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.

Invisible companions

May 13th, 2011 3:59 pm | By

I have a few stalkers. Not real stalkers, just cyberstalkers. Maybe not even real cyberstalkers – just people who hate me and monitor my every online move and frequently blog or comment or tweet about how bad and stupid I am. One of them (that I know of) goes in for obscenity, but he talks that way about everyone and everything, so I don’t suppose he has many readers, especially not readers with any sense. Others just do stupid sneery stuff about new atheism and how pathetic it is that I’m saying whatever it is this time.

They’re all male, the ones I know about. Make of that what you will.

It’s odd having stalkers. It’s odd having people that worked up about One. It’s odd having people who after months or even years are still watching, still staring, still fuming, still blogging or commenting or tweeting.

(Mind you, I suppose C___s M____y could say the same thing about me. But C___s M____y has a much bigger public profile than I do – what C___s M____y says and writes has far more impact in the wider world. Furthermore, months go by when I don’t murmur a syllable about C___s M____y. My stalkers take much shorter breaks.)

Never mind. It’s Friday afternoon, and the people gutting the house 10 feet away from me across the alley will be leaving soon, and then I won’t be hearing them again until Monday morning; that will be pleasant.

Have a nice weekend, Stalkers! Well, a weekend, anyway. Have one. Have a weekend, and a rest, and maybe a chill pill.

Switching claims in midstream

May 12th, 2011 3:23 pm | By

Hmmyes. I listened to some of the interview again. As Tyro pointed out, there’s one place where Mooney very sharply contradicts himself – admits he has no evidence then almost instantly says he has a lot of evidence and a lot of knowledge. It’s quite remarkable.

This is in the part where they’re talking about the controversy over Mooney’s dogma that frank atheism is “counter-productive” (to what, is not spelled out). Lindsay says what’s the evidence, isn’t it a hunch.

Mooney says no, we know this: religion is a deeply held belief, it’s part of people’s identity, challenges to it trigger a defensive response. Lindsay says yes but that’s a general theory of the psychology of belief; do you have any actual evidence that the books and so on of the new atheists have actually been counter-productive.

No, not as such, Mooney says, but you say it like I should have, it would be expensive, complicated, difficult, blah blah – someone should do a study, and if someone did and the results were – I don’t know what they would be, I have a suspicion, but I don’t know, but if they were different from what I’m saying, I’d be happy to acknowledge that.

Big of him, isn’t it.

Lindsay says right, so it’s a hunch, so do you have any evidence that -

And Mooney interrupts and says quite sharply:

It’s more than a suspicion, it’s an inference from a lot of evidence and a lot of knowledge.

This must be about ten seconds after admitting that he did not have evidence.

He’s apparently too glib and too pleased with himself and too self-righteous even to hang on to an awareness that he in fact does not have any evidence for the claims he’s actually making (as opposed to a much wider looser more obvious and common sense claim that some people don’t change their beliefs just because an atheist challenges them) for more than a few seconds.

It’s not about that claim. Duh. We know that some people cling to their beliefs no matter what. We don’t need Chris Mooney to tell us that. That’s not the claim that’s disputed. The claim that’s disputed is that frank atheism is counter-productive. That is a different claim. Chris Mooney doesn’t have a shred of evidence for it – and in fact he’s never even defined it.

Science communication indeed.

Paul W on the social psychology of conformity

May 12th, 2011 8:31 am | By

Guest post by Paul W.

Mooney claims that he’s done a lot of research and that his position is based on a lot of knowledge, and it’s all psychology, but IMO he seems almost entirely ignorant of the most relevant kind of psychology—social psychology of conformity going back to Solomon Asch’s very famous experiments in the 1950′s.

(Asch was Stanley Milgram’s advisor—Milgram being the guy who did the even more famous experiments on obedience to authority, where people thought they were shocking other people with dangerously high voltages because a scientist said to.)

Here are some topics worth looking up on Wikipedia—Mooney should demonstrate his familiarity with this stuff if he wants to be taken at all seriously, and his critics would do well to know about the six decades of relevant research he persistently ignores:

Conformity, Asch Conformity Experiments, Normative Social Influence, Social Proof, Information Cascade, and especially Minority Influence and Spiral of Silence.

Scientists and philosophers especially are in a position to exert minority influence, ending a spiral of silence by providing social proof, and undermining the information cascade that supports religion.

But that is exactly what Mooney is most opposed to—he is against the experts voicing the kind of expert opinion that has the greatest potential for minority influence, and he actively tries to undermine the appearance of expertise and minority solidarity that makes minority influence work best.  He is firmly on the side of the normative conformity that keeps the masses ignorant of the kind of minority but expert view that could actually change a substantial number of minds.

He constantly misrepresents his politically convenient stances—e.g., that science can’t address supernaturalist claims that are “unfalsifiable”— as the majority view among experts, when in fact they are clearly not.  (Even  his favorite go-to philosopher of science, Barbara Forrest, says that the success of methodological naturalism is good evidence that supernaturalism is false.  Science conflicts with almost all religion at a very basic level, and most philosophers and top scientists do know that.)

And he constantly misrepresents the science of communication, making it sound like all the evidence is on his side.  That is very far from the truth.

If he’s really done his psychology homework, I have to suspect that he knows that.  He knows that the bulk of social psychology is actually quite friendly to Overton-type strategies.

But of course he never even mentions Overton-type strategies, or any of the social science that undermines his simplistic framing of framing.  He ignores six decades of absolutely mainstream social psychology that’s fairly directly relevant to his theses, and even scoffs at anybody who even suggests things are not as simple and obvious as he makes them out to be.  He’s the expert, and he has lots of knowledge.

It just happens that his “lots of knowledge” conveniently doesn’t seem to include most of the utterly basic things you learn in the first half of a first course on social psychology.

No room in the tent

May 11th, 2011 3:45 pm | By

Once again…“interfaith” understanding runs afoul of other values, and loses.

As a committed Christian and a queer atheist who both work to advance interfaith and intercultural understanding, we’ve watched with heavy hearts as Sojourners and its evangelical founder Jim Wallis have been taken to task in the blogosphere this week for declining to run an advertisement sponsored by Believe Out Loud, an organization committed to full LGBTQ equality in Christian churches. The overwhelming reaction so far has mostly consisted of resounding condemnation, including from many people we both know and deeply respect.

That’s been my reaction, certainly. It’s a no-brainer. The issue at stake is: is it ok for religious people to shun people who want to attend their church, solely because the people in question are two women and their little boy? The answer seems pretty obvious: no. It’s not ok to shun people who are not, say, war criminals or mass murderers. It’s not “controversial” to say you shouldn’t shun people for being gay and that you should welcome them instead. Sojourner doesn’t agree – so Sojourner gets a lot of criticism. That seems fair to me.

Those who question the integrity of an organization that adopts a moderate position make it more difficult for many evangelicals to find common ground with the LGBTQ community, in the same way that bullying tactics used by conservative organizations like Focus on the Family under the leadership of James Dobson made it difficult for many of our queer friends to ever believe that they could build authentic relationships with or find common cause with evangelicals.

Well here we see the problem with this “finding common ground” obsession. Finding common ground is all very well, but there are limits. Clearly for a lot of people, one of the limits is refusing to accept a “let’s welcome gay people” ad. Comparing that to Focus on the Family is one comparison too many (to bastardize Bernard Williams).

The two of us may be very different — a heterosexual man committed to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and a queer atheist who spends his spare Sunday mornings dreaming up new tattoos — but we share something more significant than our differences: a common desire to see compassion and reconciliation in the world between people of all religious and nonreligious perspectives. Sadly, controversies like these make it more difficult, rather than easier, to build these bridges and participate in the important work of healing the world’s bitter divisions.

We trust that Sojourners and Jim Wallis know this, and attempts to publicly shame them for trying to build broad coalitions make their job, and all of our jobs, that much harder.

Again – building bridges all very well, healing bitter divisions all very well, but not at the price of giving up core principles.

James Croft has a very nice post on the subject.

Ron Lindsay talks to Chris Mooney

May 11th, 2011 1:02 pm | By

Heard Lindsay talking to Mooney yet? Very interesting.

They start with accommodationism and the putative compatibility of religion and science. Lindsay quotes a bit from Unscientific America in which M&K say the NAS and other big science outfits say the two are “perfectly compatible.” Lindsay presses that point, and Mooney ends up admitting he’s not sure “perfectly” is an exact quote and he’ll look it up…

Which kind of sums up the whole disagreement right there. Yes we all know they’re “compatible” in the superficial sense, but are they compatible all the way down? Are they compatible in the substantive sense? Are they perfectly compatible? Of course not.

Then they move on to the Catholic church and its generous tolerance of evolution. Lindsay points out that that doesn’t really count as the Catholic church being compatible with science, given that it also insists – and tells believers to believe – that god intervened by giving humans “souls” and thus different from all other animals, a difference scientists don’t accept. Mooney says that’s all right provided it’s a supernatural claim, because science can’t say nuffink about that. If the Catholic church said humans have souls and we can prove it and here’s the data, then it would be a scientific claim and science could say No, but as it is, it’s not, so science can’t, and that means science and religion are compatible.

So the deal is, as long as it’s just a perfectly legless reasonless arbitrary assertion, it’s compatible with science, and no one can say “but that’s bullshit.”

Then Mooney claims that “methodological naturalism” is dominant and mainstream and the reason he’s right.

Then he talks about Galileo and Newton being motivated by their religion to do science. Lindsay shrewdly objects that we can’t know what might have motivated them if they’d lived in a less religious time and place…and Mooney just pretty much brushes that off. Things get somewhat worse from then on – Mooney’s tone (yes “tone”) gets more dogmatic and certain and, at times, scornful. He’s very confident of what he thinks he knows, and somewhat patronizing in defense of it.

They move on to the badness of new atheism. Lindsay asks if he has any evidence for the putative badness, and Mooney rather irritably says no, he couldn’t have, it would be too complicated and expensive. “So you could shut up about it then,” I murmured pensively, and Lindsay made a similar point, with nicer words. Mooney said no no, it’s perfectly all right for him to draw big conclusions, because “it’s an inference based on a lot of knowledge.”


Lindsay points out that European countries do better at scientific literacy and understanding of evolution, and that that’s probably because they are more secular and thus less inclined to let religion trump science. The US could become more like that. Mooney wasn’t having that – he knows better. Lindsay suggested that direct criticism of religion might be a step on this road; Mooney said “that’s incredibly naive psychologically.”


Then they talked about the Templeton Foundation, and Mooney’s “fellowship,” and the fact that it was controversial. Would you accept a fellowship from the Discovery Institute? Lindsay asked. No. Liberty University? Probably not. But they interfere with science, and Templeton doesn’t. Templeton, he said, “are generating a dialogue about the relationship between science and religion.” He thinks that’s a good thing.

I don’t.

I also don’t think he is thinking about it carefully enough. He’s not, for instance, apparently aware that the knowledge he thinks he has is largely Templeton knowledge – it’s knowledge that fits right into Templeton’s agenda and that is produced by Templeton funding. The books he’s read that tell him about Newton’s motivation and so on very often turn out, when one looks at the copyright page and then at google, to have been written by people with Templeton connections. I’m not a bit sure they don’t always turn out to have been written by such people. I don’t think he realizes the extent to which he’s parroting a line.

Lindsay differs. Yay Ron. Lindsay says one can see Templeton as in fact interfering with science just as the Discovery Institute does, but in a more subtle fashion. Yes indeed one can; that’s exactly how I see it. They fund most of the blather about “science and religion” that’s out there, and they do it very subtly. But Mooney was just frankly dismissive of that suggestion.

I haven’t listened to the second half yet.

What the mosquito said

May 10th, 2011 3:10 pm | By

There was an interesting moment in the 60 Minutes interview with Obama on Sunday – Steve Kroft said (approximately, from memory), “There were members of the group who disagreed with you about the plan?” It sounded like a set-up for “oh dear, dissension in the administration, chaos, management problems, oh noes,” but Obama answered very calmly and with some emphasis that he wants it that way. He wants people with different views, and he wants them to feel completely free to disagree with him and argue their case. While he was saying it a little voice was shouting “So unlike Bush! So unlike Bush!”

He went on to the effect that that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. That’s how you get the best ideas: via open discussion and disagreement.

That’s how he ran the Harvard Law Review, too, to the irritation of some of his friends.

Summer school

May 10th, 2011 11:49 am | By

I see a new opportunity to get learnings: you can get a master’s degree in general education (Ed.M.) with an emphasis in Science and the Public via the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Center for Inquiry. There are summer classes. There’s one set on Science and Religion, taught by John Shook and Michael Dowd, and another set on Communicating Science to the Public, taught by John Shook and Chris Mooney.

Who is Michael Dowd?

Reverend  Michael Dowd, an outspoken religious naturalist, is America’s evolutionary evangelist. His book, Thank God for Evolution, was endorsed by 6 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, noted skeptics, and by religious leaders across the spectrum…

Sharpen your pencils.

Eating your cake and having it

May 10th, 2011 10:35 am | By

Nope. No can do. Will not fly.

Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper Der Zeitung has apologized for publishing an iconic photograph of President Obama and his national security team with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security team member Audrey Tomason photoshopped out…

Der Zeitung addressed what it cast as “allegations” that the women had been removed from the photograph because “religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office,” calling such suggestions “malicious slander and libel.”

The newspaper offered kind words for Clinton and said it respects all government officials, but that religious considerations prevent it from showing images of women.

That’s the thing you can’t do – the thing that won’t fly. You can’t treat women as so special and different that pictures of them in news media have to be faked out of existence, and claim that you don’t denigrate women and you do respect them and that to say otherwise is malicious slander and libel.

You think you can, because you deployed the magic phrase “religious considerations,” but you’re wrong. You can’t. Fraudulently altering an official government photograph that shows the Secretary of State present at an event of great importance to the State Department, in such a way that she is not there at all, is not consistent with respecting women and not denigrating them.

“In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status,” Der Zeitung said. “Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”

Not accepted. Worthless. Fundamentally insulting. Fuck your rabbinical board. You don’t get to delete women from history, and pretending to apologize after doing it doesn’t salvage anything.

Language reform

May 10th, 2011 10:00 am | By

Really, there is something faintly disgusting about all the serious newspapers talking about bin Laden’s three “widows.” For one thing – three? Three widows? If there are three, they’re not “widows” in the usual sense of the word. It’s too much “respect” for polygamy to call them widows (or wives) – you need different words for a system in which men can have lots while women can have no more than a fraction of one.

For another thing – widows? That assumes they were genuine wives first, having been genuinely married. In fact, from what I’ve read, at least one of them was simply given to him by her father or some other Important man, like a bottle of vodka.

Come on. These women weren’t wives or widows, they were slaves.

Meet the deity

May 9th, 2011 3:45 pm | By

I’d forgotten this. It’s quite funny (if I do say so myself).

Knowing is deciding

May 9th, 2011 12:02 pm | By

Via Jerry Coyne, I find Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which in turn is the “flagship” of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the notoriously reactionary outfit that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter abandoned when it ruled that married women are subordinate to their husbands – I find Albert Mohler, I say, turning and rending a Christian less doctrinaire than himself.

In making his case, Giberson uses the old argument that God has given humanity two books of revelation — the Bible and the created order. This is one of Giberson’s most frequently offered arguments. It is a theologically disastrous argument in his hands, for he allows modern naturalistic science to silence the Bible, God’s written revelation.

Right. My question is, how exactly does Mohler know the bible is God’s written revelation? Of course I know roughly how he “knows”: he just does. But I want to know exactly how he knows.

How, for instance, would he know if it were not? How does he know how he would know if it were not? What, exactly, are his criteria? What would the bible be like if it were not God’s written revelation, and how is that different from what the bible is like?

Do they ever say, people like him? Do they ever give any actual reason for “believing” the bible is God’s written revelation?

I don’t think they do. Correct me if I’m wrong. As far as I know they just “believe” it, as one might sign a contract. They sign up to it. It’s not cognitive at all, it’s an act of will.

That’s not the right way to know things.

Templeton buys whole Oxford colleges? Srsly?

May 8th, 2011 11:04 am | By

Ah Templeton Templeton Templeton, how it does creep in everywhere, like mildew.

There’s this Oxford professor saying why thenewatheists are stupid and wrong. Guess where he comes from.

While “new atheists” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been grabbing headlines with their bold claims that modern science has killed off God, an Oxford professor has been quietly chipping away at the ground they stand on. John C Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Fellow in the Philosophy of Science at Oxford’s Green Templeton College, has been popping up at debates around the globe to take issue with the most prominent new atheists.

At what? At Oxford’s what? Oxford’s Green what?

Can’t be, I thought. Must be just a coincidence of name. Some Admiral Green who showed Napoleon what’s what and some Viscount Templeton who carried the chamber pot for George II. Must be.

So I hastened to look it up…and no. It’s not Viscount Templeton of Steeple Magna, Hampshire. It’s not Georgiana Templeton of Ladbroke Grove, founder of hospitals. It’s not gallant Captain Templeton, protector of women and children during the Siege of Jenkinsabad. It’s just same old same old John moneybags Templeton of Pennsylvania.

1965 Oxford Centre for Management Studies established under the Chairmanship of Sir Norman Chester…

1983 Major benefaction received from Mr (later Sir) John Templeton.

1984 Name changed to Templeton College and first students are matriculated…

2008 Merger with Green College.

2011 Professor publishes book saying why thenewatheists are stupid and wrong.

Saudi Women Revolution

May 7th, 2011 4:51 pm | By

If you’re on Facebook – like the Saudi Women Revolution page. They want numbers, numbers, numbers. CNN reported the Facebook page likes.

The Saudi Women Revolution was started as a Facebook page and a discussion topic, or hash tag, on Twitter in February, by Nuha Al Sulaiman…The Facebook group now has more than 3,000 “likes” and a core of the women have met in person to discuss their campaign.

Well it’s more than 4,000 now; do your bit and make it more again.

Their chief aim is ending male guardianship, which means Saudi women often need permission from their husband, father, brother or even son to work, travel, study, marry, or access health care, according to Human Rights Watch.

They also want to be allowed to drive, which is forbidden for women in the Kingdom.

And they want to vote. Imagine that.

One for you and three for me

May 7th, 2011 12:00 pm | By

What was that I was just saying about beauty pageants for little girls and hyper-sexualization of girls and women and the way that plays out in gymnastics and ballet and ice skating where men usually wear clothes while women always wear bathing suit equivalents?


The Badminton World Federation has made a new rule that women players have to wear skirts or dresses. Yes really – to play a sport, women have to wear skirts. Queen Victoria would so approve.

The BWF has received feedback from various parties with regards to the introduction of Rule 19.2 of the General Competition Regulations which require female players to wear skirts or dresses for Level 1 to 3 tournaments. This specific regulation has its genesis in the extensive review into the marketing and events structure conducted by an external international marketing agency in 2009.

Well why stop there then – if it’s a matter of marketing, why not make a new rule saying women have to wear makeup and long flowing hair and V-neck halter tops and stiletto heels along with their skirts? Why not tell them to stop playing and do a pole dance instead?

The BWF has developed guidelines to go alongside the new Regulation, to ensure that it will not in any way discriminate against any religious or other beliefs and respects women. Players will continue to wear shorts if they wish but simply wear a skirt over the top of the shorts, as is often practiced already by some players.

Oh isn’t that kind and sensitive and liberal – all women have to do is add an extra, bulky garment that won’t disadvantage them in any way at all apart from interfering with their freedom to move. It won’t degrade them in any way at all except for pointlessly and stupidly sticking a Gender Label on them at the behest of a marketing agency. It won’t treat them as second-class in any way at all except by ordering them to put their Gender Identity ahead of their athletic goals.

Deputy president of the WBF Paisan Rangsikitpho says it’s “never been the intention of the BWF to portray women as sexual objects,” it’s just that they’re trying to get more people to pay attention to badminton and they figure this is the way to do it.

The new atheist response to being told to quiet down

May 6th, 2011 12:29 pm | By

Greg Laden puts the matter neatly:

The “new” part of “New Atheism” to me has always been this: You are willing to get up into some[one's] face to make your argument because religion, with its centuries of experience in being on the scene for every aspect of everyone’s life every minute of every day, is already there in the face making its argument. The new atheist response to being told to quiet down is to point out that being told to quiet down (or be more civil or follow certain rules) is step one (or two) in a series of steps that the established religio-normative culture routinely uses to end the argument and let things get back to what they think is normal.

Precisely. And the settled idea that the silence of the atheists is both normal and desirable is the very idea that new atheists want to discredit and dispute and disrupt, so energetic attempts to re-impose the idea are naturally going to irritate. It’s like telling The People’s Campaign for XYZ, “stop campaigning for XYZ.” It’s not going to be taken as useful advice or a friendly tip or a minor disagreement among allies. It’s going to be taken as what it is: rejection of and enmity toward The People’s Campaign.

So it’s not a matter of, we’re all atheists, so don’t take it amiss if some atheists tell other atheists to be atheists in a more covert and unobtrusive way. It’s not a disagreement about a minor side issue. We, gnu atheists, think it is of the essence for atheists to be free to talk back. We don’t consider atheists who 1) tell us not to or 2) call us rude names for doing so, to be On the Same Team.

National trust in god day

May 5th, 2011 4:33 pm | By

Oh I didn’t know it was National Prayer Day. I never do know it’s National Prayer Day. It’s not something that looms large in my schedule. But I got a press release from the Secular Coalition for America, so I read some more of their press releases, and doing that led me to something that mentioned National Prayer Day.

Well I know what it was: it was googling for information on an idiotic house bill making “In God We Trust” the “national motto,” whatever the hell that is. Googling for the one turned up mentions of the other. Life is like that. When the state tells you to do god, news of it turns up on related google searches. Whaddya know.

So it’s National Prayer Day.

…even hard-nosed doctors who have studied spirituality say science supports the belief that prayer brings health benefits…Research has also shown that the death rate of people who attend church regularly is about 30 percent lower than that among people who spend their Sundays doing something else, according to Dr. Lynda Powell, chairman of preventive medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

I beg your pardon?

Let me get this straight. 30% of people who go to church are immortal? Is that what she’s saying?

Is this finding widely known?

Ah, journalism. And prayer. And syntax.

What explains churchgoers’ lower death rate? Is it because God smiles on the faithful?

Science has nothing to say on that question. But Dr. Powell, a leading researcher on spirituality and health, has identified health-promoting outlooks and behaviors that are common to all major religions.

Yes, but health is not the same thing as a “lower death rate.” Does this loon actually think health=a lower death rate?

Anyway. The Secular Coalition sent a letter to the members of the House Judiciary Committee, which the Committee won’t read, because who the hell cares what filthy secularists think. It’s quite sensible though.

The phrase “In God We Trust” was adopted only in 1956 during the McCarthy Era. For a secular nation that claims to provide equality, liberty, and freedom for all, the motto means that the beliefs of theists and nontheists are not treated the same at all.

And to put it more bluntly than the SCA will have wanted to, the state has no business at all telling us to believe in its magical made-up spooky hocus pocus you can’t catch me god. Furthermore, I don’t trust god; I think god is a shit; a non-existent shit, yes, but a shit all the same.

Bad things

May 5th, 2011 11:08 am | By

This morning I keep seeing bad stuff at the Guardian, via different directions – Terry Glavin at Facebook, Norm at Normblog, like that. I’ve seen so much bad stuff this morning that I feel as if I ought to point at it in disgust.

Like Adam Curtis at CisF, via Norm.

The horrific thing about Osama bin Laden was that he helped to kill thousands of innocent people throughout the world. But he was also in a strange way a godsend to the west. He simplified the world.

That “but” is interesting. So is that “the horrific thing.” The but is interesting because given what comes before, why have a “but” at all? There is no but. The first sentence is all we need to know. There is no “but” after that.

We’ll be reminded by heroes of anti-imperialism that the imperialists and neo-cons helped to kill thousands of innocent people too. True enough, but not as the goal. Not as the goal or a goal. Not on purpose.

That’s small comfort to the people killed. But what about their relatives and friends? What about the injured? I should think it makes a difference to them.

At any rate, it is different. Bin Laden killed people in order to kill people. Bin Laden wanted them dead, and he wanted more dead, as many as possible. He never whispered a word of regret for Gladys Wundowa or anyone else; he beamed with joy about his success at killing hundreds or thousands at a blow.

There is no “but” after that. There is nothing else about him that matters, that is in contrast to “the horrific thing” about him that was killing people and rejoicing to have done so. That isn’t “the horrific thing” about bin Laden, it just is bin Laden.

Al-Qaida became the new Soviet Union, and in the process Bin Laden became a demonic, terrifyingly powerful figure brooding in a cave while he controlled and directed the al-Qaida network throughout the world…

I just remarked yesterday that I went on thinking that way for an embarrassingly long time. Adam Curtis is still at it.

Then there’s Azzam Tamimi.

Soon after the fall of Hosni Mubarak I visited my old friend, the Hamas leader Khalid Mish’al, in Damascus. He told me he was sure the change in Egypt, which he expected would be followed by similar changes in other Arab countries, meant that it would not be too long before Palestine was free.

My friends in Gaza would tell me the same thing, and so would my relatives in Hebron and the diaspora. They all believed that the Mubarak regime was an impediment to the Palestinian struggle for freedom; once the Egyptian people were free, a genuine democracy in Egypt would support the Palestinians.

Free. Free, freedom, free – via Hamas.

Despite the disdain of

May 4th, 2011 2:58 pm | By

So many things are stupid. This is stupid.

Our culture has become impoverished by certainty…Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

And then Christopher Lane cites the disdain of some religious boffin, right?


No, his only example of disdain for doubt (and agnosticism) is Richard Dawkins.

That’s stupid.

It’s just plain stupid. As if* Dawkins were the most dogmatic person on the face of the earth! As if there were no other examples! As if theists were all full of admirable doubt while atheists are all brainlessly certain. As if Lane couldn’t think of one single other person to stand for excessive certainty.

It’s stupid, it’s lazy, it’s stale, it’s cheap. It’s time for people to do better.

The debates about religion and science that flared in the 19th century predate by almost two centuries the “new” atheism that has evolved today, undermining many of its claims for originality.

It doesn’t make claims for originality. Stupid, lazy, stale, and cheap.

*Even if you agree that Dawkins is especially “certain,” even in this particular passage, which I don’t.

Witty Shmuley

May 4th, 2011 11:47 am | By

Shmuley Boteach has a laugh at the idea of atheist military chaplains. I think the idea of atheists chaplains is silly in general, but I can certainly see that there ought to be some kind of chaplain-equivalent for people in the military who aren’t religious. Boteach’s objections are somewhat problematic.

And what comfort will they offer dying soldiers, G-d forbid (oops! Even that doesn’t work). Will they say, “Game over. You’re going to a place of complete oblivion. Thank you for your service.”?

Well, what comfort can anyone offer dying soldiers? What comfort will Boteach offer?

I don’t even know, actually. It’s my understanding that Judaism doesn’t actually believe in an afterlife, so what does he have to say that’s different from “a place of complete oblivion”? I don’t know, but if it is in fact different from that, what reason is there to think it’s true? Maybe he says you’re going to a place of infinite ice cream, but if he does, he’s telling an untruth. Why is he the one who is giggling and making fun?

In the same way that it might be uncomfortable for a Jewish soldier to talk about his deepest issues with, say, a Catholic Priest, it is arguably just as uncomfortable for an atheist soldier to talk to the same Priest.

Gee, you think?!

Still it would seem that those who profess an absence of belief can’t really be religious or spiritual chaplains. If you’re an atheist then what you see is what you get. There is no other reality — higher or lower — and the word spiritual is nothing but a crude con.

Well, Shmuley, how do you know there is an “other reality”? What do you know about it? What is your evidence for it? How do you know it’s not nastier than this reality we “get”? How do you know anything at all about it?

He notes that his atheist friends will say things like that, but he feels no obligation to answer or say anything cogent; instead he just says…you know what he says:

…the new atheists, like Richard Dawkins, demonstrate an intolerance and condescension to people of faith that is very similar to what one sadly finds among some of the most close-minded of religious people.

Therefore after death we go to a place of infinite ice cream.

A moment of petulance

May 3rd, 2011 4:11 pm | By

One thing. We’ve all been seeing every inch of tape there is of bin Laden over and over again since Sunday evening. That one where his best pal grabs him by the hat for a hug and hangs on to the hat as if it were handles – that’s a goofy one. But that’s not the one I’m going to say about.

It’s the one where he’s holding a microphone. What’s up with that? Why does he hold it in that affected limp loose “look how special I am” way? I want to know. I’ve seen that clip about 50 times now, so I want to know.

I didn’t go outside and run around yelling “we’re number one,” so I get to ask why he held the mike in that silly way. If there’s anything I don’t like it’s affectation.