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.

News from the Secular Coalition for America

Sep 28th, 2012 9:29 am | By

Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania to Officially Launch Sunday

Thu, 09/27/2012 – 14:42

Washington, D.C—The Secular Coalition for America is excited to announce the official launch of the Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania, expected to officially launch on Sunday. The Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania is the third chapter to launch as part of the SCA’s greater effort to establish 50 new state chapters throughout the country this year.

The Secular Coalition for America is a lobbying organization representing nontheistic Americans and advocating protecting and strengthening the secular character of our government. The Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania will lobby state lawmakers in favor of a strong separation of religion and government.

Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania Executive Board Co-Chairs, Justin Vacula, 24 of Scranton and Brian Fields, 35 of Newville are expected to sign the “Memo of Understanding” that marks the official launch of the chapter, on Sunday at the PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference:

Date: Sunday, September 30, 2012 Time: 3:45 and 4:30pm Location: PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Harrisburg, PA

“With legislation like the ‘Year of the Bible’ in Pennsylvania, it’s clear now, more than ever, that we need a secular voice speaking to our state government,” said Fields. “What sets the Secular Coalition for America apart is their dedication to directly supporting the separation of church and state, by speaking directly to those legislators that are responsible for protecting it.”

A recent Pew Forum study indicated that 28 percent of Pennsylvania residents do not express an absolute belief in God, and 46 percent disagreed that “religion is very important to their lives.” Another Pew study found that nationally 54% of Americans feel that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, and 38% says that there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders – a number that has grown to its highest point since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago.

Vacula said he sees the role of the Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania as protecting that separation of religion and government—to the benefit of all Pennsylvanians.

“Pennsylvania is notorious for recklessly breaching the walls of church/state separation,” said Vacula. “Secularists in Pennsylvania need a voice to counter pious politicians and inform lawmakers that infusing religion with government is unacceptable.”

Since June, the SCA successfully held initial organizing calls for new chapters in 38 states. The remaining 12 states will hold initial organizing calls in October. The Secular Coalition plans to have all chapters up and running in every state, D.C. and Puerto Rico, by the end of the year. A Secular Coalition affiliate is already functional in Arizona and the first chapter, in Colorado, was announced earlier this summer. The Secular Coalition for South Carolina is also launching today.

Edwina Rogers, Secular Coalition for America Executive Director said she is excited to see the Pennsylvania chapter launch. The state chapters play an integral role at the state level, as well as the national level, she said.

“In our current U.S. Congress, 38 percent of Representatives held local office first,” said Rogers. “When we get to law makers at the local level, not only are we going to help curb some of the most egregious legislation we’re seeing, but we are also building relationships and working to educate legislators on our issues, before they even get to Washington.”

The Secular Coalition, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, represents 11 nontheistic member organizations and has as traditionally focused advocacy efforts on federal legislation. The SCA will continue to lobby at the federal level, while state chapters will lobby at the state level. Participation in the Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania is open to all Pennsylvanians that support a strong separation of religion and government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.

For chapter co-chair bios and additional chapter information, please visit:

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Joseph Anton

Sep 27th, 2012 5:39 pm | By

Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, is not a cultural relativist. He too talked to the New York Times, in his case about his new memoir about the fatwa years.

I found myself caught up in what you could call a world historical event. You could say it’s a great political and intellectual event of our time, even a moral event. Not the fatwa, but the battle against radical Islam, of which this was one skirmish. There have been arguments made even by liberal-minded people, which seem to me very dangerous, which are basically cultural relativist arguments: We’ve got to let them do this because it’s their culture. My view is no. Female circumcision — that’s a bad thing. Killing people because you don’t like their ideas — it’s a bad thing. We have to be able to have a sense of right and wrong which is not diluted by this kind of relativistic argument. And if we don’t we really have stopped living in a moral universe.

So no. We don’t have to respect Arab traditions even when they conflict with our values. We can say that some traditions are bad. We probably don’t want to embark on careers as diplomats if we do that, but otherwise – we can say.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

My way or your respect for my way

Sep 27th, 2012 5:30 pm | By

So Morsi’s a cultural relativist. You wouldn’t think a Muslim Brotherhood guy would be a cultural relativist, would you. Pretty much the opposite. There is one way to be and Mohammed is its prophet.

But then it’s not so much that he is a cultural relativist as that he thinks other people should be if they don’t share his non-relativist culture. Heads I win tails you lose. My way is the right way and your way is to respect my way. Mk?

He spelled it out for the New York Times, who wrote it down and put it in the paper.

On the eve of his first trip to the United States as Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi said the United States needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world, showing greater respect for its values and helping build a Palestinian state, if it hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger.

If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, he said, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. He said the United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values.

Keep tactfully silent, maybe. Respect? No.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Brendan O’Neill writes in his sleep

Sep 27th, 2012 3:13 pm | By

More “you want trolling? I’ll give you trolling!” from Brendan “I’m making a career of trolling” O’Neill in Troll Central, aka spiked. What is it this time? It’s that trolls aren’t the problem, “troll hunters” are the problem.

(How was I alerted to this one? Because somone I don’t follow tweeted it to two people I do follow, so I had a look. The one I don’t follow is Quiet Riot Girl – omigod I’d forgotten all about her. Ugh. She should go into partnership with O’Neill. Apparently she was outed by Julie Bindel last March. O’Neill knows how to find her for that partnership then.)

So, O’Neill on the evils of “troll hunters.”

Yet it turns out that, amazingly, there is something even more irritating on the internet than these so-called trolls. And it’s the troll-hunters, the celebs, commentators and coppers who have made it their business to chase down trolls, expose them to public ridicule, and sometimes even haul them before a judge. Okay, a troll can sometimes ruin a half-decent online debate or dent a journalist’s sense of self-worth by sending him a snotty, borderline obscene message *sniffle* – but that’s nothing compared with the potential impact that troll-hunting is having on the free flow of ideas and argument on the web.

Wot? Is it possible to have a potential impact? Does that last sentence even make sense? X is having a potential impact on Y? Surely if the impact is potential it’s not being had yet, or if it is being had, then it’s no longer potential.

That would be classic O’Neill then. Make an accusation but realize it’s not actually happening so hedge it by saying potential but then forget that that amounts to admitting it’s not happening.

From the 17-year-old twat on Twitter who sent stupid messages to British diving champ Tom Daley to the fashion among celebrities for ‘confronting one’s troll’, trolling is a hot topic.

Rest of world to O’Neill: this is the internet: in a big chunk of the Anglophone world “twat” is a very rude sexist epithet. Wake up.

If I went into a bookshop and tore up all the tomes I find annoying or offensive, half the shop would be in ruins – but I don’t do that because a) people would think I was mad, and b) I recognise that freedom of speech means being surrounded by, and sometimes subjected to, ideas or outlooks that make you feel uncomfortable, even nauseous.

Erm…no. You don’t do that first and foremost because you would get arrested and convicted. Wake up.

What we’re witnessing is a pretty Orwellian conflation of potentially physical menace with unpopular political views, the mashing together of irrational harassment with the expression of a political outlook, so that it all becomes ‘trolling’.

No, we’re not. The issue is not disagreement but sustained harassment. The latter happens. Wake up.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Sep 27th, 2012 12:05 pm | By

Godalmighty Soraya Chemaly’s article on misogynist shit on Facebook is horrifying and scary.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the use of photography (especially without the subject’s consent) intensifies harassment, abuse and violence against women.  Quicker than I could type “Feministe” this petition appeared in my inbox:  “Please sign to remove 12 Year Old Slut Memes from Facebook.”  One of the offending page’s profile photos is of a pink-lipped and pouty child (she looks a lot younger than 12) wearing a tank top that reads “I love COCK.”  Now, anyone can create a page in Facebook (published at Facebook’s discretion) and this page doesn’t openly advocate violence against 12-year-old sluts.  It is, however, the virtual equivalent of street harassment and, as such, demonstrates the way the photography serves to exponentially magnify the effects of subtle and real violence along a broad spectrum.

But Facebook won’t remove it. It treats it as “Humor” and thus not to be taken down.

This is pretty much Facebook’s attitude and why it deals with this page and assorted others by adding [Humor] to titles.  As a result, according to Facebook’s interpretation and adherence to its own policies, they will not take down Boobs, Breasts and Boys who love them, unless the boys are babies since they do take down photos of breastfeeding mothers.  They will not take down  [Controversial Humor] rape pages, but they will remove a photograph of a woman crossing the street in New York City because she is topless (legal in New York, but not the sovereign state of Facebook).

They do take stuff down, but they won’t take down “Humor” about beating up women.

And, yes, I know, I know, the 12-year old slut meme page does not openly suggest, say,  hitting a pre-teen girl who makes the mistake of posting a photo that lends itself to Dom and James’ critical insights, nor does it make jokes about raping children or women.  Other Facebook pages, with fans ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousand, however, do.  For example, “[Satire] Kicking a slut in the vagina and losing your foot inside” is still up and does not specify age of slut to kick…

Ah the ever-popular joke about kicking a woman in the cunt and getting your foot dirty! I’ve had those. The “joke” about kicking me in the cunt has offspring that include the “jokes” about the slimy boot. Those jokes are so funny – no wonder Facebook won’t take them down.

Why is it so hard to imagine a world in which girls and women are not daily subjected to the use of hate-filled violence against us as entertainment?  Endorsed more than tacitly by a major cultural force like Facebook?

It is arguable that misogyny is in Facebook’s DNA and integral to its culture. In defending his woman-denigrating representation of Mark Zuckerberg’s alcohol-fueled creation of Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, Aaron Sorkin wrote that “that was the very specific world I was writing about…Facebook was born during a night of incredibly misogyny… comparing women to farm animals, and then to each other, based on their looks and then publicly ranking them.” Even aside from the subjective nature of what people find funny and the erroneous use of the word “Satire” it is hard for me to ignore this origin story when considering Facebook’s gender selective interpretations of what constitutes “threatening,” “violent” and “hate speech,” in its content censorship choices.

Some of this is news to me. It creeps me out.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Detain those women

Sep 27th, 2012 11:30 am | By

What was that about women and indecency and men are always right? That’s how it works in Saudi Arabia for sure. Saudi Arabia detained and deported a lot of Nigerian women who went there for the hajj but did it without a male relative along to make sure they didn’t fuck every man they saw. Sluts.

Since Sunday, hundreds of Nigerian women – mainly aged between 25 and 35, according to Nigerian diplomats – have been stopped at the airports in Jeddah and Medina.

Bilkisu Nasidi, who travelled from the northern Nigerian city of Katsina, told the BBC that hundreds of women had been sleeping on the floor, did not have their belongings and were sharing four toilets at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.

She said she was part of a group of 512 women being deported to five states in Nigeria on Thursday.

With many of them now facing deportation, she said the atmosphere at the airport was not good, and the women felt “victimised”.

What, just because they took the trouble and spent the money to go to SA for the hajj which is an “obligation” according to Islam and the Saudi “guardians of Islam” (as they consider themselves) wouldn’t let them do the hajj? Pffffffff. Whiners. They’re indecent, don’t they get it? They have that filthy hole between their legs.

“We’re not happy about the situation – other than the Hajj we would not be interested in coming back to Saudi Arabia but unfortunately it is the holy land to us Muslims and we will have to look beyond the treatment and come back.”

Well that’s just exactly stinking it, isn’t it. Saudi Arabia is a vicious misogynist shit hole, but it’s “holy” to Muslims, so they have to “look beyond the treatment” which is part and parcel of Islam itself, and go back. They think they “have to” go back to the holy land of the hateful misogynist religion. It’s sad. It’s horribly sad. The religion kicks them in the face, and they still think they “have to” obey its rules and fulfill its obligations.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

There was no rape, the woman was indecent

Sep 27th, 2012 10:59 am | By

What’s new in Tunisia? Nothing much. Two police officers accused of raping a young woman have accused the young woman of “indecency” and a judge has hauled her into court to respond to the accusation.

Leading human rights, feminist groups and other prominent members of civil society have formed a committee evening to co-ordinate a campaign in support of the woman, including the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women and the Tunisian League of Human Rights.

Faïza Skandrani, the head of the Equality and Parity organisation, told Al Jazeera that the case was an important one for two reasons: it marked the first time a woman allegedly raped by the police had taken the case to court, and it was the first time the authorities were trying to publicly shame a woman into dropping such charges.

“The investigating judge is turning her from the victim to the accused, to help the police officers get away with it,” she said. “I’ve heard about similar cases in Pakistan, but this is a first in Tunisia. Next they will be charging her with prostitution.”

It’s classic, isn’t it. Women are “indecent” simply by existing, so there’s no such thing as rape, there’s only women sucking in men with their indecency between the legs. If the woman is there to be raped, then it’s her fault by definition, even if the man had to break down a couple of walls to get at her. If she is not sealed up beyond possible access then she’s indecent and a sucker-in of men. Stone her.

Activists see the case as an important one because of the symbolism in the wider cultural battles between those who want Tunisia to maintain its position as one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world, and religious conservatives.

“This is a drop in the ocean of the problems we’ve been fighting,” Skandrani said. “Each time we close one door, they open another.”

“The revolution was about freedom and democracy, not about undermining women’s rights,” she said. “They want to build a society where women can be used and treated like objects and where the man is always right.”

Bad luck to them.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Enough with the naked calendars already

Sep 26th, 2012 5:16 pm | By

Rebecca’s gone off the whole naked calendars idea. I’m glad about that, because I was never on it, but didn’t say so, because you know, I’m a million years old, I come from that boring generation that did second wave feminism and didn’t get it about pole dancing as empowerment.

“Why don’t you make the Skepchick Calendars anymore?” Ever since I stopped producing not-quite-nudie calendars back in 2007, I’ve heard that question a lot. The problem is that I never have the 30 minutes I’d need to list half the reasons why I no longer do it. But now, I will list a few of those reasons in the desperate hope that organizations that need money or publicity or whatever will read this and make the decision to not produce calendars.

You see, in the past few days I’ve heard of two different calendar projects from within my circles: ScienceGrrl is a calendar of female scientists, and proceeds will apparently go to encouraging girls to pursue STEM degrees. New organization Secular Woman has also announced a calendar, which will feature nude atheists and benefit a cancer charity and the org’s own travel grants to send women to conferences.

I know. Really. Please stop.

Rebecca gives some background. It was partly a jokey thing at first.

And then I stopped. Why? For some of the same reasons that I’m turned off by the current crop of calendars:

1. Regardless of the intent behind the calendars, regardless of how much fun we had making them, regardless of how empowering we found them, regardless of the racial and age diversity we showcased, and regardless of the fact that they were run by a woman and benefited women, pin-up calendars added to an existing environment in which women were seen first as sexual objects and maybe if they’re lucky they’d later be seen as human beings with thoughts and desires of their own. Back in 2005, I thought skeptics weren’t affected by the patriarchy and that misogyny was something left to the religious. In a community like that, a pin-up calendar of women would be absolutely fine. I learned that a community like that does not exist and it was naive of me to assume otherwise.

Yes. That was why I was never on it, in a nutshell, but for all I knew the fans of the idea knew better than I did.

2. Adding a calendar of men did not balance out the calendar of women. In a perfect non-patriarchal world, it would, but what I realized was that the women in the calendars were not being seen in the same way as the men in the calendars. The women were objectified on a level unmatched by those viewing and commenting on the men. This was something difficult for me to objectively evaluate at the time and was just a hunch based on my casual observations, but that hunch was confirmed last year when I had shitlord after shitlord emailing me to tell me that I have no right to complain about being groped or propositioned at conferences because I posed in a calendar for skeptics (see my filthy slut photo as the featured image on this post).


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Preserving masculinity in a society pimped by feminism

Sep 26th, 2012 4:44 pm | By

The SPLC takes a cautious look at misogyny on the web.

The website was launched in 2008 as a “parody website for people who take their gender too seriously.” (It is not related to the MTV Reality Show Guy Code, which had its debut in 2011). Its impresarios describe themselves as “a group of men dedicated to preserving masculinity in a society trying to be pimped by feminism”; its name was inspired by a line spoken by Vince Vaughn in the 2003 movie “Old School”: “It’s guy code. Guys don’t tell on other guys. It’s something chicks do. You’re not a chick, are you?”

Hmm. Already I want to be elsewhere.

…the articles that appear under the heading “Women’s Studies” and “Whiny Feminists” are overtly political — and grossly misogynistic. “How to Smack a Bitch” by “Matt Stone” (many of the site’s pieces are bylined “Matt Stone” and “Trey Parker,” which presumably are pseudonyms) seems more like a specimen from a sociopath’s case file than a satire — and it suggests a definition of masculinity that is troubling, to say the very least. There’s an obvious similarity to some of the woman-bashing sites in the so-called “manosphere” of certain sectors of the men’s rights movement.

Most of the essay consists of deadpan descriptions of the characteristics of 10 different “bitch slapping” techniques, each illustrated with a color photograph of a woman’s swollen, bruised and bleeding face: “The Classic Bitch Smack”; “the Pimp Slap” (“if your woman was working and needed to be somewhat presentable the pimp smack takes place on the left or right side of the face without causing ocular damage”); “The Johnny Wad Slap” (“for those guys who are not pleased sexually in bed … first used in the early 1970s with female porn stars”); “The Where’s My Dinner Bitch Slap”…


The way we live now.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

All blasphemers

Sep 26th, 2012 3:37 pm | By

Eric Posner has a rather limp article in Slate, sort of saying the Feds should do something about the “Innocence of Muslims” video and sort of not quite saying it.

Greg Lukianoff writes a much more interesting piece in the Huffington Post in reply.

…lately, it seems as though we’ve gotten so used to our First Amendment rights as a country that we take them for granted and forget the deadly serious reasons why we decided that these freedoms should serve as the building blocks for our society in the first place.

I don’t forget the deadly serious reasons. Maybe that’s because I pay so much attention to places like Pakistan and Russia.

Ironically, the institutions most likely to take free speech and/or other basic rights for granted in the United States are the institutions most reliant on free and open debate: our colleges and universities.

As I have reported for years in the Huffington Post and as I discuss at length in my forthcoming book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, I have seen students on college campuses get in trouble for the mildest imaginable expression. In other cases, students suffer for their politically relevant, but locally unpopular, speech.

So it was no surprise to me that when the trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” debuted on YouTube and Islamic militants all over the globe began using it as an excuse to attack American embassies and kill our diplomats, the first prominent people to rise up and say “see, I told you we were wrong about free speech” were college professors.

First, there was professor Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania who wrote an op-ed in USA Today arguing that Sam Bacile (the video’s purported maker) should be thrown in jail.

I followed that last link. Guess what her field is. Religious studies.

Then, this week, similar criticism came from a much more serious source: University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner.

Posner, son of famous jurist Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote in Slate that Americans foolishly overvalue free speech and that the violence committed because of the video should cause us to reconsider our free speech radicalism.

For those of us who work in First Amendment law, Posner relies on pretty tired arguments that I plan to address piece by piece in upcoming posts. But before I get too entangled in the details of what was so wrong about Professor Posner had to say, it’s important to take a step back and realize why punishing a citizen for offending a religion is so dangerous.

Allow me to interrupt and give my explanation of why punishing a citizen for offending a religion is so dangerous.

It’s because religions have a special kind of power, and we all need protection from that power. Everything about religion should be optional, because otherwise, it’s coercive and tyrannical beyond the dreams of ordinary secular institutions. Respect for religion or religions or any one religion should never, ever be made mandatory, because we need to be able to say No.

…if we start punishing people in the United States because they’ve offended the beliefs of people of other faiths, we will have put the United States government in the role of enforcer of a religious norm.


It’s become easy for American academics, elites and contrarians to scoff at the universal values of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from imposed beliefs. But while America may be almost alone as a nation in being relatively purist about these doctrines, this does not mean we are wrong. A nation and even a world where it’s safe for people to believe as they choose–or not to believe at all–is one worth aspiring towards.

Damn right.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Upward Facing Watermelon

Sep 26th, 2012 2:51 pm | By

Am I wrong to find this funny? A Catholic priest kicking the yoga people out of his church because it turns out they didn’t mean just Downward Facing Dog and Upside Down Candelabra, they meant “spiritual.” Or not, but they could have. You couldn’t be sure. You know how people are. They say it’s not spiritual, they say they just want to strike poses and watch the pounds melt away, but underneath, they’re plotting to do spiritual.

Instructor Cori Withell from Hampshire said her yoga and pilates classes at St Edmund’s Church building in Southampton were cancelled with 10 days to go.

Father John Chandler said that the hall had to be used for Catholic activities, and he banned it because it was advertised as “spiritual yoga”.

Ms Withell, from Eastleigh, said the church accepted the booking two months ago and she paid £180.

She was called later and told that yoga was “from another religion”, so she could not have the hall.

A separate pilates class she had booked was also cancelled.

Ms Withell said she did not use meditation in her classes, just exercises.

She added: “As a nation we have an obesity epidemic. I was trying to bring some exercise to the community and coming across blocks like this is frustrating.”

Yes but consider. There’s nothing about Jesus stretching in the bible. If Jesus had wanted people to bring some exercise to the community he would have said something about it while one of the stenographers was listening.

Ravindra Parmar, president of the Vedic Society Hindu Temple of Southampton, said yoga was “a form of exercise” and “not a religious type of activity”.

He added people were welcome to practice yoga exercises at the temple and said he felt “a little let down” because of the work the Southampton Council of Faiths does to “get all the faiths talking to each other”.

Ahhhhhhh yes talking to each other, but not doing yoga. There’s a difference, my friend.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Bad lines

Sep 26th, 2012 9:58 am | By

It’s a day for bad lines, innit. For two bad lines in particular.

One is

In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.

The other is

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.

Pretend for a moment that you don’t know where they’re from, who said them or promoted them, in what context.

They’re just bad. On their own, with no further context, they’re bad. On the face – prima facie.

The word “savage” used as a noun is just stupid, and sinister. It borders on taboo, in the way “nigger” is taboo and “bitch” ought to be taboo but isn’t. It’s a relic of colonialism and it just reeks of ignorance and domination. Sorting people into civilized and savage has a terrible, blood-soaked history.

As for the second line – the concept of “slandering” a historical or quasi-historical human male called by his fans “the prophet of Islam” is meaningless outside Islam, and people who forbid us all to “slander the prophet of Islam” are trying to impose a religious edict on all people.

Two bad lines.

Now for the context and who said them and why. The first is perhaps even worse in context. The second is less terrible in context but it remains a wretched choice of words.

You already know the context. The “savage” line is from a poster put up in ten New York subway stations by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative. Mona Eltahawy has been arrested for spraying one with purple paint. The context does nothing to make the ugliness of the wording look any prettier.

The “slander” line is from Obama’s speech to the UN.

It is time to leave the call of violence and the politics of division behind. On so many issues, we face a choice between the promise of the future, or the prisons of the past. We cannot afford to get it wrong. We must seize this moment. And America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future.

The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women – it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons. The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources – it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs; workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the men and women that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims.

Yes; yes; no. The third para goes off the rails. Yes sometimes vandalizing images of Jesus is done as incitement and a kind of ethnic cleansing, but not always. Separate the two. Don’t make it a matter of forbidding attacks on images or prophetic reputations; make it a matter of incitement and violencem. Separate the two, Barack.

I would say more but Popehat got there first, so why bother.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A conversation with AC Grayling

Sep 25th, 2012 3:43 pm | By

A student journalist, Will Bordell, has a lovely interview with Anthony Grayling which I’ve just published at ur-B&W. Here’s a big chunk of it.

Spare a thought for philosophy: An interview with A.C. Grayling

What makes Grayling tick is “the fact that the world is so rich in interest and in puzzles, and that the task of finding out as much as we can about it is not an endless task but certainly one which is going to take us many, many millennia to complete”.  There’s a sort of childlike grin that beams out at me, as he affirms that “that’s exciting – discovery is exciting”.  Grayling joys in doubt and possibility, in invention and innovation: the tasks of the open mind and open inquiry.  It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that mankind has with itself about all these things that really matter”.

It is this that marks the line in the sand between religion and science.  The temptation to fall for the former hook, line and sinker is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going”.  Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves.  They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard”.  He looks down towards a small flower arrangement on the table, and plays with it contemplatively before continuing in an almost plaintive tone: “And that is a kind of betrayal, in a way, of the fact that we have curiosity but, most of all, we have intelligence and so we should be questioning, challenging, trying to find out”.

But the pessimism doesn’t persist for too long.  Grayling’s biting wit is never too far from the surface of his arguments, especially when he’s waxing lyrical about theology.  By tracing what he calls “a kind of Nietszchean genealogy of religion,” he adopts a storyteller’s tone: “You see a geography – and it’s an interesting one – in that the dryads and the nymphs used to be in the trees and in the streams,” from whence they evaporated into the wind and the sun.  The more humankind has discovered about the world, the more remote our gods have become.  “They went from the surface of the earth,” he observes, guiding me with his hands, “to the mountaintops, then into the sky, and finally beyond space and time altogether”.  Not only have gods and goddesses retreated into their extraterrestrial hiding-places, but they’ve also dwindled in number (generally) to only one or three, depending on your divine arithmetic: “So they’re being chased away bit by bit,” Grayling chuckles.

For all his cutting cogency, there’s an underlying empathy to what he says.  Grayling seems to be desperately trying to reach out to those he believes to be lost in an intellectual fog of their own making, attempting to lend a hand and pull them out.  But he’s worried – and rightly so.  The problem with extreme strands of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism is self-evident: “They force people to narrow their horizon of vision down so that they are almost blind, almost infantilised, almost in a straitjacket of captivity.  But every religion goes through a fundamentalist phase,” he acknowledges in his typically even handed manner, “and every religion leaves its fundamentalist rump; you can see this perfectly clearly in the case of Christianity”.

Will we ever grow out of religion, though?  He leans against the wall casually, stretching out his legs before responding with an assured brand of optimism: “It seems to me that in five or ten thousand years time when people look back (if there are any people) at this period of history, the two or three thousand years when Judeo-Christian influence in the world was considerable, they will collapse it down to a sentence”.  Just as we view the advent of Cro-Magnon humans to Europe in 40,000 BC and the disappearance of Neanderthals around ten thousand years after that as historical facts and nothing more, so future historians will consider religion as a mere artifact.  Indeed, according to Grayling, they will astutely recognise that “that was a bad time for human beings, because they were getting cleverer with their technologies, but they were no wiser”.

But it’s crucial to Grayling’s philosophical outlook that when we lose faith, we don’t lose hope.  “Almost any religion can be explained to another person in about half an hour,” he claims, adjusting his imperious-looking gold-rimmed spectacles, “but to know anything about astrophysics or biology or anything that really gives us an insight into the real beauty of the universe?  That takes some years of study at least”.  Such logic allows the adversity of a world without faith to be rebranded as opportunity, oblivion as salvation.  He pauses briefly, before launching into one gem in his immensely vibrant stash of anecdotes and references: “There’s a writer, a man called J.B. Bury, who wrote a wonderful history of Greece a long time ago now.  He talks at one point about the Greeks’ own histories of their own city states, and he was talking about one in particular, the kings of which could be traced back to divine origin”.  I wait, as though anticipating the punch line of a joke, while he stalls for a second in his recollection.  “And J.B. Bury effectively said,” he goes on, “‘Oh it’s so boring.  It was only a god who founded this city.  But if it had been a real man who had struggled, fought against enemies and been ingenious in getting his people together, now that would be a really interesting story’”.  It’s an incontrovertible truth, and it highlights the contrast “between religion, which is very boring, and reality, which is much more exciting”.

Yet for as long as religion rules the roost, we can only undermine it inchmeal.  But challenge it we must.  “I think one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever heard is the remark that George Bernard Shaw made about the ‘golden rule’ – ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’ – and he said, ‘under no circumstances should you do unto other people what you’d like them to do to you because they may not like it’”.  A barrage of rationality and clarity storms through his argument, measured and incontrovertible: “It’s a very, very deep insight.  What you really have to do is understand the diversity of human nature and needs and interests, and try to see people in their particularity”.  For religious zealots, he remarks with a knowing shake of the head, this is nigh on impossible.  If there’s one right answer, one absolute truth, one correct way of living, “there can’t be any diversity because that’s heresy”.

Read more

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Not lord of the manor

Sep 25th, 2012 9:09 am | By

Tessa Kendall has a post on Bullies and predators, expanding on Michael Story’s post yesterday.

Because of the stupid libel laws in this country, the Offender cannot be named publicly, which makes him harder to deal with.

I’m one of the hosts of London SitP, along with Carmen and Sid. When I started going to SitP, very few women came. Sometimes I was the only woman there at the King’s Head in Borough. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to encourage women to come and now a lot do. We want them to feel safe and comfortable. This isn’t a major problem, we don’t want to blow it out of proportion, but we do want to act responsibly and nip it in the bud.

This shouldn’t need saying but apparently it does – this is not acceptable behaviour. There are no excuses. You are not ‘just being friendly’. If you were, you’d be doing it to men too. You are not lord of the manor and women are not your personal fiefdom. Your position in the Skeptic community does not give you immunity. Even though the law may protect you, there are other ways we can deal with you – and we will.

What does “in Borough” mean? Southwark? Lambeth? Elephant and Castle?

But never mind that; notice the difference between that response and the response of an important segment of US skepticism. Notice the difference between telling off the perpetrators, as above, and telling off the women objecting to the behavior, as last May. Notice standing shoulder to shoulder with the women versus rebuking the women for speaking up.

Well done London SitP. If only if only if only that important segment of US skepticism had done as well. If only. Think of all the rifts that would not exist, the quarrels that would not have happened, the friendships that would not have broken. If only.

It should have been so easy – such a no-brainer. Tessa certainly makes it look that way. By “easy” I don’t mean easy to carry out or problem-free, I mean morally unambiguous. Easy to choose. Which side should we back up, here? The gropers, or the women who don’t want to be groped without invitation? It should have been so easy to choose.

This kind of sexual predator behaviour is a kind of bullying and, like all bullies, the Offender is relying on silence. I’ve been bullied in the past; I know how it makes you feel and I know how hard it can be to do anything about it so I know it’s a lot to ask you to speak up. But we will sort this out.

Bullies and predators pick their victims carefully. It is not your fault he does this to you. You have not ‘led him on’, you do not ‘deserve’ this. He is the one in the wrong. You’re not ‘making trouble’ or ‘causing a fuss’ by telling us. And anything you do say will be treated in confidence, so you don’t need to fear any personal consequences – which is another way bullies maintain their power. [emphasis mine]

See? It’s so clear, isn’t it. Why couldn’t we have had that? Why couldn’t we have had that instead of blame for speaking up? Blame for speaking up, let me remind you, a mere few days after the speaking up happened. Why did we get told off for making trouble and causing a fuss instead of told we weren’t doing that?

Well, maybe the London skeptics learned from what happened last May, and resolved to do the opposite. Maybe doing it the wrong way helped to make clear what the right way is. But I can’t help feeling rather sad that we had to be the raw material of the lesson.

Carmen, Sid and I really strongly encourage you to tell us if you see or suffer from the Offender. We will back you up and anything you tell us will be treated in absolute confidence. You can leave comments here (which in no way implies that you’ve been directly affected unless you make that explicit), you can email us, DM us on Twitter or tell us face to face. That’s @tessakendall, @carmenego or @sidrodrigues.

But DO NOT name him publicly.

For legal reasons. That means here, too.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Raising their voices against known enemies

Sep 24th, 2012 5:35 pm | By

Salman Rushdie talked to Der Spiegel about his memoir of the fatwa years.

Some senior cops didn’t approve of him much.

I wasn’t like the others, those who deserved protection because they had done something for the country. I was someone who received protection because he had made trouble. In their view, it was my own fault that the Muslims were after me. Some members of the police, not all of them, didn’t understand how anyone could be willing to cause such a fuss for such an far-off issue. At least if my book had been about England …

SPIEGEL: The criticism wasn’t just coming from the police and Muslims, but increasingly from colleagues and intellectuals. Perhaps your sharpest critic, John le Carré, accused you of having attacked a known enemy, one that reacted as was to be expected, to which you cried “foul.”

Rushdie: I think he would probably regret having said these things, because it is a way of saying all intellectuals who have ever stood up against tyrants deserved what they get. García Lorca knew how brutal Franco was. Osip Mandelstam knew what to expect from Stalin. Should they just have kept their mouth shut? Raising their voices against known enemies is precisely what writers have done honorably throughout the history of literature. For le Carré to say that’s their own stupid fault is naïve at best. It dishonored the history of literature.

Exactly. We know what to expect, and we think it’s bad. Because we think it’s bad we think we should say it’s bad. We realize that when we say it’s bad, there will be reactions, bad reactions. That’s the very thing we think is bad! So it’s hardly a moral argument to say we shouldn’t say it’s bad because we know what to expect. The Mafia does bad things. Everybody knows that. That doesn’t make it morally wrong to resist them, but the contrary.

SPIEGEL: But perhaps attacking a religion isn’t the same thing as criticizing a dictatorship.

Religion is worse! Dictators come and go, but religion persists.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Sep 24th, 2012 5:02 pm | By

There’s also an epistemological point in Michael’s post, which is interesting too.

The issue of the day is sexism/feminism and the debate is splitting down two rough sides: those who find religion immoral or irritating and want to campaign against it with no time devoted to anything else, and those whose objection to religion is part of a generally progressive agenda (frequently called ‘social justice’), and who feel that organised atheism is in danger of replicating the same old problems which religions have perpetuated.

Part of the problem here is that skepticism and feminism are coming from different traditions: feminism has historically been less concerned about evidence and more about consciousness-raising, while skepticism treats evidence as a gold standard and denigrates anecdotes (valued in feminism as ‘lived experience’) as meaningless. Many feminists treat a speaker’s identity as central to their credibility (this is where concepts like ‘mansplaining’ come in) while skepticism is about ignoring the identity of the speaker and focusing solely on the quality of evidence or logic they present. It’s easy to see how these different ways of looking at the world could magnify any argument and turn mild disagreements into longlasting bitter hostility, even before the current level of childishness, name-calling and abuse started.

I hope skepticism doesn’t treat anecdotes (and/or lived experience) as meaningless for all purposes and in all contexts. If it does, that sounds like what people mean by “scientism,” those who use the word without quotation marks, which I never do. Anecdotes are out of place in science, but they’re not meaningless in all senses and for all purposes. Anecdotes and their larger cousin, fiction, are often very meaningful. Imagine life without them!

Also, feminism is political while skepticism is epistemological. One is about what we value and how we think things should be; the other is about how we can figure out what there is and what we can know. They’re not radically different – feminism can be seen as skepticism about traditions and rules, for instance – but they’re not side by side in the library.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Sep 24th, 2012 3:32 pm | By

Headline just seen on the LA Times website.

Romney hits Obama for calling Middle East troubles ‘bumps in road’ 09/24/2012, 2:17 p.m.

Guys…take it outside.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A distinct way of thinking

Sep 24th, 2012 11:58 am | By

Pakistan is working hard to model mindless slavish submission to religious mandates for the rest of the world, and to bully everyone else into doing the same.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered Internet service providers to block YouTube — all of it, not just the offending videos. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has asked Interpol to take up the matter. And he wants the United Nations to develop international legislation to stop the circulation of material deemed blasphemous.

Think of all the religions in the world. What a lot of material could meet the description “deemed blasphemous.” Just imagine a world in which all such material was forbidden to circulate. Just imagine the mental poverty.

…it’s not just Islamist extremists and radicals who are offended by the video. One of the groups marching to the US consulate in Karachi on Friday will be the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf. The party is lead by Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan, and boasts a significant following among the country’s Western educated upper class. Arif Alvi, the party’s Secretary General, said the western, Christian world should understand that Pakistanis, and Muslims in general, have a distinct way of thinking.

“You can’t come in to a society and say ‘this should be painful and this should not be painful.’ What is painful to us is painful to us. And we expect countries to recognize that,” Alvi said.

That’s an appalling, self-destructive thing to say. You don’t want to claim a “distinct way of thinking” – it’s an invitation to contempt. You don’t want to claim it’s a national characteristic to get upset about farfetched offenses to a long-dead human being.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The importance of respecting all prophets

Sep 24th, 2012 11:42 am | By

Michael Nugent tells me a bit of news I didn’t know – that the EU has joined the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Commission of the African Union to release a statement “expressing ‘the importance of respecting all prophets’, and ‘strongly committing to take further measures’ to work for ‘full respect of religion’.”


The joint statement begins by saying that ‘we share a profound respect for all religions,’ and absurdly adds that ‘we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.’

Or to put it another way, we believe in theocracy, and if you don’t we want you to keep quiet about it.

Why is the EU teaming up with the OIC to do anything at all?

The world has gone mad.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Getting disturbingly touchy-feely with women

Sep 24th, 2012 10:15 am | By

Oh, so it happens in the UK too, eh. Michael W Story says it does, at least.

I like going to public lectures; I’ve met some great friends and friends who became colleagues there, many of whom I saw last weekend at the post Pod Delusion Live drinks. I’ve spoken at Ignite, done the odd Skeptics in the Pub as part of a double act with Martin Robbins and will be giving a solo presentation about my own hobby horse at Leicester in January, but I don’t feel that my attendance at things like Skeptics is an identity that represents me the way that some of the hardcore members do. So maybe it’s not my place to join in with the current schism, and plenty of very knowledgeable people have already written on this topic, but it seems like recently everyone has been having their say over the latest atheists/skeptics contretemps  so I’m going to demonstrate the levelling power of the internet and stick my oar in.

It’s the atheism/skepticism v atheism/skepticism plus social justice contretemps he’s talking about. He had some anecdotal eyewitness testimony to offer.

Skeptics, you can dismiss this as an N=1 anecdote, but please at least read it. I have personally witnessed a prominent person getting disturbingly touchy-feely with women and getting away with it, despite the knowledge of nearly everyone who knows him. What’s more I’m willing to bet that you know who I am talking about from just reading the previous sentence.

Emphasis his.

I certainly don’t know who he’s talking about, but apparently lots of UK atheists/skeptics will.

I first became aware of this at the beginning of last year, though since I voiced my concerns to others I have been hearing that the behaviour in question has been going a lot longer than that. I was at a Skeptics in the Pub, chatting to some friends and getting a drink at the bar (I am a teetotaller, so you can be assured that none of my account has been blurred by intoxication). I heard a bit of a commotion, turned round and saw this fellow (who had had a few drinks) giving an unwilling woman a hug- not a friendly hug, but one which led crotch first, grabbing her around the hips/bum and leaning in as the she bent right back to escape his advances. It was the sort of thing that could have been a joke but as it went on it became clear that she wasn’t playing.

Emphasis his, again.

Note that this is widely known. Heave a huge sigh. It’s widely known, but that doesn’t stop it.

 Over time, as his power and influence grew I noticed that he could go further and further and get away with it. Once someone’s prominence gets to a certain point it becomes very hard to criticise them. You think that if they were a predator someone else would have noticed or complained – surely some of those prominent feminist women (and men) in the media with whom he associates would have said something? I don’t know whether they are intimidated or what, but not one has commented in public.

In private, a number of stories have been circulating for years, many of which are more serious than the incidents I have described. I can’t verify any of these accounts, but the fact that they are readily accepted is telling.

So what to do? If you think this post might be about you, then take responsibility for your behaviour and apologise where necessary. If you see this behaviour, don’t stay silent.

For all the fact that this has pissed me off a huge amount, I am wary of naming the offending person. He’s someone with a lot of clout, someone who could make life very difficult for anyone who identified him. I feel it’s up to someone whom he has victimised to make that call, but if that’s you and you are reading this then I will absolutely back you up.

My guess? No one will speak up.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)