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.


Mar 26th, 2012 5:19 pm | By

There’s a new course at UBC this spring: ‘Ecology, Technology, Indigeneity and Learning: Contexts, Complexities, and Cross-cultural Conversations’ May 7 – June 15, 2012. Tuesdays & Thursdays, 1:00 – 4:00pm
Here’s the skinny:

Ecological and technological educational discourses are often taught as separate discourses downplaying, or ignoring altogether, their interconnectedness, complexities, and complicities, as well as their diverse cultural contexts. This course offers students an opportunity to critically explore how to reconnect and reshape these storylines into enactments of equity, social justice, cultural inclusivity, environmental sustainability and environmental justice.

Students will be introduced to the voices of Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized peoples impacted by neoliberalism and global economics who share their struggles for survival, cultural regeneration and protection/reclamation of their lands, as well as their vibrant and rich technological ecoliteracies. These ecoliteracies speak to the complex social and ecological crises worldwide. Students will reflect on how they learn, think, feel, act, and write as they work toward the creation of sustainable learning communities — Indigenous, non-Indigenous, urban, rural, on-line, on-the-ground, classroom, or otherwise delineated — based on principles of respect, reciprocity, equivalency of epistemologies/methodologies/protocols, and shared dialogue.

This course will be of interest to education students seeking ways to introduce cross-cultural eco-sensibilities into their classroom teaching, as well as to students outside of education who are seeking a graduate course that addresses the multiple contexts, complexities, and complicities of the ecology—technology—Indigeneity/social justice interfaces.

I’m particularly interested in the “principle” of equivalency of epistemologies.

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

A tribe of one

Mar 26th, 2012 12:08 pm | By

There was an earlier Heathen’s Progress a few days ago, which did hint that the series isn’t in fact intended to go on forever. That’s good to know. (One needs to know what to pack.) On the other hand, Julian used it to treat all disagreement as “tribalism,” which looks to a naive observer like an unfair move.

First of all, it is dispiriting to see how tribal so many people seem to be. For all the interesting, thoughtful comments that have been posted on the pieces I’ve written, and supportive emails I’ve been sent, there have been many more that have used whatever the subject of the week is as a simple pretext to get in the familiar old digs against whoever the other tribe happens to be. There’s also been a tendency to take any critical comments I make as indications that I’m on a certain “side”, as though it is not possible to criticise your fellow travellers, or that we only agree with friends and those we disagree with are enemies.

Maybe, maybe, but then again one could just turn the whole idea back on him. One could argue (with evidence via quoting) that the whole series was full of “the familiar old digs” at the tribally-hated gnu atheists. I’ve been arguing that throughout: his “critical comments” have been 1) familiar 2) tribal 3) generalized and evidence-free. Given that, it seems painfully self-serving to say that most of the criticism his series has received has been tribal as opposed to thoughtful.

It’s probably true that much of the response was tribal; mine probably was tribal, but then Julian’s critical comments were directed at a tribe. His response now is rather like poking a dog with a stick and then complaining when the dog growls. He’s been talking about “new” atheists in a tribal way for years; we bristle because he talks about us that way; then he complains when we do what he’s been poking us to do. It’s all tribal. Sure, our response may be tribal, but his hand-waving generalizations about us are every bit as tribal, and his came first.

Actually I think his are a good deal more tribal, because they’re so general and vague, while the responses give chapter and verse.

The conclusion is pure poisoning the well.

…atheists need to be a bit more modest and self-effacing than they have appeared to be. The whole idea of the “heathen” label was to take ourselves a little less seriously. We say we respect science and reason, but what both have taught us more than anything is how fallible, biased, irrational and prejudiced we all are.

If you agree with these conclusions, then I expect you’ll find much to agree with in the Heathen Manifesto. If you don’t, and you like a good excuse to fire off a ranting response to a Comment is free belief blog, then start rubbing your hands now.

In other words, if you don’t agree with my conclusions, you’re the kind of person who likes to fire off ranting responses to a Comment is free belief blog. That’s how to be modest and self-effacing, folks! Just announce that all disagreement is malicious hand-rubbing ranting.

Tribal indeed.


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

A spectre is haunting the Guardian Open Weekend

Mar 26th, 2012 10:33 am | By

Oh no not that – not another installment of Heathen’s (ant-like) Progress. But yes, it is so.

This time it’s a manifesto. Oh good, more management of atheism by a self-nominated boss of atheism. More telling us all how to do it more korrektly by some random guy. More “we have to do it this way” from one person who keeps forgetting to show us his Certificate of Rulership Over All Atheists.

In recent years, we atheists have become more confident and outspoken in articulating and defending our godlessness in the public square. Much has been gained by this. There is now wider awareness of the reasonableness of a naturalist world view, and some of the unjustified deference to religion has been removed, exposing them to much needed critical scrutiny.

Unfortunately, however, in a culture that tends to focus on the widest distinctions, the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates, the “moderate middle” has been sidelined by this debate. There is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation, and a sense that the debates have sunk into a stale impasse, with the same tired old arguments being rehearsed time and again by protagonists who are getting more and more entrenched.


I’ve pointed this out a million times, and here I am having to point it out again. (Well not having to – but there it is again, so it needs pointing out, and I’m right here, so I’ll save you the bother.) Here’s the glaring problem with that passage (and with the article and with the whole series): Julian is himself contributing to the very perception he cites, in this very article and series. He’s been contributing to it for a long time, ever since the piece in the Norwegian humanist magazine Fritanke. The backlash against “new” atheism has created a perception that “new” atheism is shrill-and-militant, and having created the perception, it cudgels “new” atheism for being shrill-and-militant, thus enforcing the perception, for which it cudgels “new” atheism, some more, etc, in an endless cycle which does its bit to keep journalists solvent. Given that Julian is himself one of the people responsible for the “perception,” he’s the wrong person to keep wringing his hands about the perception. He’s the wrong person to point the finger at “a culture that tends to focus on the widest distinctions, the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates” when he’s a stalwart of that very culture. The fact that his statement that “there is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation” links to one of his own articles demonstrates this hilariously; I suspect that the link is editorial rather than authorial, but that makes it no less ironic.

It is time, therefore, for those of us who are tired of the status quo to try to shift the focus of our public discussions of atheism into areas where more progress and genuine dialogue is possible. To achieve this, we need to rethink what atheism stands for and how to present it. The so-called “new atheism” may have put us on the map, but in the public imagination it amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins, which is not an accurate representation of the terrain many of us occupy. We now need something else.

This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.

Modest, isn’t it. Who’s “we”? Who commissioned Julian to manage the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse? Whence comes all this instruction and prescription?

The manifesto itself – meh. It’s not so much a heathen manifesto as a Julian manifesto. It’s not quite up there with Marx and Engels for rhetorical flair, so meh.

h/t Geoff

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

Fuck the pope…but use a condom

Mar 25th, 2012 3:34 pm | By

Rowdy irreverent people in Mexico city protest the pope’s visit. I want to be friends with all of them!

Wisely, the pope is not going to Mexico City. He’s going to a city where people like him.

I wonder if his BFF Sayeeda Warsi is going to meet him there so that they can plan the war on militant secularism some more.

h/t Roger

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

Bifurcated epistemology is doing it wrong

Mar 25th, 2012 3:18 pm | By

PZ is doing another talk tomorrow, at the American Atheists National Convention. Subject: “Scientists! If you aren’t an atheist, you’re doing it wrong!” Regular commenter (here as well as there) julian disagreed.


I’d say if a philosopher’s not an atheist they’re doing it wrong but a scientist can be whatevs so long as they’re sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise.

I disagreed with that.

How is that not doing it wrong? How is believing something that is dependent on being sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise not doing it wrong?

I see how it’s technically possible, of course, and how it can be made to “work” in a narrow, vocational sense, but I don’t see how it is, considered more broadly, anything but doing it wrong.

To put it another way, of course strict compartmentalization is possible, but it’s not a respectable solution for a scientist or any other kind of honest inquirer.

That’s what I think. Being ignorant in order to do a special, defective kind of thinking is doing it wrong, as long as “it” is understood to be cognitive functioning in general as opposed to just doing a particular (scientific) job. Yes a scientist can do science in the lab and woo everywhere else, but that’s doing it wrong. NOMA is doing it wrong. Doing it wrong is doing it wrong.



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

It’s not a priority

Mar 25th, 2012 12:09 pm | By

I saw a powerful BBC report on FGM in Egypt the other day.

The most chilling part is at the very end (11:00) when Sue Lloyd Roberts asks a Salafist honcho if he’s on board with the campaign to end FGM and he said it’s not a priority. She pressed him by saying, “So you wouldn’t deter a mother who wants to get her underage daughter mutilated.”

He stared for a second and then said, with a tiny smirk, “I have nothing further to say on this matter.”

Sue Lloyd Roberts in voiceover: “The will of mothers like Olla will therefore be respected, and 11-year-old Raja will be mutilated.” Freeze-frame on young Raja.

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

Sometimes the ploy is really too obvious

Mar 25th, 2012 11:05 am | By

One such time is when a clerical type (or “expert” or “scholar” or other male boffin who dispenses religious rules) tells a woman she has to open her legs whenever her husband tells her to and that if she doesn’t she’s a sinner and that godknowsbest.

It’s Sheikh Assim Al-Hakeem I’m talking about this time. A woman said her husband was issuing the open legs command three times a day and it was too much, what should she do.

It is not permissible for a wife to refuse fulfiling her husband’s desire. You should answer his calls as this is not phisically hurting you.

If you can’t do that for no legitimate reason, you are sinful. You should ask him to marry another woman or to divorce you.

And Allah knows best

See what I mean? Transparent. Self-interested. God says women can never say no to a spousal fuck, and godknowsbest. If she wants an occasional break she should ask him to get a second wife. (Then maybe a couple of decades down the road she can have the fun of being murdered by the husband and wife #2, as with the Shafia family. It’s a great arrangement any way you look at it.)

If toddlers were in charge of religion it would be sinful for adults to refuse to give toddlers candy. Godknowsbest.

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

Marriage is defined as

Mar 25th, 2012 10:52 am | By

The Muslim Council of Britain says no thanks to marriage equality for gays.

Farooq Murad, Secretary General of the MCB, said: “Whilst we remain opposed to all forms of discrimination – including homophobia – redefining the meaning of marriage is in our opinion unnecessary and unhelpful.

“With the advent of civil partnerships, both homosexual and heterosexual couples now have equal rights in the eyes of the law. Therefore, in our view the case to change the definition of marriage, as accepted throughout time and across cultures, is strikingly weak.”

He added: “Like other Abrahamic faiths, marriage in Islam is defined as a union between a man and a woman. So while, the state has accommodated for gay couples, such unions will not be blessed as marriage by the Islamic institutions.”

Wut? Marriage in Islam is defined as a union between a man and a woman? Orilly? What happened to sura 4:3? What happened to “or two, or three, or four”?

It’s sweet that they remain opposed to all forms of discrimination though. Really adorable.

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


Mar 25th, 2012 9:33 am | By

It’s about time. Sarah Posner reports that – at last! – a judge rules for the ACLU in a challenge to the stinking meddlesome theocratic US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Late yesterday a federal court in Massachusetts ruled [PDF] in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union in a challenge it brought against the Department of Health and Human Services over contracts with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. When the ACLU first brought the case in 2009, HHS permitted the USCCB to prohibit the referral of victims of sexual assault to be referred for contraception and abortion services. Although HHS did not renew the USCCB contract last year, the ACLU proceeded with the case “to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not misused to impose religious restrictions on vulnerable trafficking victims that receive U.S. aid,” according to a statement.

And the judge ruled against theocracy.

Judge Richard Stearns agreed the case was not moot, and in holding that the policy permitting the Bishops to restrict trafficking victims’ access to reproductive health services violated the Establishment Clause, noted, “[t]o insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”

It does that and it also promotes respect for and freedom of people who follow no religion. It rules, in short, against theocracy.

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

Working Works Ltd

Mar 24th, 2012 3:01 pm | By

It’s a funny word, “works.” What do people mean when they talk about what works? Well it depends – if they’re talking about a toaster or a lawnmower it’s obvious enough what they mean. But the word is often used when the thing supposed to be working or not working is not a thing at all but something much larger and more nebulous, like a political system or a reform movement or a controversy, and then the meaning of “works” becomes not obvious at all.

I briefly joined in yet another argument with James Croft about his (as far as I can tell) favorite subject: whether or not “the atheist movement” is “working” and how he and his colleagues can make it “work” better by managing the way atheists communicate. After awhile I gave it up, because my joining in made no difference – James just kept on managing. But in the process I wondered, not for the first time, what James thinks he means by “working,” when it’s not as if “the atheist movement” is trying to do anything as simple as cutting grass or grilling bread.

Here’s some of that discussion:

James: The idea that opinions only may be given if they are solicited – a sort of “who asked you anyway” response – seems to me a criterion you would never accept in your own writing. One of the things I appreciate about your blog is that you have a view on almost everything, and are happy to express it. I think I am allowed to express my view too, including views which include some normative element (this is hardly uncommon on the other side of the debate, after all – pretty much every post about Chris, for instance, boils down to “he shouldn’t do what he’s been doing and here’s why”).

So, if anything, I think the shoe is on the other foot – here you are trying to tell me not to talk about certain things because you feel “managed” by my airing a different opinion. Well, I don’t want people to feel “managed”. And I accept I have a way of coming across kind of imperious in my writing (and in my speaking – my mum will tell you it’s been a constant struggle for me throughout my life ;) ). That’s something I’m trying to work on. But the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important. It’s worthy of scrutiny and deep consideration, and I think I have something to contribute to that discussion.

Me: Opinions are different from advice. Unsolicited opinions, good; unsolicited advice, usually not so much. That’s why it’s a phrase – “unsolicited advice.”

Here it is again – “the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important.”

So you want to manage it. But lots of us don’t want to be managed! Lots of us just want to do it however we do it and not be corrected all the time.

We don’t want to be herded into some “we” that “communicates our message to the public” in some pre-determined way.

We don’t want filters. We don’t want rules, especially not rules imposed by, say, you, or you and your colleagues. We don’t want frames we have to fit into.

There is no “we” in that sense. There is no unified body that all “communicates to the public” in one market-tested way. Thank god for that!

James: But no one is trying to “impose rules”. What I’m trying to do is have a discussion informed by evidence to determine what works. If, then, having determined what’s likely to be effective, people still wish to do other things, then fine – who am I to stop them? But to forestall the discussion before it has begun is not what I think we should be about.

Me: But I don’t think “works” is even a meaningful word here! I’ve learned to hate it, because of the way it gets deployed in claims precisely like that one. I don’t care what “works.” I certainly don’t care what the combined wisdom of the Harvard Humanists tells me “works.”

I could see it for one narrow subject like a billboard, say, or an ad like the one FFRF ran. Then it does matter what “works.” But for larger more amorphous activities like blogging? No.

And I think you are trying to impose rules (you plural, not you James). I think that’s the whole point of all this research into what “works.”

That’s what I think. It’s been what I think for a long time. It was what I thought when Chris Mooney was always giving the same kind of (unsolicited) advice, too. I don’t calculate what “works” before I write something, and I don’t want to; nor do I want other people to. I don’t even know what “work” would mean in that context – attract new readers? Not repel existing readers? Cause the pope to become an atheist? What?

I’m not interested. I’m not in sales, and I’m not a campaign advisor, so I don’t have to worry about what “works”; I can just try to tell the truth as I see it, about things that I consider important.

I think the whole idea is an excuse, frankly. I don’t think the advice-givers really care about what “works”; I think they dislike certain styles of writing and talking and want to discourage them, and framing it as about what works makes that seem more acceptable than would just saying, “Hey ew I don’t like your style, do it differently.” Maybe I’m wrong; that’s speculation; but that’s what I suspect.

And I really don’t want to be managed. If I wanted to be managed I would get a real job with a paycheck. I want to be un-managed, which is why I shy away from real jobs with paychecks.

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

A bargain

Mar 24th, 2012 12:04 pm | By

It can seem strange how entirely alien the whole idea of free discussion can seem to people who (I suppose) have never had any experience of it.

A Bangladesh court on Wednesday ordered authorities to shut down five Facebook pages and a website for blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed, the Koran and other religious subjects, a lawyer said.

Judges at the high court in Dhaka ordered the telecommunications regulator, home ministry officials and police to block the offending pages immediately.

“These pages contain disparaging remarks and cartoons about Prophet Mohammed, the Muslim holy book of Koran, Jesus, Lord Buddha and Hindu gods,” Nawshad Zamir, a lawyer of the petitioner who brought the case, told AFP.

“They mostly targeted the prophet and the Koran. These pages hurt the sentiments of the country’s majority Muslim population and the followers of other religions.”

One, no they don’t, not necessarily. It’s not as if “these pages” by existing force themselves on the notice of all people everywhere. Two…well it’s Minchin’s fucking obvious again, but ok: if that’s your standard then nobody can say anything about anything, including you. The prophet and the Koran “hurt” my “sentiments,” but I don’t get to block them. I get to make disparaging remarks about them, instead.

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

A quiet Saturday

Mar 24th, 2012 11:02 am | By

Any interesting news on the Reason Rally? Twitter isn’t all that informative, possibly because for once people are too engaged to waste much time tweeting. I did like this one -

“300 years after the enlightenment we have to have a rally for the fucking obvious” – Tim Minchin #reasonrally

It’s a thought I have often often often, or it might be more accurate to say I never stop having it. Why are we still having to say this when it’s so fucking obvious?

Dawkins made a similar point in the Washington Post a few days ago.

How have we come to the point where reason needs a rally to defend it? To base your life on reason means to base it on evidence and logic. Evidence is the only way we know to discover what’s true about the real world. Logic is how we deduce the consequences that follow from evidence. Who could be against either? Alas, plenty of people, which is why we need the Reason Rally.

Quite. I wonder how the True Reason people and their “water for the thirsty” are getting along.

Lots of Freethought bloggers are there, of course, making complicated plans to find each other in the crowd – PZ, Ed, Greta, JT, Jen, Hank, Dan, Brianne, Mano, that I know of. Have fun, all.


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

Silver lining

Mar 23rd, 2012 6:16 pm | By

Anti-abortion campaigners in the UK are saying horrendous things to schoolgirls age 14 and 15 – not just that it causes breast cancer and infertility, but

Conceiving a child after rape is the “ultimate unplanned pregnancy”, but to have an abortion at this stage can be a “second trauma,” children at a secondary school in Cambridgeshire were told.

“For some people who’ve been raped and had the baby, even if they don’t keep it, something positive comes out of that whole rape experience,” pupils aged 14 and 15 were told.

Something positive comes out of that whole rape experience. Something positive comes out of that whole rape experience. Oh yes, carrying a rapist’s baby to term and then giving it up – that’s bound to produce “something positive” all right. That’s obviously much more likely to produce “something positive” than is ending the pregnancy before it gets going and continuing with one’s own life as opposed to being violently diverted from it.

H/t Andrew Copson.

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

LA Council v hipster misogyny

Mar 23rd, 2012 2:24 pm | By

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday urged broadcasters to knock it off with the sexist and racist epithets. Urging is all they can do, because governments can’t mess with free speech, but they did urge. I anticipate panic about a slippery slope, or perhaps Rush Limbaugh shouting a volley of sexist racist epithets at the Los Angeles City Council.

Or perhaps, worse, there will be dozens or thousands of solid citizens who will phone and text and email the Council to point out that mere werds are harmless and that they’re a bunch of pussy-whipped idiots who should be kicked in the cunt for thinking otherwise.

Nevertheless, they do think otherwise. They think words do matter.

The City Council called on TV and radio broadcasters Wednesday to keep their  hosts from spouting crude slurs, citing Rush Limbaugh’s reference to a woman as  a “slut” and KFI’s John and Ken calling Whitney Houston a “crack ho.”

The council voted 13-2 for a resolution urging Los Angeles stations to do ”everything in their power to ensure that their on-air hosts do not use and  promote racist and sexist slurs over public airwaves.”

Government has no right to suppress “hateful, vile, despicable speech” but  society should not tolerate it, Councilman Paul Krekorian said. “We can drown  out that hatred with a loud chorus.”

The measure was sponsored by three black council members and supported by  civil rights and minority media groups. It was broadened after originally naming  only KFI-AM and its owner, Clear Channel, which carries Limbaugh and owns  hundreds of stations nationwide.

Burbank-based KFI has 1.5 million listeners on any given weekday, the  resolution said.

At the council meeting, speakers said the focus was on conservative radio  shows such as Limbaugh’s, accusing them of trading in crude stereotypes of  blacks, women and Latinos.

“It’s ugly. It’s violent. They’re inciting others to violence,” said Alex Nogales, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Noooo, they’re just exercising their gift for poetry.

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

The unseen

Mar 23rd, 2012 11:14 am | By

Some more on Bart Ehrman and places where he seems too definite.

Backing up from where I started yesterday (which was p 82), on p 78 he says that mythicists fail to appreciate

that our surviving accounts, which began to be written some forty years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death, were based on earlier written sources that no longer survive. But they obviously did exist at one time, and they just as obviously had to predate the Gospels that we now have.

Obviously? Well it’s not obvious to me, for one. Plausible, but not obvious.

But that pales in comparison to what he says on p 86. He starts with mythicists’ claims about Paul’s lack of knowledge of Jesus, and says they’re flawed and he’ll say more later.

But even if we leave Paul out of the equation, there is still more than ample reason for thinking that stories about Jesus circulated widely throughout the major urban areas of the Mediterranean from a very early time. Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century.

They’re all independent, he says. They’re written in different places, they contain different accounts, but they agree on many of the basics: Jesus was ”a Jewish teacher of Palestine who was crucified on order of Pontius Pilate, for example.” Where did all these sources come from? They couldn’t have been invented independently because there’s too much agreement.

Instead, they are based on oral traditions. These oral traditions had been in circulation for a very long time before they came to be written down. This is not pure speculation. Aspects of the surviving stories of Jesus found in the written Gospels, themselves based on earlier written accounts, show clearly both that they were based on oral traditions (as Luke himself indicates) and that these traditions had been around for a very long time…

Here’s the problem. Note that “Otherwise it is impossible to explain all the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century.” Because he says “all” he must mean the ones that don’t actually exist as well as the ones that do – but if that’s what he means, he’s arguing in a circle. He does the same thing with “themselves based on earlier written accounts.” He twice cites “written sources/accounts” that don’t actually physically exist but are inferred via ones that do, as if they were physical evidence. That’s terribly circular. It may be that the sources did exist; it seems quite plausible that they did; but he doesn’t know that they did. It’s circular to rely on them as conclusive.

Then at the end of the chapter, which is on the Gospels as historical sources, on page 92 he says there are surviving Gospels that attest to the existence of Jesus, and that

these independent witnesses are based on a relatively large number of written predecessors, Gospels that no longer survive but that almost certainly once existed.

I balk there. I can see saying “almost certainly” about a natural process that has no perverse human mind to mess things up, but I balk at saying it about human activities. I balk at the implicit claim that it’s “almost certain” that the predecessors were written rather than oral.

He sums up

If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another’s claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus.

Again he seems to be lumping actual, existing written sources with notional, non-existent written sources in order to call them relative abundance, which I think is not fair to the reader.

He could well be right about all of it. But I think he should be more careful with those postulated but absent written sources.

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

Packing the courts

Mar 23rd, 2012 10:15 am | By

This is familiar – there’s a new book out, The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, and guess what – it’s packed to the rafters with Templeton-connected people, and with the other kind of people not so much. The evolution section, for instance -

Denis Alexander is director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, which was originally funded (and still gets funds from) the Templeton Foundation. He’s also on the Board of Trustees of the Templeton Foundation.

We already know Michael Ruse, who is sympathetic to religion and, in fact, despite his atheism is very generous (and ingenious) in offering the faithful arguments for reconciling religion and science. I would hope his piece would highlight the incompatibility between Darwinism and religion, but I’d bet heavily against that.

The work of Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist at Cambridge who studies evolutionary convergence, is supported by a grant from the Templeton foundation to the tune of nearly one million dollars. He believes that convergence (the independent evolution of similar features in diverse lineages) is evidence for God.

Stephen C. Meyer is an intelligent-design creationist and director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

Francisco Ayala won the one-million-pound Templeton Prize in 2010.

John Haught, whom I debated in Kentucky last year, is a theologian at Georgetown University who is famous for concoting the “Argument for God from Hot Beverages.” He is a member of the Board of Advisors of the John Templeton Foundation.

Paul Draper, a philosopher of religion at Purdue University in Indiana, is a Templeton Research Fellow.

Of the seven authors in this section, all are sympathetic to religion, and five are or have been associated with or supported by the Templeton Foundation. One is a creationist. Yet this book is not published by Templeton, but by Wiley, a (formerly) reputable publisher.

That’s familiar – the reputable publisher part. We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it all the way back in October 2010.

I was at the bookstore browsing for nothing in particular, and I spotted The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion and took it down for a look. There were other Cambridge Companions listed in the front and back, and they were all religious – which is not surprising, since I now see on the CUP site that it is in the series Cambridge Companions to Religion. Not Cambridge Companions to Science, but Cambridge Companions to Religion. Not Cambridge Companions to both religion and science, but Cambridge Companions to Religion – despite the fact that Science gets top billing in the title.

Well that seems to confirm an impression I’m always getting from this Sci&Relig stuff, which is that it’s a religious endeavor, period. The outreach is all on one side. Science doesn’t have any interest in yoking the two, or in trying to create a discipline in which the two are yoked; but religion apparently has an enormous amount of interest in that. Religion, apparently, wants to try to siphon off some of the prestige of science for its own more dubious ventures, and this is one of the wheezes it is currently trying.

I read some of the introduction by the editor, Peter Harrison. In the last paragraph, he says something to the effect that: you may notice that none of the essays defend the idea that science and religion are in conflict; this is not because of any bias but because nobody who knows much about the subject thinks that that idea has any legs.

Uh. Sounds like any bias to me, I thought. So later, I did a little googling – I looked up Peter Harrison. I was wondering, among other things, if I would find any mention of the Templeton Foundation anywhere. Well I won’t keep you in suspense – I did.

Harrison is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College (which I have to admit is a college I’ve never heard of), and also connected in some way to something called “The Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford.” What the hell is that? you may wonder. It’s “part of the Theology Faculty in the University of Oxford. It has the special aim of promoting high quality teaching and research in the exciting field of science and religion.” Aaaaaaaaand

From 1995 to 2003 the Centre was a beneficiary of the John Templeton Foundation through a grant administered by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley.

And on this page we also find that Peter Harrison is the director of this Centre. A previous director, Dr Arthur Peacocke, won the Templeton Prize in 2001.

Now Wiley is doing what Cambridge University Press did. Templeton is having massive success in its enterprise of making it appear that religion and science are irrevocably paired and that both have something of value to offer to their yoke-mates.

There’s also OUP, as we learned the next day.

We also have a BBC article by Thomas Dixon saying, in a roundabout sort of way, that science and religion are compatible. Dixon wrote the Oxford University Press Science and Religion: a very short introduction. Under “About the author” on that page we learn that

Thomas Dixon is Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London. A member of the International Society for Science and Religion and an expert on modern intellectual history…

So, all agog, we look into what the International Society for Science and Religion might be – and we find out.

the Society has now grown to over 140 members, including many of the leading scholars in the science and religion field. Indeed the last two presidents, George Ellis, a theoretical cosmologist and Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, and John Polkinghorne, are both recipients of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities – the world’s best-known religion prize, awarded each year to a living person to encourage and honour those who advance spiritual matters.

We find that it’s really about Religion and science, not Science and Religion; that it’s by and for and about theism and theists trying to connect their theism to science; that it’s nothing to do with scientists as scientists trying to connect to religion. We find that it’s what looks very much like a stealth Templeton outfit giving an appearance of an extra splash of prestige to authors who write books about Religion and science.

If we dig around a little more we find one of Templeton’s grants to the International Society for Science and Religion:

Through this project, the International Society for Science and Religion will select an essential reference library for the field of science and religion. Upon selecting some 250 books, a companion volume will be prepared with short summaries and critical evaluations of each book. The project will distribute approximately 150 sets of these books through a competitive program to establish new science and religion libraries throughout the world, particularly in India, China, and Eastern Europe.

Why – that sounds like missionary work, or like cold war propaganda, or both. It certainly sounds like yet another brick in the edifice of this new discipline “Science and Religion” which, thanks largely to Templeton, is eeling its way into major universities in the UK and the US.

Cambridge UP, Oxford UP, the BBC, and Wiley. They’re doing well.


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

Reason Rally Marks Turning Point for Secular Movement, American Politics

Mar 23rd, 2012 8:27 am | By

Just in case you didn’t know -


(Washington, DC) Atheists are coming out of the closet – and coming together. At a press conference held this morning at the National Press Club, Reason Rally organizers and speakers hailed the upcoming event as an unprecedented display of numbers and unity. The Reason Rally, a national gathering of nonreligious Americans to celebrate secular values, will take place from 10AM-6PM on March 24th and is estimated to draw thousands. It is being sponsored by all the major organizations in the Secular movement.

“The Reason Rally proves to all of us that we can unite, cooperate and succeed to achieve our common goals of advancing secularism in America,” said David Silverman, chair of the Reason Rally and President of American Atheists. “This unity is a major victory in and of itself, and will prove to be the first step toward a long-term, movement-wide effort to raise the profile of the atheist.”

Journalist Jamila Bey, one of the Reason Rally speakers, said the event would be a “wake up call” to the nation. “The country is evolving. We are women, we are men, we are children and we are parents. We live here, we vote, we buy things. We matter.”

Politicians in particular will need to take notice of the growing unity of the secular movement, said speaker Sean Faircloth, representative from the Richard Dawkins Foundtion.

“There needs to be a place in politics for voices like famous conservative Barry Goldwater, who had no respect for the Religious Right,” said Faircloth, who served 10 years in the Maine state government. “But the reality is that right now, the Religious Right has veto power over one of the two major political parties.”

The Reason Rally will help change that, said comedian Paul Provenza, who will emcee the event. “Part of what this rally is about is to show that there is an audience and a base for those willing to stand up against the Religious Right forcing their beliefs on everyone.”

The Rally, a free event on the National Mall, features prominent nonreligious speakers and entertainers including scientist and author Richard Dawkins, comedian Eddie Izzard, “Mythbusters” co-star Adam Savage, comedian and musician Tim Minchin and the band Bad Religion.

More information about the Reason Raly can be found at


For more information contact:

Jesse Galef

Publicity Director

Reason Rally Coalition

cell: 614-654-0772

office: 614-441-9588 x101

The Reason Rally is sponsored by American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance of America, The Brights, Camp Quest, Center for Inquiry, Freethought Society, The James Randi Educational Foundation, Military Atheists and Freethinkers, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Secular Student Alliance, Secular Coalition for America, Society for Humanistic Judaism, Stiefel Freethought Foundation, United Coalition of Reason and Washington Area Secular Humanists.

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

Have you ever seen Brendan O’Neill and Bill O’Reilly in the same place?

Mar 22nd, 2012 5:22 pm | By

Brendan O’Neill is tearing his hair out in frustration at the mystifying way gay marriage has suddenly puffed up huge and taken over all the things!!11 He just doesn’t understand. He’s baffled. He can’t figure it out. He’s amazed.

As I say, nothing in this debate makes sense. This is such a relatively overnight concern, and is so unrooted in political campaigning or historical substance, that it would make as much sense if, tomorrow, every politician and commentator in the land suddenly started talking about how important it is to give women the right to live in treehouses. After all, there are probably some women who want to live in treehouses, and the public might well support their right to do so while also arguing that making it happen should not be a parliamentary priority, so why don’t Cameron and the commentariat make a big deal of that?

Good point! Super super super good point! Or why don’t they make a big deal of giving dogs the right to wear orange Crocs? Because obviously the right to marry is every bit as wack and trivial and random as the right to live in treehouses or wear orange Crocs. So funny of Brendan O’Neill to spot that and say it.

Because it strikes me that what is happening here is that, under the cover of ‘expanding equality’, we are really witnessing the instinctive consolidation of a new class, of a new political set, which, lacking the familiar moral signposts of the past, has magicked up a non-issue through which it might define itself and its values.

The reason the gay-marriage issue can feel like it came from nowhere, and is now everywhere, is because it is an entirely top-down, elite-driven thing. The true driving force behind it is not any real or publicly manifested hunger amongst homosexual couples to get wed, far less a broader public appetite for the reform of the institution of marriage; rather it is the need of the political and media class for an issue through which to signify its values and advertise its superiority. Gay marriage is not a real issue – it is a cultural signifier.

Right! Because there totally are no homosexual couples who want to marry! Not one. All those ones you think you know, they are a hallucination. And Brendan O’Neill, who is a coal miner from the very rudest part of Glasgow, knows this because coal miners have a Deep Instinctual Knowledge of elite-formation and cultural signifiers, which they adeptly turn into think-pieces for scrofulous little outlets like Spiked.

But suddenly we leave the shit-stained cobblestones to veer into the laminated boardrooms of groups like Focus on the Family.

But even in its own terms, gay marriage is a bad idea, for many reasons. Primarily because, while it is presented to us as a wonderfully generous act of cultural elevation (of gay couples), it is more importantly a thoughtless act of cultural devaluation (of traditional marriage). An institution entered into by millions of people for quite specific reasons – often, though not always, for the purpose of procreation – is being casually demoted, with the Lib-Con government even proposing that the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ no longer be used in official documents.

Godalmighty what an asshole. What’s he going to do next? Take over the running of Santorum’s campaign? Wot price Living Marxism, eh Bren?



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

It is our duty to refuse

Mar 22nd, 2012 9:34 am | By

A doctor on transvaginal ultrasounds: where is the physician outrage?

Fellow physicians, once again we are being used as tools to screw people over. This time, it’s the politicians who want to use us to implement their morally reprehensible legislation. They want to use our ultrasound machines to invade women’s bodies, and they want our hands to be at the controls. Coerced and invaded women, you have a problem with that? Blame us evil doctors. We are such deliciously silent scapegoats.

It is our responsibility, as always, to protect our patients from things that would harm them. Therefore, as physicians, it is our duty to refuse to perform a medical procedure that is not medically indicated. Any medical procedure. Whatever the pseudo-justification.

It’s time for a little old-fashioned civil disobedience.

Second that.

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

What Ehrman actually says

Mar 22nd, 2012 8:48 am | By

Richard Carrier takes a look at Bart Ehrman’s article at the Huffington Post on the did-Jesus-exist question. One point Richard makes jumped out at me, because the same thing jumped out at me in Ehrman’s book.

Mistake #2: Ehrman actually says (and I can’t believe it, but these are his exact words):

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all.

Richard doesn’t have the book yet, and he attempts to give Ehrman the benefit of the doubt in the article.

 That he actually says we have this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source is, by contrast, profoundly incompetent writing. I am certain he did not really mean to lie. In his emotional pique, he just didn’t proof his own article and thus didn’t notice how badly he misspoke. But that suggests he is driving on emotion and not reason or any careful process.

But Ehrman says it in the book too.

On page 82 he sums up the preceding claims about sources that [must have been] behind the existing Gospels and fragments of gospels that actually exist.

 The view that Jesus existed is found in multiple independent sources that must have been circulating throughout various regions of the Roman Empire in the decades before the Gospels that survive were produced.

That’s one place where Ehrman does the thing that Richard (quite rightly, I think) protests – he talks about conjectural sources as if they were more than conjectural. “Is found” is a very odd phrase to use of “sources” that, if you read closely, he is admitting don’t survive. Turn the sentence around to see it more clearly: It is conjectured that there were sources for the Gospels that survive. They must have been circulating throughout the Empire.  The view that Jesus existed is found in these sources (as well as the ones that do survive). See how odd that looks? We think there were sources. They didn’t survive.  The view that Jesus existed is found in them.

Then he does it again, but more so – more like the way he does it in the HP article. Continuing without a break:

Where would the solitary source that “invented” Jesus be? Within a couple of decades of the traditional date of his death, we have numerous accounts of his life found in a broad geographical span. In addition to Mark, we have Q, M (which is possibly made of multiple sources), L (also possibly multiple sources), two or more passion narratives, a signs source, two discourse sources, the kernel (or original) Gospel behind the Gospel of Thomas, and possibly others. And these are just the ones we know about, that we can reasonably infer from the scant literary remains that survive from the early years of the Christian church. No one knows how many there actually were. Luke says there were “many” of them, and he may well have been right.

You see how it is.

Now, in context it’s possible to read ”we have” as a loose way of saying “we have these items I’ve been explaining” – but – given that the evidence for the existence of Jesus is the subject of the book, it’s really not a good way to put it. Given that we don’t literally “have” any such thing and that that’s part of the argument for the mythic status of Jesus, it does seem at least woefully sloppy to say we do.

Update: On a re-read, I think I should clarify that in that last passage all the claimed “numerous accounts” that we “have,” after Mark, are conjectural. Everything after “In addition to Mark” is what we in fact don’t literally have. It’s possible to realize that that’s what he’s saying, if you read carefully, but it’s also very easy to misunderstand. He should have been much more careful. I’ll be interested to see what Richard says he should have done.

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