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.

Nothing more than feelings

Nov 21st, 2010 6:04 pm | By

I watched a bit of Eugenie Scott’s talk at the Secular Humanism party again, via a post on it by Jerry. I watched the bit where she talked about The Feeling of bonding with her infant daughter, and the fact that “it is the meaning of the experience that is important.” Science can’t – you know the rest.

A commenter made a very good point about this idea.

Tell you what; if accomodationalists feel (heh) that they must use emotions to show that science doesn’t know everything, and there is room for the supernatural, how about accomodationalists only use descriptions of other feelings such as post-natal depression, racism, bigotry etc. and point out that their benevolent, all-loving god gave them those sensations.

Quite. Scott totally stacked the deck by selecting bonding with an infant as an example of Meaningful Feeling that science can’t add anything important to.

What is important is how I feel about that bond, which is distinct from any additional scientific understanding of the process.

Very nice, but what if you change the variables? Scott’s story is a peripeteia, a reversal of fortune. Just before the birth she was full of dread; then perinatal hormones kicked in, and she bonded. Imagine a different peripeteia. There’s the one in Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men, for instance. At first the men didn’t want to walk their assigned Jews into the forest and shoot them to death; then the demands of group loyalty kicked in, and they gritted their teeth and did their job, and it got easier and easier. Does it sound quite the same to say that ”what is important is how I feel about that job, which is distinct from any additional scientific understanding of the process”?

No, it doesn’t, because the feeling is not one we want to valorize, and it’s one we do want to know how to interrupt or prevent, so additional scientific understanding is seen as quite germane and useful.

Not all Feelings are to be embraced rather than analyzed or understood.

There will be happiness, though muted

Nov 20th, 2010 5:02 pm | By

So a lawyer (male) writes to a judge (female) about possibly needing a brief recess in an upcoming trial because his “beautiful daughter, married and with a doctorate no less” was about to produce a baby.

Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, “as long as it’s a healthy baby.” My wife will run to Philly immediately, but I will probably be able to wait until the next weekend. There will be happiness, though muted, and this application will be mooted as well.

However, should the baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and  family will arrive from around the globe and descend on Philadelphia for the joyous celebration.

Is this just normal? Am I too sheltered? Is it just normal for a guy to announce (to a woman judge, no less) that when a baby turns out to be a female, happiness is muted? Is it normal for a guy to announce implicitly that his daughter, his wife, and the woman he’s addressing are all inherently disappointing and worth less? Is it normal to be so cheerful about the (putative) fact that people will zoom in from around the world for a boy but not for a girl?

His tone is facetious, but he really is asking for a provisional recess, depending on whether or not it’s a boy. Mind you, the reason for zooming to Philly is to watch the boy baby get whacked in the penis, but that’s not much compensation.

Algerian victims of armed fundamentalism

Nov 20th, 2010 11:57 am | By

The Letter to the Center for Constitutional Rights makes some compelling points.

The Center for Constitutional Rights was the only human rights organization to support the victims of fundamentalist armed groups as it did in the case brought by Rhonda Copelon against Anouar Haddam [spokesman of the Islamic Salvation Front],while other human rights organisations ignored these victims and abandoned them, on the ground that they were not victims of the state but of non state actors.

That state of affairs would seem to risk creating an impression that victimization by non state actors is somehow less bad than the other kind. Non state actors can still be highly organized and effective, as everyone knows.

Today, CCR is betraying these same victims by representing the interests of Anwar al-Awlaki, an important promoter and organizer of crimes against humanity and a leader of Al Qaida in the Arabic Peninsula, without even saying who he is and what positions he has taken. Awlaki is currently at liberty and continues to organize attacks and crimes, and to incite hatred and massacres.

It’s true. Check out CCR Legal Director Bill Quigley’s account at the Huffington Post.

Anwar al-Awlaki is a US citizen and Muslim cleric living somewhere in Yemen. The US has put him on our terrorist list and is trying to assassinate him.

That description is incomplete, and by being incomplete, it says something. If there is room to say Awlaki is a Muslim cleric, then there is room to say more. As it would be misleading to call Al Capone a Chicago liquor retailer, so it is misleading to call Awlaqi a Muslim cleric. Quigley later manages to say that Awlaqi is “controversial” and accused of being a terrorist, but that too is incomplete.

Perhaps he’s just playing the role of a defense lawyer in an adversarial process, but that’s his job in the courtroom, not in journalism.

The letter asks a piercing question.

We cannot believe that you are not familiar with the writings of al-Awlaki that condemn innocent people – often Muslims – to death. Do you only defend Muslims when it is the American government that threatens them, and not when Muslim fanatics do?

Maybe that simply is their brief: holding the US government to the constitution, which is binding on the government in a way that it isn’t on citizens. But if that’s the case, their advocacy becomes very limited, and possibly even harmful.

This is complicated. The assassination policy is obviously fraught with dangers, but those dangers aren’t the only dangers there are. The letter gives a needed other perspective.

Tragic end of a sock puppet

Nov 19th, 2010 5:43 pm | By

A sock puppet goes to jail.

A lawyer was sentenced Thursday to six months in jail after being convicted of an ultramodern crime that was all about antiquity: using online aliases to harass people in an academic debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Oh gosh, who would use online aliases to harass people in an academic debate? I never heard of such a thing.

Prosecutors said Golb crossed the line between discourse and crime by using fake e-mail accounts and writing blog posts under assumed names to discredit detractors of his father, a scholar. Golb said the writings amounted to pointed parody and academic whistle-blowing that he felt were protected by free-speech rights.

Oh yes? There’s a free speech right to use assumed names to discredit people?

Well, the jury didn’t think so, at any rate.

Schiffman [a scholar at NYU] went to authorities after some of his students and colleagues received e-mails from an address that used his name. The e-mails appeared to have him admitting that he plagiarized Norman Golb’s work and asking the recipients to keep quiet about it. Schiffman denies copying the historian’s work.

Raphael Golb, a literature scholar and real estate lawyer with a Harvard Ph.D. and an NYU law degree, acknowledged during his trial that he wrote the messages. But he said he never intended for anyone to believe Schiffman actually sent them and portrayed them as “satire, irony, parody.”


I shouldn’t laugh. But I am anyway.

How Ronald Numbers reports an incident

Nov 18th, 2010 4:49 pm | By

I’ve learned a bit about Ronald Numbers now, and what I’ve learned does not make me inclined to respect him.

I’m reading a little book from Yale University Press, The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue? (2009). Essays by Kenneth Miller and Alvin Plantinga among others – and by Ronald Numbers. His essay is called “Aggressors, Victims, and Peacemakers.” One of the peacemakers is, of all people, Michael Ruse. Michael Ruse! Ruse is notoriously belligerent and rude; he prides himself on it, he boasts of it, he preens himself on it. Numbers illustrates Ruse’s peacemaker qualities by telling us about an email exchange he had with Daniel Dennett – but he does so in a totally misleading way.

The exhange was initiated by Ruse, but Numbers doesn’t say that. What he does say implies the opposite.

Ruse fretted that Dawkins and Dennett were “making it very difficult for those of us who care about evolution to put forward a reasonable face to the reasonable portion [of the public] in the middle.” In an e-mail exchange subsequently made public, Dennett offered his fellow philosopher some pseudo-friendly advice…[pp 48-9]

That’s worse than misleading. There is no footnote for the Ruse quote, so one can’t tell when he said it or to whom. The email exchange was “subsequently made public” by Ruse, without Dennett’s permission, and his way of making it public was to send it to William Dembski. Most damning of all, Numbers makes it sound as if Dennett initiated the email exchange, but it was Ruse who did, and it was Ruse who was pseudo-friendly, not Dennett. Ruse wrote a pseudo-innocent little message to Dennett on a Sunday afternoon, a Sunday when the New York Times Book Review had just published a startlingly savage review of Breaking the Spell by Leon Wieseltier. Ruse’s “innocent” message was transparently a taunt. Dennett’s reply was not at all a bit of pseudo-friendly advice, it was a mild rebuke in reply to a typical Rusean provocation. But nobody reading Numbers’s account would have any idea of that. Numbers is a historian – and this is how careful he is.

In case there’s any doubt about Ruse’s sending the exchange to Dembski without permission: I asked both Ruse and Dennett, and both confirmed. Ruse wasn’t at all contrite; on the contrary, he was pleased with himself.

That’s a peacmaker?

Four legs good two legs bad

Nov 18th, 2010 12:30 pm | By

Karima Bennoune thinks human rights groups shouldn’t portray Anwar al-Awlaki as a nice liberal guy.

Bennoune pointed out that Awlaki published an article in al-Qaida’s English language magazine, Inspire, in July openly calling for assassinations of several people, including a young woman cartoonist in Seattle and Salman Rushdie. This was at around the time the CCR was offering to represent Awlaki’s father, she said.

Bennoune, who is of Algerian descent, also expressed fears that the CCR and the ACLU were in danger of “sanitising” Awlaki to western audiences.

“Since the inception of the case,” she said, “there has been increased mystification of who Anwar al-Awlaki is in liberal and human rights circles in the United States. This may in part have resulted from the fact that a highly reputable organisation like CCR was willing to represent his interests, and described him only as ‘a Muslim cleric’ or ‘an American citizen’, and repeatedly suggested that the government did not possess evidence against Awlaki.”

Gita Sahgal also thinks this is a problem.

Karima Bennoune’s public criticism of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU’s case in defence of Anwar al-Awlaki is a welcome stand for a universal vision of human rights that has largely gone missing from western human rights organisations.

Many Asian, African and Middle Eastern groups and organisations who are struggling against both state and non-state violence feel utterly betrayed by the deliberately ignorant and partial stands taken by organisations in the US and Britain which are supposed to represent human rights. Their outrage was ignored or attacked by the left in Britain. The three founders of Amnesty International in Algeria were allegedly expelled from the organisation for raising an internal complaint about Amnesty’s failure, in their view, to criticise atrocities committed by Islamist rebels, as opposed to government repression, as Algerian feminist Marieme Helie Lucas made public for the first time earlier this year.

A familiar and depressing pattern.

Reading journal

Nov 17th, 2010 12:00 pm | By

The library coughed up a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel a lot faster than I expected, so I’m reading it. Is anybody else reading it, or finished reading it? I saw one or two rave reviews at first, then some revisionist commentary saying actually it’s a tad boring. I’m pretty much with the revisionists. It is interesting enough to keep reading, so far (I’m at p 224, less than halfway), but it’s also pretty boring, and at the moment it’s getting boringer.

It’s too much writing about too few people. There are really only three people so far, and 224 pages is a lot of pages for only three people unless the three people are very damn interesting, and these three people are not. Now, Joyce could do that – but he made the people interesting. That can be done, but you have to do it. Franzen hasn’t done it – not enough. It is as mentioned interesting enough from page to page (as so many many many contemporary novels are not), but when you’re not reading it and you look back over what you have read - it seems like a lot of reading for the not very exciting lives of three not very exciting people. It seems a bit of a waste.

The petri dish refuses to give me a hug

Nov 17th, 2010 11:36 am | By

It’s a Sisyphean task keeping track of the…surprising arguments of Karl Giberson, BioLogos’s ubiquitous “science-and-religion scholar” (as they always call him). I’m barely recovered from his explanation of the profundity of the middle ground at Huffington Post and now here he is again, back at BioLogos, setting himself up as demolishing “strawmen,” complete with mocking picture of same. His demolition is not entirely convincing.

The final straw man I want to torch in this series is the claim that science uses evidence and religion uses faith…

Well that seems like a tall order. How will he manage that, one wonders.

He notes that evidence is more abundant in some fields than in others. True. But then he says that the kinds of inferences made in for instance evolutionary biology “look very much like little leaps of faith.” But inferences are provisional; real leaps of faith are not. Giberson is stacking the deck already.

He notes that economics is fuzzy, then he says “Religious reflection is more like economics than it is like chemistry.” Ah it’s reflection we’re talking about, is it? No actual firm faith-based claims at all? Now he’s moving the goalposts.

But no, it turns out he’s not. Or he was, but then he immediately takes it back.

There is evidence for the claims of the economist and for the chemist and there is evidence for religious truth claims. This is a simple fact. The New Testament contains several documents written about Jesus by smart people in the first century. These documents are evidence.One can disagree with the documents and reject the evidence as weak or inadequate in some way. Or one can accept the evidence and be a Christian. But what one cannot do is claim that there is no evidence or dismiss the evidence because it fails to meet the standards of the chemist.

Oh no no no no no no. The “evidence” fails to meet any standards at all. The “documents” are not primary, and they are fiction in any case. They are no more “evidence” for religious truth claims than an edition of Hamlet is evidence of events in medieval Denmark. They are evidence for the mythography of Jesus, evidence which requires a lot of interpretation and inference, but that’s not what Giberson is claiming; he said they are evidence of religious truth claims. Not religious values, not moral claims, but religious truth claims. They’re not. If he doesn’t know that, he must be remarkably sheltered. If he does – well he’s just making a loopy argument.

The far more significant difference, of course, relates to the dynamic character of religious investigation. When Isaac Newton “leaped to the conclusion” that gravity ruled the universe, gravity did not respond by embracing Newton and healing his brokenness. When believers make their leap of faith to embrace God, God responds by entering into relationship with believers, often with transformative consequences. There is no counterpart to this response in scientific or historical investigation.

No indeed – because scientific and historical investigation are not about healing brokenness or embracing or any similar kind of self-deluding emotive trance. “Dynamic” here is just a dressy word for wishful thinking. There’s a good deal of impertinence in pretending that that is strawman-demolition.

Even Galileo was free to believe what he wanted

Nov 15th, 2010 12:21 pm | By

Myth 7 in Galileo Goes to Jail is that Giordano Bruno was a martyr for science; the author, Jole Shackelford, corrects this by pointing out that Bruno was burned alive for heresy, not science. Oh; that’s all right then.

He sets the stage by quoting from…guess…The Warfare of Science (1876), by Andrew Dickson White. The White-Draper thesis is the great bugbear of the revisionists on this subject, and after awhile one starts to wonder why it is so urgent to correct the mistakes of a history (however influential) dated 1876.

Whatever. White made the mistake of implying that Bruno was killed for being a Copernican when in fact he was killed for being a heretic. All right – he was killed for being a heretic. And?

And he had some nerve, that’s what.

How did this defrocked monk and unrepentant heretic who denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the key to Catholic teaching of redemption and eternal life – come to be “the world’s first martyr to science”? [p 63]

Does that read like straight secular history to you? It doesn’t to me. It reads like indignant Catholic history. It reads as if Shackelford takes heresy for granted and thinks Bruno should have repented for it, and as if he thinks Bruno was very wrong to “deny” the “doctrine” of the “Holy Trinity” and also as if he thinks redemption and eternal life are meaningful concepts and things it is possible to have. The article doesn’t read like that throughout, but it often comes close. There’s a strange deafness to the possibility that “heresy” is not a crime and that killing people for it could have a chilling effect on free inquiry.

The Catholic church did not impose thought control on astronomers, and even Galileo was free to believe what he wanted about the position and mobility of the earth, so long as he did not teach the Copernican hypothesis as a truth on which Holy Scripture had no bearing.

Oh I see – liberality itself then. He could think what he liked, provided he shut up about it, but as for saying it aloud – well really. How dare he.

More later.

Talking to Hitchens

Nov 14th, 2010 5:46 pm | By

Some great stuff in Andrew Anthony’s long interview with Hitchens.

In America it’s been suggested by some religious types that his condition could prompt a revision of his atheism. It’s not a hypothesis to which he grants much respect.

“So now I know that there’s another life in my body that can’t outlive me but can kill me, it’s the perfect moment to gratefully acknowledge that I’m a product of a cosmic design? Who thinks up these arguments? Actually it’s an insulting question: ‘I hear you’re dying. Well wouldn’t it be a good time to get rid of your beliefs?’ Try it on them and see how they would like it. ‘Christian, right? Cancer of the tits?’ ‘Well, yes, since you ask.’ ‘Well, can I suggest you now drop all that tripe?’”

Well yes that’s insulting, but the rules are different when talking to atheists.

Hitchens dislikes the “New Atheist” title. “It isn’t really new,” he says, “except it coincides with huge advances made in the natural sciences. And there’s been an unusually violent challenge to pluralist values by the supporters of at least one monotheism apologised for quite often by the sympathisers of others. Then they say we’re fundamentalists. A stupid idea like that is hard to kill because any moron can learn it in 10 seconds and repeat it as if for the first time. But since there isn’t a single position that any of us holds on anything that depends upon an assertion that can’t be challenged, I guess that will die out or they’ll get bored of it.”

Oh no. Not any time soon anyway – not while the Huffington Post and the Guardian are still paying them to say it.

Hearing from Tiresias

Nov 14th, 2010 1:17 pm | By

The old Tiresias trick comes in handy sometimes. The neurobiologist Ben Barres started out as Barbara, and he reports on what it’s like to be an intelligent woman.

The top science and math student in her New Jersey high school, she was advised by her guidance counselor to go to a local college rather than apply to MIT. She applied anyway and was admitted.As an MIT undergraduate, Barbara was one of the only women in a large math class, and the only student to solve a particularly tough problem. The professor “told me my boyfriend must have solved it for me,” recalls Prof. Barres…

Although Barbara Barres was a top student at MIT, “nearly every lab head I asked refused to let me do my thesis research” with him, Prof. Barres says. “Most of my male friends had their first choice of labs. And I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship I lost to a male student when I was a Ph.D. student,” even though the rival had published one prominent paper and she had six.

Well…women should just all do the transgender thing; problem solved. Right? Or would that be slightly inconvenient.

Some supporters of the Summers Hypothesis suggest that temperament, not ability, holds women back in science: They are innately less competitive. Prof. Barres’s experience suggests that if women are less competitive, it is not because of anything innate but because that trait has been beaten out of them.

“Female scientists who are competitive or assertive are generally ostracized by their male colleagues,” he says.

And called shrill strident bitches for good measure.

Ten paces in each direction

Nov 13th, 2010 6:55 pm | By

What’s Karl Giberson talking about?

He’s saying gnu atheists are wrong to say that religious believers are stuck in the past and unable to change. Then he says there are some religious believers like that, but there are some clueless non-religious people, too. Then he says that some of the religious believers who refuse to accept scientific findings that they don’t like are educated but just don’t want to accept scientific findings for religious reasons.

Oh. So…how is that not what gnu atheists say? How does what Giberson says show that gnu atheists are wrong to say that? Here’s how he explains believers’ reasons for saying no thanks to parts of science:

Mohler is educated and does not hold this belief because of simple ignorance. He is well-read and informed on such things. But he’s inclined, for widely accepted theological reasons, to get his science from the Bible.

Yes…that’s the point. That’s the kind of thing that makes religion not compatible with science – it’s this business of being inclined, for theological reasons, to get your science from the bible, or the koran or the guru or the tv show about a medium. So how are we wrong?

Well because there are other believers, who don’t do what Mohler does – at least not all of it. We’re wrong not to agree that that means they have more in common with us than they have with Mohler. It could be otherwise, Giberson says. Mohler could think they have a lot in common, but he doesn’t; and Coyne could think they have a lot in common, but he doesn’t. Both of them reject the middle ground, and Giberson thinks this is naughty.

Why is it that people on middle ground always seem to be on the “other” team, when this seems far from obvious? In the recent election, by analogy, why were moderate Republicans vilified for being too much like Democrats? Has everyone in the country decided that there is only “us” and “them,” so that “not us” equals “them”? Whether we agree with people in the middle or not, is there not value in acknowledging those who can make connections between disparate points of view?

But who says Giberson is the one who is in the middle? Who says the middle is midway between Albert Mohler and Jerry Coyne? Not I. There are lots of places one can locate the middle, and lots of ways one can locate oneself there and everyone else out on the two Poles of Error. In any case I think most gnu atheists aren’t really very interested in all this political mapmaking. I don’t care whether Mohler is more “extreme” than Giberson or Coyne is more “extreme” than Scott or Rosenau. I don’t have to vote for any of them, nor do I have to campaign for any of them, so I can just judge them all on the merits, not where they fit on some Map of Difference-splitting.

The devil is the latest thing

Nov 13th, 2010 12:12 pm | By

The US Catholic church is giving the gnu atheists support for their claim that science and religion are not epistemically compatible. Very obliging and civil of them, I must say.

There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.

Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.

So they are operating on the assumption that some people really do need an exorcism, and that there are reliable repeatable teachable ways to distinguish between those people and lunatics. Right. Well this is our point, isn’t it – there is no evidence that anyone “really needs” an exorcism, but the Catholic church thinks that some people do, all the same.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.

“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”

Thank you Bishop Paprocki for spelling it out some more. The bishop is telling us that (according to his religious belief) there is an entity called “the Devil” and the Devil (however rarely and extraordinarily) can be “in possession” of a person, by which is meant can magically inhabit a person and make the person do things. This is a pre-scientific belief. There is no evidence of the existence of an entity that fits the description of “the Devil,” or of anyone inhabiting another person and making the person do things. It’s a magical story, yet here is the modern church taking it seriously and holding conferences on how to spot it.

“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.

“It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”

Bingo! That’s just what we say. No, the church isn’t just one more institution, the church thinks it deals with angels and demons.

“People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”

But he said that there could eventually be a rising demand for exorcism because of the influx of Hispanic and African Catholics to the United States. People from those cultures, he said, are more attuned to the experience of the supernatural.

“More attuned to the experience of the supernatural” being a euphemism for less educated and more credulous, which of course the priest doesn’t want to come right out and say is the best path to belief in Catholic nonsense.

Gentlemen: declare your agenda

Nov 12th, 2010 1:41 pm | By

There are a couple of indignant people replying to my and others’ comments on Charles Freeman’s reply to James Hannam at the New Humanist. They are indignant about my claims about the Templeton connections and possible agenda of some of the historians who write about Science ‘n’ Religion. One uses the pseudonym ”Thiudareiks,” which is Theodoric in Saxon or Old German or something, so I don’t know anything about that one. But the other is one Humphrey Clarke, who…

has a long admiring review of the very book at issue at a blog called Quodlibeta, or Bede’s Journal. Who else blogs there? Why…

James Hannam, that’s who. So far Humphrey Clarke hasn’t bothered mentioning that fact. Ho hum.

Offensive to or deviations from

Nov 12th, 2010 1:24 pm | By

Is Indonesia a beacon of free speech and open discussion? Not exactly.

…just seven months ago, Indonesia’s highest court issued a landmark ruling widely considered to be a major setback to speech and religious rights. The Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of Indonesia’s Blasphemy Act, which criminalizes speech or acts considered offensive to government-approved religions as well as “deviations from teachings of religion considered fundamental by scholars of the relevant religion.”

So if someone should say that Mohammed was actually a very liberal feminist kind of guy who never said that women should be beaten for disobedience…that would be a crime in Indonesia? Interesting.

The Blasphemy Act provides for both civil and criminal penalties for those who insult approved religions and those who attempt to persuade others to adhere to unofficial religions. This translates into a de facto ban on proselytizing that lends itself to overly broad and arbitrary interpretations by local governments. For example, in September 2005, three Christian women were sentenced to three years imprisonment for conducting a Christian youth program, even though the Muslim children in the program had parental permission to attend, and none of the children had converted to Christianity.

I wonder what happened to the parents who signed those permission slips.


A “truth” was now defined and enforced by law

Nov 11th, 2010 5:58 pm | By

Charles Freeman on a crucial moment in history (from The Closing of the Western Mind):

In January 381 Theodosius issued an imperial decree declaring the doctrine of the Trinity orthodox and expelling Homoeans and Arians from their churches…

This council, together with the imperial edicts which accompanied it, was the moment when the Nicene formula became part of the official state religion (if only for the moment in the Eastern empire). All those Christians who differed from it – Homoeans, Homoiousians, Arians and a host of other minor groups – were declared to be heretics facing not only the vengeance of God but also that of the state. The decision of Constantine to privilege one Christian community over another was consolidated in that a “truth” was now defined and enforced by law, with those declared heretical to be punished on earth as well as by God. It was unclear on what basis this “truth” rested, certainly not one of exclusively rational argument, so it either had to be presented as “the revelation of God,” as it was by Thomas Aquinas, or accepted that “truth” was as defined by the emperor. [pp 193, 194]

Not what you would call a science-friendly world, then.

Let it shine

Nov 10th, 2010 4:27 pm | By

A couple of pastors have realized that they don’t believe the stuff they preach any more, and they’re stuck.

The two, who asked that their real identities be protected, are pastors who have lost their faith. And these two men, who have built their careers and lives around faith, say they now feel trapped, living a lie.

That must be a horrible situation. (It’s interesting that they don’t go on to say – that we’re told, at least – that nevertheless they still feel they are providing something their parishioners need. They feel trapped and crappy and dishonest; they don’t feel helpful or benevolent.)

Jack said that 10 years ago, he started to feel his faith slipping away. He grew bothered by inconsistencies regarding the last days of Jesus’ life, what he described as the improbability of stories like “Noah’s Ark” and by attitudes expressed in the Bible regarding women and their place in the world.

“Reading the Bible is what led me not to believe in God,” he said.

He said it was difficult to continue to work in ministry. “I just look at it as a job and do what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I’ve done it for years.”

See? That’s not a guy who thinks religion is a wonderful thing. It’s a guy who thinks it’s a job, and one that he doesn’t like any more.

Adam said his initial doubts about God came as he read the work of the so-called New Atheists — popular authors like the prominent scientist Richard Dawkins. He said the research was intended to help him defend his faith.

“My thinking was that God is big enough to handle any questions that I can come up with,” he said but that did not happen.

“I realized that everything I’d been taught to believe was sort of sheltered,” Adam said, “and never really looked at secular teaching or other philosophies. … I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Am I believing the wrong things? Have I spent my entire life and my career promoting something that is not true?’”

Really? Oh my goodness – here was I thinking that gnu atheists can’t possibly convince anyone except near-atheists, because we’re always being told that, and yet here is an actual pastor being convinced by gnu atheists. Fancy that, eh? But then that’s what I keep saying (despite what I just said about what I thought, which was not entirely sincere): that nobody knows who will or won’t be convinced, and some people even among firm believers may be turned around by reading a book. So here’s one. And there are others; they write to gnus and tell us so.

An inviolable religious obligation

Nov 10th, 2010 4:08 pm | By

I wonder how that cop feels.

Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal as a kidnapped polygamist child bride could have ended weeks after her abduction when a policeman challenged her captor to lift her veil.

But he backed off when Brian Mitchell insisted that it was an inviolable religious obligation, condemning the 14-year-old to another eight months as a sex slave.

When a police detective approached an oddly dressed teenager in a Salt Lake City library and asked her to lift her veil, Mr Mitchell refused, saying their religion only permitted her husband to see her face.

“He said he was looking for Elizabeth Smart,” Ms Smart told an engrossed courtroom…

Smart said that the policeman “asked if he could be a part of our religion for a day, just so he could see my face, just so he could go back and say, ‘No, it wasn’t Elizabeth Smart’.” When Mr Mitchell refused, the detective gave in.That moment she felt “like hope was walking out the door”, Ms Smart told the jury.

He was looking for her. He saw a girl of the right sort of size, with a veil over her face. He tried to check her identity. The kidnapper said no, citing an inviolable religious obligation. The cop gave it up. Smart got eight more months of misery as a result.

Maybe people should start to learn that a woman or girl with a bag over her head is a sign of something seriously wrong. That particular “inviolable religious obligation,” where it exists, is a symptom of a systematic social abduction of women. It hides powerlessness and helplessness.

Science and absolute theological truths

Nov 9th, 2010 6:01 pm | By

Charles Freeman replies to James Hannam’s reply to Freeman’s criticism of Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers.

My most important point, and one that Hannam does not even address in his response, is that, in comparison to the Greeks the natural philosophers operated within the context of a much more authoritarian society. Christianity brought the concept of absolute theological truths, many ring-fenced as “articles of faith” which, as Hannam notes, apparently with approval, were unchallengeable.

That has to have been a considerable stumbling block, surely.

As intellectual life evolved in the Middle Ages, no one quite knew where the boundaries lay, the threat of heresy was used all too widely in personal power struggles between opposing factions and individuals and the ultimate punishment was burning on earth as a preliminary to eternal burning in hell. If Hannam cannot see how this affected free discussion in the Middle Ages, there is little hope for him. Yet, as I show in my critique, he even seems to be sympathetic to the process.

Well that would slow me right down, I can tell you. Burning? Oh well I guess I’ll just stick with making shoes.

Finding the right gap

Nov 9th, 2010 4:23 pm | By

There’s been a discussion of agnosticism in comments at Pharyngula, with Stephen Novella offering some attempted clarifications. I think agnostics or “agnostics” of the Mark Vernon type have muddied the waters. Not knowing doesn’t have to be some mushy compromise between theism and atheism; not knowing really does matter.

That’s central to all these “what would it take to convince you of god/the supernatural” questions – often the examples offered are of things it would be very hard or impossible for people to actually know. If a 900 foot Jesus appeared – well, appeared where? And how would anyone know it was Jesus? And what about all the people who didn’t see it, because they were ill in bed, or in prison, or stuck in a collapsed mine? For them it would be hearsay. But there would be videos. Yes but videos aren’t the same thing. And so on. It’s really hard to think of something that everybody could know about first-hand. Magic tricks with a particular word in every book and magazine in the world, for instance, wouldn’t work, because how would anyone know that?

What we can and can’t know really does matter.

The question should therefore be more limited. “What would it take to convince you that there are good reasons to believe in god/the supernatural?” That would be a lower standard, because the reasons wouldn’t have to convince you, but you could agree that they could reasonably convince other people. That question is more like asking, “What would be a better gap than the ones people point to now?”

All you would have to come up with would be something hard or impossible to explain given our current knowledge, without having to agree that you yourself would be forced to agree that it convinced you that god/the supernatural exists.

This is helpful because it’s hard to think of anything that really forces that conclusion. It’s always possible to think “but I could just think I might be hallucinating, so I would never be really convinced.”

Unless you simply make that part of the thought experiment, in which case it becomes true by definition. Let’s stipulate that, then. Yes: if there were something that forced me to believe despite thoughts of hallucination, then yes, I would believe.

We could say that the experience would be such that it made the hallucination possibility unreal – that I could mouth the words, but not actually believe them. But saying that is itself  mouthing words. We can’t know that there is such a thing, or that there could be. Maybe there could, but we don’t know.

Tricky, isn’t it.