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.

The freeedom not to respect

Aug 25th, 2010 10:44 am | By

Quinn O’Neill, in her much-discussed piece on religion and reason and “tolerance” offers a familiar confusion:

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is undoubtedly important in securing secularism.  As Michael Shermer eloquently put it: “As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.”

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is important for a lot of reasons, but ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion does not depend on being “respectful and tolerant” of the content of individuals’ beliefs. It does not, and it cannot, because that would in fact interfere with everyone else’s freedom of religion (which, of course, includes freedom of non-religion). That is a very coercive, illiberal line of thought that has been entrenching itself lately, and it must be resisted. You are free to believe what you like, and I am free to pour scorn on any belief, and vice versa. Freedom cannot require the automatic “respect” for beliefs of the rest of the world, because such a requirement would itself be insanely coercive. Demanding “respect” for any belief is itself thoroughly anti-freedom.

O’Neill continues with the confusion.

Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom.  If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). 

Personal attacks on any individuals, if they are literal attacks, are inconsistent with freedom in general and with the rule of law. But of course she’s probably not talking about physical attacks…she’s probably talking about verbal disagreement. Well, that is not inconsistent with religious freedom. Respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is not the same thing as respect for the irrational beliefs themselves. O’Neill simply conflates the two, either sloppily or dishonestly; I don’t know which. The result, at any rate, is sheer bullshit. Yes, of course we have to respect everyone’s right to hold irrational beliefs, but no of course we do not have to respect the irrational beliefs themselves. There’s a difference, and the difference matters.

The rest of it

Aug 24th, 2010 6:22 pm | By

The meeting at Glöm aldrig Pela och Fadime was Friday morning, then there were other things during the afternoon, then there was dinner with the Fri Tanke people and Lena Andersson, a well-known columnist and unapologetic atheist. Great fun. Saturday afternoon I went to a meeting of a group recently formed within the Swedish Humanist Association to raise awareness on the issue of religious oppression of women. It was terrific. Everyone from the dinner was there, and Eduardo Grutzky, who started out in Argentina and spent time in Israel before settling in Argentina, and Sara Mats Azmeh Rasmussen, who writes a columnist for Aftenposten and set fire to a hijab on Women’s Day 2009, and Haideh who is from Iran and was there during the revolution, and Søren Sören (or is that the Danish spelling?) – it was international and passionate and great. Best evah.

In Minneapolis news

Aug 24th, 2010 10:40 am | By

In case you’ve been worrying and fretting and gnawing your fingernails -

PZ got a stent, and is enjoying the drugs, and will be going home tomorrow.


No, you can’t say that

Aug 24th, 2010 7:21 am | By

Messing around with Google in Swedish, I find a blog post by a guy who was at the seminar on Thursday. He includes the wonderful book cover by Elisabeth Wallin and adds that he was the model for the guy on the left – the rabbi holding a big jagged stone ready to throw. How cool is that?!

There was a giant blow-up of the jacket at the launch – it was about the size of a door. In the huge version it becomes clear that all three clerics are spitting on the women at their feet. Once you know that you can see it in the small version – that thing that looks like a wispy beard on the pope is actually a river of spit.

Wallin was supposed to be at the launch but alas she didn’t make it, so I never met her. Too bad; that would have been great, she being so pleasingly controversial and all. But I met other pleasingly controversial people. I was apparently even controversial myself. I’d written an article for the occasion, at Fri Tanke’s request, and it was going to be published by Express Expressen, one of the biggest newspapers. During the launch, Christer got a text message from them saying on second thought, we don’t want it, because – er – well we’ve already said religion is not entirely wonderful, so there’s no need to say it again. The opinion page editor wanted it, but the editor-in-chief intervened to say No.

Don’t go thinking that because Sweden is all secular and cool and leftwing, it doesn’t scowl at frank atheism just like all other right-thinking conformist people. That was what I thought, but I learned better pretty quickly. Frank atheism is frowned on, and as for criticism of Islam – that’s right out. That was being discussed at the launch – I think perhaps I was saying a few words about it, but the fog of jet lag was thick by that time, so I’m not sure; at any rate it was being discussed when Christer got the text message so he was able to use it as an illustration of the very thing that was being discussed. It was an interesting moment. The room full of women’s rights activists and secularists, discussing the fact that there is heavy social pressure not to talk about the role of religion in denying women’s rights, only to be told that a major newspaper has changed its mind about publishing an article on the role of religion in denying women’s rights. The irony is poignant.

Not a dry eye in the house

Aug 23rd, 2010 7:11 pm | By

Catching up. Jerry has some thoughts on Phil Plait’s famous best-selling Booker Prize-winning Library of Congress-approved “don’t be a dick” speech. One thought is that it sounded a good deal too much like “Tom Johnson” and his Amazing Experiences With the Out-of-control Atheist Fiends. Another thought is that Plait didn’t offer a shred of evidence for all his claims of pervasive atheist baddery. Those two thoughts are not unrelated to each other. “Tom Johnson” didn’t offer a shred of evidence for his exciting tale of persecution and spitting, either, and oh hey gee what do you know, it turned out that that was because it never happened and Tom Johnson was just throwing mud at people he doesn’t like. So why should anyone think Phil Plait is doing anything different?

Well one reason is that Plait is a different guy, and has a lot more to recommend him than “Tom Johnson” did. And another reason is…no actually that first reason is the only one I can think of. The fact that he didn’t and wouldn’t and won’t give any examples means that we don’t even know what he means, which makes it possible for people who hate gnu atheists to think he means pretty much everything short of plain secrecy and silence, and also makes it possible for gnu atheists to feel universally if vaguely guilty or implicated. That’s the case even though what Plait actually does spell out doesn’t make me (for one) go “Oh right, I do that all the time! Must do better.”

Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers, may make you feel good. . . but is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

Yeah no, see, I don’t do any of that. I don’t see a lot of other people doing that, either. A few blog comments, but that’s about it, and that can’t be what Plait was making such heavy weather about. Can it?

Richard Dawkins (Mr Ground Zero of putative dickish gnu atheism himself) made a very helpful point.

Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. 

When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades)to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

Why have I never thought to say that? Because I’m not clever enough, presumably. It’s dead right, and it gets at one of the things that I hate about the whole framey discourse, which is that it’s always personalized in this stupid way, as if every book or article or review were aimed right at sobbing Suzy R Innocent of Fluffy Falls, South Dakota. It’s not. Books and articles and reviews are written for a broad or narrow public, but a public, not a single person in the hopes of making her cry. People who write, write for the larger world, not for the nice church-going people down the street. We get to do that! We get to write for everyone, and for no one in particular. That means we get to write stuff without worrying too much about whether what we write will hurt the feelings of some fragile Christian who feels lonely and sad because the skeptics won’t eat lunch with her. It means we get to treat Plait’s maudlin invocation of crying believers thanking him for his speech with contempt. That’s good, because contempt is what it deserves.

Another young woman, one I had never met before, similarly approached me and told me much the same story. She was crying as well. Eventually I heard from others who told me there were several people in the audience who were crying because they had felt so alone. Many were feeling so isolated from the skeptical community — and had experienced so many encounters with other skeptics who were rude, boorish, insulting, and dismissive — that they were seriously considering leaving the movement altogether.

I want to know where they keep their stuffed animals, so that I can steal them.


Aug 23rd, 2010 1:25 am | By

Hurry up and get back to blogging, 1.5 of you exclaim, we’re jonesing here. Very well. Since the vagaries of jet lag this time are working even on the westbound leg, and waking me up after three hours of sleep where normally I just crash and sleep for 8 or 9 hours on getting home – I’ll oblige.

First there was this seminar, which you heard about beforehand, the one that started 3 hours after I landed. A lot of it was Q and A, and it was rather like facing an audience of mind-readers. They all seemed to know exactly what I was getting at, and to feel the same way about it, and to have illustrative stories to tell. I wasn’t really expecting that. I was expecting, I suppose, broad general interest and curiosity (in anyone who showed up), since why else bother to attend, but I wasn’t expecting quite such…”oh, you too?”

I chatted to some while signing books afterward, and some of the same people were at the launch a couple of hours later. One lovely guy (hi Jan!) has been following the whole accommodationism-Mooney wrangles and sees Mooney exactly the way I do. Ha. Even in Sweden people have his number.

One of the real high points was the next morning, when I went to the office of Glöm aldrig Pela och Fadime – Never forget Pela and Fadime. They are two women who were murdered for reasons of “honor” and shame, and the campaign is run by a terrific, brave Iraqi woman called Sara Mohammad. I asked if there is any kind of umbrella organization that links the work of people like Sara and that of others like Mina Ahadi, Necla Kelek, Maryam Namazie, Houzan Mahmoud, Homa Arjomand, Azar Majedi, Fadela Amara, etc etc etc – and apparently there isn’t. There should be. We all agreed there should be; solidarity, you know.

That’s an installment. There’s more.

Prodigal something or other

Aug 22nd, 2010 6:31 pm | By

Hello, I’m back – after 19 hours of travel. I left the hotel at about 7:20 this morning and got home at about 5:30 p.m. which was 2:30 a.m. Stockholm time. You see what I’m getting at. 7:20 Sunday morning to 2:30 Monday morning, on the road. It’s a bit fatiguing.

But never mind that. I had the most brilliant, incredible time – it was the best ever. I met all these terrific, brave women…

like Sara Mohammed of Never Forget Pele and Fadime -

like Sara Mats Rasmussen who burned a hijab in Norway on Women’s Day 2009 and has a regular column in Aftenposten

and many more. And that’s quite apart from what a great place Stockholm is.

Totalitarian atheism

Aug 18th, 2010 8:33 am | By

Barney Zwartz channels Mark Helprin (via an article from an anthology titled New Threats to Freedom. It’s the usual atheist-hating sludge pretending to wit: everything is reversed: it’s not religion that is conformist and coercive, good heavens no, it is that pesky dogmatic militant belligerent ‘my way or the highway atheism.’

Really. Really. I know I’ve said this before, but does Barney Zwartz never go into a bookstore? Does Mark Helprin? I was in the University bookstore here a couple of days ago, and the atheist empire has gotten smaller as well as less visible. It used to take up a good chunk of one shelf, so maybe about 2′, at about chest level, under a sign that said Religious studies and atheism. Now there are no atheist books under that sign, or anywhere else on the adjacent shelves. I looked and looked and finally had to ask, and I was led to a distant shelf where there were a few lonely atheist books at ankle level. There’s hegemony for you! Meanwhile there are many shelves under Christianity, many more under Judaism, many more under Islam, many more under Religious studies, many more under various subject headings – shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf. Yet, somehow, it is atheism that is A New Threat to Freedom.

[Helprin] opens with an anecdote from his youth of trying to philosophise his way out of a fist fight, only to be told by his opponent, “don’t give me none a dat college stuff!” This, Helprin suggests, is exactly the sort of tactic Richard Dawkins employs, confining any discussion to a realm that will give the answer he wants.

Really. Helprin “suggests” that Dawkins employs “exactly” the sort of tactic that says “don’t give me none a dat college stuff!” and then punches you.

If Helprin really “suggests” that, he’s being flagrantly dishonest. If Zwartz got him wrong, then it’s Zwartz who is being flagrantly dishonest. Yet both of them, apparently, think it’s atheists who are coercive.

Since time immemorial, insistence on a sole path to truth has been essential to intolerance. Long the preserve of religion, in the 20th century it went atheistic totalitarian, and has now reached the free West, Helprin says.

Totalitarian; that’s quite a strong charge. Yet it’s atheists who are coercive.

Helprin attacks the atheist bus campaign that began in Britain and has reached Australia. “Signs on buses tell you it’s OK not to believe in God. Admitted, but what of signs that said, ‘it’s OK not to be gay’, ‘it’s OK not to be black’, ‘it’s OK not to be a Jew’? While true, these statements are more than the simple expression of a point of view. Accurately perceived, they are an ugly form of pressure that while necessarily legal is nonetheless indecent.”

No. Being gay or black is not a belief or a not-belief. Being gay or black* is not parallel to not believing in God. Saying it’s OK not to believe something should not be construed as a form of pressure when it is obviously an attempt to counter a form of pressure.

After that there’s a lot of windy stuff conflating aesthetics and emotions with something ineffable, and using that to swear at atheists for being narrow and philistine and boring. It’s stupid, malevolent, pretentious stuff.

And now I really am leaving.

*Being a Jew mixes the two.

Cue Vera Lynn

Aug 17th, 2010 5:00 pm | By

Okay I’m off. Have to make sure I have everything I need, and do various other chores. Take care of yourselves, drink your Ovaltine. I’ll be back Sunday.

Proud ‘n’ patriarchal

Aug 17th, 2010 4:11 pm | By

James Fergusson says everybody should calm down and not get in such a swivet about women being treated like rebellious livestock in Afghanistan.

This does not mean the west should stand by in silence. On the contrary, it is our duty to go on arguing the case for gender equality and to keep Afghans engaged in that old debate. But we have no right to be shrill…

No right to be “shrill”? Why not? Why doesn’t anybody have a right to be “shrill” about gross cruelty and vindictiveness and oppression?

Well because we don’t understand, Fergusson says.

It might help if we understood the Taliban better. The harshness of the punishments they sometimes mete out only seems incomprehensible to the west. The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations…The Pashtuns are, famously, the largest tribal society in the world. Some 42m of them are divided into about 60 tribes and 400 sub-clans and they are intensely proud of their culture which has survived three millenniums of almost constant invasion and occupation.

What does he mean “works”? It “works” because the Pashtuns are a large tribe? So the fuck what? Who cares how big a tribe is if its bigness depends on brutal control of half its members and a life of generalized hostility?

The west views gender equality as an absolute human right and so we should. But no country, certainly not Britain, has yet managed unequivocally to establish that right at home; and we tend to forget both how recent our progress towards it is, as well as how hard the struggle has been. Full women’s suffrage was not granted in Britain until 1928. With such a track record, is it not presumptuous to insist that a proud, patriarchal society that has survived for 3,000 years should now instantly mirror us?

The fact that Britain has not yet managed unequivocally to establish gender equality is not a reason to be timid about resisting the Taliban version of gender inequality. Nobody is insisting that Afghanistan should instantly mirror Britain, but that’s not the only alternative to thinking “a proud, patriarchal society that has survived for 3,000 years” is nothing to be proud of when half its people are born to fear, deprivation and misery.

The Boers were a proud, patriarchal society too; so what? James Fergusson probably wouldn’t say “is it not presumptuous to insist that a proud, racist society should instantly mirror us?”; yet the word “patriarchal” apparently has a different kind of resonance. It shouldn’t.

The bible is useful for our day-to-day challenges

Aug 17th, 2010 11:43 am | By

Lord Mackay of Clashfern is a funny guy. He’s a We Wee Free, and he thinks Scots courts should use the bible to help them out with the law stuff.

Mackay, who is also the current Lord Clerk Register, the oldest surviving “Great Office of State” in Scotland, now acts as honorary president of the Scottish Bible Society (SBS), and has invited sheriffs and judges to refamiliarise themselves with biblical principles and act accordingly when presiding over court cases…

“I believe the teaching of the Bible is vitally important for guidance in daily living for all of us.“The…modern version is especially useful in dealing with our day-to-day challenges.

“If we use it in this way we will soon learn that what it says about human beings is as true today as it was when it was originally written all these years ago.”

Yeah? Like what? Deuteronomy 13, perhaps?

1If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, 2And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;

 3Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams…

 5And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death…

So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee. 6If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers…

8Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: 9But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

 10And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die…

As true today as it was when it was originally written all these years ago?

Or how about Numbers 25?

 1And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.

 2And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods…

4And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. 5And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.

Useful for judges, is it?

BioLogos at Huffington Post

Aug 16th, 2010 12:07 pm | By

You can blame Jerry Coyne for pointing out Pete Enns. The damage is done, at any rate.

He’s a condescending bugger, I must say.

To say that God’s existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.

See that? He’s calling “intellectual faculties” Western, which is a little bit of an insult to people who are not Western.

It is an old argument but a good one: any god worthy of the name is the source of all being, and therefore not one more being alongside all others subject to rational control. Any god like that isn’t God at all.

That’s a good argument? Saying that any god worthy of the name is the source of all being? Which amounts to saying that humans thought of this special word that is supposed to mean “the source of all being” plus it exists plus it’s not like anything else so ha - that’s a good argument? It’s not an argument at all. It’s a circle. God means the source of all being so it’s different from everything else so everything else can’t look at it or test it or say it isn’t there so it is there because being there makes it worthy of the name.

Why do people accept the principle of uniformity? Because it can be used to construct coherent scientific explanations of the universe, and that is a good reason to accept it. But this is not too far from what religious people say about their faith. Religious beliefs can be used to construct coherent explanations for things like why there is something rather than nothing.

No no! No no no! Sleight of hand alert. Scientific explanations of the universe are not just coherent, they are also based on evidence. Religious beliefs are not based on evidence. Makes a difference!

This is not ignorance of a sophisticated kind

Aug 15th, 2010 12:31 pm | By

More from Paul Cliteur’s The Secular Outlook. The first chapter is an extended analysis of atheism, agnosticism and theism. At the end of his discussion of Pascal’s Wager PC says Pascal did have one strong point, which is that we cannot suspend judgment on the transcendental realm – italics his. Quite right. If there is a god and it does want us to act in certain ways and it has given us reliable and unmistakable knowledge on the subject, that does make a difference. We may well think the god is evil and that we’re not going to act in the ways it wants us to, but it would be feckless not to think about it one way or another. If there is no such god, or at least no reliable and unmistakable knowledge about it, that too makes a difference. It’s not something we can just shrug about, not if we have any sense.

The agnostic says [she] suspends judgment while in every act [she] chooses in favor of or against God…So the agnostic can be adequately defined as the [person] “who does not know,” but [her] lack of knowledge is not some superior position that goes back to the docta ignorantia of Socrates or Montaigne, but the ignorance of someone who is unable or unwilling to take intellectual responsibility for a philosophical outlook that [she] honors in [her] deeds. There surely is some ignorance here. But this is not ignorance of a sophisticated kind, as the agnostic [her]self considers it to be. This is the ignorance of the unexamined life.

I like that. I like it partly because I’m so tired of all the superior sneering from jaded non-gnu atheists who wonder why we won’t just shut up about it already. I don’t think it’s as boring as they seem to. I think the many manifestations of zealous, hostile, vituperative hatred of atheism and atheists are 1. surprising 2. interesting 3. alarming. The manifestations themselves make it clear that we can’t just shrug and say “I dunno” and keep quiet.

If there is no design, there is no designer

Aug 14th, 2010 5:08 pm | By

As a companion piece to the one on Gary Gutting’s suggestions about god’s simplicity, here is Dawkins on why the whole idea is a non-starter (TGD p 121):

Creationist “logic” is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science’s answer to this faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?

You see he’s not just talking about why the failure of the argument from design makes god seem improbable, he’s also talking about why the argument from design fails. This is central. The argument from design fails because the appearance of design is just that; it’s an illusion; and that makes sense because the designer is nowhere to be found, and not at all likely, and that in turn makes sense, because there is no design, so we might as well stop looking for a designer. There is no need to pace to and fro talking about how god can be simple and identical to all its qualities; we can just bag the whole thing. There is no design; there is no designer; let’s go have a glass of wine.

Money for old rope

Aug 14th, 2010 4:18 pm | By

Russell has done a thorough dance on the exiguous “arguments” of Suzanne Fields’s “atheists are poopyheads” in that pride of journalism, The Washington Times, but I thought I would still take just a moment to point out how incredibly lazy it is. There’s no evidence that she’s ever even read anything on the subject before writing about it; all she’s done is string together a selection of very stale atheist-hating chestnuts.

Atheism is fashionable. The Bible sells way more copies. Nobody puts atheist books in hotel rooms. Atheists think they’re nonconformists but atheism is way old. Satan. Smug, shallow and arrogant. Cheap. Hitchens and Hitchens. Zealous. Lenin. The 60s. Muslims. Leftists. The worship of power.

That’s it. Seriously. Sarah Palin could have done it in a couple of tweets, and probably has. They don’t have much intellectual integrity, the “ewww atheists” crowd.


Aug 14th, 2010 12:20 pm | By

All right, I’ve adjusted my attitude since yesterday and the day before. We had a nice chat on the phone, and it will be okay. The seminar will be mostly discussion and q and a, so I won’t have to give a big long talk while yawning and scratching, so I can handle it. And hey, it will be fun. A conversation with a lot of people interested in women’s rights and the role of religion in interfering with same, in Stockholm. Fun!

And the cover of the Swedish translation of Does God Hate Women? is by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, whose Homosexuality in religion exhibit was canceled by one museum in June.

Sweden’s Museum of World Cultures canceled the Homosexuality in religion exhibit after consulting with representatives of the three religions involved in the exhibit, Judaism, Christianity and Islam claiming that it might offend some believers. The exhibit was by artist Elisabeth Ohlsson-Wallin. The pieces in the exhibition depict texts from holy books condemning homosexuality beside pictures of people of the same gender in sexual positions.

In other words a Swedish museum of world cultures gave three religions the right of veto over an artist’s exhibition, because somebody claimed it “might” “offend” “some” “believers.”

Perhaps representatives of the three religions will turn up at the seminar Thursday afternoon and bust all of us, because what we’re talking about “might” “offend” “some” “believers.”

Best fun evah.

You need a better first step

Aug 13th, 2010 11:43 am | By

Gary Gutting is a philosopher of religion at Notre Dame, a Catholic university in the US; he writes for the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone. He has a long post saying what’s wrong with Dawkins’s arguments for the strong improbability of god. It’s worth reading because it’s more than just shouting or hand-waving or tone trolling or border disputing or last Thursdayism or science has nothing to say about the supernatural-ism. That’s not to say it’s convincing, but at least there’s something there.

He addresses Dawkins’s argument (not unique to him, of course) that a god that created the universe would have to be even more complex than the universe, and thus would require explanation even more than the universe does, so it doesn’t explain the universe after all, so it’s not a good argument for the existence of god. (That’s not how Gutting puts it, it’s how I do.)

Here Dawkins ignores the possibility that God is a very different sort of being than brains and computers. His argument for God’s complexity either assumes that God is material or, at least, that God is complex in the same general way that material things are (having many parts related in complicated ways to one another). The traditional religious view, however, is that God is neither material nor composed of immaterial parts (whatever that might mean). Rather, he is said to be simple, a unity of attributes that we may have to think of as separate but that in God are united in a single reality of pure perfection.

Okay…but what good is that? What good is a view, what good is “he is said to be”? It’s just saying. Anyone can say, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should believe what is said.

Obviously, there are great difficulties in understanding how God could be simple in this way. But philosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God.

Okay, but I don’t really see why anyone should bother, given that there’s no real reason to pay attention to the claim in the first place. Saying “God is simple” is an ad hoc way to get around the “god would have to be more complex” objection, but it’s not a claim with any apparent relationship to observable reality. That means that intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about this legless claim don’t strike an outsider as all that valuable.

Making Dawkins’ case in any convincing way would require detailed engagement not only with Swinburne but also with other treatments by recent philosophers such as Christopher Hughes’ “A Complex Theory of a Simple God.” (For a survey of recent work on the topic, see William Vallicella’s article, “Divine Simplicity,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Okay, I had a look.

According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes.

Okay, but again, this is just dogma. It’s just saying. I’m sure it’s internally coherent, but there’s no reason to believe it in the first place. Without any reason to believe it in the first place, it’s hard to care whether it’s internally coherent or not. Don’t you find?

 God is what he has. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). It is represented not only in classical Christian theology, but also in Jewish, Greek, and Islamic thought. It is to be understood as an affirmation of God’s absolute transcendence of creatures.

Okay – that all makes sense if you believe in this god in the first place. But if you don’t, it just sounds like people saying fancy things about something they know absolutely nothing about. It sounds grand, that kind of thing, but it’s just saying. Just saying is not convincing to outsiders.

You need a better first step. I already know that theology sounds explanatory and serious to insiders, but you need a better first step to convince outsiders. Science and other empirical forms of inquiry have that better first step; theism doesn’t.

We’ve heard nothing from Jane Fonda

Aug 13th, 2010 10:17 am | By

Oh come on. The brush Toby Young paints with is so broad that he’s lost his grip.

No other prominent feminist has spoken out about Ashtiani’s case, unless you include Yoko Ono who has signed the petition calling for her to be freed. We’ve heard nothing from Germaine Greer, nothing from Gloria Steinem, nothing from Jane Fonda, nothing from Naomi Wolf, nothing from Clare Short, nothing from Harriet Harmen.

Well that’s interesting, and in some cases reprehensible if true, but it’s hardly conclusive. That’s not a complete list of prominent feminists, to put it mildly; arguably it’s not even a list of feminists. Jane Fonda? Yoko Ono? They’re celebrities rather than feminists.

 Almost no one on the left, with the honourable exception of Christopher Hitchens, dares to breath a word against any Islamic country for fear of being branded “Islamophobic”. Thus, a brutal dictatorship is able to torture and murder thousands of innocent women, safe in the knowledge that the self-styled keepers of the West’s conscience will remain silent.

Oh come on. Yes parts of the left are way too “sensitive” about what they take to be “Islamophobia” and way too confused about the difference between racism and criticism of religion, but it’s certainly not the case that Christopher Hitchens is the sole exception to that.

Could a feminist outcry today about the plight of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani do anything to prevent her death? We will never know, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their continuing silence reveals the moral bankruptcy of their movement.

What do you mean we will never know?! There is such an outcry; it’s going on right now. There could be even more people involved, of course, but that doesn’t mean there are none.

Reading “The Secular Outlook”

Aug 11th, 2010 6:24 pm | By

Wiley-Blackwell sent me The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur a few days ago. It has a blurb by Russell Blackford on the back, which is a good sign.

Cliteur says it’s important to distinguish between  predictions of secularization, which are descriptive, and secularism, which is normative. There’s an amusing passage on page 4 where it becomes apparent that he does not think much of Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong, like some other authors writing on religion and secularization, mixes up “secularism” and “the secularization thesis.” A secularist to her is someone who believes in the secularization thesis. ..Armstrong and others may, of course, gleefully criticize the secularization thesis, but that is flogging a dead horse. Their argumentation has no consequence whatsoever for the viability of secularism as a moral and political philosophy or a vision of how the state should relate to religion. On the contrary.

Yes well – that’s Armstrong.

He makes a key distinction on page 5 between

tolerance as practiced by religions, not tolerance toward religions. Although both forms of tolerance are important, the first issue is a blind spot in the literature on this subject, the latter a sole preoccupation.

Ohhhhhhh – so it is. So religions are supposed to practice tolerance themselves! Who knew?

Farthest north

Aug 11th, 2010 5:23 pm | By

I’m going to Stockholm for a couple of days next week. It seems very absurd to go from Seattle to Stockholm for a couple of days, but then again, it’s better than not going to Stockholm at all, so I’m going. Does God Hate Women? is being published in translation, and there’s going to be a launch and stuff.

I will have a very horrible time the first day at least, and possibly throughout, because they got confused and scheduled a seminar and then the launch on the day I arrive as opposed to the next day. I have to go directly from the airport to the seminar. This is not good. I will be filthy and red-eyed and ravenous and grumpy, and it will be 4 a.m. my time without any sleep. I do not like to think what kind of spectacle I will present at this seminar, much less what I will feel like, but I have told them not to expect anything. They have only themselves to blame.

So anyway that’s where I’ll be next week for a couple of days.