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.

A little epistemic humility would go a long way

Jun 19th, 2009 4:10 pm | By

Jerry Coyne quoted Tom Clark the other day; I want to quote another passage from the same article, ‘Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First’.

Of course, many non-empirically based convictions are relatively harmless as guides to behavior so long as they’re confined to our private lives. Beliefs in god, astrology, psychic powers, cosmic consciousness and so forth can be the epistemic equivalent of victimless crimes. But the presumption of such beliefs – that there are reliable alternatives to empiricism – isn’t so benign when carried into the public arena…To imagine that one’s worldview, whether religious or secular, is beyond disconfirmation helps to license an absolutism which brooks no dissent and countenances the demonization of those with different ideas…A little epistemic humility would go a long way toward reducing the ideological tribalism underlying the culture wars. (What’s ironic is that populist suspicion of bi-coastal know-it-alls gets it precisely backwards: empiricists are just those who realize they don’t know it all.

The whole article is an excellent antidote to all the muddle about naturalism and supernaturalism and methdological versus philosophical naturalism that’s been splashing around lately, ever since Chris Mooney got the urge to lecture Jerry Coyne on civility to theists. Enjoy.

About that book

Jun 19th, 2009 10:59 am | By

Meanwhile, there is this book we wrote. Bunting purports to be criticizing it, but in fact what she is doing is yanking out particular sentences that caught her attention and flailing at them in isolation, as opposed to understanding them in context. This is stupid, and uninformative, and misleading. That’s why I call her reckless. It’s so easy to point out how thoroughly she misrepresents the book. (How does she square that with her Catholic conscience, one wonders?)

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar. How about this from the conclusion to her book: “religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide…” ?

The page in question is 177, the penultimate page of the book; it’s the peroration. The final chapter is intense, but it is intense in a context. It starts, as mentioned, with the public murder of a raped child by people who said ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. It goes on to point out that that is a kind of God that all too many people believe in, and that that’s a terrible thing. It then says

Religion doesn’t necessarily originate ideas about female subordination and male authority, but it does justify them, it does lend them a penumbra of righteousness, and it does make them ‘sacred’ and thus a matter for outrage if anyone disputes them. It does enable and assist and flatter moods of intolerance for all those who seek to challenge cultural and religious values and religious abuse of power. It does turn reformers and challengers into enemies of God.

Used in this way religion is like a matrix, a nutrient, a super-vitamin. It doesn’t necessarily invent, but it amplifies, and nourishes, and protects. Religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide that destroys some insect species only to let others, freed from predators and competition, explode. It’s like an antibiotic that kills some strains of bacteria only to help resistant strains thrive and flourish.

You see? Bunting ignored the first paragraph and thus distorted what was being said.

Or from the same page, “Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals.”

Again (and on the same page, too) she has left out the paragraph that precedes the line she doesn’t like. The preceding paragraph leads into the whited sepulchre bit.

It’s also a kind of protective colouring. There is no very compelling reason left to treat particular groups of people as inferior. It used to be possible (just barely) to think that human groups were literally and essentially different in some way profound enough to justify inequality, but it isn’t possible any longer. All that’s left is a literalist idea of God’s will along with a conviction that God’s will must not be disputed or disobeyed. Without that, a defence of unequal rights just looks like what it is – a frank defence of injustice. This puts religion in the uncomfortable position of being that which puts lipstick on a pig.

That is uncomfortable but it is exactly the position religion is in. Religion, in the hands of the literalist defenders of God’s putative will, is in the business of dressing up what would otherwise obviously be tired old prejudices and hatreds and plain exploitation, and making them seem vaguely respectable. Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals, the executioner in white tie and tails.

One could still think and say that that’s too strong or harsh or intense, but with the context at least it’s clear what is being claimed. Bunting’s quote-mining just makes it look like vulgar abuse, which of course was the idea.

It’s not that Benson doesn’t have a point, it’s that she overstates it with such crudeness and lack of insight that I’m staggered anyone wants to publish it. Except that I know publishers with a keen eye on the bottom line will publish anything and atheism sells – it feeds a public appetite for outrage. I just think it’s profoundly intellectually dishonest to feed that kind of outrage – there is no attempt here to open people’s minds, only fuel their indignation.

Publishers will publish anything, and so will newspapers, apparently. Be that as it may – the significant point here is that we did indeed want to arouse, if not feed, public outrage. You bet we did. That was the goal. That goal is not at odds with opening people’s minds – we wanted to open people’s minds to some neglected facts and to some connections among things. Bunting perhaps means by ‘open people’s minds’ something more along the lines of ‘persuade people that all religions are kind and compassionate really and all the cruelty and injustice is just a superficial dusting on top that can easily be swept away’ – but we don’t see it that way, so we didn’t want to open people’s minds in that particular way. But then Bunting doesn’t seem to want to open people’s minds in the sense we mean it, either. We did and do want to arouse outrage, and we do not think there is anything remotely intellectually dishonest about that, and I at least would love to know why Bunting thinks there is.

I think, rather, that she is the intellectually dishonest one. I think she is intellectually dishonest for instance when she says of course religions can change, the Anglican church has begun ordinating women – when she herself is a Catholic and the Catholic church not only does not ordinate women, it treats the ordination of women as a crime deserving excommunication. That’s intellectual dishonesty if you like.

I just wanted to set the record straight. Of course Bunting distorted the record on a large forum and I’m setting it straight on a small one – but we do what we can do.

Bunting replies

Jun 18th, 2009 5:59 pm | By

Well, the discussion was winding down (or I thought it was), and I was going to leave Bunting in peace…but then she finally posted a comment (and the discussion didn’t wind down after all), so the peace idea was premature. What did she say? Did she admit that she had quote-mined? Did she explain why she is so furious at my (our) putative stridency instead of being furious at the men who murdered a raped teenager while saying ”We will do what Allah has instructed us’? Did she explain what has happened to her since she was so shocked by the Ryan report? Did she apologize for calling me strident, preposterous, crude, lacking in insight, profoundly intellectually dishonest, hysterical, and bizarre?

No. She didn’t do any of that. On the contrary – far from apologizing for calling me a long list of bad things, she complained of ‘personal abuse’ herself. It seems it’s all right for her to call me rude names but not okay for other people to call her rude names. Why would that be, exactly?

For those who loathe my writing I suggest you don’t read it. That’s the point about a newspaper/website. You get to choose what you read… so I don’t understand the personal abuse. Of course there are plenty of people who think I write rubbish – I got that message off CiF long ago. So what.

So what…Well, so they’re right, that’s so what. ‘Plenty of people’ aren’t always right, of course, but they are about this. Bunting does write rubbish, and not only that; she writes personally vituperative, inaccurate, sloppy, careless, reckless rubbish. Bunting writes badly and behaves badly and my opinion of her sinks lower all the time. There is no floor under this opinion, it turns out; it can just keep on sinking forever.

I think outrage about injustice is entirely appropriate, and Benson and I would be completely on the same side about the despicable way patriarchal societies have treated women the world over. But I strongly argue that in a small world where we are jostling up against all kinds of different belief systems, we need to understand something of why religion is still such a powerful impulse in human nature, why it is such a major influence in many parts of the world – as John Mickelthwait’s new book, ‘God is Back’ argues. Does Benson bring insight into that urgent task? I fear not.

That’s interesting, but as I said in reply, she didn’t argue that on Night Waves or in her article, so it’s a bit late to bring it up in a comment two days later.

So that’s that. As I’ve said – I knew she was as woolly as any flock of sheep you might want to meet, but I didn’t know she was so malicious or so reckless. Now I do.

If only it were Lyme Regis

Jun 17th, 2009 9:54 am | By

Imagine being confined to a flat in Bournemouth for 24 hours.

Gordon and Dena Coleman said they cannot leave or enter their Bournemouth flat on the Sabbath because the hallway sensors automatically switch on lights. The couple’s religious code bans lights and other electrical equipment being switched on during Jewish holidays. They have now issued a county court writ claiming religious discrimination. They also claim breach of their rights under the Equality Act 2006 and Human Rights Act 1998 and the case is due to be heard at Bournemouth County Court next month.

Religious discrimination – how does that work? People trying to live in a reasonably efficient way (using light sensors instead of having the lights on 24 hours a day) amounts to religious discrimination simply because two other people have some inane antiquated meaningless pettifogging stupid interfering tedious code that says they can’t switch the lights on? Why is it not religious discrimination for the people with the stupid code to interfere with the convenience of everyone else for the sake of a stupid code? I would like to know.

In a letter to the other residents, the couple said they sought legal help because the sensor lights meant they would never again have full use of their flat.

But that’s only because they choose to be childish and slavish and fat-headed enough to obey an inane antiquated meaningless pettifogging stupid interfering tedious code instead of just ignoring it like sensible rational adults. They could act like grown ups, or they could go on acting like children but only as it affects themselves – but to insist on acting like children at the expense of all their neighbours is just…presumptuous.

Piety in action

Jun 17th, 2009 9:40 am | By

Time has passed. Clocks have ticked. The sun has set and then risen again. Meals have been eaten and digested, tv shows have been watched, teeth have been brushed, dogs have scratched, water has flowed under the bridge. Time has passed and people have urged Madeleine Bunting to answer the many criticisms her article has received. No answer has been forthcoming.

All this really is quite interesting. I knew Bunting was a determined apologist for religion and that she was not very good at making her case – but that was all I knew. It has now been forced on my attention that she’s really a fairly unpleasant character. She is, at least, willing to call someone a long string of harsh names on a public forum and then refuse to reply to dissenters. She has sunk herself in my esteem. She has not behaved well. She is not a good ambassador for her religion.

Bunting expands on her point

Jun 16th, 2009 12:25 pm | By

Madeleine Bunting returns to her claim that I am strident, adding a good deal more abuse for good measure.

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar.

No, it isn’t. It isn’t peculiar at all. I think theism and theistic ways of thinking do real and terrible harm. I think it’s Bunting’s blindness or indifference to that which is really peculiar. In order to be so mystified by my intensity, she has to simply ignore or disbelieve the horrors in the book which are explicitly and avowedly done in the name of a god. She has read the book, apparently, since she quotes some bits that she considers ‘strident’ – so she can’t claim that she was unaware of the incidents. To take just one – the one that leads up to the bits she quotes – there is the stoning to death of a 13-year-old girl who said three men had raped her, in Kismayu, Somalia, last October.

A witness told the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme that the girl had been crying, pleading for her life, and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning.

“When she came out she said: ‘What do you want from me?’”

“They said: ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. She said: ‘I’m not going, I’m not going. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’

“A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.”

The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was “awful”.

So – in light of the fact that the executioners said ”We will do what Allah has instructed us,’ what exactly is it that Bunting finds peculiar? How would she like people to react to that? Casually? Ironically? Temperately?

I don’t know. I don’t understand Madeleine Bunting. I don’t understand her show of incomprehension. I don’t understand what she’s playing at.

But the most extraordinary claim was “religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion which backs them up”. Really? Surely the “last great prop” is overstating it? Injustice is rife all over the world and much of it makes no reference to religion. Take North Korea: where’s the religion there? Or Burma last autumn: there, religion, in the form of hundreds of Buddhist monks were leading the protests against the rule of the Burmese generals. It was precisely the opposite of what Benson is claiming: religion proved the most effective inspiration to resist arbitrary injustice. And that has been true of many other places in the world – does Benson not study her history books? – how can she make sense of the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Archbishop Desmond Tutu without the religions which inspired them to campaign against arbitrary injustice? I simply don’t understand how someone can claim to be a serious philosopher (as Benson does) and who writes books on subjects such as Why the truth matters can make such preposterous statements.

It would help if she had kept in mind the sentences that immediately precede the one she quotes -

It is true, of course, that sometimes good things are done in the name of religion. There were religious motivations for opposing the slave trade (although that required ignoring many instructions in the Bible, New Testament as well as Old), and no doubt people get something out of going to church once in a while…Nevertheless, religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion that backs them up.

In other words we make exactly the point she accuses me (us) of failing to make immediately before the passage she takes exception to. I simply can’t understand how someone can claim to be whatever it is that Bunting claims to be and still distort a quotation in such a flagrant manner. I especially can’t understand how someone can do that in the process of defending the indefensible.

She misunderstands what is being claimed in the guilty sentence. It’s the ‘prop and stay’ bit and the ‘arbitrary’ bit. The sentence doesn’t say ‘religion remains the last great example of injustices’ – it says it remains the last great prop and stay of them. The Burmese generals don’t have any such prop and stay; all they have is naked power. North Korea has a kind of ghost of Marxism, but it doesn’t convince anyone. Religion convinces people. That’s the difference. The book is full of reeking examples of people convinced by religion that it is okay for them to do horrible things. Bunting should re-read the story of Rand Abdel-Qader.

Are religions corrupted by their patriarchal history – yes of course, as I’ve written on this site before. Does much of that patriarchy still survive – yes, in many places but in many others it is being challenged. Does it sometimes become misogyny – yes. So there is much common ground between Benson and I. It’s just that I would argue that the root of this problem is men – and they have used religious traditions to restrict the freedom of women.

Yes…that is rather the point. I won’t say more, since Bunting’s failure to get the point is obvious enough. (I will say it should be ‘between Benson and me’ though.)

In the debate, Benson didn’t sound as hysterical as her prose but it’s odd listening to someone who has created a caricature of religion and then pours her scorn on it. She talks about the nature of God a lot with a confidence that is bizarre – as if she had inside knowledge yet she is an atheist so all she is really talking about is her image, her understanding of God. And this is where I heartily agree with her final sentence “That is the God who hates women. That God has to go”. Hear, hear Benson.

I didn’t, actually. I don’t (of course) think ‘God’ has a nature. What I talked about was the fact that God is not available or accountable and that therefore God’s laws are fundamentally arbitrary in a way that secular laws are not. This isn’t my image or understanding of God – when’s the last time the pope reported God chatting with him about the new encyclical?

There’s another, less substantive aspect to this. Bunting in general presents herself, I think it’s fair to say, as a consciously ‘nice’ gentle ‘feminine’ kind of person – but in practice, at least in this case, she’s been strikingly aggressive. At one point on Night Waves she interrupted me in the middle of a sentence and the middle of a thought – when she had already done a lot more talking than I had, and Rana had cued me to go ahead, and I fairly obviously had a point I wanted to make – and she didn’t just say one thing and then let me go on, she simply grabbed the conversation away from me and kept on talking. I could have followed suit, but I hate shouting heads discussions; I’m willing to break in during pauses, but I’m not willing to cut people off in the middle of a sentence. But Bunting is – despite the sweetly girly voice and despite the conspicuous Christianity, she’s perfectly willing to cut people off. And she’s also willing to use quite strong language. ‘Strident…preposterous…crudeness and lack of insight…profoundly intellectually dishonest…hysterical…bizarre.’

I find that interesting.

Say anything

Jun 15th, 2009 11:17 am | By

James Hannam re-states his case in a comment on It’s not a majority vote issue.

[L]ooking back, a clear lesson seems to be that the accommodationists got things done. So even if Coyne and Myers are right (and of course, I don’t think they are) about the incompatibility of religion and evolution, prior experience suggests that they should nonetheless respect differences and even hold their noses for the good of science. No one would expect them to hide their views. But at the moment, they give the impression that they are partisans for atheism rather than for evolution.

The first question is: what things did accommodationists get done, and what connection did the accommodationism have with the getting things done? What exactly is the claim here? That accommodationists got things done that they would not have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? And that the things they got done were more important or valuable than any other things they might have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? In other words, there are a lot of variables here, and a lot of counter-factuals, and it’s simply not clear that ‘the accommodationists got things done’ says anything as clear-cut or useful as Hannam thinks it does (or rather, perhaps, hopes it does). In other other words it’s a very loose, vague claim, which does not justify that ‘So’ in the next sentence. No, prior experience does not suggest that they should ‘respect differences,’ much less that they should ‘hold their noses for the good of science’ – which in this context has to mean ‘hold their noses and conceal what they take to be the truth for the good of science.’

Of course, one can’t make one’s whole case every time one says anything – but one can avoid making large empty claims such as ‘the accommodationists got things done’ in order to back up a further claim that scientists should conceal what they take to be the truth. One can be more careful than that.

Here’s the problem: You have a group of people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs. You have a mission to educate these people. Do you:

a) explain that many of their learned co-believers have thought carefully about this issue and don’t think there is a contradiction;
b) say nothing to these people and let the likes of Coyne, Dawkins and Myers convince them that they are right to be scared through other channels.

Now, if you care about evolution, this looks like a no-brainer to me.

Well, that’s because you haven’t thought about it carefully enough. One, the ‘mission to educate these people’ is not the only mission. There are a lot of ‘missions’ in play; educating people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs is only one of them; it is not self-evident that that one ‘mission’ should trump all the others; it is in any case not self-evident that the only or best way to ‘educate these people’ is by concealing what one takes to be the truth.

Two, a) and b) represent a false dilemma. There are (as so often) more than two possibilities here, and a) and b) are very crude tendentious versions even of the two possibilities they purport to represent. One can, for instance, do a) and do other things too, one of which would be to explain why there is a contradiction, or, if you want to hedge, why many other people think there is a contradiction.

There is a whole range of possibilities, and narrowing it down to 1) talk soothing communitarian wool about what lots of learned people have thought or 2) let those pesky fundamentalist atheists scare everyone into church school, is neither productive nor interesting.

The fundamental blankness behind this way of arguing seems to be a complete blindness to the fact that some people prefer trying to get at the truth to trying to manipulate other people. Over and over we keep coming back to this ‘whatever you think the truth is, you should say that science and religion are perfectly compatible, for purely instrumental short-term reasons’ idea. It’s depressing. It’s tawdry. It’s as if all of life were an endless US presidential campaign, where the only goal is to win and no lie is too gross if only it might win West Virginia.

It’s not a majority vote issue

Jun 14th, 2009 12:42 pm | By

James Hannam is confused about accommodationism.

As the battle between creationism and evolution heats up, some atheists, like Jerry Coyne, have been insisting that it is really a battle between religion and science. Coyne resists any accommodation between religious and non-religious scientists…In order for his position to make sense, he needs to show that there is some sort of existential conflict between religion and science. So it is unfortunate for him that the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship.

No, that’s not right. It would perfectly possible for the historical record to show that and for the accommodation still to be philosophically incoherent. Coyne’s claim is not that accommodation has never happened but that it is not coherent.

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind…The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

What has happened in the past is fundamentally irrelevant to what Coyne is arguing, in the same way that a contemporary opinion poll would be. The historical record makes essentially the same claim as an opinion poll could make: lots of people think or have thought that science and religion can be reconciled. Coyne already knows that, and has stipulated that they can be reconciled in the trivial sense that a person can do both. His point is that the reconciliation is not coherent. Majority opinion, now or in the past, can’t decide that question.

Unfortunately for him, Hannam’s entire article rests on this irrelevant claim about the history of the conflict, which just isn’t what Coyne is talking about. Oh well.

Catholic thinking is rather different…

Jun 14th, 2009 12:10 pm | By

This is what I’m saying.

Tony Blair made much of becoming a Roman Catholic six months after he left 10 Downing Street, but senior figures in the Church appear reluctant to sign up to his fan club…Blair used an interview with Attitude, a magazine for homosexuals, to criticise the approach of the Pope towards gay rights. He argued that religious leaders must start “rethinking” the issue, but the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, said Catholic thinking was “rather different” from the kind promoted by Blair.

Precisely. Of course it is. So what does Madeleine Bunting mean by claiming she doesn’t understand when people point out that laws handed down by an unavailable unaccountable god are different from negotiable secular laws? Eh? Eh? What does she mean by it? If the new archbish of Westminster gets it (when defending his ‘thinking’ of course, as opposed to agreeing with secularist criticism of his ‘thinking’), why doesn’t she? Merely because it’s not convenient? Surely not…

Madeleine Bunting please note

Jun 13th, 2009 5:24 pm | By

Ha – eat your heart out, Maddy – here’s someone who understands what we mean by asking if God hates women. She understands it perfectly, and has been there.

An article from the UK’s Guardian, God is merciful, but only if you’re a man, reminded me of the subservient role women played in the fundamentalist Christian churches I came to know as a believer…[T]he church would make me shed bitter tears for my inability to be sweet, submissive, and sheeplike. Religious circles just aren’t friendly to a woman who thinks herself an equal. The Guardian’s article brought back the awful church memories. In those days and during my earlier de-conversion phase, I was just angry and couldn’t understand why fellow Christian women would often tell me, “You shouldn’t say that,” or “You shouldn’t do that.”…Is it any wonder that at some point during my Christian life I started to feel as if God hated me?

Told you so, Madders.

Read the whole thing, and the comments; it’s stirring stuff. Sing it, Lorena!

A pervasive climate of fear

Jun 13th, 2009 11:14 am | By

I’ve been reading the Goldenbridge chapter of the Ryan report again. (Reading the whole report will be the work of months, if not years.) One thing (among others) struck me anew…

Sr Alida recalls her early years in religious life as being dominated by fear. On reflection she cannot understand how she accepted so many demands and pressures without protest. (7.219)

Exactly. This is how authoritarian religions work, after all, and Catholicism is nothing if not authoritarian – still, now, let alone in Ireland in the 1940s. Sister ‘Alida’ was trained by fear and she passed it on to the children she was in charge of.

The religious sisters who subsequently held management responsibility lived in a tightly controlled and authoritarian world. Questioning was defined as arrogance and led to blaming of the individual…No distinction appears to have been made between being a ‘good’ religious and being a ‘good’ childcare worker. The characteristics that were valued appear to have been obedience and dedication…The unsafe world of Goldenbridge developed a very particular culture which could not meet the needs of children. Very powerless people had enormous and immediate power over troubled and troublesome children. The abuse of the power and powerlessness was almost inevitable. (7.224)

In other words, a recipe for a disastrous way to take care of desolate children: fear, control, authoritarianism, slavishness, sadism, all gathered together into ‘enormous and immediate power’: the perfect nightmare.

Overall, there was a high level of severe corporal punishment in Goldenbridge, resulting in a pervasive climate of fear in the Institution. (7.232)

Yes but not just a pervasive climate of fear…Along with that climate, and inseparable from it, was a pervasive climate of unlove, of hostility, of anger…of hatred.

This is perhaps too obvious to point out, but a pervasive climate of fear created by a harshly punitive regime is inevitably also a pervasive climate of unlove – and that’s what was truly corrosive about Goldenbridge (and the other industrial schools). Reading the report, you just can’t escape that; it jumps off every page. There was no love there, and there was abundant fury and violence and frank hatred. The witnesses all say the same thing – they all felt utterly alone there, they had no one to turn to, that was the worst thing.

Hatred needs to be recognized as such. The pervasive climate of fear at Goldenbridge wasn’t just a matter of excessively harsh discipline. It’s possible to be both loving and strict, even ‘strict’ in the sense of using some corporal punishment…but there is a cut-off point. There is a point at which quantity becomes quality, and the corporal punishment is no longer compatible with anything that can be called love. This applies, mutatis mutandis, to ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage too. Whether God hates women or not, some of God’s fans certainly do hate women, and act accordingly. That needs to be acknowledged.

You may think our rules are crap, but that’s tough

Jun 12th, 2009 5:39 pm | By

How obliging of Simon Sarmiento, right on the heels of Bunting’s incomprehension at my claim that laws handed down by an unaccountable god can be oppressive and difficult to change.

Anglican and RC church representatives, giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, were very concerned that a new definition of “the purposes of an organised religion” would curtail their own existing right to discriminate against lay people for reasons other than religious belief.

Oh were they. And yet I thought ‘that in any religious tradition there is interpretation’ and ‘the way Christian teaching has changed over two thousand years is enormous and it continues to change’ so surely there can’t be a problem with Christian teaching not having changed enough, because if there were such a problem then Bunting would have understood what I was talking about, and she said she didn’t, so there must not be a problem. Right? Or perhaps not.

Fittall said: “You might believe that some of our rules and disciplines are wrong, but our view is that that is a matter of religious liberty – a matter for the Church of England, Roman Catholics, the Jews or whoever.”

Right, and that’s how you get away with it – you talk pious boilerplate about ‘religious liberty’ so that you can go on treating people unequally. Well – this is what I was saying. Religious laws are very hard to change because religions get this kind of special dispensation called ‘religious liberty’ and because the rule-giver does not answer requests for judicial review. That’s not an unmixed blessing.

And whaddya know – a colleague of Humera Khan’s has a lot more sense than Humera Khan seems to have -

There also seemed to be little support for the churches from their religious colleagues on the witness panel. Indeed Maleiha Malik, speaking for the Muslim Women’s Network said:

“I do not think that there is any evidence that there is a narrowing, but, like the British Humanist Association, we would very much welcome and strongly support any narrowing of the exemptions, for the following reason. The way the exemptions strike the balance between the rights of organised religion to discriminate and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination is deeply unfair. It gives too much power to organised religions to police their internal members.”

Well said Maleiha Malik.

Strident and shrill

Jun 12th, 2009 11:32 am | By

A note or two on Night Waves.

I think the most striking thing about both Bunting and Khan is the callous frivolity of their claims. This is probably inevitable when religious apologists are invited to defend religions from charges of injustice and cruelty – but then that’s what’s wrong with religious apologetics, isn’t it.

Bunting for instance started by saying, in a tone of well-feigned bewilderment, that she just really didn’t quite understand what I was talking about, because it seemed to her that in any religious tradition there is interpretation, and ‘the way the way Christian teaching has changed over two thousand years is enormous and it continues to change.’ But she must know perfectly well – how could she not? – that ‘Christian teaching’ hasn’t changed so thoroughly that it has managed to catch up to secular liberal thinking on human rights or women’s rights or gay rights. She must know perfectly well that Catholic bishops are currently insisting precisely on the difference between ‘Church teachings’ and gay rights and demanding that the former be allowed to trump the latter – so what does she mean by saying she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about? I don’t think she means anything, I think she’s just mouthing. And that’s what I mean by callous frivolity. She shouldn’t do that – she should be honest about the subject. This isn’t a game, this is stuff that fucks up people’s lives.

Khan was just as frivolous, talking dismissively about ‘what we call in the Muslim community call “Sheikh google”‘ – which apparently means something like ‘track down news items about various incidents of religious brutality around the world.’ Well look – the incidents are there – they’re real – they happen to real people – so what does it mean to shrug them off in that contemptuous way? Khan may have even had that thought herself, because she promptly added that we’d collected a lot of stuff, but then on third thought she said it was nothing new. No, it’s not new, we never said it was new; the point is not its novelty but that it happens at all. Khan said nothing whatsoever to palliate that – which is not surprising, because what could palliate it? In fact later she said something quite remarkable about ‘the things that aren’t quite working, the violence…’ Ah yes, the violence, which is ‘things not quite working.’

She also talked about the upside of patriarchy, and how if you redefine patriarchy so that it doesn’t mean patriarchy then it’s quite a good thing; she talked about tribes in Indonesia that are an example of matriarchy in Islam; she talked about Eurocentrism. Bunting agreed that there is patriarchy but then shouted that to go from that to the accusation that God hates women is an absurd illogical jump and why not ask do men hate women and how daft that is, there are lots of nice men, it’s a banal argument. Well yes it is a banal argument but it’s not our argument so that takes care of that anyway. Then by way of flourish she interrupted me to tell me the tone of the book is strident and shrill. I would call it, rather, indignant, or heated, or impassioned, in places. That’s because the stuff we talk about is bad – cruel, oppressive, unjust; bad. It’s not something to be callously frivolous about. It’s not something to shrug off with palaver about the Anglican church ordinating women or little pockets of Islamic matriarchy. It’s more serious than that.

The law of the Brothers

Jun 10th, 2009 12:10 pm | By

Hitchens too sees flaws in Obama’s Cairo speech.

Take the single case in which our president touched upon the best-known fact about the Islamic “world”: its tendency to make women second-class citizens. He mentioned this only to say that “Western countries” were discriminating against Muslim women! And how is this discrimination imposed? By limiting the wearing of the head scarf or hijab…The clear implication was an attack on the French law that prohibits the display of religious garb or symbols in state schools.

He then quotes ‘from an excellent commentary by an Algerian-American visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School, Karima Bennoune, who says’

I have just published research conducted among the many people of Muslim, Arab and North African descent in France who support that country’s 2004 law banning religious symbols in public schools which they see as a necessary deployment of the “law of the republic” to counter the “law of the Brothers,” an informal rule imposed undemocratically on many women and girls in neighborhoods and at home and by fundamentalists.

This is what people who are horrified by bans on wearing the hijab so often neglect to mention, what they so often in fact obscure by calling the hijab a free choice which simply ignores the fact that in some places women are beaten or murdered for not wearing it. That’s an important fact and it shouldn’t be ignored.

One of me, two of them

Jun 9th, 2009 10:25 am | By

This will amuse you – I’m going to be on Nightwaves on Thursday. A ‘debate’ – more or less about the book, as I understand it. The Other Side will be represented by two people – which perhaps hints at where the BBC’s sympathies lie.

I won’t tell you who the other people are now, because I prefer to tell you later.

The transparency project

Jun 9th, 2009 10:12 am | By

One reason religion is not good for women.

God represents an absent, unknown, unknowable, unaccountable, arbitrary power – which makes God a tyrant. To quote from the book, it’s a bad principle to expect humans to obey a putative god that is inaccessible and unknowable, just as it
would be to expect us to obey human legislators who were equally
hidden and unknowable and unaccountable. The God of most believers is a God that no one has
ever seen, that does not make appearances, that sends no messages;
this God is hidden, secretive, permanently and inviolably locked away
from all living people; this fact alone is enough to disqualify it as a source of laws or morality.

It’s surprising, in a way, that so many people are happy to take orders from an unavailable unaccountable God; it’s especially suprising in the case of people who are consigned to inferior status by that unavailable unaccountable God. Habit, custom, training, and inertia explain a lot, but it’s still surprising.

Tolerance and the dignity of all human beings

Jun 8th, 2009 11:48 am | By

Muriel Gray points out some sad realities.

What new creative solutions were on offer to reconcile the directly opposing ideologies that are obedience to Islam and progressive Western democracy? No big thinking of any kind. Actually, worse than that…Obama informed us that throughout history, “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality”. Hasn’t it just? Darfur was all a silly misunderstanding, and Sunni and Shia Muslims tolerate each other magnificently. Islam also, the president assured us, overlaps and shares common principles with America, namely the “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Many of these can currently be seen on view in Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan, to name but a very few.

One possible reply is that what Obama said was aspirational – meant to inspire people to live up to the flattering description, not to say how things really are. But…it’s not a very satisfactory or convincing reply, given the vastness of the gap between the flattering description and how things really are. Since Islam as it is really practiced in the real world in places where it has state power is conspicuously bad at tolerance and the dignity of all human beings, it seems foolhardy to say otherwise. (Would Obama be happy to see an adult Malia living in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Pakistan? If not…maybe he should hesitate before talking about shared principles of the dignity of all human beings. [If the answer is yes, he's nuts - but I strongly doubt that the answer is yes.])

By far the greatest disappointment was Obama’s “dealing” with women’s rights as lowly point number six in his speech. In a few short sentences he referred, rightly, to the importance of educating Muslim women, then bizarrely to the importance of keeping American citizens in their hijabs…No mention of the shameful atrocities being carried out worldwide in Islamic countries every single day; nothing of injustice and hopelessness, of the drudgery, powerlessness and virtual enslavement suffered by millions of women and girls in the name of an invented deity. To so sure-footedly ignore what is happening to women right now is nothing short of a disgrace, and his appeasement of this outrage is on a par with appeasing apartheid.

Right. He needs a copy of the book.

Possible is one thing, reasonable is another

Jun 6th, 2009 12:21 pm | By

Jason Rosenhouse looks at this natural v supernatural problem.

If you hold views about a supernatural realm that have absolutely no empirical consequences whatsoever then you have nothing to fear from science. There are even certain religious systems that posit such a realm. But that is not the sort of faith held by most Christians.

True; so the business about what is ‘beyond’ nature becomes irrelevant.

So long as we are talking about a divine creator in the abstract then there is no conflict with evolution. Deism is not threatened by evolution.

But Deists aren’t the people who freak out about evolution, so they’re not actually the people Mooney is talking about, so again, they are irrelevant.

One more time, science can not rule out the existence of a supernatural realm, but it can certainly make certain ideas about how the supernatural realm interacts with our earthly realm seem highly implausible.

Just so. If it’s entirely beyond and outside, nobody knows, so you can believe anything you want to, but don’t expect anyone to agree with you; if it’s not beyond and outside, then science can investigate it, so the ‘this is where science stops’ claim doesn’t apply.

The clear distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism is mostly irrelevant to the question of whether science and religion are compatible, since religion typically claims far more than the mere existence of a supernatural realm…Different people can draw different metaphysical conclusions from the same empirical data. The argument is over whether it is reasonable to accept both evolution and traditional Christianity, not over whether it is possible to accept both.

Yes that’s what I meant by the more long-winded “It’s perfectly possible to know that one can’t know X and still believe X. It’s a constant battle, to be sure, and there’s no guarantee that atheists and naturalists won’t always be saying ‘But there’s no good reason to believe that’ – but that’s life as a grown-up, isn’t it.” It’s possible, and that’s all you get. We can’t give you reasonable too, and it’s unreasonable to expect it.

Ontology or epistemology

Jun 5th, 2009 5:09 pm | By

Chris Mooney says why compatibilism matters via a discussion of Robert Pennock’s testimony at the Kitzmiller trial and Judge Jones’s decision.

Jones and Pennock describe science, and its “ground rule” of methodological naturalism, as an inquiry into the workings of the natural world–one assuming the existence of natural laws that we can discern, and naturalistic processes that we can measure and describe. But, they add, there science basically ends. Is there a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature? Science just can’t say.

Why can’t science say? Because a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature is by definition beyond or outside anything we can meaningfully inquire into: ‘meaningfully’ in the sense of being able to get real results. The reasons science can’t say are the reasons no one can say. It’s not as if science can’t say but some other kind of inquiry or investigation or examination can. There is no discipline or branch of knowledge that can say. That which is outside or beyond is outside or beyond – so we know nothing about it. That means all of us – not just scientists, but all of us.

People can of course believe anything they want to about that which is outside or beyond – but that’s not the same thing as being able to say. I think people who say ‘science can’t say’ often tend to blur that distinction, whether deliberately or not. I think saying ‘science can’t say’ leaves an impression that non-science can say, which is mistaken.

Pennock’s testimony, a key basis for all this, draws a core distinction between such methodological naturalism on the one hand, and “philosophical naturalism” (or atheism) on the other. The latter is a stronger view, and goes beyond the limits of science to claim that the natural is all there is, period. This view may well be true; indeed, I personally believe it to be true. But it is a philosophical view, not a scientific one.

Not exactly. Atheism doesn’t necessarily or always claim that the natural is all there is; atheism doesn’t even necessarily or always claim that there is no God; atheism can be and often is just non-theism, which needn’t say anything so definite as that the natural is all there is. Furthermore, even more assertive atheism, or ‘strong’ atheism, doesn’t necessarily claim that the natural is all there is; it often contents itself with pointing out that the natural is all we can know anything about.

In truth I’m not really sure how philosophical naturalism fits here – I’m not sure whether or not it’s true that philosophical naturalism does necessarily say as a matter of definition that the natural is all there is, period, or whether it says simply that we (humans, stuck here in nature) don’t and can’t know anything about the non-natural. I don’t know if its claims are ontological or epistemological. But frankly I’m a little skeptical that many people are philosophical naturalists of the type who say the natural is all there is, period. I suspect that the vast majority say simply that no one knows, and perhaps further that, by definition, no one can know.

Does it matter? Yes, I think so. I think it’s at least possible that if Chris and other accommodationists could take it on board that most atheists and philosophical naturalists don’t actually claim that the natural is all there is, period, but rather that anything beyond nature is beyond us so we simply can’t know anything about it – then there might be less worry about strategy. Because the next bit of Chris’s argument goes:

Crucially, such logic suggests that it is most emphatically possible to accept the results of science’s naturalistic methodology, and yet also retain supernatural beliefs that science cannot touch.

But that’s still true with philosophical naturalism if it is as I have described it. It’s perfectly possible to know that one can’t know X and still believe X. It’s a constant battle, to be sure, and there’s no guarantee that atheists and naturalists won’t always be saying ‘But there’s no good reason to believe that’ – but that’s life as a grown-up, isn’t it.

Religion is a very private matter except when it isn’t

Jun 4th, 2009 11:58 am | By

The disagreement between incompatibilists and accommodationists goes on. I’m on the incompatibilist side (surprise surprise). One thing in particular that Chris Mooney said stood out for me:

Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

But religion is not a very private matter in the sense of being that to the exclusion of being a very public matter. It’s a private matter in the sense of being internal, personal, sometimes bashful, and the like, but that does not mean that it is always and everywhere exclusively private. That’s obvious from Chris’s Mooney’s post itself -

In a recent New Republic book review, [Jerry] Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, [Barbara] Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Why? Because they wrote books on the subject, that’s why. The New Republic commissioned him to review the books, so he reviewed them. This involved disagreeing with some of their claims. But the point is – their claims were not ‘a very private matter,’ they were a very public matter in published books that were out in public for the public to read. It’s just incoherent to claim that Jerry Coyne is being naughty to ‘criticize’ Miller and Giberson for their ‘very private’ religion when what he in fact did was dispute public claims in their published books. He didn’t go poking into their minds, he read their books and then reviewed them for a magazine. Why is anyone asking why he did that? The question is absurd.