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.

Catholic thanatophilia, December 2010

Mar 16th, 2012 8:04 am | By

Some readers of the Texas Taliban post have expressed surprise that some rules against abortion can be downright murderous, so I thought I would go digging through the archive. I too was surprised in December 2010 to learn just exactly how explicitly murderous the policy of the Catholic church and in particular the US Conference of Catholic bishops actually is.

Here is one post on the subject (click on the link to the original to read the comments) -

December 28, 2010

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops insists on exactly the same murderous policy that the rebarbative bishop of Phoenix does. The CCB is very clear about it. The CCB doesn’t mess around.

“Surgery to terminate the life of an innocent person, however, is intrinsically wrong… Nothing, therefore, can justify a direct abortion. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”

No circumstance whatsover, including the circumstance that the fetus is already doomed and will not survive no matter what, can make it licit to remove the placenta to prevent the woman’s death, since it is contrary to something that does not exist.

The bishops don’t know that there is such a thing as “God” or that it exists or ever has existed. They don’t know what the “Law” of that “God” is. They know nothing whatsoever about it. They know they’ve been told things, but anyone can tell anyone anything, and often does. Mere telling is not enough, especially when ordering medical workers to let patients die on the authority of the telling.

The putative law of the putative God is not “written in every human heart.” It’s not written in mine, and the bishops have no business saying it is. They’re bullshitting, and they’re doing it in aid of backing up a rule that would let women die when they could be saved, on the grounds that their fetus can’t be saved too.

Defenders of this revolting policy are bullshitting, if not outright lying, too: they are calling this policy a “right to life” policy, but of course it’s not, because the whole point is that it kills a woman and a fetus instead of only a fetus. That’s not “pro-life.” This policy results in the death of an adult, not life for a fetus.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We don’t need altar boys

Mar 15th, 2012 4:18 pm | By

I know, I’m kind of spamming you, but there were all those days when there was only a placeholder or two, plus I keep finding things.

Like the Catholic church again forgetting that it’s supposed to occupy the moral high ground and revealing itself to be as brutally self-serving as any other set of thugs.

Turning the tables on an advocacy group that has long supported victims of pedophile priests, lawyers for the Roman Catholic Church and priests accused of sexual abuse in two Missouri cases have gone to court to compel the group to disclose more than two decades of e-mails that could include correspondence with victims, lawyers, whistle-blowers, witnesses, the police, prosecutors and journalists.

They could do something different you know. They could refrain from fighting back. They could refrain from “turning the tables.”

The network and its allies say the legal action is part of a campaign by the church to cripple an organization that has been the most visible defender of victims, and a relentless adversary, for more than two decades. “If there is one group that the higher-ups, the bishops, would like to see silenced,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and an advocate for victims of clergy sex crimes, “it definitely would be SNAP. And that’s what they’re going after. They’re trying to find a way to silence SNAP.”

Lawyers for the church and priests say they cannot comment because of a judge’s order. But William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a church advocacy group in New York, said targeting the network was justified because “SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church.”

Enter the arch-thug himself. SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church and therefore the church can and should fight just as dirty as it knows how. The Catholic church is all-important and the victims are just dirty little peasants getting in the way.

Mr. Donohue said leading bishops he knew had resolved to fight back more aggressively against the group: “The bishops have come together collectively. I can’t give you the names, but there’s a growing consensus on the part of the bishops that they had better toughen up and go out and buy some good lawyers to get tough. We don’t need altar boys.”

He said bishops were also rethinking their approach of paying large settlements to groups of victims. “The church has been too quick to write a check, and I think they’ve realized it would be a lot less expensive in the long run if we fought them one by one,” Mr. Donohue said.

Could it be any more ruthless and cynical? Could Donohue sound any more like an enforcer? Mind you, maybe that’s the fault of the Times for talking to him in the first place – he’s notoriously thuggish and his “League” is not a big organization, to put it mildly. Last time I looked it seemed to be a League of one, with Donohue interviewing himself and quoting himself in every press release. But then Donohue gets his way of thinking and talking and behaving from somewhere.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A triumph for the Texas Taliban

Mar 15th, 2012 2:54 pm | By

So there’s this couple in Texas looking forward to their second baby, a brother for their 2-year-old daughter.

Yet now my doctor was looking grim and, with chair pulled close, was speaking of alarming things. “I’m worried about your baby’s head shape,” she said. “I want you to see a specialist—now.”

My husband looked angry, and maybe I did too, but it was astonishment more than anger. Ours was a profound disbelief that something so bad might happen to people who think themselves charmed. We already had one healthy child and had expected good fortune to give us two.

Instead, before I’d even known I was pregnant, a molecular flaw had determined that our son’s brain, spine and legs wouldn’t develop correctly. If he were to make it to term—something our doctor couldn’t guarantee—he’d need a lifetime of medical care. From the moment he was born, my doctor told us, our son would suffer greatly.

And now you’re guessing the rest. You’re no fools; you didn’t miss the deadly “Texas” at the beginning.

Their doctor couldn’t do the abortion, because the hospital she’s affiliated with is Catholic (as so many hospitals, and more all the time, are). They had to go to a clinic. They went straight there.

My counselor said that the law required me to have another ultrasound that day, and that I was legally obligated to hear a doctor describe my baby. I’d then have to wait 24 hours before coming back for the procedure. She said that I could either see the sonogram or listen to the baby’s heartbeat, adding weakly that this choice was mine.

“I don’t want to have to do this at all,” I told her. “I’m doing this to prevent my baby’s suffering. I don’t want another sonogram when I’ve already had two today. I don’t want to hear a description of the life I’m about to end. Please,” I said, “I can’t take any more pain.” I confess that I don’t know why I said that. I knew it was fait accompli. The counselor could no more change the government requirement than I could. Yet here was a superfluous layer of torment piled upon an already horrific day, and I wanted this woman to know it.

But it couldn’t be helped.

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

When the description was finally over, the doctor held up a script and said he was legally obliged to read me information provided by the state. It was about the health dangers of having an abortion, the risks of infection or hemorrhage, the potential for infertility and my increased chance of getting breast cancer.

This is pure evil.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Oh now that’s really crafty

Mar 15th, 2012 2:18 pm | By

This is not good. This is not good at all. News from San Diego:

The U.S. Solicitor General Wednesday joined the appeal of a ruling that declared the Mt. Soledad cross unconstitutional, raising the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will accept the case.

The appeal of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeal ruling was filed last month by the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group specializing in religious rights.

That is to say, a group of lawyers specializing in attempts to frame theocratic power-grabs as “religious rights.”

Check out their front page (and note that the url is, and laugh inwardly at thoughts about Ayn Rand). Check out the big screaming headline

Help Save Our Veterans Memorials Today before they are Gone Tomorrow

and notice that the picture is of a gigantic cross – not a plain ol’ memorial, but a Very Large cross. Ponder the deceptiveness.

Image of Help Save Our Veterans Memorials Today before they are Gone Tomorrow

The ACLU and other atheist groups across the country are working to tear down America’s veterans memorials that contain religious imagery.

The Mt. Soledad Memorial Cross in San Diego is just one of many national tributes to veterans that are under attack. This memorial has been in litigation for more than 20 years because someone is offended that it is in the shape of a cross – a universal symbol of selfless service and sacrifice.

A universal symbol of selfless service and sacrifice – really – so Muslims and Jews and atheists all see the cross as a universal symbol of selfless service and sacrifice? No I don’t think so. I think they and we see it as a symbol of Christianity.

And Obama’s SG is siding with these people against the ACLU.


Surely not because they think it will win them friends on That Side while not losing them friends on This Side? Surely not because they’re making that stupid “savvy” mistake yet again?

But if that’s not why, then why? Principle? Tell that to Jessica Ahlquist.

I don’t know. It baffles me. It also pisses me off.

Update: Jason Torpy of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) asked me to include this very useful page on the subject.

Note this passage in particular:

On Mt Soledad in La Jolla, CA (near San Diego, CA, A huge cross was, make no mistake, put up in 1913 as an ‘Easter Cross’ on city land to promote Christianity.  In 1989, foxhole atheist Phil Paulson and others who objected to Christian promotion on public land, filed suit to have the cross removed.  Current plaintiffs include Steve Trunk, Jewish War Veterans of the USA, Inc, Richard A Smith, Mina Sagheb, Judith M Copeland

Christian and veterans organizations started putting up pictures of veterans to suggest the cross should stay.  They have had much success revising history to claim that this huge Christian monument had always been a war memorial.  This is a travesty perpetrated against all those who want their service honored, not re-purposed for as legal distractions for Christian privilege.  in 2005, facing court-ordered removal of the cross for being what it is, a promotion of Christianity on public land, the land immediately under the cross was transferred to federal control.

So it wasn’t originally a war memorial at all; I hadn’t understood that from the channel 10 story. The theocrats are just pretending it’s always been a war memorial. Creeps.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Tidying up

Mar 15th, 2012 10:03 am | By

A few last notes on QED.

I was doing talk-prep at the start of the morning Saturday so I missed most of a talk on the European werewolf, but I did make it to excellent talks by Steve Jones and David Aaronovitch. (I never met either of them, alas. This event was a big success, so there were a lot of people, so it was impossible to meet everyone.) In the afternoon Richard Saunders did a great talk about being a tv skeptic and how to fake the power balance bracelet demonstration. (It’s simple. First you exert pressure on the subject in a way guaranteed to tip her over, then when she’s put on the bracelet you exert pressure on her in a way guaranteed not to tip her over.)

In the evening there was a gala dinner. (I felt like Jet-setty Glam Social Party-going Globetrotter Person, I can tell you, reflecting on the fact that the previous Saturday I was sitting between Liz Cornwell and PZ Myers, with Dan Dennett two places away and Russell Blackford across the table, at a gala dinner, and here I was the following Saturday at another gala dinner. I’m not usually Glam Globetrotter Person, to put it mildly.) There was one of those posh desserts with three parts, one part being something in a shot glass. The something was Mento Vimto, which is a Manchester specialty, a raspberry cordial type of thing. It’s really good. Well done Manchester. There was a prize-giving. There was comedy: Robin Ince and a local fella called Alun Cochrane, who’s funny as hell. Well done Manchester again.

Edzard Ernst did a talk Sunday morning. He neither likes nor approves of Prince Chahls. (I never met him either. Another alas.) (No regrets though. The event was a success. That’s the important thing!)

Maryam talked a little bit about Julian in her talk: about apologetic backing-away atheism and Julian as an example of it. Author and I exchanged some knowing looks.

Deafening applause when she finished. Geoff went up onstage and said that was the longest applause of any talk at the event. Maryam was the star of the whole thing.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Currently in the news

Mar 15th, 2012 7:42 am | By

In Morocco on Saturday, a girl of 16 killed herself by swallowing rat poison. She was raped when she was 15, and then forced to marry her rapist.

Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code allows for the “kidnapper” of a minor to marry his victim to escape prosecution, and it has been used to justify a traditional practice of making a rapist marry his victim to preserve the honor of the woman’s family.

“Amina, 16, was triply violated, by her rapist, by tradition and by Article 475 of the Moroccan law,” tweeted activist Abadila Maaelaynine.

Abdelaziz Nouaydi, who runs the Adala Assocation for legal reform, said a judge can recommend marriage only in the case of agreement by the victim and both families.

Oh yes agreement by the victim; that’s all right then. It’s just like sharia “courts” in the UK, which (as Maryam pointed out with withering scorn at QED on Sunday) require the consent of both parties. That is bullshit. The “agreement” and the “consent” cannot possibly be considered reliable. It’s as if there were laws saying it’s ok to murder people as long as they consent.

“It is not something that happens a great deal — it is very rare,” he said, but admitted that the family of the victim sometimes agrees out of fear that she won’t be able to find a husband if it is known she was raped.

The marriage is then pushed on the victim by the families to avoid scandal, said Fouzia Assouli, president of Democratic League for Women’s Rights.

So what you get is not “agreement” by the victim; you get the victim being victimized all over again, but this time for life. Amina Filali decided to cut that victimization short, the only way she could.

The victim’s father said in an interview with an online Moroccan newspaper that it was the court officials who suggested from the beginning the marriage option when they reported the rape.

“The prosecutor advised my daughter to marry, he said ‘go and make the marriage contract,’” said Lahcen Filali in an interview that appeared on Tuesday night.

Which makes perfect sense if you think the victim’s genitals belong to her family while her own hopes and wishes have nothing to do with anything. On the other hand it makes no sense at all if you think the victim is a person herself and thus that forcing her to live with the man who violently assaulted her is pretty much the worst thing anyone could do to her.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Lord Justice Laws

Mar 14th, 2012 4:40 pm | By

Geoff Whelan at QED recommended to me Lord Justice Laws’s judgement in McFarlane v Relate Avon Limited. It’s a joy to read, he said, so I read it. It is.

The case is the guy who was dismissed for refusing to provide sex counselling to gay couples even though that was part of his job. He claimed religious discrimination. George Carey, the retired archbishop of Canterbury who now writes for the Daily Mail, gave a witness statement.

10. The description of religious faith in relation to sexual ethics as ‘discriminatory’ is crude; and illuminates a lack of sensitivity to religious belief. The Christian message of ‘love’ does not demean or disparage any individual (regardless of sexual orientation); the desire of the Christian is to limit self destructive conduct by those of any sexual orientation and ensure the eternal future of an individual with the Lord.

11. The field of sexual ethics and Christian (and other religious) teaching on this subject is a field of complex theology for debate by the Church and other religious institutions. The vast majority of the more than 2 billion Christians would support the views held by Ms Ladele. The descriptive word ‘discriminatory’ is unbefitting and it is regrettable that senior members of the Judiciary feel able to make such disparaging comments.

12. The comparison of a Christian, in effect, with a ‘bigot’ (ie a person with an irrational dislike to homosexuals) begs further questions. It is further evidence of a disparaging attitude to the Christian faith and its values. In my view, the highest development of human spirituality is acceptance of Christ as saviour and adherence to Christian values. This cannot be seen by the Courts of this land as comparable to the base and ignorant behaviour. My heart is in anguish at the spiritual state of this country.

Right. Christians can’t be bigots, because they’re Christians, which is the highest development of spirituality, so that couldn’t possibly be the same as bigotry, because it’s higher. The courts of that land have to see it that way. They have to, I tell you.

I appeal to the Lord Chief Justice to establish a specialist Panel of Judges designated to hear cases engaging religious rights. Such Judges should have a proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues and I would be supportive of Judges of all faiths and denominations being allocated to such a Panel. The Judges engaged in the cases listed above should recuse themselves from further adjudication on such matters as they have made clear their lack of knowledge about the Christian faith.

So that Christians can do whatever they want to without anyone saying that’s bigotry, because the specialist judges will already think what we want them to think, because they have proven sensitivity and understanding and we know what they will rule.

Lord Justice Laws…

the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law; but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

Now here’s a funny thing. I Googled the case to make sure the judgement is online so that it would be ok for me to quote from it. One of the top items on the search was…

A post by our friend Eric on this very subject in January 2011. I remember reading it at the time, and finding it a joy to read.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

More strident shrill atheism

Mar 14th, 2012 3:34 pm | By

A high school in Iowa got a Christian rock band to come to the school to tell the students some good stuff, but it didn’t work out as well as the school expected. (Secularism? What secularism? We don’t do no stinkin’ secularism round here.)

Everyone anticipated the message from Junkyard Prophet, a traveling band  based in Minnesota, to be about bullying and making good choices. Instead,  junior and senior high students at Dunkerton High School and faculty members  said they were assaulted by the group’s extreme opinions on homosexuality and  images of aborted fetuses.

“They told my daughter, the girls, that they were going to have mud on their  wedding dresses if they weren’t virgins,” said Jennifer Littlefield, a parent upset with the band’s performance.

Well, you see, this is one reason some people think secularism is the way to go when it comes to education; it’s so that god-bothering lunatics won’t be telling students vicious bullshit of that kind.

…the group apparently changed and misrepresented its total message going into  Thursday’s appearance.

After performing, the group separated boys, girls and teachers in the  building.

During the breakout session, the young men learned the group’s thoughts on  the U.S. Constitution and what one Prophet referred to as its “10 commandments.”  The leader also showed images of musicians who died because of drug overdoses,  including Elvis Presley.

Members of the group blasted other performers, like Toby Keith, for their  improper influence.

The girls, meanwhile, were told to save themselves for their husbands and  assume a submissive role in the household. According to witnesses, the leader in  that effort also forced the young ladies to chant a manta of sorts about  remaining pure.

Those who walked out or attempted to confront the speakers were shouted down  or ridiculed as disrespectful, according to students.

The Taliban comes to Iowa!




(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Who wrote this crap?

Mar 14th, 2012 11:01 am | By

An attendee at QED, Al Johnston, posted a pic of me doing my talk on my Facebook page today. It’s quite amusing and characteristic, so with his permission I made it my profile pic. (Note that it’s copyright, so don’t copy it anywhere without asking him – not that you’d want to, but you know.)

(C)2012 Al Johnston, all rights reserved

Anyway – that’s very me.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Keep your little pulses

Mar 14th, 2012 10:45 am | By


Melvyn Bragg?! I liked Melvyn Bragg; I think In Our Time is a great thing and I wish we had anything nearly as good in the US. But this is a nasty, ragey, wrong, silly outburst.

What he says about reason is ridiculous, for a start. He begins with a superfluous and venomous announcement that Hume is a much better philosopher than Dawkins, then goes on to argue from authority that Hume said so ha. He also misunderstands what Hume said (which must have been calculated; he’s bound to know better).

Here’s my transcript of that part:

He uses reason to destroy Christianity, and says that reason says there is no all-good god – that’s fine. Reason says there are no miracles; that’s fine; but one has to challenge his view of reason: David Hume, who is immeasurably a greater philosopher than Richard Dawkins could ever dream of being, put reason second in the scheme of things. We start with emotions, and passions, and feelings, the roots of which we don’t know, and perhaps we’ll never know; after that reason comes in to steer and sort them; it’s not the primary source of knowledge. Things come to us outside reason: intimations of love, surprised by joy, little pulses that we don’t know where they come from…

“In the scheme of things” – what does that mean? “We start with” – start what? “Things come to us” – what things? What kinds of things? What about them?

He’s either bullshitting or totally confused, and since he’s a knowledgeable guy, I’m guessing he’s bullshitting. Yes feelings are important; yes we mostly don’t rely on reason; no it is not therefore the case that emotions and feelings are reliable sources of knowledge. He implies that they are. I call bullshit.

Later he spits out a venomous attack on the claim that the bible is not an anti-slavery pamphlet, and again he just gets things wrong.

I’m a bit shocked. I would have thought Bragg was above this kind of cheap bullying.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Definitely disgusting Bren

Mar 14th, 2012 9:18 am | By

More showoffy pseudo-knowing ”contrarianism” from Brendan O’Neill. This time it’s the daring dangerous idea that libbruls don’t give a shit about gay marriage itself, they just like having a shibboleth to filter out the unhip masses.

The speed and ease with which gay marriage has gone from being a tiny minority concern to become the No 1 battle in the modern culture wars has been truly remarkable – and revealing.

What it suggests is that gay marriage is more a tool of the elite than it is a demand of the demos. The thing motoring the gay-marriage campaign, its political engine, is not any longstanding desire among homosexuals to get married or an active, passionate demand from below for the right of men to marry men and women to marry women. No, its driving force, the reason it has been so speedily and heartily embraced by the political and media classes, is because it is so very useful as a litmus test of liberal, cosmopolitan values. Supporting gay marriage has become a kind of shorthand way of indicating one’s superiority over the hordes, particularly those of a religious or redneck persuasion.

Notice, first, how lightly and unapologetically he moves from “it suggests that” to ”is.” Notice the initial admission that he’s interpreting as opposed to drawing on actual knowledge, and then notice how quickly and completely he abandons that polite caution for the comfortable note of certainty and its attendant air of omniscience. Then notice how sneery and condescending the whole thing is. We could all do the same thing with him, couldn’t we – what Brendan O’Neill’s relentlessly illiberal commentary suggests is that he loves attention.

More important, third, notice that it doesn’t matter. Even if he’s right, it doesn’t matter; even if people support gay marriage for trendy self-regarding reasons, it doesn’t matter, because it’s still the case that there’s no good secular reason to forbid it in law and there are plenty of good secular reasons to allow it. Notice that it does make a real difference to real people. Notice that all this patronizing palm-reading is in aid of rebuking a move that would make a lot of people’s lives better and hurt no one.

The use of gay marriage as a platform from which to announce one’s superior moral sensibilities can be seen in the way that its backers, those ostensibly liberal reformers, look down with undiluted snobbery upon their critics and opponents. Those who are against gay marriage, whether it is Catholic bishops or conservative politicians, are not seen simply as old-fashioned or wrong-headed, but as morally circumspect, possibly even evil.

Morally circumspect? What can he have meant? Compromised? How sad, and how sad that the piece is a week old and no one has corrected that. Not very circumspect of them. But anyway – this is the bit where O’Neill gets downright perverse. Catholic bishops and conservative politicians are the kind of powerless disadvantaged marginalized people who are the victims of snobbery? Are you kidding me? Here’s a newsflash for Brendan O’Neill: Catholic bishops and conservative politicians have power, lots of it. They have the kind of real power that can fuck up or improve people’s lives. In the case of the bishops, the power is wholly illegitimate, unaccountable, and theocratic. It’s typical spiked/Institute of Ideas absurdity to try to paint them as the disadvantaged proles being bullied by the libbrul elites.

The bizarre emptying-out of political debate from the issue of gay marriage, and its transformation instead into a clear-cut moral matter that separates the good from the bad, shows what its backers really get out of it – a moral buzz, a rush of superiority as they declare, to anyone who will listen, that they are For Gay Marriage. In this sense, supporting gay marriage has become less a declaration of truly democratic instincts and more a kind of provocation. In declaring your support for gay marriage, you can provoke both fusty old religionists and the backward masses into expressions of disagreement or disgruntlement, and then bask in the glow of your own superior, better-informed outlook.

This is the reason gay marriage has become so central to modern political debate in America and Britain, despite there being almost no societal drive or urge behind it – because it lends itself brilliantly to expressions of a very elitist sensibility. It allows the upper echelons of society both to distance themselves from the old and the thick and to advertise their own mental, cultural and moral superiority.

Disgusting man. Playing stupid footling games with other people’s rights – and accusing other people of basking “in the glow of your own superior, better-informed outlook” in the process! He’s disgusting.

Update: forgot to h/t Sigmund.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Does truth matter?

Mar 13th, 2012 3:33 pm | By

Another chapter of Heathen’s Progress from Julian. The gist is that atheism is currently overcompensating for the stupid idea that atheism is nihilism and despair, by claiming that atheism is chocolates and a stipulated number of either raisins or virgins, and that this is a bad move because life can be shit and godlessness can’t help much with that.

Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn’t the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying everyday as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that’s all there is to it.

Yes, but there’s an extra step there. The parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression may find the belief that god will redeem it all later a comfort…but then again they may find the belief that god allowed it to happen, or worse, deliberately caused it to happen, the opposite of a comfort. You can’t have the first without the ever-present risk of the second. That’s the big trap in theism: it can always turn on you. That can be far worse than thinking life is shit. It’s a nightmare idea, and it’s something atheists don’t have to fear. (Or not much. I suppose there’s always the possibility of a late or deathbed conversion to the belief that there is a god and it enjoys torturing us…but without the wishful thinking motivation, it seems pretty remote. Gnostics do believe that but they also believe that there’s a good god, outside the world with all its badness.)

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced.


I’m not sure that’s quite right. Suppose instead of “simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that” we swapped “that there is a malevolent torturing God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that” – would the claim still be true? I have my doubts. I think getting these things right is important, but then in a way that’s relatively easy, because it doesn’t involve “full recognition” that we’re the puppets of a monster. If getting things right meant full recognition that we are to god as fleas are to humans, I’m not a bit sure I would be very keen on getting things right.

Atheism is about getting things right but it’s also about getting free of a bossy demanding god invented by other humans. If it weren’t about that, it would (surely) be less attractive. (Less attractive than what? It’s not all that attractive in the US, is it! No it’s not, but I’m pointing out a way it could be even less attractive, and less attractive even to people who like atheism as commonly understood.)

So I’m not sure it’s really true that to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that. I think that’s part of it, but also that it’s combined with the fact that no-god is vastly less horrible and frightening than evil-god.

It’s a slightly disconcerting thought. If there were an evil god running the show, and if that were an obvious undeniable fact – a properly basic belief, as you might say – then I might well be a big fan of obstinate wishful thinking.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Is she doing her job in a satisfactory fashion?

Mar 13th, 2012 12:06 pm | By

Jerry Coyne has an interesting post about Jennifer Wiseman, who heads the  “Dialogue on Science, Religion, and Ethics” (DoSER) program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific organization in the world.

I was recently informed (by someone likely to know) that the top people at AAAS are all Christians. I didn’t realize this – or possibly I once did and forgot it.

As I’ve posted before, DoSER is sponsored by not only the AAAS, but by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Smithsonian Institution. These are government organizations, so some of your tax dollars may be going to support a brand of theology. And, of course, the whole shebang is funded by the Templeton Foundation to the tune of 5.3 million dollars.

Not just a brand of theology but a particular, and bad, epistemology. Tax dollars are going to support claims that “faith” can know things just as science can know things, but by a different methodology or “way.” Really. If that claim is true, then it would seem reasonable for tax dollars to finance bridges built according to faith, medical research conducted according to faith, agricultural technology discovered by faith. Tax dollars pretty much don’t do that though (except when they do, as with “complementary” medicine). Why is that? Because “faith” is not in fact a way of knowing. Therefore, tax dollars shouldn’t be used to support claims that it is. Lying should be left to the private sphere.

DoSER is headed by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Project Scientist in charge of the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, and, notably, the former head and now Executive Board member of the American Scientific Affiliation,  an association of evangelical Christian scientists.   The organization is pretty hard-line, for it takes some bizarre stands for an organization of scientists, especially one that includes Wiseman with her AAAS program meant to reconcile the truths of modern science with the beliefs of the faithful.  The problem is that the ASA doesn’t seem to accept those truths:

  • According to their website, “The ASA has no official position on evolution; its members hold a diversity of views with varying degrees of intensity.”

A “diversity of views”? With “degrees of intensity”? It’s all about holding views with degrees of intensity, and nothing to do with cumulative evidence? It’s just a matter of opinion? That’s the kind of faithy stuff that’s totes compatible with science?

JC sums up:

[Either Wiseman should] resign from the ASA, or the AAAS should find someone less embarrassing to head their accommodationist program. Actually, they should deep-six this execrable Templet0n-funded program, for its science “outreach” explicitly endorses a form of theology.

A very odd comment says

I cannot resist. Disclaimer: I am not a Christian. Questions:

(1) Is Wiseman performing her duties at NASA in a satisfactory and secular fashion?

(2) Do her religious beliefs literally interfere (not presumed, suspected or anticipated)with those duties?

If “yes” and “no”, where is the “disgrace” and why the prurient interest in her personal beliefs, writings and activities?

NASA has nothing to do with anything, but let’s assume it was a typo for AAAS; the comment is still very odd. No, of course Wiseman is not performing her duties at AAAS in a satisfactory and secular fashion; that’s the point. You can’t advance science by promoting a worthless epistemology. You can’t advance science in a secular fashion by promoting a worthless epistemology on the grounds that it is religious and therefore special and different but nonetheless reliable. You can’t advance science by running a program that says it’s compatible with bullshit. That doesn’t advance science.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Mar 13th, 2012 10:34 am | By

More about QED later, but meanwhile, something I missed while packing – Afghanistan’s Ulema Council issued a statement outlining “the rights and duties of women under Islam” and Karzai backed it. Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch reports:

The statement said some good things. It prohibited a traditional practice of giving a girl to another family to resolve a dispute (“baad”). It spoke against forced marriage. It confirmed women’s rights to inherit and own property.

On women’s duties, however, the statement took a turn for the worse: Women should not travel without a male chaperone. Women should not mix with men while studying, or working, or in public. Women must wear the Islamic hijab. Women are secondary to men.
The last item is the most striking one, in a way, if only because the others are already familiar. Clerics and their stooges in other religions have learned not to admit that that last item is what underpins all the others; they pretend to think and affirm that women are equal to men but complementary, as opposed to unequal to men because “secondary.” They don’t mean a word of it, but they’ve learned to say it. Ulema Councils haven’t, and don’t plan to.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Nope, still too strident

Mar 13th, 2012 8:07 am | By

Now to tell you all about it. I realize the one place-holding “post” I did on the subject was just that, a place-holder. There was no need for the slightly acid comment telling me so.

I think I’ll do it in parts, and not necessarily in chronological order. So I think I’ll start with Sunday, with late Sunday morning. I did a panel with Maryam and D. J. Grothe, moderated (and also participated in by [yes you can end a clause with not one but two prepositions]) Paula Kirby. It was both fun and interesting. When it was over people drifted up to the table to talk, and among them was my good friend whom I had never met, Author of Jesus and Mo. I was expecting him, because we’d talked about it beforehand, but I naturally couldn’t mention it publicly beforehand. Paula took us out to lunch along with Rhys and Paul Morgan. (Alas Maryam had disappeared, no doubt to prepare for her talk in a post-lunch slot.) I felt a bit self-pinchy the whole time. I spent most of January blogging about J and M and much of that time blogging about Rhys-and-JandM.

(You know, FTB is about to add a very exciting blogger. No no not Author, not Rhys, not Paula – not anyone I’ve mentioned. But very exciting. Now is not a good time for you to wander far. Stay tuned.)

Author and I went to Maryam’s talk, which was great (as I knew it would be). One of her illustrations was the latest J and M, which Author was surprised to see; he took a picture with his phone. That was another self-pinchy moment – here’s me and Author at Maryam’s talk and there are J and M on the screen and here’s Author taking a picture of his own strip and Maryam talking about it.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Get me, I have a hand

Mar 13th, 2012 5:38 am | By

I’m back. I had a sensational time. Here’s a photo I saw via Twitter of me telling everyone what’s what.

Update: the photo is Adam Lappin’s; he has a whole post on the talk, along with posts on many other QED talks. (No one person can have posts on all of them because there were usually two going on at once.)

It occurs to me that it may not be strictly necessary to wear one’s badge while giving a talk. Typical. One minute I forget to take it with me and have to go back to 1224 to get it, the next minute I’m wearing it in the shower. You just can’t get it right, can you Basil.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Mar 10th, 2012 11:11 am | By

Saturday, just after 6 in the evening. I gave my talk at 1. Met Maryam last night, also Paula Kirby, and Rhys Morgan, and Alex Gabriel.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Good morning from Manchester

Mar 9th, 2012 1:16 am | By

I am here.

The clouds broke up enough on the short flight to Manchester so that I could get a good look at the Pennines – they’re beautiful!

Manchester Town Hall lives up to its reputation. Also there’s Sackville Hall, part of the University of Manchester, just across the canal from the central downtown area – some drop-dead gorgeous Victoriana. The doors were locked (it was after 6) so I couldn’t go in to gape at the amazing stained glass and ceiling decorations; I plan to go back today and do that.

Geoff and Rick took me along to their Skeptics in the Pub yesterday evening – an excellent talk on Burzynski. Unfortunately the jet lag kicked in and I kept falling asleep – but now that I’m not exhausted any more I’m glad I went.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The mountain is out

Mar 7th, 2012 4:56 pm | By

Lucky you: another pointless I’m at the airport post. Can’t be helped – I was early, having over-estimated how long it takes via bus-and-train (despite having done it before), and the plane is running half an hour late. I just saw it pull in, as a matter of fact.

But I’m not fussed. I was very calm and un-irritable all the way here, and I still am. I’m in a very peaceful sitting area with chairs and tables and a killer view of Mount Rainier, which is on view today despite general cloudiness. (Rainier is seldom on view, and Seattleites tend to notice when it is.)

SeaTac is being a great deal pleasanter than LAX was.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Anoint all the roads with holy oil

Mar 7th, 2012 10:48 am | By

Almost time to leave for Manchester (well not really almost – about four hours). Meanwhile, some more detail about Orlando.

One of the first talks was EllenBeth Wachs, who explained what’s been going on in Polk County, Florida. Theocracy, that’s what. The mayor of Lakeland and the Polk County sheriff are involved in something called Polk Under Prayer.

They and others got together and anointed all the roads that border the county, announcing that non-believers should be either arrested or shoved out of the county.

EllenBeth is president of Florida Atheists; she wrote a letter to an official about an illegal transfer of sports equipment from a jail (publicly funded) to a church. She was arrested and handcuffed, and her two employees were held at gunpoint. She was arrested twice more. The details are lurid and horrible. Natalie Rothschild would do well to study them. The whole thing is both shocking and frightening.

Rita Swan gave a fantastic talk about her work to end religious exemptions for child health care.

There is a Victims page. One of them was Rita’s own child.

Lionel Tiger’s talk was in the afternoon. It was about “male original sin” – everything men do is bad in some way, now that feminism has turned everything upside down. Schools drug all the boys with Ritalin so that they sit there passively like girls. Plus there was the pill, which meant that when men went into bars, all the women were chemically pregnant, which is a turnoff. Plus women don’t have any use for men now. Plus some other things, all equally random. Plus women can just go out and get money and status any time they want to, and men can’t. Plus more random things.

This caused a good deal of rage, I found out afterwards. I found it kind of funny – I suppose because it seemed like such a parody, and so calculated to insult. But in sober truth, it was not a very good talk, because it had no structure at all. It was just some things, offered one after another, with no attempt to get from one to the next in any way other than jumping.

I have to go do some packing type things now.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)