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.


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.



Ancient and Fraternal Order of Hucksters

Mar 11th, 2009 12:36 pm | By

Okay, now we get the fun part. We visit the Duchy itself. We see pictures of all the pretty little tincture bottles with their mediciney-looking droppers so that you can measure out the exactly precisely correct dosage of the dandelion-tinted water and not use either too much or too little which could be fatal or seriously discomfiting. We see that the tinctures are sold exclusively in selected Boots stores and in Waitrose, and we are suitably impressed. Then (well prepared for the erudition and profundity ahead) we are allowed to read what the Prince of Wales thinks.

HRH The Prince of Wales has always been an advocate of a requirement for fundamental reappraisal of the way we view health. He believes poor health does not exist in isolation, but is in fact a direct consequence of our lifestyles, cultures, communities and how we interact with our environments. He is passionate about adopting an integrated approach to health, as well as exploring how safe, proven complementary therapies can work in conjunction with mainstream medicine.

Has he indeed; does he indeed; is he indeed. So the fuck what? Who cares what ‘HRH the prince of Wales’ thinks? (Notice how we are instructed how to address him even on a website, as if there were some danger that the rabble might come rollicking up to him shouting ‘Hey Chuck love the tincture, dude!’ Notice the pomposity even as he plays the role of the carnival barker.) Who cares what HRH has always been an advocate of and what he believes about health and what he is passionate about? Does he know anything about the subject? Does he have any degrees in the subject? If he wanted to set up shop as a doctor or a pharmacist, would he be able to, or would he immediately be busted for practicing medicine without a license?

Honest to god, the conceit and self-importance of that little paragraph really takes the proverbial biscuit. The amateur dilettante HRH has a lot of crack-brained ‘opinions’ and ‘views’ and ‘beliefs’ about health and ‘therapies’ and medicine and he apparently thinks that his membership in the ‘royal family’ somehow converts his worthless opinions into medical expertise – by alchemy perhaps. He’s so deluded by royal conceit that he thinks he’s qualified to sell ‘tinctures’ to a gullible populace. It’s staggering.

Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture is made from extracts of Artichoke and Dandelion, cleansing and purifying herbs to help support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes, and help maintain healthy digestion. Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture can be taken as part of a regular detox program. Globe artichoke, which has the Latin name Cynara scolymus, is a thistle-like perennial plant originating from Africa.

And dandelion is that irritating yellow thing that is always turning up in your garden, and both of them are pretty much harmless, and that’s why we decided to use them to make a ‘detox’ ‘tincture,’ since we don’t much want to actually poison people and get sued, but we do want to pretend that we are giving them something in exchange for their ten pounds, so we picked a couple of harmless weeds, and put a few drops of each in some vats of water, and put the result into tiny little bottles with medicine droppers and called them a ‘tincture.’ It could have been floor dust and potato juice just as well, except then we couldn’t have called them ‘herbal.’

It doesn’t say a word about exactly what it is in the dandelions and the artichokes that cleanses and purifies, or exactly how they ‘help support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes’ and ‘help maintain healthy digestion.’ It really is the most blatant, shameless, brazen flim-flammery. And this guy is the future king! He’s a ridiculous posturing quack-embracing pompous patent nostrum salesman – and he’s the future king!

He and George W Bush should form some sort of club – Shameless Sons of Nepotism or something.



A nosegay from the Vatican

Mar 11th, 2009 12:08 pm | By

Oh isn’t the Vatican just too adorable? It’s not so busy excommunicating doctors who save the lives of raped little girls by aborting their pregnancies (yes I know that was a Brazilian archbishop and not the Vatican as such, but the Vat sets the policy) that it can’t find time to exercise its puckish sense of humour and love of fun. No indeed, it makes a point of celebrating international women’s day by insulting women with an article about washing machines in l’Osservatore Romano on international Women’s Day. Hahahahahaha – that is so funny.

The Vatican newspaper says that perhaps the washing machine did more to liberate women in the 20th century than the pill or the right to work. The submission was made in a lengthy article titled “The Washing Machine and the Liberation of Women – Put in the Detergent, Close the Lid and Relax.” The article was printed at the weekend in l’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, to mark international Women’s Day on Sunday.

Condescend much?

I saw the piece about the article at Faith in Honest Doubt, where Dale suggested that the Vatican ‘has moved past self-parody and gone straight to provoking [me] intentionally.’ It would be fun to think so, wouldn’t it?



Small correction

Mar 11th, 2009 11:58 am | By

Just one little thing, Mr President.

Mr Obama reminded everyone of his religious leanings by saying that “as a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering”.

Come on – you know better than that. Play fair. I realize you have to soothe the religious as much as possible, but don’t do it by throwing the non-religious under the bus. You know that’s silly, you know that persons of no faith can just as well believe we should or must care for each other and work to ease human suffering. Yes we say ‘should or must’ instead of ‘are called to’ – but you know the should or must can be every bit as strong and peremptory as the called to. I know you know this because you used to be an atheist yourself, and you know plenty of atheists, and you’ve worked with all sorts of people, and you’re sensible and observant. You’re not like your inattentive clueless incurious predecessor, who probably does really think that only ‘persons of faith’ have any moral sense; so do try not to talk like him.

Thanks about the stem-cell research though. Love ya, mean it.



A costly and luxurious tincture

Mar 10th, 2009 11:19 am | By

The future king is playing games with his subjects.

Prince Charles has been accused of exploiting the public in times of hardship by launching what a leading scientist calls a “dodgy” detox mix. Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, said the Duchy Originals detox tincture was based on “outright quackery”. There was no scientific evidence to show that detox products work, he said. Duchy Originals says the product is a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes”.

Notice how conveniently meaningless those claims are, yet at the same time how attractive to the gullible. A ‘natural aid to digestion’ could just mean – something you eat so therefore it ‘aids’ digestion by, you know, forcing you to digest it. ‘Supports the body’s elimination processes’ could mean the same thing – if I drink a root beer or a bottle of gin or a basin of dirty bath water that supports my body’s elimination processes in the sense that I will eventually have to pee because of the added fluids. Yet to people browsing the shelves at Waitrose in hopes of something to ‘support’ the body’s natural health-giving whatnots, that might sound like just the ticket, to the tune of £10 for a 50ml bottle.

Professor Ernst of Peninsula Medical School said Prince Charles and his advisers appeared to be deliberately ignoring science, preferring “to rely on ‘make-believe’ and superstition”.
He added: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.” Marketed as Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, the artichoke and dandelion mix is described as “a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”…Andrew Baker, the head of Duchy Originals, said the tincture “is not – and has never been described as – a medicine, remedy or cure for any disease.

No, because they were careful; they kept deniability; which is very unattractive of them. It seems to hint that they know it’s worthless, and word their claims carefully so as not to get the future monarch charged with false advertising, yet still persuade the persuadable to buy the expensive ‘tincture.’

Professor Ernst said the suggestion that such products remove toxins from the body was “implausible, unproven and dangerous”. “Nothing would, of course, be easier than to demonstrate that detox products work. All one needed to do is to take a few blood samples from volunteers and test whether this or that toxin is eliminated from the body faster than normal,” he said. “But where are the studies that demonstrate efficacy? They do not exist, and the reason is simple: these products have no real detoxification effects.”

Wellllllll – they don’t actually prevent detoxification, as far as the Duchy knows, so that makes it fair enough to say they aid it. Surely? Be a sport! Say yes!

I was at Whole Foods a few days ago, and found that they are in the business too – they had bottles of something called ‘Urban Detox’ on sale for something like $4.95 for four not-large bottles. Cheaper than the Prince’s stuff though, plus Whole Foods isn’t the heir to the throne.



Thy hand, great Censor, lets the curtain fall

Mar 9th, 2009 11:31 am | By

Here’s a funny thing – there’s this old thread at Talking Philosophy, so old that it’s dated January 8 2008, so old that I’d entirely forgotten it. More than a year old. Long time ago. I found it because I googled ‘Bernie Ranson,’ and I googled ‘Bernie Ranson’ because that was the name on an email message sent to one of my correspondents by what I had thought was a new and unfamiliar troll named Kees but turns out to be a troll I have encountered at least once before, on this old thread at Talking Philosophy. His MO is a little different there, at least at first – which is revealing, because it means he could have done a better job here, but chose not to.

Anyway, there’s an interesting note of obsessiveness about the whole thing – about the two threads taken together. Well ‘interesting’ isn’t quite the right word. ‘Peculiar’; maybe that’s what I mean.

It’s noteworthy (or something) that in January 2008 and in the past week, I took ‘Bernie Ranson’/'Kees’ to task for telling me and others that we were lying – it’s noteworthy that his approach is very consistent in that way (and in others, too).

One substantive issue at the end of the recent encounter was whether it is consistent to defend the right to free speech and also delete comments on a website. Yes, of course it is. I publish this web site: publishers don’t publish everything they are offered, they are selective; I select what I publish here; that includes comments. I don’t delete or edit comments very often – but that is because I don’t need to. Most comments here are good, and worth reading and engaging with, so I don’t do anything to them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do anything to cause them to happen. Comments here are good because B&W attracts people who make good comments, and B&W does that because it has good content, and B&W has good content because I select it. Obviously I select it. B&W has a subject matter, and a tendency, and a set of commitments, and its content reflects all that. The pope doesn’t write for B&W, nor does Robert Mugabe, nor does Ann Coulter, nor does Tariq Ramadan. That’s not censorship, it’s selection.

I thought you’d like to know that.



If everyone felt free

Mar 9th, 2009 10:36 am | By

Ian Buruma is ringing the same old bell.

In civilised life, people refrain from saying many things, regardless of questions of legality…Mocking the ways and beliefs of minorities is not quite the same thing as taking on the cherished habits and views of majorities…[C]ivilised life, especially in countries with great ethnic and religious diversity, would soon break down if everyone felt free to say anything they liked to anyone.

So…what he appears to be hinting, albeit very cautiously, not to say evasively, not to say timorously, is that everyone should not feel free to mock the beliefs of minorities; in other words, everyone should not feel free to satirize or cartoonize or tell jokes about Islam, because where Ian Buruma is sitting Islam fits one definition of ‘beliefs of minorities,’ although of course in many other places in the world it constitutes beliefs of the majority and is often in fact legally imposed rather than freely offered. In other words Buruma is being, as usual, rather fatuously parochial (which is odd, because he’s not really parochial at all) about what is a minority and in what sense Islam can be considered ‘vulnerable’ in the way minorities can be vulnerable. In other, other words, he’s urging (again) special sensitivity about and protection for a very demanding coercive intrusive and often punitive religion, which has state power behind it in many countries on the planet, on the grounds that in some other countries on the planet it is a minority belief. Frankly I think that’s a bad and dangerous idea. We don’t think that way about Nazis, or Westboro Baptists, so why should we think it about any minority? I don’t think we should, and I think Buruma is woolly and mistaken.



Moral squalor

Mar 7th, 2009 11:58 am | By

The Vatican demonstrates its moral ugliness again.

A senior Vatican cleric has defended the excommunication in Brazil of the mother and doctors of a young girl who had an abortion with their help…Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Italian paper La Stampa that the twins “had the right to live” and attacks on Brazil’s Catholic Church were unfair…Cardinal Re, who heads the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told La Stampa that the archbishop had been right to excommunicate the mother and doctors. “It is a sad case but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated,” he said. “Life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian Church is unjustified.”

‘The twins’ did not yet exist as such; they were not yet persons, innocent or guilty; and their continued development inside a nine-year-old child would have been lethal to that child. That of course is obvious to rational observers, but to people who make a virtue of thinking that ‘the law’ of an invisible absent unaccountable god who doesn’t exist is ‘above’ that of the human beings who have to survive and function as best they can, it is so beside the point that it can be ignored. There’s a real child who has been horribly damaged, and the church in its wisdom wants to damage her further and end up by killing her – for the sake of ‘twins’ who don’t even exist yet. It’s classic theocracy, in a way – ignore the real needs of real people for the sake of purely notional needs of embryos or breathing corpses. Ignore the real world and focus on imaginary beings and imaginary scruples – and then bleat that it’s ‘unfair’ when the victims resist. Classic.