is where we came in.

A recent report from Professor Irene Bruegel of the South Bank University was emphatic that the government’s idea of “twinning” faith schools achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended. It simply increases the sense of “us” and “them” that “faith schools” engender. Sending children on occasional visits to other schools simply increased tension and suspicion between them. Crucially, Professor Bruegel’s research showed that children from different ethnic groups and religions must mix on a daily basis in primary schools in order for ethnically diverse friendships to flourish into adult life, and indeed for the parents of school children to become better integrated. This is what the cohesion report should have recommended. Sadly, it has been hijacked by religious protagonists both inside and outside government who are more interested in fostering faith than in solving the very real problems that religiously – and increasingly, ethnically – segregated schools will create.

Well, congratulations; you’re well on the way to balkanization by education. Fasten your seat belts.

The other Holocaust

Apr 11th, 2007 3:16 pm | By

I saw something unsettling (to put it mildly) on tv last night. It’s about the Burma railway, and the horrible conditions under which it was built by forced labour. I knew about it, but not enough; not nearly enough. I especially didn’t know that it was built not only by prisoners of war but also by (as the show called them) Asians – simply conscripted people from South India, Malaya, Thailand and other places. Their death rate was much worse than that of the prisoners, which was bad enough.

There was one memorable segment where the film maker and the Indian engineer who accompanies him hike laboriously through dense jungle to arrive at the top of what is revealed to be a constructed embankment. The FM gets the engineer to climb down the embankment. The engineer takes only a few struggling steps down before saying how difficult it is; the FM says ‘And remember most of them were barefoot.’ ‘They had no boots?’ the engineer says. ‘Most of them had no boots.’ The engineer struggles all the way down; the FM calls down to him ‘Now find a 20 pound rock and carry it up.’ The engineer is very miserable, but finds this heavy rock (which stands for the basket of soil the workers had to carry up) and sets off; he falls down almost at once. With immense effort, panting, grunting, wretched, he finally manages it. The FM calculates the length and volume of the embankment and the number of baskets needed to build the embankment then brightly says ‘Now you need to do that only 12 million more times.’ One trip was a nightmare, and the engineer was fully dressed, rested, well fed, and not ill or injured; furthermore it wasn’t monsoon season. The people who did the work for real were all starving, exhausted, injured, ill, underclothed, and much of the time it was monsoon season. It’s hard to imagine.

Though records are sketchy, approximately 61,000 Allied prisoners of war are believed to have labored on the railway, including 30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australian, and 700 American soldiers. An estimated 16,000 of those troops died, many of them from diseases like cholera, beri beri, malaria, and typhoid, most during an intensified period of construction known as “speedo” that commenced in January 1943. Another 200,000 Asian laborers, mostly Thai, were forced to work on the railway. More than 80,000 lost their lives.

First thing today I googled Burma railway.

The construction of the Burma Railway is only one of many major war crimes committed by Japan in Asia during the war. It is regarded as a major event in the “Asian Holocaust”, during which millions of civilians and POWs were killed by Japanese personnel.

I didn’t know there was an Asian Holocaust – at least I didn’t know it was called that, and I didn’t realize how bad it was outside China. Something else I need to know more about. The narrator of the tv show did say the death rate among the Asians is not as well known (presumably in the West) as that of the prisoners of war. Well clearly it should be. And what about those Japanese textbooks…

Quantum quantumness

Apr 10th, 2007 2:31 pm | By

You did have a look at the work of Carolyn Guertin when I posted the link in News, right? Do rush to have a read if you haven’t – it’s – what shall I say – it’s quantum. That’s what it is, it’s quantum.

Quantum feminist works make no attempt to reconcile this dislocation between networked nodes and their gaps in space-time. Instead, they foreground and use this aspect, highlighting the disjunctures of the subject’s position as she is depicted and as she voyages through the text…In her essay “The Roots of Nonlinearity,” hypertextualist Christie Sheffield Sanford says that modern physics has erased the concept of absolutes in time and space and that this is evident in the texts of the new media as well. She uses indeterminacy theorist Werner Heisenberg to support her theories…

Well of course she does. Who doesn’t? Heisenberg, indeterminacy, quantum, absolutes in time and space and texts of new media; it’s all basically the same thing. Right? Right.

David Thompson comments here. And the author herself comments on this post at the Dawkins site (last comment on the page, number 50). She gives the predictable, and very irritating, defense.

Do I really need to point out that this was a dissertation written for specialists working in my field and not a work for general publication? If it were the latter, it would indeed be a different text and worthy of critique – although not this kind.

Nope. What you need to point out is what ‘quantum feminist works’ might be; what you need to point out is why you use the word ‘quantum’ to mean any old thing you feel like; what you need to point out is why you shelter behind your own specialisthood but don’t scruple to help yourself to the vocabulary of physics; what you need to point out is what is ‘specialist’ about misusing technical language for purposes of ornamenting some uninspiring observations about following hyperlinks.

Guertin has a Teaching Philosophy.

Cyberfeminisms writ large are what I call ‘quantum feminisms,’ lived as much in the scientific world as in the literary, personal as much as political. Quantum feminisms are situated knowledges interpolated by experience and embodied presence and, most importantly, are personal philosophies. As a potential pedagogical model, quantum feminisms allow me to use their own theoretical and scientific principles to produce a student-centred environment…

What she calls ‘quantum feminisms’ – why? Why not call them amyotrophic feminisms? Why not call them fermionic condensate feminisms? Why not call them Huey Dewey and Louie feminisms? Why quantum? Because – erm – it impresses the credulous? That’s my guess. My quantum guess.

What is respect

Apr 9th, 2007 3:41 pm | By

We got in a discussion in comments on Just the questions, ma’am about whether it is reasonable to demand respect, which entailed a discussion of what respect is and what people mean by it. I agreed that it’s reasonable enough to demand a minimal version of respect, but I pointed out 1) that people often mean something very maximal by the word and 2) that that fact is often disguised because the minimal version is available. So I was pleased, while re-reading Simon Backburn’s ‘Religion and Respect’ to see this:

‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term. I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions. We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one.

This is exactly what I was (and am) claiming.

Phrases like ‘equal concern and respect’ trip off the tongue. But in any more than the most minimal sense of ‘deserving equal protection of the law’ or equal toleration, there are, quite properly, gradations of respect. We respect skill, ability, judgement, and experience. The opinion of someone who has demonstrated these qualities is more important to us than the opinion of a newcomer, or someone who is foolish and wild in his reasonings. We defer to some people more than we defer to others, and this deference is a measure of respect.

Same again. And to ‘demand’ the upper level of the gradation is to demand something that can’t be given as a mere act of will or generosity, and that thus is not ‘respect’ in the sense intended; therefore it is futile to demand it. I can’t demand that people respect me as a mountaineer, because I’m not one. If I do demand that and people decide to humour me, what they’re giving me is not respect. Thus my demand falls to the ground like a broken moth, forceless.

Our movement is peaceful. We’re not, but our movement is.

Apr 9th, 2007 3:19 pm | By

Here’s a good juxtaposition which Allen Esterson pointed out to me:

“Our movement is peaceful,” he said. “The government too should stay calm. We’ve warned the government that if it ever tried to suppress us by force, thousands of students of madrassas will retaliate with suicide attacks.”

Peaceful indeed. Quaker-like. Peaceful as a pond on a windless afternoon in August.

Say what?

Apr 9th, 2007 2:59 pm | By

How’s that again?

Parents of some of the girls studying at a controversial religious school in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, have voiced concern for their safety. Their fears rose after an ultimatum from madrassa leaders that Sharia law be enforced in the country. The school and adjoining mosque are accused of promoting intolerance and taking the law into their own hands. On Sunday, the chief cleric issued a fatwa against a female minister who had been pictured hugging a man. The madrassa has frequently been in the news in recent months. In February, armed students prevented the authorities from demolishing an illegally constructed mosque, and occupied a nearby children’s library. Last month they abducted a woman they accused of running a brothel, holding her captive for two days.

Kids today eh. But that’s not the ‘say what?’ part. This is:

Parents of some of the girls studying* at the Jamia Hafsa say they are worried by recent events, but do not want to harm their daughters’ education.

Their daughters’ what? Their daughters’ what? What on earth makes the parents think what the daughters are getting at the madrassa is an education? What part of occupying a children’s library or abducting and imprisoning a woman sounds educational to them? What part of going outside in black bags to brandish bamboo poles at enemies looks educational to them? What do they take education to be, exactly? What is it that they don’t want to harm? The aggression? The fanaticism? The stupidity?

*Studying? Studying? What part of kidnapping, threatening, and occupying looks like studying to the BBC?