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.

Meet the elf

Dec 25th, 2008 11:15 am | By

On a lighter note – in case you’ve never heard it, or haven’t heard it lately – here is Santaland Diaries. I defy anyone not to laugh. ‘Santa doesn’t deal in coal any more. He comes to your house and steals things.’

The snow is still up to our ear lobes here, and the streets going down and up the hill are still closed, and the buses are still not coming up here or going down from here…but I’m going to wrap myself in heavy-duty plastic and pad myself with inner tubes and venture out, with good hopes of being no more than two or three hours late.

Silent night

Dec 25th, 2008 11:02 am | By

The Taliban in northwest Pakistan is in a festive mood.

Taliban in Swat district have imposed a ban on female education and have warned teachers of ‘severe consequences’ if any girl is seen heading for school after a 15-day deadline ends.

They’re not messing around.

“You have until January 15 to stop sending your girls to schools. If you do not pay any heed to this warning, we will kill such girls,” one official quoted the commander as saying. “We also warn schools not to enrol any female students; otherwise, their buildings will be blown up.”

They’re not shy. They clearly don’t feel any need to win hearts and minds.

Durran said local Taliban leaders were determined not to allow girls to attend school, saying: “We want to enforce the true Sharia in the area – for this, we are fighting and laying down our lives.”

They are fighting and ‘laying down their lives’ for the sake of murdering girls who go to school and destroying school buildings. They are risking their own lives and destroying those of other people for the shining inspiring goal of…preventing girls from getting an education. Humanity struggles and learns for thousands of years and arrives at the point of – packs of ignorant violent men whose main goal in life is to grind women into the dirt.

Joy to the world.

What do the bible say

Dec 24th, 2008 12:04 pm | By

Now…let’s think a little more about Rick Warren and this here ‘invocation’ and what it all involves. Let’s think about Rick Warren’s beliefs apart from gay marriage.

Let’s consult that cached page of faqs again.

The Bible is God´s word to all men. It was written by human authors, under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and living. Because it is inspired by God, it is truth without any mixture of error. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20,21; 2 Timothy 1:13; Psalm 119:105,160, 12:6; Proverbs 30:5

That’s nuts. It’s childish. You can’t cite statements internal to a document to back up the claim that the document is inspired by God and that it is truth without any mixture of error. That doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work for reasons that are so obvious that failure to grasp them is simply childish. If that did work then all authors could just say ‘this book is inspired by God and it is truth without any mixture of error’ and be taken seriously.

I know that seems too obvious to be worth pointing out, but that’s why religion gets a free pass on this kind of thing. It all seems so obvious, no one bothers – so then there are whole huge segments of the population who never hear that actually there is no good reason at all to think the bible is inspired by God.

In other words it makes sense to start with the basics and go on from there. This whole idea of bible-based beliefs and morals is a broken reed; it’s worthless before we even get to the specifics.

And then there’s the fact that the bible of Rick Warren’s church is a translation, so what can it mean to say that a translation is truth without any mixture of error? Nothing – but Rick Warren says it. It’s childish, but we’re supposed to take it seriously.

The question is: What does the Bible have to say about when life begins?

“You made my whole being; you formed me in my mother’s body. … You saw my bones being formed as I took shape in my mother’s body. When I was put together there, you saw my body as it was formed. All the days planned for me were written in your book before I was one day old.” (Psalm 139:13, 15-16 NCV)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5 NIV)

Psalm 139 tells us that God knows us personally while we are being formed in the womb, and Jeremiah 1:5 is one of many verses in the Bible that clearly show that even before we were conceived God knew us as persons. Life begins when God creates, and the Bible tells us that that happens in the womb.

But the Jeremiah verse (in this translation anyway) says that God knew someone before the womb. It seems pretty clear that that’s a magical claim – that God is being made to say ‘I knew you before you were even conceived, I knew you before you were a leer on your father’s face, I knew you when your grandmother was still in diapers.’ So if that’s taken as some kind of rule about when a person starts to exist…it’s not much help. And then in any case, it’s just some words in a book. It’s a grand claim by a ‘prophet,’ it’s some poetry in a psalm. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about the foetus. Yet Warren says the question, when thinking about stem cell research, is what the bible says about when ‘life’ begins. (He promptly confuses life with personhood, of course.) You might as well think that Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils tells us that daffodils know how to dance. It’s baby stuff – but here we have a lot of adults taking it seriously and presumably heeding its instructions. That’s more bizarre than people generally admit.

Heads I’m right tails you’re wrong

Dec 24th, 2008 11:14 am | By

Now look here – let’s get something straight. If a fundamentalist literalist bible-bashing preacher says something, then it is hate speech to disagree with him*. Not only that, it is also Christophobia, demonization, and hatred of the people in their glorious majority.

[Warren] says the criticism of him in the wake of his selection has been characterized by “a lot of hate speech” and by “Christophobia — people who are afraid of any Christian. Our nation is being destroyed by the demonization of differences.”…He reiterated his opposition to same sex marriage, but said he is in agreement with “the view of the vast majority of the world and the vast majority of religions.”

And the view of the vast majority is necessarily right on any given subject and not to be disputed or declared unconstitutional or in violation of human rights. Unless of course the vast majority disagrees with Rick Warren, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The point now is that disagreement with Rick Warren is entirely illegitimate on a variety of grounds, also known as, any port in a storm.

“Free speech has to be free speech for everybody,” he says. “Some people feel today if you disagree with them that’s hate speech.”

Er – yes – as in the bit where he said ‘the criticism of him in the wake of his selection has been characterized by “a lot of hate speech” and by “Christophobia”‘…How quickly he seems to forget.

“I’m doing this because I love America and it’s a historic opportunity and it’s an honor to be a part of any inauguration of any president,” he says.

Indeed it is, and that’s exactly why we don’t want Warren to have the honor. We think he’s the wrong kind of person for a Democratic president to give that kind of honor. In fact a lot of us think he’s the wrong kind of person for any president to give that kind of honor at a secular government ceremony.

*Literalist fundies don’t go in for no women preachers, so ‘him’ is the right pronoun.

Marriage has meant one thing from the beginning of time

Dec 23rd, 2008 6:19 pm | By

Rick Warren is a bit of an ignoramus, isn’t he. He said when he endorsed Prop 8 in California

We should not let 2 percent of the population determine, to change a definition of marriage that has been supported by every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years.

Oh really. Is that a fact. Every single culture and every single religion for 5 thousand years. Really. Never one man and five women? One man and thirty women? One man and a hundred women? Perhaps Rick Warren has never heard of Mormons, or considers Mormonism to be neither a religion nor a culture. He probably considers Islam a religion though.

And what about one man and one girl? Perhaps Rick Warren is not aware that some religions and some cultures define marriage as including one man and one female child or five or ten female children. But if Rick Warren is not aware of that – maybe he really ought to shut up about gay marriage.

An eight-year old Saudi Arabian girl who was married off by her father to a 58-year-old man has been told she cannot divorce her husband until she reaches puberty…In many child marriages, girls are given away to older men in return for dowries or following the custom by which a father promises his daughters and sons to marriage while still children. But the issue is complicated by different interpretations of sharia law and a lack of legal certainty…The father agreed to marry off his daughter for a dowry of 30,000 riyals (£5,400) as he was facing financial problems…No figures are available for the number of arranged marriages involving pre-adolescents in Saudi Arabia, where the strictly conservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam holds sway and polygamy is common. But human rights groups say they are aware of many such cases.

Oh, well…at least there are no faggots involved. Whew!

The bible very clearly says that football is a sin

Dec 23rd, 2008 12:17 pm | By

The Saddlesore church on homosexuality.

The Bible very clearly says that homosexuality is a sin…[E]ven if some physical difference were discovered, it would be no excuse for sin. We know that some people can develop a stronger physical addiction to alcohol than others, but that’s obviously no excuse for living an alcoholic lifestyle…It’s not judgmental to say that what the Bible calls a sin is a sin, that’s just telling the truth.

Actually, no, it’s not. To say that what the bible calls a sin is a sin is not telling the truth at all; it’s propagating a delusion, and to say that homosexuality is a sin is propagating a harmful dangerous immoral delusion. ‘Sin’ is not a meaningful concept, and the bible is not a reliable source for much of anything, and it’s childishly obscurantist to pretend otherwise. Yet this guy is playing an important part in the inauguration – of someone from the non-theocratic party. He’s being taken seriously, even though he think an old work of fiction and poetry is a reliable source of knowledge about what is a ‘sin.’ What a tragic joke.

Seasonal thoughts

Dec 23rd, 2008 11:55 am | By

Polly Toynbee muses on religion.

Labour has encouraged the power of the religions to a remarkable degree, consulting them on endless committees. To be an atheist is now unacceptable in a political leader: when Nick Clegg confessed his non-belief, he had to recant and re-define himself as an “agnostic”…Expect a worsening clash in the new Equality Commission between religious rights and gay and women’s rights.

As the pope and the guy from Saddlesore church are merrily performing even as we speak. Gay rights? What gay rights? Homosexuality is a sin and don’t you forget it. Being a woman isn’t exactly a sin, but it sure as hell is not the way to get to be head of a church and tell everyone what to do – so piss off with your rights.

The churches answered criticism in the past with murder

Dec 21st, 2008 12:30 pm | By

Anthony Grayling murmurs a few gentle words to the anti-secularism crowd.

In the last few years secular liberals have been uncompromising in what they say about religion, and the targets of their criticism have squealed and complained as loudly as if they felt real flames licking round their feet. The churches answered criticism in the past with murder; if they still had the upper hand would they now restrict themselves to their critics’ choice of weapon – words?

Judging by what the churches and mosques do in parts of the world where they still have the upper hand, the answer is No.

[T]he religious persistently ask for special treatment: public money for their “faith-based” schools, seats in the House of Lords, exemption from laws inconvenient to their prejudices, and so endlessly on. They even have the cheek to ask for “respect” for their silly and antiquated beliefs; and in Geneva at the Human Rights Council the Islamic countries are trying to subvert the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because it is inconvenient to their medieval, sexist, intolerant outlook…Believe what you like but don’t expect me to admire or excuse you because of it: rather the contrary, given the fairy-stories in question. And when you are a danger to the lives and liberties of others, which alas is too frequently the wont of your ilk, we will speak out against you as loudly, persistently, and uncompromisingly as we can.

Even if that means we sometimes have to speak out five or ten times every day.

Whatever your conscience tells you must be right

Dec 21st, 2008 11:57 am | By

How do Bush’s exciting new ‘conscience’ rules work, anyway? What exactly do they rule in, and out? Are there any limits? I haven’t seen any mentioned in the news coverage so far.

Well I suppose I’ll just have to look at the rules themselves – though not all 132 pages of them if I can help it. But judging by the Health and Human Services page on the subject, they haven’t ruled anything out. It’s just a matter of ‘conscience’ and ‘personal beliefs.’ So no matter what damn fool thing you believe, you have the ‘right’ to deny medical services to anyone and everyone as long as you announce that it’s a matter of your conscience. Worse than that, no matter what cruel unjust misogynist bigoted damn fool thing you believe, you have the same right.

How stupid is the Bush administration, exactly? What is going to prevent ‘devout’ Muslims from refusing to treat members of the opposite sex? Or refusing to treat women who are not wearing hijab? Or refusing to treat Jews? What is going to prevent ultra-Orthodox Jews from refusing to treat members of the opposite sex? What is going to prevent ‘devout’ Christians from refusing to treat homosexuals?

It doesn’t look as if that has even crossed their minds, but why wouldn’t it have? Do they think people inside American borders don’t act that way? But even if they were right about that – does it not occur to them that issuing what amounts to an open and warm invitation to act exactly that way might encourage people to do so? Does it not occur to them that ‘conscience’ can cover a lot of territory and that not all of it is anodyne? Does it not occur to them that even they might find a real theocracy a little uncomfortable to live in?

These old men dress up in frocks to go to work

Dec 21st, 2008 11:28 am | By

Ian McKellen is pleasingly blunt.

The actor Sir Ian McKellen has said he fears that a growing number of faith schools are preaching religious doctrines — such as teaching that homosexuality is a sin — inside the classroom…”It worries me that there is an increasing number of faith schools in this country where it might be thought appropriate for religious views to invade the classroom. If that’s happening, those kids are getting a second-class education.”

Indeed they are, which is why ‘faith’ schools are a bad stupid idea. ‘Faith’ and ‘school’ don’t really belong together – they are in tension, at least if ‘school’ is understood (as it should be) in a modern secular sense. It is possible to have ‘schools’ that teach any old magic, but such ‘schools’ aren’t schools in the usual sense intended, just as madrassas are not real schools in that sense. ‘Faith school’ should be seen as a silly and harmful mixing of two projects that ought to be kept strictly separate because if they’re not the first will irreparably mess up the second. Children don’t (when things are arranged as they should be) go to school to learn how to believe things for no reason on the basis of no evidence; they go to school to learn how not to do that.

It is at least formally possible to have ‘faith’ schools that are such in a largely ceremonial sense – schools that sing a hymn in the morning and then act like secular schools for the rest of the day…but there’s no guarantee of that, so the mindless coupling of the two words is a bad idea.

When asked how religious studies teachers in all schools should explain the stance of Christianity, Judaism and Islam on homosexuality, McKellen said: “They should abandon the teaching of their church, because it is cruel and misplaced.”

Attaboy! No creeping around in a deferential manner, no simpering or ducking, no talk of spirituality or profound beliefs – just, they should ditch it, because it is cruel and wrong and stupid.

The actor said the gay rights lobby group Stonewall, which he helped to create 19 years ago, should visit mosques, synagogues and churches to spread a positive message about homosexuality. “It [religion] is the one area where people are not frightened to be openly homophobic,” he said…”I think it’s a sort of disorder that these old men dress up in frocks to go to work and call themselves celibate, then point the finger at other people…In 2006, McKellen angered the Catholic church when he said its leaders should be pleased that The Da Vinci Code, a best-selling novel and film in which he acted, confirmed that Jesus Christ was not gay, but married to Mary Magdalene.

Did he? Excellent. Any teaser of the Catholic church is a friend of mine.

No hijab no service

Dec 20th, 2008 1:22 pm | By

And for more obnoxious offensive intrusion by busybody theocrats, there’s Turkey.

A report in Turkey has highlighted “very worrying” evidence of increased discrimination against secular Turks…It details widespread social pressure on non-devout Muslims to attend Friday prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan or wear a headscarf…It suggests that a government policy of making appointments to local administrations on the basis of political and religious beliefs, rather than competence, is forcing non-devout Turks to change their habits in order to protect their business or their jobs.

Ooh – that sounds familiar. What does that remind me of? It’s right on the tip of my tongue…

The report cites page upon page of examples: non-religious nurses put on permanent night shift; landlords refusing to take female student tenants unless they wear a headscarf; secular civil servants bypassed for promotion. It talks of increased social pressure to attend Friday prayers and fast during Ramadan, and documents the difficulty in many cities of obtaining licences to sell alcohol.

Even though the AK party always insists it’s not really Islamist any longer. Yeah it sounds like it, doesn’t it.

Mind your own god damn business

Dec 20th, 2008 1:02 pm | By

Bush strikes again – enacting last-minute sweeping regulations, this time to protect religious bigots who refuse to do their jobs.

The far-reaching regulation cuts off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in care they find ethically, morally or religiously objectionable. It was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.

For refusing to do the jobs they were hired to do, and for obstructing other people’s ability to get needed care.

The rule comes at a time of increasingly frequent reports of conflicts between health-care workers and patients. Pharmacists have turned away women seeking birth control and morning-after emergency contraception pills. Fertility doctors have refused to help unmarried women and lesbians conceive by artificial insemination. Catholic hospitals refuse to provide the morning-after pill and to perform abortions and sterilizations.

In other words, zealous theocrats have taken it upon themselves to tell women how to live and what to be by refusing them legal products and services – and Bush has passed a regulation protecting not the women needing legal products and services but the intrusive presumptuous theocrats telling them what to do.

While primarily aimed at doctors and nurses, it offers protection to anyone with a “reasonable” connection to objectionable care – including ultrasound technicians, nurses aides, secretaries and even janitors who might have to clean equipment used in procedures they deem objectionable.

Welcome to the world of biblical medicine.


Dec 19th, 2008 11:54 am | By

And then there’s Lillian Ladele’s solicitor.

Ms Ladele’s solicitor Mark Jones said she would now take her case to the Court of Appeal. He added: “She wants to make it clear that, whatever other commentators may have said, this case has never been an attempt to undermine the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities. The evidence showed that Lillian performed all of her duties to the same high standard for the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities, as she did for everyone. This case has been about the shortfall between the principle of equal dignity and respect for different lifestyles and world views, and Islington Council’s treatment of Lillian Ladele…

Uh – what? What principle of equal dignity and respect for different lifestyles and world views? What principle is that? There is no such principle. What’s Mark Jones babbling about? If there were such a principle, that would mean we would all be expected to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ‘worldviews’ of Nazis, white supremacists, génocidaires, Panslavists, Islamists, Fred Phelps, and so on. We can’t. That would just be another contradiction – we would get the clang clang clang and the hook and the forfeit of our deposit again. We don’t have to respect all worldviews; we don’t have to and we can’t and we shouldn’t and we mustn’t. I don’t respect Rick Warren’s and Lilian Ladele’s (it’s the same one, so we can talk about them as one, which is efficient), and I’m not going to, and it is not a ‘principle’ that anyone ought to. Some world views are not worthy of respect and that’s that.

Relax, all we want to do is silence everyone

Dec 19th, 2008 11:43 am | By

How’s that again?

Islamic states say such resolutions [as the General Assembly resolution condemning 'defamation of religion'] do not aim to limit free speech but to stop publications like the Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed that sparked bloody protests by Muslims around the world in 2005.

They do not aim to limit free speech, they merely aim to stop publications like the Motoons. So they do not aim to limit free speech, they merely aim to limit free speech. Clang clang clang clang!! Contradiction alert; game over; all bets forfeit.

Disagreements on certain social issues

Dec 19th, 2008 11:25 am | By

No, that won’t do.

President-elect Barack Obama defended his decision yesterday to give a prominent role at his inauguration to an evangelical pastor who has campaigned strongly against abortion and gay marriage. The invitation sparked outrage among gay and lesbian rights organisations and disappointed liberal and social activist groups across the country. They have questioned why, from all the pastors in the country, Obama chose Rick Warren, who took a prominent role in campaigning in California recently against gay marriage, and who has compared abortion with the Holocaust…”It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans,” Obama said…”What I’ve also said is that it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.”

Fine, but that doesn’t entail giving a prominent spot in your inauguration to a reactionary cleric. That’s over-egging the pudding. You can talk to and work with people you don’t agree with, but that doesn’t mean you ought to enhance their power or give them a megaphone.

Which purpose?

Dec 18th, 2008 5:30 pm | By

Time to get cross with Obama. Rick Warren

compares legal abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to incest and paedophilia. He believes that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are going to spend eternity burning in hell. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He recently dismissed the social gospel – the late 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant movement that led a religious crusade against poverty and inequality – as “Marxism in Christian clothing“. Yet thanks to his amiable attitude and jocular tone, he has managed to create a popular image for himself as a moderate, even progressive force in American life, a reasonable, compassionate alternative to the punitive, sex-obsessed inquisitors of the religious right. And Barack Obama, who should know better, has helped him do it.

He’s invited him to give the dang ‘invocation’ on January 20th. That’s depressing.

Warren supported the ballot initiative that stripped gay Californians of their marriage rights. He made the absurd argument that legalised gay marriage constituted a threat to the first amendment rights of religious conservatives. If gay marriage were to remain legal, Warren claimed, those who opposed it could somehow be charged with hate speech should they express their views. This is an utterly baseless canard, but one with great currency in the religious right, the milieu from which Warren consistently draws his ideas.

Canards of that kind are in fact (ironically enough) genuinely destructive of various rights, such as for instance when the Catholic church claims that gay rights violate the freedom of religion because Catholics want the ‘right’ to persecute gays. It’s bad that Obama is encouraging and sucking up to someone like that.

[W]hile Warren says he opposes torture, he doesn’t treat the subject with anything like the zeal he accords gay marriage and abortion. As he recently told, he never even brought up the subject with the Bush administration, where he had considerable access. Just before the 2004 election, he sent out an e-mail to his congregation outlining the five issues that he considered “non-negotiable”. “In order to live a purpose-driven life – to affirm what God has clearly stated about his purpose for every person he creates – we must take a stand by finding out what the candidates believe about these five issues, and then vote accordingly,” he wrote. The issues were abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning and euthanasia. Torture, apparently, is something that decent Christians can disagree on.

How ridiculous – how pathetic. Stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning are ‘non-negotiable’ and everything else is more trivial. What a tiny-minded man he must be if he really thinks those are the five worst crimes in the world.

Furthermore – it is absolutely outrageous for anyone to claim that ‘God has clearly stated’ anything. God has done no such thing, and no one has any business trying to enforce that ridiculous notion. It is ludicrous to think that if God really wanted to clearly state some non-negotiable principles it would manage nothing better than to dictate a long rambling patchwork book full of all kinds of things over a period of a couple of thousand years and then stop updating it at an arbitrary point some nineteen centuries ago. If God really wanted to clearly state some non-negotiable principles then it would do that. Even if you think God has stated some non-negotiable principles – it’s still ridiculous to claim that God has done that clearly. Clearly is the very last thing you can call the way God is supposed to have done that. It’s just stupid bullying to say that God has clearly stated that everyone must do what one particular political movement thinks it ought to do.

Belief and responsibility

Dec 17th, 2008 5:47 pm | By

Peter Singer points out the consquences of ignoring science.

Throughout his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that Aids is caused by a virus, HIV, and that anti-retroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it. Instead, he embraced the views of a small group of dissident scientists who suggested other causes for Aids. Mbeki stubbornly continued to embrace this position even as the evidence against it became overwhelming. When anyone – even Nelson Mandela…- publicly questioned Mbeki’s views, Mbeki’s supporters viciously denounced them. While Botswana and Namibia, South Africa’s neighbours, provided anti-retrovirals to the majority of its citizens infected by HIV, South Africa under Mbeki failed to do so. A team of Harvard University researchers has now investigated the consequences of this policy. Using conservative assumptions, it estimates that, had South Africa’s government provided the appropriate drugs, both to Aids patients and to pregnant women who were at risk of infecting their babies, it would have prevented 365,000 premature deaths.

That’s a conservative estimate, notice, and it’s ‘roughly comparable to the loss of life from the genocide in Darfur.’

[T]he Harvard study shows that [Mbeki] is responsible for the deaths of 5,000 times as many black South Africans as the white South African police who fired on the crowd at Sharpeville…

In Mbeki’s defence, it can be said that he did not intend to kill anyone. He appears to have genuinely believed – and perhaps still believes – that anti-retrovirals are toxic.

But – I thought the instant I read those words – he had no right to believe that. Then I remembered The Ethics of Belief. Well this is a classic case. In a life and death situation, one has no right to believe something in the teeth of the evidence. Mbeki was in just the situation of Clifford’s shipowner.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.

Mbeki had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. Singer says as much.

[G]ood intentions are not enough, especially when the stakes are so high. Mbeki is culpable, not for having initially entertained a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, but for having clung to this view without allowing it to be tested in fair and open debate among experts. When Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, South Africa’s leading black immunologist, warned that the president’s policies would make South Africa a laughingstock in the world of science, Mbeki’s office accused him of defending racist western ideas…Mbeki must have known that, if his unorthodox views about the cause of Aids and the efficacy of anti-retrovirals were wrong, his policy would lead to a large number of unnecessary deaths. That knowledge put him under the strongest obligation to allow all the evidence to be fairly presented and examined without fear or favour. Because he did not do this, Mbeki cannot escape responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Disturbing, isn’t it.

As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on

Dec 16th, 2008 11:40 am | By

Kenan Malik on the fatwa twenty years on.

It has now become widely accepted that we live in a multicultural world, and that in such a world it is important not to cause offence to other peoples and cultures. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it: ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’…Today, we have come to accept that books do indeed cause riots and that therefore we must be careful what books we write – or what cartoons we draw, or jokes we tell, or art we create.

Which creates an interesting and alarming closed circle of repression. We ‘must’ be careful what books we write and what things we say – therefore we become critical of the people and institutions who demand that we be careful what books we write and what things we say – but we must be careful what books we write and what things we say – so we can’t write books or say things about our criticisms of the people and institutions who demand that we be careful what books we write and what things we say – and so on. We’re caught in a sinister spiral in which liberals want to resist repression and repressors want to shut the liberals up, which makes the liberals want to resist even more, which makes the repressors want to shut them up even more…

I don’t see this working out well.

Today, all it takes for a publisher to run for cover is a letter from an outraged academic. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised.

See Sherry Spellberg went in the wrong direction here – she hooked up her outrage to the repressors instead of to the resistors. Bad move.

Today, many argue that whatever may appear to be right in principle, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt. The avoidance of ‘cultural pain’ is seen as more important than what is regarded as an abstract right to freedom of expression…The lesson of the Rushdie Affair that has never been learnt is that liberals have made their own monsters. It is the liberal fear of giving offence that has helped create a culture in which people take offence so easily.

Yeah. Let’s turn that around.

Another cleric pipes up

Dec 15th, 2008 11:38 am | By

Another cleric lets us know there is ‘a lively and important discussion to be had…on the whole idea of the engagement between science and faith; then he gives a demonstration of the way ‘faith’ plays havoc with the ability to think clearly – or the ability to write forthrightly. One of those.

Contrary to popular understanding, the Christian community is not fundamentally anti- science…..[T]hrough the ages and still today, many significant scientists have been and are people of faith, and vice versa.

But that’s beside the point – unless the reverend is making a claim purely about hostility. But that’s where the lack of forthrightness comes in. When he says ‘engagement between science and faith’ does he mean likes and dislikes, friendship versus enmity, or does he mean something about validity as a form of inquiry or knowledge? If he’s just saying ‘some Christians like science,’ he may be right but that’s not really the issue; if he’s saying ‘some Christians like science therefore there is no tension between “faith” and science’ he’s perpetrating a non sequitur.

Richard Dawkins’s resurrected conflict theory, pitting faith and science as irreconcilable mortal enemies, is as offensive to atheist colleagues as it is to those of us who call ourselves people of faith.

But again, that’s beside the point. Never mind how ‘offensive’ it is; is it true?

Taking, as Dawkins and others do, such a dogmatic, fundamentalist view of other people’s opinions and then arguing the absolute correctness of their own view, which is that because a monkey shares 99.99 per cent of our genetic code evolution is proven and therefore there is no God, is not dissimilar to the aggressive and unreconstructed fundamentalist rejection of Galileo those years ago.

Very neat illustration of doing the very thing one is attacking someone else for doing – but I suspect that’s not what the rev intended. That ‘and therefore there is no God’ is just silly. It’s not just a dogmatic, fundamentalist view of other people’s opinions, it’s an outright misrepresentation of them; it’s something too silly to bother saying.

We believe that engaging with views that we do not agree with can be constructive.

Ah – but do you? Because that’s not doing it. Offering a fatuous parody of such views is not ‘engaging with’ them, it’s engaging with a fatuous parody of them.

Among the problems with reducing humans to no more than simple gene-propagating machines is the sense of hopelessness that this engenders. What’s the point in love, in beauty, in compassion, in poetry, in self-sacrifice, if all that we see around us is simply a “momentary cosmic accident”, as Stephen Jay Gould puts it[?]

Once again – beside the point. The issue is, or should be, the truth of the matter, not what sort of sense it may engender. Many defenders of ‘faith’ seem to have a really hard time grasping that very basic distinction.

And the debates remain. Why are humans here? Are we fundamentally anything more than just our genes, and the molecules that compose them? Why does anything exist at all? As the president of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees, concedes, “such questions lie beyond science … they are the province of philosophers and theologians”.

No they’re not; not of theologians they’re not; theologians have nothing to offer on the subject. Neither does anyone else, really – no one can offer a definitive answer to those why questions; but theologians actually muddy the water by offering pseudo-answers based on fantasies and wishes.

Free at last

Dec 14th, 2008 1:38 pm | By

Yesssssssssss – Humayra Abedin is free. She’s out, she’s safe, she’s in the hands of the British High Commission, she’s expected to return to the UK tomorrow.

I haven’t felt this lachrymose since 8 pm Pacific Time on November 4th. She’s out. She’s safe. She has her own life back.

London’s High Court had ordered her return to the UK under the new Forced Marriage Act and the High Court in Dhaka has now ruled she must be freed…Lawyer Sara Hossain, representing Dr Abedin, said her client wanted to return to the UK and her family had been ordered to return her passport…She was later released into the custody of the court and handed over to the British High Commission. Dr Abedin is expected to return to the UK on Monday. Judge Syed Mahmud Hossain said her parents’ actions were “not acceptable”.

No they weren’t. Thank you Judge Hossain.

Judge Hossain was shocked.

Yesterday, Judge Syed Mahmod Hossain ordered Dr Abedin’s parents to return her passport, driver’s licence and credit card. “It perplexes me as to why the parents kept her confined and interfered with her personal life. I am shocked,” he said.

Good. A useful lesson.

Dr Abedin’s lawyer, Sara Hossain, said: “Our courts have shown that we can guarantee the liberty of our citizens. This is quite a precedent.”

Damn right.

Now if only we could hear that Jestina Mukoko is free – alive, and free; and that all her colleagues are alive and free too; and that Mugabe has fled to an undisclosed location never to be heard from again – then we could all have a really good sniff.