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.

I’m losing count

Sep 23rd, 2010 6:09 pm | By

Mark Vernon went to the ”let’s pretend we get to tell atheists what to do next” debate (debate? it doesn’t sound like a debate – more like a self-congratulatory chat) and explains about it for CisF Belief. It is, predictably, very smug predictable stuff. It assumes from the outset that gnu atheism is obviously stupid and bad and wrong and laughable, and proceeds from there.

Marilynne Robinson was articulate on how the New Atheism erases the human by treating us as crudely material entities…She had a great quip. The theist looks at phenomena like the fine tuning and thinks, amazing. The (old) atheist looks at phenomena like the fine tuning and thinks, amazing. The New Atheist looks at phenomena like the fine tuning and thinks, well that’s that answered then.

See what I mean? What’s great about that? It’s not funny, and it’s meaningless. There’s no such thing as “The New Atheist” in the sense it’s used there – there’s nothing about putative new atheists that can be generalized in such a way that that “quip” describes anything real. It’s only a combination of contempt and smugness that makes Robinson and Vernon think otherwise.

And this points to one of the most irritating aspects of the backlash against gnu atheism, which is that a favorite trope about them/us is about the tribalism, the community-thinking, the demonization of The Other. Well of course there is plenty of that, as there is with any kind of agreement or “movement” or other commonality – there is always the risk of thinking to well of self and group and too ill of everyone else, but you sort of have to take that risk if you want to accomplish anything at all (apart from meditation).

And in any case – why do new atheist-haters focus so sharply on that among new atheists and ignore it in themselves and their allies? Look at Mark Vernon for a classic example, along with the parties to that “debate.” The whole thing looks like an exercise in brainless finger-pointing and “ew” shouting.

Even Vernon noticed that.

All in all, the implicit message was that the New Atheism is anti-humanist…Such analysis was only to be expected, given the speakers. But I did wonder why the New Humanist had no defender of New Atheism on the panel. The editor does seem to be having doubts about whether the defence is worth listening to.

Little wonder many in the audience started to shift in their seats and a certain frustration emerged during the questions.

Well quite. Why, exactly, is the New Humanist staging a pseudo-debate in which three people throw yet more crap at other atheists?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Who is the most contrarian?

Sep 23rd, 2010 12:17 pm | By

Caspar Melville says on the New Humanist blog that the “‘Beyond New Atheism” debate was

a genuine attempt to see if we could have a different tone for discussion about belief, non-belief, human nature and God.

Well I could have saved them the bother by just answering the question: sure we could. Of course we could. In fact we could find such a discussion, with its different tone, any time we wanted one – we could read Comment is Free Belief or the New Statesman, we could browse the BBC’s “Religion and Ethics” pages, we could stroll into a church or mosque. It is not the least bit difficult either to have or to find “a different tone for discussion about belief, non-belief, human nature and God.”

(Different from what? From that of the “new” atheism, as the post as a whole makes clear.)

Given that, why should we? Given that there is already an abundance of discussion about belief, non-belief, human nature and God that is very friendly to god and belief and very unfriendly to non-belief, why is there any need for the few people who take a different tone to be more like the majority?

Well, maybe by “we” Caspar meant humanists and atheists rather than humanity at large. That seems likely, especially since the debate was sponsored by the humanists. But even then, the answer is still yes of course; there are lots and lots of humanists and atheists who are more than willing to distance themselves from the blunt unapologetic “tone” of the gnu atheists and take a more obsequious tone instead. Many of them in fact take an obsequious tone when talking to theists and an acidly hostile one when talking to or about gnu atheists – which is in itself quite interesting.

In short there are different rules, and it is reasonable to wonder why. Many of the people now so caught up in lecturing gnu atheists for being so gnu are not caught up at all in lecturing old theists for being so gnu - so militant and aggressive and fundamentalist and evil. Why is that? Why do theists get a pass while atheists get a dam’ good scolding by other atheists?

I don’t know. I suppose some of them think it’s admirably contrarian and independent-minded and scrupulous about not letting allies off the hook – which might be fair if the claims weren’t so uniformly evidence-free and repetitive. As it is, when there have already been so many “the New Atheists have a bad tone” announcements, making yet another one looks much more like ganging up on a hated minority than it does like admirable independence of mind.

Another one

Sep 22nd, 2010 11:06 am | By

Here is another…can we say quisling? If they call us aggressive new atheists, can we call them quislings? Here is another quisling atheist moaning about how boring and boring the gnu* atheists are. It’s Caspar Melville of the New Humanist, I’m sorry to say – I like the NH.

He doesn’t say anything of substance - just offers a strawman version of gnu atheism and says it’s bad, even though it did some good, but now let’s move on. It’s lazy, tiresome stuff, which is particularly annoying coming from someone who is, as far as I know, an atheist himself.

Paula Kirby sums it up nicely:

It is disappointing when someone who is meant to be on the side of reason and humanism simply regurgitates the sillier claims of those who are desperate to oppose them.

Yes it is, and it happens every few minutes, these days.

*Insincere apologies to Michael De Dora

“Universal love is such a drag”

Sep 21st, 2010 5:26 pm | By

Karl Giberson says tut tut, religious people aren’t cramming their beliefs down children’s throats. He illustrates this assertion by an example:

In their journals my students are reflecting on their beliefs with a new philosophical rigor. One of them wrote: “The only thing I know with clarity is that I want to love all and do whatever I can to make sure that the life I have been given does not go to waste.” What a terrible thing to have had crammed down one’s throat as a child!

But that’s not an illustration of what it purports to be, because what that student says is not religious. It’s idealistic and admirable, but there’s nothing religious about it. Religious people have this unfortunate tendency to think that all or most idealistic and admirable ideas are inherently religious, but that’s wrong. That student’s desire is as secular as you like. Granted the idea that Jesus is love is a religious idea, and wanting to “love all” could well be a Jesus-inflected idea – but it could equally well not. It’s not inherently religious. (If it’s inherently anything, it’s probably inherently young.) Ambitions for universal benevolence don’t depend on belief in a deity or command morality.

So, no, that’s not bad religious throat-cramming, but that doesn’t show that there is no such thing.

We thought we were all alone

Sep 21st, 2010 4:30 pm | By

Did you watch that selection of speeches at the anti-pope protest? It’s a good selection – Geoffrey Robertson, Johann Hari, Maryam Namazie, Dawkins, Peter Tatchell, Andrew Copson. You can see Ben Goldacre to the right of the stage, and Terry Sanderson in the background.

And Barbara Blaine speaks; she is a survivor of priestly sexual abuse. She said this:

When we were children, and the priests were raping us, and sodomizing us, and sexually abusing us, we thought we were all alone – and we felt very alone, guilty, and ashamed. And over these past years, and even more recently over these past months, many of us as victims have found each other, and we have learned that we’re not alone. And I must tell each and every one of you: thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all the victims, because today we recognize that you too care about the victims.

That’s why the protest was not mere grandstanding, or a party, or piling on, or any of that over-fastidious bullshit. It was, among other things, a yell of rage about what the Catholic church and its priests have been doing to people – including children – for its entire history, and in particular within the living memory of millions of people. That yell of rage is music to the victims. What do you think its absence sounds like? It sounds like indifference, or worse, endorsement. It sounds like the apathetic or enthusiastic agreement of the whole society that it’s perfectly all right for priests to prey upon and torment children, and get away with it. Imagine how that adds to the misery of the whole thing. Imagine what a relief it is to know that a lot of people don’t agree and don’t endorse.

Next to that fact, finicky objections to groupthink or the joy of protest just look callous at best, and revoltingly self-indulgent at worst. Someone at Facebook (SIWOTI!) made a comment in that vein -

People are having way too much fun laying into the Pope. It’s like a party, which is parasitic on the sins of the Catholic Church. People just love the frisson of protest, and I find that rather distasteful, given that it tends to be parasitic upon the suffering of other people (precisely the sorts of people one is supposed to be protesting on behalf of).

Barbara Blaine didn’t see it that way. She saw it the opposite way. No doubt people do just love the frisson of protest, but so the fuck what? If what they are protesting needs protesting, then so the fuck what? Why is that more important than, you know, saying this evil is an evil?

That’s my considered view.

And having said that, I will add – you’re damn right. I wish I’d been there. Those people aren’t just trendy butterflies – Peter Tatchell got beaten up by Russian cops in Moscow on a gay pride parade – Maryam Namazie risked her life in Iran – Ben Goldacre does about six jobs. Yes, I damn well do feel elated listening to Johann lay into the pope. People who sneer at him and the rest of the protesters and moan about finding it all rather distasteful – well they don’t impress me so much.

Signing letters

Sep 21st, 2010 12:35 pm | By

Mina Ahadi and Maryam Namazie wrote a letter to the UN.

We are writing to ask that the UN general assembly condemn stoning as a crime against humanity and issue an emergency resolution calling for an end to the medieval and barbaric punishment as well as the immediate release of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and others sentenced to death by stoning.

We also ask that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not be allowed to address the general assembly and that his government be boycotted.

The letter has 40 signers. Is that too many, do you suppose? Would Julian Baggini consider that over the maximum for signing a letter whose content he agrees with?

I am glad that people are protesting on the key issues that the pope has got very wrong. If only a few people were doing so I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition. But when everyone starts piling in, it is perfectly reasonable for others to say it is time to back off before it gets too ugly.

What number adds up to “everyone”? It certainly wasn’t literally everyone in the case of the letter protesting against the pope’s visit, we know that; we know that from the fawning media coverage and the sycophantic government attendance and the groveling of much of the public. So what is the number? 40? 100? It’s hard to know if 40 makes it under the wire as “only a few people” or gets shut out as “everyone piling in.”

The two letters have a good deal in common – both have to do with urging bodies that should recognize universal human rights not to give a platform to a male autocrat who does not recognize universal human rights and who is at the head of a body that systematically violates human rights.

I have a hard time seeing any good reason for refusing to sign either one, much less for arguing against doing so in public.

The BBC just adores the pope

Sep 20th, 2010 12:19 pm | By

The BBC is all but wetting itself in its excitement about the pope’s visit. Everything was so wonderful! It was just so so so beautiful and touching and moving and spirichal and compassionate and terrific and brilliant.

A pope who had previously been regarded as someone rather cold, professorial, aloof and authoritarian; had suddenly been perceived as a rather kindly and gentle grandfather figure.

Ohhhhhhh – that’s so sweet! Of course kindly gentle grandfather would let any woman die before he would let her have an abortion, and he condemns Africans in their thousands and their tens of thousands to a miserable death and their children to orphanhood with his stupid, pointless, arbitrary Law against condoms, and he shielded child-raping priests – but he’s old and tottery and he can bare his fangs in a scary grin, so he must be a nice man and that’s what counts. Didn’t I tell you it was sweet?

The Pope’s triumph was really his speech to leaders of civil society at Westminster. One political mover and shaker told me afterwards his performance had been “sheer magic”.

Within the space of two hours Pope Benedict penetrated the heart of the Anglican Establishment.

Quite. And why was that?

Seriously – why was that? What the hell is this? No other religious boffin gets this treatment, so why does the pope get it? No other religion has a pope, but why does the fact that Catholicism does have a pope mean that countries have to treat him as some kind of super-dooper extra special starry exciting guy?

The UK is not an officially Catholic country; it’s not an unofficially Catholic country; why did it treat the pope as some kind of ambassador from god?

I don’t get it. I don’t see what’s in it for them. I don’t see what’s in it for the media, or what’s in it for the gummint. It looks like some kind of mass hallucination, from here.


Sep 20th, 2010 11:34 am | By

The Guardian must have scared itself with its “turbulent priest” editorial on Saturday – it has now taken it back.

The one on Saturday was not wholly admiring of the pope’s performance.

[H]e believes that there is only one one spiritual source – again his – from which all our values derive. He is attacking not only the Reformation, the separation of church and state, but the very basis on which a secular society is built.

But today, well, on further consideration, when confronted with an actual pope, the only thing to do is grovel.

Despite Benedict XVI’s unbending and in some senses cruel conservatism, the Guardian supported his visit, recognising that there was diplomatic business to do and, perhaps, a chance of reconciliation.

What diplomatic business? Vatican city is not a real state, so what diplomatic business can there be to do? And why would reconciliation be a good thing? Given the recognition of the unbending and in some senses cruel conservatism, why reconcile? Few people want reconciliation with Nazis or fans of apartheid or Fred Phelps; why should the Guardian want reconciliation with the reactionary top priest of a reactionary church?

The Guardian doesn’t say, perhaps because it is in too much of a hurry to say fuck those motherfucking atheists (that’s not me, I’m channeling Tim Minchin).

If the pope has not done much reconciling, then neither have his militant opponents. The thousands who traipsed through London chanting “he belongs in jail” may not see any connection between themselves and the anti-papist mobs of the past, but there is a failure to afford sincere faith the respect it is due.

What respect? What respect is the due of sincere faith? And does the Guardian really mean respect? Since it’s incompatible with protest, the meaning is apparently more like universal unquestioning obedience. Yes, the protesters failed to afford sincere faith that. Whew!

(And what on earth does the Graun mean “traipsing”? Automatic contempt for the very act of protesting now?)

Apparently the Grun takes exception to “he belongs in jail.” But it is at least arguable, and is being argued, that he has (as the head of his organization) committed a crime against humanity. It’s not simply self-evident that he is in no sense a criminal.

But hey – he is a religious leader. It Is Forbidden to say harsh things about religious leaders, at least according to the Tory papers and all the others too.

This fine radar

Sep 19th, 2010 6:03 pm | By

There’s another thing that frets me (for want of a better term) about Julian’s “why I didn’t sign the anti-pope letter” article. I mention this again because it seems to me symptomatic of a particular school of anti-atheist tut-tuttery.

It is that it seems kind of frivolous, at bottom. I think that’s probably why the arguments seem unconvincing…it’s because they are! Maybe he didn’t actually have any real reasons, maybe the letter just got on his nerves, and he had to reach for reasons, and it was a big stretch, and the reasons aren’t up to much.

And that makes the whole thing a bit self-regarding. He certainly wasn’t required to sign the letter, but for actually arguing that the letter and the people behind it are wrong and bad and ugly, I think he should have felt a responsibility to come up with something real, or not do it. I don’t think he did come up with anything real. He doesn’t even say why the letter and the protests are “creating divisions” more than any other letter or protest or other political activity – he just asserts that they are. I wonder if he really even believes that, or just thought it was the kind of thing you say when you take a dislike to a political view and can’t really explain why.

And here’s the thing. This is not a subject to be frivolous about. This isn’t some fad, you know. The pope is real, and he does real harm. He does the kind of harm that was done to Miranda Celeste Hale, for instance; he does it to millions of children – not personally, but institutionally. He does harm to women whose husbands are infected with the Aids virus; he does harm to women who need abortions; he does harm to people who would like to limit the number of children they have. These are not small things – these are things that mess up people’s lives.

Yet the great and the good in the UK are treating him as if he were a lovely auld fella. That means there really is a need to hear from people who say no he isn’t. I don’t see how that can be done other than by doing it. I think the only way to say the pope is not a lovely auld fella is to say it. Given that – I think it’s just self-regarding and self-indulgent and generally self-obsessed to worry about how groupy it all is, or whether the people doing it are having too much fun or not, or whether it will turn ugly some day. It’s over-scrupulous – and making a kind of parade of it. Get me, I have this fine radar that spots moral problems that the peasants don’t see.

That’s not a very nice thing to say, but I think it’s true.

What the pope said

Sep 19th, 2010 5:23 pm | By

I watched part of the pope’s speech at Westminster Hall on C-Span yesterday evening. He’s sure as hell not what you’d call charismatic, or even tolerable to listen to – fast, whispery, monotone – not fun. But the substance is what counts. The point is what he said.

Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God.

No it doesn’t. The Catholic church does not have an overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person. If it did it wouldn’t have let its priests fuck little boys in the ass, as Tim Minchin so elegantly put it. If it did it wouldn’t think it better for a woman to die than to abort a pregnancy. If it did it wouldn’t tell people not to use condoms during an Aids epidemic – if it did it wouldn’t tell people not to use contraception, period. If it did it wouldn’t have such scorching contempt for the notion that women should be allowed to be priests.

If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident…

Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.

Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century.

But religion was around then, offering its “corrective” – but the Catholic church was perfectly fine with slavery at the time, and it didn’t do much to “correct” Hitler, either. So what is the pope thinking of? That’s not clear. Perhaps he’s just hoping no one will notice that, and instead people will just think the Catholic church is just the ticket for a “corrective” now. That would be a stupid thing to think. The Catholic church has an absolutely terrible record of “taking full account of the dignity of the human person.” It’s been taking full account of the dignity of the Catholic church, but that’s not the same thing.

 I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.

He says, talking to a hall full of former prime ministers and other movers and shakers. He says, in the middle of a news-dominating trip to a mostly secular and/or Protestant country. He says, having received an amount and quality of deference and attention that would have made an emperor blush.

 there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.

“Their conscience” being the bit of them that thinks gays are icky and wants to treat them as different from and worse than other people. “The rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion” being the rights of people to treat certain sets of people as inferiors. That’s what this reactionary theocratic bastard is telling the British state – and complaining about being marginalized while he does it.

Informational question

Sep 19th, 2010 11:45 am | By

Is anyone else unable to get to Talking Philosophy? I’ve been getting a page that says “Forbidden” for almost a week; is it just me or is it some kind of magnetic disturbance over the US?

The lyrics

Sep 18th, 2010 4:50 pm | By

In case you want the lyrics to the pope song, here they are.

This is my favorite stanza, because it’s what I’m always thinking and what I keep saying and what was a big part of the argument of Does God Hate Women?

But if you build a church on claims of fucking moral authority
And with threats of hell impose it on others in society
Then you, you motherfuckers, could expect some fucking wrath
When it turns out you’ve been fucking us in our motherfucking asses.

That’s exactly it. Here’s the pope telling us we can’t be good without his god, but he and his priests aren’t good with his god, so I don’t think he knows a damn thing about being good, so I think he should stop acting like Global Boss of Morality. Or as Richard Dawkins put it more succinctly at the “We dislike the pope” rally,

Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity.

Siding with the already strong

Sep 18th, 2010 12:26 pm | By

There’s another thing about Julian Baggini’s rebuke of atheists for ganging up on the pope. It is the fact that it overlooks the gang on the other side. There was the gang that toddled obligingly along to Westminster Hall yesterday to listen deferentially to the pope telling them what’s what.

Pope Benedict tonight used the keynote address of his visit to Britain to protest at “the increasing marginalisation of religion” in public life, maintaining that even the celebration of Christmas was at risk.

In a dense, closely argued speech to an audience that included four former prime ministers, the pope said social consensus alone could not be left to decide policies…

Below him, seated in neat rows that stretched to the back of the vast, 900-year-old hall, were hundreds of parliamentarians and religious leaders.

Among them were Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Sir John Major, Lady Thatcher, William Hague and Nick Clegg.

That gang. The state, basically. There is also the vast majority of the mainstream media. Yet Baggini chooses to characterize atheists and protesters as being too many and too much and too rough.

I am glad that people are protesting on the key issues that the pope has got very wrong. If only a few people were doing so I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition. But when everyone starts piling in, it is perfectly reasonable for others to say it is time to back off before it gets too ugly.

Why is it the people saying “no” who are piling on and likely to get ugly? Why is it not the monarchy and the government and the media who are creating and enforcing a coercive consensus? Why is Baggini treating power, hierarchy and privilege as normal and protest against those things as deviant and excessive? Why is he worrying about “polarising disputes” and “contributing to an atmosphere” and “party lines” and “collateral damage” only in relation to the protesting minority while letting the theocracy-embracing majority entirely off the hook? Why is he blaming us while shielding them?

There are too few of you! Also too many!

Sep 17th, 2010 4:54 pm | By

Julian Baggini says why he declined to add his signature to a letter protesting against the pope’s visit and why he thinks the pope-protest is a bad thing.

Consider for a moment why almost every secular, liberal-minded person thought that Pastor Terry Jones was wrong to plan to burn Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9/11…The main problem is that by burning the holy book of all Muslims, the protest would fail to target jihadist murderers and would be seen as vehemently anti-Islam.

But jihadist murderers are not necessarily the only problem with Islam; it is not necessarily the case that being anti-Islam is self-evidently bad. It could be the case that there are many things wrong with Islam, and that it is reasonable to be critical of Islam and even anti-Islam. One can be anti-libertarian, anti-socialist, anti-Tory, anti-union. Why should one not be anti-Islam?

The kinds of protests against the pope we’re seeing in the UK do not, of course, match the idiocy of Jones’s pyrotechnics. But they too are creating divisions at a time when mutual understanding is already at a low…

But if it is forbidden to “create divisions” then we can never change anything. If it is automatically and self-evidently bad to “create divisions” then we just have to accept whatever the status quo is without a murmur. Baggini is “creating divisions” just by writing this piece. So what? Yes of course protests against the pope “create divisions”; my relationship with the Vatican, for instance, is at an all-time low. But I don’t think that is a reason to stop saying how bad the Vatican is.

Take Britain’s five million Roman Catholics. They are a very disparate bunch. Many despair of their church’s stance on women priests, homosexuality, condoms and child abuse. They would also like to take this trip as an opportunity to let the pontiff know that his British flock cannot be loyal on these issues. A few have even joined the Protest the Pope campaign. But how many more could have found common cause with their secular brethren had not the latter opposed the trip outright. “Nope pope” is not a slogan of a campaign that is doing its best to bring dissatisfied Catholics along with it.

But you can always say that, about anything – if you made your message more anodyne and ingratiating, you could find common cause with more people. Finding common cause with more people is not always the goal; sometimes the goal is to say what one thinks needs to be said.

It strengthens the perception that Britain is under the sway of what Cardinal Walter Kasper called an “aggressive neo-atheism”. It means that when the pope made a comparison between “atheist extremism” and Nazism, far from seeing it as the absurdity it is, many found themselves wondering if he had a point. We atheists can protest about the slur as much as we like, but we ought to realise that the more we engage in polarising disputes, the easier it will be to portray us as contributing to an atmosphere which, at its extreme, leads to assassination plots against religious leaders.

He says, doing his bit to portray us as contributing to an atmosphere which, at its extreme, leads to assassination plots against “religious leaders.” And what are “religious leaders,” anyway? The pope is the only official one in the world, and none of them are leaders in the democratic sense; they’re just men who have reached the top of some clerical hierarchy or other. The rest of us are under no obligation whatsoever to obey them or “respect” them or bend the knee to them in any way. They’re not the bosses of us. They’re not anyone’s leader except maybe the clerics of their own institutions. I trust I can say that without being accused of contributing to an atmosphere which leads to assassination plots against them.

I am glad that people are protesting on the key issues that the pope has got very wrong. If only a few people were doing so I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition. But when everyone starts piling in, it is perfectly reasonable for others to say it is time to back off before it gets too ugly. Party lines are the death of rational, free-thought movements: divided we stand, united we fall.

So…the protest against the pope is very naughty because it doesn’t find common cause with more people, but on the other hand, the protest against the pope is very naughty because it is too big and everyone is piling in and it’s a party line and divided we stand, united we fall.

It’s both of those? At the same time? Srsly?

All right; in that case they cancel each other out and I will feel free to ignore them.

Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged

Sep 17th, 2010 1:43 pm | By

Andrew Brown, for some opaque and never-explained reason, devotes himself to explaining what the pope meant in his “atheists=Nazis” speech. He does a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy act, saying “the pope believes” or “according to the pope” throughout, while in fact saying things that he clearly enjoys saying.

For him, a nation that turns away from God entirely has nothing to keep it from treating people as disposable means, rather than ends in themselves. The liberal appeal to reason, to choice, and to human rights doesn’t go far enough. He believes in all three, but he thinks they must be derived from something else. That something else was once generally understood to be Christianity. If that is no longer true, Benedict believes we are all shrunken and impoverished.

Yes, we know. We know he believes that. That is what we object to – along with the stunning amount of deference that is paid to the guy and to his vicious illiberal beliefs. We know he believes that reason and human rights “must be derived from something else” and that that something else is “God” and that “God” is “God” as understood by the Catholic church, which means one that thinks women should die rather than have abortions, that people should die of Aids rather than use condoms, that child rape by priests is church business only, and that women must never ever be priests on pain of excommunication. We think that’s an imbecilic thing to believe, and also harmful and authoritarian and reactionary. We know the pope believes that “we are all shrunken and impoverished” if we believe that; that’s exactly why we hate him and his church.

The astonishing variety and force of invective thrown at the pope and his church in much of the media over the last week must certainly, some of it, come from people who would like to drive religious faith out of public life. At the same time, it’s hard not to suppose that in some of this the Roman Catholic church is standing as a proxy for Islam, which is certainly a great deal more unpopular.

So…on the one hand it’s the product of evil secularists who don’t want bishops making laws, and on the other hand it’s the product of evil Islamophobes who are just pretending to be Catholocismophobes. Seriously?

Where secularists see religion as a divisive force, and their own beliefs as the self-evident and true base on which a healthy society can be built, Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged.

Here Brown takes the mask off and speaks for himself – and he apparently thinks that a country governed by the Catholic church would be more “healthy” than a secular one. He apparently would prefer 1950s Ireland to contemporary Britian. Of course he’s not a woman, or an impoverished child, but still -


Hello darlings: you’re all Nazis

Sep 16th, 2010 12:25 pm | By

So the pope, feeling somewhat backfooted by all this fuss about a few children being groped or cuddled or raped by priests and bishops, goes on the attack in his friendly pastoral visit to the UK.

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).

That vicious authoritarian theocratic homophobic misogynist hierarchical thug presumes to blame atheists for Nazism when his own fucking church was all but an ally of the Nazis and really was an ally of Mussolini and Franco.

Richard Dawkins is not terribly charmed.

This statement by the pope, on his arrival in Edinburgh, is a despicable outrage. Even if Hitler had been an atheist, his political philosophy was not based upon atheism and had no connection with atheism. Hitler was arguably (and by his own account) a Roman Catholic. In any case he enjoyed the open support of many of the most senior catholic clergy in Germany and the less demonstrative support of Pope Pius XII…

I am incandescent with rage at the sycophantic BBC coverage, and the sight of British toadies bowing and scraping to this odious man. I thought he was bad before. This puts the lid on it.

Quite. It’s simply foul – accusing people whose “crime” is refusal to believe in the invented god of the Catholic or any other church of being on a slippery slope to Nazism. Yet there are the great and the good bending the knee to this horror show. It’s revolting.

The community’s understanding of truth

Sep 15th, 2010 6:02 pm | By

There was also the Presbyterian minister who commented (and replied to comments, in an obliging and patient way) on Jerry’s post yesterday. He’s the liberal kind of minister, which is good in its way (less likely to persecute sinners and doubters, that kind of thing), but not convincing. What he said sounded merely evasive and empty to me (and to others). It sounded like what you would say if you were a liberal minister in an age of science; it sounded more like excuses than like theology.

For instance:

There are lots of priests, pastors and theologians in the Catholic Church and in many other denominations who would describe the resurrection as mystery or metaphor. What is essential in these branches of Christianity is the confession of faith in the resurrection, not a scientific explanation of how it happened.

I can’t make any sense of that. It’s a mystery or metaphor, yet what is essential is the confession of faith in it. What is a confession of faith in a metaphor?

I asked about that, and he politely answered (he really was generous about replying – if it’s the metaphor that makes him like that, well, that’s some points for the metaphor):

As I said, religious claims don’t fit into some kind of universal discourse. They have a peculiar character rooted in the story of each religious community and its story. So I’m sure that this does not make a whole lot of sense to you, any more than other people’s religious claims make much sense to me.

Which amounts to atheism, if you think about it. He thinks it doesn’t, because the story of each religious community makes sense to that community, therefore atheism, but I think it does, because if the other claims don’t make much sense, then there’s precious little reason to think any such claims make sense.

A later iteration:

Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and by true I don’t mean scientifically true, but true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth, which is a kind of truth that is thousands of years older than scientific truth.

But what does that mean? How is that not just empty verbiage? What does “true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth” mean? If Wittgenstein were here I would ask him, but he isn’t, and anyway I probably wouldn’t understand if he explained, and he would probably hit me with the poker rather than explain. Meanwhile I can’t make any sense of it – it just looks like an evasion, and (I apoligize, Rev. Simpson) rather smug about it – smug in the sense of being indifferent to its lack of real meaning. There is something rather smug about allowing oneself to be persuaded by verbiage in that way. Communities don’t get to have their own understandings of truth. They get to have their own stories if they want to, but their own truth? No. They can call it that, but it won’t be


Oley oley olsen freeo

Sep 15th, 2010 3:52 pm | By

I’m an expert on the hidden god, so I’m interested in what Rabbi Alan Lurie has to say about it.

This notion, that God’s presence is hidden, is a significant dilemma for many, and for some is clear proof that God does not exist…Many site the Holocaust, for example, as clear proof of God’s impotence or indifference.

No not proof; evidence; reasons. The notion that God’s presence is hidden is a reason to think god either doesn’t exist or is a nasty trickster.

The first step, then, is to let go of a literal vision of God, and to begin to know that the search for God is more akin to the search for love and connection than the search for a graviton or Big Foot.

In that case, why call it “God”? (I know I’ve said that some ten million times, but they don’t listen, so one just keeps having to say it again.) If you’re searching for a feeling, why call it by the same name as the all-powerful person? Well because that way you can make a living as a cleric. Any other reason?

the true purpose of religion is to help us recognize that we are more than our momentary desires

and that’s why god is hidden. Uh huh.

It takes a lot of time and effort to find god.

We don’t expect…to sleep through school and never open the textbooks and yet miraculously absorb the material.

So why don’t parents make their infants struggle to find them? Why isn’t that considered the best way to raise children?

Then he ends by saying the proofs are not much good and besides they’re useless because the point is the feeling. You have to have the feeling, and then you don’t care about the proofs – or the fact that god is under the currant bush behind the barn ten miles down the road in a distant galaxy.

Those bloodthirsty New Atheists

Sep 14th, 2010 2:21 pm | By

I saw this article by Chris Mooney yesterday but I couldn’t summon the will to comment on it. I waited for Jerry to do so instead. If I had commented I would have said something brisk about the silly word “spirituality,” but mostly I would have pointed out how heavily Mooney always leans on war-language when he talks about overt atheists, and how invidious that is. He leans especially heavily here.

We hear a lot these days about the “conflict” between science and religion — the atheists and the fundamentalists, it seems, are constantly blasting one another. But what’s rarely noted is that even as science-religion warriors clash by night, in the morning they’ll see the battlefield has shifted beneath them.

The old science-religion story goes like this: The so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, uncompromisingly blast faith, even as religiously driven “intelligent design” proponents repeatedly undermine science. And while most of us don’t fit into either of these camps, the extremes also target those in the middle. The New Atheists aim considerable fire toward moderate religious believers who are also top scientists, such as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins. Meanwhile, people like Collins get regular flack from the “intelligent design” crowd as well.

In this schematic, the battle lines may appear drawn, the conflict inescapable. But once spirituality enters the picture, there seems to be common ground after all.

It’s invidious, and it’s also quite sinister. It’s a kind of hate-mongering, done in a climate in which atheists are already abominated. I don’t think Mooney is unaware of that climate, so I don’t think he can be acquitted of being at least irresponsible about this. I think he is more or less deliberately stoking hatred of what he persists in calling “the New Atheists,” and I think that is reprehensible.

Are you calling the pope a witch?

Sep 13th, 2010 6:26 pm | By

The Freethinker tells us of an unusually idiotic outburst even for the Institute of Ideas (which is a refuge for the old Living Marxism gang, who apparently converted from “Revolutionary Communism” to libertarianism as a group and overnight) and Claire Fox. It’s about how the (wait for it) new atheists are demonizing that nice man the pope and (yes really) engaging in a witch hunt.

A New Atheist witch-hunt – in stark contrast to their own professed views on tolerance.

What professed views on tolerance? I, for one, have said many times that I don’t believe in blanket “tolerance”; it depends what is being tolerated and what the tolerance consists in. I don’t profess to tolerate everything. I don’t think most gnu atheists do; so what is Claire Fox referring to? I doubt that she knows; I think it’s just a cliché that right-thinking people profess tolerance and surely gnu atheists think of themselves as right-thinking so surely they must profess tolerance…or something.

But more to the point – what does she mean “witch hunt”? People – including some new atheists – are saying that Ratzinger should be held accountable for his actions and the actions of the organization he heads. That’s not the same thing as hunting witches. It’s nasty and dishonest to pretend it is.