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.

Fight fiercely Anglicans, fight fight fight

Feb 6th, 2011 12:54 pm | By

The Anglican church is worried that it might “lose its place at the centre of public life” in the UK because of the gnu atheists.

Why should it have a place at the center (or centre if you must) of public life? It’s a church. It’s an institution devoted to “worship” of a “god.” Why would that entitle it to a place at the middle of public life?

Besides, some of that place it has pretty well officially nailed down, at least for the moment. It gets its bishops into the House of Lords, where it can meddle with legislation. It gets to lay down the law on Radio 4 most days. It gets to run a hell of a lot of state schools. What more does it want? Just plain naming the archbishop as dictator?

Nah. It wants the gnu atheists to get lost, that’s all.

Drawing particular attention to the threat posed by a new movement of militant atheists, led by Dawkins and Hitchens, it says the Church must respond if it is not to be pushed from the public square.

Oh yes? There’s an actual, literal army of “militant” atheists, all marching behind Dawkins and Hitchens, is there?

Don’t be schewpid. There are some books; there are radio interviews and debates, there are blogs and websites. There is discussion. That’s all. Get a grip. Pull your socks up. Quit snivelling.

The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.

And? We’re allowed to write or read books you know. We’re allowed to argue against religion. Go ahead and argue back, but do try to do it without calling us “militant.”

In recent years, a number of Christians have taken legal action against local councils and hospital trusts after being disciplined for expressing their faith by wearing crosses or refusing to act against their orthodox beliefs.

Aha! You see what he’s done there? (Jonathan Wynne-Jones, it is.) “Their orthodox beliefs” – that queers are feeelthy. As long as they’re orthodox, everyone ought to simply tug the forelock and obey, is that it?

No, sorry, pal – beliefs have to stand or fall on their merits; you don’t get to validate them by calling them “orthodox.”

And then a stranger rode into town

Feb 5th, 2011 5:14 pm | By

As I mentioned in some comments on Strident and Combative, there’s this new Mystery Commenter who goes by “Hammill,” who has been making me increasingly suspicious. It’s an odd bird. It turned up only recently, as far as I can tell – the first times I know of were to comment on a few posts at Josh Rosenau’s, which were about – oh what do you know – me, and Jerry Coyne, and me again.

Gosh, what does that remind me of?

I’m being sarcastic. I know damn well what that reminds me of. I know damn well who else had a decidedly peculiar obsession with me and Jerry Coyne, often to the exclusion of anyone else.

“Hammill” turns up elsewhere too – but always on places Jerry has been posting on, or I have, or both. It’s been getting like being followed, to write a post about something and an hour or two later find “Hammill” there, as if summoned by a dog-whistle.

“Hammill” is very concerned. Very very concerned. Hammill is worried that it will be associated with the dread gnu atheists. It was worrying about that on Rob Knop’s post yesterday, right after Jerry posted on the subject.

I can agree with much of the substance coming out of the gnu atheist community but cringe mostly at its delivery. At times the rhetoric and invective makes me embarrassed to even be associated with them, however tangentially, as a nonbeliever.

Aw, really? Is that right? We embarrass you do we? That’s a shame. I tell you what: why don’t you set up a blog, maybe a group blog with a bunch of your imaginary friends, and start really getting to work on the subject of what it is you don’t like about new atheists. That would be fun, don’t you think? And you could have more of your imaginary friends write lots and lots and lots of comments, all saying things like “Oh golly gee, I thought I disagreed with you until I read that terrible post you linked to by that awful Coyne or that horrible Benson, and then by god I realized you were right and I think the whole thing is simply shocking.”

But maybe that sounds like too much trouble, and you’d rather just spend all your time posting comments at Rosenau’s and BioLogos and Rationally Speaking and Galactic Interactions. They will all keep your IP address secret, I’m sure.

Strident n combative

Feb 4th, 2011 5:02 pm | By

Hey guess what! Did you know that gnu atheists are obnoxious? No? Neither did I! I’ve never heard that before. Yet alas, my darlings, it is so.

most of those in the movement formerly known as “New Atheism” seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word “reason” as a synonym for “application of scientific reasoning”, thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. (As well as a lot of other people, for instance all faculty at a University who aren’t in a science or engineering department…

No. That last bit is wrong; entirely wrong. I told him so – for it is a he: Rob Knop, physicist and Christian – on the post.

We use the word “reason” to include “consistent with scientific reasoning,” but certainly not as a synonym for it.

He replied by moving the goalposts. But enough of this; back to the post itself and its useful new information about the badness of gnu atheists.

a subset of them are incredibly strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed “reason”…

And then go home and eat a neighbor for dinner. It’s all so unfortunate.

Resonant phrases

Feb 3rd, 2011 12:51 pm | By

I want to dispute one small item in Philip Kitcher’s “Militant Modern Atheism.” [pdf]

He describes the people in between the mythically self-conscious and the doctrinally-entangled, “whose ideas about how to interpret doctrinal sentences are far less definite.”

They are not prepared to say, with the mythically self-conscious, that there is no defensible interpretation of those sentences on which they are committed to the existence of transcendent entities. On the other hand, they are not willing to offer any definite interpretation that would provide a content to which they would subscribe.

Oh those. Yes. The hand-wavers; the resorters to purple language. What about them?

Many of them are inclined to take refuge in language that is resonant and opaque, metaphorical and poetic, and to deny that they can do any better at explaining the beliefs they profess.

Yes indeed, yet they also get very huffy if anyone dares to suggest that this might hint at a certain amount of…vagueness and even emptiness in those “beliefs.”

If pressed, they will admit that they can only gesture vaguely in the direction of something that might commit them to the existence of transcendent entities — or might not.

And then they will call you shrillandstrident, for good measure. They will call you a bully; they will call you a New Atheist; they will accuse you of being unreflective.

Their lack of definiteness frustrates militant modern atheists, who find no value in the resonant phrases that pervade theological discussions, but believers will contend that literal language gives out here, that as with great poetry, religious language somehow functions in ways that cannot be captured in the preferred modes of speech of their opponents.

No no no! That’s where Kitcher goes quite wrong. I’m not having that. I find plenty of value in resonant phrases themselves, just not when they pervade theological discussions. But resonant phrases? I yield to no one in my finding of value in them. King Lear for instance – King Lear is full of them. Most of them are brutally simple, but resonant all the same.

“I remember thine eyes well enough.”

“No sir you must not kneel.”

“Art cold, my boy?”

There are three just off the top of my head. Absurdly simple, but if you know the play, they’re like gunshots.

But in fact the way they work can be explained, and they don’t point vaguely in the direction of a cosmic boss who gets to tell us all what to do, and they don’t pretend to be making claims about the nature of the universe. Religious language does not function in the same way as great poetry, and it’s just self-flattery to claim that it does. (Notice that I don’t go around saying my writing functions the same way that Shakespeare’s does. That’s because it doesn’t. Believers don’t get to claim that priestly guff does, either.)

One talk too many

Feb 2nd, 2011 4:45 pm | By

Hmm. Paul Sims at the New Humanist is still enthusiastic about the possibilities of dialogue between believers and non-believers. I agree that that can be a fine thing, or an anodyne thing, much of the time…but there are limits. I’m not sure Paul is sufficiently aware of what the limits ought to be.

Last night, I attended a meeting between representatives of Catholic Voices and members of the Central London Humanist Group (CLHG), which took place in the hall of St Saviour’s Church in Pimlico. It was the second such event, the first having taken place in central London last October – the point, as I explained in a piece in the current issue of New Humanist, is to experiment with the idea of humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner.

But as I mentioned last December, the humanists weren’t sitting down with “Catholics,” they were sitting down with Catholic Voices -

a bureau of Catholic speakers able to articulate with conviction the Church’s positions on major contentious issues in the media.

Shills. PR reps. Propagandists. Apologists. They’re not just random Catholics, they’re people who have appointed themselves to defend whatever the church decides is its “position.” No, I don’t think there is any merit in having a nice chin-wag with people who are in the business of not changing their minds.

And then there is the substance.

They talked about the bishop of Phoenix. Discussion was somewhat heated, but…

it never quite spilled over into an outright argument. This, I think, was helped by the nature of the meeting – the fact that it consisted of just 21 people sat around a table provided a check on it descending into a shouting match, and encouraged people to listen to the points being made. There was, of course, no prospect of full agreement on this most contentious of issues, but I do think we reached a degree of understanding in certain respects…

Fuck that. There is a limit, and the bishop of Phoenix is way beyond it. I don’t want to reach “a degree of understanding” with people who think it’s all right to try to force hospitals to let women die because saving them requires ending a pregnancy of 11 weeks. I don’t want to reach “a degree of understanding” with people who think a woman and a fetus should die instead of a fetus only. I want to say they’re supporting a terrible, evil, immoral policy, and if they can’t see that there’s something wrong with their thinking.

I don’t want to have a “dialogue” with the Taliban. I don’t want to have a “dialogue” with al-Shabab. I don’t want to have a “dialogue” with anyone who defends the bishop of Phoenix’s actions.

Sisters and brothers

Feb 2nd, 2011 12:19 pm | By

The president of the Catholic Health Association, “Sister” Carol Keehan, is proud and happy to uphold the “authority” of Catholic bishops to tell medical personnel and hospital administrators what to do, including, of course, telling them to let pregnant women die if it takes an abortion to save their lives. “Sister” Carol Keehan is saying yes, bishop, it is right and good that you and your bishop friends should be able to forbid doctors to save women’s lives. “Sister” Carol Keehan is endorsing the bishops’ wish for more women to die; she’s agreeing with them that that woman in Phoenix (with four young children) should be dead. With a “sister” like her who needs enemies?

Thank you again for taking the time to talk with Bishop Lynch and me about CHA’s position regarding the ethical and religious directives. I was pleased to hear of your appreciation of the role of Catholic hospitals in providing the healing ministry of Jesus to our country.

The “healing ministry of Jesus” means refusing to save the life of a pregnant woman.

I was happy to have the opportunity to assure you that publicly and privately, CHA has always said to sponsors, governing board members, manager and clinicians that an individual Bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter of the ERDs. We explain that a Bishop has a right to interpret the ERDs and also to develop his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.

Because he’s a Bishop. If he says you have to die, you have to die. Grovel, peasants.

Naturally, archbish Timothy Dolan is very pleased with this abject boot-licking. He sees that it bodes well for the future of more Catholic interference with medical matters and with secular laws on medical matters. Tim Dolan is just delighted at the prospect of further imposition of his nasty woman-hating reactionary murderous dogmas on all of us.

Now that the Patient Care Act is being discussed again, we have an opportunity to definitively resolve the outstanding questions about its inclusion of funding for abortion services and for plans that include abortion.

And an opportunity to guarantee the avoidable death of more women. Hooray.

I am gravely concerned about the problem of illegitimate government intrusion in our health care ministries. For example, significant and immediate concerns exist regarding the threats to conscience that we already identified while the Patient Care Act was under consideration.

He is gravely concerned that secular laws might interfere with his ability to see to it that women die when they could be saved.

85% men 15% women

Jan 31st, 2011 5:43 pm | By

It won’t do, you see. The Wikipedia gender imbalance thing – when taken with all the other gender imbalance things – won’t do.

Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science, “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” argues that Wikipedia is experiencing the same problems of the offline world, where women are less willing to assert their opinions in public. “In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?”…

According to the OpEd Project, an organization based in New York that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to “public thought-leadership forums,” a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.

Or atheists talking at atheist or secularist or skeptical conferences. That won’t do, because it perpetuates itself. As Clay Shirky points out, if most “authorities” are men, then the voice of authority sounds male. That’s no good.

It would seem to be an irony that Wikipedia, where the amateur contributor is celebrated, is experiencing the same problem as forums that require expertise. But Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.

What I just said. The voice of authority sounds male; you’re a minority voice so that must be for a reason and the reason must be that you’re not competent so…you’d better just be quiet.

That’s no good.

Oystercatchers and eagles

Jan 31st, 2011 12:36 pm | By
Oystercatchers and eagles

I’m back. The CFI talk was good fun. CFI Vancouver did a great bit on the CBC’s Marketplace a couple of weeks ago: they gathered outside a hospital emergency room (“just in case”) and took an overdose of homeopathic “medicine.” 

It rained almost the whole time on Friday, and the same Saturday. It was a bit tragic, because I was staying in a borrowed apartment on the 34th floor of a tower next to the harbor, which was spectacular, but I knew it would be considerably more spectacular if it were clear, and it seemed that it was never going to be clear. But then Saturday evening, after I’d gotten thoroughly soaked three times, it started to clear and then clear some more, and Sunday was cold and crystal clear. I went out at dawn to walk around the edge of Stanley Park. It was…well it was a hell of a good walk, I can tell you. I saw a bald eagle sitting at the top of a fir tree on the north side. I saw four oystercatchers digging around in the rocks near Third Beach. I saw an eagle flying overhead near Second Beach, then I saw one sitting at the top of another fir tree. I don’t know if that was three eagles, or two, or one.

Then I went back to the borrowed apartment, and nearly fell over when I saw what the view is like on a clear day.

And now I’m back.

Update: I forgot to say: Fred Bremmer took the pictures. I stole them from Facebook.

One more for the road

Jan 28th, 2011 7:44 am | By

I woke up early, so I have a little time to mutter things before I hit the road.

I’ll mutter about Sharon Rupp’s interview of wonderful me. I got a chance to name-check some atheist women:

 She is part of that cadre of professional atheists that includes best-selling authors Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and a host of lesser known writers, none of whom seems to be a woman.”Oh there are women: Polly Toynbee, Katha Pollitt, Greta Christina…” Benson protests, noting that even the humanist-secularist-atheist crowd is subject to that old problem of blindness when it comes to women’s accomplishments. “I’ve asked conference organizers why there are no women speaking and some say it didn’t occur to them, others say they don’t know any.”

Actually I haven’t asked conference organizers, because I haven’t had the opportunity to ask them things, because they don’t organize me. Actually it was PZ who asked them, who asks them every time he speaks at one – “Will you please wake up and ask some women already?” And they tell him, “Uh……we couldn’t think of any.” And he smites his brow.

So props to Vancouver CFI, eh, they thought of one.

Kristof v Olmsted

Jan 28th, 2011 7:20 am | By

The bishop of Phoenix is getting some more glare of publicity, this time from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. I hope more people will start to grasp just what it is that he and his Conference of catholic bishops are saying. They are saying that hospitals – all hospitals if they had their way, not just Catholic ones – should flatly refuse to save pregnant women’s lives by ending early pregnancies. They are saying that if ending an early pregnancy is the only way a particular woman’s life can be saved, then that woman must die. (They make an exception for something they call “indirect abortion,” which is enormously generous of them.)

Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.

Precisely. That’s the bit that needs to be emphasized, and repeated. Some people think the bishop simply doesn’t realize what he’s saying. Oh yes he does.

The hospital backed up Sister Margaret, and it rejected the bishop’s demand that it never again terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a mother.

But the bishop remains a free man. He has not been arrested. There is no talk of arresting him (except for around here). He is using all the “authority” and influence he has in an effort to compel hospitals to let women die, yet no one tries to stop him. People defy him, but that’s as far as they go.

A short break

Jan 27th, 2011 4:14 pm | By

As you may have seen (I think I’ve mentioned it), I’m doing a talk in Vancouver tomorrow, so I’m away for three days. Have a tranquil yet quietly thrilling weekend.

No wisdom

Jan 27th, 2011 1:13 pm | By

It’s so horrible about David Kato.

A school teacher, he became a prominent campaigner in recent years, especially taking on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which called for the death sentence to be imposed for some homosexual acts…

Ms Kimani said he was one of the most visible gay campaigners in Uganda, serving as the litigation officer for the group Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug)…

He often faced accusations that he was trying to groom children, which Ms Pepe, who worked with him at Smug, blamed on “religious propaganda”.

“These allegations were of course were false,” she said…

Rebecca McDowall, a student in London who met Mr Kato at an event recently, said he was aware that what he was doing was dangerous.

“He was so inspirational as a public speaker,” she told the BBC. “He looked like a small unassuming person but when he got up, you couldn’t help but sit up and listen.”

Ms Pepe said Mr Kato’s family and friends are still in shock.

“We spoke to Waswa yesterday, he’s equally devastated – he’s trying to hold it together but he’s shattered because of course they were really close,” she said.

She and Mr Kato were chatting on the phone about an hour before he was attacked – and he had been laughing and joking.

“I keep hearing his laughter in my head – it breaks my heart,” she said.

Horrible. I have nothing wiser to say.

A sewer

Jan 26th, 2011 5:43 pm | By


Slightly afraid and slightly queasy in advance, I hunted up Glenn Beck’s website called “the Blaze” and looked for something on Frances Fox Piven.

And found it.


And people think violent rhetoric might be a problem…I can’t imagine why, can you?

Demonstrations, tenability, reasons

Jan 26th, 2011 1:06 pm | By

So now we’re disputing whether or not goddy claims can be untenable even if they’re not, technically, demonstrably false.

I think they can. It’s true that it’s not possible to demonstrate that goddy claims are false. (When Russell first met Wittgenstein, the latter drove the former crazy by refusing to agree that there couldn’t be [or that he couldn't know that there wasn't?] an invisible rhinoceros in the middle of Russell’s study, or some such thing.)

But that doesn’t make goddy claims tenable. It doesn’t make them plausible, either. There are myriad reasons that are short of demonstration but are still good reasons not to believe “God” exists.

To repeat the bit I quoted from Georges Rey:

Now, it doesn’t seem to me even a remotely serious possibility that such a God exists: his non-existence is, in the words of the American jury system, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I am, of course, well aware that plenty of arguments and appeals to experience have been produced to the contrary, but they seem to me obviously fallacious, and would be readily seen to be so were it not for the social protections religious claims regularly enjoy.

It doesn’t seem even a remotely serious possibility that such a God exists. That’s not a demonstration that it doesn’t, but it’s a very compelling reason not to believe that it does. And this is no small thing. It rests on the idea that one should have good reasons to believe things (where possible, other things being equal, etc). It has traction.


Jan 25th, 2011 4:47 pm | By

A commenter at WEIT yesterday, strikingly named RPS, made a familiar point

I eagerly await your demonstration that the claim “God exists” is false.

She later expanded.

As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know. I’d be perfectly happy with a clear demonstration of how “God” as commonly understood doesn’t exist.

The fact that it’s difficult to impossible to demonstrate conclusively that something doesn’t exist does not mean it’s reasonable to believe that that something does exist. It’s also not a good reason to believe that it does exist.

It’s possible to imagine an infinite number of things, none of which we can demonstrate conclusively not to exist. That doesn’t mean we should believe they all do exist.

Why can’t we demonstrate that “God” doesn’t exist? Because there’s nothing to demonstrate – to examine or investigate. There is no specificity to test. But that’s not a reason to think God does exist; it’s a reason not to. Things that exist have specificity.

If people (however many) say there’s an X but won’t and can’t say where, how, what, how much, or anything exact enough to peer review…then that’s a reason to think they’re bullshitting. It’s true that that’s not a demonstration that X doesn’t exist, but then it doesn’t need to be.

The debut of Sans

Jan 25th, 2011 3:36 pm | By

Oh look, Sans has made its debut. It’s the new magazine put out by the splendid people at Fri Tanke who published Hatar Gud kvinnor? The theme of this first issue is religious oppression of women, including an interview with me, and there’s an occupied burqa on the cover. Barely had it hit the stands when a Christian think tank accused it of…wait for it…Islamophobia. Sayeeda Warsi would be so proud.

Sara Larsson and Christer Sturmark, the editors of Sans, wrote an article saying why the magazine is not Islamophobic and why the whole idea is bad and stupid. It’s in Swedish, but then not a few of you read Swedish, and then there’s Google translate. I used it and it did a pretty good job – there’s not much gibberish. I can give you the gist.

The Xians haven’t read the magazine yet – they’re just reacting to the cover. They seem to think the issue is all about Islam; it isn’t; it looks at all the Abrahamic religions. Islam does stand out, however, and the burqa is a good symbol of this. If including a picture of a burqa is “Islamophobic” then so is news coverage from Afghanistan. Accusations of Islamophobia threaten to paralyze the debate on human rights in general and serious assaults on women in particular. This is especially dubious when people do it from “from a very safe and cozy corner of the western media landscape.”

Damn right.

I’ve begged Sara to translate the article for me to publish; maybe she will.

Journalism 101

Jan 25th, 2011 11:28 am | By

Lauryn Oates points out that the TES reported the Taliban had gone all sweet and cuddly on girls’ education, while absent-mindedly also reporting that it had that on hearsay.

The only person quoted in the story was Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak, who reported, “What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls’ education.”

No confirmation from the Taliban itself was provided in the story, or since.

Oh. Which, in basic beginners’ journalism, or basic beginners’ epistemology, or courts of law, or historiography, is Not Good Enough. NPR re-learned this just recently after it reported that Gabrielle Giffords had been shot and killed, based on a single source in the Pima County sheriff’s office.

With 10 minutes to spare, Newscast producer Diane Waugh began scrambling to get the story on air – if NPR could get a second source. As is common in newsrooms, NPR has a two-source rule, requiring two, reliable and independent confirmations before news is reported. Three is even better.

Relying on just one source – especially an anonymous one – can often lead to false or misleading reports in fast-breaking news.  One danger, for example, is one source getting its information from another source.

And yet…

The same day, the BBC picked up the story, using the headline, “Afghan Taliban ‘end’ opposition to educating girls,” while their counterparts at The Telegraph ran a story headlined, “Taliban ‘abandons’ opposition to girls’ education.”

The story quickly spread from the U.K. to around the world.

From one story reporting one source who was reporting hearsay.

And in this particular case, there is a lot at stake.

This afternoon, I watched dozens of girls fixated on their teacher in a dilapidated mud building that serves as a school in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of north Kabul. Clutching their notebooks, they furiously recorded what the teacher lectured. There were no desks, chairs, or central heating as the grey, frigid winter prevails over Kabul. But there is nowhere else in the world they would rather be.

Their parents are poor, and school, even one like this, is a hard-earned luxury.

Education is a right that has not come easily for these kids. We shouldn’t be so quick to bid it away, leaping enthusiastically at a far-fetched rumour that the Taliban promise to be a little less demonic toward little girls who would do anything to be in a classroom.

Religions evolved to take the credit for good stuff

Jan 24th, 2011 6:28 pm | By

Paul W has another good comment on Ben’s post (from 2009 is it?). It’s about social science that purports to show that religion>happiness, and where the holes are.

One of the most robust findings in all of psychology is that people tend think their own children are above average. Should we then conclude that the large majority of children are above average?

Another of the most robust findings in the social sciences is that people tend to think that their own cultures are superior, and that the central, distinctive tenets of their own religions are true, and that the comparable distinctive tenets of others’ are false.

The robustness of a finding may not reflect ground truth, but pervasive systematic biases.

That’s what I’d tend to expect of anything about religion, because religions evolved to take the credit for good stuff, avoid any responsibility for bad stuff, and make themselves seem indispensible.

Why yes, so they did.

The social protections

Jan 24th, 2011 12:11 pm | By

Georges Rey says many pointed and relevant things about belief in “God”: meaning “a supernatural, psychological being, i.e., a being not subject to ordinary physical limitations, but capable of some or other mental state, such as knowing, caring, loving, disapproving” who “knows about our lives, cares about the good, either created the physical world or can intervene in it, and, at least in Christianity, is in charge of a person’s whereabouts in an ‘afterlife’.”

Now, it doesn’t seem to me even a remotely serious possibility that such a God exists: his non-existence is, in the words of the American jury system, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I am, of course, well aware that plenty of arguments and appeals to experience have been produced to the contrary, but they seem to me obviously fallacious, and would be readily seen to be so were it not for the social protections religious claims regularly enjoy.

That’s exactly it, and that’s what puts the “gnu” in “gnu” atheism – the fact that it doesn’t seem to us even a remotely serious possibility that such a God exists and that we don’t feel inhibited about saying so in public discourse. It’s exactly that, at heart, that so annoys the unfans of gnu atheism. It’s supposed to be rude or intolerant or fundamentalist or conceited or vain or we think we’re so smartish of us to think that and to say it.

Yet that doesn’t apply to other obviously preposterous claims or beliefs or stories. Just the goddy one. Just the local goddy one, pretty much.


Power without scrutiny

Jan 23rd, 2011 5:12 pm | By

Andrew Anthony is good on the subject of Warsi’s little talk on “Islamophobia.”

She has complained that the last government was “too suspicious” of faith and treated it as “a rather quaint relic of our pre-industrial history”. Given that Tony Blair was overtly religious, his government expanded and promoted faith schools and consistently tried to pass censorious blasphemy laws, it gives pause to wonder how much more religious Warsi would like her own government to be. 

Really. She thinks Labour wasn’t religious enough?

In citing liberal critics of religion such as Polly Toynbee as representing an “abhorrent” attitude, she certainly made it clear how much less secular she would like society to be.

A lot less.

Last year, Number 10 made her withdraw from the Global Peace and Unity conference in London. Despite its title, the GPU event featured several antisemites and Islamic hate preachers. By all accounts, Warsi was disappointed not to attend. Had she spoken, she intended to challenge extremist attitudes.But she also saw in the GPU a chance to show the power of an organised faith community. As she put it in another speech: “In Britain, the resilience of religion gives us the confidence to reject the intolerance of secularist fundamentalists.”

This is the kind of language that plays well among many religious activists. However, there is a hidden paradox in Warsi’s position. She wants to give greater voice to religion in the political arena, yet she also wishes there to be less criticism of religion, in other words, power without scrutiny.

Just like the pope.