Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.

The demonologist will see you now

Jan 13th, 2009 12:34 pm | By

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Excuse me – I can’t help it.

The Pope has instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition, to draw up a new handbook to help bishops snuff out an explosion of bogus heavenly apparitions. Benedict XVI plans to update the Vatican’s current rules on investigating apparitions to help distinguish between true and false claims of visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, messages, stigmata (the appearances of the five wounds of Christ), weeping and bleeding statues and Eucharistic miracles.

Well yes, certainly, of course; one can quite see why he would. Only…is it really, actually, genuinely possible to distinguish between true and false claims of visions and stigmata and the like? Or are they much of a muchness? Oh no, surely they have a method; they can’t be just gesturing at the air.

[A]nyone who claims to have seen an apparition will only be believed as long as they remain silent and do not court publicity over their claims. If they refuse to obey, this will be taken as a sign that their claims are false. The visionaries will then be visited by a team of psychiatrists, either atheists or Catholics, to certify their mental health while theologians will assess the content of any heavenly messages to see if they contravene Church teachings.

Ah good! That’s a good method – that should definitely weed out the bogus claims, because Church teachings are the infallible checking mechanism for telling Up from Down, gold from dross, wheat from chaff, wine from vinegar, and heavenly from not so good.

If the visionary is considered credible they will ultimately be questioned by one or more demonologists and exorcists to exclude the possibility that Satan is hiding behind the apparitions in order to deceive the faithful.

Yes but…how does that work? What questions are there that demonologists and exorcists can ask that would reveal Satan hiding behind the apparitions? Isn’t Satan clever enough to answer their questions in such a way that they can’t spot Satan hiding? Oh well, I shouldn’t ask such questions, demonologists and exorcists are professionals and they have techniques and tools and skills that they learned and got degrees in, so I’ll just bow deferentially and go eat lunch.

Vatican, don’t make me come down there…

Jan 12th, 2009 6:04 pm | By

The Vatican is in TRUB-BLE . The Dutch Foreign Minister is going to YELL AT IT. It might have to GO TO BED WITHOUT ANY DESSERT. HA ha ha HA ha.

The Vatican envoy to the Netherlands, we learn with enormous pleasure this weekend, is about to receive a well-deserved arse-kicking from Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister, Maxime Verhagen…[T]he envoy – Monsignor François Bacqué – has been called to a meeting to explain the Catholic Church’s stance on sexuality and marriage, and answer charges the Church opposes gay rights…LifeSiteNews said that, in December, the Vatican was attacked in the international press for refusing to endorse the UN motion claiming to “decriminalise homosexuality”…The Vatican’s representative at the UN, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, said in December that although there was agreement that persons with homosexual inclinations should not be subject to arrest or other forms of unjust discrimination, the motion would lend support to the movement to create homosexual “marriage” or other legal recognition for homosexual unions.

And therefore the Vatican is content to keep the criminalization of homosexuality, in other words the Vatican has presumptuous intrusive trivial unwarranted objections to homosexual marriage and therefore it wants homosexuality to go on being a crime. In other words the Vatican prides itself on being pointlessly bigoted and having contempt for human rights.

The Vatican also opposed the use in the document of expressions such as “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” saying they are not defined in international law but are only cultural concepts promulgated in the media and the homosexualist political movement.

Ah! Ah yes – so they are! Whereas the Vatican’s concepts are…what, exactly? They’re not concepts but truths engraved in nature? Edicts ratified by the seldom-seen but always groveled-to absentee deity? Well no doubt the Vatican would like to think so, but guess what, the Vatican’s rules and regs and refusals and foot-stampings are ‘only cultural concepts’ too, promulgated in the Vatican press office and the Catholic political movement. They’re made up. They’re not based on anything. They’re bullshit. I oppose the use of such expressions as “Holy Father” and “Holy See” and “Vatican envoy” because they’re just cultural concepts promulgated by a bunch of reactionary obscurantist deeply mistaken men in robes.

Cooking the books

Jan 12th, 2009 1:25 pm | By

So is the BBC a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Church of England or god’s favorite offspring or what? What’s it playing at?

The BBC has been forced to apologise to an acclaimed psychologist and writer after editing her derogatory comments about religion so that a radio programme broadcast “the opposite” of what she had said…[Dorothy] Rowe, best known for her work on depression, had attempted to comment on the subject proposed by the programme’s producer: “Why so many people want to believe in God and search for faith.” But she was aghast to hear how her words were eventually used…She said the interview “sounds like I am giving unqualified praise to religious belief. There is no mention of what I talked…about at length, that religious belief can cause immense misery. I often summarise this with: ‘The church keeps me in business’.”

What happened…someone’s foot slipped and all the critical parts got accidentally erased?

The row has provided ammunition for secular critics who accuse the BBC of using its programmes to promote religion. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, who was interviewed for the same programme as Rowe, said: “I gave a long interview, but when I listened to the finished product it contained just a couple of very brief soundbites from me which were not representative of the thoughts I had expressed…This programme was the most blatant piece of religious propaganda I have heard for a long time.”

Sad, isn’t it. The god-huggers want the rest of us to shut up about god, so they start distorting the evidence, so we get more irritated than we were before, so we make more noise, so they even more desperately want us to shut up, so they distort the evidence in even more brazen (and stupid) ways, and round we go.

Eat your greens

Jan 10th, 2009 11:23 am | By

Deepak Chopra uses a lot of code too. His is quite familiar.

[T]he writer opened his piece by pledging allegiance to “scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine.” He next declared opposition to integrative medicine…

Scare-quotes on evidence-based, no scare-quotes on ‘integrative medicine’…Code in the form of misallocation of bullshit-indicator.

We believe that Salerno’s piece is the opening salvo from the right aiming to influence the incoming administration as it strategically allocates resources for improving the U.S. health and wellness system.

Classic – the pretense that criticism of woo-medicine comes from the right, along with the pretense (more fully expressed later) that critics are as opposed to good preventive practices as they are to manipulation of chakras.

A new integrative medicine system would marry the superb options of high tech emergency care…by empowering and educating its citizens to maintain wellness and prevent disease, through improved nutrition, exercise, stress-management, and a wide range of other proven integrative approaches.

Orac comments on this tactic:

CAM/IM apologists like Chopra try very hard to appropriate science- and evidence-based modalities like good nutrition and exercise, along with health maintenance measures, as being somehow “alternative” or “integrative” (the bait) when they are in the purview of “conventional medicine.”…Today, nutrition and excercise, tomorrow homeopathy. To CAM/IM advocates, it would seem, it’s all the same. Far be it from them to worry themselves about doing the actual hard work to do the science that determines what treatments do and don’t work.

Naturally not, when they can get so rich and famous by not doing the actual hard work.

You know, kind of, you know

Jan 10th, 2009 10:51 am | By

No no no no no no no no.

I can tell you what I think I’d bring to this, which is, you know, I’m not a conventional choice, I haven’t followed the traditional path, but I do think I’d bring a kind of a lifetime of experience that is relevant to this job. I think that what we’ve seen over the last year, and particularly and even up to the last — is that there’s a lot of different ways that people are coming to public life now, and it’s not only the traditional path. Even in the New York delegation, you know, some of our great senators — Hillary Clinton, Pat Moynihan — came from, you know, other walks of life. We’ve got Carolyn McCarthy, John Hall, both of them have an unconventional background, so I don’t think that that is, uh — so I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know…

That’s Caroline Kennedy explaining with a startling lack of articulacy why she should be appointed a US senator. I’m always on the lookout for code, and that’s a code I don’t think I’ve seen before. ‘Other walks of life’ and ‘all kinds of different voices, you know,’ is code for people with no relevant experience whatsoever going into politics, and it’s not in and of itself a thing to be cheered. Total lack of relevant experience is not absolutely always a disqualifier, but it does at the very least need to be offset by conspicuous talents and skills of the right kind – like, for instance, being able to talk in an adult way in public. Caroline Kennedy is 51 years old and a lawyer, and she talks like a teenager. So – she has no relevant experience, and she’s remarkably bad at talking in public, and the only reason to suggest her at all is because she is a Kennedy. Hmmm…that reminds me of something…what could it be…Oh yes, it’s the current president. And even he doesn’t say ‘you know’ every five words like a high school kid.

In my book, her being a Kennedy is a reason not to appoint her, and also a reason not to vote for her, just as in my book Hillary Clinton’s being a former president’s wife was a very strong reason not to vote for her. I detest this nepotism thing we’ve got going and I wish people would stop encouraging it. I don’t want a Kennedy dynasty or a Clinton dynasty any more than I want a Bush dynasty; I don’t want any damn dynasty. And I don’t want people from you know, other walks of life, either. This isn’t a game.

Hey it pays the bills

Jan 9th, 2009 6:10 pm | By

It’s all very well to diss the very idea of alternative medicine (alternative to what? the kind that works?) but what you don’t seem to understand is that people will spend money on it, and not in small quantities, either.

Feeling a tad listless? Perhaps your DNA is insufficiently activated. You may want to consult the healers at Oughten House Foundation, specializing in “tools and techniques for self-empowerment . . . through DNA Activations.” Oughten House recommends regular therapy as part of its DNA Activation Healing Project, at $125 per hour-long session.

$125 for…waving your hands around gently, or turning the dials on a convincing-looking Machine of some sort, or handing out a banana milkshake, and calling that ‘DNA Activation.’ Not a bad haul.

[W]hat was once a ragtag assortment of New Age nostrums has metastasized into a multibillion-dollar industry championed by dozens of lobbyists and their congressional sympathizers. Among the most popular therapies are acupuncture, at $50 to $100 per session; reflexology, which involves massaging various parts of the hands and feet, starting at $35 an hour; and aromatherapy, which relies on the supposed healing properties of about 40 “essential oils,” with treatments at $30 to $90 an hour.

Well – look, at least those people probably won’t be needing a bailout or an emergency loan or an adjusted mortgage. At least the practitioners are making a living. Maybe we should all do it, and then there’d be no more Economic Disaster.

Major hospital systems, notably Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins and New York’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, incorporate CAM-based programs like aromatherapy and therapeutic touch, often bracketed as “integrative medicine.”… “We’re all channeling East Indian healers along with doing gall-bladder removal,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics. Mr. Caplan harbors no illusions about what’s behind the trend: “It’s not as noble as, ‘I want to be respectful to Chinese healing arts.’ It’s more, ‘People are spending a fortune on this stuff! We could do this plus our regular stuff and bill ‘em for all of it!’”

Well quite. I’m strongly tempted to hang out a shingle myself. I think I’d be really good at activating people’s DNA.

Claiming the mantel of skepticism

Jan 9th, 2009 4:42 pm | By

Another excellent piece about HIV/AIDS denial.

On Science-Based Medicine, we strive to apply the light of science and reason on all manner of unscientific belief systems about medicine. For the most part, but by no means exclusively, we have concentrated on so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) because there is an active movement to infiltrate faith-based, rather than science-based, modalities into “conventional” medicine. Indeed, such efforts are well-financed, both by public and private organizations, and are alarmingly successful at insinuating postmodernist and pseudoscientific beliefs into academia to form an unholy new monster that has been termed by some as “quackademic medicine.”

So science is under heavy suspicion while CAM is given the revolutionary salute. Yee-ha.

However, one pseudoscientific belief system about medicine that we at SBM have perhaps not dealt with as much as we should is the belief that, contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus built up over 25 years, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) does not cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)…Before I go on to do a case study of the tragic price of HIV/AIDS denialism, perhaps it is worthwhile to take a moment to discuss just what HIV/AIDS denialism is. It is not “skepticism” or “rethinking” any more than creationism is a “rethinking” or “skepticism” of evolution, although denialists like to try to claim the mantle of those labels. Seth Kalichman, author of the book Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy has written a good primer of the phenomenon…

Yes and he’s going to write about it for B&W. Put that on your calendars.

Indeed, denialism, specifically the denial of scientific medicine, tends to be at the heart of the quackademic medicine movement, just as the denial of evolution is at the heart of the anti-evolution movement known as “intelligent design” creationism. It is a more general phenomenon that involves a dogged clinging to pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical beliefs (creationists and antivaccine advocates are a good example of the former; 9/11 Truthers and Holocaust deniers are a good example of the latter) and the use of logical fallacies and conspiracy theories to bolster their world view.

Read the whole piece; it’s long and thorough and full of horrors, and impressive.

Defiance is not enough

Jan 8th, 2009 5:55 pm | By

It’s good to question conventional wisdom, except when it isn’t. Conventional wisdom holds that a bridge designed by engineers and built by reputable builders is safer to drive across than one designed by shamans and built by hairdressers. Questioning that conventional wisdom is not really all that productive, and if anyone listens to the questioning, it’s downright lethal.

So with Christine Maggiore.

Until the end, Christine Maggiore remained defiant.On national television and in a blistering book, she denounced research showing that HIV causes AIDS. She refused to take medications to treat her own virus. She gave birth to two children and breast fed them, denying any risk to their health. And when her 3-year-old child, Eliza Jane, died of what the coroner determined to be AIDS-related pneumonia, she protested the findings and sued the county.

That’s the risky kind of questioning conventional wisdom – and it risks other people as well as oneself. That’s why Prince Charles makes me angry when he indulges his passion for denouncing non-alternative medicine, and it’s why Juliet Stevenson made me angry when she used her celebrity to denounce the conventional wisdom about the MMR vaccine and autism, and it’s why Christine Maggiore makes me angry even though she’s now dead. It makes me angry that she breast-fed her children and it makes me angry that she went on television to denounce research showing that HIV causes AIDS. People shouldn’t do that. People shouldn’t take on life and death medical issues when they have no training or expertise in the subject. People shouldn’t trust their own judgment that completely.

For years, the South African government joined with Maggiore in denying that HIV is responsible for AIDS and resisting antiretroviral treatment. According to a new analysis by a group of Harvard public health researchers, 330,000 people died as a consequence of the government’s denial and 35,000 babies were born with the disease.

It’s not a subject for hobbyists or cranks or princes or actors. Children must never play with matches.

Is hell a taboo?

Jan 8th, 2009 11:33 am | By

Norm points out, as Ian MacDougall did in comments, that I said too much when I said I didn’t think we need empirical evidence to warrant thinking that telling children that people suffer torment in hell forever is harmful and bad. He points out that extrapolating from experience is itself a form of evidence – ‘The experience we have contains various forms of evidence.’ Well yes, and if that is included in what is meant by empirical evidence, then I do think we need it, but I was making the (usual? common?) distinction between subjective evidence about first person experience and intersubjective evidence about the world outside first person experience.

Part of my point was that for empirical questions about the real world, personal experience is not considered evidence (except by some theists). My claim was that for questions about what it is or is not cruel to do or say to people, personal experience can be considered evidence because experience is what it is about; that extrapolation from subjective reactions is reasonable there while it is not reasonable when discussing, say, ‘alternative’ medicine.

I’m not sure about this part:

[I]n principle we have to allow for the possibility that new evidence might show – though I don’t, myself, believe this is likely – that the beneficial effects on children of hell-talk outweigh the harmful ones. Could be, you know, that it toughens kids up and better prepares them to meet the harshness of the world. Unlikely, as I say; yet, although there are claims that don’t depend on empirical evidence – such as that it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering – I can’t see that a claim (of fact) about what harms people can do without the support of such evidence.

I balk at that – so now all I have to do is figure out why, and figure out if it’s irrational or if I have a reason. I balk in the sense that I think even if there were robust evidence that hell-talk made children braver than they would otherwise be – it’s still wicked and wrong. Why?

I know – I have it. It’s what NB said in comments. Well done Neil! It’s because hell itself is wicked, so a God that is responsible for it shouldn’t be worshipped. That’s why. Believing in hell and worshipping the God that sends people there puts an appalling principle right at the center of what one believes about the world. Being tougher or braver is no good if you’re someone who endorses sadistic power in that way – so evidence that belief in hell made people tougher or happier wouldn’t touch the basic flaw.

I see you’re admiring my detox socks

Jan 6th, 2009 5:24 pm | By

The ‘detox’ question is pretty amusing.

In the majority of cases, producers and retailers contacted by the young scientists were forced to admit that they are renaming mundane things, like cleaning or brushing, as ‘detox’. They range in price from £1-2 for a detox drink to £36.95 for detox bath accessories.

Hahahaha – are there detox rubber duckies? Detox loofahs? Detox washcloths? All priced at ten times the normal rate because of their magical detox powers which the producers and retailers have admitted they don’t actually have?

The dossier shows that, while companies and individuals now use the claim ‘detox’ to promote everything from foot patches to hair straighteners, they are unable to provide reliable evidence or consistent explanations of what the ‘detox’ process is supposed to be.

Foot patches! Hahahahahahaha. ‘What’s that, Joe?’ ‘It’s my detox foot patch.’ ‘Oh yes, of course.’ Hair straighteners! Detox hair straighteners! Hahahahahahaha.

Three years ago they mentioned some other tools:

Our bodies have their own ‘detox’ mechanisms. The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body…These processes do not occur more effectively as a result of taking “detox” tablets, wearing “detox” socks, having a “detox” body wrap, eating Nettle Root extract, drinking herbal infusions or “oxygenated” water, following a special “detox” diet…

Detox socks! What are they made of? Cashmere? A mix of cashmere and lamb’s wool? Platinum? Henbane? Whatever it is, I would love to have some darling detox socks. My feet are tragically toxic; I’m always noticing it. I would also love to have a detox body wrap and a whole tank full of ‘oxygenated’ water. Woonchoo?

Is there any evidence for that?

Jan 6th, 2009 5:21 pm | By

Do we need empirical evidence to warrant thinking that telling children that people suffer torment in hell forever is harmful and bad? I don’t think so. There are things that we know without evidence. For instance we know that telling people they are stupid or ugly or boring or generally repulsive is bad. We also know that bad news is bad, so we know that it’s bad to tell people bad news if it’s not true – we know it’s bad to tell someone: ‘your cat/dog/best friend/mother/child is injured and in terrible pain’ if that’s not true.

We don’t need evidence for that. It’s part of how the world is. Imagine telling a child: ‘Your cat is caught in a trap, it’s crushing her leg in its jaws, she’s howling in pain, we can’t get her out’ when it’s not true. There’s no way to look at that and think it’s good or not too bad or neutral. Even if we knew for a fact that it would do no lasting psychic damage at all (and how would we know that?), it would still be bad. Even temporary mental anguish is bad.

We don’t demand research before we refrain from doing things like that. We don’t, and don’t need to, and shouldn’t. We extrapolate – from experience, imagination, sympathy, empathy. We know what that would feel like, and we flinch, and we don’t do it to people.

That’s how a lot of morality works, at the simplest level. That’s why one familiar parental sqawk is ‘How would you like it if she did that to you?’ It’s the most direct way to explain why something is wrong and not permitted. The child being squawked at doesn’t get to demand a look at the research before accepting the lesson.

So – adults who tell children there is a hell where some people are tortured forever are doing a bad thing, even if the children do simply ignore the claim, or shrug it off, or deny it. If the children believe it but think it is only other people who are tortured forever and are happy with that thought – that is a very bad thing, because those are some callous children, if not outright sadistic.

Gehenna and Sheol

Jan 4th, 2009 6:04 pm | By

What I’ll bother with instead is a little musing about the subject of hell and the afterlife and heaven, and how bizarre it all is.

Hell, for instance. Imagine a child of 4 eats a cookie after her mother told her not to, and her parents sentence her to be constantly tortured for the rest of her life as punishment. That idea looks quite gentle and benign compared to the idea of hell that is in some sense orthodox (though in what sense is not altogether clear to me, but of that later). We live a few decades, and then after that, if we are ‘sinners,’ we are tortured forever. It’s sadistic enough, but along with that, it doesn’t even make sense. What’s the point? And besides what’s the point, what’s the reason? What’s the reason for the grotesque lack of proportion?

What’s god supposed to be accomplishing by this? Not teaching, not reformation, not improvement – because it’s eternal. So, what then? Nothing makes sense except sheer unadulterated revenge, but revenge that goes beyond the wildest fantasies of human sadism. And it’s an all-powerful being who is doing this, so it’s not as if it’s a fair fight.

So the truth is that people who believe in hell believe in a god that is truly bottomlessly disgusting and loathsome. A god that inflicts utterly futile pointless useless suffering on sentient thinking animals forever and ever and ever. I don’t see how they can stand it. I really don’t. I don’t see why they don’t just curdle with horror.

And then heaven, and the afterlife…They make a nonsense of for instance the fuss about Terry Schiavo. What sense did that ever make? She wasn’t having much of a life here – and when she died she would go to heaven and have a much better life – so why were the fundamentalists so outraged at the prospect of releasing her from her useless body?

And if the objection to abortion is that the embryo has an immortal soul from the moment of conception – then what’s the problem? It already has its soul, so it can just go to heaven and be happy there. The good place is not earth, it’s heaven, so why is it supposed to be such a disaster if a fetus goes to heaven instead of here?

Also, what does I Corinthians 5 mean? What does it mean to deliver someone to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved? If someone is delivered to Satan, the spirit isn’t saved, is it? Was there some interim arrangement in Paul’s day by which people went to Satan for an hour or two to have their flesh shredded so that after that their souls would be in tip-top shape? Was that later turned into Purgatory? Or what?

This stuff isn’t as well thought-out as it might be.

Woe that too late repents

Jan 4th, 2009 5:39 pm | By

Heh heh. Andrew Brown answered my comments today. He said he admired my ‘rhetorical technique’ – by which of course he meant he didn’t, but anyway, I don’t think it was rhetorical technique, I think I was just pointing out his inaccuracy.

So I replied, and then he replied again.

What you are accusing me of is not getting the facts wrong. It is wrongly interpreting a passage that you read differently. I don’t think that’s such a monstrous offence in general and certainly not in this particular case where my interpretation was the plain and natural one. If bringing up children to be fundamentalists is comparable to child abuse, then the sanctions for it must be comparable too. If you shrink from such sanctions, then you should not imply that they are equivalent crimes.

Now there at last we get to grips with the thing. The trouble is that he said Dawkins said X when Dawkins didn’t say X, which is not wrongly interpreting a passage, it’s saying that Y said something when Y in fact didn’t say that. I pointed out that if he had changed just one word – if he had said Dawkins had implied or suggested – then it would have been a matter of interpretation; but he didn’t say that. I bet he wishes he had. I said that, too.

I don’t know, maybe this is an occupational hazard of journalism. It’s not exactly a secret that many journalists seem to think that an approximation is the same thing as a direct quote. But the fact that it’s common doesn’t make it good practice, or helpful, or accurate, or ethical.

And that’s especially true when one is disagreeing with someone; and all the more so when one is doing it in a polemical or irritable way. That is exactly the time to be extra careful about what one attributes to one’s opponent, 1. in order to be fair and guard against confirmation bias and 2. in order to give the opponent no extra advantage. I bet you can see that yourself. You didn’t do your argument any favours with that sloppy and tendentious approximation of what Dawkins said. I bet you’re well aware of that by now.

There’s also some depressing rationalization from underverse about why teaching children to believe in hell is not so bad, but I’m underversed out, so I’m not going to bother with it.

Problems don’t imply their own solutions

Jan 3rd, 2009 11:15 am | By

The Andrew Brown discussion, or wrangle, raises an interesting issue – interesting and pervasive yet obscure. Much of the wrangle has been about whether Dawkins actually said or meant or both that parents who impose harmful beliefs on their children (what is meant by ‘harmful’ is of course part of the wrangle, I’ll get to that, be patient) should be forcibly removed by the state. Brown didn’t even bother to wrangle, he simply said that Dawkins had simply said that, which was and is not the case. Commenters have been wrangling about whether he meant it and if so how strongly (and about what beliefs are ‘harmful’). A strong claim that several people have made is that it’s mere evasion to claim that Dawkins did not say that and did not necessarily mean it either; that he presented a problem but did not say what the solution is. The strong claim is that to state the problem is to say what the solution is – that if the problem is as bad as Dawkins says it is then active intervention is required.

My claim is that that’s wrong. I think what’s going on here is that Dawkins is pointing out a very serious, even terrible, problem, but one that of its nature is very difficult if not impossible to solve without an unacceptable amount and kind of intrusion on people’s lives.

I put it this way in a comment over there: I think it’s fair to say that the really bad stuff is not universal and that it may well not be very common. But I think what Dawkins is saying in that chapter is that the really bad stuff is indeed that bad – and I think he’s right. One child (or adult) in agony because she believes a loved friend is in hell is very bad. It does not follow that the police should be called to arrest the child’s parents, nor does it follow that I’m claiming that. But that kind of agony is very bad – and I think Dawkins is absolutely right that people should worry about it as opposed to ignoring it or brushing it off as unimportant.

Since saying that I’ve looked for some stats, and I’m not so sure it is fair to say that belief in hell (which I consider the really bad stuff) may well not be very common. Unfortunately it is very common. This survey reports that 74.6% in the US believe in hell, and 58.3% in the UK. Maybe they all think that only other people go to hell, and maybe they’re cheerful or indifferent to that thought – but that is no help, is it, because that is still very bad stuff.

And that’s before we even get to other religious indoctrination, such as telling girls that they’re inferior, telling boys that girls are inferior, telling children that homosexuality is a ‘sin,’ telling children that they are ‘sinners,’ telling children that ‘sinners’ go to hell, and the like. That’s what I mean by ‘harmful’ – beliefs that poison children’s minds and make them afraid or cruel or both.

And, obviously enough, there is no quick and easy solution to this, because pretty much no one wants to run around listening in on what all parents tell their children, and no one would be able to even if lots of people did want to. It’s not the case that we think belief in hell is harmful and therefore the police should be called. I for one, and I imagine lots of other people too, think that belief in hell is harmful and there is very little that can be done about that.

The one thing that can be done is education – and that’s what Dawkins was doing on page 326. ‘Consciousness raising,’ he called it; same thing. That can be done without violating anyone’s rights, without installing bugs in every living room, without filling the prisons with naughty parents. It can’t always be done without a lot of argument and brawling, as in the Kitzmiller case, but it can be done without sending out the Gestapo.

Fun and games at the madrassa

Jan 2nd, 2009 12:45 pm | By

If Wikipedia has it right there are currently around forty thousand madrassas in Pakistan. If they’re all full-time pseudo-schools as opposed to an hour or two in the afternoon, that’s an appalling figure, because they don’t teach anything, they just inject the Koran in Arabic, which is useless for anything except doing the same thing to the next generation of doomed children. And that’s before we even get to the political and, shall we say, combustion-related aspect.

A 14-year-old who was trained to kill by radicals in the tribal regions of Pakistan now sits in a crowded classroom at a detention facility in Kabul. His only wish is to see his parents again…”I didn’t want to do it but he forced me to go,” he says of his recruiter. Rubbing his face with his hand, he says he now spends his time dreaming of his life back home in rural Pakistan. His eyes begin to water and his voice becomes softer when he talks about missing his mother. Asked what he misses most about her, he says simply, “A mother is a mother.” His was a life of farming and tranquility in Pakistan, he says. It was also a life that took a drastic turn when his father decided to send Shakirullah for studies at a madrassa. He says his [father] wanted him to learn more about Islam and the Quran, something he could not do himself. He says his father didn’t know radicals ran the school. In the madrassa, Shakirullah learned to recite the Quran in Arabic, not his native language. He relied solely on the fanatical interpretations the mullahs were giving him. “When I finished reciting the Quran, a mullah then came to me and told me, ‘Now that you have finished the Quran, you need to go and commit a suicide attack.’ That I should go to Afghanistan to commit a suicide attack,” he says.

So – lucky parents of rural Pakistan – they send a child to what they think is a place where he’ll learn more about Islam and the Quran but is in fact a place where adult men send children out to kill themselves and others. How nice.

Still digging that hole

Jan 2nd, 2009 12:40 pm | By

Andrew Brown is still at it – still being shameless. It’s been pretty thoroughly shown by now that he misrepresented what Dawkins said on the infamous page 326. So what is his response? A frank apology at last? No.

Richard Dawkins himself has been in this thread a few times. If he had wanted to, he could have stated quite clearly that he does not believe the state should have the right to intervene to remove children from their parents simply because of their theological beliefs.

Interesting. Brown misrepresents what Dawkins wrote. Several commenters point that out, and at least one pastes in the whole passage by way of evidence. Brown simply reiterates his misrepresentation. Commenters go on pointing out that the misrepresentation is a misrepresentation. Brown says it’s up to Dawkins to set the record straight.

The guy is a journalist. Journalists are expected to get their facts right in the first place, and to correct them if they make a mistake. The guy is also a member of society and an adult. Adult members of society are expected not to misrepresent people and to apologize and clear things up if they make a mistake. Brown is making a complete horse’s ass of himself on both counts.

God-given hilarity

Jan 1st, 2009 6:00 pm | By

And for another clever-stupid ‘joke’ there is Dieudonné cutting up again. He’s such a card.

Dieudonné, who is known for making anti-Semitic remarks in his shows, handed the spoof award for “social unacceptability and insolence” to Robert Faurisson, an academic with a string of convictions for denying the existence of Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Among the audience of 5,000 at Le Zénith theatre in Paris were the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, several figures of the far left…A stagehand dressed as a Jewish deportee with a yellow star on his chest gave M. Faurisson the award.

Wow, that does sound like a real thigh-slapper, doesn’t it.

[I]n the past five years, his shows have come to symbolise – some say foment – a new strain of anti-Semitism in France among Arab and black youths and on the “white” far left. Dieudonné said: “I don’t agree with all [M. Faurisson's] ideas. But for me, what counts most of all is freedom of expression.”

Bullshit. Would he make a joke of that kind about an apartheid-denier? Does he make jokes of that kind about apartheid-deniers? Is it really freedom of expression that counts most of all for him? I don’t believe it, and I don’t suppose anyone does.

Oh those pesky Americans

Jan 1st, 2009 5:53 pm | By

Imagine someone commenting on a philosophy blog, ‘Black people understand a good story and only get confused by the minutiae of history.’ Or for ‘black people’ substitute ‘Jews’ or ‘women’ or ‘foreigners.’ You’d blink, right? You’d be a little surprised, and a little repelled. But substitute ‘Americans’ – and apparently that’s no longer a gratuitous insult, it’s some kind of sophisticated bit of ‘irony.’

There’s this guy called Michael Reidy who comments regularly at Talking Philosophy, a blog run by the editors of The Philosophers’ Magazine; he seems very clever and well-informed, though often snide, but he also likes to amuse himself periodically with a random, magisterial announcement about the stupidity of Americans. That was the latest one – ‘Americans understand a good story and only get confused by the minutiae of history.’ It’s all the odder because it’s the last line of his comment and it has nothing to do with the rest.

What’s that about? Just the usual? I have American friends in the UK who are frequently driven to distraction by the breezy way people who would never disparage other groups will snicker at the stupidity, cluelessness, childishness and general hopelessness of ‘Americans.’ I suppose Michael Reidy is just one of those? It’s odd though – it just seems so…well, clueless and childish.

Religion and children, and Dawkins and Brown

Jan 1st, 2009 11:42 am | By

I re-read the chapter of The God Delusion which contains page 326, this morning, in order to find out (having forgotten since I first read it) what the context is in which Dawkins quotes that passage by Nicholas Humphrey. In reading it I became more angry with Brown than ever, for the simple reason that he completely leaves out the context which is one of angry compassion for the mental suffering religion can cause to children and their parents. The chapter starts with the 19th century case of a six-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna who was forcibly removed from his weeping parents by officers of the Catholic Inquisition, to be raised by the church. His parents never saw him again except on occasional brief supervised visits. Why was he removed? Because his nursemaid (age 14 at the time) had ‘baptized’ him.

Dawkins then goes on to compare sexual abuse with mental abuse, and to make the interesting and (I think) important point that sexual abuse in some cases is trivial compared to the mental torture of the fear of hell. He quotes a heart-rending letter from a woman who was told at age 7 that her Protestant friend who had died was in hell – this thought was agony for the child.

That is what leads up to Humphrey’s lecture. It’s impossible (in my view) to read it unmoved – yet Brown presents the basic idea as if it were nothing but the fantasy of a sadistic atheist meddler. It’s an utter distortion and grossly unfair – to Dawkins but even more to children who are tortured with fears of hell and eternal punishment.

This is all the more deranged because it’s not as if there are no reasonable criticisms that could be made. One could for instance argue that Dawkins fails to balance this worry with the ways religion can console children and parents; one could claim that the problem is not religion as such but religion that threatens and punishes instead of promising and consoling (or religion that threatens and punishes as a condition of promising and consoling). One could object to many specifics of tone, choice of examples, and so on – yet Brown didn’t do any of that; instead he chose to flail away at a straw man instead of engaging with the actual book. Whatever for? And why do so many other critics do the same thing? Is it just easier, to invent a bogey-atheist and then keep recycling the same complaints about it? Are they just lazy? Or are they a mix of lazy and malevolent?

I don’t know. I’m just asking.

(I posted a slightly different and shorter version of this on Brown’s piece a couple of hours ago.)

Andrew Brown throws a pie in his own face

Dec 30th, 2008 9:59 pm | By

Aha – Andrew Brown did a follow-up piece, inspired, it seems from what he says, by the comments of Dawkins and Dennett on his piece and another comment of Dawkins on the same piece on his site. Well yes I can see why that would make him itchy. Here’s Dennett’s comment:

Andrew Brown trots out an old atheist, Anthony Kenny, who (he surmises) would reject all six of the tenets he attributes to the New Atheists. What would that show, even if it were true? His six points are all caricatures in any case. The uniting feature of the New Atheists is that we have all decided that the traditional atheist policy of diplomatic reticence should be discarded. Brown doesnt tell us if he himself is any kind of atheist, old or new, but I suspect from the confusion of his essay that he is one of the tribe of But Atheists, as in Im an atheist, but . . . . I find that But Atheists are the most frantic defenders of religion these days; they themselves have no need for religion, they say, but they are worried that hoi polloi do. It puts me in mind of another old philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, a utilitarian who thought that utilitarianism should be a secret kept by the elite, a pernicious doctrine often called Government House utilitarianism. The seminaries and churches are full of atheist clergy who live their own version of this paternalism. We New Atheists think more highly of our fellow human beings; we think its time for us all to grow up.

Here’s Dawkins’s from his site:

Dan Dennett wasn’t the only philosopher omitted so that Brown could say “They are none of them philosophers.” There’s also A.C.Grayling.

Incidentally, on one of Andrew Brown’s books, his publishers had such a hard time finding endorsements from distinguished people to put on the cover, they resorted to fine-sounding quotations which, if you looked carefully, turned out to have nothing to do with Brown’s book. The only quotation that mentions Andrew Brown, or his book, was the following, from Dan Dennett:

I wouldn’t admit it if Andrew Brown were my friend. What a sleazy bit of trash journalism!

Well yes that must have left him feeling rumpled, so back he went. But he merely dug the hole deeper. In particular…

[Dennett's] book on religion was very much better and more subtle than the God Delusion. I cannot believe that Dennett, for example, would pass within fifteen pages from dilating on the wickedness of Popes who had Jewish children compulsorarily baptised to asking whether the state should not have a right to remove the children of fundamentalist Christians to protect them from their parents’ beliefs.

Brown provides a link to the Google copy of page 326 so that we can all see that – Dawkins did not say what Brown said he said. He quoted Nicholas Humphrey arguing in an Amnesty International lecture in 1997 that children ‘have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas’ and that parents have ‘no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge’ and that ‘we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.’

So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

Dawkins then says that such a strong statement needs, and received, much qualification.

So…Brown simply gave a false account of what Dawkins says on page 236. A commenter said exactly that and Brown replied, outrageously, ‘Jonathan it doesn’t say anything different. He is quoting Nick Humphrey with approval when he asks exactly that question.’

That takes a lot of gall.

Steve Jones finds him irritating too. He commented later on Brown’s claim that Dennett ‘has written some extraordinarily offensive and unpleasant things to and about me’:

Can you give us links to all his comments about you so we can decide if they were offensive and unpleasant or merely accurate?

Hahaha! A palpable hit.