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.

An affront to principles of human rights

Jan 31st, 2012 2:47 pm | By

Al Jazeera reports on Baltasar Garzón defending his investigation of Franco-era crimes.

“The amnesty law refers to crimes of a political nature, in no way can it be said that crimes against humanity of the kind that were alleged could have any political nature,” the 56-year-old judge said.

“As such it was not even necessary to make a reference to the amnesty law,” he said on the opening day of his testimony in Madrid.

Victims’ families who filed the case in 2006 had described disappearances, illegal detentions and killings, which amounted “in some cases to crimes against humanity, genocide,” he said.

The judge is being prosecuted for ordering the investigation in 2008 into the disappearance of 114,000 people during Spain’s 1936 to 1939 civil war and General Francisco Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

Garzón is charged with exceeding his powers on the grounds that the alleged crimes were covered by an amnesty agreed in 1977 as Spain moved towards democracy two years after Franco’s death.

“Garzón showed today that his decision to take up the investigation of the crimes of the Franco era was fully supported by international law,” Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, who was in the court, said.

“But the spectacle of a judge as a criminal defendant, having to justify his investigation into torture, killings and ‘disappearances,’ was itself an affront to principles of human rights and judicial independence,” he said in a statement.

Remember when Musharraf fired all those judges? For that matter, remember when the Bush admin did the same thing? It’s an affront.

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

There’s an explanation

Jan 31st, 2012 2:05 pm | By

Tarek Fatah posted a photo on Facebook with the comment

Inside Islam’s holiest place of worship, The Kaabah in Mecca. For some a romantic stroll in the park, without the fear of Maya Khan.

Six comments in a guy said, in all seriousness -

Have a close careful look!
This man has only one leg, and is being helped by his wife.
Please think carefully a few times prior to commenting on religious locations and issues.


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

“Unwise and untimely”

Jan 31st, 2012 11:51 am | By

Frederick Sparks has an incisive post on Be Scofield on “new atheists” and racism.

In referring to Dr King and the civil rights movement, Scofield also falls into the trap of “the Civil Rights Movement, Brought To You By Black Church”…a bit of historical revisionism that ignores, as professor Anthony Pinn points out, the secular philosophical influences, and that King himself complained that most the black churches were not involved and were not supportive.

Didn’t he just. In the much-quoted Letter from Birmingham Jail for instance -

My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”…

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.

And so on.

Frederick concludes with a stem-winder:

When the Scofields and Karen Armstrongs of the world talk about how the new atheists just aren’t aware of the liberal, tolerant, sativa smoking, feminist, genderqueer god concept, my response is “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.” She’s just as poorly evidenced as the old fashioned patriarchal god. She’s also not the predominant god concept impacting the African American community.

I don’t see an either or proposition between advocating for rational thought, where beliefs are based on evidence, and confronting issues of social justice. The idea that black people should be left alone in their clinging to Jesus due to their history of oppression smacks of just as much paternalism as what Scofield accuses the white new atheists of here.

More, actually.


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

Not acceptable to all those who believe in respect for all religions

Jan 31st, 2012 10:38 am | By

Via Padraig Reidy at Index on Censorship, a new depth of absurdity.

An Early day motion (query: wozzat?) in Parliament a week ago:

That this House notes with concern the sketch on the NBC Jay Leno Show where the most sacred Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, was disrespected by Jay Leno when it was referred to as GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s summer home; expresses concern and regret that this depiction of the Golden Temple as a home of the rich shows a complete misunderstanding of the Sikh faith and is derogatory to Sikhs across the world; believes that these comments are not acceptable to all those who believe in respect for all religions; calls on Jay Leno and NBC to apologise to all Sikhs for this disrespectful depiction of the Golden Temple; and further calls on the Government to make representations to the US government that while recognising principles of freedom of speech there should be more understanding and respect shown to the Sikh faith.

What? Are they serious? Can they possibly be serious?

Let’s look at that sketch then.

That’s funny.

It’s also an outrage, in the usual way – it shows how rich religious organizations get and how lavishly they spend their money on baubles for the organization. This is particularly outrageous in India, which has – is it 3 million people? 7 million? – living on less than a dollar a day.

But that’s not what that ridiculous motion, sponsored by Virendra Sharma, was getting at. No, that motion was nagging a comedian and a tv network to “respect all religions” which means making no jokes in any way related to them.

It’s unbelievably pathetic.

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

Some women have a hell of a nerve

Jan 30th, 2012 5:44 pm | By

Just in case you missed this – Afghan woman is killed ‘for giving birth to a girl’:

A woman in north-eastern Afghanistan has been arrested for allegedly strangling her daughter-in-law for giving birth to a third daughter.

The murdered woman’s husband, a member of a local militia, is also suspected of involvement but he has since fled.

Senior officials told the BBC that the mother-in-law, known as Wali Hazrata, tied the feet of the 22-year old woman, who was known as Stori, while Stori’s husband strangled her.

He is thought to be a fighter with an illegal armed militia which is is believed to have some political support. Local villagers say that Stori often urged her husband to lay down his arms.

“She lived in a hell not a house. But then she also asked her husband to stay home and avoid going out with these thugs,” one neighbour who wished to remain anonymous told the BBC.

Those three girls are in for a nice life.

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

Too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic

Jan 30th, 2012 4:33 pm | By

This is an outstanding observation from Kenan Malik’s talk at Conway Hall:

In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics.  Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness.  The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.

It sums up so much of what is so godawful about these battles – the narcissism, the petulant self-regard, the insistence on taking everything personally, the inflation of arbitrary outrage into some kind of political principle. Ziauddin Sardar had no right to think every word of Rushdie’s novel was directed at him; that’s a stupid, infantile, pre-theory of mind thing to think. It’s His Majesty the Baby thinking.

People make too god damn much of identity and belongingness. It’s the idol of the age. No doubt that goes a long way toward explaining why there is so much hostility to atheists: we prefer freedom from the celestial dictator to endless coddling of our identities.

What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it?  These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.

As in the serial fusses about Salman Rushdie.

Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.

Huge, huge mistake. Mistake any way you look at it – not just for literature but for all the people who got stuck in those “communities” ande have never been able to escape since. More than twenty years stuck being “authentic,” which means being trapped.

Same thing with Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti.

The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community.  But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community.  To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti.

And that’s where the damn LSE Student Union is stuck now – with the idea that only Muslims who are “offended” by Jesus and Mo are proper Muslims, and all others are inauthentic because secularized instead of theocratic. And they think that’s the more progressive view! It’s tragic.

There’s more great stuff in that article; read it at Kenan’s.

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

Trots fight back

Jan 30th, 2012 12:53 pm | By

This just in, from LSE ASH at Facebook – a poster from the Socialist Workers Student Society advertising an event on Thursday. It reads:

Religious discrimination is irrefutably on the rise at LSE. Both the Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims, and the ‘Nazi themed’ drinking games serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.

What does really lie behind the claim that religious communities cannot be the target of racists?

Is atheism the road to social progress?

Why do Marxists defend religion?

Great god almighty. A Nazi-themed drinking game is religious discrimination?! And then, if it is, why the “festering undercurrent of racism”? They don’t seem to be able to remember what they’re trying to talk about for the length of a paragraph. Lev Davidovitch would be so embarrassed.

And as for the rest of the dishonest censorious bullshit…The cartoon was and is not remotely “inflammatory” (and what are Trotskyists doing freaking out about things that are “inflammatory” anyway??!) and that stupid babyish tattle-taleish “a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims” is beneath contempt. I feel like composing a cartoon in a deliberate attempt to offend SWP-ers. What a stupidity-magnet.

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

The believer’s inner needs

Jan 30th, 2012 12:13 pm | By


I’m reading Kenan Malik’s talk at the Conway Hall conference on blasphemy, and it corroborates what I was just saying about contemporary religion (that it’s contemporary religion that is seen as “fulfilling people’s needs” and that it’s reading backward to think religion has always been seen that way).

This intensely personal, deeply emotional response marks a shift in the way that believers understood their relationship to belief. Faith has always had an emotional components and for some faiths such emotional spirituality has been  central to their outlook. Nevertheless there has been a fundamental shift in the character of religious belief in recent decades. Sociologists talk of  the rise of the ‘therapy culture’ to describe the growing emotionalism of our age.  Scholars such as the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Olivier Roy have described how such emotionalism has become central to new forms of ‘expressive’ faiths.  Faith, as Charles Taylor observes in his book A Secular Age, has become disembedded from its historical culture, and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’, forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the ‘me generation’…

In Spiritual Revolution, their study of religious practices in a small town in northern England, the sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead show that while traditional religious congregations are on the decline, ‘New Age’ forms of spirituality are beginning to fill the gap. But more than this, many once-traditional believers are beginning to adopt New Age attitudes and rituals, developing new forms of faith that celebrate the emotional aspects of spirituality and seek to fulfil the believer’s inner needs.


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

It wasn’t like that

Jan 30th, 2012 11:40 am | By

A couple of ”Really? Is that actually true? Do you really know what you just asserted?” items from a review of three books on god, meaning, what to do without god, emotional needs, and the intersections between them all.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution…

The fundamental tension, however, remained unresolved: between, on the one hand,  the views of an expanding educated class who saw the many holes in Christian  doctrine, and on the other, the people’s need for guidance and meaning that the  Church had long fulfilled.

It had? Really?

I don’t think so. I think Stephen Cave is reading backward, from the way people view religion now, and assuming that’s the way they viewed it then. But I don’t think the 18th century Catholic church in France did fulfill the people’s need for guidance and meaning, any more than a boss does that for the workers now. I think that idea is a very contemporary, cozy view of religion which makes sense at a time when religions have to work to appeal to people, but makes much less sense for a time when religion was pretty much mandatory. I think the 18th century Catholic church in France was a great deal more about telling the people what to do than it was about fulfilling their need for guidance and meaning. (Of course, you can translate “telling them what to do” into “fulfilling their need for guidance” but it’s a considerable cheat. It wasn’t “guidance,” it was orders. Much of it isn’t “guidance” even now.)

The inspiring stories of the world’s holy books are about troubled souls courageously choosing the rugged path of righteousness over wickedness and temptation.

They are? Really?

I don’t think so. A lot of the ones in the bible are about loyalty to the tribe and its god versus other tribes and their gods. True, there are also some stories about chaste, loyal-to-the-tribe young men resisting wickedness and temptation in the form of some whorey slutty woman trying to lure them into whorey slutty sex, but there’s more fighting and plotting and revenge among the men. Righteousness doesn’t really come into it most of the time.

It’s the pious orthodoxy of the moment: that religions have always been what some of them try to be now, and that they are fundamentally about meeting people’s needs as opposed to controlling them.

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

Like so much garbage

Jan 29th, 2012 4:55 pm | By

The National Post has a collection of pictures of the Safias – of Rona and Mohammed on their wedding day 30 years ago, of Rona and Mohammed and Yahya on the wedding day of the latter two in 1988, of Sahar, Geeti, Zainab, Rona in 2009. Especially wrenching, there are pictures of all four taken days before they were murdered, retrieved from cell phones that were in the car at the bottom of Kingston Lock.

It’s interesting that there aren’t any Rage Boys shouting about this. It’s interesting that Rage Boys get contorted in the face because Salman Rushdie is scheduled to appear at a literary festival, yet they remain entirely calm when members of their “community” murder their daughters and discarded wives. It’s interesting that a novelist writing a book is a horror and an outrage, but a murder of four women is not on the register. It’s interesting what people choose to get outraged about.

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

Shafia family guilty in ‘honourless’ murders

Jan 29th, 2012 2:45 pm | By

Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son Hamed were each found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in the drowning deaths of Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti, 13, and Mohammad Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52.

“It’s difficult to conceive of a more heinous, more despicable, more honourless crime,” said the judge.

“The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your twisted notion of honour, a notion of honour founded upon the domination and control of women. A sick notion of honour that has no place in any civilized society.”

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

Second-guessing subjective experiences

Jan 29th, 2012 12:12 pm | By

Mark Vernon wrote a response to Julian’s Heathen’s Progress series. It’s got to do with the fact that cognition is embodied, which Vernon somehow takes to mean that subjective convictions are trustworthy, or something along those lines.

…the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions. They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.

Alternatively, the modern atheist may admit that going to church can be tremendous and saying prayers valuable to cultivate thanks. But they will ensure that these activities remain contained – quarantined, you might say – by interpreting them as of strictly aesthetic or instrumental merit. They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.

That’s because it hasn’t been shown that “the divine” exists at all, and because it’s well known that “becomes porous” is just another way of saying “gives up all reasoning ability and becomes credulous.”

Julian says this in his reply to Vernon.

I’m afraid it’s all too common for defenders of faith to start off by piling up a whole load of interesting scientific findings, only to follow up with a plethora of non sequiturs.

The question rightly asked, however, is how reliable are the various cognitive mechanisms we use for establishing different kinds of truth? And there seems to be no escaping the simple fact that subjective experience, in all its forms, is a very unreliable detector of objective reality. Despite the comfort Vernon draws from recent research, there is no escaping the fact that the vast bulk of it points in exactly the opposite direction, undermining any confidence we might feel that our intuitive judgments are effective truth-trackers.

And this reminded me of something. It reminded me of a post at Talking Philosophy a couple of years ago, and my post saying what I thought was wrong with it.

The TP post was a thought experiment about a subjective experience of a monster crashing through the bathroom window -

at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought: What if it’s real?

And then the argument that it would be reasonable to believe the experience not just at the instant it happened, but afterward.

I pointed out a lot of things, including the question of evidence: was there any broken glass? Was there any physical evidence of any kind? Where did the monster go? I pointed out all kinds of obvious things that would follow the hallucination, and thus make it untrue that it would be reasonable to go on believing the experience.

All good clean fun. Julian goes on

The reasons we have for doubting that prayer and meditation provide any kind of access to divine reality are not that we have an unjustified prejudice against subjective experience. It is that we use our reason to examine the reliability of various kinds of subjective experience and distinguish between the ways in which they lead us aright and the ways in which they lead us astray. A persistent pain is a pretty good indicator of the presence of bodily damage; the feeling that you have been touched by the Holy Spirit is only a good indicator that you have had a generic religious experience, shared by many the world over, and you have interpreted it according to the narratives and belief systems familiar to you.

Just what I was saying two years ago. “We use our reason to examine the reliability of various kinds of subjective experience and distinguish between the ways in which they lead us aright and the ways in which they lead us astray.”

If we have a waking hallucination of a monster breathing in our face that might be evidence that we should get our brain checked for a tumor.

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

Pour rire

Jan 29th, 2012 11:33 am | By

Every now and then people spot a search term in their stats that is too funny (and puzzling) not to share.

At last I have one.

soxs with sandles over them for dogs

All the odder because I don’t know any dogs who wear soxs, or sandles either…let alone both at once.

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

Play up and play the game

Jan 29th, 2012 10:03 am | By

It’s always nice to see friendly rivalry among people of similar interests. It keeps their skills honed and their energy high. The right-wing Hindutva student group in India, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, is competing with the “activists” who shut down Salman Rushdie at Jaipur. The ABVP objected to the screening of a documentary on Kashmir, and behold, the objection achieved its aim: the showing was cancelled. “Activists” 1, ABVP 1. Next round!

Symbiosis University has cancelled the screening of documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadion Kashmir, after the right-wing student organisation, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), raised objections to its ‘separatist’ nature. The film was supposed to be screened at a three-day national seminar called ‘Voices of Kashmir’ at the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, organised in association with the University Grants Commission (UGC) on February 3, 4 and 5.

The organisation now wants the entire seminar cancelled, ABVP Pune unit Secretary Shailendra Dalvi told The Hindu on Saturday evening. “The content of the seminar, like the film, is anti-India, and against the Indian Army. We will not stand for anything that divides the country. Symbiosis has agreed to cancel the film screening, and we are giving them three days’ time to think about the event, too,” Mr. Dalvi stated.

Spoken like a true bully. Mr Dalvi is showing good form and will put the “activists” on their mettle.

Speaking to The Hindu over telephone, Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce principal Hrishikesh Soman stated that the ABVP had approached him on Friday, and that the college agreed to cancel the film screening “considering their [ABVP's] emotions and feelings.” “I told them that the seminar is entirely academic, apolitical and non-religious. But the film has met with criticism from all corners. So we have decided to avoid unnecessary controversies and cancel the screening,” Mr. Soman said. “If people have a very strong reason to protest the film, then we should be tolerant enough,” he stated.

Mr Soman is making things too easy for the up and coming ABVP. If he doesn’t offer even a little resistance, how will they hone their skills? It’s unsporting to surrender at once.

Asked if the college would cancel the event altogether, Mr. Soman said: “After the first meeting, the ABVP has not made such a request yet. If they do, then we will try to sort it out.” Asked if the cancellation of the film screening withheld the students’ right to experience and discuss all sides of the Kashmir conflict, Mr. Soman said: “I don’t want to get into petty issues. The seminar will be purely intellectual, and will focus on socio-cultural and educational issues in Kashmir.”

Mr. Soman said Mr. Kak had been “informed categorically” that the film screening had been cancelled.

Quite right too! How dare Mr Kak think his film would be screened as scheduled! Impertinent bastard. I’m very impressed with Mr Soman for being so sharp with him. He may have spoiled play by surrendering too fast, but his carry-through is excellent.


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

In an elevator

Jan 29th, 2012 8:57 am | By

A week ago a Canadian woman, Sheila Nabb, was found beaten and unconscious in a pool of blood in an elevator at a resort hotel in Mazatlan. Every bone in her face was broken.

According to Mexican police, the suspect has confessed. Making him repeat the confession at a press conference is horrendous legal procedure, but his account of what happened is…interesting.

Prior to the assault, Quintero said he had been drinking with a Canadian friend and “doing a line of cocaine.” He told reporters that he got into the elevator with the intention of riding to the top floor and gazing down at the lights of the resort city.

He says he encountered Nabb, who he said wasn’t wearing any clothes, at the sixth floor. When Quintero tried to prevent her from leaving he said she screamed, and he panicked.

“I didn’t try to abuse her, or I didn’t … I didn’t try to kill her or anything like … or rob her or anything. I was just afraid and I wanted to leave.”

Quintero said he covered Nabb’s mouth and asked her not to yell.

“But she continued yelling,” he said. “She got more afraid when I covered her mouth. And then I hit her … four or five times in the face with my fist. And then I left.”

The sequence of events reported is: Nabb tried to get off the elevator. He stopped her. She screamed. He covered her mouth. She got more afraid. He broke every bone in her face.

Every bone in her face.

She’s now in a medically induced coma.


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

Welcome to Atheist Towers

Jan 28th, 2012 4:45 pm | By

Hmm, I don’t know. It’s very sweet of Alain de Botton, but I don’t know. A temple to atheism…

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

One, De Botton is not a philosopher. (He writes poppy books that mention philosophers here and there. That doesn’t make him a philosopher.) Two, as we all know to the point of mind-numbing tedium, Dawkins’s approach is not destructive (destructive of what? what’s he destroyed?) and it’s usually not all that aggressive. Forthright, yes; sometimes acerbic, yes; but aggressive, no, not really.

So we don’t really need an “antidote” to Dawkins’s approach. If we did it’s not clear that we would need De Botton to do it. If it were and we did, why would we want a tower, anyway?

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Sigh. Same old shit. He makes the mostly-false smear true merely by repeating it. Atheism “has become known as a destructive force” because people keep recycling the boring and mostly wrong claims that it is. You would think De Botton could avoid such an obvious banality.

De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Well that sounds quite appealing, De Botton’s silliness aside. It sounds like the theme song for The Big Bang Theory.

Humanists said it was misplaced for non-believers to build quasi-religious buildings, because atheists did not need temples to probe the meaning of life.

“The things religious people get from religion – awe, wonder, meaning and perspective – non-religious people get them from other places like art, nature, human relationships and the narratives we give our lives in other ways,” said Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Society.

De Botton has insisted atheists have as much right to enjoy inspiring architecture as religious believers.

Well of course we do, but then we already do that – including churches and cathedrals, not to mention mosques. Inspiring architecture?


 George Pitcher, on the other hand, thinks it’s a great idea.

“Building a monument acknowledges that we are more than dust. Whether we come at that through secular means or a religious narrative, it is the same game.

“This is a more constructive atheism than Dawkins, who is about the destruction of ideas rather than contributing new ones.”

See? Destruction. Dawkins is all about destruction. People keep saying so, so it must be true.

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

One question too many

Jan 28th, 2012 12:39 pm | By

The New York Times reports on the bullying of Jessica Ahlquist…sort of.

A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion. In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group. The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.

Yes but…the Times sees the other side.

In Cranston, the police said they would investigate some of the threatening comments posted on Twitter against Jessica, some of which came from students at the high school. Pat McAssey, a senior who is president of the student council, said the threats were “completely inexcusable” but added that Jessica had upset some of her classmates by mocking religion online.

“Their frustration kind of came from that,” he said.

Many alumni this week said they did not remember the prayer from their high school days but felt an attachment to it nonetheless.

“I am more of a constitutionalist but find myself strangely on the other side of this,” said Donald Fox, a 1985 graduate of Cranston West. “The prayer banner espouses nothing more than those values which we all hope for our children, no matter what school they attend or which religious background they hail from.”

But it addresses “our heavenly father” in the process, and we don’t “all” hope for that for children no matter “which religious background they hail from.” The school could have removed our daddy in the sky and kept the values, but the school refused to do that.

At the very end the Times slips in the knife.

Does she empathize in any way with members of her community who want the prayer to stay?

You know…they could have just left that out. Many “members of her community” are telling her she should be dead and calling her things like “worthless cunt”…The Times could have just skipped the part where it shifts some blame to her. It could have and probably would have if this had been a racial issue…but it’s about religion, and we just can’t treat that the way we treat other subjects. It would be impious.

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

The last afternoon at Jaipur

Jan 28th, 2012 11:56 am | By

William Dalrymple tells us what last Tuesday afternoon in Jaipur was like.

It was the last afternoon of the Jaipur Literature Festival, of which I am co-director, and more than 10,000 people were milling around the grounds of Diggi Palace, the festival venue, eagerly waiting to hear Salman Rushdie speak by video link from London. For three weeks we had waited anxiously for this moment, ever since Maulana Abdul Qasim Nomani of the Deoband madrasa had called for the Indian Muslim community to oppose Rushdie’s visit to our festival…

Then at about one o’clock a large number of Muslim activists appeared in the property and gravitated to the back of the lawns where a huge crowd had gathered to hear the videolink. Some of them went into the central courtyard of the palace to make their namaz (pray), and according to some reports, the maulana in charge told his followers that if anyone was killed that day they would die a martyr. Then they sought out our producer, Sanjoy Roy, and told him that they were prepared to use any amount of violence in order to stop Rushdie’s voice being heard. Others talked to the press: one told a reporter from the Times of India that “rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie”, while the Muslim Manch representative Abdul Salim Sankhla was quoted as saying: “We will not allow Rushdie to speak here in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks.” While all this was happening, some of the other activists were turfing school children out of their seats and intimidating festival guests.

Some “activists.” Bullies, theocrats, goons – censors, haters of literature, enforcers for god – fascists.

The commitment of Indian politicians to maintaining artistic and intellectual freedom seemed to be becoming ever weaker. In the past few months, Joseph Lelyveld’s distinguished book on Gandhi had been banned in the state of Gujerat, AK Ramanujan’s great study of the Ramayana had been removed from the syllabus of Delhi university, and the country’s most revered modern artist, MF Husain, had died in exile after Hindu fundamentalists had hounded him out of the country with a rash of lawsuits and attacks on him and his work. In almost all cases, the politicians had encouraged the protesters rather than protecting the writers and artists, using draconian colonial legislation intended to stop religious riots to silence the creative voice.

In the event, we never got to make that decision. The owner of our festival venue, Ram Pratab Singh of Diggi Palace, stepped in and, on the advice of the police commissioner, took the decision for us. He said he was unable to take responsibility for a lathi charge and possible deaths in a venue full of children and old people, and forbade the link to take place on his property. He stood on stage and announced his decision. Then it was the turn of Sanjoy to speak for us. “We have been bullied and pushed to the wall,” he said, choking up. “All of us feel hurt, disgusted and ashamed.” As Sanjoy broke down on stage, the audience clapped loudly and supportively. Minutes later I got an email from Rushdie on my BlackBerry: “Yes, an ugly day, but please don’t reproach yourself. You all worked so hard. Thank you.”

But then Barkha Dutt interviewed Rushdie and that was seen on tv by millions a few hours later.

Rushdie was as eloquent and defiant as I have ever heard him: “I will come to India many times,” he said, “and I will not allow these religious gangsters and their cronies in government to stop me … My overwhelming feeling is disappointment on behalf of India … [where] religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas”, where politicians were “in bed with these groups … for narrow electoral reasons” and the police “unable to secure venues against demonstrators”. In a final flourish he also slammed the extremists whom, he said, “were the real enemies of Islam”. Meanwhile, on stage, we had a rousing panel discussion about freedom of expression, which was beamed live around India. There could have been worse outcomes.

We can only hope that the debate begun in Jaipur continues. Outdated colonial laws need to be repealed, violent fringe groups must be stopped from holding the nation to ransom and we need a movement to stop politicians abusing religious sentiment for political gain. Only when freedom of expression can be taken for granted can India really call itself the democracy it claims so proudly to be.

Quite. Also the UK.

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

The real privilege

Jan 28th, 2012 10:44 am | By

Someone commenting on Scofield’s Tikkun post endorses the claim that “new atheists” are totes privileged.

The literature, social spaces, and most widely recognized voices of atheism are predominantly populated by Western, white, male, heterosexual, cis, middle class (and above) people…[T]he lopsided demography of our communities tends to draw upon otherwise privileged life experiences, and as you have illustrated, this privilege inadvertently shines through in our literature and our actions.

True up to a point, but there’s another way to view that, which Scofield seems to be not just overlooking, but perhaps self-disabled from even recognizing.

Many of those “voices of atheism” are privileged, but what is the most conspicuous kind of privilege they have? It’s actually not anything mentioned in that list, except for the hint in “middle class (and above).”

The really big privilege they have is education, and the associated ability and freedom to think critically about their culture’s myths and how those myths are related to social control.

And what they’re doing with that privilege is trying their damndest to share it.

Not hog it, not Bogart it, not put a wall around it with a sign on the gate saying Rabble Keep Out, not charge a fee for it, not demand an oath or an initiation ritual as the price of entry, but share it.

Another way to put it is that their most basic form of privilege is cultural capital, and again, what they are doing with that capital is trying to spread it around.

Hank Fox has an argument in his Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist that has to do with the privilege of education, including self-education. (Hank doesn’t have a background of privilege. On page 2 he writes, “I don’t know of a single blood relative who got a college degree. Neither of my parents even finished high school.” But Hank is saturated with the privilege of self-education. He has the privilege of valuing it, of doing it, of sharing it.) The basic idea is that without education, people come up with bad mental models for how things work, relying on luck and magical ways of trying to get some, instead of figuring out what they need to do to change their circumstances. That’s a matter of privilege, if you like, but the good news is that it’s a kind that is inherently non-zero-sum…provided there is funding for good universal education, which there so often isn’t.

The privilege of education and cultural capital has this awkward aspect – often called “elitism” – that educated people may well know more about something than uneducated people do. That’s inequality. That’s class. That’s a one-up one-down situation. There is always the potential for shame and humiliation…but there is also the potential for learning and sharing. Yes no doubt it can be shaming when some posh Oxford guy says your god gives no sign of existing…but that’s not all there is to it. Would it be shaming to hear some posh Oxford guy reading the news tell you that Robert Mugabe had decided to retire? You do the math.



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

What did Primrose Hill do to deserve that?

Jan 27th, 2012 11:24 am | By

Primrose Hill is lovely.

But for some strange reason, it’s going to have a replica of Rio de Janeiro’s Jesus statue stuck on it to celebrate the end of the Olympics.


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