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.

Brandish that crucifix

Mar 23rd, 2011 11:37 am | By

Andrew Brown seems to have taken a Michael Ruse pill (may cause drowsiness, perversity of reasoning, tendonitis, irregular heartbeat).

The decision of the European court of Human Rights that Italian schools may continue to display a crucifix in the classroom is obviously a victory for common sense, of which only fanatics would disapprove.

Oh obviously; oh only fanatics, certainly. (What was that about gnu atheist rhetoric and lack of humility again?)

The idea that human rights legislation should be used to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix is a profoundly totalitarian and superstitious perversion of one of our civilisation’s best inventions.

Well yes, it would be, but that isn’t the idea in question. Oddly enough, nobody was attempting to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix. That would be quite a tall order, and would involve forcibly keeping children out of churches as well as off the streets, out of shops and museums, away from people – it would involve a quite remarkable program of visual isolation. What a good thing it is that that’s not the issue. The idea, of course, was to prevent the state from imposing a crucifix on children in state schools. That is a more limited ambition, do admit.

So Andrew renders his piece worthless at the outset, by misrepresenting the issue. What’s the point of that? Hooray, he says, the fanatics can’t do what they were trying to do – but they weren’t trying to do that and they aren’t fanatics, so what exactly is Andrew’s point?

And if a secularist is able to protest against the presence of a crucifix in a classroom on the grounds that it breaches her children’s human rights, why shouldn’t a Muslim bring a lawsuit against the V&A for displaying Christian imagery to her children when they are taken on school trips around it?

Because the two are different, for reasons that are too obvious for me to bother explaining. (Oh all right – a crucifix permanently stuck on a classroom wall is an endorsement, a teaching, an admonition; a trip to a museum is a different kind of thing altogether.)

The answer, of course, is that NSS thinks that secularist children – or the children of secularists, since it absolutely certain that no child is born a rationalist or secularist – have different and better rights to those of religious children, and especially Muslim children.

You may wonder how NSS got in there, and what it has to do with anything. I don’t know. It’s not that I omitted a previous bit where the NSS was mentioned or scolded; that’s its first appearance, out of nowhere. I think he meant “secularists in general” but accidentally turned that into “NSS” (without even the normal “the”). Bit of a King Charles’s head there, I’m afraid. At any rate – that’s crap. Secularism protects the rights of religious people. The ruling on the crucifix certainly does not protect the rights of Muslim children! Secularism would; this ruling does not – unless of course the idea is the odd one that Muslim children have a religious right to have a crucifix imposed on them in state school.

But it doesn’t follow from this argument that atheism is a privileged position that the state should teach and enforce. A theologically neutral state takes no position on the question of which gods exist, or, if you like, which conceptions of God (if any) correspond to reality.

But atheism isn’t the issue. Secularism isn’t atheism, and it is entirely possible, and indeed reasonable, for theists to be secularists for their own protection as well as that of other people. State neutrality on religion is not state atheism. That’s why I did a post a few months ago saying atheist schools would be a terrible idea.


Mar 22nd, 2011 5:40 pm | By

Greta Christina has begun a list of non-pallid atheists, which makes it a global list of atheists, which makes it a list with a lot of friends on it.

Leo Igwe is on it. Kenan Malik is on it. Maryam Namazie is on it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is on it. Homa Arjomand is on it. Friends and contributors.

The more global B&W is, the happier I am.

Hardly a disaster

Mar 21st, 2011 4:38 pm | By

So now poor Michael Ruse has to write a petulant article (for Comment is Free this time? we don’t want to get out of sequence) saying that that horrid new atheist David Barash is mad at him, that he doesn’t care a bit, that he’s a brave contrarian who pisses off campus feminists and other bores who believe in equal rights, that he likes a good dust up, that he was in Arkansas testifying when everyone else was in nursery school, and that new atheists are a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the al Qaeda and the Westboro Baptist Church combined. That should take him at least ten minutes.

Barash was gobsmacked by Ruse’s

assertion that the New Atheists constitute a “disaster comparable to the Tea Party.”

So was I. I always am surprised by how malicious and mendacious some atheists allow themselves to be about the Gnu variety.

Barash pointed out what the Tea Party is actually about, and then pointed out that the new atheists are not about the same things.

The New Atheists, with whom I cheerfully and gratefully align myself, have no specific public-policy goals, except perhaps the will-o’the-wisp of delegitimizing the typically unspoken assumption—especially in the United States—that religion must never be questioned, not only as a public good but something that is necessarily true and to which all good people must necessarily subscribe. Theirs is an intellectual struggle, an effort to provide a voice to the large number of previously closeted nonbelievers who felt isolated in their atheism.

Exactly. And we really are allowed to do that. We really are not doing any harm to Michael Ruse by doing that. We really are not doing anything that justifies the relentless campaign of vituperation that is being directed at us. There really is no good reason to preserve and protect the assumption that religion must never be questioned.

If the New Atheists succeed, unbelief will be increasingly legitimate and willing to speak its name. Minds will be opened, and many will find themselves liberated to express views previously forbidden. Hardly a disaster … unless you believe, Michael, that people are unable or unwilling to do the right thing in the absence of religious belief.

I can’t improve on that.

You people are so amusing, and a danger to the wellbeing of America

Mar 20th, 2011 12:01 pm | By

What, again? Yes, again. Yes, for the 14 thousandth time, Michael Ruse is telling us how angry with him ”the new atheists” are, how right he is in spite of their anger, how wrong and bad and dangerous and immoral they are, how brave he is, and how right and brave and amusing and important he Michael Ruse is.

Oh dear, I am in trouble again with the New Atheists… I am being called all sorts of nasty things…Even I sometimes wonder why I am in such bad odor, apart from the fact that whenever I am confronted with people for whom disagreement is considered not just wrong but morally offensive my first tendency is to laugh and tease.

No it isn’t! Your first tendency is to complain and boast. And then what you call “laugh and tease” other people call by harsher names. There was the time you sent a “laugh and tease” to Daniel Dennett and then forwarded the resulting exchange, civil on his part and splenetic on yours, to William Dembski without Dennett’s permission. That kind of thing is why you are in such bad odor: it’s because you give every appearance of being energetically malicious.

I have spent forty years fighting fundamentalism, including so-called Intelligent Design Theory – on the podium, in print, and in the courtroom (as a witness for the ACLU against Scientific Creationism).

He’s important. He wants you to know that. He wants there to be no doubt about that. He mentions it every time he throws another rancid tomato at the gnu atheists, so he must really need everyone to get how important he is. All together now: Michael Ruse is very important. Next.

 I am so close in so many respects to the new Atheists that I am hated with the kind of passion that you usually find between Protestant sects differing over the true meaning of the Whore of Babylon.  Is she just the Pope or is she the whole of the Catholic Church?  Of course I also suffer from what we might call the Laurie Essig syndrome.  I do like a bit of a bust up.

Well exactly. (Laurie Essig apart; I have no idea what that is. No, don’t bother telling me.) Of course you like a bit of a bust up. If there isn’t one, you create it – hence emailing Dan Dennett that time, and hence all these rancid tomato articles in the HuffBop and the CHE and CisF. You like a bit of a bust up, so stop pitching fits about why are the new atheists angry at me. You know perfectly well why they are, and it’s what you wanted! So what’s the point of opening by pretending to be puzzled? To be irritating, perhaps, and I have fallen into your trap. Well that’s all right. However much you like a dust up, you are acting like a conspicuous jerk, so it’s worth falling into your trap. I didn’t fall in, I stepped gracefully in.

But then – I’ll revert to talking about him in the 3d person now – he veers into the serious and the McCarthyesque.

 I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.

“The New Atheists are a danger to the wellbeing of America” – and he wonders why he is in bad odor.

Audacity of unbelief

Mar 19th, 2011 2:01 pm | By

I wanted to say a bit more about that passage from Obama’s Audacity of Hope that Rieux quoted yesterday.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.

I wish he had managed to say that without presenting it as somehow at odds with secularism, and for that matter without calling it “professed” secularism as if his mother had been either fake or wrong. I wish he had in fact said emphatically that his mother’s attributes were and are entirely compatible with secularism. He could even have said that religion is often at odds with for instance kindness or honesty, not in a random way but as part of its nature. Religion can be punitive, and it can be deceptive or evasive.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves.

Again – entirely unsurprising. I spent a large chunk of pre-dawn time just this morning staring at a particularly spectacular moon – it’s full, so it was low in the west at 5:30 a.m., and the clouds had parted, so it was reflected in Puget Sound. I listen to leaves; I stare at eagles perched in trees over my head; I stop dead when I hear the chatter of a hummingbird, to look for it and then watch it when I’ve found it. That has nothing to do with religion. It is compatible with religion (though not the contemptus mundi kind) but it is in no way dependent on it.

I really, really wish Obama could have discussed the issue without patronizing his mother’s non-theism.

As Irigaray might have said

Mar 19th, 2011 1:02 pm | By

In the mood for some spiritual discipline? Have some Giles Fraser. He’s very kinky.

It’s good to do without stuff. It’s a discipline. Food, sex, hot showers, reality tv, flowers, poetry, music – whatever you like, you should give it up, so as to exercise your giving it up muscle. For those of you who like to ask questions: you should give that up. It’s good for you and it’s a pretty compliment to god.

…one of the things that we learn from earthquakes and tsunamis is precisely that such mastery is an illusion. To use Lacanian language: it is an eruption of the Real against the neat meaningfulness with which we structure our lives. Are religious believers especially bad at wanting to buy any old explanation for tragic events so long as they return their familiar symbolic order to its former integrity? Probably, yes. For too often, religion can regard the admission that one does not understand as some sort of lack of faith. And furthermore, it can regard the refusal of poor explanations as a lack of loyalty to the tribe.

Fraser seems to have given up making sense for Lent. He doesn’t mean “are religious believers especially bad at wanting to buy any old explanation” – he means are they bad about doing that. They’re all too good at it. And that “poor explanations” is just confusing – he means bad explanations.

Anyway – what he’s doing is going all around the houses in order to say “don’t ask why god did this because I have no clue.” We already knew that, and we think Fraser and other clerics should realize that that means their god is either useless or a sadist or not there. In Lacanian language that would be: dude, get over it.

Can we all get along?

Mar 19th, 2011 11:11 am | By

The Vatican knows how it wants this “bring in the atheists” party to go. It wants it to go well for the Vatican.

“The aim is to help to ensure that the great questions about human existence, especially the spiritual questions, are borne in mind and discussed in our societies, using our common reason,” Cardinal Ravasi said.

See? Like that. It wants atheists to pretend to think that the Vatican uses reason when it discusses the great questions about human existence.

Ideally, Cardinal Ravasi said, the conversations begun by this project should resemble not a “duel” but a “duet,” with believers and non-believers offering complementary ideas and helping each other to refine their views.

See? The non-believers are supposed to pretend to think that Vatican ideas are “complementary” to secular ideas and that the Vatican can help atheists refine their views.

No doubt it will have chosen its non-believers carefully. The non-believers I know don’t think for a second that the Vatican is a reason-based institution or that its ideas are “complementary” in any meaningful sense. The Vatican, like the Templeton Foundation, apparently wants to borrow some of the respectability of rational people and ways of thinking while maintaining its own anti-rational ways.

If they invite you to the party, I urge you to decline.

Atheists should be banned

Mar 18th, 2011 5:44 pm | By

I accidentally encountered a new (new to me) atheist-hater yesterday. Very unpleasant guy. I was curious so I followed the link to his blog, and found this winsome little essay.

Let me make a loud and clear statement that a James Lee or Jared Loughner type would or should understand. A secular humanist seeks to improve human welfare upon our planet while atheism is amoral and only claims to be a lack of belief. Isn’t it clear that these two men lack respect for human life? So they can rightfully call themselves atheists but should be denied entrance into a humanist organization. Yet the above humanist organizations welcome and recruit atheists who may or may not respect human life.

The Counsel for Secular Humanism and the American Humanists Association should immediately delineate their terms and deny atheists into their ranks. There is a difference between the terms atheist and humanist! Until the above Humanist organizations delineate their terms, they must defend the actions taken by the type of “nut jobs” that they would allow into their ranks! These “Humanist Organizations” have some explaining to do!

He’s saying atheists are likely murderers. And yet they laugh when we say atheists are a despised group! Funny, innit. (I don’t advise commenting there. The guy’s got a nasty mouth, and he’s not what you’d call scrupulous.)

You mean you’re not going to throw me out?

Mar 18th, 2011 5:16 pm | By

Greg Epstein, the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard, is rather too easily pleased.

Yesterday, the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships unveiled an unprecedented new initiative: The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge…for me and perhaps for millions of my fellow nonreligious Americans, there is one particularly historic and controversial aspect of the challenge that cannot be ignored. As with his other main speeches on interfaith cooperation, President Obama has gone out of his way to make clear that this initiative must be fully open to and inclusive [of] atheists, and agnostics, and Humanists.

Well, just for one thing, it can’t be. An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses. We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t. We shouldn’t be pretending there is nothing exclusive or particularist or antisecular about faith-based offices and faith-based challenges in and from a branch of government. I don’t feel included in Obama’s challenge. On the contrary; I feel very pointedly and explicitly not included. That’s one reason I (and many other people) think presidents shouldn’t have offices and challenges of that kind. It was Bush’s innovation, and Obama should have ditched it.

I can vouch for the fact that we have been included every step of the way; not only in big public moments like the inaugural speech shout-out to “nonbelievers”, but also behind the scenes. Last June, I was invited to visit the White House as part of a small gathering of University and college presidents, deans, chaplains, and interfaith student leaders to discuss the initial plans that led to this initiative.

Dude, you can’t vouch for that; “we” have not been included in a company of that kind; chaplains and interfaith student leaders: that doesn’t include us. You may have been included, and your “we” may have, but I haven’t.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist, took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others—and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance (I was joined by my good friend August Brunsman, Director of the Secular Student Alliance.) To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there. I felt chills—despite polls consistently showing atheists like us to be the least electable demographic group in the US, here was a key representative of the highest authority in the land, looking us in the eye, in public, and making it indisputably clear that our beliefs, our Humanist values, and our secular colleagues were every bit as American as anyone else.

“We” are allowed to tag along with the much larger group of normal people. That’s called tokenism, and it’s insulting. Epstein seems to have internalized so much of the routine atheist-phobia of the US that he all but bursts into tears just because he gets a name-check from a crowd of godbotherers. He’s way too easily pleased.

A big win for the theocrats

Mar 18th, 2011 12:21 pm | By

So there’s no freedom of/from religion for Italy or for 47 other European countries either.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Friday that crucifixes are acceptable in public school classrooms, and its decision will be binding in 47 countries.

The ruling overturned a decision the court had reached in November 2009 in which it said the crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils. Led by Italy, several European countries appealed that ruling.

And they won, so non-Christian and atheist pupils just have to lump it. The majority wins so ha; no rights for you.

The original case was heard by a seven-judge panel. The appeal hearing was heard by a “grand chamber” of 19 judges.

The case set up a confrontation between traditional Catholic and Orthodox countries and nations in the north that observe a strict separation between church and state.

In other words, between countries that impose a particular religion on their citizens and those that don’t; in other words between theocracies and secular states.

The ruling came as Vatican officials announced the Holy See is reaching out to atheists with a series of encounters and debates aimed at fostering intellectual dialogue and introducing nonbelievers to God.

We’ve already been introduced. We don’t want to know their “God.”

The theocrats are delighted, of course.

Friday’s decision was welcomed by Italy’s foreign minister as a win for European “popular sentiment”.

“The decision underlines, above all, the rights of citizens to defend their own values and their own identities,” Franco Frattini said, according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.

“I hope that following this verdict Europe will begin to examine issues of tolerance and religious freedom with the same courage,” he added.

What exactly is “tolerant” (much less religious freedom) about imposing a symbol of a particular religion on everyone? Not to mention the morbid nastiness of the symbol in question – a device for torturing people to death.

…the ruling will affect all 47 Council of Europe member states as citizens in other countries who want religious symbols in classrooms could use it as a legal argument in national courts.National governments could also the ruling as a justification to change laws on religious symbols.

Strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Between different communities

Mar 17th, 2011 4:27 pm | By

I don’t see the benefit of interfaith whatsits. I don’t see why it’s Obama’s job to encourage them.

Since his inauguration, President Obama has emphasized interfaith cooperation and community service – “interfaith service” for short – as an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.

But if you don’t sort people into “different communities” in the first place, then you don’t need to build understanding between different communities, because people won’t be constantly seeing everyone as part of a different community. If you don’t keep insisting on this community-sorting project, you won’t entrench people in their communities and make them all prickly and defensive about their everlasting precious communities. That is, of course, especially true if the “communities” in question are religious, because when they’re religious, people love to get all prickly and defensive and self-righteous if people from other “communities” breathe too heavily on those communities. There’s no offense like religious offense.

Interfaith service involves people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds tackling community challenges together – for example, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews building a Habitat for Humanity house together across religious lines.

Yes but why? Why not just have some people build a Habitat for Humanity house together? Why not just not ask them what “community” they belong to? Why not just not treat them as representatives of a religion?

The press release doesn’t say.

This stuff is really annoying. It presents itself as all progressive and warm and reach-outy, but it’s all about penning people into identity-community boxes instead of just treating them as people and letting it go at that.

Darul Uloom Islamic High School in Birmingham

Mar 17th, 2011 11:33 am | By

A “faith school” in Birmingham.

Holding the children’s attention is a man in Islamic dress wearing a skullcap and stroking his long dark beard as he talks.’You’re not like the non-Muslims out there,’ the teacher says, gesturing towards the window. ‘All that evil you see in the streets, people not wearing the hijab properly, people smoking… you should hate it, you should hate walking down that street.’

He refers to the ‘non-Muslims’ as the ‘Kafir’, an often derogatory term that means disbeliever or infidel.

A snapshot of the worst kind of schooling imaginable – training in hatred of all people who are outside the favored group.

This school is required by its inspectors to teach tolerance and respect for other faiths. But Dispatches’ Lessons in Hate and Violence filmed secretly inside it – and instead discovered that Muslim children are being taught religious apartheid and social segregation.

We recorded a number of speakers giving deeply disturbing talks about Jews, Christians and atheists. We found children as young as 11 learning that Hindus have ‘no intellect’. We came across pupils being told that the ‘disbelievers’ are ‘the worst creatures’ and that Muslims who adopt supposedly non-Muslim ways, such as shaving, dancing, listening to music, and – in the case of women – removing their headscarves, would be tortured with a forked iron rod in the after-life.

It sounds like an imaginary school dated c. 1950 if the Nazis had won the war. It’s hard to come up with anything more poisonous. Given recent history in the UK, it’s terrifying.

‘Salma’ and ‘Ayesha’ are a mother and daughter whose identities we are protecting. Ayesha is now sitting her A-levels but when she was seven she was beaten at her Koran classes. She says: ‘The teacher would sit there, tell me what to read, pronounce it to me – then if I said it wrong he would hit me on the hands with a ruler.’ Her younger brother, only five at the time, would be hit on his feet with a stick.

They dreaded going to those classes but did not tell their mother. Salma eventually withdrew her children from attending madrassas for a completely different reason: she learned that they were being taught an intolerant version of Islam.

‘They were using terms like ‘Kafir’ just because somebody isn’t of the same religion,’ she says, ‘and I’m teaching my children to integrate and not be racist so I pulled my children out.’

Humans can be so ugly. It gets me down.

we have a government that, on the one hand, gives grand speeches about tackling the causes of extremism, as David Cameron did last week, while, one the other, encourages local communities to set up their own schools – including faith schools. It’s time to stop these mixed messages. And Muslims can no longer sweep this under the carpet – they need to face up to what is happening behind closed doors.Many warn that if we don’t all tackle this toxic mix of hatred and violence head on, we will reap the whirlwind in years to come.

Very few years in fact. Children can carry bombs in backpacks.

In a loblolly pine far away

Mar 17th, 2011 10:07 am | By

You do know about the EagleCam, right?


It’s a camera high in a tree at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia, trained on an eagle’s nest 8o to 90 feet up a loblolly pine tree. There were three eggs; one chick hatched Saturday, another hatched Monday, the third is due to hatch any moment.

It’s enthralling. You can see whichever adult is on the nest get up, a fuzzy bobblehead appear, then the other fuzzy bobblehead join it, then the adult rip bits off a fish (fly-covered, at this point) or a squirrel (caught yesterday) and offer them to one or the other fuzzy bobblehead, who will eat it. You can also see the older bobblehead attack the younger one. You can lose hours watching for this…

It’s warmer today, and the eagle on the nest (the female at the moment) is gaping to cool off. An hour ago she was gaping a little; now her beak is open farther; clearly it’s warming up in Virginia.

Do check it out if you haven’t, and rejoice at modern technology.

It does no work because it purportedly does all work

Mar 16th, 2011 1:07 pm | By

Anthony Grayling said more about this possibility of evidence for god question.

I don’t think that every effort has been made to look for evidence and none has turned up…You and Richard think it’s an empirical matter whether there are deities (or fairies? goblins? consider why you think the latter are zoological non-starters) and I think it’s a matter of coherence of the concept…

And, I find, so do I. The more I think about it the more I think that.

The point is that ‘god’ is not like ‘ether’ – it is not amenable to empirical investigation, and does not occupy a slot in some systematic framework of thinking about the world that might be improved on in the light of better theory or observation. It does no work because it purportedly does all work; like a contradiction it entails anything whatever; it is consistent with all evidence and none.

Exactly! By which I mean, that’s what I would have said if only I’d thought of it. It does no work because it purportedly does all work; that’s beautiful, and exact.

But ‘god’ is not like ‘yeti’ (which might – so to say: yet? – be found romping about the Himalayas), it is like ‘square circle’. Trying to explain to someone who thinks that ‘god’ is like ‘yeti’ (namely, you) let alone to someone who thinks ‘god’ is like ‘Barack Obama’ (names an actual being, as Christians and Muslims do) that it is actually not like ‘yeti’ but  like ‘square circle’ and that nothing can count as evidence for square circles, is harder work for ‘god’ than ‘square circle’ only because religious folk have been squaring the circle for so long!

Furthermore, “god” is like square circles and round triangles and octagonal hexagons and flat cubes and married bachelors. There are different versions of god, to say the least, and there is no univerally agreed set of minimal items that belong on the god-list, so there is no core “god” concept that we can try to match to possible evidence.

It’s dead easy to imagine evidence of a yeti. That wouldn’t even surprise me much, because the Himalayas are difficult terrain, and some animals are very good at hiding, and there is more than one species of great ape.

It’s also easy to imagine evidence of a species that would be superior to humans. That’s child’s play. But “god” is a whole different territory, with built-in hand-wavy stuff that make it as Anthony says consistent with all evidence and none. It’s Intelligently Designed that way.

More on “what is this god thing anyway?”

Mar 15th, 2011 1:43 pm | By

Jerry Coyne is discussing the “what would you consider evidence” question with Anthony Grayling. Anthony says what makes the whole enterprise nonsensical from the start:

on the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being – on inspection  such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity; as omnipotent, god can eat himself for breakfast…as omniscient it knows the world it  created will cause immense suffering through tsunamis and earthquakes, and therefore has willed that suffering, which contradicts the benevolence claim…etc etc…

Which it seems to me is undeniable, and relevant. What could be evidence for the existence of the usual normal mainstream “God”? Given that the usual normal mainstream “God” is an absurdity, it’s not even possible to know what would be evidence that it existed.

It’s also not possible to know what would be evidence that human beings could even detect. What evidence could we detect that “God” is eternal, for instance? What could show that, to us?

There are quite a few different versions of God, and they don’t combine into a nice stew or pot pourri or tapestry; they fight with each other. Evidence for one would be evidence for not-another.

I can imagine evidence for a local earth-based god or gods, like the Greek gods. They paid visits now and then, and they were very recognizable people. The omni-being is a whole different category, and evidence for it strikes me as being impossible.

No freedom from religion for you

Mar 15th, 2011 1:19 pm | By

Marc Alan di Martino told me an Italian judge had been fired for refusing to work under a crucifix. Yes really. There’s no reporting on it in English; all I could find was a blog post by…well, a theology-fan. The blogger could be writing approvingly.

Italy’s highest court of appeal — the Cassation Court — confirmed today (March 14, 2011) the sacking of a judge who refused to hear cases with the crucifix in the courtroom, according to the Life In Italy website…

The CSM said in its ruling that Tosti – who is a Jew – was guilty of refusing to do his job in the Marche town of Camerino from May 2005 to January 2006, when he withdrew from 15 hearings to contest the presence of the cross displayed in the courtroom.

It’s arbitrary, but at least in English “a Jew” sounds different from “Jewish,” and not in a good way. The blogger may not have meant it that way – but it sounds…well, you probably know how it sounds.

In its ruling today, the Cassation Court said that CSM was wholly “correct” and rejected Tosti’s argument that the presence of crosses was a threat to freedom of religion and conscience.

Because…? Because it doesn’t stand for religion and thus, in a courtroom, for theocracy? Because it doesn’t stand for one particular religion, and thus, in a courtroom, cast the judge as an outsider at best? Because it’s entirely neutral and has no meaning for atheists and other non-Christians? Because it doesn’t claim to stand for “God” and thus, in a courtroom, make secular law subordinate?

I don’t know. I look forward to finding out. I think Marc will be telling us more.

Update: Terry Sanderson alerted us to background from the NSS.

If it’s new and different, it’s god

Mar 14th, 2011 6:03 pm | By

Why would something new and astonishing and apparently a violation of what we know about nature be evidence of “God” or a god or the supernatural rather than…something new and astonishing and apparently a violation of what we know about nature?

I can easily imagine evidence of something new and astonishing and apparently a violation of what we know about nature. I have a harder time thinking of something that would convince me it was evidence of “God” or a god or the supernatural.

I’m not being stubborn or dogmatic in saying that. I’m saying I just don’t see why something new and the rest of it couldn’t point to A Big Unknown as opposed to the familiar though speculative category “God.”

Maybe a very big very powerful Person? But that could be a part of nature we hadn’t known about before. It could tell us “Hey I’m the one in the Bible” [but in which language?] but that could be what this part of nature does.

Maybe all kinds of spectacular magical events? But that could be astonishing and inexplicable without necessarily being non-natural. It could just mean that we’d never known what we hadn’t known – which is bound to be true anyway.

On the other hand, I can see saying “this is at least evidence of something like what people have been calling ‘God’ all this time.” I can see agreeing that this changes everything I thought I knew, and everything I thought other people knew, too.

But just plain “evidence of God”? Well which one, for a start?

Inspired by.

She’s 11 years old. It shouldn’t have happened.

Mar 13th, 2011 6:27 pm | By

Last week the New York Times reported that an 11-year-old girl was gang-raped in a Texas town. It also reported a bunch of people saying she dressed like an adult and that the rapists would have to live with this for the rest of their lives. It forgot to say that the girl might have some displeasure with the whole situation too. People were disgusted. The Public Editor (as they call him) said they had a point. But…

My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.

Yes; good; but…..

The Associated Press handled the story more deftly, I think. Its piece on the crime also noted the community view that the girl dressed provocatively and even the view of some that the girl may have been culpable somehow. But the AP also quoted someone in the community saying: “She’s 11 years old. It shouldn’t have happened. That’s a child. Somebody should have said, ‘What we are doing is wrong.’”

Um… if it’s not a child it’s ok? If the raped girl or woman is 17 or 25 or 40 or 70 it’s ok?

It’s weird the way people think about rape. Still, after all this time, when we’ve gone over it and gone over it. Nobody thinks of murder or assault or robbery that way, but rape is still sort of kind of the raped woman’s fault.

What is neuroquantology?

Mar 13th, 2011 5:30 pm | By

Stephan Schwartz tells us that science is hindered and plagued and obstructed by three kinds of denialism

actively engaged in trying to impede the free development of science: the Creationists (e.g., Hornyanszky and Tasi, 2002), the climate change deniers (e.g., Lomborg, 2008), and the consciousness deniers who cannot, or will not, consider consciousness as anything other than materialistic processes.

Yes that’s right. Creationists deny evolution, climate change deniers deny climate change (that’s an easy one), and consciousness deniers…deny that consciousness is something that floats around the universe independent of brains or brain-like organs inside bodies that sustain them.

This is bad. They are breaking science.

…progress in understanding the nature of consciousness, particularly that aspect, the nonlocal that has not been explained by physiology, but is addressed by nonlocality and quantum processes, has a very direct social consequence. The nonlocal aspect of consciousness may very well account for the insight of genius, for religious epiphany, as well as for psychic experiences.

I’m so curious about nonlocal consciousness. Is it like soup? Oxygen? Ectoplasm? Weather? Energy?

I don’t know, but maybe if I read NeuroQuantology regularly I will eventually find out. Yes, NeuroQuantology. What are you laughing at?

The Religion Communicators Council

Mar 12th, 2011 12:51 pm | By

What is the Religion Communicators Council? I’d never heard of it before yesterday. I’ve heard of it now though, and I’m curious. Is it, like, a household name? Is everybody aware of it off in the background somewhere, taking care of Religious Communication?

I don’t know. I think it sounds pretty horrible though.

The Religion Communicators Council, founded in 1929, is an interfaith association of religion communicators at work in print and electronic communication, advertising and public relations.

It’s a PR-advertising outfit for Religion, all Religion, Religion as such.

So it would be a peculiar kind of laurel for a journalist to get an award from them, wouldn’t it? Journalists don’t really want awards from PR outfits and advertisers, do they? Isn’t an award of that kind an announcement that one is not a journalist but rather an advertiser or PR-rep? Aren’t the two lines of work considered opposites rather than colleagues? Isn’t journalism supposed to be fundamentally not about marketing? The way the Religion Communicators Council itself puts it, that seems to be obviously the case:

The Religion Communicators Council and its members promote excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and encourage understanding among faith groups on a national level. Testaments to our goal of excellence are the Wilbur Awards.

It’s an award not for reporting but for communicating religious faith and values in the public arena. Fundamentally different and antagonistic kinds of thing.

Yet the Religion Communicators Council does give the award to practicing journalists. There’s one for Christopher Hitchens, which seems surprising. And there’s one for Chris Mooney’s Playboy article about “spiritual” scientists.