Notes and Comment Blog


Mar 28th, 2014 3:43 pm | By

Ron Lindsay has a post zeroing in on the question of whether corporations, especially for-profit corporations, can be considered persons and thus subject to the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The threshold issue then is whether a for-profit corporation can claim a religious identity.

RFRA extends its protections to “persons.” Unfortunately, “persons” is not defined under RFRA, so one must rely on common sense and an understanding of the role of religion in a secular state in interpreting the scope of the statute. Also unfortunately, a majority of the Supreme Court appears to lack both common sense and an appropriate understanding of the distinct roles of religion and government in a secular state.

Huh. Even if “persons” is not defined under RFRA, wouldn’t it make more sense to assume it means what it seems to mean rather than something it doesn’t seem to mean? You’re a person, I’m a person, General Motors is not a person.

I’ve never understood this, not with Citizens United and not with Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. But we seem to be stuck with it whether we understand it or not.

Under our constitutional scheme, religion enjoys protections from government interference— and correlatively, our government enjoys protections from religious influence (in theory)— because religion deals with otherworldly concerns, whereas government deals with secular matters. In other words, government stays out of religious matters and religion stays out of government matters because government and religion are focused on different concerns. Government can’t tell religious individuals or groups how to save souls, and religious individuals or groups shouldn’t be able to tell the government how to protect the health of women.

Of course, a religious person is free to engage in secular activities, including commercial activities. And corporations controlled by religious persons can also engage in commercial activities. However, when they do, they submit themselves to the rules and regulations of the secular state. When a corporation engages in for-profit commercial activities, it ceases to be a religious association, that is, an association focused on otherworldly matters.

But Hobby Lobby of course wants to have both – the for-profit commercial activities and the religious exemptions. Which is cheating.

In closing, one tangential observation: one couldn’t help noticing that during the argument, it was the three female justices, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor, who asked tough questions of Hobby Lobby’s attorney. One wonders if the male justices would have been more engaged in this portion of the argument if Hobby Lobby had objected to health care coverage for Viagra instead of contraceptive care.

Ah but you see Baby Jesus would never try to interfere with a gentleman’s access to Viagra.

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

Leaving the LDS Church en masse

Mar 28th, 2014 2:55 pm | By

Here’s a great event you could go to if you happen to be near Salt Lake City next weekend.

Mass Resignation.

Atheists of Utah, in cooperation with American Atheists, will be hosting a mass resignation event to coincide with the LDS Church’s General Conference.

Many people confuse being “excommunicated” with resignation from the Church. Resignation is your chance to leave the LDS Church on your own terms. It’s your opportunity to let the LDS Church know that *you* don’t want to be associated with *their* false claims and bigoted views, and that you will no longer allow them to use your name as just another notch on their holy headboard.

We’re excited to announce that American Atheists President, David Silverman, is making a special trip to Salt Lake City just for this event!

While we’re ironing out all the details, please be sure to check out the links below for the more information about the resignation process, and resignation letter tips & templates.


Dan Ellis
Atheists of Utah


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

Pre-Snickers dementia

Mar 28th, 2014 11:55 am | By

Wow. Color me amazed.

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images dissects an Australian tv ad for Snickers – you know, the disgusting candy bar with nougat AND caramel AND peanuts covered in chocolate, the one that pulls your teeth out as you eat it.

What’s the hilarious hook of this ad? Construction workers shouting at women – shouting things like “have a great day” and “what don’t we want? Misogyny!” Wo, cool, right? No. The construction workers are hungry, so they’re out of their minds. Hahahaha that’s so funny.

The construction workers are actors, but the women on the street are real and their reactions are authentic. The first thing women do is get uncomfortable, revealing how a lifetime of experience makes them cringe at the prospect of a man yelling at them.  But, as women realize what’s going on, they’re obviously delighted.  They love the idea of getting support and respect instead of harassment from strange men.

Hahahahahaha stupid bitches, so that makes it all the more hilarious when it turns out that the men are just Not Themselves because they’re hungry. Hahahahaha women, don’t you get it? EVERYBODY hates you. Everybody has contempt for you. Everybody thinks your pathetic aspirations to be treated like human beings are a huge joke.

The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial.  I wonder, when the producers approached them to get their permission to be used on film, did they tell them how the commercial would end? I suspect not. And, if not, I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.

What a dick move, Snickers. I hope you’re happy with your misogynist consumer base, because I don’t think I can ever buy a Snickers bar again.  What else does your parent company sell? I’ll make a note.

Have the ad.

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

Glam running

Mar 28th, 2014 10:14 am | By

Here’s a thought – don’t be mean. Radical, I know, but it’s a thought.

In particular, don’t be mean by leading people to think you’re doing something they will like when in fact you’re doing something they won’t like. Don’t ask someone if you can use a photo of her in your magazine without telling her you want to use it for the purpose of mocking her, if that is what you’re planning. No, don’t do that. That’s a mean trick. That’s a mean shitty trick. Don’t play mean shitty tricks. Don’t be mean.

SELF magazine ignored this thought (which is not original to me and not new at this moment, I should point out) when it asked Monika Allen if it could publish a photo of her running a marathon in a tutu. She was excited to be asked, and said yes. SELF didn’t tell her the purpose was to mock the whole idea of running a marathon in a tutu.

The photo of Allen was featured in the issue’s “BS Meter,” which denigrated the trend of runners racing in tutus, and placed the fad in the “lame” column.

“A racing tutu epidemic has struck NYC’s Central Park, and it’s all because people think these froufrou skirts make you run faster,” the column reads. “Now, if you told us they made people run from you faster, maybe we would believe it.”

Except that isn’t why. That isn’t why Monika Allen wore a tutu to run that marathon. From the Glam Runner Facebook page:

Excited to see our tutus in SELF Magazine … but shocked to see that running tutus are classified as lame. Especially considering the fact that this picture is from last year’s LA Marathon when Glam Runner founders Tara and Monika ran together as superheroes … because Monika was recently diagnosed with brain cancer and was running a marathon in the middle of a year of chemo.

What’s Glam Runner?

Since starting Glam Runner in 2011, Allen has produced about 2,000 tutus and has donated $5,600 to Girls on the Run – a nonprofit that has a 12-week training program for girls ages 8-13 to prepare for a 5K race.

So there you go: don’t be mean.

The Huffington Post concludes:

To support Allen’s efforts to brighten up the race track, and inspire young girls to get moving, find out more information about Glam Runner here and Girls on the Run here.

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

Normal and extremist defined

Mar 28th, 2014 9:41 am | By

Adam Deen of the “Deen Institute” (he’s the founder and executive director) (of the “institute” he bashfully named after himself) is ranting at and about Maryam Namazie on Twitter. He’s ok with ex-Muslims, you see (for the purposes of this discussion), but not with ex-Muslim extremists. What’s that? One observer suggested “the difference is between silence and speech.”

Author of Jesus & Mo obliged with an illustration.

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Adam Deen (of the eponymous “institute”) offered an amendment.

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I see. Normal is moving on, extremist is criticizing what you left.

I don’t accept that definition of “extremist.”

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

Two top-tier prophets swapping props

Mar 27th, 2014 6:07 pm | By

Irshad Manji speaks up for freedom of speech and thought in Islam.

Last year, Al Jazeera aired an intense debate about Muslim reform between me and the British commentator Mehdi Hasan. Hate mail followed. So did love bombs. But I did not receive any death threats. To be sure, the reality remains that those who shatter age-old taboos within Islam do have to fear for their lives. While it is true that every religion has its extremists, in no other religion do mainstream believers routinely shrug off the murder of dissenters. This is a life-and-death difference. All the more reason for ijtihad to be revived in the 21st century.

Nowhere does the necessity of ijtihad seem more urgent than in the wars over freedom of expression. One might say that the UK led the way. More than 25 years ago, a puny hive of British Muslims demanded the death of novelist Salman Rushdie even before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa.

Yes, but that was after India banned The Satanic Verses. The Bradford book-burning took its cue from the Indian ban. Not that I’m disagreeing with her, just mussing up the picture a little.

Earlier this year, I watched the British brouhaha over my friend Maajid Nawaz, the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Kilburn and co-founder of the counter-extremism outfit Quilliam. Nawaz had tweeted a cartoon called Jesus and Mo. Jesus to Mo: ‘Hey!’ Mo: ‘How ya doing?’ The end. That was it. Two top-tier prophets swapping props.

I call that catchy: two top-tier prophets swapping props.

The question is simple: can Islam be reconciled with free expression? The answer is yes. The Qur’an points out that there will always be nonbelievers and that it is for God, not for Muslims, to deal with them: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills — let him believe; and whoever wills — let him disbelieve.’ (18:29). Moreover, the Qur’an states that there should ‘no compulsion in religion’. (2:256). Nobody should be forced to treat tradition as untouchable, including traditions that result in the messed-up Muslim habit of equating our very human prophet with an inviolable idol. Monotheists are to revere one God, not one of God’s emissaries. That is why humility requires people of faith to lampoon themselves, and each other, once in a while.

But even revering one god is revering a human conception of that god. But I’ll try to stop quibbling. I’d rather have believers of the Manji & Nawaz type than the Just Follow Orders type, so I shouldn’t quibble.

For me, embracing freedom is an act of faith. Recognising the Almighty’s infinite wisdom means acknowledging my limited human wisdom. As a monotheist, I am not God. Nor am I entitled to behave as God. Hence my duty to let a thousand nonviolent flowers bloom. In short, to devote myself to Allah is to love liberty.

Ok, but you can do that without Allah. You get to the same place. And if you take seriously the idea of an “almighty” who has infinite wisdom, it seems all but inevitable that you try to figure out what that Almighty thinks, and back come the orders and limits and veils and priests.

I just can’t stop quibbling, can I.


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

More from the fetus as a person campaign

Mar 27th, 2014 5:04 pm | By

Do legislatures these days just sit around all day looking for new and more abhorrent ways of instantiating their hatred of women?

There’s one making its way through the process in Kansas that would mandate the reporting of all miscarriages.

A bill advancing in Kansas would mandate reporting for miscarriages at any stage in pregnancy, the first step along the path to criminalizing pregnant women’s bodies. Under an amendment attached to HB 2613 — which was originally intended to update the state’s procedure for issuing birth certificates for stillborn babies — doctors would be required to report all of their patients’ miscarriages to the state health department.

HB 2613 initially sought to provide an alternative to the state’s current stillbirth certificate, which some parents believe over-emphasizes their child’s death in an emotionally painful way. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R), one of the most ardent abortion opponents in Kansas, added the miscarriage reporting requirement last week. Now, the bill’s original author is withdrawing his support from his own legislation.

Nice that it’s a woman doing the hating.

…enacting additional regulations related to the end of a pregnancy threatens to turn pregnant women into suspectsin the eyes of the law. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) has documented hundreds of cases of women being held criminally liable for decisions they made while pregnant, particularly if they later suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth. Anti-abortion advocates also tend to pressure states to increase the criminal penalties for violent acts that result in the loss of a pregnancy, an area that can open the door to potential attacks on reproductive rights.

According to Nash, HB 2613 fits into this broader approach.

“The whole point is to further the idea of the fetus as a person. It’s a way of establishing the groundwork for making abortion harder to get, and eventually illegal,” Nash [Elizabeth Nash, the states issue manager for the Guttmacher Institute] explained. “This is one tiny piece of that overall effort. At the end of the day, this is not the way to go to provide support for a woman who has had a later miscarriage. This doesn’t make up for the loss of a wanted pregnancy, and could also end up infringing on abortion rights.”

Which was the goal.

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

So what’s the problem?

Mar 27th, 2014 12:21 pm | By

Charlie Klendjian says more on why the Law Society’s guidance on how to draw up Sharia-compliant wills is such a crap idea.

The Law Society has said its practice note has not changed the law. The LSS agrees with this. At no point has the LSS said that the law has changed.

So what’s the problem?

Well let’s try and understand what the Law Society is actually giving guidance on. It is giving guidance on Sharia law. Sounds reasonable, surely? Well not really, because this is no ordinary law. As the practice note states at section 1.5 when defining the terminology it uses:

“Sharia – the code of law derived from the Quran and from the teachings and example of Mohammed.[…]

This is an important point in itself: the Law Society is giving guidance on theology, and this is simply not appropriate. The Law Society represents all solicitors in England and Wales, which means it represents solicitors of all faiths and none. It is beyond the Law Society’s remit to give guidance on theology.

I’ve seen arguments that it’s a matter of freedom: lawyers are free to give people guidance on how to draw up Sharia-compliant wills, and that freedom is a right, and a good thing.

I’m not convinced by that, but I’m probably missing something.

The Law Society is a secular organisation representing solicitors in a secular legal system. It would not and should not give guidance on the Torah, the book of Revelations, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Guru Granth Sahib, and nor should it give guidance on Islamic theology. For this reason, if nothing else, the decision to issue the practice note is utterly absurd.

That’s how it seems to me, and that’s why I asked last week if there is anything comparable to sharia that lawyers can be asked to make wills “compliant” with.

By issuing the practice note the Law Society has created an assumption, whether it intended to or not, that Sharia law is a credible and respectable legal discipline just like any other within the English legal system. Furthermore, the detailed technical provisions at the beginning of the practice note concerning domicile potentially create a misleading impression that the focus of the guidance is perhaps foreign jurisdictional issues, but this is not its focus. The focus is the application of Sharia law within the jurisdiction of England and Wales. It’s not for the Law Society to generously give Sharia law – which has the status of theology in this country – the credibility of a legal discipline within our jurisdiction.

And the Law Society is also, Klendjian later notes, abandoning more liberal Muslims by doing this.

By issuing this practice note the Law Society has enshrined into its official guidance documents a damaging assumption: it has created the assumption that Muslims are a monolithic block who are clamouring for Sharia law. It has created the assumption Muslims seek to live under inferior rules to the rest of us. As my LSS colleague Sadikur Rahman notes, this is the “racism of lower expectations”.

Many liberal and secular Muslims, within these shores and beyond, are fighting a daily battle, often quite literally, to escape the clutches of Sharia law, and this guidance sells them out in an instant. Muslims who do want to live in accordance with what they consider Sharia law are free to do so but only insofar as this is compatible with English law, be it in the area of wills and succession or elsewhere.

And it’s stomach-turning when respectable institutions affirmatively help them do that.

Having stumbled into the theology debate, by section 5.2 the Law Society folds its cards and realises it must now outsource further guidance to the experts. It calmly informs its by now bemused members that:

“Local Sharia scholars are a useful source of information and may be contactable via the client’s mosque.”

And with this the Law Society gives a ringing endorsement to Islamic scholars, some of whom will be progressive and some of whom will be anything but. When exactly did it become the Law Society’s business to bestow upon theologians some kind of quasi-legal status? Answer: on 13 March 2014.

I said that last week too! If people want guidance on sharia-compliant wills, they should get it from mosques or “scholars” rather than the secular Law Society.

In the space of just seventy two hours the Law Society highlighted the unequal treatment of women in its profession, and then it gave guidance on how to use English law to use a medieval religious code which is fundamentally contradictory to English law. What a thoroughly modern interpretation of “equality”, and how very “diverse” indeed. Or perhaps the term should be divisive.

The Law Society’s practice note on Sharia succession rules demeans liberal and secular Muslims, it demeans women, it demeans children, it demeans non-Muslims, it demeans the very term “diversity”, it demeans the equality and diversity provisions of the Solicitors Code of Conduct, it demeans solicitors, it demeans the Law Society, and it demeans the English legal system – and so it demeans every single one of us.

As a lowly member of the Law Society I ask its president – I urge him – to draw a line under this fiasco and withdraw this disturbing practice note without a moment’s delay.



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

To highlight the wide problem of sexual harassment in the workplace for women

Mar 27th, 2014 11:33 am | By

There is at last a legal fundraiser for Karen Stollznow. She needs $30 thousand to defend herself against Radford’s defamation suit.

My name is Karen Stollznow. I am an author and researcher with a PhD in Linguistics. In recent months, I wrote an article for a Scientific American Mind blog in which I spoke out about sexual harassment I’d endured from a male colleague for several years. I did this to highlight the wide problem of sexual harassment in the workplace for women, including those in scientific and academic fields. Many people who read the article immediately identified my harasser by name, and spoke publicly about my situation on their own blogs and other social media. They knew who my harasser was because he had recently been disciplined by his employer for his behavior.

As a result, my harasser filed a defamation suit against me, trying to bully me into silence. Although he’s spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer to clear his name, he knew that I could not afford the same. In my attempts to settle out of court he has tried to bully me into signing a retraction, which claimed that I had lied about the whole ordeal, including his ongoing harassment of me, and assaults at one of our professional conferences. Although I didn’t sign the retraction, he posted the document on his very public Facebook page and announced victory over me. This also led to false public edits being made to my Wikipedia page.

I never lied about the harassment I endured and I have evidence and witnesses to attest to my experiences. The only crime I have committed is not being rich enough to defend myself. If you believe in justice and in protecting victims who are bullied into silence, please dig deep and help support this legal fund. I must raise $30,000 in the next two weeks in order to find legal counsel to fight these allegations and clear my own name. If my harasser succeeds in bullying me into silence, it will only serve to embolden harassers, and teach victims that they should never speak up, lest it ruin their lives.

Any money raised through this campaign that is not spent on these legal expenses will be donated to Colorado’s Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center.


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

God has made her female

Mar 27th, 2014 11:24 am | By

A Christian “school” kicks out an eight-year-old girl because she doesn’t dress or act girly enough. Literally. Word for word. They said she defied “biblical standards.” Oh right, all those parts of the bible that say girls have to wear dresses; I remember those. Geraldine 7:4 was it? Mirabella 22:15? Angelina 9:7?

“You’re probably aware that Timberlake Christian School is a religious, Bible believing institution providing education in a distinctly Christian environment,” a letter from Timberlake Christian School’s principal said.

According to WSET, the letter said that school rules said that students could be banned for “condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”

“We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education,” the principal wrote.

How exactly does the principal know that any particular kind of dress or behavior “follows suit” with Sunnie’s identity as female? What does he think he’s talking about? Does he seriously think “God” demands that girls were early 21st century US dresses in order to conform with their gender identity? How does he know “God” doesn’t for instance prefer Elizabethan dress, codpieces and farthingales and all? How does he know “God” doesn’t prefer simple tunics for both sexes? How does he know “God” gives a shit either way?


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

Until people are free to come and go as they please

Mar 27th, 2014 10:47 am | By

Maryam considers the question of who gets to speak for British Muslims. Her answer is no one and everyone.

She says there’s been a huge fuss about the fact that Maajid Nawaz included her in the brief film he made for Newsnight.

In the programme I explained why I define myself as an ex-Muslim. It is not enough for me to call myself an atheist when I receive death threats for leaving Islam. Calling myself ex-Muslim is a public challenge to Islam, Islamism and its death penalty for apostates. Until people are free to come and go as they please and without fear, there is a political necessity to label myself in this way.

Of course it made sense to include her in the film. Vyckie Garrison and Libby Anne have a lot to tell us about the Quiverfull version of Christianity, and ex-Muslims have a lot to tell us about being Muslim. The experience of exes is highly relevant to understanding religions, and all the more so when they are categories who are disadvantaged by those religions.

The point of the programme though is not that I represent the “Muslim community” but that regressive self-appointed imams and Islamist organisations do not necessarily do so. This is an important point that is often ignored in the media and by Government.

There is no homogeneous “Muslim community”. The “community” includes feminists, gay rights activists and those deemed apostates. Muslim does not equate Islamist; Muslim does not equate support for stonings, amputations, gender segregation and women’s inequality.

After all, people’s ethnicity, religion, gender, race, class, ability, sexuality, identity… do not define them; it is their politics and choices that do.

Well I would say both do, but I know what she means – it’s the things we’ve chosen that we really want to represent us, portray us, be what people associate with us.

I have just as much a stake in this debate as anyone else – Muslim or not – because to a large extent my life depends on it. As Islamists tell me all the time, no one is allowed to leave Islam and doing so especially publicly goes beyond the matter of apostasy to a matter of treason. This is they say is deserving of capital punishment in all countries.

You’re not allowed to leave Islam and you’re especially not allowed to talk and write about why you left Islam – it’s all or nothing; permanent or treasonous; total commitment or total crime. A nightmare.

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

Theory of attention

Mar 26th, 2014 5:32 pm | By

An article in Psychology Today – psychology for people who know nothing about psychology (like me), or more politely for the wider public – describes research that suggests that dogs have a rudimentary Theory of Mind, or one piece of a TOM.

Experimenters tested whether dogs beg more (or less) from people who (they can see) can’t see them or from people who can. It was the second. This of course causes not the faintest surprise in anyone who’s spent any time with dogs. Of course dogs cue in on human attention. I make eye contact with dogs in the street. I smile at them. They react. And these are stranger dogs. Of course dogs pay attention to human attention, including their line of sight.

And so the experiments confirmed.

Stanley Coren sums up:

Over all these results suggest that dogs do have a strongly entrenched, perhaps genetic, predisposition to try to “read the mind” of humans, at least at the level of understanding that humans must pay attention to them if they are going to be able to get them to respond. Wolves can learn this, at least at a low level for the most obvious of cues (when an individual has their back turned) but not for the more subtle cues, such as the familiar situation where a human is looking at a book and thus not attending to what is going on in front of them.

Or when she is looking at a computer screen and thus is not attending to the dog. Cooper starts awake when I put my reading glasses down on the desk. Yes, he knows from attention all right.

So, can dogs read your mind? Well they certainly seem to have a theory of mind and they are trying to figure out what you are thinking so that they can communicate with you and get a bit more of what they want out of life.

But do they have an elaborate enough theory of mind that they think about the feral cat outside who might be hungry and thus might want some of their food? Do they have an elaborate enough theory of mind that they then decide to leave some of their precious food behind for that possibly hungry cat outside who might come inside and eat it?

Uh, no.

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

Guest post: Children have a right to a diversity of opinion and experience

Mar 26th, 2014 4:46 pm | By

Originally a comment by Seth on Like the lights being turned off.

Recently I spoke with a friend of mine who happens to be a Muslim woman; she does not wear hijab, though every few years she struggles with the urge to cover her hair, because some part of her feels it’s essential to her religion. But she told me something curious about some of the ‘cultural’ reasons for wearing the niqab, which arguably predate the invention of Islam; basically, some Muslim women take to the full-body veil because they feel they are ‘too beautiful’ to go through their daily lives without sexual harassment from all of the men around them.

Thus we see in microcosm something that Christopher Hitchens condemned for religion in general; it is at once the height of abjection and servility, combined with the quintessence of arrogance and solipsism. Men are the favoured of God, entitled to all of the power and property and respect, but they are base animals who cannot be expected to control themselves if they see the curve of a woman’s chin; it’s the wretched woman’s fault for putting herself in ‘civilised’ company, distracting from the business of the day, for being too beautiful and perfect a creature to do anything but be admired in the home of the man who owns her. This utter debasement of men and women (with its concomitant erasure of non-cis, non-heterosexuals) is present in all of the major religions, but it is rarely so blunt and transparent as we find in Islam.

I am glad that I live in a country where a woman can wear the niqab if she chooses…but I’m much more concerned with providing women the space and freedom to take it off if they choose, as well. I wish there were women’s shelters designed specifically to accommodate women and their children fleeing religiously-inspired abuse (no matter what religion), spaces for women to take refuge away from the patriarchs who seek to enforce their control by force. And I believe that all children must attend a public, secular school, where they interact at least a few hours a day with kids of every gender, kids whose parents aren’t the same religion, or colour, or economic status. Children have a right to a diversity of opinion and experience, a right that trumps any self-proclaimed right of parents to cloister them into only one worldview. These measures are by no means sufficient conditions for the dismantling of sexism inherent in religion, but I believe they (or something like them) are necessary.


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

Free the rats

Mar 26th, 2014 4:01 pm | By

In the argument about whether dogs are likely to leave some of their dinner for a stray cat who might come into the house later to eat it (let alone whether the dog knows the cat is pregnant and is feeding her because she’s pregnant…), someone linked to this interesting research that seems to show that rats can do altruism.

In the new study, Mason, Bartal and University of Chicago colleague Jean Decetyplaced pairs of rats in Plexiglass pens. One rat was trapped in a cage in the middle of the pen, whereas the other rat was free to run around. Most free rats circled their imprisoned peer, gnawing at the cage and sticking their paws, noses and whiskers through any openings. After a week of trial and error, 23 of the 30 rats in the experiment learned to open the cage and free their peers by head-butting the cage door or leaning their full weight against the door until it tipped over. (The door could only be opened from the outside.) At first the rats were startled by the noise of the toppling door. Eventually, however, they stopped showing surprise, which suggests that they fully intended to push the door aside. Further, the rodents showed no interest in opening empty cages or in those containing toy rats, indicating that a break out was their genuine goal.

In this first set of experiments, most rats seemed quite willing to help their peers, but Mason wanted to give them a tougher test. She placed rats in a Plexiglass pen with two cages: in one was another rat, in the other was a pile of five milk chocolate chips—a favorite snack of these particular rodents. The unrestricted rats could easily have eaten the chocolate themselves before freeing their peers or been so distracted by the sweets that they would neglect their imprisoned friends. Instead, most of the rats opened both cages and shared in the chocolate chip feast.

That’s pretty cool.

Mason’s new study is one of the most recent in a series of experiments changing how scientists think about empathy and altruism in the animal kingdom. At first, most people agreed that true altruism was a uniquely human characteristic requiring an awareness of one’s actions as selfless. Now it seems that many animals have evolved instincts to help others, even at a cost to themselves, and that we inherited these same instincts. “The bottom line is that helping an individual in distress is part of our biology,” Mason says. “It’s not something that develops or doesn’t develop because of culture.”

It’s a mammal thing. Oxytocin. Caring.

In earlier work, McGill University psychologist Jeffrey Mogil and his colleagues showed that mice recognize their peers’ pain—what researchers call “emotional contagion”—and spend more time with suffering cage mates. His team also developed a scale to measure pain expressed on the faces of mice.

Mogil was impressed with Mason’s study, but had some questions about the findings. “This is surprising because it’s not clear what the motivation for the prosocial behavior is, although the prosocial behavior is clearly there,” says Mogil. Both Mogil and Mason point out that because trapped rats squeak out alarm calls now and then, which stress out any fellows that hear them, the rats opening the doors might be trying to silence their peers. Mason thinks the alarm calls aren’t frequent enough to motivate the rats, but Mogil is not so sure.

So it could be just “stop making that noise.” Or it could be freedom, freedom, freedom.

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

For the mommy cat

Mar 26th, 2014 3:30 pm | By

This story is hugely popular on Facebook, and it’s a sweet story, but it seems extremely implausible to me. But I seem to be alone in that. I’m curious what you savagely skeptical people think.

My mother’s friend adopted this lovely dog after he was abandoned by his previous family. His name is Shaun.

Shaun had always been very good at eating all his food. Every last bit that was, he ate it.

One day he started leaving a little bit behind. He wouldn’t eat everything, no matter what. He always left a little behind.

Every morning when my mother’s friend checked Shaun’s bowl, the food was gone. That was very strange, because Shaun always spent the night by her side.

One night she decided to investigate the food situation. She waited quietly by the food bowl and then, in the middle of the night, a cat came through the window and ate the remaining food. She noticed the cat was actually pregnant.

She realized that Shaun had been saving his food for the mommy cat. A week or so later the cat came into her house and gave birth to six little kittens.

Shaun took care of them as if they were his own babies. My mother’s friend adopted the cat too (her name is Meow) and they took care of the kittens until they all found loving homes.

Nowadays, Meow and Shaun live happily together as a family and they each have their own bowls of food.

It’s the “She realized that Shaun had been saving his food for the mommy cat” bit that I don’t believe. I don’t think she did realize that, and I have a very hard time believing Shaun was doing any such thing.

What about you?

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

Sorry, the seal has gone missing

Mar 26th, 2014 11:59 am | By

Creeping Refusal to Serve for Bad Invidious Reasons strikes again – a notary at a New Jersey bank yesterday refused to notarize some documents for Amanda Knief and Dave Silverman for, the notary said, “personal reasons.”

Photo: BREAKING: An important message from American Atheists Managing Director, Amanda Knief:</p>
<p>I was just refused service -- because I am an atheist. It was embarrassing, humiliating, and pissed me off. </p>
<p>A notary at a local bank, where I have gone more than a dozen times to have work documents signed, asked me to explain what we were having notarized. The documents were charitable organizations registrations for American Atheists in several states. So I told her what AA is about. She looked down, then looked at me and [American Atheists President] Dave Silverman and said she couldn't sign the documents because of "personal reasons" and went to find another notary who was eating his lunch to come do the authentications. </p>
<p>I have been called names, threatened, hated on and all manner of ridiculed because of my atheist activism, but I think sitting in a bank and having another professional refuse to do business with me because I am an atheist was the worst slight I have ever received. </p>
<p>In New Jersey, notaries are not required to abide by any code of conduct or ethics that prevents them from refusing service to people based on "personal reasons." Even though we had a valid, legal document and valid, legal identification--she was legally able to refuse me service. </p>
<p>Time to write legislation that won't let this happen to anyone else. Fuck this.</p>
<p>The bank is question was the TD Bank in Cranford, New Jersey (where American Atheists national headquarters is located). </p>
<p>This is completely unacceptable, and far from over.</p>
<p>- Your friends at American Atheists</p>
<p>---<br />
Become a member at<br />
Support the cause at<br />
Follow us at<br />
Subscribe to our quarterly magazine at</p>
<p>And subscribe to our NEW YouTube channel at</p>
<p>And our NEW Instagram feed at</p>
<p>Register for the 2014 National Convention at

Via American Atheists:

BREAKING: An important message from American Atheists Managing Director, Amanda Knief:


I was just refused service — because I am an atheist. It was embarrassing, humiliating, and pissed me off.

A notary at a local bank, where I have gone more than a dozen times to have work documents signed, asked me to explain what we were having notarized. The documents were charitable organizations registrations for American Atheists in several states. So I told her what AA is about. She looked down, then looked at me and [American Atheists President] Dave Silverman and said she couldn’t sign the documents because of “personal reasons” and went to find another notary who was eating his lunch to come do the authentications. 

I have been called names, threatened, hated on and all manner of ridiculed because of my atheist activism, but I think sitting in a bank and having another professional refuse to do business with me because I am an atheist was the worst slight I have ever received.

In New Jersey, notaries are not required to abide by any code of conduct or ethics that prevents them from refusing service to people based on “personal reasons.” Even though we had a valid, legal document and valid, legal identification–she was legally able to refuse me service.

Time to write legislation that won’t let this happen to anyone else. Fuck this.


The bank is question was the TD Bank in Cranford, New Jersey (where American Atheists national headquarters is located).

This is completely unacceptable, and far from over.

- Your friends at American Atheists

Become a member at

Support the cause at

Follow us at

Subscribe to our quarterly magazine at



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

Like the lights being turned off

Mar 26th, 2014 11:33 am | By

More to chew on – Mehdi Hasan talks to Mona Eltahawy in front of an audience in Oxford.

A few pull quotes from Mona:

I’ve been a feminist since I was 19.

Moving to Saudi Arabia as a young girl was like the lights being turned off.

I consider the niqab an erasure of women.

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

Firm to the principles

Mar 26th, 2014 11:04 am | By

Chris Moos updates us on the situation with gender segregation at UK universities. It hasn’t noticeably improved.

Worryingly even some elected student officials go so far as to openly advocate segregation. Joe Killen, welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths Students’ Union opposes bans on segregation based on an alleged “importance of segregation in political movements.” The Women’s Officer of King’s College London Students’ Union, Shaheen Sattar, who is also a National Union of Students delegate, has gone as far as demanding that “gender segregation should be respected, if not tolerated, in institutions of higher education“, as it was “firm to the principles of Islam”.

What else should be respected because it’s “firm to the principles of Islam”? Stoning? Marrying off girls at the age of 9? Mandatory hijab?

At my own university, the London School of Economics, the picture is hardly different. Despite the claims of the Students’ Union that segregation would “not be allowed“, the Islamic Society regularly holds segregated ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ circles’. This is institutionally endorsed by the LSE, who recently inaugurated new Islamic prayer rooms, next to a ‘multi-faith’ room for all other religious students, encouraging segregation with the provision of exclusive ‘male’ and ‘female’ Islamic prayer rooms.

Notice how the most conservative version of Islam is treated as if it were the only version.

Now, some Muslim scholars suggest that the provision of separate male and female praying spaces in mosques is desirable, whereas others, like the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, do not. In fact, there are numerous examples of Muslims drawing on traditional and progressive Islamic schools of thought, like theInclusive Mosque Initiative, who actively challengesegregation and encourage the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ people into acts of worship. As a place of progressivism and learning, it is hardly understandable why LSE would give its explicit endorsement to the segregation of prayer rooms to the detriment of existing egalitarian approaches within Islam, thereby side-lining progressive Muslims.

Then Chris points out a truly revolting example of cultural cringe in the form of a chaplain at Keele University.

LSE and UCL are not the only universities implicitly or explicitly condoning or enforcing gender segregation. An even more worrying example of official endorsement of gender segregation can be found at the University of Keele. On the Facebook page, students can be found discussing an event involving several religious speakers. As one of the student expresses that the Muslim speaker had displayed a “backwards mind-set” by saying that the cutting off of hands as corporal punishment was justified, and that men and women were different so must be treated as such, the university chaplain Reverend James Stewart takes it on himself to retort: “He said cutting off hands was acceptable as a punishment ONLY ONCE certain very specific, very extreme criteria were met. […] It’s a cultural, not a “backward” mind-set.” In the ensuing discussion, several students then go on to express discomfort about the fact that the event was ostensibly gender segregated. In what becomes clear in the following exchange, the university administration, in the form of Reverend Steward, does not only dismiss the concerns of the students, but actively defends gender segregation:

Some cultures find it easier to stay within their gender groups, is all. […] They [Muslim women] are used to it, and feel protected in their gender roles. It does not impede their enjoyment of the event, but enhances it, as if they were more intermingled the sisters would have felt uncomfortable […] Sitting separate is not “wrong” and I will defend women to go separately if they feel more comfortable to do so […] “Many cultures do this – Sikhs in Gurdwara, many Churches in the past in the west, and now in the East. It isn’t Islam telling them to do this, but their cultural inheritance. It does not abuse or disempower the women in any way, but rather the opposite. Maybe it challenges our Western expectations of what “equality” looks like, but to them it feels like being respected and valued for being a woman.

Right, and slaves in Mississippi were treated very well by their owners.

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

Where does that money go if they’re not paying for writers?

Mar 25th, 2014 6:12 pm | By

Oh looky here, what do you know…From an article titled Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free by Yasmin Nair.

I want to return to a thread I introduced in that earlier piece with much greater force: That those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs.  This would include not just academics with tenured or tenure-track positions, but adjuncts, professionals (like paid activists and organisers), as well as, really, just about anyone who writes for places like GuernicaThe Huffington Post,open, and The Rumpus (and this is a very, very tiny list).*

Guernica and openDemocracy are both 501(c)3s. Where, in the case of the former, does that money go if they’re not paying for writers like Tariq Ali, and guest editors like Clair Messud? Their labour is provided gratis, as a symbol of their entrance into the upper echelons of the writing world.

OpenDemocracy’s funders include The Open Society, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Tides Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Apparently, not one of these highly reputable funders thinks it’s a problem that a publishing organisation asks for money but can’t be bothered to even pay the writers without whom it simply would not exist.  

Ah. Oh.

Well, fortunately, it turns out I’m not a scab, because I refused to treat the article I wrote at their request for free as a “draft” and their “editorial suggestions” as commands I had to obey despite not working for them and not being, you know, paid. I gather that means they won’t be publishing it, although I don’t know for sure, because they didn’t reply to my reply.

Which itself is interesting. Not only do they not pay despite all those funders, they’re fucking rude besides. I suspect that the fact that they don’t pay causes them (ah this is so obvious) to view writers with contempt. “We don’t even pay you, you’re not even worth being paid, so why the hell should we be minimally polite? Why should we answer your outrageous email in which you dare to refuse to do any more work for zero dollars? Who do you think you are? Out of our sight, peasant.”

I might as well share my reply with you.

No, sorry. Way too much additional work for an unpaid article. In any case I’m not interested in writing to someone else’s recipe; I don’t see the point. I tried to make it approximately what you asked for, but if you want something that specific and tailored…I don’t see why you don’t just use an algorithm. I don’t see the point of soliciting writers because you like their work and then trying to make them follow your particular recipe.

If I’d known about the funding from The Open Society, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Tides Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and apparently others, I would have been much much ruder.

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

That voice tended to be male, middle-aged, and mostly conservative

Mar 25th, 2014 4:52 pm | By

Watching that Newsnight segment again. One thing Maajid says in his film:

The media rightly sought to hear from the Muslim voice. But that voice tended to be male, middle-aged, and mostly conservative.

Then there’s a clip from Citizen Khan, then Adil Ray explains about Citizen Khan. I want Adil Ray for my new best friend. In the clip a guy asks Citizen Khan what he does and CK says “I’m a leader of the community.” Guy asks what that entails, exactly, and CK says “I lead the community.” I love that, because I’ve been putting “community leader” in scare quotes for years. If only the BBC would learn how idiotic that idea is.

He introduces us to Dr Mohammed Fahim of South Woodford mosque, and notes that he recognizes that those who shout the loudest are those who dominate the debate:

Unfortunately Muslims are not used to discuss or to respect the other opinion. It is either my way or the highway.

Then Maajid says another thing I’ve been saying for years:

There’s an increasing number of Muslims who use their faith identity to advance a progressive agenda, yet we seldom hear from them.

Why do we seldom hear from them? Why is it always the anti-progressive ones who dominate the coverage and the debate?

Why didn’t the BBC invite any of them to talk on Newsnight instead of Mo Ansar and Mehdi Hasan? Why not Omar Kuddus whom Maajid talks to after he says we seldom hear from them. Why not Sara Khan whom he talks to after that? Why not Gita Sahgal, Tehmina Kazi, Maryam Namazie?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, he does talk to Maryam in this film.

More, BBC. More progressives, less of people like Hasan and Ansar.

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