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 archbishop gives the BBC a damn good scolding

Mar 29th, 2009 12:46 pm | By

This seems rather bossy.

Dr Rowan Williams warned Mark Thompson at a meeting at Lambeth Palace that the broadcaster must not ignore its Christian audience. His intervention comes amid mounting concern among senior members of the Church of England that the BBC is downgrading its religious output and giving preferential treatment to minority faiths.

Warned? Must not? Intervention? Well, those are all the Telegraph’s words, to be sure, not the archbishop’s. But all the same, it seems somewhat peculiar (to me anyway) for an archbishop to be attempting to tell the BBC what to do. Where in the bible does it say what proportion of time the BBC has to give to Christianity?

As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes. But Dr Williams challenged the director general during their meeting earlier this month over the decline in religious broadcasting on the BBC World Service.

Huh? As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes? Does it? Why? That seems like a complete non-sequitur to me. How does public service impose a duty to provide religious anything? They’re two different things. It’s not clear if the Telegraph means a moral duty or a statutory one; if it’s the former the claim is absurd.

A BBC spokeswoman argued that changes that have been made to the department were intended to strengthen the BBC’s offering. “The BBC’s commitment to Religion and Ethics is unequivocal and entirely safe,” she said, adding that the BBC had stressed this to bishops who had expressed concerns.

Yeah don’t worry, the BBC is quite determined to go on treating religion and ethics as if they were indissolubly joined when in fact they are in strong conflict. No problem, the BBC will go right on confusing people by pretending you can’t have ethics without religion. No doubt that is their duty as a public service broadcaster.

The way of saying something is part of what is said

Mar 28th, 2009 5:31 pm | By

Kenan Malik makes a crucial point about this vexed issue of style and tone and manner.

Anticipating the arguments of Rushdie’s critics that there is a difference between legitimate criticism and unacceptable abuse, the Law Commission pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’. In other words, the way of saying something is part of what is said. To say that you must write differently is in practice to say that you must write about different things.

Exactly. The way of saying something is part of what is said, so all this heavy pressure on atheists to be bashful and circumspect and euphemistic and evasive about their atheism is simply a way of telling them to say something different. So vocal atheists say ‘What ho, atheists have been shoved into the closet over the past few decades and theists have been taking over the stage, let’s barge out of the closet now and grab our share of the limelight’; so theists and their protectors give a great cry and say ‘Nononono, you vocal atheists are too vocal, we will not take your atheism away from you, but you must get out of the limelight and off the stage and oh look, there’s a nice big closet right here, with plenty of room to sit down and even turn around, in you go.’ You do see that that rather defeats the whole purpose. Telling us to write differently is in practice to say that we must write about different things, but we want to write about these things, not different ones, so kindly let us get on with it.

How thoughtful?

Mar 27th, 2009 10:11 am | By

Norm commented on Julian’s atheism piece a couple of days ago, and when I read it my attention snagged on another claim in Julian’s article.

For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers…

Hmm. I’m not sure what that means. Are thoughtful, intelligent believers ones who respect the limits on our thinking set by soberly assessing where reason and evidence lead us? But if they are, then are they really believers? If they’re not, are they really thoughtful and intelligent?

I think there’s a lurking and unacknowledged oxymoron there – or maybe it’s an elision. Believers can be thoughtful and intelligent but with an exception carved out for their belief. Believers, as such, aren’t thoughtful and intelligent all the way down. That’s in the nature of the word. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent, credulous people,’ but believers are by definition credulous. To the extent that they are credulous – they’re not thoughtful and intelligent enough.

This is perhaps another case where the special status of religion confuses things. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent astrologers’ – or homeopaths or Wiccans or Holocaust deniers. In those cases we would recognize from the outset that there had to be a big hole in the thoughtfulness and intelligence in question, but we’re more reluctant to see it in the case of religion.

The background idea seems to be that the two are in balance – that thoughtful intelligent believers and unbelievers are much the same, they just happen to differ on this one point. But that’s wrong. Believers are making a mistake that non-believers don’t make. They’re making a mistake even if there is a god, because we have no real evidence that there is a god, so it’s a mistake to take anyone’s word for it on the basis of nothing.

Irshad Manji is an example of the thoughtful intelligent believer who is nonetheless not thoughtful enough, because she says proudly that her faith in Allah is unshakeable. That’s not thoughtful, it’s the reverse of thoughtful. I think Manji is terrific in a lot of ways – but that does nothing to patch over the hole in her thinking.

In return for peace the Taleban can stop girls going to school

Mar 26th, 2009 5:56 pm | By

Not to worry – sharia is lovely once you get used to it.

“Swat is the start and it is a test of the religion and the system and the law. It is a step forward. Give it time and you will see this is what people want,” Muslim Khan, a charismatic English-speaking Taleban leader tells me.

Will you? How much time? And which people? Does he really mean people? Or just men.

In return for peace the Taleban can administer the region, run Sharia courts, ban women from marketplaces, outlaw music shops and stop girls older than 13 going to school.

And ‘people’ will like that as long as you give it enough time. Let’s say about five centuries; by then all memory of freedom and rights will be stone dead, and ‘like’ will mean the same thing as ‘know no alternative to’ and then the prediction will be true.

It is hard to gauge support for the movement in Swat. Dissent has been suppressed but a population disillusioned by years of fighting and ineffectual government can at least get on with their lives.

No, they can’t. Not if they’re girls over the age of 13 they can’t. Not if they’re women they can’t – unless you think it’s possible to get on with one’s life when one is not allowed to go to the market or much of anywhere else. They can (perhaps) get on with small impoverished parts of their lives, but they certainly can’t ‘get on with their lives’ in any sense we would recognize.

Theocrats all sound alike

Mar 26th, 2009 12:07 pm | By

Not good.

For the first four decades of Israel’s existence, the army — like many of the country’s institutions — was dominated by kibbutz members who saw themselves as secular, Western and educated. In the past decade or two, religious nationalists, including many from the settler movement in the West Bank, have moved into more and more positions of military responsibility…“The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies,” noted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor…Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler…He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

Well that’s an interesting bit of casuistry. To more rational people it seems more likely that people who are cruel to the cruel will end up being cruel in general.

Rabbi Rontzki’s numerous sayings and writings have been making the rounds among leftist intellectuals. He has written, for example, that what others call “humanistic values” are simply subjective feelings that should be subordinate to following the law of the Torah. He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.

Pretty stuff.

Mr. Halbertal, the Jewish philosopher who opposes the attitude of Rabbi Rontzki, said the divide that is growing in Israel is not only between religious and secular Jews but among the religious themselves…The religious left also rejects the messianic nature of the right’s Zionist discourse, and it argues that Jewish tradition values all life, not primarily Jewish life. “The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism,” he said. “They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all.”

Sounds unpleasantly familiar, doesn’t it – as if Hamas and Rontzki deserve each other.

In some sense divine

Mar 25th, 2009 6:28 pm | By

Right so the French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat has won ‘the Templeton Prize’ which is awarded annually to someone who contributes to something called ‘affirming life’s spiritual dimension.’ What does that mean? I haven’t the slightest fucking clue. I don’t think anyone has. I think it just means something like ‘not being mean and boring like those horrible atheists’ – or ‘not saying people are made entirely of metal’ – or ‘liking the pretty rainbows.’ But that of course still doesn’t mean I have a clue what it means, because meaning something like something isn’t the same as actually meaning something, and I don’t suppose the Templeton Foundation stands up in all its pomp and hands a prize worth many dollars to someone actually for liking the pretty rainbows, in so many words – so I still don’t know what it actually, really, when you nail it down, means by it.

Neither, it would appear, does Mark Vernon. He’s remarkably careful to avoid saying anything precise about it.

The bizarre nature of quantum physics has attracted some speculations that are wacky but the theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things…For [D'Espagnat], quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately “veiled” from us. The equations and predictions of the science, super-accurate though they are, offer us only a glimpse behind that veil. Moreover, that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine.

See what I mean? Not exactly anything you can hold him to. The theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things. That’s a lot of hedges – five in one clause, and then ending up with the perfectly meaningless ‘a spiritual view of things.’ Oooooooooh, really? The theory suggests that reality might be compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things? Ooooooh, wow, that changes my whole view of everything, which has been turned upside down and inside out and every which way and is now unrecognizable. Or to put it another way, big woop – anything might be compatible with ‘a spiritual view of things.’ Unless of course Mark Vernon really does mean something precise and (say) falsifiable by ‘a spiritual view of things,’ but I think if he had he would have said so.

But no matter, because after some more pious waffle about a veil and a glimpse, we get to the nub of the thing, which is that ‘that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine.’ Ah. Ah yes. Quite. But – in what sense, exactly? ‘In some sense, divine’ really covers an awful lot of territory. It covers rum raisin ice cream, just for one thing. But surely the Templeton Foundation wouldn’t go giving some French physicist large amounts of dollars just for saying rum raisin (or cassis or abricot or noisette) ice cream is divine. Would it? But it would give them to him for saying something that boils down to ‘that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine,’ only with equations. Do you sense a certain amount of obscurantism here? A whiff of the old hocus pocus? Because I do. I think they’re conning us – or themselves, or both. I think they think d’Espagnat said something really deep, and spiritual, without having any idea what it is. But that’s okay, because whatever it is, it’s compatible with something else, so no worries.


Mar 25th, 2009 12:38 pm | By

So the penny finally dropped.

In the wake of the London bombings of July 2005, the Government invited the MCB to Downing Street for discussions on how to respond to the growth of extremism among young British Muslims. Public money was channelled to the organisation to help it turn the young away from terror. But it turned out that, despite its name, the MCB was not actually representative of British Muslims…

Well it didn’t really ‘turn out’ that the MCB was not actually representative, or that it was not the ideal organization to ‘respond to’ the growth of ‘extremism’ – unless ‘respond to’ means something other than, say, ‘discourage.’ It didn’t really ‘turn out’ because both of those facts were already well known to anyone who was paying attention. It was no secret, after all, that the MCB was founded ‘in response to’ Salman Rushdie’s naughty novel; or that it was run almost entirely by men; or that the men who ran it could be relied on to say very reactionary things whenever the BBC phoned for a comment. None of this was a new discovery in July 2005.

But at least the Independent seems to get the point now – although it certainly does get into a tangle when it tries to think about the fact that different people have different views.

The problem is that British Muslims are a diverse and fragmented community. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Iraqis and Nigerians living in Britain all have different cultures, outlooks and economic circumstances.

I beg your pardon, but that’s a really stupid pair of sentences. On the one hand they’re all ‘a community’ but on the other hand they’re a ‘diverse and fragmented’ one. They come from all over the place and have different all sorts of things. So why go on calling them a community then? Because they have being Muslim in common. But why is that one commonality enough to make a community when other commonalities are not? Because – er – religion is privileged. Or it’s a habit. Or something. But it doesn’t make for a coherent editorial.

[I]t would be better for the Government to decentralise its approach to dealing with British Muslims, rather than trying to communicate through a single umbrella organisation of doubtful authority such as the MCB.

It would, but the government has been pushing the silly ‘umbrella organisation’ idea all along, thus giving the MCB far more clout and more credibility as the single umbrella organisation than it would have had otherwise. All a bit of a dog’s breakfast, if you ask me.

Brian Whitaker sees the matter completely differently.

The MCB is not a government body and can appoint whoever it wants as its deputy secretary general.

Not really, at least not unless it’s content to have a purely figurehead deputy secretary general. If it appointed for instance a convicted génocidaire to the post, it wouldn’t have a very active or useful deputy secretary general. But more to the point, one, the MCB has been a quasi-government body because Blair’s government stupidly lavished attention and authority on it, and two, the fact that the MCB can appoint almost anyone it wants to as its deputy secretary general does not mean that the government can’t cut ties with the organization.

Whitaker kind of admits that much, but only kind of.

Of course, the government can choose whether or not to talk to the MCB but, by choosing not to, it will seriously undermine its own policy of engaging with the British Muslim community.

Oh? Why? The bits of ‘the British Muslim community’ I know (the liberal secularist feminist liberal human rights fans bits) despise the MCB and have been urging the government to talk to people other than the MCB for years. Is Whitaker assuming that ‘the British Muslim community’ is entirely composed of theocrats and reactionaries? If so, why?

The MCB is an umbrella organisation that claims the support of more than 500 affiliated national, regional and local organisations, mosques, charities and schools. By definition it needs to include as many strands of British Muslim opinion as possible. In the past it has been criticised for not being representative enough, and now Blears seems determined to make it less representative as a condition of being recognised by the government.

But it’s a self-appointed ‘umbrella organisation,’ and always has been, which is one reason so many British Muslims find it so irritating – it always puts itself forward as representing British Muslims in general, but it in fact represents only conservative British Muslims; it repels the other kind by the things it says and the positions it takes. It can’t ‘include as many strands of British Muslim opinion as possible’ because it already does include one strand of opinion which many people want nothing to do with. Suppose there were an organization with ‘women’ in its name – the American Council of Women, say – which began in opposition to feminism and all its works, and carried on that way for twenty years. I wouldn’t join such an organization, and neither would other feminists. Thus such a group could not be an ‘umbrella organization’ nor could it aspire to represent all women or include as many strands of female opinion as possible. It would be too late for that. That’s how it is with the MCB. It isn’t just some general neutral group that represents all Muslims; it’s a particular group with a particular ideology. Whitaker’s whole piece talks about it as if it were another kind of group altogether.

Kindly remove the exhibition

Mar 24th, 2009 4:11 pm | By

It’s not forbidden to think…except of course when it is.

The exhibition Det er ikke forbudt å tenke (“It’s not forbidden to think”) is a series of 12 graphic images the artist, Ahmed Mashhouri, picked out the most controversial quotes from the Quran…”These laws perhaps fit better in the old days, but today they just seem inhuman. I hope that my works will be a wake-up for my dear coreligionists,” he says. Mashhouri and his wife worked for human rights in Iran. They sought asylum in Norway and now live in Skien…”In discussions people love to hear that such thing aren’t found in the Quran. We want to show that they actually do,” says Mashhouri. On December 9th, the exhibit was assembled at the Telemark library in Ulefoss, but not many hours had passed before there was a racket and two or three Muslim women attacked his images. Afterward he was contacted by the library and asked to remove the exhibition. “I was disappointed, because I thought I was came to a country with freedom,” says Mashhouri.

Think again. Some things are halal and other things are haram and that’s all there is to it. The mature thing is to accept this and get on with your life.

Who sets the tone

Mar 23rd, 2009 6:25 pm | By

Julian pointed out in a comment on Wassup with the new atheism? that a lot of people think that atheists are dogmatic anti-religionists, and that if we now have good reason to believe that this is the impression being created, we should think about altering our tune.

There is something to that, there’s no denying it. It is quite possible that vocal atheists are alienating huge numbers of people who would otherwise be secularists and/or liberal believers, with potentially harmful results. This is of course the drum that Matthew Nisbet never tires of beating, though he does it very aggressively and also very manipulatively (as in repeatedly claiming that Paul Kurtz is not a vocal atheist but a politely bashful one of the type that Nisbet favours – which is just absurd) – but the worry could be real even though Nisbet shares it. But…

But I still think, once we’ve thought about it, we shouldn’t alter our tune. Partly that is because people think atheists are dogmatic and rude and naughty because they keep being told that, endlessly, monotonously, and with wild exaggeration and often just plain invention. This is people thinking atheists are dogmatic the way people think Obama is a Muslim or a socialist or a guy who ‘pals around’ with Bill Ayers. People thought that during the campaign (and some still think it now) because rivals wanted them to think that, and set about to make them think that. Rivals made stuff up. Many theists are very very angry at Dawkins and at overt atheism in general, and as a result, they say things which are not accurate; they make stuff up. Now here’s the deal: I don’t think people should let that kind of thing set the terms of debate. I think we should resist. I think we should resist because that’s a bad corrupt stupid unhelpful way to carry on debate, and I don’t think we should let it win. I think we should deny it a victory.

This is what happens when reformers and innovators hit a nerve – people who don’t want reform and innovation tell whoppers about the reformers. It happened with second-wave feminism, and it hasn’t yet stopped happening – feminists still get called stupid sexist names for the crime of being feminists. That happened to me a few months ago on a blog I used to read, much to my surprise – it was like walking down the street chatting with a friend and suddenly finding myself in a roomfull of very drunk fratboys, covered with beery vomit.

That shouldn’t be what sets the tone, and it shouldn’t be what decides what we can say. It’s bullying, and we shouldn’t give in to it. That’s especially true because the overtness of the atheism is the whole point. It is the being silenced – the deference, as Jean said – that we are objecting to, so if we went right back to being silenced because believers demanded more deference – well, we would be giving up the very thing being disputed. Yes, it’s often good to build coalitions with believers and so on, but not at the price of forever pretending that there’s nothing the slightest bit dubious about religious beliefs. We’re tired of that, just as women are tired of being considered second-class citizens or afterthoughts or property or evil tempting sluts luring men to their doom.

So, no. I take the point, I see what is meant, I understand the risks (some of them anyway); but no.

I hear their hooves in the distance

Mar 21st, 2009 1:07 pm | By

There are a couple of other things that bother me about Julian’s ‘new atheism’ article.

One is that he says his opinions ‘are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews’ but then he doesn’t provide a very clear account of how the ‘four horsemen’ are perceived and the kind of comments they make. He discusses ‘the new atheism’ without ever really pinning down for the reader what he takes that to be – so we’re left just vaguely assuming we know what he means because it’s probably more or less like what everyone else means…Well you can see that that’s not very satisfactory. Who is everyone else? What does everyone else mean? Is it really what Julian also means? That’s never clear, at least not to me. And since the subject of the article is why the supposed new atheists are wrong, there surely is some responsibility to specify and show what they have said, at least in outline. That’s especially true given the admission that the article is about them and their views but not about their books. I’m not absolutely sure that Julian would like being discussed in such terms himself.

There are a few brief quotations, rather late in the article, but we don’t know where they’re from, and they’re so brief it’s hard to be confident that they’re representative. And then there’s the bit about the title of the tv show…

Richard Dawkins, for example, presented a television programme on religion called The Root of all Evil and has as his website slogan “A clear thinking oasis”. Where is the balance and modesty in such rhetoric?

I agree about the website: that slogan has always made me cringe. (I need to change the subtitle of B&W, too. It has the same whiff of self-congratulation, of thinking nonsense is always the property of someone else.) But the title of the tv show had a question mark at the end, and besides that, Dawkins didn’t choose it and in fact tried to resist it. Julian knows very well that authors don’t always get to choose their titles, because he chooses the titles at TPM! Editor’s privilege. He also knows it because he doesn’t always get to choose his own titles. Why in fact…

Now really, people, there’s no need to be so vitriolic! (Not all of you, but a good many) A little internal dissent is no bad thing, is it? I should say that the headline was not mine and nor did I even see it before publication, and I think it does rather overstate the content.

What’s that, where’s it from? Why, it’s Julian, commenting at the Dawkins site on the reaction to his article. Cough.

The other thing has to do with this bit -

I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all. However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics.

But the focus is not always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, as he would know if he had read (or even skimmed) the books, and it’s really not very fair to refuse to read the books and then go right ahead and misrepresent ‘the new atheism’ just the same.

It’s not that I completely disagree. There are parts of Hitchens’s book that wearied even me, and Dawkins does occasionally tip over into rudeness (the time he talked about a woman having a stupid face, for instance), and Sam Harris is too fond of the word ‘spiritual’ for my taste. But there is no shortage of people criticizing ‘the new atheists’ (another fact which Julian rather overlooks), for good reasons and bad ones; I think any new work in that field should be at least careful to be accurate.

Wassup with ‘the new atheism’?

Mar 20th, 2009 2:22 pm | By

Julian wrote a piece arguing that the ‘new atheist movement’ is destructive. It got linked at Dawkins’s site where commenters greeted it with intemperate hostility – until Russell Blackford posted a comment informing them that Julian isn’t actually as wicked as all that, which calmed things down a little. Julian later commented too, pointing out with some justice that the intemperate hostility rather bore out his point.

I want to take issue with some things Julian said, however – though I will of course do so in a very reasonable and measured way.

He starts off by saying, with deliberate impudence, that he has an opinion about the four chief Newatheists, despite the fact that he has not read any of their books.

That does not, however, disqualify me from having an opinion about them. Let me defend both apparently intellectually disreputable confessions. Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe?

There’s a problem with that, as I (very civilly) pointed out on the Dawkins site. If Julian hasn’t read the books he can’t know that they largely tell him what he already believes. If he hasn’t read them he really can’t know what they tell him; he can’t know that they don’t tell him about facts or consequences or arguments that he hasn’t thought of. It’s not particularly reasonable simply to assume that they largely tell him what he already believes. That might be the case, but he can’t know that without at least skimming them.

In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction…God’s non-existence is a fact atheists live with, not something that they should obsessively read about.

But there may be (and I would say there are) implications to God’s non-existence and/or other people’s belief in God’s existence that are worth reading and thinking about. Just ignoring the whole issue is certainly one option, but it’s not self-evident that it’s the only reasonable option.

Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.” This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

Does it? I don’t see why. It’s possible to be opposed to various things without depending on the things to give one an identity. I’m opposed to corn syrup in pasta sauce, but I don’t get my identity from that. I don’t even think about it, except when I’m looking at the ingredients list on a jar of pasta sauce, which is not very often.

But more important, it is necessary to be opposed to some things, even at the risk of getting part of one’s identity from that opposition. We’re all opposed to some things after all, and if that is part of our identity, well, so what? The issue is the quality, the rightness, of the opposition, not the mere fact of opposition.

The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.

Some people do, yes. But much of that is because ‘the new atheism’ gets misreported a lot and also gets scolded a lot, much the way Julian scolds it in this very piece. Furthermore, many other people don’t think of atheists that way but rather as refreshingly honest and unapologetic after years and years of tactful silence. What Julian fails to take into account, I think, is that many people long for a more uninhibited outspoken uncringing discussion of religion, and are pleased to get it. I think he overlooks the sense of liberation many people have gotten from the revival of explicit atheism.

A purely artificial code

Mar 19th, 2009 10:46 am | By

The other day we had a bit of Bernard Williams on moral relativism; today we get the musings of Bertie Wooster.

Wooster has been caught in apparent flagrante delicto with Pauline Stoker by her father, who dislikes him and thinks Pauline is in love with him.

“It was enough to give any parent the jitters, and I was not surprised that his demeanour was that of stout Cortez staring at the Pacific. A fellow with fifty millions in his kick doesn’t have to wear the mask. If he wants to give any selected bloke a nasty look, he gives him a nasty look. He was giving me one now…

Fortunately, the thing did not go beyond looks. Say what you like against civilization, it comes in dashed handy in a crisis like this. It may be a purely artificial code that keeps a father from hoofing his daughter’s kisser when they are fellow guests at a house, but at this moment I felt that I could do with all the purely artificial codes that were going.”

Quite profound, wouldn’t you say?

Everybody don’t like the pope

Mar 18th, 2009 7:55 pm | By

A roundup of replies to the pope.

The French foreign minister:

We consider that such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life.”

German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt and Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said in a joint statement:

Condoms save lives, in Europe as well as on other continents. Modern assistance to the developing world today must make access to family planning available to the poorest of the poor – especially the use of condoms. Anything else would be irresponsible.

Dutch Development Minister Bert Koenders said it was “extremely harmful and very serious” that the Pope was “forbidding people to protect themselves”.

“There is an enormous stigma surrounding the subject of Aids and Aids sufferers face serious discrimination,” he added. “The Pope is making matters worse.”

Rebecca Hodes, of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa:

…the Pope’s “opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans”.

[T]he UN program against HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, rebuked the pope’s comments:

“With more than 7,400 new infections each day, the world cannot stop the AIDS epidemic without stopping new HIV infections,” Geneva-based UNAIDS said. “Condoms are an essential part of combination prevention.”

German EU parliamentarian Wolfgang Wodarg, a medical doctor, also criticized the statement. He told AFP news service the pope’s “ideological unworldliness and irresponsible comments” put him “severely at fault.” Stronger words were used by German Green European deputy Daniel Cohn Bendit, who told French radio simply, “We’ve had enough of this pope.” He went on to describe Benedict’s remarks as “close to premeditated murder.”…Belgium’s Health Minister, Laurette Onkelinx, said the pope’s comments “Reflect a dangerous doctrinaire vision (that could) demolish years of prevention and education and endanger many human lives.”

The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, on the other hand, defended the indefensible.

[T]he Church’s concern about condoms is only part of wider teaching aimed at allowing people to live better, more fulfilled lives. It believes that encouraging people to use condoms to minimise the worst effects of behaviour that in itself impoverishes their lives is to fail them…In other words, there is something at stake that is greater even than the fight against Aids – particularly as, in the Church’s view, condoms are not as effective as abstinence in combating this deadly infection. It is not as though Pope Benedict underestimates HIV, acknowledging that “the virus seriously threatens the economic and social stability of the [African] continent”.

Oh well that’s all right then – that makes it quite all right for him to tell people not to use the most effective preventive device available.

Darth Ratzinger

Mar 18th, 2009 4:02 pm | By

The previous pope was evil too.

In September 1990 he visited the town of Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, and gave a speech.

Tanzania, Uganda and the other countries surrounding Lake Victoria were then at the epicentre of HIV/AIDS, which was beginning its race down Africa’s highways to devastate every corner of the continent. Some nearby villages consisted only of the very old and very young, while rows and rows of wooden crosses marked the graves of others.

So the pope did his bit to help out in this nightmare situation.

He told his audience that condoms, then internationally accepted as the only real way to curtail the spread of the disease, especially in the developing world, were a sin in any circumstances. He lauded family values and praised fidelity and abstinence as the only true ways to combat the disease – seemingly ignorant of many traditional practices such as wives marrying the brothers of deceased husbands, a form of security in countries with no social services. AIDS activists, including many local African Catholics, were appalled. In that one afternoon, they said, the Vatican destroyed more than a decade of patient campaigning. Progress had been painfully slow, but awareness campaigns – with condom use the crucial component – were showing signs of having an effect. Age-old customs and habits were changing.

But then along came this evil, stupid, reckless, destructive, irresponsible, cruel, authoritarian godbothering fool to turn all that around. In that one afternoon, he sentenced whole churches full of women and children to death – and he got away with it. Nobody stopped him; no heavy hand fell on his shoulder; no cop told him to watch his head as he got in the back of the car; no ICC sent out an arrest warrant.

For many, the pope that day in Tanzania sentenced millions of Africans to death. Unabashed, he repeated the same message time and again as he moved on to neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, countries then suffering an even higher HIV infection rate. “Thabo Mbeki (the former South African president) was pilloried for being an AIDS denialist, but the pope did much more damage and more or less got away with it,” said Godfrey Mubyazi from Tanzania.

And his successor is carrying on the work, and still getting away with it.

After the papal visit, the pandemic gathered pace. By 2010, it is now estimated, there will be 50million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa, 18 million of whose parents will have died from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses. Today, more than 28 per cent of African children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. In 1990, at the time of the pope’s visit to Tanzania, the figure was 2 per cent…In communities from Lesotho to Liberia, people with wasted, emaciated bodies are waiting to die. Deprived of medical support, they are likely to suffer lonely, painful deaths.

And their children will suffer lonely, hungry lives and then perhaps the same painful deaths. Preventing such a fate for one person would be an obviously good thing to do; increasing the chances of such a fate for one person is an obviously wicked, loathsome thing to do. The pope is still doing his bit to promote illness and death. It’s beyond belief.

Bad pope

Mar 18th, 2009 10:56 am | By

Bonnie Erbe points out the largest flaw in the pope’s ‘horrifically ignorant statement’:

All the pontiff need do to acquire a more educated view of AIDS in Africa is to read the widespread literature about women and how they acquire the disease. The percentage of female AIDS patients who are prostitutes, or drug addicts, is dwarfed by the percentage who are married women living upstanding lives in their communities. The Pope advised them, according to the Reuters news agency, to exhibit, “correct behavior regarding one’s body.” Very helpful! That advice is completely useless to the typical “woman” in Africa who contracts the disease. Her profile is that of a teenage virgin sold into marriage against her will and “betrothed” to a much older man with many lovers who carries AIDS and refuses to use protection.

It’s that simple. It’s idiotic at best and malevolent at worst to operate on the assumption that all people who have sex have equal autonomy and control and decision-making power and right of refusal. It’s imbecilic to ignore the fact that many women simply do not have the ability to say no to sex with any particular AIDS-infected man, much less to prevent their husbands from having sex with other women and thus becoming infected. It’s simple-minded, wilfully blind, and hideously ruthless to condemn who knows how many wives and children to a horrible early death or orphanhood and destitution because of a pious and retarded loathing of condoms.

Sibling rivalry

Mar 17th, 2009 11:49 am | By

Is there no limit?

A senior judge has called for an end to the use of the phrase “honour killings” to describe what is “in reality sordid, criminal behaviour”…The judge had heard that a mother had set fire to one of her three children and tried to burn down the house where they lived in an attempt to incriminate her sister-in-law. The sister-in-law “presented a problem to the family” and had fled the home after she had been beaten and her first child murdered by her husband, the mother’s brother.

So let me get this straight – a guy beats his wife and murders their child so she runs away – so the guy’s sister sets fire to her own child in order to get back at the woman who fled the man who beat her and killed their child? And they considered this a matter of ‘honour’? So what would fit their definition of violence and squalor then?

The mother of the children – a girl aged 11 and boys of 9 and 5 – is serving a five-year jail sentence for arson. One of her brothers had contracted a second marriage to a woman in Pakistan who came to England in 2003 pregnant with her first child. That child died after being taken to hospital aged 27 months suffering from multiple injuries. The motivation for the killing was not known, but among the injuries on the child were signs of chronic sexual abuse. The brother and his wife were arrested. He was convicted of murder and she was cleared of neglect. The grandfather in the family is on record as saying that the death was an accident and the will of God. He has made it clear that the son will return to live at the family home when he is released. His daughter-in-law returned to live at the family home and gave birth to her second child, a son…In May 2005, she fled with the help of the police and social services after complaining of severe ill-treatment. She was moved to a secret location after saying that the family would track her down and kill her because they would not allow her to disgrace them. She is still in fear of her life. Later that year, the mother of the three children alleged her sister-in-law and another had entered her home in burkhas, cut the mother’s hands and neck with a knife and poured white spirit on to one of the children’s clothing before setting fire to clothing at the bottom of the stairs…“Her flight and the disclosure of her treatment at their hands was seen by the family as being an insult to them. They saw it – and continue to see it – as a disgrace.”

Her flight is the disgrace, not the way she was treated. Their revolting cruelty and violence is just fine, her escape from it is a disgrace.

Words fail me.

The myths that legitimated their hierarchies

Mar 16th, 2009 11:54 am | By

Bernard Williams says some things relevant to this idea of ‘betraying your community’ in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, which I was re-reading a couple of days ago.

“The dispositions and reactions that are exercised within one culture are not merely diverted or shown to be inappropriate by the fact that its members are presented with the behavior of another culture. In any case, it is artificial to treat these matters as if they always involved two clearly self-contained cultures. A fully individuable culture is at best a rare thing. Cultures, subcultures, fragments of cultures, constantly meet one another and exchange and modify practices and attitudes. Social practices could never come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, so that they were guaranteed immunity to alien judgements and reactions.” [p 158]

“Never” is putting it a little too strongly – which is why I said that tropical islands are a somewhat special case, and isolated groups are a somewhat special case, and that it depends, in a recent discussion of moral relativism. That’s because I think groups that really have been entirely isolated from competing ways of thinking may be a somewhat special case – and also because I think it depends for instance on what people within the groups think about their lives. If some people in the groups are being, say, beaten or raped or mutilated or forcibly married to people they dislike, and they are unhappy and know they are unhappy and say they are unhappy – then I think outsiders can make moral judgments. In the absence of those conditions, it’s trickier, though that doesn’t rule out further inquiry and investigation. But that seems to end up at the same place Williams ends up at: whether or not social practices could ever come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, we both think they could not be guaranteed immunity to alien judgements and reactions.

Williams goes on, a few pages later:

“There is no route back from reflectiveness…This phenomenon of self-consciousness, together with the institutions and processes that support it, constitute one reason why past forms of life are not a real option for the present, and why attempts to go back often produce results that are ludicrous on a small scale and hideous on a larger one. This can be seen, above all, with reactionary projects to recreate supposedly contented hierarchical societies of the past. These projects in any case face the criticism that their pictures of the past are fantasies; but even if there have been contented hierarchies, any charm they have for us is going to rest on their having been innocent and not having understood their own nature. This cannot be recreated, since measures would have to be taken to stop people raising questions that are, by now, there to be raised.

But if the questions are there to be raised, should we not – or, at any rate, may we not – raise them about those societies as they existed in the past? In particular, may we not ask whether those societies, however unaware they may have been, were unjust? Can a relativism of distance put them beyond this question?”[p 164]

He adds: “They may not have been wrong in thinking that their social order was necessary for them. It is rather the way in which they saw it as necessary – as religiously or metaphysically necessary – that we cannot now accept. Where we see them as wrong was in the myths that legitimated their hierarchies. We see our view of our society and ourselves as more naturalistic than their view of themselves. This naturalistic conception of society, expressed by Hobbes and Spinoza at the beginning of the modern world, represents one of the ways in which the world has become entzaubert, in Max Weber’s famous phrase: the magic has gone from it. (The current attempts by Islamic forces in particular to reverse that process – if that is what those attempts really are – do not show that the process is local or reversible only that it can generate despair.)” [p 165]

That was in 1985. He was paying attention.

Her own community

Mar 16th, 2009 10:49 am | By

Another pretty story.

“Hannah Shah” is…the daughter of an imam in one of the tight-knit Deobandi Muslim Pakistani communities in the north of England. Her father…rap[ed] his daughter from the age of five until she was 15, ostensibly as part of her punishment for being “disobedient”. At the age of 16 she fled her family to avoid the forced marriage they had planned for her in Pakistan…[S]he then became a Christian – an apostate. The Koran is explicit that apostasy is punishable by death; thus it was that her father the imam led a 40-strong gang – in the middle of a British city – to find and kill her.

Islam is a religion of peace; Allah is merciful.

Hannah’s description in the book of the moment when her “community” discovered the “safe” home where she had fled after becoming an apostate is terrifying. A mob with her father at its head pounded and hammered at the door as she cowered upstairs hoping she could not be seen or heard. She heard her father shout through the letter box: “Filthy traitor! Betrayer of your faith! Cursed traitor! We’re going to rip your throat out! We’ll burn you alive!” Does she still believe they would have killed her? “Yes, without a doubt. They had hammers and knives and axes.”

Then the social services helped out.

When, at school, she had finally summoned the courage to tell a teacher that her father had been beating her (she couldn’t bring herself to reveal the sexual abuse), the social services sent out a social worker from her own community. He chose not to believe Hannah and, in effect, shopped her to her father, who gave her the most brutal beating of her life. When she later confronted the social worker, he said: “It’s not right to betray your community.”

From ‘her own community’ – but which one? The one that was raping her? The one that was beating her? The one that wasn’t protecting her? The one that thinks girls and women should be beaten? The men of ‘the community’ but not the women? Notice the ‘he said’ – the social worker was not just ‘from her own community,’ he was also a man from that community. In what sense was that ‘community’ her ‘own’ community? In what sense was it not a hostile alien force that was oppressing and subordinating her through physical violence and intimidation? And why, above all, were such questions apparently not available to ‘the social services’? Why did such questions not occur to them before sending out a man from this particular ‘community’ to investigate a reported pattern of beatings? In short, why did they not know what they were doing?

‘It’s not right to betray your community’ – so that means it is right to accept beatings and furthermore that it is not right to refuse to accept them. But if that’s the case – then it’s not ‘your’ community. It’s your enemy, your boss, your tyrant, your owner, your oppressor; it’s not your ‘community.’ If you’re not permitted any recourse against violence and brutality – then there is no affiliation, there is only force. Community me no community under those circumstances. Don’t pretty things up. Don’t tell me ‘It’s not right to betray your community’; tell the truth; say ‘You’re not allowed to tell outsiders you’re being beaten, and if you do you’ll get beaten even harder.’

This is the sort of cultural sensitivity displayed by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, last year when he suggested that problems within the British Muslim community such as financial or marital disputes could be dealt with under sharia…What did Hannah, now an Anglican, think on hearing these remarks? “I was horrified.” If you could speak to him now, what would you say to the archbishop? “I would say: have you actually spoken to any ordinary Muslim women about the situation that they live in, in their communities? By putting in place these Muslim arbitration tribunals, where a woman’s witness is half that of a man, you are silencing women even more.” She believes the British government is making exactly the same mistake as Rowan Williams: “It says it talks to the Muslim community, but it’s not speaking to the women. I mean, you are always hearing Muslim men speaking out, the representatives of the big federations, but the government is not listening to Muslim women. With the sharia law situation and the Muslim arbitration tribunals, have they thought about what effect these tribunals have on Muslim women? I don’t think so.”

Because they’re still labouring under the same confusion – that a ‘community’ is homogeneous and united and dissent-free and any member of the ‘community’ is as worth talking to as any other, except in fact if the ‘community’ in question believes in subordinating and silencing women, why, it is only respectful to talk to the men and ignore the women. They have started learning better (they have talked to Maryam Namazie and Gina Khan) – but slowly, slowly.

What Scruton’s parents would have said

Mar 14th, 2009 10:53 am | By

Roger Scruton has a hilariously funny piece in The American Spectator in which he starts from the familiar conceit of comparing a Good Past with a Fallen Present, doing it by way of his parents and their sensible modest patriotic postwar humanism. It looks suspicious from the outset, given the obvious harmony between the views Scruton attributes to his parents and his own (notwithstanding the basic difference in religious belief). It looks suspicious from the outset, and it looks more suspicious as it goes on, and then there comes a moment when suspension of disbelief falls apart altogether amid snorts of laughter.

The British Humanist Association is currently running a campaign against religious faith. It has bought advertising space on our city buses, which now patrol the streets declaring that “There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life.” My parents would have been appalled at such a declaration. From a true premise, they would have said, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion.

Oh yeah? Would they? Would they really? Both of them? In chorus, would it have been? Both schooled in philosophy, were they? Both given to talking about premise and conclusion? Really? Pardon me if I decline to believe a word of it! Pardon me if I laugh raucously and conclude that Scruton is all too obviously simply inserting his own reaction into the mouths of his parents. Pardon me if I laugh at him for not noticing that he had extended his own rather lame conceit far past the point at which it could be believed. What else would they have said? From a true premise, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion, and what are these MP3 players everyone keeps talking about, and what does ‘google’ mean, and whatever happened to Lyons Corner House?

I wouldn’t mock, except that there is such an annoying tone of bullying nostalgia mixed with whining superiority throughout the piece that mockery seems only appropriate. My parents would have said this, my parents would have thought that. So what? Your parents didn’t have creeping-Jesus politicians to deal with, your parents didn’t have jihadists skipping around the landscape, your parents didn’t have ‘honour’ killings and forced marriages in every newspaper. Your parents didn’t even have Roger Scruton telling them what’s what, not in the way we do. They could afford to be less assertive about their non-theism. It doesn’t follow that we can too.

Humanists of the old school were not believers. The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them.

Really? All of them? I don’t know; maybe they did. I’m not a humanist, and I don’t really know what ‘humanists of the old school’ did or didn’t respect; that’s because I don’t really know what the word ‘humanist’ means or what different people mean when they use it. Maybe it’s true that all humanists of the old school respected religion and studied it for moral truths; if so that might help to explain why I’m not a humanist. I don’t think religion is particularly good at ‘moral truths’; I think religion generally blocks or distorts clear thinking about morality.

Scruton would doubtless say that his parents would have disagreed with me.

He knows how many people are supporting him, and that gives him strength

Mar 13th, 2009 11:56 am | By

The brother of Pervez Kambakhsh is angry and upset not just for his brother but for the people of Afghanistan.

People want justice, but this shows that justice is impossible. People want fairness, not only for my brother, but for the whole of Afghanistan, because everyone is a victim of this…Last year there were protests in 15 provinces on a single day, to try to get justice for Pervez. The people who marched were marching for democracy, marching for justice, and they have been disappointed. These people are the future of Afghanistan, but they have been ignored by the people who are fighting against democracy and against human rights. They are fundamentalists…These fundamentalists have put pressure on the court. No one expected this cruel and unjust decision, and we are all in shock. When we moved the case to Kabul we thought we would get justice. We thought we could trust the courts. We thought we could trust the judges. We were wrong. There is no rule of law, not even at the Supreme Court in Kabul, so what chance have people in the provinces got?

None, it seems, at least for the present. So what can we do?

When I saw my brother yesterday he was in shock and very concerned about his safety. But he knows how many people are supporting him, and that gives him strength. It gives me strength, too.

Well we can do that, at least – we can be among the people who support him. We can do our best to give Pervez Kambakhsh and Yaqub Ibrahimi strength by supporting them.