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.


Hooray hooray hooray for FGM

May 13th, 2009 3:12 pm | By

Fuambai Ahmadu is really quite creepy.

I am not surprised that the women of Kailahun have taken to the streets to protest what is now becoming a brazen attack by anti-FGM activists against female initiation and excision in Sierra Leone…I have witnessed first-hand the proliferation (and invidiousness) of this alarming multi-million dollar “development” industry, financed largely by western countries and international agencies such as UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA and so on. Faced with a global media onslaught depicting the most insidious and racist types of representations of African men and women witnessed since colonial times and the downright force of anti-FGM campaigns to shame, more and more circumcised African women have come to see and define themselves through these media lenses as “mutilated”.

Lots of emotive language there, along with a fair amount of trendy code. Anti-FGM activists are ‘brazen’ – as if there is something shameful about opposing the mutilation of girls. And then there’s all the sly nonsense about money and scare-quoted ‘development’ and industry and financed and western and international – as if it were Walmart and McDonald’s and Coke teaming up to make a profit from saying girls shouldn’t be mutilated. The disdain for UNICEF, WHO, and UNFPA is odd too. But no problem, just pretend it’s all racist and colonialist and there’s no further need to explain. So her position is that international agencies are, by definition, invidious and racist/colonialist and anti-FGM campaigns are brazen and corrupt (being financed by all those invidious international agencies), while people who mutilate girls are all that is good.

[T]here ought to be some respect and sensitivity to Sierra Leonean women and our culture. The term FGM is offensive, divisive, demeaning, inflammatory and absolutely unnecessary!! As black Africans most of us would never permit anyone to call us by the term “nigger” or “kaffir” in reference to our second-class racial status or in attempts to redress racial inequalities, so initiated Sierra Leonean women (and all circumcised women for that matter) must reject the use of the term “mutilation” to define us and demean our bodies…For those of us who take pride in our culture, our ethnicity, and our female ancestors, which Bondo represents, we must continue to stand up for ourselves and defy any attempt by others, however powerful they may be, to rewrite their own histories onto our bodies, to negate our particularities as they universalize their own.

That ‘as…so’ is completely bogus, obviously, because ‘nigger’ does not work the same way as ‘mutilation’ does. Ahmadu calls herself a scholar but her way of ‘arguing’ is not very scholarly.



Radical orthodoxy meets progressive conservatism

May 13th, 2009 9:46 am | By

Meet theologian-social theorist John Milbank.

Militant atheism or “scientism” is expanding to fill the gap left by the “exhaustion” of secular ideologies such as capitalism, communism and humanism, he suggests. “What’s left to turn into an ideology except for natural science itself?”

That’s a false choice. It assumes that everyone wants an ideology and that the putative exhaustion of his list of putative secular ideologies leaves a ‘gap’ and that the ‘gap’ is something that people want to fill. Some people are attracted to ideologies, but not all people are, and even some people who are attracted to them can learn to outgrow the attraction. He is perhaps extrapolating from himself, perhaps for reasons of self-protection: he is dependent on an ideology, so he wants to think that everyone is, so that he will seem to himself less gullible and pathetic. That’s a very very common ploy of the religious, we know: the ‘huh huh you think you’re so smart but you’re just as religious as I am only more so because your religion is more dogmatic than mine and plus besides you don’t even know it’s a religion so ha.’

Milbank’s 1990 book Theology and Social Theory ‘argues that instead of asking how theology may fit into the conclusions of secular social science, theology should challenge social scientists’ assumptions.’

On reviewing the second edition of the book in 2006, Charles Taylor, emeritus professor of philosophy at McGill University, said: “When the first edition was published, the reaction was one of shock. Now, 15 years on, the shock has worn off; more and more people are questioning the universal competency of secular reason.”

And isn’t that just wonderful. More and more people are questioning the universal competency of secular reason, and turning to theology instead. And? What will that accomplish? In what way is theology a good or useful or humane substitute for secular reason? Oddly, Milbank never actually says, at least not in this piece, which one would think would be a golden opportunity to reach a broad audience.

In 1999, Milbank broadened his thesis into a general challenge to secular dominance in Radical Orthodoxy…”In a sense, we were going on the offensive against secularism,” Milbank says. Radical Orthodoxy argued for a return to Christianity’s medieval roots, when “faith and reason were inseparable”. It used creedal Christianity as a base from which to criticise modern society, culture, politics and philosophy.

Right – just as the pope does, just as the Southern Baptist Convention does, just as Fred Phelps does. Only they don’t so much get a respectful hearing in the Times Higher. Dress up fundamentalism in some academicky robes and hey presto, grown-up people pretend to think it’s sort of kind of vaguely sane.

Habit is a “mediating category” between the purely material (the brain) and the purely mental, Milbank theorises. “When you ask yourself where that habit comes from, you either have to see it as random or as something that has established itself in response to something. Then you can start talking about God.”

Sure, I can, but I don’t see why I should, and I don’t want to. I don’t think it’s interesting to start talking about God then. I think it’s orders of magnitude more interesting to go on talking about where habit comes from, but in a way that really wants to find out, as opposed to pretending to find out by talking about God. ‘God’ is not interesting because ‘God’ doesn’t tell us anything real or illuminating about where habit comes from.

There follows paragraph upon paragraph of banal political musing which is remarkable neither for acumen nor for persuasiveness. Then along comes an ally.

Among Milbank’s proteges is Philip Blond, head of Demos’ progressive conservatism project and a former theology lecturer at the University of Cumbria. The ideas within “Liberality versus Liberalism” informed Blond’s concept of “Red Toryism”…

Oh gawd – it would be – Philip Blond, the postmodern theologian. It’s good to see that he’s sustaining his project of Pervasive Oxymoronism. If there’s anything I love it’s a postmodern theologian who is a progressive conservative Red Tory.

Okay – that’s my six impossible things not long after breakfast taken care of; now for the rest of the day.



The feathers on elephants

May 12th, 2009 4:42 pm | By

Now…about PZ’s elephant allegory. It all depends exactly what it is that Eagletosh is getting up to with those wings and iridescent feathers of many hues. That final question, in particular -

Where do you find meaning and joy and richness and beauty, O Reader? In elephants, or elephants’ wings?

In both. Both, both, both. (Gee, that’s a silly word if you say it more than once.) Absolutely in both. There’s no way I’m going to pick one over the other, or repudiate the elephants’ wings. Always assuming, that is, that Eagletosh is doing what we can loosely call poetry, and not religion. He’s doing some of each in the allegory, so that’s why I say it depends. But to the extent that he is doing what we can loosely call poetry; to the extent that he is making up stories and fantasies about what a magical imagined elephant could be like; and to the extent that he is clear that that is what he is doing; to the extent that he is not making truth-claims about the world – then I find meaning and joy and richness and beauty in both. I get to keep Babar, and the Elephant’s Child, and the mammoth in Ice Age. I guess I’m also stuck with that ridiculous line in ‘Paradise Lost’ – a risible item about how the elephant, to make them mirth, wreathed his proboscis lithe, or something like that. But never mind – it’s worth the freight.

We don’t have to choose. We can have both. We can have ethics without religion, we can have meaning without religion, we can have hope without religion, we can have solidarity without religion, and we can have poetry and fantasy and imaginary iridescent feathers of many hues without religion.



Taken into custody

May 12th, 2009 1:27 pm | By

Last February four female journalists in Sierra Leone were attacked, forced to strip and marched through a town by a pro-FGM group.

Witnesses said the four were accused of reporting on an anti-FGM campaign last Friday, which marked the international day of zero tolerance to female circumcision. The women were allegedly abducted by a pro-FGM group in the eastern city of Kenema, then stripped naked and marched through the streets before police and human rights organisations intervened to set them free.

The significance of their being stripped and marched through the streets is of course obvious – it’s the pinching and spitting and shouts of ‘Kintirlee!‘ all over again. The point was to say ‘Look at these disgusting shameful horrible uncut women with their grotesque hideous shocking unfixed genitals.’

Witnesses said the women were forcibly taken to the forest headquarters of the Bondo society, a secret organisation of women which traditionally carries out female genital mutilation as part of initiation rites…Speaking to journalists, the head of the Bondo society, Haja Massah Kaisamba, would not comment on the allegations other than saying the four women were taken into “our custody because they spoke unfavourably on radio against FGM”.

Ah. Well that’s a fairly comprehensive comment right there. It says that people who speak against FGM are subject to being abducted by the Bondo society. What more does she need to say?



Michelle Goldberg on relativism and FGM

May 12th, 2009 1:02 pm | By

‘On Feb. 6, 2007, two women, both of whom had been circumcised in Africa , met in the conference room of a small foundation on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a highly unusual debate. It was the fourth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, an occasion for events across the globe dedicated to abolishing the practice.’ One was Fuambai Ahmadu, the American-born daughter of a Sierra Leonean family, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics; the other was Grace Mose, who grew up in an Abagusii village in southwestern Kenya. Mose was there as an active opponent of FGM, and Ahmadu was there as a defender. Michelle Goldberg continues:

“My sitting here is a perfect example that female initiation can have a place in a global society,” [Ahmadu] insisted. “I don’t see that initiation is somehow an impediment to girls’ development.”…As she spoke, Mose, a fervent campaigner against the practice, glared at her. Unruffled, Ahmadu continued, arguing that in Sierra Leone, “female circumcision is empowering.” Toward the end of the debate, a Senegalese woman, incensed by Ahmadu, stood up and said, “I really feel very frustrated seeing an African sister defending female genital mutilation.” A few people applauded.

The Senegalese woman protested the term ‘circumcision’ and said the word should be mutilation. Then Ahmadu got angry.

“In Senegal, in Gambia, in my country, Sierra Leone, there are words that we can use, as circumcised women, against uncircumcised women that are very insulting and very nasty and very offensive.”

In Somalia, too. Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells us that.

The kids at madrassah were tough. They fought. One girl, who was about eight years old, they called kintirleey, ‘she with the clitoris.’ I had no idea what a clitoris was, but the kids didn’t even want to be seen with this girl. They spat on her and pinched her; they rubbed sand in her eyes, and once they caught her and tried to bury her in the sand behind the school.

Later, after a fight, another girl shouts at Ayaan, ‘Kintirleey!’

Sanyar winced. I looked at her, horror dawning on me. I was like that other girl? I, too, had that filthy thing, a kintir?

Ahmadu continues her objection:

Comparing these slurs to the word “mutilation,” she continued, “I may be different from you and I am excised, but I am not mutilated. Just like I will not accept anybody calling me by the n-word to define my racial identity, I will not have anybody call me by the m-word to define my social identity, my gender identity.”

The trouble with that is that it’s not just about her. She can say she is not mutilated, but that doesn’t mean she can say other women are not mutilated – especially since, as Goldberg points out, she was mutilated or ‘circumcised’ at the age of 22, with her own consent. There’s something quite self-regarding about the way she personalizes the issue.

Ahmadu sees herself as speaking for African women who value female genital cutting but are shut out of the rarified realms of international civil society. “The anti-FGM activists have access to the media, and they have enormous resources, so they’re able to influence the media in such a way that most of the women who support the practice cannot,” she told me later that evening.

But most of the very young girls who get mutilated also cannot influence the media, to put it mildly, so to pretend that anti-FGM activists are the big powerful bullies while the fans of cutting are the victims is…partial, at best.

Ahmadu’s argument, that to decry circumcision is to decry her very culture, is a persuasive one. Liberals have many reasons to sympathize with people struggling to hold on to their ways of life in the face of the hegemonic steamroller of globalization. But they have even more reason to sympathize with people like [Agnes] Pareyio who are fighting for individual rights in societies that demand subsuming such rights to tradition and myths about sexual purity. After all, even if relativists like Shweder truss them up in fashionable thirdworldism, such demands are the very essence of reactionary conservatism…To support people like Pareyio – as well as those fighting to implement the Maputo Protocol or working against draconian abortion bans or the terrible iniquities of Sharia law – is to reject relativism. It is to believe that other cultures, like our own, can change in necessary ways without being destroyed.

Quite.



Thinking we know what we don’t know

May 11th, 2009 11:30 am | By

I read something very interesting in an interview with Timothy Williamson the other day.

Not long ago I had a revealing discussion with a professor of ancient Greek literature, who was convinced that, by contrast with the tradition of Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, contemporary analytic philosophy had nothing useful to offer the study of poetry ― a common view in departments of literature. He claimed that it could not handle phenomena such as meaning more than one says. I discovered that he didn’t know of the analytic philosopher Paul Grice’s analysis of just such phenomena, which has had a huge impact on linguistics as well as philosophy. The point is that he had never even looked at Grice’s book (Studies in the Way of Words); he wasn’t reacting negatively to its content or manner of presentation. That’s not untypical. Outside philosophy departments, many people are taught that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping, so they don’t feel the incentive to do the hard work that is needed to master the ideas and see how they can be applied to literary texts and other material.

The professor of ancient Greek literature thought he knew something that he in fact didn’t know. Outside philosophy departments, many people are taught that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping, so they think they know that, so they never bother to look into it – and the teaching that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping goes right on being the conventional wisdom. So often that is how conventional wisdom becomes conventional wisdom: just by people saying stuff and other people taking it as true and no further inquiry taking place. I’m sure I ‘know’ lots of things in that way. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to become aware of them and shed or correct them – but I’m not so optimistic that I think I’ve spotted all of them.

It would be a good idea to have an academy for tracking down items of conventional wisdom for further examination and inquiry and investigation. Sir Thomas Browne compiled a Pseudodoxia Epidemica, and Flaubert had Bouvard and Pécuchet compile a Dictionnaire des idées reçues, and there is of course the indispensable Skeptic’s Dictionary now – but I think there’s still need for a conventional wisdom branch.



Papal absence of mind

May 11th, 2009 10:53 am | By

The pope’s a funny guy. The right hand knoweth not what the left hand getteth up to. The right hand has an attention deficit.

During his address in Amman, the pontiff called on Jordan’s Muslims and Christians to work together to improve their society. “Some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world and so they argue that the lesser attention given to religion in the public sphere the better,” he said…”However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?”

Yes…but…but Herr Rotweiler, sir, have you not noticed that you yourself go in for a certain amount of ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends? And that your cardinals and bishops and priests do so too? And that sometimes you instruct them to do that very thing? Have you forgotten your own insistence that politicians who support the right to abortion were to be excommunicated? If you have forgotten, I have to say, that’s a little careless and irresponsible of you. If you’re going to go swanning around the globe telling everyone what to do on the pain of religious sanctions, you really have a duty to keep track. You have a power to bully that no one else on the planet has, you know – don’t you think you should take that power very seriously? Seriously enough to be unable to forget the occasions when you use it? I do. Catholics, sadly for them, may well take your threats seriously, and be badly harmed by them – yet here you are making them one day and forgetting them the next. Callous bastard, aren’t you.

…as he flew toward his much anticipated five-day trip in Brazil, the Pope addressed the question of the “good standing” of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights — a delicate issue that has come up in the U.S., Europe and, most recently, Mexico. During an unprecedented 25-minute on-flight press conference, Benedict left little room for interpretation: pro-choice politicians not only should be denied communion, but face outright excommunication from the Church for supporting “the killing of a human child.” The Pope’s declaration came in response to recent comments from the spokesman of the Mexican bishops conference, who said politicians who pushed through a new Mexico City pro-choice law were to be excommunicated.

One truth in Mexico City and another in Amman, popey? Is that the idea? Going all situationist on us, are you? Or is it more of an irregular verb matter – what you do cannot, by definition, be manipulation, but what other people do can? Is that it? Well if so you should spell it out, so that we know what we’re dealing with.



States of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling

May 10th, 2009 4:05 pm | By

You know how John Stuart Mill had a mental crisis, and became unable to take pleasure in anything. One thing that helped him was reading Wordsworth. Byron was no good to him, Byron was too melancholy himself, but Wordsworth was just the thing – ‘the miscellaneous poems, in the two-volume edition of 1815,’ to be exact.

“In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings…”

And we can do it without God. The Eagletons of the world don’t need to get in a panic.



Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

May 10th, 2009 1:07 pm | By

God damn spammers. They keep coming back. I’m having to spend two hours a day cleaning the god damn ads for viagra and xanax and the rest of it out of old comments. Miserable blood-sucking bastards.

[beats head against wall until the blood runs]



The mirror and the lamp

May 9th, 2009 4:41 pm | By

I read something interesting in M H Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp this morning.

Ever since Aristotle, it had been common to illuminate the nature of poetry…by opposing it to History…But to Wordsworth, the appropriate business of poetry is ‘to treat of things not as they are…but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions,’ and as worked upon ‘in the spirit of genuine imagination.’ The most characteristic subject matter of poetry no longer consists of actions that never happened, but of things modified by the passions and imagination of the perceiver; and in place of history, the most eligible contrary to poetry, so conceived, is the unemotional and objective description characteristic of physical science. Wordsworth therefore replaced the inadequate ‘contradistinction of Poetry and Prose’ by ‘the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science,’ and similar formulations became a standard port of departure in romantic discussions of poetry…Such statements are intended only as logical devices for isolating and defining the nature of poetic discourse. The prevalence of philosophical positivism, however, which claimed the method of the natural sciences to be the sole access to truth, tended to convert this logical into a combative opposition. To some writers, it seemed that poetry and science are not only antithetic, but incompatible, and that if science is true, poetry must be false, or at any rate trivial.

This perhaps does a lot to explain what Eagleton is getting at – but he apparently considers it beneath him to put it in Romantic terms – which would be too naive, too sentimental, too vieux jeu for someone as hip as he is, for whom only toasters and Chekhov will do. But he seems to be speaking Wordsworth all the same.

That’s probably what he means about religion – it’s not facts but feeling, just as it is with Wordsworth. That is at least intelligible, though not really a good defense of religion, given the temporal, political, institutional, rhetorical power it has, and given the fact that it does make literal factual truth-claims about the world and what is in it.

But it is at least intelligible. I don’t strictly think it’s ‘true’ that the mountains are full of meaning – but I do think it’s true that humans feel that way – and in fact that they ought to. I think less of people who don’t. I’m chilled by people who are dead to natural beauty, and to beauty of other kinds. I think beauty is an illusion in a sense, or in several senses, but I think it’s a necessary one. I would loathe to be without it. Imagine a brain lesion that made one indifferent to the blossoming fruit trees, the lilacs, the saturated blue of Puget Sound on a bright day, the swallows, the hummingbirds, the long grass, the stars, the sunset. Imagine what life would be if all that and everything like it became just so much Stuff, like a heap of sawdust or a dirty cement wall or a bucket of decomposing slime.

So perhaps Eagleton’s claim is that religion is like the brain without the lesion – it’s the ability to feel a particular way about things. Well – if that’s what he thinks, I can to some extent understand his vehemence. Perhaps he thinks atheism is a kind of machine for draining all of that kind of feeling from the world.

But it isn’t. It just isn’t. If it were…I might be tempted to see if I could force myself to believe too. But it isn’t. Feeling that way is part of the human equipment. Religion is probably one door into it, for a lot of people, but there are others. Music, art, sport, work (drugs) – there are lots of doors. Mind you – it may be that religion does it better for a lot of people than anything else does. Merlijn de Smit once told us that was true for him – growing up in a drab town he could find lavish beauty in the Catholic church that just wasn’t available elsewhere.

Hummingbirds. The world needs more hummingbirds.



Bauerlein on Eagleton

May 8th, 2009 4:27 pm | By

Mark Bauerlein had some thoughts on Terry Eagleton almost a decade ago.

[I]t is a mistake to treat social constructionism as preached in the academy as a philosophy. Though the position sounds like an epistemology, filled with glib denials of objectivity, truth, and facts backed up by in-the-know philosophical citations (“As Nietzsche says. . .”), its proponents hold those beliefs most unphilosophically. When someone holds a belief philosophically, he or she exposes it to arguments and evidence against it, and tries to mount arguments and evidence for it in return. But in academic contexts, constructionist ideas are not open for debate. They stand as community wisdom, articles of faith…Save for a few near-retirement humanists and realist philosopher holdouts, academics embrace constructionist premises as catechism learning, axioms to be assimilated before one is inducted into the professoriate. To believe that knowledge is a construct, that truth, evidence, fact, and inference all fall under the category of local interpretation, and that interpretations are more or less right by virtue of the interests they satisfy is a professional habit, not an intellectual thesis.

Take, he suggests a couple of pages later, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction for an example.

[T]he conceptual analysis is thin, the methodological description hasty. Instead, the book reads like a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence. To the patient exposition of terms and concepts Eagleton prefers the oblique adumbration…In the chapter on post-structuralism, Eagleton spends little time detailing the arguments of founding tests like “Différence,” and instead strings together deconstructive platitudes…Literary Theory: An Introduction hardly counts as a serious discussion of literary theory, but its tactics have come to dominate humanities criticism. Commentaries on ideological origins and ethical results far exceed conceptual analyses and logical expositions. Evaluating concepts and arguments by their political backgrounds and implications has become a disciplinary wont, a pattern of inquiry.

Does it not sound familiar? Does it not sound like the Eagleton (and the Fish too) that we have just been reading, and gently but firmly disputing?

Constructionist notions have become so patent and revered that their articulation need no longer happen, except as reminders to professors who stray from the party line (many utterances begin with “We must remember that. . .”). Those who raise objections soon find themselves trapped in debates shaped by us versus them forensics, enunciated in an idiom of brazen philosophical avowals and insinuations about the character of adversaries. Non-constructionists feel not so much refuted, as ostracized. The humanities become a closed society, captive to a weak epistemology with a mighty elocution.

And the result apparently is that Eagleton and Fish manage to get through their entire careers without ever being compelled to argue properly, with the sad and poignant result that we see before us now – a couple of grizzled sages who think they’re making a case when they’re just making word salad.



Resisting accommodationism

May 8th, 2009 12:23 pm | By

Jerry Coyne, after discussion with other scientists and upon reflection, refused an invitation from the organizers of the World Science Festival to participate on a panel that would discuss the relationship between faith and science. One of the Festival’s sponsors was The Templeton Foundation, ‘whose implicit mission,’ Coyne said, ‘is to reconcile science and religion (and in doing so, I think, blur the boundaries between them).’ The people at the SWF wrote to him and other concerned scientists.

[T]he Festival has programs that not only focus on the content of science traditionally defined, but programs that seek to illuminate how science interfaces with other disciplines and outlooks…For the Festival to have programs exploring the art-science relationship, the government-science relationship, the business-science relationship, the literature-science relationship, and yet to willfully ignore the prominent and tumultuous religion-science relationship would be a strange and, dare we say, cowardly omission.

No, it wouldn’t, at least not necessarily. One can organize and arrange and categorize such things in more than one way. One could decide that such a Festival should be about science and everything, so that inclusiveness and breadth would be the first criterion. But one could also and instead decide, say, that such a Festival should be about science and other human endeavors that are compatible with science. The second looks, frankly, a lot more interesting than the first. It is genuinely interesting and rewarding to explore various kinds of human activity that can co-exist with science, and enrich or illustrate or expand on it. It’s also, I would think, a better way in the long run to get people interested in science, because the science and everything idea would be too broad and undemanding to hook onto anything. Science and cookies, science and fashion, science and ghosts, science and religion…it’s everything and nothing. But science and history, science and criminal investigation, science and journalism, science and art? Those all indicate the presense of some content, and thus something to think about.

Anyway, as Coyne points out, religion has a problem in this context that dance and literature don’t.

you consider faith as a topic appropriate for discussion in your Festival. You mention that you feature programs that integrate science with dance, with public policy, with literature, and so on. But these are quite different from religion. Neither dance, public policy, nor literature are based on ways of looking at the world that are completely inimical to scientific investigation. Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines; science and literature are not. That is, one can appreciate great literature and science without embracing any philosophical contradictions, but one cannot do this with religion (unless that religion is a watered down-deism that precludes any direct involvement of a deity in the world).

That of course is just what the Templeton Foundation would like to deny and make disappear, which is why Coyne refuses to take their dime.

The issue is that, by saying it sponsors the Festival, the Templeton Foundation will use its sponsorship to prove that it is engaging in serious discussion with scientists. Like many of my colleagues, I regard Templeton as an organization whose purpose is to fuse science with religion: to show how science illuminates “the big questions” and how religion can contribute to science. I regard this as not only fatuous, but dangerous. Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen.

Kudos to Jerry Coyne for blowing the gaff on them.



There are people like that

May 6th, 2009 12:27 pm | By

Russell encounters an Eaglefish and has one of those epiphanic moments when a few things suddenly “click”.

[A]mong our friends on the political Left – which is where I have my roots – there are people, not just a few but many, who despise everything I hold dear. These are supposed to be my allies, but they despise liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment. They hate the so-called “New Atheism”…because they see people like Richard Dawkins as providing a rallying point for … yes, liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment…It’s not some sort of accident or coincidence that their commitments so often have them opposing liberalism and all the values associated with it. They know that that’s what they’re doing; they actually see those values as disvalues.

Yeah. And that’s why I would so love to see them magically turned into women and transported to Swat so that they could ponder the absence of liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment up close and personal.

I despise and detest their frivolity. Their stupid, shallow, giggling lack of responsibility; their treating subjects that are very literally life and death to billions of people as mere toys for them to play with. They don’t even offer any serious reasons for their hatred of liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment – that’s what’s so frivolous about it. They just take it for granted, and offer at most silly lightweight pseudo-reasons, like the fact that their grandparents had religious beliefs. These guys aren’t children – they should know they need better reasons than that. They should pay better attention to the world, they should look around them, they should yank their heads out of their own stifling little egos.

Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton, for example, are not just isolated, idiosyncratic sentimentalists who believe in belief. They really do hate the things that I value, and they see themselves as in a struggle to resist the very things that I am fighting for in all my work. When Eagleton says that Richard Dawkins is standing in his way, he actually means it. What’s more, such Eaglefish don’t see themselves as expressing a view that their colleagues and acquaintances will find alien and bizarre. They expect their views to seem familiar and attractive to many readers; they expect to find an audience for which such views will have the ring of truth.

Quite. This is why Butterflies and Wheels was created and why it still exists – because Eaglefish don’t see themselves as expressing a view that their colleagues and acquaintances will find alien and bizarre. B&W has been working hard (that is, I’ve been working hard, but it sounds grander to call myself B&W, as if I were a committee) for nigh on seven years now to make the Eaglefish view seem alien and bizarre to as many people as possible.



Oh go soak your head

May 6th, 2009 10:54 am | By

And people wonder why atheists get huffy.

Obama is scaling back White House plans for Thursday’s National Day of Prayer even as his administration defends the tradition in federal court in Wisconsin…The Obama administration has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims the day violates the separation of church and state. In a rare alliance, 31 mostly Republican members of Congress and a prominent Christian legal group are joining the administration to fight the lawsuit. Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.

Okay, it’s a small thing, and we can always just ignore it, but just the same – what business do presidents have asking us to pray? Fuck off! What business do secular heads of secular states have asking us to perform some magical rite? They’re not our priests, they’re not bishops, they’re not clerical officials of any kind; it is none of their business whether we pray or not. None, zip, zero. It’s a highly offensive intrusion for them to make such a request. It also sends that notorious excluding message that atheists are always complaining of and that does a lot to explain our sometimes irritable attitude toward religion, the one that mystifies our friends and acquaintances on the other side of the Atlantic. It sends the message ‘everyone prays and we’re all alike in this and anyone who isn’t is deeply weird and, as Bush I so wisely said, probably not exactly really quite a citizen.’ That’s a stupid and ill-mannered message to send for no good reason – it’s a kind of pro-active rudeness. What the hell do we need such a day for? People who want to pray can pray; why do the rest of us have to be chivvied and hassled?

Well it’s obvious from the initial date what we need it for: to remind us that we’re not like those godless commies. But that’s a bit out of date now, and it’s not, alas, the godless commies who are gathering their forces in Pakistan, getting ready to start slouching towards Manhattan. So it would be nice if we could ditch the gratuitous National Marginalize Atheists Day.

It’s not as if we want to replace the damn thing with National Abolish Prayer Day. It’s not as if we want to set an annual date for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans not to pray. We just want presidents to shut up about praying, that’s all. We want nobody official governmental political to talk about praying at all, because it’s not their job and it’s emphatically not their business.



The community wheeled about as one

May 5th, 2009 4:22 pm | By

Martha Nussbaum says there are liberal Muslims in India – though she doesn’t say how many or what percentage they are or how influential they are. She leaves a lot of details out of her account, which makes it less credible than it might be.

She also starts off with the familiar silly and misleading ‘community’-talk -

India’s Muslim community strongly condemned the terrorist acts and immediately took steps to demonstrate its loyalty to the nation…The world saw a deeply nationalist community, one loyal to the liberal values of a nation that has yet to treat it justly. It was not the first time India’s Muslims have demonstrated a peaceful embrace of the country’s founding values. The personal experience of Mushirul Hasan exemplifies the same commitment. A leader of the community, Hasan has been at the center of controversy for his liberal, secular views…

Come on…she’s a philosopher, so she really ought to do better than that. How can ‘India’s Muslim community’ strongly condemn anything? What does that even mean? To make any sense at all it has to mean that all Indian Muslims strongly condemned and immediately took steps, which is absurd. Perhaps she means all prominent Indian Muslims did that? But no, because she could have said that, and because that’s not what she wants to convey, either – and that’s the problem. She wants to convey, without spelling it out, that the majority of Indian Muslims strongly condemned and immediately took steps – but is that true? I don’t know, but it seems very unlikely just on the face of it, because most people are too busy with other things to do much public condemning and step-taking. But as if she had established that which she wanted to convey, she goes on in the next sentence to say what ‘India’s Muslims’ had demonstrated – when it’s vanishingly unlikely that all of them demonstrated anything. Then she dashes on to claim one person as exemplary of this commitment of ‘India’s Muslims’ and then to call him ‘a leader’ of this notional ‘community’ that all thinks with one mind. It’s all very rhetorical and sentimental and covertly manipulative, and I wish she wouldn’t do it.

It is an interesting piece though – and I hope she’s right. I would be delighted to learn that the situation is just as she describes it and that my suspicions are groundless. I’d be thrilled. I would love to know that India is packed to the rafters with people like Mushirul Hasan.

Stereotypes of the violent Muslim are so prevalent in India—as elsewhere in the world—that it is virtually impossible for Muslim liberals to be taken at their word when they say that they believe in free speech, pluralism, nonviolent persuasion, the rule of law, and the right of each person to a fair trial. ’Oh yes, a screen for darker motives,’ is the typical response, pervasive on Hindu blogs and common even in the mainstream press. You say you are a liberal, and that proves you are a radical Islamist.

Well…are stereotypes really the only reason for that? Does the Koran, and the relationship of Islam to the Koran, have nothing to do with it? Couldn’t it be that at least some people wonder if Muslim liberals still have the Koran to contend with, just as Christian liberals have the Bible, and if there is some tension? Couldn’t some people think that liberalism is just more difficult for Muslims for a lot of reasons (family pressure, customs, the Koran, friends, and so on) and that different people can mean different things by ‘liberal’? I would say it could, and that people who are slow to be convinced are not necessarily simply heeding stereotypes of the violent Muslim. They might be, but they might not.

It is a very interesting article though, and highly informative. Don’t let me put you off.



The glorious transfigured future

May 4th, 2009 11:44 am | By

Let’s see Fish and Eagleton – or should I adopt the latter’s sophisticated witticism and call them Eaglefish? – sneer at progress, liberalism and enlightenment in the context of Delara Derabi’s last minutes, and her parents’ experience of her last minutes. First some Eaglefish sneering -

Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us…[W]e are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

And then a few minutes in a world where contempt for progress, liberalism and enlightenment is not just a selfish smug I’m all right Jack trope among male literary critics in Florida and Lancashire but the real thing. Let’s see how funny the joke seems in Tehran.

It was 7am when Delara Darabi phoned home. “Oh mother, I see the hangman’s noose in front of me,” she garbled. “They are going to execute me. Please save me.” Moments later a prison official snatched the handset away. “We will easily execute your daughter and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he barked at the parents. Then, with a chilling click, the line went dead. The desperate couple rushed to the Central Prison in Rasht, Iran, wailing at the guards to let them see their 22-year-old. As they prostrated themselves, an ambulance emerged, most probably with Delara’s corpse inside.

There you are – will that do? Is that sufficiently without progress, liberalism and enlightenment? Is that what Feagleton wants? Is that their idea of an excitingly post-enlightenment world rich with ‘flawed but aspiring religious faith’? Is it part of their bill of indictment against atheism that there’s not enough of that kind of thing?

Yes, pretty much. Eagleton at least is pretty explicit about it.

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

But Tel, your transfigured future has already been born; it’s in Tehran, it’s in Kandahar, it’s in Mingora. All those pesky liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals haven’t been able to stop it. What are you complaining about?



Morris Zapp has gone downhill

May 4th, 2009 9:55 am | By

Stanley Fish is moved to let us know that he is just as woolly and assertive and bad-mannered and rhetorical as Terry Eagleton and Mark Vernon and Madeleine Bunting and the rest of the ‘new atheists are bad‘ crowd.

[T]he British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed.

Eh? ‘Other candidates’ than what? Other than Eagleton? Those are our choices – Eagleton on the one hand and science, reason, liberalism, capitalism on the other? Why? How? Who says?

Perhaps Fish means ‘other candidates’ than literary criticism, and we’re supposed to be able to figure that out via the word ‘critic’ in front of ‘Terry Eagleton’ – but ‘critic’ could mean restaurant critic, movie critic, dance critic – it could mean a lot of things, and in any case, it’s far from obvious that we’re supposed to understand Terry Eagleton as standing for the entire genre of literary critics. In short, that’s a bit of remarkably slovenly careless lazy writing, and it’s the opener for an attack on – you’ll never guess – the ‘new’ atheists. An opener as sloppy as that doesn’t bode well for the care and intelligence of the rest – and the rest is indeed surprisingly crappy stuff.

Fish goes on to say that Eagleton admits religion is flawed but ‘at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself…”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

Again, already, the sloppiness makes it hard to tell exactly what is being claimed, but it seems to be that religion alone is trying for something more than local satisfactions and that religion alone takes the nature of humanity for its subject, and all other projects are finally superficial and are merely about consumerism. That suggestion is so obviously stupid I can’t be bothered to say why it’s stupid – I don’t think anyone who reads this needs to be told.

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

So that is what he’s claiming – on the one hand there are theological questions, which are alone able to ask ‘why is there something rather than nothing’ and related questions, and then there are ‘science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation’ which are all much of a muchness and which can’t ask ‘ ‘why is there something rather than nothing.’ Further, the interpolated ‘never mind answer’ implies that ‘theological questions’ can answer – without of course offering any actual examples of such ‘answers.’

This is lamentable stuff.

On and on it goes – sneers at progress, liberalism and enlightenment, sneers at cures for diseases, sneers at technology, much use of the word ‘Ditchkins,’ and finishing up with a triumphant blast at ‘the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.’

It is so hard not to wish both of them suddenly transported to a place bereft of progress, liberalism and enlightenment – the Swat valley would be just the ticket – and see how they like it.

That’s not a nice thing to say, it’s even a bit schoolyardy, but I am so sick of smug prosperous safe comfortable pale men urinating all over progress, liberalism and enlightenment while desperate threatened terrified women would weep scalding tears of joy and deliverance to get just a taste of some. I am so sick of safe prosperous men who are never, ever going to be grabbed on the street and whipped, or shot in the back, or locked up in their houses, or married off to some abusive bully, going on and on and on and on about how much they hate progress, liberalism and enlightenment.



Another singer eliminated

May 3rd, 2009 12:31 pm | By

Another woman is reminded that she is not allowed to do anything, and so are all the other women in her part of the world.

The murder of Ayman Udas, who was in her early thirties and newly married, has shocked the city’s artistic community because it symbolises a backlash against women and cultural freedom in an area that is increasingly dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. As a singer and song writer in her native Pashto, the language of the tribal areas and the NorthWest Frontier province, Udas frequently performed on PTV, the state-run channel. She won considerable acclaim for her songs but had become a musician in the face of bitter opposition from her family, who believed it was sinful for a woman to perform on television. Ashamed of her growing popularity her two brothers are reported to have entered her flat last week while her husband was out and fired three bullets into her chest.

She’s not popular any more, so they’re not ashamed any more, and that’s what counts.

Fellow performers, many of whom have received death threats from hardline Islamist groups, were stunned by the killing. In recent months several popular artists have been forced to stop performing as singers and comedians. Others have fled the country or moved to other cities.

As some people try to hang onto a somewhat normal happy life with some room for art and pleasure, and others try to grind such a life into powder.



During that time we didn’t hear a single protest

May 3rd, 2009 11:06 am | By

A senior Shia cleric in Kabul stands up for democracy.

Supporters of the Afghan law which critics claim legalises marital rape and restricts the rights of women say they will oppose amending the legislation significantly. “A change in this law will be illegal and against democracy,” said Sayed Abdul Latif Sajadi, a senior Shia cleric in Kabul who played a leading role in drawing up the legislation and pushing it through parliament. “Any change will be against the wishes of four million people.”

Men. Against the wishes of four million men. He means any change will be against the wishes of four million men – women of course were not asked and not given any way to voice an opinion. Women, on the contrary, were presented with multiple examples of women being murdered for sticking their heads over the parapet, so we know they had every incentive to shut up and pretty much no incentive to protest a law that makes their enslavement more official than ever.

The Shia Family Law, which has been denounced inside and outside Afghanistan, applies only to the four million Afghans who are Shia. It is the first time in predominantly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan that the Shia, mostly members of the long-oppressed Hazara ethnic group, have had their rights legally defined and recognised.

No; there again, that’s not right, and this time it’s the reporter who gets things backwards. It’s not the case that ‘the Shia’ ‘have had their rights legally defined and recognised’ because what this law does is take rights away from Shia women. What this bill legally defined and recognized was the ‘right’ of men to subordinate women, which is quite different from defining and recognizing the rights of the Shia in general.

“Those Afghans who protest against the law just want to make the West happy,” says Mohammed Sarwar Jahadi, a former prisoner of the Taliban and an MP for the Hazara heartland of Bamyan province in central Afghanistan. He said the law was discussed in parliament over a two-and-a-half-year period and was whittled down from 750 to 249 articles. “During that time we didn’t hear a single protest.”

Gee I wonder why – it surely couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Afghan women live under a constant threat of death. Could it?

Mr Sayed Sajadi, a Hazara, said the strength of protests against the law surprised him. “It was unexpected because already 99 per cent of Afghan women only leave the house with their husband’s permission.”

Ah! Ah yes! There we have it – that’s the real puzzle. 99 per cent of Afghan women are already completely ground into the mud so where the hell would protests come from? Nowhere! They wouldn’t! Thus all these protests are simply astonishing. All the men are looking at each other in baffled amazement, at a stand to figure out how anyone could have the nerve or the energy or the muscle power to make a protest.

Many Afghans say that in any case the relationship between men and women in their country is none of the business of foreign non-Muslim politicians and Nato commanders. Women protesting against the law were denounced by counter-demonstrators chanting: “Death to the enemies of Islam! We want Islamic law!”

Yeah! The relationship between men and women in Afghanistan is none of the business of foreign non-Muslim politicians and it’s also none of the business of the women of Afghanistan, so they’d better shut the fuck up before somebody does it for them, if you get my drift.



Shades of gray

May 2nd, 2009 4:49 pm | By

Simon Blackburn has fun teasing John Gray. John Gray strikes me as a great dogmatic repetitive bore, so I enjoy seeing people teasing him.

The habit of abstraction enables Gray to position himself as a lone voice against a world of fantastical optimists: “All prevailing philosoph­ies embody the fiction that ­human life can be changed at will,” he tells us sweepingly, naming no names. What? I suppose many ­philosophers do think that if you need to have a drink, you can change your life, a ­little, by doing so. Other things can be harder to do. But I challenge Gray to name a single philosopher who thinks we can change everything about our lives at will.

Oh, naming people is for pedants, it’s so much more fun to declare that they all do it. It’s the Mark Vernon school of argumentation.

In reality, Gray’s abstractions have overwhelmed his analytic faculties. Nearly all human action, including political action, goes on without paying even lip service to any gospel of Progress in the abstract…For someone so contemptuous of reason and its constructions, it must have been horrid to spend a life looking at political theories, all of which Gray despises. He does however admire some of the myths of religion. He revels in the idea of original sin, but blames Christianity for inventing the idea of salvation, or, in other words, Progress. Gray could be comfortable only in a religion with no faith, no hope, and no charity.

There, that’s Gray well teased.