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.

Sharia in Aceh, a mural in Sydney

Dec 2nd, 2010 12:00 pm | By

Aceh is officially a horrible place to be a woman.

In Aceh today, it is a crime for two mature people of different sexes who are not married or related by blood to be together in an isolated place.

Ponder that carefully to see just how ridiculous and stultifying it is. Even if those two people have sex, that shouldn’t be a crime, The idea that they can’t even interact without a chaperone is a recipe for culture-wide idiocy.

In the course of their investigations, WH officials say, they sometimes force women and girls to submit to virginity exams, and in some cases, condition suspects’ release on their agreement to marry. Both practices violate international human rights law.

Forcing women and girls to submit to virginity exams is rape. Period. There’s no other word for it. Aceh makes adult interaction a crime and rape a tool of law enforcement.

Another Acehnese law requires that all Muslims in Aceh wear Islamic attire, defined as clothing that covers the aurat (for men, the area of the body from the knee to navel, and for women, the entire body with the exception of the hands, feet, and face)…

Which is all we need to know. Men are required to wear clothes between the waist and the knees, women are required to wear clothes all over apart from the face and hands. In a tropical climate.

Yet the Sydney Morning Herald (for one) sees the issue as one of women’s right to wear clothes all over as opposed to their right not to.

It has 

become a lightning rod in the public debate about the right of Muslim women to wear the burqa, attracting protests, the censure of a mayor and messages of support from talkback radio.But now the Newtown mural of a woman in a full-face Muslim covering with a strike symbol over her face and the words ”Say No to the Burqa” is the subject of an anti-discrimination complaint.

Which is more fundamental? The right to wear a tent with a narrow slit for the eyes? Or the right not to? The right to frame the tent with a narrow slit for the eyes as a deprivation of rights, or the right to silence that framing? Which should trump which?

A magenta swan with turquoise spots

Dec 2nd, 2010 11:33 am | By

How fascinating is this new bacterium? (I know it’s not new; new to human knowledge; I look forward to your letters.) It’s a black swan!

The finding shows just how little scientists know about the variety of life forms on Earth, and may greatly expand where they should be looking for life on other planets and moons, the NASA-funded team said.

“Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus,” the researchers write in Science.

These six elements make up the nucleic acids — the A, C, T and G of DNA — as well as proteins and lipids. But there is no reason in theory why other elements should not be used. It is just that science never found anything alive that used them.

See? Total black swan! Seriously exciting.

…it does suggest that astrobiologists looking for life on other planets do not need to look only for planets with the same balance of elements as Earth has.”Our findings are a reminder that life-as-we-know-it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine,” said Wolfe-Simon.

“If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet? Now is the time to find out.”

The age of wonder ain’t over yet.

Your essence is not my essence

Dec 1st, 2010 4:41 pm | By

In answering the last question in the debate with Hitchens, Blair tried to sum up his defense of religion. He said you have to find “the essence.” Yes there are bad parts, but you have to explain those away, and keep the essence, that is, what you take to be the essence.

I see how people look at certain parts of scripture and draw those conclusions from it, but it’s not what it means to me, it’s not the essence of it. The essence of it is through the life of Jesus Christ, a life of love, selflessness and sacrifice and that’s what it means to me.

Yes but. 1) That’s what it means to you but that’s not what it means to other people, and because it is not based on anything universalizable, there is no way to adjudicate between you. There is no way to say definitively that you are right and the woman-stoners are wrong. So saying “that’s what it means to me” is worthless, and worse than worthless, because it endorses religion instead of saying this inability to adjudicate between versions makes it dangerous. And 2) a life of love, selflessness and sacrifice is not inherently religious or unavailable to atheists.

The second point wouldn’t matter all that much, provided theists could stop assuming and saying that only theists are capable of demanding forms of goodness, if it weren’t for the first one. But the first one is a killer.

Extremist militant extremists speak out

Dec 1st, 2010 3:09 pm | By

How is this helping? When will people learn that all this aggression and shouting won’t change anyone’s mind and that it’s much better to just calm down and bite your tongue and think about peace and a sunlit meadow rather than go around saying things and handing out leaflets? Nobody’s mind was ever changed by someone saying something, so why won’t they take their clothes off and pose for photographs instead?

Christians who believe their faith is “under attack” in Britain have launched a “Not Ashamed Day” campaign.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey claimed Christians of “deep faith” faced discrimination.

Campaigners say a mounting number of cases of workers being disciplined over their beliefs show Christianity is being “airbrushed” from UK society.

What strident shrill nonsense, and divisive, too. It’s shocking that these people refuse to work with secularists and atheists to achieve common goals, and instead stubbornly insist on saying what they think. Well, no good deed goes unpunished.

Christian Concern has also highlighted the fact that Catholic adoption agencies no longer have the right to refuse gay couples as prospective adoptive parents.

And they no longer have the right to own slaves, or burn witches, or invade the Holy Land. Times change. But they mustn’t rock the boat, because we all have to work together, so they should please please please stop talking and let someone who is an expert in communication do it. Otherwise everything will fall apart tomorrow at the latest.

Piercing the skin

Nov 30th, 2010 5:25 pm | By

One interesting item in the Banks chapter of The Age of Wonder is Banks’s account of witnessing a girl get a tattoo. Happily, his journal is online; it was July 5 1969 1769.

This morn I saw the operation of Tattowing the buttocks performd upon a girl of about 12 years old, it provd as I have always suspected a most painfull one. It was done with a large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth, every stroke of this hundreds of which were made in a minute drew blood. The patient bore this for about ¼ of an hour with most stoical resolution; by that time however the pain began to operate too stron[g]ly to be peacably endurd, she began to complain and soon burst out into loud lamentations and would fain have persuaded the operator to cease; she was however held down by two women who sometimes scolded, sometimes beat, and at others coaxd her. I was setting in the adjacent house with Tomio for an hour, all which time it lasted and was not finishd when I went away tho very near. This was one side only of her buttocks for the other had been done some time before. The arches upon the loins upon which they value themselves much were not yet done, the doing of which they told causd more pain than what I had seen.

Familiar, isn’t it, right down to the women holding her down.

It’s much less gruesome than genital mutilation, because it’s not harmful in the same way (unless, it belatedly occurs to me, there is infection, which there must have been at least sometimes)…but it’s gruesome enough. Holmes quotes Banks writing several years later, in a letter:

For this Custom, they give no reason, but that they were taught it by their forefathers…So essential is it esteemed to Beauty, and so disgraceful is the want of it deemed, that every one submits to it.

Quite – just like FGM, just like bound feet. The girl tried to bear it, but it got too bad, and she wanted it to stop – but the two women held her down.

It’s funny…I  went to a very small very academic girls’ school. At some point most of my classmates got their ears pierced, but I didn’t. It was kind of esteemed essential to Beauty, also sort of hip and new (our  mothers wore clip-on earrings), which I liked to be…but I never wanted pierced ears. I never wanted even such a minor mutilation – I remember really just not liking the idea of a hole in my ear lobes. It’s just as well I didn’t grow up in Tahiti in the 18th century.

Hitchens on mockery and Helping

Nov 30th, 2010 1:55 pm | By

Hitchens explained various things to Jeremy Paxman for Newsnight. The best part was where he talked about the virtues of division. He’s been saying this for years, and I’ve been squawking my approval and agreement for years. If you say you’re a uniter not a divider, he noted dryly, you expect and get approval. “I’m a divider.”

Division is inseparable from politics, he went on. If everyone agrees, there is no politics, there’s nothing to say. “Without division there is no progress.”

The alternative is dictatorship, and this is relevant to religion and the rebellion against it.  “The first rebellion against mental slavery comes from saying this is man-made, it’s not divine.”

“To be clear,” Paxman said in prissy shock,  ”you’re talking about the Koran and the Bible.” And the Torah, yes, Hitchens said.

“They’re fiction.”

“Yes. All of these are depraved works of man-made fiction.”

“Saying you find the Koran laughable – in what way does that help the spread of reason?”

“Oh well I think mockery of religion is one of the most essential things. One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at things.”

The notion of wonder

Nov 30th, 2010 1:41 pm | By

I’m reading Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder. I read the first chapter, on Joseph Banks in Tahiti, this morning – it’s enthralling, and rather inspiring.

I was struck by something Holmes said in the prologue.

Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity. But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive. The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united them, and can still do so. In effect there is Romantic science in the same sense there is Romantic poetry, and often for the same enduring reasons.

Yes exactly – and the scientists I’m familiar with are of that kind.

Theocracy in Scotland

Nov 29th, 2010 10:47 am | By

Jeezis, these people are scary. They’re getting their way.

Peter Kearney, the director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, made his comments after the sacking of SFA referees’ chief Hugh Dallas over allegations he sent an offensive e-mail about the Pope during his recent visit to Scotland.

Mr Kearney warned: “Let no-one be in any doubt, with this shameful episode, Catholics in Scotland have drawn a line in the sand.

Yes, they have! They’ve drawn a line that says “you may not send an ‘offensive’ email about the pope, and if you do, we will get you pushed out of your job.”

That’s quite a line. Hugh Dallas didn’t work for the church, or even for a “faith” school. He had a fully secular job – yet Catholic rage about a failure to respect their horrible pope got him forced out of that job. I find that simply terrifying. What business can it possibly be of theirs what some guy says in an email, and where do they get the power to force him out of his job?!

Peter Kearney certainly thinks he has every right to tell all of Scotland what to do and how quickly.

“The bigotry, the bile, the sectarian undercurrents and innuendos must end. Such hateful attitudes have had their day. They poison the well of community life. They must be excised and cast out once and for all.”

Mr Kearney sent a letter to the SFA last week demanding Mr Dallas’s dismissal if the accusations over the e-mail were true.

He said yesterday that “tasteless” e-mails may simply be “the tip of a disturbing iceberg of anti-Catholicism in Scottish society”.

And that people should lose their jobs for writing “tasteless” emails about a guy who tells Africans not to use condoms and who thinks ordination of women is a desperate crime while raping children is a regrettable accident.

As Craig Ferguson likes to say, I look forward to your letters.


Nov 29th, 2010 9:48 am | By


The people who do the New International Version (translation) of the bible have taken out the pesky “too liberal” gender-neutral language they wickedly and liberally stuck into the 2005 edition, because the knuckle-draggers were pissed off at them.

They’ve retained some of the language of the 2005 edition. But they also made changes — like going back to using words like “mankind” and “man” instead of “human beings” and “people” — in order to appease critics.

And the critics were pissed off by that because…what? Because they want everyone to think that human beings and people are in fact men and that women don’t count because they’re some kind of weird abberration? Or what? What other possible reason is there to object to language that is actually more precise and accurate and explanatory than the alternative?

Today, the Committee on Bible Translation, which translated the NIV, admits Today’s New International Version, the revision released in 2002, was a mistake. They substituted “brothers and sisters” where the New Testament writers used “brothers.” 

They also broke a promise they’d made to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, John Piper, pastor of Minneapolis megachurch Bethlehem Baptist, and other conservative pastors, not to produce a gender-inclusive NIV.

 Thus reminding us that, in the words of the old proverb, yes God does hate women.

The Marquess of Queensbury

Nov 28th, 2010 11:40 am | By

The Guardian apparently disapproves of Hitchens’s still-unapologetic atheism; at least it allows its reporter to misrepresent what he said.

If it had been a boxing match Hitchens would have been described as landing blow after blow, many of them decidedly low – especially those about circumcision or women’s rights. He described the aid work done by religious missions as “conscience money” to make up for the harm they have done. After all, why bother treating HIV-infected people in Africa while working against the use of condoms?

That’s not what he said, to put it mildly. This is what he said:

Furthermore, if you are going to grant this to Catholic charities, I would say, which I hope are doing a lot of work in Africa, if I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I would be putting some conscience money into Africa too, I must say. I’m not trying to be funny. If I was trying to be funny, you mistook me. It won’t bring back the millions of people who have died wretched deaths because of that teaching, that still goes on.

Absolutely nothing to do with “why bother,” you see? A million miles from “why bother.” Talk about a “low blow.”

And while we’re on the subject, why is it a low blow for Hitchens to cite genital mutilation (not circumcision – he mentioned a sharp rock and genitals, not circumcision) and women’s rights? I think it’s a much lower blow for Tony Blair to join a woman-hating church in late adulthood.

I decided I wanted to see the beautiful colors of life

Nov 27th, 2010 5:01 pm | By

Ever pondered what it’s actually like to wear a niqab?

“I had to wear the full niqab when I was 8 years old,” she says of the face veil worn by women here. “I couldn’t breathe. I saw the world in dark colors. I fell down because I couldn’t see when I walked. Men should put this on for one day. They would change their thinking. They don’t know how horrible it is under sun, heat and sweat. It’s a kind of torture. I decided I wanted to see the beautiful colors of life — red, blue, green. Not black.”

It’s like what you think it’s like. It’s horribly hot and uncomfortable. It impedes your vision and makes you fall (and presumably get bumped by pedestrians and hit by cars). You can’t breathe, or move freely. And most hideous of all, you can’t even look at the world. Imagine it – your whole life – apart from your own house and if you’re lucky a courtyard or garden, you can’t ever see anything clearly. You can’t see the streets, people, trees, buildings, anything – you’re shrouded. For life. Because you’re female.

The most sacred thing

Nov 27th, 2010 1:41 pm | By

In other news, a teenage girl was arrested for burning a booklet. The booklet was a translation of the Koran, so she was arrested “on suspicion of inciting religious hatred.” She wasn’t sent to have a talk with the head teacher, she was arrested. She is currently out on bail.

Catherine Heseltine, chief executive officer of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, said burning the Koran was one of the most offensive acts to Muslims that she could imagine.

She said: “The Koran is the most sacred thing to over a billion Muslims worldwide.”

“You can see that in the way Muslims treat the Koran, washing before touching it and in many Muslim homes you will find it on the top shelf above all other books and we will never destroy the Koranic texts.”

“We believe it is the word of God. God’s guidance for us in this life,” she added.

Therefore, everyone in the world is required to treat the Koran the same way. Because over a billion people make a fetish of a particular book, including all editions and all translations of said book, however flimsy the edition or bad the translation, failure to treat all editions and translations with deference is criminal, whether particular jurisdictions agree or not. Happily the UK apparently does agree.

Officers would be likely to be alarmed

Nov 27th, 2010 12:47 pm | By

Apparently in the UK it’s illegal to make “offensive” comments about Allah. I wonder if that law applies to “offensive” comments about God too – they are supposed to be the same man, after all, even if Malaysians are forbidden to use the first word to mean the second unless they are Muslims.

A man has been fined for making offensive comments about Allah during the English Defence League protest in Leicester.Lee Whitby was found guilty of using racially aggravated abusive words during the protest in the city centre on Saturday, October 9.

Alexandra Blossom, prosecuting, said the comments made were bound to cause harassment, alarm or distress because of Leicester’s multicultural society and the fact the words were said in the city centre.

She said: “A number of people present that day were likely to be offended.

“It was a high-profile event and members of the public would have been in the city on a Saturday.

“The remarks are even offensive to police.

“A clear message needs to be sent out about using such behaviour in a multicultural city.”

Notice all the conditionals and subjunctives. Bound to cause; were likely to be; would have been. There’s nothing about anyone who actually was “offended,” except for the police. The police were offended, and other people could would were likely to be, but in fact as far as anyone knows were not, no doubt because they didn’t hear anything. It was only the police who heard the “offensive” comments and the police were obligingly “offended” so Lee Whitby (who is no doubt a repellent unpleasant bully) gets done for saying something that could have offended people if only the people had been in earshot.

Mr Moore said: “It is a fact you were with others chanting and police were within hearing distance but there is no evidence of non-police officers within hearing distance.

“It is likely that a police officer or officers hearing the words would be likely to be alarmed and for that reason we find you guilty of this offence.”

Whitby was fined £200 and ordered to pay a further £200 in costs, as well as a £15 victim surcharge.

A victim surcharge, despite the admitted lack of any actual victim. £415 because police officers would be likely to be alarmed.

 You know what? I should send a copy of Does God Hate Women? to the Leicester police department. Surely the Leicester cops would be likely to be alarmed by the last three pages of that little book. If that’s a criminal offense, surely I am guilty.

See those abs? Buy these cigarettes.

Nov 25th, 2010 2:53 pm | By

And since I’m revisiting things, I’ll revisit another one: the make science look cool by putting random guys in photos with rappers thing.

(Disclaimer: I don’t object to the thing itself; it probably doesn’t actually hurt anything; I object to treating it as a serious way to improve Murkans’ attitude to science.)

Here’s what I hate about the whole idea: it is about manipulation instead of argument or persuasion. It has, by design, no substance at all. It’s openly and proudly just a stupid advertsingy “look at this and feel like this so buy this” type of item. I hate that kind of crap, and I especially hate it when it infiltrates areas that are or should be all about substance. I hate how calculatedly mindless it is. Maybe that’s why dislike of it is supposed to be “elitist” – because it’s politically suspect to think that calculated mindlessness is a bad harmful thing.

Well I don’t care; if that’s elitism I’m an elitist; I do think calculated mindlessness is a bad harmful thing.

Bonding and meaning revisited

Nov 25th, 2010 2:36 pm | By

To expand on that post about feelings and meaning and science can’t from a few days ago. Another counter-example occurred to me – one that was touched on by people who mentioned postpartum depression, but not (that I saw, or at least recall) in detail.

Suppose the perinatal hormones hadn’t worked, or had worked the opposite way. Suppose Scott had felt a surge of not love and protectiveness but disgust and loathing. I think it’s fair to say we know what she would have done; she would have 1) done something to ensure her infant’s safety and well-being and 2) tried to fix her own response, via drugs or counseling. Why? Because of scientific knowledge about infancy. Because of Harry Harlow, for one thing. She would have second-guessed the apparent meaning of what she felt, and tried hard not to act on it. She would have used what she knew to counteract a felt “meaning.”

And if that’s right, then it’s also the case that scientific knowledge was part of the “meaning” of the bonding. She knew it was a good healthy useful emotion, so she knew to embrace it and go with it and act on it as opposed to the opposite.

Coyne’s cat contest

Nov 25th, 2010 1:50 pm | By

Jerry Coyne is doing a cat contest, and I’m one of the judges, chiz chiz, so bring out your felids as long as they’re domestic.

It’s going to be agony, though, the judging. First of all, I don’t have the Latin.* Second, they’re all beautiful and winsome and hilarious, so how can I choose?! Third, there is a kind of knowing that is needed for judging betwixt cats, and I haven’t been trained in it. Fourth, despite solicitation, no one has bothered to bribe me. Fifth, I am warm and kind and compassionate and I can’t bear to hurt the feelings of any cat or human by not giving the prize to her/him/it/them. Sixth, I have some kind of bite (spider? louse? puff adder?) on my left forearm, and it interferes with my concentration.

But never mind all that. Send in your fish-breathed quadrupeds.

*Spot the reference for bonus points.

How to be kool

Nov 24th, 2010 12:53 pm | By

Martin Robbins alerts us to a new exciting red-hot totally hip yeeha thing where scientists get their pitchas taken with rappers and everybody suddenly understands how rad science is.

So here we are again, witnessing the isochronal cavalcade of embarrassment that is GQ’s annual ‘Rock Stars of Science‘ feature. Like a puppy trying to hump a leg, the idea is simple, and probably a bit wrong.

The concept arises from the tedious modern worship of even the most minor celebrities, paired with the idea that standing next to somebody cool can make you cool – a hypothesis comprehensively debunked by Tony Blair in 1997. From that, GQ extrapolate that making scientists pose awkwardly in the background of photos of rock stars, like morons in the background of a news report, is a great way to promote science and scientists.

You have to click on it and look at his pictures, which I can’t be bothered to steal and put here, but you need to see them to get the full hilarity.

His real point though is that it’s bullshit. Science really is exciting, and it’s not because scientists can stand in the same frame as a rapper.

I still can’t help but feel that if you have to resort to rockstars make science cool, you’re really not very good at communicating science. Because science is way cooler than rock stars. And if you still don’t believe me, here’s a picture of the Sun. Taken at night. Through the Earth.

I do believe him.

Start early

Nov 24th, 2010 12:40 pm | By

Baher Ibrahim notes that making little girls bandage their heads is creepy and stupid.

In general, the age at which Muslim girls in Egypt begin to wear the scarf has dropped. Back when I was in high school, very few female students wore headscarves. Today, my younger brother (who is 15) tells me that almost all the girls in his middle school wear a scarf. It hasn’t stopped there either, having caught on in primary schools.

Which of course means that it’s almost impossible for female students in middle school not to wear the bandages. (That thing is not a scarf.) Primary schools will end up in the same place.

Some suggest that I am overanalysing, and that the reason parents like their little girls to don the scarf is simply so they can “get used to doing the right thing from a young age”. They compare it to how Muslim parents teach their children to fast until noon during Ramadan so that when they are older it won’t be so hard to fast until sunset, or how fathers take their kids to the mosque on Fridays to get them used to it. We all know how hard it is to kick habits we were taught in early childhood. Getting a little girl “used to” the hijab effectively obliterates the “free choice” element by the time the girl is old enough to think.

They’re being trained and conditioned, in short. They’re being trained to Submit.

To make matters worse, what about the brothers of these girls? Will they not grow up with the same mentality? If they see that their sisters have to be covered up from a very early age to avoid being exposed in front of men, it is only natural that they grow up with the concept that women have to be covered, controlled and restricted.

And that men don’t. Exactly.

Get us, we are the more devout

Nov 24th, 2010 12:19 pm | By

You know…if you’re going to use massive power over the minds of people, you ought to do so carefully and thoughtfully. You ought not to use that power to wreck people’s lives for the sake of your power and celebrity. Wouldn’t you agree?

You would, but the Catholic church wouldn’t.

Papal comments on birth control began in the early 20th century, spurred partly by the emergence of new methods and also by the decision of the Anglican Church to allow exceptions to its no-contraception rule and the subsequent acceptance of contraception by other Protestant denominations.

Apparently the Catholic church wanted to show off by making a display of being more abjectly obedient to an imaginary god and its imaginary rules than other churches. It did so by forbidding people to prevent conception – it did so by interfering in people’s lives in the most basic way possible, for no sensible reason of any kind. A trivial reason and an enormous set of consequences. The Catholic church is morally frivolous to a shocking degree.

It is good to deplore, but you can do more

Nov 23rd, 2010 4:07 pm | By

I was thinking today about the famous split at CFI (it came up in my dispute with Nathan at Facebook), and I looked again at the Affirmations of Humanism. At the first two of them, actually, because I stopped there. Check out the second one.

  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • Well exactly. This is what I take gnu atheists to be doing! But exactly. Deploring efforts to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms is what we’re doing. So what’s the problem?

    I asked Nathan that, but more civilly this time, and got a very civil reply. We have different starting points of emphasis, is what it comes down to. It’s good to clear away dead wood, but there’s more to do than that. Indeed; I couldn’t agree more – but then so could the other gnu atheists I know.

    There is a lot of dead wood though. It does still need clearing out. But perhaps eventually it will be cleared out, or if not cleared out, at least tucked away where it won’t keep clogging up the works. That would be great.