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.

Journalism 101

Jan 25th, 2011 11:28 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

From one story reporting one source who was reporting hearsay.

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

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

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

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

Religions evolved to take the credit for good stuff

Jan 24th, 2011 6:28 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

Why yes, so they did.

The social protections

Jan 24th, 2011 12:11 pm | By

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

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

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

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


Power without scrutiny

Jan 23rd, 2011 5:12 pm | By

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

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

Really. She thinks Labour wasn’t religious enough?

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

A lot less.

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

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

Just like the pope.

That’s cold

Jan 22nd, 2011 5:00 pm | By

Something Eric said in his latest post struck me. The subject is again Wilkinson at BioLogos, this time on his raised eyebrow at Eric’s moral arguments. Eric wonders why the eyebrow is raised.

But why, I wonder, does Wilkinson think that my moral arguments are quaintly old-fashioned? Is this just an example of theological scatter-shot, or did he have something specific in mind? My belief is that religion has completely disastrous moral consequences…

My own central moral concern, at least as this is exemplified in the name of this blog, is the religious insistence that people suffer intolerably as they die, and that they should be denied help in bringing their dying more quickly to an end.

I stopped reading there, because I wanted to think about that. It suggested something…

What it suggested is that religions of this type don’t love us. We’re not their cherished children or the objects of their concern or even empathy. They don’t give a rat’s ass about us, not us – not as we are, not our real fleshy mortal vulnerable selves. They may care, or think they care, about some abstract perfected us that lives on after we’re dead, but they don’t care about us as we are here and now. We know this because they want us to suffer. They are willing and indeed eager to force us to suffer if the only alternative is our deciding for ourselves. They are willing and eager to force us to suffer if the only alternative is our breaking one of their rules. They love their rules, and they don’t love us.

The bishop of Phoenix is angry because that mother of four young children is not now dead. He is morally indignant because she is not dead. It is his considered opinion that she should be dead now.

They want us to suffer when we would prefer not to, and die when we would prefer to live, for the sake of their rules.

They’re a cold-hearted lot.

Giles Fraser warns against slippage

Jan 22nd, 2011 2:06 pm | By

Giles Fraser is all in a lather about “Islamophobia.” He quite understands that it’s permissible to criticize Islam as such, sort of, though he’d much rather you didn’t, but still he does realize he has to say you can if you really want to, but

but but but

it’s really not. Actually. Since you ask.

Conversations generally begin with the sort of anxieties that many of us might reasonably share: it cannot be right for women to be denied access to education in some Islamic regimes; the use of the death penalty for apostasy is totally unacceptable; what about the treatment of homosexuals? The conversation then moves on to sharia law or jihad or the burqa, not all of it entirely well informed.

And then and then and then it falls right off a cliff into just plain hating Muslims, so the fact is, you can’t talk about the we might reasonably share items either, because if you do, an invisible cable will attach itself to your ankle and drag you inexorably over that cliff. No discussing women’s rights under Islamist regimes, no discussing the death penalty for apostasy, no discussing sharia or the burqa. Just don’t talk about it at all, if you please, because you do it rong, or you risk doing it rong, and therefore you have to stop before you start.

What can begin as a perfectly legitimate conversation about, say, religious belief and human rights, can drift into a licence for observations that in any other circumstance would be regarded as tantamount to racism. Like the 19th-century link between anti-Catholicism and racism towards the Irish, one can easily bleed into the other.

Racism towards the Irish? “Irish” is a race now?

Never mind. The point is, talking about one thing can lead to talking about another thing, and the other thing is bad, so talking about the first thing is forbidden, lest it lead to the other thing. Clear? And fair? And compatible with notions of the value of free speech and free inquiry? Certainly.

“I treat the Islamic religion with the same respect as the bubble-gum I scrape off my shoe,” suggested one contributor to the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, in response to Warsi’s speech.

He means commenter. If it were a contributor, he would of course provide an actual name. He’s so hard up for examples of his one thing leading to another thing that he offers an unnamed commenter on Dawkins’s site. He feels justified in ruling a large and important subject out of bounds because of an anonymous comment on Dawkins’s website.

I think we can safely discount his advice.

Signs and portents

Jan 21st, 2011 5:39 pm | By

Other people have been disputing BioLogos guest poster Loren Wilkinson; I’ll just add a footnote or two.

The BioLogos Foundation, with its commitment to the “integration of science and Christian faith” is one of many signs that the 150-year-old idea of a “warfare” between science and religion is ending. 

You wish. It’s actually just a sign that the Templeton Foundation has a lot of money, much of which it spends on a great many organizations and conferences and books devoted to creating “signs” that science and religion are deeply in love. The BioLogos Foundation isn’t some independent phenomenon that just happened without any interested parties helping and funding – it’s the product of a well-funded agenda. It’s disingenuous to look at it all wide-eyed and pretend to think it’s a portent. It’s not a portent, it’s a concerted effort.

The warfare language implies that there were two kinds of knowledge: “religious knowledge”, established only by emotion and authority, and scientific knowledge, established by experience, experiment and testing.

No. No no. No no no no. That’s not the idea at all. The warfare language implies, and often says, that there is knowledge on the one hand, and dogma on the other. That’s pretty much what the warfare is. The two are in tension. The two don’t mix well. When a cleric says women must be subordinate to men because God said so, actual knowledge has nothing to do with it. The cleric doesn’t know what “God” “said” any more than you do or I do; the cleric is just passing on some dogma as a way of backing up a stupid prejudice.

I see part 2 is posted. Dear oh dear, more reading wading to do.

The implicit tyranny

Jan 21st, 2011 11:46 am | By

Eric explains why he writes about religion.

Suddenly, I find myself reading more and more about religion, and, since I spent a lifetime in the church, and am trying to put this behind me, I need to explain to myself, sometimes, why I am doing so. For now, instead of trying to give an account of myself, as St. Paul would have said, for the faith that is in me, I write to oppose religion, and all, or pretty much all, that it stands for…I oppose religion because I find that it diminishes — and cannot fail to diminish — us as persons.

He zooms in on the religious tendency to try to mandate a “religious” view of the body without regard to the actual experience and feeling of the person who inhabits the body. He does not like it.

I don’t want to be told that I must find my body, which has been reduced to this, to be a sacred home, when it’s just not possible for me to see it in this way; and I don’t want people like Ackerman or Ziettlow to play their religious shell game with me, and tell me that I must simply give up the conceptions of a lifetime and find my dignity in something else.

That resonates very strongly with me. Our conceptions of a lifetime are ours, and religious people have no business trying to make us alter them. Doing so is a form of tyranny.

None of this is to say that people should not be treated with respect and dignity, no matter what their condition or stage of life. But it is to say that religious conceptions of the sacredness of the body are only applicable to those who find this language helpful, and it is, as Dworkin says on the same page, “a devastating, odious form of tyranny” to make “someone die in a way that others approve, but he feels is a horrifying contradiction of his life.” It is the implicit tyranny of Rev. Ziettlow’s remarks that I find so objectionable, because religious conceptions just are the kind of thing that people believe it is appropriate to impose on others, and that is, to a large degree — aside, of course, from the ineradicable epistemological problems of all religious beliefs — the most objectionable thing about religion. Religion believes itself in the possession of absolute knowledge, applicable to all people, always, and everywhere. That’s why I write about religion, because it is an affront to human dignity and a continuing threat to human freedom.

Yes. Exactly. It is the tyranny and the imposition that is so profoundly objectionable. That’s the fuel of gnu atheist wrath – we all resent the imposition and the tyranny. We all squirm when it tries to grab us, and we all want to drive it back into a safe corner where we can keep a wary eye on it.

I wrote an article about this last summer. I wrote it at the invitation of Adam Lee of Daylight Atheist, but he rejected it. I might post it here one of these days.

Who, us?

Jan 20th, 2011 12:53 pm | By

Just look at the Telegraph’s bland concealment of the nasty truth about misogynist Anglican clerics converting to Catholicism. Look at the jolly personable “we’re just a buncha nice guys” photo, look at the tactful phrasing:

The most Rev Vincent Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, ordained Andrew Burnham, former bishop of Ebbsfleet, Keith Newton, ex-bishop of Richborough, and John Broadhurst, former bishop of Fulham, as Catholic priests at a service at Westminster Cathedral in London on Saturday.

They are the first members of an Ordinariate specially set up by the Pope, for groups of Anglicans who wish to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining aspects of their Anglican heritage.

Paras 1 and 2. It takes until para 8 for the paper to admit which “aspects of their Anglican heritage” we’re talking about – para 8 out of a 12 para piece. Lots of people read the first 2 or 3 or 4 paras of a newspaper piece without bothering to read the whole thing. If a vital bit of information is held back until para 8, the newspaper is playing games. Behold paras 7 and 8:

The ordinariate is expected to be joined by up to 50 Anglican clergy and two retired Church of England bishops.

Its formation comes after the Church of England voted last summer to press ahead with legislation to consecrate women bishops, a move opposed by Anglo-Catholic groupings within the Church.

Those ever-so-congenial laughing guys in the photo are men who want to go on keeping women out of their powerful boys’ club. And the Telegraph hopes no one will notice.

The final arbiter is the local bishop

Jan 20th, 2011 11:29 am | By

Just imagine, some people see handing over medical care to god-botherers as a bad idea.

“Physicians are being told they must refuse to provide certain services even when they believe their refusal would harm their patient and violate established medical standards of care,” said Lois Uttley, who heads MergerWatch, a New York-based group that fights the takeover of secular medical centers by religiously affiliated hospitals.

Church officials, bioethicists and hospital officials counter that the facilities are guided by directives calibrated to deliver state-of-the-art medical care without violating religious and moral beliefs.

But they shouldn’t be guided by directives calibrated to avoid violating religious beliefs. Period. Religious beliefs have nothing to do with decisions about what the best medical care would be, and they should stay out of it. Doctors, nurses, hospital administrations, ethics committees have no business imposing religious beliefs on other people.

Disagreements between dioceses and hospitals, as well as cases in which patients do not receive needed care, are exceedingly rare, they say.

They should be non-existent. Exceeding rarity doesn’t make them ok.

“We have literally hundreds of institutions that care for men, women and children every day and provide excellent care, especially to the poor,” said Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “We always do so with respect for each and every life in our care.”

No you do not. That is not true. That is exactly what you don’t do. That is a falsehood. One of your bishops in particular, and your whole vicious Conference in general, insists that in a case like the one in Phoenix the mother must be allowed to die along with her fetus. Don’t tell falsehoods about your murderous policy; tell the truth about it so that everyone will know exactly what is at stake here.

Since 1971, Catholic hospitals have been guided by the Ethical and Religious Directives , which detail religious and moral justifications for care extending from conception to death. The interpretation of those directives is the responsibility of ethics committees at the hospitals, and the final arbiter is the local bishop.

The local bishop has the final word on policy for all Catholic hospitals in his diocese. The local bishop can set aside medical judgment any time he wants to. That’s an appalling arrangement.

Ratzinger’s finest hour

Jan 19th, 2011 4:47 pm | By

Brothers and sisters, join with me once again in reading the holy and most sanctified letter of the bishop of Rome to his beloved members of The Church in Ireland, and see with your own weeping eyes how he places all the blame gently but firmly on them, pretending with all the oiliness of a can of sardines and all the unction of a tube of BenGay that the higher ups in Rome knew nothing whatever about it and were going about their business in innocent piety and pious innocence while those Celtic ruffians were making a dog’s breakfast of things over there on the edge of the known world. We have read it before, my dear siblings, we read it when it was first issuéd last March, when the shit first hit the whirling blades of the air-circulator, but let us read it again, that its wisdom and compassion may strengthen us in these our great tribulations and griefs as we behold the agony of our Irish flock.

Part 11: To my brother bishops

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.

Is that not touching and holy and beautiful? You would not know butter had ever melted in the mouth of the utterer. You would not know he had ever had the faintest idea that priests had been raping children in Ireland. You would not know he had known all about it for years and years or that he knew perfectly well that it was the church in Rome itself that told the Irish bishops to keep the whole mess in house or else.

Ad maiorem dei gloriam, my dear siblings.

The smoking gun

Jan 18th, 2011 12:04 pm | By

The jig is up, Ratzo. You’re busted. The lawyers are compiling their briefs as we speak. You haven’t got so much as a toenail to stand on. The pretty gold baubles and the sumptuous embroideries are going to be turned into cash to pay the damages. You’re not going to have the fund to go swanning around the globe telling us all what to do.

A newly revealed 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland’s Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police…

The letter undermines persistent Vatican claims, particularly when seeking to defend itself in U.S. lawsuits, that the church in Rome never instructed local bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. It instead emphasizes the church’s right to handle all child-abuse allegations, and determine punishments, in house rather than hand that power to civil authorities.

Those pesky US lawsuits will be rolling in thick and fast now, dude, and they’ll win, on account of how your organization was stupid enough and smug enough to give written instructions to obstruct justice.

Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter should demonstrate, once and for all, that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.

Making Ratzinger’s ridiculous whited sepulchre nonsense about how distressed and off his feed he was even more ridiculous than it already was. “Oh I’m tho upthet that you did what we ordered you to do, oh how can I bear it, oh oh oh the agony.”

Joelle Casteix, a director of U.S. advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as “the smoking gun we’ve been looking for.”

Casteix said it was certain to be cited by victims’ lawyers seeking to pin responsibility directly on the Vatican rather than local dioceses. She said investigators long have sought such a document showing Vatican pressure on a group of bishops “thwarting any kind of justice for victims.”

“We now have evidence that the Vatican deliberately intervened to order bishops not to turn pedophile priests over to law enforcement,” she said. “And for civil lawsuits, this letter shows what victims have been saying for dozens and dozens of years: What happened to them involved a concerted cover-up that went all the way to the top.”

I suppose the Vatican could always say it’s a Jewish forgery.

Standing outside

Jan 17th, 2011 5:13 pm | By

About that struggle that James Croft was having (and perhaps still is).

I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of Obama’s beautiful speech…Yet I recognize, too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I’m standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold.

This is one major reason Obama should not have used religious elements in his beautiful speech. It is because doing so excludes a large part of the population, which it shouldn’t do. It’s not the business of a president to do that. One of the results of doing that is to make people feel as if they are standing outside, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold. That’s bad. He shouldn’t do it. It’s not his job, it’s not his role, it’s not what he’s supposed to be doing, and he just should not do it.

It doesn’t bother me personally, because I don’t long to be inside, but it does bother me because I’m not the only person affected. Religious elements are exactly what some people want, of course, but then they can easily get them in other places. It’s not a president’s job to play preacher some of the time.

How about some inclusiveness for non-believers, for a change?

The bridge ends in midair

Jan 16th, 2011 4:34 pm | By

Meanwhile, James Croft is struggling.

Obama was exercising his capacity for leadership at a time of extraordinary uncertainty, when the USA is wracked with debate about the reasons for those terrible events, and he drew heavily upon the reservoir of his Christian faith to do so. Repeatedly quoting scripture, enjoining Americans to kneel and pray, and movingly speaking of the heaven to which he believes Christina Taylor Green has gone, jumping in puddles. This is truly faith and leadership in a fragmented world.

Well, I would rather he didn’t enjoin us to kneel and pray. I don’t think there’s anyone to pray to, and if I did, I don’t think I would want to pray to it. What would be the point? To ask it not to do it again? To thank it? To ask it to make everyone feel better?

And the idea of Christina Taylor Green in heaven jumping in puddles isn’t really all that moving or comforting once you think about it. She was nine, not three; she wanted more than just jumping in puddles; she wanted worldly things, like politics and meeting her Congressional Representative. She wouldn’t have wanted some fluffy fantasy-life where she just jumped in puddles all day. Notice it doesn’t sound very moving to say Christina Taylor Green has gone to heaven where she is meeting a different, dead Congressional Representative. One wonders what they would talk about, and what the point would be. It doesn’t work. That’s because we’re human beings, not angels, and we want human things, things of this world. It’s childish to let ourselves be fobbed off with talk of bending the knee and a dead child frolicking in the sky.

The thing is, though, Croft realizes this. His problem is that he’s agonizing about it. I don’t think he needs to.

I can see that Obama’s faith provides him with both courage and hope – essential qualities in a leader facing dark times – and I am challenged by the thought that much atheist writing provides neither.

That’s one thought too many. Much writing of all kinds provides neither courage nor hope some of the time, but that doesn’t mean it never does. Much atheist writing is simply talking about other things; that is not a reason to conclude that atheism can’t possibly provide courage and hope. On the contrary: atheism dispenses with many sources of needless fear and despair.

Yet I recogniz[e], too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I’m standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold.

Wait until they come out. Join them somewhere else. Seriously. Church is not the only place we can find solidarity with people. It is a handy, ready-made, familiar one, but it’s not the only one.

I don’t see belief in God as “another way of understanding the world”, or as “a different route to truth”. I see it as wrong. Mistaken. Unsupported.This realization – that despite the positive connotations of the word I cannot consider myself a true religious pluralist (at least in Eck’s terms) – has troubled me. I strive for respect in my work and writing, and I want to make it clear the majority of those attending the workshop next week that I respect and value them as people. But Eck’s description has led me to the understanding that I cannot honestly say that I respect their faith. There truly is a gap between my worldview and a religious one, and despite the best efforts of Stedman and the Foundation Beyond Belief, I see no authentic way to bridge it. However much I respect an individual and work beside them, I cannot put the Sun of God in the center of my intellectual solar system. However grave the situation, however powerful the incitement, I cannot bend my knee to nothing. I am stuck outside the church, face pressed against the glass.

And it’s getting cold.

You don’t have to bridge the gap – and I would say you shouldn’t. You can’t expect to believe that all human beings are right about everything. Build solidarity independently of belief.

Damn you atheists, why won’t you tolerate believers?

Jan 16th, 2011 11:44 am | By

I’ve had a look at Chris Stedman’s blog, NonProphet Status. It becomes clearer why he’s so hostile to atheists: he’s not an atheist himself, and he’s the religious kind of humanist as opposed to the non-religious kind. He seems to be tragically homesick for religion, and comforting himself by engaging in a simulacrum. That’s fine; it’s just unfortunate that his chief goal and hobby seems to be throwing atheists under any bus he can find as a way of sucking up to believers.

There’s a guest post there from a few days ago, by another pious Humanist type, which is another extended exercise in saying Why Atheists Suck and Why Believers Are Better Than Everyone Else. Like all such exercises, it is cloying and dishonest at the same time.

Atheist activism is at a crossroads, says Andrew Lovley. Whither next? What best to do with our newfound visibility?

Some suggest that we should focus our efforts toward making society less religious by actively trying to persuade people away from religion, while others believe we should work toward toleration and coexistence with our religious neighbors. Until atheist activists achieve some sort of consensus on this issue, we will continue to contradict each other in words and in actions and threaten our relevance as a movement.

As always, that’s a simple-minded dichotomy which leaves out almost everything of importance. It’s not necessarily a matter of trying to persuade people away from religion; it’s often a matter of trying to show people that religious beliefs don’t stand on anything. More important, though, it’s false and highly prejudicial to imply that the more argumentative atheists are opposed to tolerance and coexistence with religious people. We already do tolerate and coexist with religious people! We’re not planning to round them up at gunpoint, or burn down their churches and mosques, or kidnap their children. We’re tired of these sly accusations. We’re tired of “humanists” trying to build up their own reputations by urinating on ours.

Stedman called this hatchet-job “among the best explications I’ve read on this topic.” He would.

An easy target

Jan 15th, 2011 5:36 pm | By

There’s another thing about Stedman’s campaign “to find common ground between the religious and the secular.” It’s that all his finding and common grounding and affirmativing and positiving is directed toward the religious while he is in effect quite unfriendly toward the nonreligious. He goes about his work of saying what should be done, by throwing a little dirt at atheists.

We cannot promote Humanist values when we expend our energy lobbing simplistic critiques at the religious…we must get over this sense that provocation should be our number one goal, and that positive engagement with others is unimportant…the future of Humanism isn’t blasphemous billboards, bombastic rhetoric or even blogs…

Little jabs, one after the other, all over-general and subtly unpleasant, all just the kind of thing that appeals to existing prejudices which have been getting systematically stoked for several years, all directed at atheists.

Well…if positive engagement is such a good idea, why so much negative engagement with us? Why recycle the hostile stereotypes yet again? Why add yet more stiffener to the existing hostility to atheists?

It’s a safe path he’s chosen. He’s agreeing with The Great Majority, and kicking sand in the direction of the widely-hated minority. His schtick is that he’s more benevolent and ecumenical than other people, but doing the 87 millionth trashing of atheists isn’t really all that benevolent.

The comments at the Huffington Post bear this out. Lots of people gleefully seize the opportunity to say how boring and smelly and awful atheists are, as Stedman must have known they would. We’re an easy target.

Is it sensitive to my religion or belief?

Jan 15th, 2011 12:52 pm | By

Yet another confusion between equality and deference to religion.

Something called the “Equality Challenge Unit” is doing a survey called Religion and Belief in Higher Education. Given the name of the “unit,” one smells a rat at once. One smells bossy people creeping around universities demanding more “respect” for religions and religious beliefs in the name of “equality.”

The ECU said the research will “inform the further development of more inclusive policy and practice”.

Ah yes – just what we’re afraid of. We don’t think universities should be “more inclusive” of unreasonable beliefs.

In a letter to David Ruebain, the ECU’s chief executive, [Keith] Porteous Wood takes issue with some survey questions, including one asking students if they agree that “the content of my course is presented in a way which is sensitive to my religion or belief”.

That’s why we don’t think universities should be more “inclusive” in that way. Being “inclusive” should not extend to welcoming mistakes and fantasies into the curriculum.

An ECU spokeswoman said that Derby was chosen through a “competitive and comprehensive tendering process”, and that “assuming that a religious academic wouldn’t be able to conduct robust and unbiased research raises several equality issues in itself”.

This is where we came in.

A late entry

Jan 14th, 2011 5:49 pm | By

Paul W has a long interesting comment on Ben Nelson’s The Unquiet Scientist post from last year, a post which has been quiet so long that Paul’s comment might be missed.

One or two highlights:

…experimental data that seem to support the opposite view—including a bunch of very basic and very well-known social psychology results from the 1960’s and 1970’s about bracketing, conformity, and groupthink. They seem to support Overton reasoning: if you don’t voice the “extreme” views, the group tends to converge on a new center position, midway between the views that are voiced. The center thus shifts away from the people who self-censor their (perceived) “extreme” views.


The individual psychology of belief fixation is complicated, and the social psychology is far more complicated. If things were as simple and one-sided as Mooney makes them out to be, politics would be simple, and that’s just false. There are a lot of two-edged swords flying around, for basic, deep reasons.

Good image!

Too many bridges impede the flow

Jan 14th, 2011 1:15 pm | By

Once again Chris Stedman is at the Huffington Post (home of woo and worse, home of Jenny McCarthy in deep denial about the exposure of Andrew Wakefield’s fraud) saying how great it is when atheists Reach Out to peopleoffaith.

He had a good time at Christmas. He went home and hung out with his family. Excellent; lovely; I have not a word to say in dissent. But he drew a moral from it, which seems to be that atheists are grumpy therefore it is urgent for humanists to Reach Out.

The trouble with that is that not all atheists are grumpy and that, especially, even atheists who are grumpy are not necessarily grumpy all the time. Things aren’t as stark as that.

We cannot promote Humanist values when we expend our energy lobbing simplistic critiques at the religious, or demand that people stop participating in practices they enjoy simply because they’re associated with religion.

Yes we can. We can do the one, and then the other.

All right, I know; he means we give Humanism a bad name by doing the things he accuses us of doing. But I think that oversimplifies the matter. Maybe some vocal atheists give some branches of humanism a bad name by doing foolish or trivial things – but that’s life in the big city. I’m not convinced that vocal atheists need to shape what they say and do according to what might possibly give Humanism a bad name.

As the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, I am working on the ground to build up positive Humanist community…To build, literally and metaphorically, a Humanist community that is healthy and sustainable, we must get over this sense that provocation should be our number one goal, and that positive engagement with others is unimportant.

What sense? I have no such sense. I don’t have some settled view that “positive engagement with others is unimportant.” I don’t put it in those terms, because I’m not enamored of managementspeak, but I certainly think it’s fine to get along and sometimes collaborate with other people. Of course I do! Stedman’s version is sheer strawman. What I don’t think, however, is that I have some affirmative duty to Reach Out to Faith Communities as such, any more than I have some affirmative duty to Reach Out to Republican Communities as such, or Banker Communities as such, or Realtor Communities as such. Stedman, on the other hand, does think he has such an affirmative duty. He seems to think that he has to Reach Out to People of Faith precisely because they are in some sense opposites. I don’t have that. To me, disagreement is disagreement. It’s not a motivation for Reaching Out. I disagree with “faith” as a way of thinking, so I’m not going to Reach Out to it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to pounce on anyone I happen to encounter who has it, it just means I’m not going to open a diplomatic mission to it.

I believe that ethics and engagement are central to what it means to live in the world as a Humanist, and that Humanist community and identity require an affirmative foundation, not one structured in contrast to ideologies we disagree with.

But you can have both. You can be affirmative and still go on disagreeing with ideologies you disagree with. The one does not interfere with the other. Stedman really wants to persuade people that it does (so he’s not being affirmative toward atheists, wouldn’t you say?), but it doesn’t.

“A case of mistaken identity”

Jan 14th, 2011 12:41 pm | By

I don’t know how Leo Igwe keeps going, I really don’t.

Leo Igwe, an activist arrested last Tuesday in the ongoing onslaught against child rights activists by the Akwa Ibom State government, was released today by the Police who claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.

Confirming his freedom in a telephone chat with Saharareporters, Mr. Igwe described his incarceration as a nasty experience.

It was a terrible encounter and it was premeditated going by the way they executed the plot to hold me accountable for “kidnapping;” my hands were tied behind me and they beat me mercilessly,” he said.

Martin Robbins has a good, longish piece on the subject today. More publicity, which could make it harder for people to bully Leo and his parents and siblings; excellent.