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.

When professors deny the truths of faith

Jun 27th, 2011 11:21 am | By

Patrick J. Reilly has written an article about the heterodoxy of ethics and law professors at several Jesuit universities. Who is he?

Patrick J. Reilly is founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization to advocate and support the renewal of genuine Catholic higher education.

Ah. So he’s someone with a clear agenda, and one that is a contradiction in terms. “Genuine Catholic higher education” clearly means orthodox Catholic “education” that adheres to established dogma, which means it is fundamentally opposed to genuine education. What he means by “education” should better be called information-stuffing, or just memorization.

Here’s his beef. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops – the one that subscribes to the bishop of Phoenix’s policy that preganant women’s lives must not be saved if it takes an abortion to do so, no matter what, including even no matter if the fetus won’t survive in any case – has a position on assisted suicide, which of course is that it’s evil.

…as with so many moral issues, the bishops need look no further than our Catholic institutions to find that the “nationwide campaign” in opposition to Church teaching has been ongoing for many years.

Suicide’s legalization has been advocated by prominent professors in Catholic universities including Georgetown, Marquette, Santa Clara, and Boston College.

In other words, faculty in “our” Catholic institutions are being disobedient. They are defying authority. They are using their own judgement. This is scandalous.

As reported in “Teaching Euthanasia,” an exclusive report in the June 2005 issue of Crisis, multiple professors at Catholic universities had taken positions on end-of-life issues that seemed to conflict with Vatican teaching.Today, some of those professors are no longer teaching at Catholic universities, but others remain perched in Jesuit law schools and theology and philosophy departments.

Which is an outrage, because they are Catholic universities, therefore the Vatican owns them, therefore the professors are forbidden to take positions that conflict with Vatican teaching. Yet there they still are.

Catholic universities are partly responsible for such professors’ influence by virtue of their employment. Academic freedom protects professors’ rights to seek truth according to the methods of their discipline. But when professors deny the truths of faith and disregard the common good — especially of those whose lives are snuffed out prematurely — they violate the mission of a Catholic university.

When professors deny the truths of faith they violate the mission of a Catholic university.

That’s on the record. Helpful of him to make it so very unambiguous.

It depends where you start

Jun 27th, 2011 9:54 am | By

Emily Manuel at Religion Dispatches talks to Adam Kotsko about his new book, which is about atonement. She mentions someone posting on his blog that “we haven’t really thought through a proper atheism yet.”

Right. I think that you can see this with the New Atheists. Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ and Dennett’s books are a kind of simplistic critique of religion that’s basically not going to change anyone’s mind. I think there has to be more to say about religion other than the fact that it makes no sense as an empirical claim. That’s just too obvious to be interesting. I think that we as a society deserve a better form of atheism.

The claim that the simplistic critique of religion is not going to change anyone’s mind is, frankly, simply ridiculous. He hedges it with “basically” but it’s not clear exactly what the hedge is – the simplistic critique will superficially change anyone’s mind but just not basically? I have no idea what that means.

The claim is ridiculous because it’s not true, and it’s easy to find out that it’s not true.

It’s also not even plausible. Why would the simplistic critique of religion not change anyone’s mind? Is everyone’s mind changeable only by complicated critiques? Certainly not. Most of the time it’s the other way around, surely – a clear easily-grapsed critique with few moving parts is the best way to change someone’s mind. That’s true even for clever people. “I’m going to take Lilac Road.” “Lilac Road is closed for repairs.” “Ah – I’ll go via Pepperville Drive then.”

The thing about the simplistic critique of religion is that lots of people have never been exposed to it. A lot of religious belief is what people have because no one has ever offered them a critique of it, simplistic or otherwise. Sometimes just realizing that there are people who don’t think the magical being exists at all is indeed enough to change anyone’s mind.

That doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it, of course, but it does mean it’s a lot too hasty to announce that it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

Sure, there’s more to say than that religion makes no sense as an empirical claim, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth saying that religion makes no sense as an empirical claim. By all means say more if you want to, but don’t ignore the value of saying that. It may be too obvious to Adam Kotsko to be interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s too obvious to everyone to be interesting. If you’ve never thought of it before and then you do, it can be quite interesting.

The real problem is new atheism

Jun 26th, 2011 12:04 pm | By

Nick Cohen has a terrific, ferocious piece on Trevor Phillips’s failure, indeed refusal, to do anything about caste discrimination in the UK. Since Phillips is the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, this failure/refusal is striking as well as tragic.

Nick starts by clearing some stupid lumber out of the way.

You can tell that speakers are preparing to say something scandalous when they assert that “militant atheists” are the moral equivalents of the religious militants that so afflict humanity. Trevor Phillips, whose flighty management of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is becoming a scandal, was no exception when he announced last week that British believers were “under siege” from “fashionable” atheists.

Trevor Phillips’s attack on “fashionable” atheists for exercising their right to speak their minds shows he does not begin to understand modern sectarianism. From his ignorance flows a cowardly refusal to face down those who would bully and harass others, as a story that deserves more attention than it has received shows.

Phillips also, I would add, does not begin to understand people’s right to speak their minds. The endless flow of crap about #BadNewAtheists demonstrates that a lot of people don’t begin to understand that, because the whole “omigod #BadNewAtheists” thing depends on the assumption that there is something obviously Bad about atheists spelling out what they don’t believe.

Faced with the prospect of confronting the prejudices of core supporters, the Labour government preferred holding on to seats to living by liberal principles and backed away from extending anti-discrimination law to cover caste. With Labour gone, campaigners for just treatment for tens of thousands of British Asians have a glimmer of hope.

They are trying to persuade the coalition to take seriously a study of bullying and harassment conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It is a dispiriting read – little more than a list of pointless cruelties. The Indian supervisor of an NHS worker discovers that he is from a lower caste and makes his life such a misery he becomes ill under the pressure and is suspended; a social services care worker refuses to help an elderly woman wash herself because the old lady is from a lower caste and so it goes on through dozens of examples.

But Trevor Phillips doesn’t want to know.

A search of the Equality and Human Rights Commission records shows that it ignores caste discrimination in Britain.When I phone its press office to ask why, its public relations officers fail to return my calls.

Why tf not? Seriously: why? As it’s a press office, they must know Nick will report the failure, and where he will do so. Are they content with that? An article in the Observer noting that they can’t be bothered to pay attention to a report on caste discrimination? Too busy opposing “fashionable” atheists are they?

Well, because he is a man

Jun 25th, 2011 2:56 pm | By

Brendan O’Neill is a piece of work. You knew that, but I’m saying it anyway. He had himself a good time defending the pope against the evil atheists last year, but I didn’t know he’d recently amused himself by defending Dominique Strauss-Kahn against “the feminists”; but it was so.

I can’t help feeling that his arrest on charges of sexual assault is being turned into a modern-day medieval drama, a kind of reality-show version of the witch trials of old, in which DSK has been assigned the role of all-purpose hate figure rather than suspect in a crime.

Oh, sure you can. Did you try? Really try?

And feminists hate DSK because… well, because he is a man, and even worse than that he’s a man who has reportedly flirted and engaged in saucy dialogue with his female staff in the past.

Oh, yeah – those pesky puritanical prim humorless “feminists” who hate all men because they are men, and especially they hate men who flirt and engage in saucy dialogue with their servants.

What he means, of course, is that feminists are less than keen on men who attempt to rape maids in hotels. He neglects to explain why he finds that distaste so risibly contemptible. What a shit he is.

Does everybody hate women?

Jun 25th, 2011 11:30 am | By

Yes we just can’t ever hate women enough, there always has to be a new way to hate them even more.

At least 38 of the 50 states across America have introduced foetal homicide laws that were intended to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from violent attacks by third parties – usually abusive male partners – but are increasingly being turned by renegade prosecutors against the women themselves.

South Carolina was one of the first states to introduce such a foetal homicide law. National Advocates for Pregnant Women has found only one case of a South Carolina man who assaulted a pregnant woman having been charged under its terms, and his conviction was eventually overturned. Yet the group estimates there have been up to 300 women arrested for their actions during pregnancy.

That’s some serious hatred.

Like discussing the rules of quidditch

Jun 24th, 2011 3:07 pm | By

There’s nothing like a good healthy sense of priorities, is there. What could be more urgent for Irish Catholics than to pitch a huge fit about an art installation that has something to do with “the Virgin Mary”?

In Our Lady and Other Queer Santas, Chicana artist Alma Lopez will exhibit her picture Our Lady, a digital pastiche of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, a 16th-century Peruvian manifestation of the Virgin Mary…The Madonna in a bikini, basically…

On last Friday’s Liveline, one of Ireland’s most popular radio shows, presenter Joe Duffy was flooded with calls from irate Catholics mortified by this “blasphemous” artwork.

You see what I mean. That’s what these irate Catholics are irate about – a picture of something labeled “the Virgin Mary.” Not Magdalen laundries, not child rape by priests, not industrial schools, not the Catholic church’s relentless stranglehold on the people of Ireland for generation after generation – but a picture of a putative “manifestation” of a putative woman who lived (if she lived) two thousand years ago in unblemished obscurity like nearly everyone else in human history.

Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer chimed in, saying the university should not be supporting an event that was “overtly blasphemous and blatantly disrespectful” and that “those in charge at UCC should consider whether or not it is appropriate to permit this exhibition to take place on its campus without affording others the opportunity to present an alternative and balanced point of view”.

Point of view? Alternative point of view? Balanced point of view?

………….What would that be? A kitsch “Mary” from a souvenir shop? Our Lady of Guadeloupe in a burqa topped by a full set of sealskins suitable for winter in Barrow? Joseph in a Speedo?

Lopez has been under attack for her artwork since it was first exhibited in California in 2001. The current campaign is headed by America Needs Fatima, a Mariolatrous US group that organises anti-abortion and anti-blasphemy rallies…Ireland, meanwhile, is facing its first blasphemy controversy since the Fianna Fáil/Green government introduced a new blasphemy law. Buckley’s claim that all Irish people revere Mary chimes dangerously with that law’s definition of blasphemy as something likely to cause “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of [a] religion”. UCC could yet have a case on its hands.

Priorities, people. Fix them.


Jun 23rd, 2011 10:53 am | By

The BBC continues to pretend not to understand.

Geert Wilders has been acquitted of “inciting hatred” because the judges managed to distinguish between annoying/unpleasant/offensive and illegal. The BBC isn’t so sure about that.

With Thursday’s acquittal, it appears that Mr Wilders’s radical words are now more mainstream in a country that for decades was viewed as one of the most liberal and tolerant in the world.

But “liberal” and “tolerant” about what? About Islam, mostly. But there are difficulties with being “liberal” and “tolerant” about Islam, given that Islam itself is not altogether “liberal” and “tolerant.” Many critics of Islam, partly including Wilders, are critics of it because it is not altogether liberal and tolerant, or egalitarian or fair. The BBC’s implied claim that all the liberalism and tolerance are on the side of Islam and all the opposition to liberalism and tolerance are on the side of critics of Islam, is profoundly wrong.

Mr Wilders is an enormously popular politician, his Freedom Party the third
largest in parliament, and many analysts say Thursday’s acquittal will only
boost his popularity in the immigrant-wary Dutch mainstream.

In turn, the government is supporting many of his anti-immigrant positions,
from limiting immigration to banning face-covering attire.

But “immigrant” is not synonymous with Muslim and vice versa. Even if Wilders conflates the two, explicitly or by suggestion, the BBC should not follow his lead. “Face-covering attire” can’t just be reduced to “immigrant” so banning it can’t just be reduced to “anti-immigrant.” Yes there’s overlap and confusion and suspect motivation, but that’s all the more reason to make the distinctions.

“I’m very disappointed,” said one Dutch Moroccan, Zenap al-Garboni, eating a bagel with her children in a restaurant near the courthouse.

“He should not create hate and that’s what he’s doing. He’s creating hate
against Islam.”

Nobody should be required to love Islam.


One good thing

Jun 22nd, 2011 4:29 pm | By

Good news about Ai Weiwei though.

The release of Mr. Ai, 54, who is widely known and admired outside China, appeared to be a rare example in recent years of China’s bowing to international pressure on human rights. Mr. Ai was the most prominent of hundreds of people detained since China intensified a broad crackdown on critics of the government in February, when anonymous calls for mass protests modeled after the revolutions in the Middle East percolated on the Chinese Internet.

Crappy about the hundreds though.

China came under unusually heavy pressure from all corners of the globe, not only from standard diplomatic channels but also from prominent people like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in New York, who harangued China in May at a Manhattan opening of an outdoor sculpture exhibition by Mr. Ai, and Anish Kapoor, a leading sculptor based in Britain who this month canceled a show planned for the National Museum of China in Beijing.

And Salman Rushdie.

Don’t get too happy though.

Few dissidents who have been detained in recent years have been shown leniency. International pressure so far has not helped Liu Xiaobo, a writer who was given a 11-year prison sentence in 2009 on subversion charges. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last October, which he was not allowed to collect.

Always more to do.

A patronising view of the “Other”

Jun 22nd, 2011 12:16 pm | By

Salil Tripathi set off a seriously interesting discussion of Arundhati Roy at Facebook, via a piece by Andrew Buncombe in the Independent. (This is why, say what you will, FB is not altogether silly.) I got his permission to quote him.

The subject is, as Buncombe put it:

It was the writer and activist Arundhati Roy who set foreign journalists in India busily chattering recently. In an interview with Stephen Moss in the Guardian, Ms Roy was discussing the Maoist and Adavasi “resistance” to encroachment on tribal lands. Mr Moss, asked her why, “we in the West don’t hear about these mini-wars?”. Ms Roy replied: “I have been told quite openly by several correspondents of international newspapers, that they have instructions – ‘No negative news from India’ – because it’s an investment destination. So you don’t hear about it…”

Salil said (among other things)

I agree that journalists who probe too much into Kashmir are likely to have visa problems. I also agree that editors in the West like to look at unusual stories out… of India, and not ones they’ve been covering all the time. But I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy among editors, who meet at a pub every night in Wapping, exchanging notes, about which rah-rah story about India should they run. Likewise, there is no conspiracy among correspondents either, to meet at specific places and plan coordinated stories that decide to underplay poverty and overplay the Gurgaon malls. In fact, most journalists want the unusual – and so you will find stories that show cracks in the India shining story, just as you will find stories about Indian companies making it big abroad. The trouble with Arundhati Roy is precisely that she thinks only her truth is valid, only the story she focuses on is important, and others must write the same story, and reach the same conclusions. That was infuriating at one point; it is tiresome now. Which is why she is less relevant in India than at any time, and continues to be loved by the Guardian and the Nation, two newspapers which have a patronising view of the “Other”, and can see only one form of stories from that place. (Sure, Guardian will write about Outsourcing, but focus on the soullessness of the job, and not about how it has liberated a person from the Indian hinterland, who’d have married within her caste to whoever her parents insisted, and exposed her to an urban lifestyle, and allowed her to assert her identity, creating her own space in the big adventure called India. Roy sees her as a collaborator; I see signs of emancipation there.)

I’ve noticed the same thing (perhaps alerted to it by reading Meera Nanda): the way UK and US journalists treat Roy as an oracle when there are countless other Indians they could talk to but don’t. (They do the same thing with Vandana Shiva.)

Comments on comments on comments

Jun 22nd, 2011 10:30 am | By

I’m burning up the time reading sapient comments on PZ’s response to “Be” Scofield’s “5 stupid things stupid atheists think” so I might as well recycle one so that I can pretend I’ve accomplished something more than reading sapient comments on a post of PZ’s, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Sastra quotes a bit from “Be” and annotates it:

Scofield has gone into Therapist Mode (sometimes known as Anthropologist Mode.) If you’re trying to help or understand other people, don’t treat them as equal members of your own group and argue with them over truth or content. Instead, you concern yourself with what works for them. Are they happy? You shouldn’t try to change their minds because that interferes with the natural course of things — which is allowing them to discover and be who they are on their own terms, not yours.

Spot on.

While I was reading, “Be” Scofield commented. He said he has replied (at Tikkun, oh urgh). So now I have to read that. Is there no end to it?

Ultimate consumerism

Jun 21st, 2011 12:00 pm | By

I’m reading Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by our own dear Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson. It’s very good and very infuriating.

The situation is the totally familiar one of an industry straining every nerve and pulling every string to winkle more dollars out of other people’s pockets into its own, but in a context where doing so allows a lot of really nasty forms of manipulation – like creating a bogus “requirement” to view the body and then saying “wouldn’t you prefer to see her in an upgraded” vastly more expensive box?

There’s a weird strain of hilarity behind the whole thing – the basic idea of buying an expensive box that’s going to be buried in the ground. There’s one quoted item of PR-speak that refers to the body “nestling” in whatever it is. Nestling?

One thing I didn’t know is that in most places there are a lot more funeral outfits than are needed, and given that there’s no legitimate way to expand the market, the only way to survive is to inflate the prices. With shoes or hamburgers or phones, you can just market the bejeezis out of them and sell more and more and more, but there’s no way to sell more and more and more burials.

Maybe they should consider that. Reburial every few years, just like getting new appliances and granite counter tops. The living room looks a little dull and drab, time for new curtains and a lick of paint. Same thing with the ancestors.

Exctract here.

A deferential search for the nearest bishop

Jun 21st, 2011 10:04 am | By

Catherine Bennett isn’t fooled or wowed or befuddled or rendered absent-minded by the archbishop.

After a great success with Jemima Khan, the New Statesman had made the archbishop guest editor. Why? Why not?…As it turned out, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s internship proved equally inspired, exposing a public tolerance of episcopal power that, even as it dismays reformers, can only encourage undimmed Anglican ambition.

What was that all about? It seemed more like a Monty Python joke than anything else. Who’s the next guest editor, the queen? Could they have found anyone less appropriate for a putative left-wing magazine?

The response to his provocation could hardly have been more satisfactory. Clearly, everyone had forgotten his flirtation with sharia and that other time, with Labour’s equality bill, when Williams won his church a special bigotry exemption.

Well why? If so, why?

Even rightwing Anglicans, who recoil from Williams’s politics, relish the spectacle of the established church being recognised, unlike their competitors, as a prominent and respected meddler in sublunary affairs.

Yes of course they damn well do, but what is the Staggers doing helping them?

Next up was the Rev Michael Banner, on Thought for the Day, exulting in the bravery of his spiritual brother – and boss – Rowan. “The voice of prophecy – the voice of what Christians have called the Spirit of God – ought never to be silenced and ought never to go unheeded,” said Banner. What, never? some listeners must have thought as they sprinted for the off-switch. How about Rasputin?

Or Savonarola, or Jerry Falwell, or Fred Phelps, or Terry Jones (of the Florida clan), or all the various “spiritual leaders” of Hizbollah, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Shabab and all the other “spiritual” gangs – how about them?

It is this “voice”, Banner continued, presumably alluding to the established church, speaking through him on the BBC, “which constantly challenges a complacent satisfaction with the existing social order, which dreams of a better society” etc etc.

Ah yes, the established church and the BBC joining hands to challenge complacent satisfaction with the existing social order. Makes the eyes mist up, don’t it.

But don’t non-prophetic voices also do that, without recourse to a contested spiritual authority? That’s the great thing about pulpits: they don’t take questions. And Banner was right in thinking that his superhuman case for being “heeded”, over inferior, secular voices emanating from, say, charities or academies, is often accepted as blindingly obvious.

Pulpits don’t take questions because god doesn’t take questions. A great deal too convenient, if you ask me.

Last week, the media response to Terry Pratchett’s intensely troubling investigation of assisted dying was, similarly, a deferential search for the nearest bishop, even though a bishop’s moral insight on this question, whatever he may add about palliative care, represents not so much superior expertise as an immutable faith requirement. Defying an overwhelming lay majority that supports assistance for dying people who want to control their deaths, Rowan Williams has called the proposal, flatly, “immoral”.

He’s the immoral one.

Unless you’re a man

Jun 20th, 2011 12:23 pm | By

Trevor Phillips of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission talks a lot of sinister crap to the Telegraph.

“The thing I’ve become anxious about in recent times is this – there is   certainly a feeling amongst some people of belief that they are under siege,   that they are often disadvantaged, that they are looked at and considered in   some way different and their faith makes them less worthy of regard,”   he said.

That could be so, but it could also be inevitable given that their beliefs are not well supported. The conspiracy of silence about that incovenient fact has been broken lately. That’s as it should be.

I understand why a lot of people in faith groups feel a bit under siege.   They’re in a world where there are a lot of very clever people who have a lot of access to the airwaves and write endlessly in the newspapers knocking   religion and mocking God. The people who want to drive religion underground are much more active, much more vocal.

Yes, we are, and people in faith groups will just have to learn to put up with it. (And note that those people too have a lot of access to the airwaves and write endlessly in the newspapers knocking atheism and mocking atheists.) We are allowed to be both active and vocal. People in faith groups don’t get to veto us.

There is no doubt there’s quite a lot of intolerance towards people of faith   and towards belief. There’s a great deal of polemic which is anti-religious, which is quite fashionable.

And there’s quite a lot of intolerance towards people of no faith, and towards unbelief. There’s a great deal of polemic which is anti-atheism, which is quite fashionable.

Being an Anglican, being a Muslim or being a Methodist or being a Jew is   just as much part of your identity and you should not be penalised or   treated in a discriminatory way because of that. That’s part of the   settlement of a liberal democracy.

“Just as much part of your identity” as what? He doesn’t say. Either the Telegraph cut that bit, or he never did say. If he said “as race or sex” he’s wrong; he’s also wrong even if he didn’t. Religious beliefs can’t have a total, blanket protection order, because some of them are murderous or otherwise dangerous.

“It’s perfectly fair that you can’t be a Roman Catholic priest unless you’re a man,” he said.

Oh jeez. I give up.

Helicopter parents

Jun 19th, 2011 4:15 pm | By

JT Eberhard also disagrees with Chris Stedman. Actually it’s a little more than disagreement. It’s about…what it always is about: Stedman pretending to have the moral high ground when in fact he’s just being petulant because someone disagrees with him.

There’s a parallel discussion at Facebook, including Jen McCreight and James Croft, and meanwhile back at the ranch, meaning here…Chris’s mother has explained why it’s perfectly fine for her to defend him in Facebook disagreements. This is a new move in SIWOTI disputes, at least in my experience, and it’s a tad disconcerting. I’m used to adults defending themselves, not being defended by their parents. I hadn’t really thought about it before but I now realize I have always simply assumed that parents automatically recuse themselves from public disputes involving their offspring, because they are not disinterested parties. Apparently that’s wrong, so all of you who have parents living, feel free to summon them if I disagree with you. I’m squeamish about arguing with people while their parents are watching.

When a person’s true self comes out

Jun 19th, 2011 12:28 pm | By

Joshua Knobe notes a complicated question:

How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?

The philosophical tradition says

that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is.  If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.

Which sounds right, in a way. But…

But when I mention this view to people outside the world of philosophy, they often seem stunned that anyone could ever believe it.  They are immediately drawn to the very opposite view.  The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.  To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out, they think, one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.

That’s interesting. The last bit seems slightly odd to me. Those times are extreme, and rare, so it seems odd to think they reveal the true self. Surely the duller homeostatic self that eats breakfast and picks fights on the internet is just as real as the one who is drunk.

Then again, there is another kind of being “overcome” or caught up, which is Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s flow. I used to be unsure whether I sometimes got that when concentrating on a piece of writing or not, until one day I worked on a piece for Comment is Free on a flight to San Jose and was literally incredulous to look out the window and see we were almost over San Francisco. I had thought we were maybe crossing the Oregon border. Maybe that’s the real self. But that’s the opposite of being drunk, in fact – it’s thinking in such a focused way that time gets swallowed.

Anyway; Knobe thinks neither is right.

But it seems that the matter is more complex. People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.

Well yes. I choose writing over being drunk.


Jun 17th, 2011 5:06 pm | By

I have a new project. My new project is to convince people on the left that they must work together with Tea Partiers.

This may seem like a difficult thing to do, but I like a challenge. There are many urgent problems in the world, such as countless people who still have the wrong kind of light bulbs, and the only way those problems can be solved is if I – yes I, I alone, I personally, I bravely yet gently yet determinedly yet lovingly – build a bridge between the left and the Tea Party. The division between the left and the Tea Party is divisive, and when there is divisiveness, problems don’t get solved, because people don’t work together, so it is urgent and vital and very important to heal this tragic divide by telling the left to forget about all the things they disagree with the Tea Party about. It would be pointless to tell the Tea Party to reciprocate, of course, and besides, the left is…well you know. So the work is to tell the left how to heal the divide, while not telling the Tea Party anything, because it already.

This is my healing work that I plan to do. I believe in love and reaching out and bridges and unity. I hope you all wish me luck and every success with my work, which I will be working on in many ways for many weeks to come, and which I will be reporting on via Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, the Washington Post, People, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Tikkun, First Things, Christianity Today, my seven blogs, some of my friends’ blogs which I haven’t counted yet, and CBS News. In spite of all this fame and exposure I remain impressively humble and kind of bashfully surprised by all the success and approval I report daily via Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times, the Washington Post, People, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Tikkun, First Things, Christianity Today, my seven blogs, and some of my friends’ blogs which I haven’t counted yet.

Once I’ve got the left and the Tea Party squared away, I’ll get to work on getting feminists and sexists to work together, then unions and the governor of Wisconsin, then the Taliban and the women of Afghanistan. As I mentioned, I like a challenge. Thank you, god bless you, and god bless the United States of America.

Believing Bullshit

Jun 17th, 2011 12:24 pm | By

Stephen Law has an excellent (and entertaining) new book, Believing Bullshit. It discusses eight “intellectual black holes” that can yank people into various delusional convictions. He names them “Playing the Mystery Card,” “‘But It Fits!’ and The Blunderbuss,” “Going Nuclear,” “Moving the Semantic Goalposts,” “I Just Know!,” “Pseudoprofundity,” “Piling Up the Anecdotes,” and “Pressing Your Buttons.”

They’re all good, but I think my favorite was “Pseudoprofundity,” maybe because it reminded me of my old Guide to Rhetoric, which alas disappeared in the transition from the old B&W to the new one. The subheads are very reminiscent: State the obvious; Contradict yourself; Deepities; Trite-nalogies; Use jargon; Postmodern pseudoprofundity.

He’s good on Karen Armstrong (in the ”Moving the Semantic Goalposts” chapter). He points out that she deals with the problem of evil by saying God isn’t that kind of god.

“God,” says Armstrong, “is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence,” which points “beyond itself to an ineffable reality.” [p 117]

No room for an evil god there, of course; a symbol can’t be evil; what a silly idea.

However, reading through Armstrong’s book, it becomes apparent her God is not quite so mysterious and ineffable after all. Indeed, Armstrong says that “God” is a symbol of “absolute goodness, beauty, order, peace, truthfulness, justice.” Not only does Armstrong appear here to be effing the ineffable, it seems she also thinks she knows things about this indescribable transcendence of which God is the name. [p 118]

Exactly. It’s a popular move though, so the many faith-huggers clutch it to their bosom while only the few faith-teasers notice that it’s a case of having it both ways.

And that’s how to believe in bullshit.

We will be coerced to violate our deepest beliefs

Jun 15th, 2011 3:56 pm | By

We’ve encountered Archbishop Timothy Dolan before. He wrote a blog post about the Catholic church’s way with those sexy little children who keep seducing its dear innocent priests, or rather about the world’s harsh attitude to the church’s way with the tiny little harlots.

What causes us Catholics to bristle is not only the latest revelations of sickening sexual abuse by priests, and blindness on the part of some who wrongly reassigned them — such stories, unending though they appear to be, are fair enough, — but also that the sexual abuse of minors is presented as a tragedy unique to the Church alone.

Italics his. Self-pity and moral obtuseness also his.

Now he’s pitying himself over gay marriage and how like North Korea it is.

Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea.  In those countries, government presumes daily to “redefine” rights, relationships, values, and natural law.  There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of “family” and “marriage” means.

And then they can force everybody to live according to the new definition of “marriage,” so if they say “marriage” is between a priest and a map of Akron, Ohio, then all priests have to marry maps of Akron, Ohio forthwith. It’s so unfair.

But back on planet earth, the archbishop sets about explaining to us what marriage actually is – which seems silly, since he is professionally sworn to have nothing to do with the thing, while millions of other people have actual experience of it, so why pick him to explain it? Who knows, but anyway, he does.

Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits:  It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.

So true, except for the fact that it isn’t. It isn’t necessarily to procreate children, it isn’t necessarily permanent, it isn’t even necessarily loving. 0 for 3.

But never mind; he knows what he means.

Yes, I admit, I come at this as a believer, who, along with other citizens of a diversity of creeds believe that God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.  We believers worry not only about what this new intrusion will do to our common good, but also that we will be coerced to violate our deepest beliefs to accommodate the newest state decree.

Meaning…what? Nothing, except that he and people like him won’t be allowed to take their revenge on gay couples. That’s all – that’s what “violating their deepest beliefs” amounts to. It doesn’t mean they’ll be forced to do anything (except shock-horror perform a marriage if that happens to be their job), it just means they won’t be allowed to persecute people.

(If you think this paranoia, just ask believers in Canada and England what’s going on there to justify our apprehensions.)

That they’re not being allowed to take their revenge on gay couples and, if they have jobs that involve performing marriages, they have to do that for gay couples.

Hateful man, hateful church, hateful “beliefs.” A pox on all of them.

Orellana to the infirmary

Jun 15th, 2011 10:20 am | By

Update: I got this partly wrong, because the Guardian article is at least misleading. I didn’t know about this.

Marta Orellana says she was playing with friends at the orphanage when the summons sounded: “Orellana to the infirmary. Orellana to the infirmary.”

Waiting for her were several doctors she had never seen before. Tall men with fair complexions who spoke what she guessed was English, plus a Guatemalan doctor. They had syringes and little bottles.

They ordered her to lie down and open her legs. Embarrassed, she locked her knees together and shook her head. The Guatemalan medic slapped her cheek and she began to cry. “I did what I was told,” she recalls.

And they infected her with syphilis.

It was 1946 and orphans in Guatemala City, along with prisoners, military conscripts and prostitutes, had been selected for a medical experiment which would torment many, and remain secret, for more than six decades.

The US, worried about GIs returning home with sexual diseases, infected an estimated 1,500 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid to test an early antibiotic, penicillin.


What is there to say?

Well thinking

Jun 14th, 2011 3:51 pm | By

Oh honestly. Not good enough.

Ten years ago, the BBC was always telling us how bloody marvellous the euro was. Now – for reasons I can’t quite fathom – it’s assisted suicide.

Really? Can’t fathom? Well try harder.

It’s really not that difficult. Something is going to kill us – you, me, all of us. We don’t know what it will be. We do know it could be slow and horrible. We’re afraid of that. Some of us would like to know we (and others who want it) have the option of cutting it short; knowing that would relieve one of the fears.

Now can you fathom it? I’ll tell you what I can’t fathom: I can’t fathom why that’s so difficult to fathom. I also can’t fathom being flippant about it. This isn’t some joke or some bit of trivia; it’s something that threatens everyone.

When the Beeb is really keen on something, it enlists the support of a soft-Left celebrity to make its case – the most popular candidates being Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard, neither of whom can resist hauling themselves on to a bien pensant hobby horse.

What is bien pensant about it? What a ridiculous, callous, frivolous thing to say. I don’t see anything remotely bien pensant about it. Assisted suicide, trendy? I don’t think so. That’s about as convincing as Terry Eagleton (of all people!) calling Anthony Grayling “identikit Islington man.”

Damian Thompson ought to try thinking a bit more bien, if you ask me.