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.

Oh comrades come rally for the niqab

Apr 13th, 2011 12:19 pm | By

 The Guardian is pathetic.

Kenza Drider stood defiantly outside Notre Dame, adjusting her niqab to reveal only a glimpse of her eyes. Scores of police with a riot van and several lorries stood by as she and another woman in a niqab staged a peaceful protest for the right “to dress as they please”. On the first day of France’s ban on full Islamic face-coverings, this was the first test.

Blah blah blah, for 14 paragraphs – the heroic defiant brave rad rebellious women passionately standing up for their right to wear bags over their slutty heads, with the heroic brave left-wing Guardian cheering them on. Yah baby you fight for that niqab covering your mouth and nose so that it’s hard to breathe and talk; solidarity forever!

Not one stinking word about the women who loathe the niqab and what it stands for and approve of the ban, or about the women who don’t like the ban but also detest the niqab and what it stands for. No, it’s all about women defending the disgusting reactionary woman-erasing hot speech-inhibiting theocratic medieval relic. Look at that idiotic photo, with the faceless woman heroically silhouetted against the sky.

Note the item at the end, too.

  •   This article was amended on 12 April 2011 to remove the phrase ‘normal headscarf’ in the sixth paragraph

Oops! Got shouted at, did you? Well see if you can’t learn something – the niqab is not a liberal cause. The ban is arguably illiberal too, but don’t go pretending that therefore the niqab is right-on.

It’s in the language

Apr 13th, 2011 11:24 am | By

I went to a reading and talk by Howard Jacobson yesterday evening. He was brilliant. Brilliantly funny and interesting and fluent. One wit asked what the bar mitzvah presents were like in Britain in the 50s. Jacobson responded that bar mitzvah presents were a big deal, and there was a little ripple of nodding and murmuring. He had, he went on, relatives on one side of the family who were in towelling and bedding. He received a lot of towelling and bedding. On the other side there were relatives in classy import items like tinted glass; he got wine glasses colored pink, amber…

His father had a market stall, where he sold swag. “You know swag? Basically junk.” He was no good at it. But he did his best – at this point Jacobson did a little pantomime of a marketer’s claps and gestures – then referred back to his failed youthful efforts to write books that had already been written (“I tried to write Crime and Punishment, I tried to write Anna Karenina – I especially tried to write like Henry James, about life in English country houses, about which I knew absolutely nothing.”) – “This is why I couldn’t do Henry James” [repeating the marketer claps and gestures again].

About his mother’s always making sure he didn’t expect anything, so that he wouldn’t be crushed when he didn’t get it. When he got the telegram that said he’d been admitted to Cambridge and he opened it and exclaimed “I’m in, I’m in!” she advised him to look carefully at the address. She assured him he wouldn’t win the Booker, and he said I know, I know. He was the only nominee who had a good time at the dinner, because he was the only one who was calm. All the others were too nervous to eat or drink but he had a fine time packing it in.

My favorite part was when someone asked how he separates comedy from just plain fiction. He doesn’t. He doesn’t say “I’ll write a comic novel now”; he writes novels, but he can’t write without humor. It’s in the language, it’s in the writing itself. It’s just there. He can’t write any other way. I know exactly how that is; I think I have the same thing. I don’t decide to put it in – I never set out to write in a joky way (and I think most people who do are bad at it) – it’s just how I write. It’s interesting how this works. Jacobson was insistent that it’s in the language, and I think that’s exactly right.

I’m having tea with Anthony Grayling later today.

Melting, melting, all my beautiful wickedness…

Apr 12th, 2011 4:54 pm | By

Berlinerblau is back in the trenches battling the Monstrous Regiment of Gnus. Not much of a battle, he just agrees with another warrior that there haven’t been many “atheist martyrs”; what that’s supposed to prove is somewhat mysterious. Do any gnus talk nonsense about piles of atheist corpses? Not that I recall.

Never mind, the point is, it’s all over. We should pack up our gnu megaphones and our gnu pepper spray and go home. The tide of history done turned against us.

Hoffmann represents a rapidly growing contingent of atheists and agnostics who, for a variety of different reasons, are expressing increasing frustration with the New Atheist world-view. Many of them are affiliated with the school of “Secular Humanism.” I hope to write about this split at a later date.

The Hoffmann he quotes is even more optimistic.

Have there been atheist martyrs–women and men who suffered and died as a consequence of their rejection of God?

This thoughtful question came up when I recently suggested that I detect a trend in the small but dwindling new atheist community to pad the bona fides of their young tradition with things that didn’t really happen.  We know that real Gnus love science and aren’t too keen on history…

A rapidly growing contingent versus a small but dwindling community. We’re doomed! Doomed, I tell you! Thanks to the perspicacity and determination of the frustrated atheists and agnostics, the new atheist community is on the verge of disappearing in a puff of sulphur.

Good old interfaith atheism

Apr 12th, 2011 11:41 am | By

Chris Stedman is (understandably) tired of my questions about his faithy status updates at Facebook, so I’d better stop asking them there. There is such a thing as being a pain in the ass, after all.

I’ll make a couple of remarks here, instead. If I’m going to be a pain in the ass I should be it here rather than on someone else’s updates.

The update in question was to say he’s joining the board of directors of something called World Faith. I found it, and it’s what you would expect from the name – it’s an interfaith thingy. It may be very benevolent and all, but it’s an interfaith thingy. It’s pro-faith. It valorizes faith. It thinks faith is a good thing – such a good thing that it’s the way to organize one’s commitments and projects and activities. It makes faith central. It doesn’t problematize “faith.”

The way I see it, joining its board of directors is an endorsement of “faith” as such. I think it’s incoherent to claim otherwise. The name is what it is; it means what it means; it’s no good pretending it means its own opposite. If you join the board of directors of a body called World Socialism, you’re endorsing and undertaking to work for socialism. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for World Libertarianism, World Scientology, World Trekkies, World Wiccans.

Chris thinks I’m wrong and obstinate and uncomprehending to keep thinking this no matter how often he explains it to me – but I think he’s wrong to go on thinking he can define “interfaith” and “world faith” in some special way so that they mean their own opposites anywhere outside his own head.

He’s got a speaking tour starting up in a few days. I’m sorry to say this but it looks to me like just another “I’m the good, pro-faith kind of atheist, not like those bad anti-faith atheists” speaking tour. It looks to me as if Chris, with the Harvard humanist “chaplaincy” in the background, is again making a big point of ostracizing gnu atheists in order to replace them with some weird entity that is pro-faith chaplain-endowed churchy Humanism that doesn’t believe in god but nevertheless loves goddy people much more than it loves atheism.

Check out the poster. Faith faith religion faith chaplain faith religious faith dialogue. It’s sponsored by the Interfaith Council and…the Secular Student Alliance. Go figure.

Rigid, authoritarian, and emotionally abusive

Apr 11th, 2011 12:10 pm | By

Religion is not all bad, we’re told. Religion is often good, we’re told. Some atheists do nothing but bash religion, we’re told. Some atheists do nothing but bash “the religious,” we’re told.

Not all religions are literalist, we’re told. Not all religions are fundamentalist or theocratic or doctrinaire, we’re told. Unitarian Universalism, for instance, is liberal and swell, we’re told.

But some former Unitarian Universalists beg to differ.

There is a contrary trend, though, in many local UU congregations and in the national UU Association (“UUA”): extremely strong religious privilege and (largely as a consequence) severe distaste for open atheism and criticism of religion. Very few UUs believe in “God” as that term is broadly understood by theists (and atheists) the word over, but lots of UUs believe in “religion,” “faith,” “prayer,” “church,” and (indeed) “God” as terms and systems that deserve support and defense. Gnu-bashing is overwhelmingly common and accepted among UUs, especially clergy and denominational administrators, as I have documented repeatedly (several selected examples here).

In one of those selected examples we read

our Association is dotted by powerful ministers and administrators who regularly push outrageous and bigoted messages about atheists, agnostics, not-particularly-“spiritual” humanists, and anyone whose skepticism leads her to an outlook that is less pious than these figures would prefer. UU discourse about atheism and skepticism is riven with bigotry, disrespect, and ignorant stereotype–and the broader community’s reponse has been… for the most part utter silence.

This, depressingly, confirms what many of us already know: that atheists are the last (or almost the last) group (non-criminal group) it is not just ok but positively virtuous to malign.

 My own minister has declared that I, and everyone who sees the world the way I do,

are often unaware of the sharp limits of their empathy and their abilities to construct and identify with the interior feelings and processes of others. Religiously, these persons are often drawn to the rigidities and seemingly unambiguous teachings of fundamentalism–and there are liberals and radical fundamentalist spirits. As spouses, parents and bosses, such persons are, at the best, insensitive, and at the worst, rigid, authoritarian, and emotionally abusive.

Read that last sentence with attention, and ponder it. That’s what putative liberal religions think of atheists.

The notion Lord Rees so casually endorses

Apr 10th, 2011 11:21 am | By

Nick Cohen is not unduly impressed by the Templeton Foundation.

Initially, it made no secret of its admiration for clerical hucksters and dispensed prizes to the evangelical showman Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, who sought to wallow in Calcuttan poverty rather than end it. Now it has moved upmarket and seeks to reward intellectuals who allow religion to scrape an acquaintance with science; who imply, however vaguely, that evidence-based research and ancient fable are compatible.

That’s the one. I point this out because the gnu-haters have been so energetically defending it in the past few days – I want to underline the fact that Nick is not an ally in that project.

Rees is not, Nick points out, actually religious.

The religious nevertheless showered him with money because he is a symptomatic figure of our tongue-biting age. Like millions who should know better, Rees is not religious himself but “respects” religion and wants it to live in “peaceful co-existence” with it.

Which is the difference between gnu atheists and the other kind – even they “respect” religion, at least in the sense that they would far rather tell rude whoppers about us every few days than say a harsh syllable about religion.

…the respect the secular give too freely involves darker concessions. It prevents an honest confrontation with radical Islam or any other variant of poor world religious extremism and a proper solidarity with extremism’s victims. “I don’t want to force Muslims to choose between God and Darwin,” Rees says, forgetting that scientists “force” no one to choose Darwin, while theocracies force whole populations to bow to their gods. So cloying is the deference that few notice how the demand for “respect” gives away the shallowness of contemporary religious thought.

In the past, the faithful did not accuse their critics of mere bad manners. Charges of blasphemy and heresy were once like accusations of libel. The sinner had sought to spread falsehoods against the true religion, which his prosecutors exposed in court.

And truth was no defense.

…the notion Lord Rees so casually endorses – that you must respect the privacy of ideologies that mandate violence, the subjugation of women and the persecution of homosexuals and treat them as if they were beyond criticism and scientific refutation – is the most cowardly evasion of intellectual duty of our day.

Damn right.

I’m reading a draft of Nick’s next book, by the way. It’s way good.

Ruse rhymes with loose, he says so himself

Apr 9th, 2011 3:42 pm | By

Just a little note to point out the consistent rudeness and inaccuracy (to put it politely) of Michael Ruse.

I read one of the responses to my recent piece on Darwinism and the problem of evil. One of the junior new atheists — that is to say, not one of the big four of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — took extreme umbrage to my picking on him (even more umbrage at my not naming him by name) and my suggesting that absolute reality might not correspond exactly to his worldview.

No he didn’t. Any “umbrage” he took was a good deal less extreme than the umbrage Ruse routinely takes at (not to: at) a great many people and things but especially gnu atheists. “He” is Jason Rosenhouse. Jason starts by quoting Ruse on Giberson and Collins:

the book is intended to defend Christianity against the critics who argue that science and religion are incompatible. Expectedly, it has got all of the junior New Atheists jumping with joyous ire, and all over the blogs are stern condemnations: “this is not a good book” “the authors’s [sic] frequently murky prose”; “I was struck by just how unserious they are on this issue.” You get the idea.

Jason points out that all of those quotes come from his review of the book. Now that you know that, look again at what Ruse said. Typical of him, isn’t it. “The junior New Atheists,” as if it were hundreds of them, or even three, when in fact it was one. “You get the idea,” says Ruse, sloppily, and no doubt we do, but it’s a wrong idea. We get the idea that there are lots of gnu atheists jumping with joyous ire when in fact there is only one Jason, writing a reasoned review. “All over the blogs are stern condemnations”: by which he means one.

Jason says, mildly,

 Apparently describing a pro-religion book as not good, or protesting that its prose is murky, is now a level of rhetoric vitriolic enough to get you dismissed as a New Atheist, if only a junior one. Of course, Ruse might have quoted the context surrounding those criticisms, since I rather clearly expressed regret that I found the book so inadequate and recommended a better book defending the same basic ideas. But that basic nod to fairness would have required conceding that I wasn’t just writing an angry screed.

Ruse doesn’t do basic nods to fairness. Ruse does rudeness and (to put it much too politely) inaccuracy.

The Tennessee legislature helps out

Apr 9th, 2011 11:35 am | By


In a 70-28 vote today, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB 368, a bill that encourages science teachers to explore controversial topics without fear of reprisal. Critics say the measure will enable K-12 teachers to present intelligent design and creationism as acceptable alternatives to evolution in the classroom.

“There has been a widespread pattern of discrimination against educators who would challenge evolution in the classroom,” Casey Luskin, a policy analyst for the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute, in Seattle, Washington, told ScienceInsider. “Schools censor from students the evidence against evolution. This protects the rights of teachers to teach in an objective way.” The Discovery Institute supports the bill and others like it in other states.

And thus we see yet another illustration of the compatibility of religion and science.


Apr 9th, 2011 10:40 am | By

So what’s Templeton up to besides giving a wad of cash to Martin Rees for saying “religion is all right I suppose now please excuse me I have better things to do”?

Well, it’s up to asking silly questions like “Is There a Link Between Spiritual Growth and Academic Performance at College?” It’s up to funding people who investigate such questions by way of research on “spirituality in higher education.”

In 2003, we began a seven-year study examining how students change during the college years and the role that college plays in facilitating the development of their spiritual and religious qualities. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, “Spirituality in Higher Education: Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose,” is the first national longitudinal study of students’ spiritual growth.

This is one of the ways the Templeton Foundation contaminates or pollutes or adulterates intellectual life. It does it by funding suggestions that searching for meaning and purpose equals “spirituality” which as any fule kno is a synonym or  a stealth euphemism for religion, so the upshot is a suggestion that atheists don’t know from meaning and purpose and atheism is sterile and a path to futility.

It is our shared belief that the findings provide a powerful argument for the proposition that higher education should attend more to students’ spiritual development, because spirituality is essential to students’ lives

Assisting students’ spiritual growth will help create a new generation who are more caring, more globally aware, and more committed to social justice than previous generations…

So we learn that atheists are less caring, less globally aware, and less committed to social justice, funded by the Templeton Foundation, thank you very much.

Profound insights vital questions spiritual progress

Apr 8th, 2011 4:23 pm | By

The dear Templeton Foundation itself knows why it gave the gong to Martin Rees. It’s because he is

a theoretical astrophysicist whose profound insights on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears, has won the 2011 Templeton Prize.

Insights, which are more spiritual than research, or equations, especially when they’re profound insights. And if they speak to (what? what does that mean?) humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears (what do they say when they speak to them?) then those insights are a red-hot ticket to Templeton’s version of the genius grant.

But what does it actually mean? How do his “profound insights” about the universe speak to our hopes and fears? Is it just…you know…the universe is very big and full of surprises so…well that’s it really – ? Or is it something more…definite. If anybody knows, fill us in.

In turn, the “big questions” he raises – such as “How large is physical reality?” – are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize.

What theological considerations? How are the questions reshaping them? How do the considerations “strike at the core of life”? How does that striking “foster spiritual progress”? What is “spiritual progress”?

This all looks, to the untutored observer like me, like pure bullshitting. It looks like empty word-spinning that means simply nothing at all. I think if it actually meant something they would have managed to say a little about what that was.

Sean Carroll is not bowled over.

Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen

Apr 8th, 2011 3:17 pm | By

Dan Jones, also in the Guardian, also reacting to the atheist reaction to the Templeton prize, is slightly less belligerent than Michael White. Only slightly though.

Unlike Coyne, however, I don’t see a bogeymen round every religious corner, and I don’t feel compelled to denounce the Templeton Foundation as a enemy of science.

Only very slightly. It’s not a matter of bogeymen and it’s not every corner.

I say to Coyne: “Show me the money!” – where is the evidence that the mere existence of Templeton, and the facts of its funding activities, have corrupted science in any sense?

I offered some evidence in a comment.

Take a good close look at Templeton-funded BioLogos, for a start. Or the Templeton-funded “Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion,” which is “part of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford.” Or the Templeton-funded and created “Faraday Institute for Science and Religion” which is based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

Templeton money has done a lot to create a pretend “discipline” of “Science & Religion” (never Religion & Science, because that would give the game away) which in turn has done a lot to create new dogma about how compatible the two have been through history and still are today. Check out The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, edited by Peter Harrison, director of the aforementioned Ian Ramsey Centre. Harrison says in the intro that the book is about the compatability of the two and that incompatibility won’t even be addressed in the book, because that notion has been so thoroughly rejected.

We talked about all this last October. We talked about that Cambridge Companion, for instance, and Harrison’s claim that the “conflict model” of religion and science is totally out of fashion and stale and icky.

This kind of thing does look like corruption to me – not necessarily in the criminal sense, but in the sense of spoilage, taint, pollution; an admixture of something alien that undermines or destroys the host substance. I don’t think the scholars doing it are corrupt, but I think what they’re doing tends to corrupt the subject. I think they have an agenda, whether they know it or not, and I think Templeton money makes it possible for them to forward that agenda. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I wonder what Dan Jones would think if he were aware of any of this, which he pretty clearly isn’t.

Buy Lady R some ribbons

Apr 8th, 2011 11:46 am | By

Sometimes – in fact often – the sheer vulgarity is surprising.

Brilliant scientists at some of our great seats of learning, men whose lives are devoted to the rational pursuit of knowledge, turn out to be capable of as much intolerance and stupidity as the rest of us.What have they done this time? They’ve hurled abuse and reproach on Lord Rees of Ludlow…a meteor shower of abuse descends upon his head.

I’m more puzzled by this kind of abusive behaviour than I am surprised. Deep down, we all know that great men of science can be as petty and spiteful…as politicians, footballers or captains of industry.

He seems to think all scientists are men, which is clueless and inattentive as well as vulgar, and the rest of it is just…well, abuse. It’s the usual: some atheists dissent from theophilic orthodoxy, and that is translated into a long list of boo-words like intolerant, stupid, petty, and spiteful.

What upsets part of the scientific community – needless to say, Oxford’s most militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, is part of the chorus – is their belief that Templeton, an enthusiastic Presbyterian, tries to blur the boundary between science and religion, making a virtue of belief without evidence.

That’s right. And? Why is it intolerant and stupid and abusive and militant to think that’s a problem? Michael White doesn’t say, he just says we all do it don’t we, like people who think Chelsea will win. That’s not a very cogent or reasoned explanation.

He says Harry Kroto wants Rees to give the money to the BHA.

I hope he doesn’t. What a waste! Take Lady R on a nice cruise, at the very least take her on a shopping spree in that nice new Cambridge mall before you do that, Marty.

That’s attractive, isn’t it? Lady R is a woman, therefore she is so hopelessly trivial and stupid that all she can want is a cruise or a shopping spree at a nice new mall. I think Michael White is what the astronomer Phil Plait would call (in the technical jargon) a dick.

In any case, many of our greatest scientists – Darwin, Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton – were men of faith.

Ah yes, Darwin the man of faith. Good one.

Duty is peremptory and absolute

Apr 7th, 2011 4:28 pm | By

Well one good thing is, the Templeton prize is being treated as controversial. The Guardian, the Independent, Radio 4, Science – they all treat it as controversial. That makes a change!

The critics have gotten through at last. That makes a change, and a very good one.

Jerry Coyne is a little tired of being the go-to dissenter. Hmph – too bad. It’s his duty. He’s good at it, so that makes him the go-to guy, so it’s too late to be tired of that now.

A good listen

Apr 7th, 2011 11:26 am | By

Do listen to Lewis Wolpert and Peter Atkins and the matey Today presenter whose voice I don’t recognize, talking about the Templeton Prize. It’s just Wolpert and the presenter at first and it’s all quite cozy, with Wolpert agreeing that religion is fine as long as it doesn’t interfere, and saying that he doesn’t know enough about the Templeton Foundation to know if it’s a problem or not. But then at the end Peter Atkins joins in and it becomes a matter of Atkins and Wolpert agreeing while the presenter gets all squeaky in the voice.

“The Templeton Foundation is an insidious foundation which is trying to insert itself into all kinds of rational bodies,” says Atkins.

“But,” the presenter says squeakily, ”what’s insidious about it? It’s quite open about it, it’s trying to promote its cause, that’s what any foundation would do, I can’t see what’s insidious about it.”

“It’s trying to undermine rationality,” Atkins replies firmly.

“But,” squeaks the presenter even more squeakily, “but does all religion, does all promotion of religion necessarily undermine rationality?” “Oh, absolutely,” says Atkins, and Wolpert seconds him, with “That’s the whole point of it.”

And that’s why we hates it, Precious.


Apr 6th, 2011 5:16 pm | By

Must stop must stop must stop. Must stop arguing with ridiculous guy on Facebook who calls Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan “racists” because he dislikes them. He’s lily white himself of course. Must stop must stop must stop.

He’s a “humanist,” according to him. He’s yet another anti-gnu. He’s a chump. Must stop must stop must stop.

I did a podcast interview earlier this afternoon with Johan Signert of the Swedish Humanists.

I’m invited to the Let the Light Howthelightgetsin thingy at Hay on Wye. I just might do it.

You get what you pay for

Apr 6th, 2011 12:19 pm | By

Jerry Coyne’s take on the Templeton Prize is slightly different from Mark Vernon’s.

Templeton plies its enormous wealth with a single aim: to give credibility to religion by blurring its well-demarcated border with science. The Templeton Prize, which once went to people like Mother Teresa and the Reverend Billy Graham, now goes to scientists who are either religious themselves or say nice things about religion.

That’s why it really is a form of bribery. It’s open, transparent, accountable bribery, as opposed to back-room under the table bribery, but it is bribery: the prize rewards a predetermined ideological viewpoint, as opposed to research or inquiry or art. It rewards various versions of the claim that religion and science somehow work together as opposed to competing or clashing; it does not reward versions of the claim that they don’t and can’t.

Templeton’s mission is a serious corruption of science. Like a homeopathic remedy, it dilutes the core of the scientific enterprise, which has achieved its successes by holding doubt as a virtue and faith as a vice.

And by doing this it also balks and confuses the public understanding of science and of thinking in general. It obscures the fact that “faith” is not a useful tool for finding things out.

…although science and religion are said to be “different ways of knowing”, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything – it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true. Faith has never vouchsafed us a single truth about the universe.

And the “different ways of knowing” claim, again, is a snare and a delusion for people in general. It’s the wrong kind of “framing”…

A turning point in the god wars

Apr 6th, 2011 11:34 am | By

Mark Vernon is excited that Martin Rees won the Templeton Prize. He sees it as deliberate revenge for something Richard Dawkins said.

Last year, Dawkins published an ugly outburst against the softly spoken astronomer, calling him a “compliant Quisling” because of his views on religion. And now, Rees has seemingly hit back. He has accepted the 2011 Templeton prize, awarded for making an exceptional contribution to investigating life’s spiritual dimension. It is worth an incongruous $1m.

Funny kind of hitting back – it’s not as if Rees awarded himself the prize. It’s also not as if accepting the prize is a way to rebut what Dawkins said. As a matter of fact, it’s more like agreement than rebuttal. Here’s what Dawkins said:

The US National Academy of Sciences has brought ignominy on itself by agreeing to host the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize. This is exactly the kind of thing Templeton is ceaselessly angling for – recognition among real scientists – and they use their money shamelessly to satisfy their doomed craving for scientific respectability. They tried it on with the Royal Society of London, and they seem to have found a compliant Quisling in the current President, Martin Rees, who, though not religious himself, is a fervent ‘believer in belief’.

The claim is that Rees is a Quisling for helping Templeton by implicitly endorsing it. Accepting its prize is more of that, so it’s not much of a “hitting back.” You could say it’s a “yes I am and what about it?” but that’s different.

Anyway, Vernon’s real point, of course, is the usual – Dawkins bad, boring, gnu, harsh; Rees good, exciting, un-gnu, mild; atheism bad, religion good, muddled chat about the two meeting in the middle best of all.

The Royal Society lent its prestige to the Templeton Foundation by hosting events sponsored by the fund, which supports a variety of projects investigating the science of wellbeing and faith.

The wut? Wut science? But right: that’s the point: the RS gave the TF prestige by hosting events sponsored by the fund which pretends that science and “faith” can “enrich” each other.

Dawkins and Rees differ markedly on the tone with which the debate between science and religion should be conducted. Dawkins devotes his talents and resources to challenging, questioning and mocking faith. Rees, on the other hand, though an atheist, values the legacy sustained by the church and other faith traditions.

So, Dawkins is evil and Rees is good.

But if [Rees] is modest about what can be achieved for religious belief by science, he insists that scientists should not stray into theological territory that they don’t understand.

Does he insist that theologians should not stray into scientific territory that they don’t understand? Does Vernon? Does Templeton? No, of course not. From that direction it’s all about “enrichment”; it’s only scientists who are kicked off the grass.

…with Rees’s acceptance, the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment. That such a highly regarded figure has received its premier prize will make it that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.

Or it will make it that little bit harder for his peers to ignore what the Templeton Foundation is doing. That’s at least as likely as Vernon’s dreamy prediction.

When the cultural history of our times comes to be written, Templeton 2011 could be mentioned, at least in a footnote, as marking a turning point in the “God wars”. The power of voices like that of Dawkins and Sam Harris – who will be on the British stage next week – may actually have peaked, and now be on the wane.

Could be. Yup. Maybe. It’s possible. You never know.

Then again, maybe not.

Strange boatfellows

Apr 5th, 2011 5:28 pm | By

Anthony Grayling is not an enemy of new or gnu atheism, though I suspect some people would like to shoulder him into that category. He won’t be shouldered though. He’s very polite about it, but he won’t be shouldered.

The little jokes and kindly bearing can make Grayling sound quite benignly jovial about religion at times, as he chuckles away about “men in dresses” and “believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden”, and throws out playfully mocking asides such as, “You can see we no longer really believe in God, because of all the CCTV cameras keeping watch on us.” But when I suggest that he sounds less enraged than amused by religion, he says quickly: “Well, it does make me angry, because it causes a great deal of harm and unhappiness.”

He spotted the attempt at shouldering, you see, so he replied quickly.

…we have to try to persuade society as a whole to recognise that religious groups are self-constituted interest groups; they exist to promote their point of view. Now, in a liberal democracy they have every right to do so. But they have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women’s Institute or trade union. But for historical reasons they have massively overinflated influence – faith-based schools, religious broadcasting, bishops in the House of Lords, the presence of religion at every public event. We’ve got to push it back to its right size.

Not very anti-gnu, that. On the contrary.

it wasn’t the atheists, according to Grayling, who provoked the confrontation. “The reason why it’s become a big issue is that religions have turned the volume up, because they’re on the back foot. The hold of religion is weakening, definitely, and diminishing in numbers. The reason why there’s such a furore about it is that the cornered animal, the loser, starts making a big noise.”Even if this is true, however, the atheist movement has been accused of shooting itself in the foot by adopting a tone so militant as to alienate potential supporters, and fortify the religious lobby. I ask Grayling if he thinks there is any truth in the charge, and he listens patiently and politely to the question, but then dismisses it with a shake of the head.

“Well, firstly, I think the charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we’re doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don’t like it,” he laughs. “So we speak frankly and bluntly, and the respect agenda is now gone, they can no longer float behind the diaphanous veil – ‘Ooh, I have faith so you mustn’t offend me’. So they don’t like the blunt talking. But we’re not burning them at the stake. They’ve got to remember that when it was the other way around it was a much more serious matter.

“And besides, really,” he adds with a withering little laugh, “how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don’t collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It’s like sleeping furiously. It’s just wrong.”

Now the odd thing is that yesterday on Facebook (one does find out some interesting things via Facebook, there’s no denying it) the Institute for Science and Human Values flagged up a cruise next October with guest speaker…Anthony Grayling. The ISHV is very very very hostile to “militant” atheists. Several of its founding members spend a remarkable amount of time saying how hostile they are to “militant” atheists. I’m wondering if that’s going to turn out to be a rather tense cruise.

Literary criticism

Apr 5th, 2011 4:20 pm | By

Just for completeness, or pedantry.

You are simply hosting the Gnu atheist admirathon. No wonder B&W has been disowned by more rational voices.

Which more rational voices? Wally Smith? Chris Mooney? Tom Johnson? Josh R? Steph the Pixie?

Do you really think it’s the Feast of Reason?

Of course not. Did I ever say I did? No.

There is nothing any longer on B&W worth reading that isn’t cut from the same cloth.

Really? Not Leo Igwe? Not Allen Esterson? Not Phil Molé? Not Franco Henwood?

Sorry; I just don’t buy it. Even if you hate the blog part of B&W, there is plenty that’s worth reading.

It’s a hornet’s nest to any disagreement.

Mirror. Look in it.

Your readers aren’t the least bit interested in civil discourse: when challenged they revert to the same tropes, and when that fails, invoke the myth that atheists have been persecuted historically. It is pure crap, it is untrue, and it really deserves to be outed.

I think the reality is that many of the people who read B&W aren’t very interested in lectures on civil discourse from you at present, because you have been throwing around insults as if you had to use up your stock before midnight. And if you think atheists are not stigmatized, you’re not even listening to yourself, let alone the rest of the commentariat.

 And why so brave–did they talk to you to talk back to Hoffmann and show some spine? Just asking?

No. Just answering.

No, Ophelia: B^W is just a sounding board for like-minded hard atheist opinion.

See above.

There are no butterflies there anymore just gasbags like the seminally under-qualified Eric McDonald and clowns like PZ Myers, who could benefit from a reading comprehension course with an emphasis on analogies. As I recall, Myers was lambasted as such at last year’s CFI 30th, so why don’t we say we are dealing with an atheist fringe that threatens always squandering its capital on its worst instincts?

This is civil discourse is it?

Bishops agree

Apr 5th, 2011 3:12 pm | By

The headline on this article originally read

Bishops agree sex abuse rules

Just what we’ve always said!