Notes and Comment Blog

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

An interlude

Mar 29th, 2011 11:42 am | By

Oh my – this is funny – tragic but funny. Aspiring author self-destructs in public. Is urged to stop self-destructing. Continues self-destruction process. Tragic…I can’t wait to read the rest.

Experience required

Mar 28th, 2011 10:04 am | By

Nir Rosen was hired by the London School of Economics. Rosen is ”the free-lance journalist who gained infamy and lost an NYU fellowship after celebrating via Twitter the sexual assault on Lara Logan and wishing the same on Anderson Cooper.”

The Evening Standard reports

Mr Rosen was forced to resign in disgrace from New York University last month after making fun of CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who was stripped, beaten up and molested by a baying mob while covering the Egyptian revolution. He admitted his career was ruined after writing a series of comments on Twitter about Ms Logan, saying she was “probably just groped like thousands of other women”.

But this weekend he announced he will start work at the LSE, and is expected to be paid around £50,000.

One LSE source said: “It’s an unbelievable appointment. You’d think these people would have learned their lesson by now, but all they seem to want to do is rehabilitate highly offensive individuals.”

Nick Cohen phoned the LSE press office. He reported their conversation on Facebook:

“Does he have any academic credentials?”

“No but his war reporting experience is condsidered useful.”

“You mean his experience of justifying the rape of women correspondents?”

“I am not going to answer that.” Hangs up.

Rosen has now resigned. You might think Nick did his bit to help; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Other minds

Mar 27th, 2011 9:51 am | By

After some further conversation yesterday, I actually ended up better understanding what the latest spate of anti-gnu atheism was getting at. After yet another look, I still think Berlinerblau’s piece is terrible. It annoys me five paragraphs in, and that’s with having skipped the first two paragraphs. I’m not saying I think the piece is not so bad, but I am saying I can see why he might be riled. I always thought Hoffmann’s piece was a much better read, and now that I also see why he might be riled, well there you go.

They’re both academics, you see; they teach; they teach undergraduates. Need I say more? You know how young people are. (For any readers who are young: you know how you are.) Young people in the US, at any rate, which is the relevant category here.

Once you isolate that variable, it all becomes clear. They teach undergraduates, so they get smart-ass ducklings who think they know everything already and refuse to read anything denser than a Facebook update.

They get “new atheist” undergraduates like that. They get “new atheist” undergraduates like that who grew up on self-esteem classes. Ohhhhhhhh – now I get it.

Is that the fault of “new” atheism? Hmmm. I would say mostly no, but I wouldn’t say that none of it is. In fact I would agree that some of it probably is. On the other hand, I would add, if it weren’t gnu atheism it would be something else.

Yes but if you teach history of religion, for instance, callow lazy undergraduate gnu atheism interferes directly with what you teach. The same is probably true if you’re the Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization.

You can see it, right? You can see how it might go? Gnu atheist students age 20 or so, who think they already know whatever they need to know on the subject and express lofty contempt for things they can’t even spell. Why do they think this? They picked it up from PZ Myers, or Richard Dawkins – that’s the thinking. Actually it’s a lot more likely that they picked it up from commenters at Pharyngula or the RDF site, but still – that’s “new” atheism in some sense (though it’s always better to make it clear which sense is in play).

I can sort of see how gnu atheism could seem like just another version of anti-intellectualism, and I can pretty easily see that it’s at least compatible with anti-intellectualism for followers. I say “for followers” because it’s absurd to think of any of the Name “new” atheists as anti-intellectual, much less incurious, which was Berlinerblau’s wild charge.

I said on Facebook yesterday that I was tempted to work up a little statement to append to every post I write -

Nothing here is to be construed as permission to refuse to read any history or philosophy of religion. There is no merit to ignorance.

What did we think of the retreat, honey?

Mar 26th, 2011 4:38 pm | By

There’s a churchy thing called a Couples Retreat. It’s at the First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, where the pastor is Jack Schaap, who is apparently what professionals call a Real Doozy. The church offers a list of What We Believe, in case any confused people try to join in, thinking they’re Wiccans or something. The list of What They Believe would cause a wondering frown to appear on the face of Karen Armstrong, and as for Terry Eagleton, he would probably decide to become a line order cook.

We take instruction from the Bible literally; we believe what it is actually saying, not that it is an allegory or a fable. We take instruction from the Bible in the areas of life and faith and go to it for the answers to life.

Like not cooking a football in its mother’s milk, and all that kind of thing. What all the liberal believers and friends of liberal believers tell us hardly anyone believes – and yet the First Baptist Church of Hammond Indiana is a big church. Very big. It seats 7,500.

Check out the video of the couples’ retreat. It has couples saying how much they loved the retreat. Well not exactly. It has couples standing there, one couple at a time, but with each couple, only the man is miked, and only the man talks. Sometimes the woman nods, in a shocking display of insubordination, but mostly each woman just stands there smiling into the camera like a stick of wood while the man clutches the back of her shirt and does all the talking.

That’s their idea of being churchy, and “Christian,” and good, and the right way to be, and supportive of The Family. Their idea is that the man gets to be a human being and the woman gets to be a stunted idea-less empty object that is attached to the man and would shrivel and die if she accidentally got unattached. She’s a parasite, an appendage, a part of his body. Their idea of virtue, at First Baptist of Hammond, is to live a bifurcated life in which men are people and women are something much less.

Notes from Hitchens

Mar 26th, 2011 8:22 am | By

Hitchens on death-bed evangelism.

 ’It’s considered acceptable in our culture to approach perfect strangers, as often or not who may be in extremis, and evangelise. I don’t see why that’s considered a normal thing.’ His voice rises in indignation. ‘They’re allowed to roam the wards. They tried it on me.’I know people old and young who’ve been terrified by attentions of this kind.’

He has been thinking of making a short speech along precisely these lines, to the effect that he, Harris and Dawkins may set up a secular equivalent of hospital visitors. ‘We’d go round – “Hope you don’t mind, you said you were Catholic? Only three weeks to live? Well, listen, you don’t have to live them as a mental slave, you know; you could have three weeks of freedom from fear of the priest. Don’t be a mug all your life…” I don’t think it would be considered in very good taste.’

I don’t think it would be a kindness either, I say.

‘I think it would,’ Hitchens says. ‘Absolutely.’

On whether he thinks he’s been a good person.

‘No, not particularly. Not as the world counts these things, because the world expects, for that definition to apply, a good deal of selflessness. And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most. I don’t do much living for others, I really don’t.’

On what being good actually is.

Thinking of his damning critique of Mother Teresa in his 1995 book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, I say, rather unkindly perhaps, that it would be unfortunate if he were to be remembered not as the person who had fed the poor and comforted the dying, but the person who had given a good kicking to the woman who did.

He looks at me. ‘I don’t think the contingency comes up. Those who do feed the poor and comfort the dying are safe from me. Mother Teresa did neither. She was a fraud.’

Quite so, and thus the question was not so much unkind as mindless. Hitchens didn’t give a good kicking to “the woman who did” – notice that “the” as if there were only one and that one were Ma T. How her reputation does persist, for no reason apart from sheer reputationicity.

The yukkists

Mar 25th, 2011 3:42 pm | By

Man, it’s been a busy week for the gnu-hating crowd. There was Michael Ruse, then Jacques Berlinerblau, and now (it grieves me to say) Joseph Hoffmann. All three doing an extended yell of rage at “the new atheists” while seldom actually giving any specifics or quoting anyone or linking to anything, so that a reader could figure out exactly what they’re talking about. They do mention Dawkins and Harris, and Hoffmann quotes from a press release by the Center for Inquiry, but mostly there’s just a great deal of generalization.

Here’s Ruse:

I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.  It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion…

Here’s Berlinerblau:

In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism…

New Atheists, like Fundamentalists, only read “original texts” (kind of like the way Tea Party activists prattle on about the “original intent” of the Constitution). They don’t understand hermeneutics, or the interpretive process, and for this reason they are doomed to saying very silly things about their subject matter.

And now here’s Hoffmann:

…it is not clear that the EZs are listening, at least not directly, to their critics, because their royalty checks and speaking fees are talking too loud…

The mode of critique is lodged somewhere between “Stupid Pet Tricks”- and “Bushisms”-style humor, a generation-based funniness that thrives on ridicule as a worthy substitute for argument: Blasphemy contests, Hairdrier Unbaptisms, Blowgun-slogans (“Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”), and my latest personal favorite, Zombie Jesus Jokes (“He died for your sins; now he’s back for your brains”)…

And so on and so on – lots of generality with very little specificity (although at least there is a link to Zombie Jesus Jokes, which is something). I don’t know who the new atheists in question are supposed to be, whether the four cowboys, or the four plus some more, or all new atheists (and how are they defined?). That means I don’t know how accurate the descriptions of them are, or how to check. That means I suspect that the whole enterprise is just bad temper as opposed to reasoned criticism. Yet a major pillar of the criticism or bad temper is how unreasoned the criticism by the new atheists is.

So the question is: what exactly is it, really, that they’re so pissed off about?

I don’t even know. You’d think I would, after all this time, but I don’t. They’re all over the place. They change their story every time they post. One minute it’s being political failures, the next minute it’s being too popular. I can’t possibly keep up.

The truth is I don’t think it’s really anything. I think they just don’t like us, in a dopy Leon Kass-ish “yuk” way, and that’s all there is to it. We really really get on their nerves, and they don’t know why themselves, but they don’t seem to have noticed that they don’t know why, so they keep self-importantly issuing noisy but incomprehensible jeremiads on the subject. This is good free publicity for the gnu atheists, so it all works out.

EZ theist ethics

Mar 25th, 2011 12:00 pm | By

Rabbi Adam Jacobs tells the Huffington Post and its readers that atheists can’t say it’s wrong to stone women to death because they are atheists.

In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

I wonder if Jacques Berlinerblau will do a thoughtful erudite eloquent piece saying why that is ignorant and wrong. No, I don’t really. There is only so much time in a life, and with so many ignorant gnu atheists to beat up, ignorant theists just have to take care of themselves.

Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do to their creation in the “image of God.”

Much for you to do there, Professor Berlinerblau. Much ignorance and error. Still too busy?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Directly or indirectly – well that makes it easy. Fine, have it your way, Rabbi: my  understanding of morality comes indirectly from what is commonly but mistakenly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic, an “ethic” which is very different now from what it was when it was young, thus showing that not even your understanding of morality comes directly from “the Judeo-Christian ethic.” Whatevs.

It gets better

Mar 24th, 2011 4:56 pm | By

The It Gets Better project is a good thing.

The interview with Dan and Terry on Fresh Air was also good. Terry had an especially horrible time the first two years of high school. He said he couldn’t even walk down the hall in such a way that he didn’t attract bullying. Everything he did – the way he moved, the way he talked, everything – got him bullied. His mother went to the school and asked them to do something about the bullying.

Their response was, ‘There’s nothing that they could do. If he looks that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there’s absolutely nothing they could do to protect me and it was probably just going to happen and that my family should probably just get used to it.’

That really brought me up short. I think I’d heard it before, when they first started It Gets Better, but if so it shocked me all over again. Jeezis – his school telling his mother if he looks that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there’s absolutely nothing they could do…that’s so complicatedly horrible I can’t deal with it. Which is why It Gets Better is so necessary.

I find it too moving to watch. I hope the kids don’t! I hope for them it’s a lifeline, not something that makes them go all maudlin. But I found the one by White House staff very…powerful.

Whited sepulchre

Mar 24th, 2011 11:04 am | By

But hey, then again, why worry about religious privilege and entitlement when the Vatican is busy telling the UN Human Rights Council that people who dispute its vicious homophbia are “attacking” it and interfering with its human rights? Why bother? Why not just give up, since we’re obviously outnumbered?

People who criticise gay sexual relations for religious or moral reasons are increasingly being attacked and vilified for their views, a Vatican diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday.

Or to put it another way, gay people are increasingly being attacked and vilified by reactionary religious fanatics who think they should have the power to tell everyone everywhere what to do down to the smallest detail.

“People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behaviour between people of the same sex,” he told the current session of the Human Rights Council.

“When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature … they are stigmatised, and worse — they are vilified, and prosecuted.

“These attacks are violations of fundamental human rights and cannot be justified under any circumstances,” Tomasi said.

What attacks? He means criticism and disagreement. Criticism and disagreement are not violations of fundamental human rights. Furthermore, the Vatican’s concern for human rights is…let’s say incomplete, and self-regarding, and cynical, and a joke.

Tomasi also said the Vatican believed in the inherent dignity of all human beings and condemned all violence against people because of their sexual orientation or behaviour.

“But states can and must regulate behaviours, including various sexual behaviours,” he said.

“Throughout the world, there is a consensus between societies that certain kinds of sexual behaviour must be forbidden by law. Paedophilia and incest are two examples.”

Says an archbishop of a church that has shielded paedophiles from, precisely, state law, the very state law he appealed to.

Poor little mites, only 30 places for them

Mar 24th, 2011 10:43 am | By

Big excitement: another religious state school is opening in Leicester, a Hindu one modeled on another in Harrow (London). Hooray hooray, even though there are people who think Not hooray hooray.

It, like other faith school proposals for “free” schools, has its opponents, those that think the plethora of religious schools being opened under the Gove initiative will destroy community cohesion and increase segregation on racial and religious grounds among pupils.

And that that’s not something the state should be fostering and funding. What’s the other view, exactly? I can never quite figure it out. That it will do those things but those are good things to do? Or that it won’t do those things? Either one seems…feeble.

The programme is intended to overcome the situation whereby there are a million Hindus in the UK but only 30 Hindu primary school places a year for them.

But there you are, you see, that’s just it: what does that mean, “for them”? Nothing, basically. You might think (if you were a naïve observer) it meant the children of Hindus are barred from all UK schools apart from a selected 30. But of course that’s not the case: the children of Hindu parents like the children of any other parents can attend state schools. The “for them” implies that children of Hindu parents perhaps “need” to attend specifically Hindu schools, even though parts of the article put that very idea into question. It’s a goofy, retrograde, sloppy idea that’s been coming into vogue in recent years, and people should toughen up and get rid of it. Children don’t “need” to go to any kind of denominational school, and assuming they do does indeed push them into religious and sometimes ethnic segregation. Get over it.

The people look like ants

Mar 23rd, 2011 12:27 pm | By

So how about that Jacques Berlinerblau eh?

He totally agrees with Michael Ruse that “new” atheists are equatable to the Tea Party, and wishes he’d said it first.

For those not familiar with their world-view, let me help you understand their central and timeless insight: Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut (about which more anon).

Goodness; how very vulgar. Miss Manners does not, on second thought, believe she has very much to say about sheer vulgarity. Miss Manners is forced to conclude that Mr Berlinerblau is beneath her notice.

Brandish that crucifix

Mar 23rd, 2011 11:37 am | By

Andrew Brown seems to have taken a Michael Ruse pill (may cause drowsiness, perversity of reasoning, tendonitis, irregular heartbeat).

The decision of the European court of Human Rights that Italian schools may continue to display a crucifix in the classroom is obviously a victory for common sense, of which only fanatics would disapprove.

Oh obviously; oh only fanatics, certainly. (What was that about gnu atheist rhetoric and lack of humility again?)

The idea that human rights legislation should be used to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix is a profoundly totalitarian and superstitious perversion of one of our civilisation’s best inventions.

Well yes, it would be, but that isn’t the idea in question. Oddly enough, nobody was attempting to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix. That would be quite a tall order, and would involve forcibly keeping children out of churches as well as off the streets, out of shops and museums, away from people – it would involve a quite remarkable program of visual isolation. What a good thing it is that that’s not the issue. The idea, of course, was to prevent the state from imposing a crucifix on children in state schools. That is a more limited ambition, do admit.

So Andrew renders his piece worthless at the outset, by misrepresenting the issue. What’s the point of that? Hooray, he says, the fanatics can’t do what they were trying to do – but they weren’t trying to do that and they aren’t fanatics, so what exactly is Andrew’s point?

And if a secularist is able to protest against the presence of a crucifix in a classroom on the grounds that it breaches her children’s human rights, why shouldn’t a Muslim bring a lawsuit against the V&A for displaying Christian imagery to her children when they are taken on school trips around it?

Because the two are different, for reasons that are too obvious for me to bother explaining. (Oh all right – a crucifix permanently stuck on a classroom wall is an endorsement, a teaching, an admonition; a trip to a museum is a different kind of thing altogether.)

The answer, of course, is that NSS thinks that secularist children – or the children of secularists, since it absolutely certain that no child is born a rationalist or secularist – have different and better rights to those of religious children, and especially Muslim children.

You may wonder how NSS got in there, and what it has to do with anything. I don’t know. It’s not that I omitted a previous bit where the NSS was mentioned or scolded; that’s its first appearance, out of nowhere. I think he meant “secularists in general” but accidentally turned that into “NSS” (without even the normal “the”). Bit of a King Charles’s head there, I’m afraid. At any rate – that’s crap. Secularism protects the rights of religious people. The ruling on the crucifix certainly does not protect the rights of Muslim children! Secularism would; this ruling does not – unless of course the idea is the odd one that Muslim children have a religious right to have a crucifix imposed on them in state school.

But it doesn’t follow from this argument that atheism is a privileged position that the state should teach and enforce. A theologically neutral state takes no position on the question of which gods exist, or, if you like, which conceptions of God (if any) correspond to reality.

But atheism isn’t the issue. Secularism isn’t atheism, and it is entirely possible, and indeed reasonable, for theists to be secularists for their own protection as well as that of other people. State neutrality on religion is not state atheism. That’s why I did a post a few months ago saying atheist schools would be a terrible idea.


Mar 22nd, 2011 5:40 pm | By

Greta Christina has begun a list of non-pallid atheists, which makes it a global list of atheists, which makes it a list with a lot of friends on it.

Leo Igwe is on it. Kenan Malik is on it. Maryam Namazie is on it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is on it. Homa Arjomand is on it. Friends and contributors.

The more global B&W is, the happier I am.

Hardly a disaster

Mar 21st, 2011 4:38 pm | By

So now poor Michael Ruse has to write a petulant article (for Comment is Free this time? we don’t want to get out of sequence) saying that that horrid new atheist David Barash is mad at him, that he doesn’t care a bit, that he’s a brave contrarian who pisses off campus feminists and other bores who believe in equal rights, that he likes a good dust up, that he was in Arkansas testifying when everyone else was in nursery school, and that new atheists are a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the al Qaeda and the Westboro Baptist Church combined. That should take him at least ten minutes.

Barash was gobsmacked by Ruse’s

assertion that the New Atheists constitute a “disaster comparable to the Tea Party.”

So was I. I always am surprised by how malicious and mendacious some atheists allow themselves to be about the Gnu variety.

Barash pointed out what the Tea Party is actually about, and then pointed out that the new atheists are not about the same things.

The New Atheists, with whom I cheerfully and gratefully align myself, have no specific public-policy goals, except perhaps the will-o’the-wisp of delegitimizing the typically unspoken assumption—especially in the United States—that religion must never be questioned, not only as a public good but something that is necessarily true and to which all good people must necessarily subscribe. Theirs is an intellectual struggle, an effort to provide a voice to the large number of previously closeted nonbelievers who felt isolated in their atheism.

Exactly. And we really are allowed to do that. We really are not doing any harm to Michael Ruse by doing that. We really are not doing anything that justifies the relentless campaign of vituperation that is being directed at us. There really is no good reason to preserve and protect the assumption that religion must never be questioned.

If the New Atheists succeed, unbelief will be increasingly legitimate and willing to speak its name. Minds will be opened, and many will find themselves liberated to express views previously forbidden. Hardly a disaster … unless you believe, Michael, that people are unable or unwilling to do the right thing in the absence of religious belief.

I can’t improve on that.

You people are so amusing, and a danger to the wellbeing of America

Mar 20th, 2011 12:01 pm | By

What, again? Yes, again. Yes, for the 14 thousandth time, Michael Ruse is telling us how angry with him ”the new atheists” are, how right he is in spite of their anger, how wrong and bad and dangerous and immoral they are, how brave he is, and how right and brave and amusing and important he Michael Ruse is.

Oh dear, I am in trouble again with the New Atheists… I am being called all sorts of nasty things…Even I sometimes wonder why I am in such bad odor, apart from the fact that whenever I am confronted with people for whom disagreement is considered not just wrong but morally offensive my first tendency is to laugh and tease.

No it isn’t! Your first tendency is to complain and boast. And then what you call “laugh and tease” other people call by harsher names. There was the time you sent a “laugh and tease” to Daniel Dennett and then forwarded the resulting exchange, civil on his part and splenetic on yours, to William Dembski without Dennett’s permission. That kind of thing is why you are in such bad odor: it’s because you give every appearance of being energetically malicious.

I have spent forty years fighting fundamentalism, including so-called Intelligent Design Theory – on the podium, in print, and in the courtroom (as a witness for the ACLU against Scientific Creationism).

He’s important. He wants you to know that. He wants there to be no doubt about that. He mentions it every time he throws another rancid tomato at the gnu atheists, so he must really need everyone to get how important he is. All together now: Michael Ruse is very important. Next.

 I am so close in so many respects to the new Atheists that I am hated with the kind of passion that you usually find between Protestant sects differing over the true meaning of the Whore of Babylon.  Is she just the Pope or is she the whole of the Catholic Church?  Of course I also suffer from what we might call the Laurie Essig syndrome.  I do like a bit of a bust up.

Well exactly. (Laurie Essig apart; I have no idea what that is. No, don’t bother telling me.) Of course you like a bit of a bust up. If there isn’t one, you create it – hence emailing Dan Dennett that time, and hence all these rancid tomato articles in the HuffBop and the CHE and CisF. You like a bit of a bust up, so stop pitching fits about why are the new atheists angry at me. You know perfectly well why they are, and it’s what you wanted! So what’s the point of opening by pretending to be puzzled? To be irritating, perhaps, and I have fallen into your trap. Well that’s all right. However much you like a dust up, you are acting like a conspicuous jerk, so it’s worth falling into your trap. I didn’t fall in, I stepped gracefully in.

But then – I’ll revert to talking about him in the 3d person now – he veers into the serious and the McCarthyesque.

 I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.

“The New Atheists are a danger to the wellbeing of America” – and he wonders why he is in bad odor.

Audacity of unbelief

Mar 19th, 2011 2:01 pm | By

I wanted to say a bit more about that passage from Obama’s Audacity of Hope that Rieux quoted yesterday.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.

I wish he had managed to say that without presenting it as somehow at odds with secularism, and for that matter without calling it “professed” secularism as if his mother had been either fake or wrong. I wish he had in fact said emphatically that his mother’s attributes were and are entirely compatible with secularism. He could even have said that religion is often at odds with for instance kindness or honesty, not in a random way but as part of its nature. Religion can be punitive, and it can be deceptive or evasive.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves.

Again – entirely unsurprising. I spent a large chunk of pre-dawn time just this morning staring at a particularly spectacular moon – it’s full, so it was low in the west at 5:30 a.m., and the clouds had parted, so it was reflected in Puget Sound. I listen to leaves; I stare at eagles perched in trees over my head; I stop dead when I hear the chatter of a hummingbird, to look for it and then watch it when I’ve found it. That has nothing to do with religion. It is compatible with religion (though not the contemptus mundi kind) but it is in no way dependent on it.

I really, really wish Obama could have discussed the issue without patronizing his mother’s non-theism.

As Irigaray might have said

Mar 19th, 2011 1:02 pm | By

In the mood for some spiritual discipline? Have some Giles Fraser. He’s very kinky.

It’s good to do without stuff. It’s a discipline. Food, sex, hot showers, reality tv, flowers, poetry, music – whatever you like, you should give it up, so as to exercise your giving it up muscle. For those of you who like to ask questions: you should give that up. It’s good for you and it’s a pretty compliment to god.

…one of the things that we learn from earthquakes and tsunamis is precisely that such mastery is an illusion. To use Lacanian language: it is an eruption of the Real against the neat meaningfulness with which we structure our lives. Are religious believers especially bad at wanting to buy any old explanation for tragic events so long as they return their familiar symbolic order to its former integrity? Probably, yes. For too often, religion can regard the admission that one does not understand as some sort of lack of faith. And furthermore, it can regard the refusal of poor explanations as a lack of loyalty to the tribe.

Fraser seems to have given up making sense for Lent. He doesn’t mean “are religious believers especially bad at wanting to buy any old explanation” – he means are they bad about doing that. They’re all too good at it. And that “poor explanations” is just confusing – he means bad explanations.

Anyway – what he’s doing is going all around the houses in order to say “don’t ask why god did this because I have no clue.” We already knew that, and we think Fraser and other clerics should realize that that means their god is either useless or a sadist or not there. In Lacanian language that would be: dude, get over it.

Can we all get along?

Mar 19th, 2011 11:11 am | By

The Vatican knows how it wants this “bring in the atheists” party to go. It wants it to go well for the Vatican.

“The aim is to help to ensure that the great questions about human existence, especially the spiritual questions, are borne in mind and discussed in our societies, using our common reason,” Cardinal Ravasi said.

See? Like that. It wants atheists to pretend to think that the Vatican uses reason when it discusses the great questions about human existence.

Ideally, Cardinal Ravasi said, the conversations begun by this project should resemble not a “duel” but a “duet,” with believers and non-believers offering complementary ideas and helping each other to refine their views.

See? The non-believers are supposed to pretend to think that Vatican ideas are “complementary” to secular ideas and that the Vatican can help atheists refine their views.

No doubt it will have chosen its non-believers carefully. The non-believers I know don’t think for a second that the Vatican is a reason-based institution or that its ideas are “complementary” in any meaningful sense. The Vatican, like the Templeton Foundation, apparently wants to borrow some of the respectability of rational people and ways of thinking while maintaining its own anti-rational ways.

If they invite you to the party, I urge you to decline.

Atheists should be banned

Mar 18th, 2011 5:44 pm | By

I accidentally encountered a new (new to me) atheist-hater yesterday. Very unpleasant guy. I was curious so I followed the link to his blog, and found this winsome little essay.

Let me make a loud and clear statement that a James Lee or Jared Loughner type would or should understand. A secular humanist seeks to improve human welfare upon our planet while atheism is amoral and only claims to be a lack of belief. Isn’t it clear that these two men lack respect for human life? So they can rightfully call themselves atheists but should be denied entrance into a humanist organization. Yet the above humanist organizations welcome and recruit atheists who may or may not respect human life.

The Counsel for Secular Humanism and the American Humanists Association should immediately delineate their terms and deny atheists into their ranks. There is a difference between the terms atheist and humanist! Until the above Humanist organizations delineate their terms, they must defend the actions taken by the type of “nut jobs” that they would allow into their ranks! These “Humanist Organizations” have some explaining to do!

He’s saying atheists are likely murderers. And yet they laugh when we say atheists are a despised group! Funny, innit. (I don’t advise commenting there. The guy’s got a nasty mouth, and he’s not what you’d call scrupulous.)

You mean you’re not going to throw me out?

Mar 18th, 2011 5:16 pm | By

Greg Epstein, the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard, is rather too easily pleased.

Yesterday, the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships unveiled an unprecedented new initiative: The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge…for me and perhaps for millions of my fellow nonreligious Americans, there is one particularly historic and controversial aspect of the challenge that cannot be ignored. As with his other main speeches on interfaith cooperation, President Obama has gone out of his way to make clear that this initiative must be fully open to and inclusive [of] atheists, and agnostics, and Humanists.

Well, just for one thing, it can’t be. An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses. We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t. We shouldn’t be pretending there is nothing exclusive or particularist or antisecular about faith-based offices and faith-based challenges in and from a branch of government. I don’t feel included in Obama’s challenge. On the contrary; I feel very pointedly and explicitly not included. That’s one reason I (and many other people) think presidents shouldn’t have offices and challenges of that kind. It was Bush’s innovation, and Obama should have ditched it.

I can vouch for the fact that we have been included every step of the way; not only in big public moments like the inaugural speech shout-out to “nonbelievers”, but also behind the scenes. Last June, I was invited to visit the White House as part of a small gathering of University and college presidents, deans, chaplains, and interfaith student leaders to discuss the initial plans that led to this initiative.

Dude, you can’t vouch for that; “we” have not been included in a company of that kind; chaplains and interfaith student leaders: that doesn’t include us. You may have been included, and your “we” may have, but I haven’t.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist, took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others—and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance (I was joined by my good friend August Brunsman, Director of the Secular Student Alliance.) To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there. I felt chills—despite polls consistently showing atheists like us to be the least electable demographic group in the US, here was a key representative of the highest authority in the land, looking us in the eye, in public, and making it indisputably clear that our beliefs, our Humanist values, and our secular colleagues were every bit as American as anyone else.

“We” are allowed to tag along with the much larger group of normal people. That’s called tokenism, and it’s insulting. Epstein seems to have internalized so much of the routine atheist-phobia of the US that he all but bursts into tears just because he gets a name-check from a crowd of godbotherers. He’s way too easily pleased.