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.

A moment of petulance

May 3rd, 2011 4:11 pm | By

One thing. We’ve all been seeing every inch of tape there is of bin Laden over and over again since Sunday evening. That one where his best pal grabs him by the hat for a hug and hangs on to the hat as if it were handles – that’s a goofy one. But that’s not the one I’m going to say about.

It’s the one where he’s holding a microphone. What’s up with that? Why does he hold it in that affected limp loose “look how special I am” way? I want to know. I’ve seen that clip about 50 times now, so I want to know.

I didn’t go outside and run around yelling “we’re number one,” so I get to ask why he held the mike in that silly way. If there’s anything I don’t like it’s affectation.

Catching up

May 3rd, 2011 3:52 pm | By


While the U.S. government might have preferred to cremate Bin Laden’s remains prior to disposal, Muslim tradition forbids cremation because it’s inconsistent with the resurrection of the body.

Um…so is rotting. Is Muslim tradition unaware of this?

The fundamental question of the truth

May 3rd, 2011 3:25 pm | By

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have doubts about Mary Warnock’s way of defending the social value of religious belief.

According to religious believers, their beliefs are not merely useful social instruments or efficient means for instilling good moral habits.  They are rather commitments to very particular metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological views.  These views provide the basis for the moral and communal practices among religious believers that Warnock finds socially valuable.  But the social value of the practices provides no defense for the underlying views, all of which are, we contend, false.  No discussion of the merits of religious practices and institutions should be permitted to evade the fundamental question of the truth of distinctively religious claims.

That is what I too think also likewise. I think that is one of the things that separate me and other gnus from the “be nice to religion” crowd. They are very concerned with political, instrumental matters like unity, cohesion, community, universal affection, sensitivity, solidarity, outreach, mutual understanding, and avoiding the remotest possibility of offending anyone by disputing an idea. We are more concerned with trying to think clearly and honestly about particular metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological views. Their concerns are more social or political, ours are more epistemological. This makes a difference.

Rushdie on Pakistan and bin Laden

May 2nd, 2011 6:09 pm | By

Excellent, no need to quote Facebook updates any more; Salman has written an article on the subject.

Many of us didn’t believe in the image of bin Laden as a wandering Old Man of the Mountains, living on plants and insects in an inhospitable cave somewhere on the porous Pakistan-Afghan border…Bin Laden was born filthy rich and died in a rich man’s house, which he had painstakingly built to the highest specifications. The U.S. administration confesses it was “shocked” by the elaborate nature of the compound.

Died in a rich man’s house, with women and children carefully placed around him as shields. What a guy.

Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, was found living at the end of a dirt road 800 yards from the Abbottabad military academy, Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point or Sandhurst, in a military cantonment where soldiers are on every street corner, just about 80 miles from the Pakistani capital Islamabad. This extremely large house had neither a telephone nor an Internet connection. And in spite of this we are supposed to believe that Pakistan didn’t know he was there, and that the Pakistani intelligence, and/or military, and/or civilian authorities did nothing to facilitate his presence in Abbottabad, while he ran al Qaeda, with couriers coming and going, for five years?

Well when you put it like that…it doesn’t seem very credible, does it.

Pakistan’s neighbor India, badly wounded by the November 26, 2008, terrorist attacks on Mumbai, is already demanding answers. As far as the anti-Indian jihadist groups are concerned—Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad—Pakistan’s support for such groups, its willingness to provide them with safe havens, its encouragement of such groups as a means of waging a proxy war in Kashmir and, of course, in Mumbai—is established beyond all argument. In recent years these groups have been reaching out to the so-called Pakistani Taliban to form new networks of violence…

Pakistan needs to get its act together.

Red faces in Pakistan

May 2nd, 2011 10:16 am | By

Salman Rushdie’s Facebook page is an interesting place today. He noticed right off the bat that the location of bin Laden’s vacation home raises some tricky questions. So did William Dalrymple. 13 hours ago – which was 9 last night Pacific Time, so before Obama made the announcement.

Dalrymple: In Abbotabad next to the Pakistan’s main military academy. Funny that.

Rushdie: That’s right. Army town. Just the place for the world’s most wanted man to live unobserved.

Quite. I’ve been trying to picture it. Giant compound, 8 times the size of anything else in the neighborhood; 12 to 18 foot walls; mystery occupants; important military academy a few hundred meters away; retired military people all around. Nobody notices; nobody worries; nobody asks questions; nobody investigates.


I think not.

Rushdie in an update today, with a link to Simon Tisdall’s Guardian article:

Damn right it’s “embarrassing.” Osama purpose-builds a high-security luxury compound in a Pak military cantonment, 800 yards from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point or Sandhurst, and for YEARS runs al-Qaeda from it, his couriers coming and going… and we’re supposed to believe Pakistan wasn’t protecting him? (Mullah Omar, it’s widely rumoured, is in another ISI safe house.)

On Salil Tripathi’s page, a friend of Salil’s said

Per the NYT the ISI are claiming it was a joint operation. Ha ha

Salil replied

Yes, they were rolling joints, I suppose!

We live in interesting times.

It’s all about a beautiful dress

May 1st, 2011 3:56 pm | By

Oh yes child (that is, girl) beauty pageants, one of my favorite things. It’s so obviously a good idea to train girls from infancy to act, move, walk, and look as much like prostitutes as possible. Australia had, in its innocence, forgotten to have such things, but they are now on their way their thanks to the helpful interventions of US pageanters.

The anti-pageant groups claim pageants sexualise children

But the pro-pageant people, absurdly, say they don’t. No no, it’s

a positive and fun-filled family occasion that will boost participants’ self-confidence.
Self-confidence at what? Attracting sexual attention? Why would anyone want to boost a six-year-old girl’s confidence at attracting sexual attention? If it’s so positive and fun-filled, why don’t they dress up little boys the same way?
I’ll tell you why. Because it’s degrading and slavish, that’s why, and it would be an outrage to train little boys to do something degrading and slavish, but it’s perfectly all right to train little girls to do that. Why is it? Well because that’s supposed to be their job, and it’s ok to start teaching to be good at it before they can read.

Annette Hill, owner of the Texas parent company Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant, who arrives in Australia a week before the pageant, said…”I don’t like golf but I am not going to go to a golf tournament and protest.”

Not relevant. It’s not about liking to do something oneself, it’s about doing things to very young children – very young girls.

”If you are looking at children in a sexual way, you should be ashamed of yourself and something is wrong with you. It’s all about a beautiful dress, a beautiful child with lots of personality performing on stage.”

Right, because the whole thing has nothing whatever to do with sex; the little girls are not dressed in a sexualized way, they are not loaded with makeup, they are performing on stage like any other child singing or reciting a poem.

However, Glenn Cupit, senior lecturer in child development at the University of South Australia, believes the young pageant participants are instructed to dress and behave in an adult way.

”The title is ‘child beauty pageant’ but if you look at the way the children are dressed and required to act, it’s actually a child sexualisation pageant,” he said. ”The children are put into skimpy clothes, they are taught to do bumps and grinds. It’s not looking at children’s beauty. It’s a particular idea of what beauty is, which is based on a highly sexualised understanding of female beauty.”

Exactly like the highly sexualized understanding of female beauty that mandates that female ballet dancers, gymnasts and ice skaters all have to wear the equivalent of bathing suits while male ballet dancers, gymnasts and ice skaters wear long tights and often long sleeves. Women have to look as naked and vulnerable as possible while men have to look as different from that as possible.

I’m off to play some golf.

Despised is despised

Apr 30th, 2011 12:35 pm | By

I sometimes see indignation about claims that atheists are a despised minority, on the grounds that other despised minorities had it much worse. That was one of Karla McLaren’s many claims.

As you may recall, this word ["accommodationist"] was first used by black Americans in the Voting Rights era against people who were seen as being too subservient and too accommodating to whites. I could write a whole ‘nother post about how interesting it is for atheists to imagine that their struggle is similar to that of African Americans.

But not everyone considers the comparison obviously wrong.

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists.

That’s the first line of the piece. Well: is it false?

It seems to me to be obviously not false. The air is thick with complaints about atheists, considered as a group and considered guilty as members of the group. This is not to say that atheists are as despised as any other group, nor is it to say that they are as badly treated as any other group. It’s just to say that they are despised as a group. It’s funny, in a way, that it’s often the very people who are calling atheists names are the ones scorning the idea that atheists are despised. McLaren is a good example of that, too. A torrent of atheist-bashing plus a smug dismissal of the idea that atheists get bashed.

As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth…designed to overcome the understandable reluctance to admit atheism have found that as many as 60 million Americans — a fifth of the population — are not believers. Our nonreligious compatriots should be accorded the same respect as other minorities.

I’ll look forward to that.

The savage shaming stunning sullying gleeful fist

Apr 29th, 2011 5:14 pm | By

I got in a slight brawl with Chris Stedman at Facebook just now. I’m a brawler…but then so is Chris, in his way, only he thinks he isn’t.

He started a thread about “shock horror that atheists sometimes compare the atheist movement and the civil rights movement.” There was lots of obliging shock-horror from his friends - oh yes that is shocking and horrible; that kind of thing. I blew my nose and then commenced brawling, by saying it’s not about saying atheists have it as bad as blacks, it’s about pointing out similarities in the way the movements and the backlashes against them play out. We brawled for awhile, then he had to go get a haircut, but just before that he revealed that he doesn’t see any hostility in Karla McLaren’s guest post at his place.

Now that surprises me. It doesn’t surprise me that he thinks I’m a pain in the ass, of course, but it does surprise me that he thinks that post is hostility-free. Really?

the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist…the form requires that you come out swinging from an extremist position…A polemic [is] made for igniting passions and selling books, for forcing sudden and unsupported change, and for shaming any opposing voices into stunned silence…I often cringe at the savage glee with which these people carry out their attacks and sully the communal discourse.

Not hostile? What is that, friendly?

Ignore that man between the pictures

Apr 29th, 2011 4:54 pm | By

Nick Cohen on republicanism v the monarchy in Time is very droll, because of a certain inconsequence on the part of the editors. It goes like this:

When the 18th century English dissenter Richard Price, friend of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, warned that fawning before royalty produced “idolatry as gross and stupid as that of the ancient heathens,” he aptly titled his denunciation “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country.”
Ha! Never mind all these pesky words about something or other, just look at the pretty snaps. Oooooooo she don’ahf look luvley in that tyara.
But whatever the complicating factors, only royal propagandists doubt that the marriage of this bland couple is failing to excite the nation.
Okye! I don’t know what “propagandist” means anyway, so I’ll just watch the nice video.
But if the media had taken their cameras to the beaches, parks and pubs of Britain, they would have found millions of others who no longer cared for the spectacle and maybe, just maybe, were beginning to agree with Price, Paine, Jefferson and Franklin that their country deserved something better.
Brilliantly funny, do admit.

Pop culture interlude

Apr 29th, 2011 12:28 pm | By

So James Spader is one of the group of possible successors to Steve Carrell. That would be fun. I thought he was brilliant in Boston Legal.

I liked the red mittens. The oven mitt thing was really mean. The red mittens repaired that.

This is not a job for bomb makers

Apr 28th, 2011 4:43 pm | By

Another thought about “Why Do We Need New Atheists?” (subtle way of announcing a desire to get rid of us, that title). The post is actually a pretty rich study in scapegoating and other forms of disguised hostility, so despite its nastiness and wrongness, it repays a close look.

(The disguised part really interests me. I’ve said before, probably more than once, that one thing I really dislike is hostility or rivalry that tries to dress itself up as its own opposite. I really hate it when people are obviously brawling or competing but pretend that they’re just joking or “teasing” or being absent-minded. I especially hate it when women do that, because it fits a stereotype about us.

This may be one reason Gnus get so much stick. We mostly don’t do that “oh I’m just a sweet little thing” routine – so we leave people plenty of room to pretend shock-horror at our failure to dissemble.)

There is a fear among New Atheists that moderating and dissenting voices are trying to erase the polemic as an avenue of approach. But that’s a polemical overreaction. No one is suggesting that we burn New Atheist books or silence their authors. Those bells have been rung. We can’t un-ring them, nor should we. The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.

On the one hand, no one is suggesting that we silence gnu atheist authors (and where would you get the authority to do that if you were suggesting that?), but on the other hand, this is not a job for bomb makers. In other words, actually yes, we do want you to be silent now, because it’s time to “clean up the battlefields” you created.

Only we didn’t create any battlefields. McLaren loves her some metaphors, and she lets them run away with her. We didn’t create any god damn battlefields, and there is nothing to clean up. What is she talking about? “The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making” – oh that – she’s talking about The Great Return to Conformity. She’s talking about resuming the status quo. She’s talking about restoring The Group to its former hegemony by rebuilding community and making alliances.

We know she’s doing that, because she’s saying we can’t do it. Thus we know she’s not talking about just ordinary life, because how could she possibly say we can’t help with that or that it’s not our job? She couldn’t – so she’s talking about a kind of community and alliance that of its nature excludes us. She’s doing her best, in an opaque way, to tell us we are too weird and extreme and abnormal to be part of the Community.

It’s sinister stuff, frankly. I don’t think she intended it to be, but I do think she has a sad lack of awareness about the resonances of her own rhetoric.

That’s my thought.

God is loving and holy

Apr 28th, 2011 11:13 am | By

Greta Christina pointed out a little nightmare of a post by William Lane Craig at his wittily-named blog “Reasonable Faith,” saying that genocide is ok because God decided.

I haven’t properly read Greta’s article yet because I wanted to read Craig first. I’m doing that now.

He says about the genocide of the Canaanites.

These stories offend our moral sensibilities.  Ironically, however, our moral sensibilities in the West have been largely, and for many people unconsciously, shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime.  The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.

What? The story violates our moral sensibilities but oh, haha, those moral sensibilities come from the place that says the story is fine.

Oh no you don’t. None of that, bub. That’s called having it both ways, or eating your cake and having it, or a contradiction.

The story violates our moral sensibilities because we have better moral sensibilities than the people who wrote the bible. We have the benefit of many centuries of thinking and learning and cumulative wisdom. We did not get them from the bible.

According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself,  He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.

How does Craig know this god is “holy and loving”? He doesn’t. I don’t know that about Craig’s god, and I don’t know that Craig knows it either. I don’t want to be subject to Craig’s cosmic dictator who can kill anyone he damn well feels like killing. I’m not going to agree to Craig’s PR for the dictator.

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

So then all children should be murdered. It totally makes sense – that way they’re guaranteed god’s grace, while if they live to get older, they might lose it, by being gay or an atheist or an imbiber of spirits. Those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy, so what possible reason could there be not to kill all children right now?

Anyway, the best news is, it turns out that Christianity is good while Islam is bad.

Christians believe that God is all-loving, while Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims.  Allah has no love for unbelievers and sinners.  Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately.  Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature.  He is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind.  By contrast Christians hold that God’s holy and loving nature determines what He commands.

So if god kills you tomorrow it’s because of god’s holy and loving nature, even if you don’t go to heaven like the babies and children but instead go to the bad place. You’re pleased, right?

Oh hai, why can’t the new atheists be nice?

Apr 27th, 2011 5:18 pm | By

Why can’t they, asks “interfaith” atheist (don’t ask me, I don’t know how that works) Chris Stedman via a guest post on his blog by someone called Karla McLaren. He says “It’s a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement.” I don’t agree. I think it’s just the 14 millionth installment of “new atheists are bad and mean ick.”

Atheism, McLaren informs us, is more visible thanks to those books by the four New Ones, or as she calls them, “the Fractious Four.” Yes really.

I call them the Fractious Four, which has a cool superhero ring to it (even though their superpower is to argue with everybody).

Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written polemics against religion, and true to the polemical form, they’ve taken a moral absolutist stance which asserts that religion is orders of magnitude more harmful than it is beneficial (if it is beneficial at all). Dennett is a philosopher, and his work is nuanced and, well, philosophical – and I often wonder why he’s included with the polemicists. However, he is, so on we go.

We do? Why do we? Why not not include Dennett if you think he doesn’t belong? Why swallow the clichés whole in order to barf them back at us, even the ones you don’t agree with?

The Fractious Four have put forward some very attention-grabbing ideas in a post-Twin Towers world, where many of us have seriously questioned the purpose and limits of faith and supernaturalism. However, the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them. But see, that’s the point of a polemic … you put forward the most extreme version of your argument, and you don’t make any room for moderating views.

A polemic is a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror. If it’s done skillfully, a truly masterful polemic is melded with a careful overlay of logic, scholarship, and verbal skill. A polemic is made to be powerful and arresting, and it can be a very beautiful thing indeed. But it’s not something you should make a career of, because it’s exhausting (both to create, and eventually, to witness).

And so on, and so on. It’s all like that – treacly and belligerent at the same time, and of course wildly inaccurate in the usual way of gnu-haters. This is the basin of warm sick that Stedman urges on our attention.

The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.

In order to move forward, we need to rely on more than mere polemics. How about if we try dialectics?[iii] Dialectics can be just as fun as polemics (and they require just as much skill), but dialectics have the added benefit of creating community, building intelligent synthesis out of seemingly intractable positions, and teaching people how to manage – rather than merely weaponize – their emotions.

It’s one long “shut up, ur doin it rong, stop doin it the way ur doin it and do it the way I do it, stop arguing and get busy creating community.” It’s written in a fey style so that it perhaps comes across as friendly, but it is in fact very unfriendly indeed. It’s packed with fiercely hostile language about argumentative atheists and their rage and extremism. With friends like these we’ve already got all the enemies we could possibly find room for.


Apr 27th, 2011 12:40 pm | By

The question is, how do we decide what “new atheism” is? What is new atheism, who gets to decide, how do we know?

The answer turns out to be that we simply define it as that which we dislike. Easy. Circular, but easy.

Rob Knop for instance:

Do the New Atheists really believe that they aren’t being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion? Or, are the religious the “other” against whom any sort of rude behavior is justified?

There we go – easy. “The” New Atheists are – always and everywhere – being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion. End of story. Simple. “I dislike ‘New Atheism’ because ‘New Atheists’ be dickish and I know this because I dislike them and I dislike them because I know this.”

The anecdote=data version:

Thanks Josh – that is a really helpful description of New Atheism. I have a friend who is a New Atheist and I find it really tough to discuss religion rationally with him…. I fail to understand why he feels so strongly that all religion is bad, and also why he feels so strongly that religion undermines science.

I know someone who fits your description therefore all New Atheists fit your description.

The reliable Anthony McCarthy is a stalwart group-definer:

I use the term “new atheist” for atheists who demonstrate that they practice negative stereotyping of religious people, practice bigotry, false characterizations and similar, negative things.

He uses the term that way and then he proceeds to make large sweeping generalizations about “new atheists” plural, thus adding his mite to the bonfire being readied to fry the despised group. (I don’t mean “fry” literally, Joe. Relax.)

There’s the “they all don’t ever read anything” claim:

NA’s often complain that their intemperate approach is a “style.” I disagree. I think it’s a way of casually dismissing all the hard questions that thoughtful people (like Max Weber that I mentioned above) ask. The pose of NA’s isn’t just style, it’s contempt for everything outside of their small circle of nerdly concerns.

There’s the definition by someone called Raging Bee

The only thing “new” about the “New Atheists” is their new wave of often pointless obnoxiousness, and their willingness to say things that are often as insulting as they are dead wrong.

And on and on. You get the idea. The point is – there’s a faction of people who know one big thing, which is that they loathe and detest “the New Atheists,” and they define the group they hate by saying what it is they hate about them.

It’s not a very thoughtful or enlightening way to analyze a subject.

A death in the family

Apr 26th, 2011 3:15 pm | By


The mother eagle at Norfolk Botanical Garden was hit by a plane and killed this morning.

The eaglets are alone on the nest; the father is in a tree nearby. (They’ll be ok. If the father can’t provide food the eaglets will be removed. They’re almost old enough to feed themselves anyway.)


Update: more here. (Starts with horrible goddy ad though. You’ve been warned.)

Be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush

Apr 26th, 2011 12:52 pm | By

Stephanie Z has an excellent comment on Josh Rosenau’s post about how I’m totally wrong about what he means by “the New Atheism.”

It’s worth remembering where this debate came from. Atheists, only recently starting to stand up and be counted in any number, are seeing the people who have been saying the same things that atheists have been saying for centuries (as noted in comment 5, then largely ignored) being told to hush up because they’re being noticed for once and that’s making trouble. These are frequently also the people who gave your rank-and-file atheist the courage to come out and who provide sympathy when coming out results in the crap it always results in. But hush, because what these other people are doing is really important.

Of course, it is important. But so is being supported and encouraged as an out atheist. So is being able to tell people how religion hurt you or those you love without having to put bows on it. So is being able to tell other people that they have a real choice to get out of abusive religions. So is being able to run for public office. So is being able to keep your job. So is being able to keep your kids.

But hush. And be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush. Be nice to the people who are telling you that you matter less than what they’re doing. Be nice to the people who are doing good work but only talk about why people like you are bad. Be nice to the people who might, someday let you eat at the grown-up table if you stay quiet enough at the children’s table first (and when there are no more grown-up problems you might interfere with). Hush and trust them, despite the fact that they’re calling you the problem.

Yeah, no. Atheists are being aggressive, in part, because they’re being told to go back to being passive. They’re being argumentative because there’s a constant onslaught of messages leveled at them and everyone they have to deal with that becomes the unquestioned social background if they don’t. They’re being rude because everybody is rude sometimes, and they’re not going to be left out if you’re not. They’re being condescending because you’ve been told this before in some form, but you can’t seem to move past the fact that someone insulted you in order to hear it.

Watch those assumptions

Apr 25th, 2011 12:39 pm | By

Josh Rosenau has reservations.

As I’ve said before, it’s hardly surprising that making a group more visible is a better way to build public acceptance than being less visible, and I support efforts to increase atheism’s visibility. But New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists – or nontheists more generally – to get the word out that they’re here and want to be taken seriously.

Yes it is…at least under the most usual and obvious definition of that much-used pejorative label “New Atheism.” The minimal definition of “New Atheism” is, surely,  atheism that makes a point of increasing atheism’s visibility. “New Atheism” means getting the word out that atheists are here and want to be taken seriously. So how could it not be the only way to do exactly that? It’s like saying being a bus driver is not the only way to drive a bus. You could work up exceptions, but it would be a bit precious and otiose.

No it’s pretty clear that what Rosenau is doing here is simply assuming that “New Atheism” means “atheism that is rude and aggressive and strident and mean.” That is one assumption too many.

In some tiny corner of the cosmos

Apr 25th, 2011 11:54 am | By

I wanted to say a few words about the pope’s Easter chat yesterday but I had too many words to say about too many other things so I didn’t get to it. Others have said a few words about it now, but I’ve only glanced over them so far because I wanted to say whatever it was that formed in my head when I first heard (in translation, on the BBC World Service) the salient passage, first. See? I know it’s old news; I’m late; but there was something I wanted to say.

It starts with the usual thing about the Logos. In the beginning was the. You know.

The creation account tells us, then, that the world is a product of creative Reason. Hence it tells us that, far from there being an absence of reason and freedom at the origin of all things, the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom.

No it doesn’t. It’s some words in a book. It purports to tell us something, but it doesn’t actually tell us in the sense the pope means. It’s some writing. I can say “In the beginning was the Ice Cream”; that doesn’t make it true; no more does the gospel of John make what it says true. It sure as hell doesn’t make it true that the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom.

Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.

The pope’s god has nothing to do with freedom, and damn little to do with reason or love. Again it’s just words – just logoi. Words are good but they’re not magic. Popes treat them as if they were magic. That’s their trade, I suppose.

As believers we answer, with the creation account and with John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom. Hence it is good to be a human person. It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it.

Yes it is. And that itself is an extraordinary and inspiring fact. The pope doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Cardinal to everyone: more power for us please

Apr 24th, 2011 5:15 pm | By

Outraged privilege squalls again. Outraged privilege wants even more privilege please, and no grumbling.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has used his Easter message to attack “aggressive secularism”…Cardinal O’Brien said the enemies of Christianity wanted to “take God from the public sphere”.

Whereas the cardinal and his all-male gang want to fill up the public square with their imagined god who endorses all their nasty encrusted hatreds and panics and secret bum-gropings. Well of course they do: that way they would have even more power than they already have. If they had enough power they could even shut up the journalists and bloggers and survivors who keep talking about all that child-rape and child-slavery.

The Cardinal said: “Perhaps more than ever before there is that ‘aggressive secularism’ and there are those who would indeed try to destroy our Christian heritage and culture and take God from the public square. Religion must not be taken from the public square. Recently, various Christians in our society were marginalised and prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs because they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle.”

Yes yes yes, they were “prevented” from throwing gays out of hotels and yanking their adopted children away on the vicious grounds that “they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle.” Right – consensual relationships between adults evil, child-rape by priests a little rude perhaps but nothing to fret about.

Dr Evan Harris, a campaigner for the separation of Church and state, branded the Cardinal’s remarks “paranoid and unjustified”.

He said: “It is not ‘aggressive’ to call for an end to religious privilege in society and many people of faith agree with the call for the state to be neutral in religious matters.”

Andrew Copson also retorted.

He said: “What these attacks ignore is that campaigners for secularism in our public life are overwhelmingly motivated, not by anti-religious prejudice, but by a positive desire for equality and an equitable public sphere.

“These alarmist speeches, designed to stir up the faithful and foster a false narrative of persecution, are divisive and sectarian.”

Such attacks “obscured” the reality of the situation, he said. “The churches are seeking to defend a level of influence and privilege totally out of proportion to their significance,” Copson added.

Damn right.

1 for me, 1 for you, 1 for 6.7 billion people

Apr 24th, 2011 1:18 pm | By

I’m still faintly surprised by some of the reactions to Sam Harris’s book, and to the criticisms of it, so I re-read some this morning. I didn’t slap my brow and say “gosh it’s way better than I thought.” Nope.

Consider, for instance, p 199 n. 11.

…many people assume that an emphasis on human “well-being” would lead us to do terrible things like reinstate slavery…Such expectations are the result of not thinking about these issues seriously. There are rather clear reasons not to do these things – all of which relate to the immensity of suffering that such actions would cause and the possibilities of deeper happiness that they would foreclose.

That’s a terrible “argument” – it’s not an argument at all. It’s one of the many many places where he simply doesn’t make an argument, perhaps because he expects us to supply all the missing bits ourselves.

It is not self-evident that slavery would increase suffering overall – it is self-evident only that it would increase suffering for the slaves. Harris doesn’t even manage to say that much – and if he can’t manage that, what can he manage?

His defenders seem to think all that kind of thing is obvious. It isn’t.

Slavery doesn’t exist because people think “Aha, if some people were slaves, then everyone would be happier.” It exists because people think “If some people were slaves then we would be happier.” Harris’s note simply jumps right over that. He does that all the time, and that’s why the book is so irritating.

Take a look at pp 40-1, where he belatedly admits that “genuine ethical difficulties arise when we ask questions” about what’s good for other people as well as for me. He clears up that little difficulty as briskly as if it were a bit of lint on a sweater. Consider Adam and Eve. Surely they could have figured out how to maximize their well-being. There could be lots of ways to thrive, and ways not to, but they can do it

and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion people to this experiment?

Seriously. That’s what he said. I’m not making it up. Look for yourself.