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.

Faith, any faith

Nov 8th, 2008 5:19 pm | By

Michael Binyon in The Times slobbers over Charles for being interested in lots of religions.

[N]o monarch since the Stuarts has taken an intellectual interest in religion, and none has devoted time and respect to other faiths. The Prince, however, counts bishops and moral philosophers, rabbis, priests and Islamic scholars among those whom he regularly meets and with whom he discusses the spiritual dimensions of life in Britain today.

Find the odd one out. Got it in one. What are ‘moral philosophers’ doing in that mob? Does this beezer think moral philosophy is a ‘faith’?

For him, the concept of faith — any faith — is important in the crusade against the rising tide of secular materialism and scientific reductionism, both of which he detests.

Ah, does he. He prefers the tyrannical rule of an unreachable unaccountable unknowable god, does he. Well that makes sense in a way, of course, given that he too represents a silly anachronistic semi-magical form of government.

Frederick Douglass and Randall Terry

Nov 7th, 2008 11:34 am | By

The other day ‘hanmeng’ said in a comment on ‘God-talk as an unstated norm’ that the bible is Obama’s favourite book and later quoted from a keynote address he gave in 2006. The quotation was worrying – especially this bit -

[W]hat I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas[s], Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant [Bryan], Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

I was going to dispute that, but reading the whole address I found that Obama did some of the disputing for me. He doesn’t mean what that passage in isolation would seem to indicate that he means.

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Well – that’s what I was going to say, and he’s already said it, in the same address, so I don’t need to bother. I had already thought he knew that, must know that, being 1) sensible and 2) a Constitutional scholar; but the quotation worried me. But if all religious people understood and agreed to that principle, we would all have a lot less to worry about.

I was going to say that it’s all very well to talk about Douglass and King, but they are not the only reformers in American history who were motivated by their religion and use religious language. Fred Phelps and Randall Terry are a couple more; so are throngs of people who opposed everything Douglass and King stood for. It always irritates the bejesus out of me when opponents of secularism cherry-pick their reformers and movements in order to defend the place of religion in politics, as if Christian defenders of slavery and segregation had never existed. I was prepared to give Obama a damn good scolding for doing that, but he doesn’t really do that (although I think he ought to have mentioned the anti-Douglasses, since he brought it up). He doesn’t really do that and, more important, he doesn’t shy away from stating the principle involved.

Gene Robinson states it too.

The Anglican church’s first gay bishop and the United States’ first black President-elect discussed in depth the place of religion in the state. Bishop Robinson said: “He and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the Constitution. You don’t say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes.”


No ordinary moment

Nov 6th, 2008 1:00 pm | By

There are (I suppose this was inevitable) some skeptics now claiming that people are rejoicing at Obama’s election because he’s black – which is true in one way but false in another. The way it’s true is probably obvious enough; the way it’s false is that 1) that’s not the only reason and 2) we would have been rejoicing anyway. Obama’s being black is neither necessary nor sufficient for the rejoicing. Here’s why. Suppose a Sarah Palin who was black – identical to Palin in every other way, but black. A very different, much smaller, and much more delusional crowd would be rejoicing. Suppose an Obama who was white – identical to Obama in every other way, but white. We would still be rejoicing – although a huge element of the actual rejoicing would be missing.

There are some people sneering at the emotionality. Fuck’em. Seriously. I’m as skeptical as the next person, I too like to be cautious with my admiration and respect (let alone affection), I too am aware that sentimentality is risky for clarity of thought. But I do not think this particular example of mass enthusiasm is irrational. It’s emotional, but it’s not irrational.

It’s funny…I wasn’t really prepared for how emotional it turned out to be. I’m not the only one. I never really allowed myself to imagine what it would be like, because like so many people I was so afraid it wouldn’t happen – I was trying to minimize the disappointment. So when it happened – so abruptly – it was like being knocked down by a wave. What can I tell you? It was no ordinary moment. It just wasn’t, and for so many reasons – not all of which were to do with race.

It’s interesting that it was very little about race until that moment. That aspect was left mostly in the background (including in coded messages from the opposition, of course) during the campaign, but then the moment the election was announced, that aspect zoomed into the foreground and took over for the evening. Good. The campaign was run on the merits, then once it was over, we could go ahead and celebrate the symbolism. Aided by the echoes of King’s mountaintop speech – not that there was much need for aid.

What can I tell you? We don’t get many moments like that. I can’t think of any like it. The sneerers can go write condolence cards to Sarah Palin.

8 p.m. Pacific time

Nov 4th, 2008 10:09 pm | By



Nov 4th, 2008 10:38 am | By

The Independent, or at least Arifa Akbar in The Independent, reports on attacks on a London art gallery but also, four words in, cites ‘inflammatory images.’ The art gallery was attacked but it had been quite naughty.

A gallery showing inflammatory images of veiled Muslims, including a bare-breasted woman partially clad in a burqa, is under police surveillance after being attacked earlier this week.

But the images are not ‘inflammatory’ unless people decide they are. It is open to people not to see them as inflammatory.

I don’t want to push that thought too hard. I don’t want to claim that it’s universally applicable – I don’t want to claim that nothing is genuinely malicious and aggressive unless someone decides it is. I don’t believe in applying Stoic reasoning to everything. I just want to make the drearily familiar claim that some kinds of speech and expression are genuinely racist or sexist or in some other way an attack on people as a group, and that others are not, and that we shouldn’t confuse the two, and that confusing the two is a way to undermine all kinds of rightly-valued freedoms and capabilities.

Maple, from Sussex, has upset the Islamic world before. An exhibition by her earlier this year showed Muslim women in provocative poses, including one suggestively sucking on a banana.

There again. Maple hasn’t ‘upset the Islamic world’; the ‘Islamic world’ or rather a very small fraction of it has chosen to be upset. It has no real or legitimate reason to be upset.

Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said that while he thought the exhibition provocative, he defended freedom of expression and condemned any violence inspired by the display. “I urged the gallery and the artist to respect the community in the area, but if Muslims see the work and dislike it, it is completely wrong to use any violent expression of that,” he added.

Good that he condemned violence, but urging the gallery and the artist to respect the community in the area in fact just reinforces the message that galleries and artists have to creep around whatever ‘area’ they happen to be in and find out what all the local prejudices are and then ‘respect’ them, which in the case of Sarah Maples of course would have meant simply not showing her paintings at all. (And would the Indy have refrained from calling the images ‘inflammatory’ if the gallery had been in Chelsea or Hampstead or Cheam? I doubt it.) Urging the gallery and the artist to respect the community is a kind of first small step in the direction of overt coercion and eventually violence – which is not to say that Badri should be censored, just that he is wrong.

God-talk as an unstated norm

Nov 3rd, 2008 9:49 am | By

Ron Aronson recently pointed out what secularists have to get used to.

In the vast heartland of suburban and semirural America, they grow accustomed to new acquaintances greeting them by asking what church they go to. At work, they get used to God-talk as an unstated norm…In the news media, they get used to reading or hearing that the appropriate response to stressful situations is to turn to God. They also grow accustomed to putting up with offhand insults,…would-be presidents criticizing them for trying to keep religion out of public places…When will they demand that the spirit of multiculturalism be extended to those who do not pray, instead of the widespread assumption that religious values, norms and practices apply to everyone?

Not very soon, it would seem. Elizabeth Dole’s tv ad calling her rival ‘godless’ and the rival’s response that she is not either godless is depressing evidence for that suggestion. Hagan points out that she taught Sunday school and takes umbrage at this attack on her ‘faith’ – and not enough people point out that being ‘godless’ is not actually a crime, much less that being godfull is not necessarily a virtue.

A breath from the pit

Nov 2nd, 2008 11:48 am | By

Bastards bastards bastards.

It can tip you right over the edge sometimes, contemplating how unfathomably foul people can be.

A girl stoned to death in Somalia this week was 13 years old, not 23, contrary to earlier news reports. She had been accused of adultery in breach of Islamic law. Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was killed on Monday 27 October, by a group of 50 men in a stadium in the southern port of Kismayu, in front of around 1,000 spectators…Inside the stadium, militia members opened fire when some of the witnesses to the killing attempted to save her life, and shot dead a boy who was a bystander…[N]urses were instructed to check whether Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was still alive when buried in the ground. They removed her from the ground, declared that she was, and she was replaced in the hole where she had been buried for the stoning to continue.

In sane places, a child of 13 can’t commit ‘adultery’ even if she tries to. But Duhulow didn’t commit ‘adultery’ anyway

An Islamist rebel administration in Somalia had a 13-year-old girl stoned to death for adultery after the child’s father reported that three men had raped her…A lorryload of stones was brought to the stadium for the killing. Amnesty said that Duhulow struggled with her captors and had to be forcibly carried into the stadium…Duhulow’s father told Amnesty that when they tried to report her rape to the militia, the child was accused of adultery and detained. None of the men Duhulow accused was arrested.

So. A child of 13 and her father try to tell the authorities that she was raped by three men, and the authorities in response arrest her, order up a truckload of stones, bury her in the ground up to her neck, gather a crowd of a thousand people, and throw the truckload of stones at her head.

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in the heads of people like that. It’s not just violent lashing out – it’s religious legal official punishment – carried out in cold blood and the pure odor of sanctity. It’s hard to figure that out. What kind of monster do they think they worship, that wants children smashed to death with rocks for being raped? What kind of hideous loathsome savage bloodthirsty tyrannical cruel monster do they imagine wants them to act like that? What kind of nightmare world do they live in? How do they look on their work and approve it?

Palin has the bends

Nov 1st, 2008 11:57 am | By

No. No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not it. The First Amendment does not say that nobody can criticize what you say. On the contrary, as a matter of fact – it says that anybody (and everybody) can criticize what you say. And that you can return the favour, and so on, until one of us has to go home for lunch.

It also does not say that people cannot argue that things you say are morally wrong and should not be said. That is not censorship or attempted censorship, it is a moral argument. It is not a violation of the First Amendment. It is alarming that you (of all people) don’t understand that.

Palin told Washington radio station WMAL Friday she is concerned that her First Amendment rights could be endangered by what she called “attacks by the mainstream media” in response to her political attacks on the Democratic presidential nominee…”If (the media) convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations,” she said, “then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”

Dear oh dear oh dear. And last week she revealed that she doesn’t know what the Vice President’s job is.

Asked by a third-grader what a vice president does, Republican candidate Sarah Palin responded that the vice president is the president’s “team mate” but also “runs the Senate” and “can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes.”



Oct 30th, 2008 1:26 pm | By

Norm has an interesting comment on Ron Aronson’s ‘Choosing to Know’ – but I take issue with it. I wonder if that’s because weird beliefs are more abundant over here, where Aronson and I live, than they are over there, where Norm lives. I wonder if people who believe weird things are more familiar to us than they are to Norm. Lucky Norm if so.

I’m not sure that asking in a general way why people hold weird beliefs – or, otherwise expressed, why they believe things that aren’t true – can yield a single and satisfying answer.

I take issue with that because I think holding weird beliefs and believing things that aren’t true are two different things, which raise different questions and issues. It’s perfectly easy and (often) reasonable and commonplace to believe things that aren’t true without the beliefs being weird. It’s easy just to get things wrong, to remember incorrectly, to misread, to misunderstand, to lack information; but none of that is by itself weird. (It may become weird if people try to point out the misunderstanding or offer information only to meet obstinate resistance – but that doesn’t always happen.) I think what Aronson has in mind in the article are genuinely weird beliefs and that that entails a certain element of perversity or willfulness or resistance to correction – I think that’s what is meant by ‘weird’ beliefs. Weird beliefs aren’t just mistaken beliefs, they’re beliefs that one is surprised to find in apparently reasonable adults.

Norm continues:

Bad faith can certainly play a part in someone’s refusing to recognize a truth which they have in some sense perceived; there is such a thing as wilful ignorance. At the same time, to make this a major explanatory cause for beliefs that are very widely held strikes me as a form of wishful thinking: as if to say that all these millions of people really know the truth already but won’t own up to it; or that the reality of things is always there before us and seeing it takes no effort.

Sure. But for weird beliefs that are very widely held…it’s a different matter, I think. Weird beliefs, as opposed to merely false beliefs, do (perhaps by definition) partake of willful ignorance. Though I suppose one could divide weird beliefs…into, say, weird beliefs that rest on mistaken but extensive and plausible webs of pseudo-argument and pseudo-evidence and pseudo-data and the like, and weird beliefs that rest on hokey tv shows and books by Sylvia Browne and other nonsense that no one over the age of 6 should find convincing. In that case the former type of weird beliefs would conform to Norm’s claim while the second type would conform to Ron’s.

It’s a large and complicated task, categorizing the types of false belief. Where are Bouvard and Pécuchet when we need them?

All we see

Oct 28th, 2008 12:09 pm | By

Theological ruminations in letters to the Guardian.

…there is nothing to lead any person to postulate a teapot circling the sun, but look around – all we see came from somewhere and although such a thought does nothing to prove the existence of a creator, it makes such a being worthy of consideration.

Well yes, all we see came from somewhere, but the question is where. ‘A creator’ could mean any number of things; there is no more reason to leap from ‘somewhere’ to ‘God’ than there is to leap from ‘somewhere’ to Jennifer or Bubbles or Squirrel Nutkin. ‘A creator’ could be a machine or a natural process or software or mice or some entity that we can’t even imagine. The fact that all we see came from somewhere does not by itself provide a reason to identify somewhere as any one particular thing much less any particular person much less a particular person described by some desert goatherds 30 centuries ago.

A vicar says That’s not Our God.

I don’t believe in the God whose existence Dawkins denies either – nor do most people in the British Christian churches.

Really? Really? How, exactly, does the God of the British Christian churches differ from the one Dawkins doesn’t believe in? And how explicit are the vicars in British Christian churches about that different God?

A professor of mathematics at York is not afraid of banality:

Science cannot decide between these world-views, but scientists on both sides believe that science supports their own faith (for atheism is also a faith – as even Dawkins says, you cannot prove there is no God).

Norm comments on that:

Atheists – or at least the kind of atheists whose atheism I am ready to defend, being one – think there is no God because they think that the balance of everything they know, all the putative evidence, all the would-be reasons, for believing in God fall short, whether singly or in combination, of establishing that He exists…It is no more persuasive to call atheism a faith than it would be to say that scepticism about the existence of beings that believers themselves regard as mythical – dragons, unicorns, mermaids – is a faith.

No it isn’t, and yet the attempt keeps being made (and it does at least convince the already-convinced). Why is that? Partly, I would guess, because people have been trained (by the steady drip-drip of just this kind of endlessly-recycled bad argument) to think that, for instance, the fact that all we see came from somewhere means that it came from a particular guy called God. This means that few people think that the existence of all we see constitutes evidence for the existence of dragons, unicorns, mermaids, but they do think it constitutes evidence for the existence of ‘God’. They’re wrong, of course, but they don’t know they’re wrong. The thought is so familiar it’s like a well-worn path that it’s hard to abandon. Part of the definition of ‘God’ is that it is a being who created all this stuff; that’s not true of dragons or mermaids. The problems with the notion that a guy called God created all this stuff are not familiar to most people who believe that (and the believers to whom the problems are familiar usually don’t bother spreading that familiarity around), so it comes to seem like a crude mistake not to think a guy called God is the somewhere from which all we see came. And then professors of mathematics pass it on.

In which tank?

Oct 27th, 2008 5:46 pm | By

It’s very interesting that so many Republicans have decided to supprt Obama. Colin Powell; a number of talking heads including Peggy Noonan; a lot of conservative newspapers. Fox News is in a constant state of worked-up fury at the putative fact that the media are all in the tank (as they like to say) for Obama. Well maybe they are, but if they are, I’m pretty sure that is not purely for party-political reasons. In fact it’s pretty obvious that it’s not just for party-political reasons. It has an enormous amount to do with plain competence, and especially with respect for competence. We know what the other thing is like, and Katrina is the one-word sign for that. It is firing all the experts and replacing them with political hacks and then being caught with your head up your ass when a major American city fills with dirty water like a blocked toilet. It is having an emergency management agency that can’t even get water to flood victims in almost a week of horror. It turns out that even some Republicans find that idea too disgusting to bear. I am glad to know this; I have been wondering for years how prosperous ambitious meritocratic Republicans could stand the cult of ignorance and Just Plain Folksism that enabled Bush II to win two elections.

If McCain does lose [mutters rapid prayer, or curse], it appears the choice of Palin will have been a big part of the reason. I thought and said at the time that it showed he had 1. appalling judgment and 2. a ruthless lack of responsibility, but I had little hope that many Republicans would (openly) agree with that view. I’m very pleased to be wrong.


Oct 27th, 2008 11:57 am | By

I was struck by this picture on the front page of the Times (New York) this morning.

It’s a good picture. It kind of gets it all in – the blue sky, the autumn trees, the capitol in the distance, the huge crowd in front, the bare stage, and the single slight figure outlined against it all. The hundred thousand people facing us, and the one guy facing them frozen in a wave or a benediction. If you hate him, of course, it’s of no interest, or it’s portentous and irritating. If you like him, it’s pretty affecting. For a lot of reasons. There’s some echo of that other senator from Illinois – and doubtless some kind of secular echo of religious iconography – and the echo of the march on Washington and the crowd filling the Mall on that day – and the beauty of the shot itself. It all adds up. I’m being a little mawkish, but…well why not, dammit?

Of course, the picture will become a depressing souvenir if things go wrong (yes, wrong) a week from tomorrow, but meanwhile, it’s a nice snap.

What is fundamental value?

Oct 26th, 2008 12:14 pm | By

Giles Fraser rebukes the godless.

Humanists (and by that I mean secular humanists for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value.

Of fundamental value – what does that mean? I suppose the fact that I have to ask means that I won’t be persuading Giles Fraser of anything – but then, he probably won’t be persuading me of anything either.

I don’t think ‘the human’ is of fundamental value – if by that Fraser means of value independent of, say, other humans, or the (human) past, or future. I think the human is of contingent value – and that that’s enough. I don’t think ‘the human’ is of value to the universe, or to Jupiter, or to other animals. I think the human is of value to humans, and (frankly) to no one else. But I also don’t think it needs to be of value to anyone else to be of real value to us. (I also think the ways we could be of value to non-humans could be quite sinister, and that people like Giles Fraser ignore that possibility in a really silly way. Consider the way ‘the dog’ and ‘the horse’ and ‘the chicken’ is of value to us, then ponder whether we really need to be ‘of value’ to anyone other than ourselves.)

[F]rom the British Humanist Association’s website: ‘Humanists, too, see a special value in human life, but think that if an individual has decided on rational grounds that his life has lost its meaning and value, that evalu ation should be respected.’…[I]t is clear that here is an admission that the value of human life is down graded by those who call themselves humanists. Human life is something that is deemed to have no value for the individual if that individual decides that it has not.

Exactly so. We (I’ll just say ‘we’ because Fraser seems to be talking about atheists too) think that if an individual does not value her own life, then that life (while she views the matter that way, at any rate) does in fact ‘have no value for the individual.’ Indeed that’s simply tautological – if the individual decides that her life has no value, then for her it is deemed to have no value. It seems peculiar for Fraser even to bother pointing this out, let alone disapproving of it.

I am thinking, of course, about the support that so many secular human ists have given for the assisted suicide of Daniel James, the disabled former rugby player who felt, at the age of 23, that his life was not worth living. My friend Jerry, at a similar age, broke his back in a motorbike accident, and could move only his head and tongue. With these he managed to woo his caregiver, marry her, have three children by IVF, and run a pizza franchise. Humanists see the difference between these cases as hanging from the fragile thread of individual choice. That is not good enough.

What is good enough? Assuming that what one person did is what all people can do? Assuming that what one person did is what all people want to do? Assuming that what people want to do with their own lives is irrelevant? Refusing to take specifics into account?

Not only have contemporary atheists snatched the term humanist and claimed it as their own, but — in the name of choice — they have sold out on the very value that inspired humanism in the first place: the dignity of man (and woman, too). Shame on them.

But for some people, survival as a head has nothing to do with dignity. People differ. Different people want different things, different people can tolerate different things. Taking that into account might be part of the ‘value’ of human ‘dignity.’

Mr Greenspan finds a flaw

Oct 25th, 2008 5:19 pm | By

Alan Greenspan is funny too.

[A] humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

A state of shocked disbelief…that people who ran lending institutions were more excited about their own bonuses and profits than they were attentive to shareholders’ equity. Is it just me or does that seem ever so slightly naïve?

Not quite just me; Henry Waxman had a similar thought.

“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?” Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw.”

Ah, have you! Well spotted!

Mr. Waxman noted that the Fed chairman had been one of the nation’s leading voices for deregulation, displaying past statements in which Mr. Greenspan had argued that government regulators were no better than markets at imposing discipline. “Were you wrong?” Mr. Waxman asked. “Partially,” the former Fed chairman reluctantly answered, before trying to parse his concession as thinly as possible.

How would things be looking now if you’d been entirely wrong?

Some people have all the fun

Oct 25th, 2008 5:00 pm | By

Those atheists – what are you gonna do – they’re such a pain. They’re almost as bad as earmarks, or fruit flies, or pally terrorists, or socialists. Atheists are such dreary depressing dismal boring tedious gits that – you’ll hardly believe me when I tell you this – even their funerals are no fun. Can you believe it? Now that takes some doing, to turn a funeral into a gloomy occasion. I could see it if it were weddings or dinner parties or trips to Paris, but funerals? That’s pathetic. When you think what the funerals thrown by normal people are like – well it just makes you sorry for atheists, that’s all. Normal believing people have the best funerals – great music, brilliant food, dazzling wine, dancing till dawn, sex, conversation, prizes, jokes, a ferris wheel – there’s just nothing better. So the fact that atheists manage to turn them into dismal occasions is just half-funny, half-sad. It’s because atheists are so tightly wound, apparently.

Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where’s the point of anything? They so often fall into the category defined by GK Chesterton: “Those that do not have the faith/Will not have the fun.” You only have to attend one of their dreary humanist funerals to see that – I am never going to another of those, just to be made miserable.

Well no; quite; naturally not. It would be simply foolish to keep going to dreary atheist funerals when you could be going to riotous theist ones instead. I can’t wait for my next funeral; I do love a good time.

Apostates are seldom killed; whew

Oct 23rd, 2008 11:02 am | By

Nesrine Malik lets us know that all this fuss about death for apostasy is silly.

Reading AC Grayling’s latest article and listening to the protestations of the Council of Ex-Muslims, you would think that the death penalty is being gratuitously and frequently applied to those who renounce Islam or harbour thoughts of apostasy.

Oh. So if the death penalty is being purposefully and seldom applied to those who renounce Islam, there would be no reason for a Council of Ex-Muslims to exist and no article for Anthony Grayling to write? The death penalty for renouncing Islam is a bad thing only if it’s applied gratuitously and frequently? A rare and cautious execution for renouncing Islam is all right?

I have several friends and family members who are non-believers and apart from some efforts to return them to the straight and narrow or at least go through the motions of religious observance, they have not come into any physical danger.

One, that’s nice, but it tells us nothing. I have several friends and family members who have never been thrown into prison for writing a book someone didn’t like; that doesn’t mean no one has ever been thrown into prison for writing a book someone didn’t like. Two, efforts to coerce people to ‘return to the straight and narrow’ are intrusive and presumptuous enough; they’re nothing to boast of.

Although the Council of Ex-Muslims and AC Grayling depict the threat to life and limb as an indisputable fact, in reality there are differences of opinion among Muslim scholars (ostensibly the hard core of the religion) regarding the death penalty for apostates.

Oh hooray! Goody goody goody goody – some ‘Muslim scholars’ don’t think people should be killed for leaving Islam. Well I’m all of a heap; how liberal is that; I’m so impressed. Imagine if only some ‘Catholic scholars’ or ‘Jewish scholars’ thought people should be killed for leaving the Church or Judaism; imagine the Guardian publishing articles (even on Comment is Free) bragging of that.

Nawal El Sadaawi, a prominent Egyptian writer and social activist, has clashed several times with religious authorities and has even dismissed some of the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) as pagan, but I do not believe she lives in any fear for her life.

Oh really. She should have looked that up before telling us what she ‘believes’ – in fact Nawal El Sadaawi does fear for her life.

Of course, there is always the possibility that violent individuals will take matters into their own hands, as in the case of the Nobel prize-winning writer, Naguib Mahfouz, but these are a minority found in all religions.

Really? Really? Violent individuals in all religions murder people for abandoning their religions? Who, where, when?

Rejecting Islam and being anti-Islam are two different things, as are rejecting religion and being anti-religion. One is a spiritual lifestyle decision while the other entails some action, some campaign to eject religion from public life.

No. Dead wrong. She could perhaps claim that leaving Islam and being anti-Islam are two different things, but rejecting and being anti are pretty much the same thing, and they are not ‘a spiritual lifestyle decision,’ they are a substantive cognitive decision. People ‘reject’ religions for reasons, and those reasons are often such as to make them anti the religion in question. One good reason for rejecting Islam is that it seems to motivate people to produce terrible stuff like this article.

Thrasymachus and the Baptist ethicist

Oct 22nd, 2008 12:25 pm | By

Ronald Aronson answers Baptist Center for Ethics Executive Director Robert Parham who wrote an essay criticizing ‘the new atheists.’ He first addresses the fact that some atheists are blunter than believers have become used to expecting (and that irritation with this is at least understandable).

Why are these so harsh? Above all, each sees himself as breaking a taboo: Thou shalt not criticize religion…I for one am grateful for the space for discussion these writers, along with Dennett (certainly no angry professor) have opened up, and forgive them for not being calmer and more measured.

Same here. I think we badly need the space – and that the taboo in many (or perhaps most) circles, at least in the US, remains unbroken. It’s certainly well and truly unbroken when it comes to politics.

My primary concern is to develop a coherent contemporary secular philosophy, one which answers life’s essential questions for those of us who live without God…I oppose claims of absolute knowledge, and I also oppose those who would see fit to impose their claims on others…Dr. Parham and I are potential allies in opposing those who assume that their values, norms and practices apply to everyone.

I agree with that, especially with what I take to be the spirit of it, but…only up to a point. What point? The point where some claims, some values and norms and practices, have to be imposed on others, have to apply to everyone. The point where the law comes into it, or the point where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various international agreements based on it are in effect. I’m quite sure that’s what Aronson means, but what I don’t know is what language we can use to disavow dogmatism and authority on the one hand while insisting on human rights and secular law on the other. I suppose I’m just saying that disavowals of assumptions that some values, norms and practices apply to everyone have to be made with great care, in order not to say more than we mean. I do assume that ‘my’ value and norm and practice that women should not be subordinated applies (or should apply) to everyone.

Adam Kirsch on Raymond Geuss raises the same issues.

[Geuss's] attacks on the Bush administration and the war on Iraq, and his loathing of the bourgeois complacency of Rawls and Nozick, all suggest that he has his own conception of justice, which involves solidarity with the oppressed and resistance to the powerful…But it’s hard to see how, on his own showing, any critique of existing power arrangements could have any intellectual or moral coherence. The world of Thrasymachus is a war of all against all, in which the powerful will always win. If Geuss does not want to inhabit such a world—and who does?—he should acknowledge that the inquiry into the nature of justice, which has occupied philosophers from Socrates to Rawls, is not an ideological trick, but the necessary beginning of all attempts to make the world more just.

That’s the problem, isn’t it. If we can’t get agreement or at least consensus, then we’re stuck with power, and being stuck with power is no good, because we can never be sure that Thrasymachus won’t be the most powerful. (Hitler came horribly close to winning the war, at the beginning. Suck on that thought for awhile.) Yet we can’t help knowing that consensus is very hard – and in some cases probably impossible – to get. It’s the only hope, but it’s such a faint one. But, keep trying.

We’re here

Oct 21st, 2008 12:38 pm | By

Ron Aronson points out that atheists and secularists get undercounted in the US.

Surveys regularly receive front-page coverage for reporting, as the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey did, that nearly all Americans believe in God. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concluded that 92% of Americans are believers and that only 5% of Americans don’t believe in God…But something is wrong with this picture. It erases vast numbers of Americans…It encourages the sense that there are two kinds of Americans, the overwhelming majority who believe and belong, and those few do not believe, and are outsiders. But the conventional wisdom that nearly all Americans believe in God is wrong.

A senior fellow at Pew says the issue is: What does one want to know? Yes it is, so one wonders why so many people who run opinion surveys want to know that nearly everyone believes in something that can (at the price of radical oversimplification and obliteration of distinctions) be called ‘God.’

This is exactly the point, which suggests that depending on the purposes of the study — and how the questions are posed — religion can appear more or less widespread, and secularists can be made to virtually disappear or to appear as a major component of contemporary American life.

Why does it matter? Because secularists (to say nothing of atheists) get ignored in US politics and discourse, while religious influence over laws and institutions keeps growing. Even believers shouldn’t want God making the laws, because God is completely unaccountable.

The right to be offended

Oct 20th, 2008 4:21 pm | By

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has read The Jewel of Medina.

Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.

What other religious figures? And how many of them? And in any case how very peculiar to hold long-dead people dearer than one’s parents, and also to consider them to need to be respected, protected and defended. They’re dead – they don’t need to be respected, protected and defended, and furthermore, as ‘religious figures,’ they shouldn’t be respected, protected and defended as a matter of right and duty; they should be closely watched, questioned, doubted, and if necessary disobeyed. This idea that long-dead ‘religious figures’ must be reflexively and unquestioningly respected, protected and defended is typical of the mental prisons that believers build for themselves, especially, it would seem, believers in Islam. That’s a dopy, truculent, defensive, sentimental, taboo-ridden view of the world, and it’s not a healthy view for grownups.

Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution. This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.

Really? Is that ‘the spirit of Islam’? If that is the spirit of Islam, can anyone name one Islamist country (one country largely ruled by sharia or by clerics or both) that demonstrates that? Because I can’t. I can’t think of one single country or part of a country (like northern Nigeria) where clerics run things that fits that description. Not one.

Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.

Well of course ‘the right to be offended’ goes with the right to offend and with any other right anyone can think of. That’s a truism. The right to be annoyed, the right to be bored, the right to be mildly amused, and countless similar rights, are inviolable. But that of course is not the issue. The issue is the right to be offended and force other people to shut up as a result of that being offended – and that’s a whole different story. But naturally Shelina Zahra Janmohamed didn’t want to put it quite that bluntly – so she put it absurdly, instead.

The miracle of prayer

Oct 19th, 2008 9:39 am | By

Chet Raymo quotes Kenneth Miller on prayer:

Finally, any traditional believer must agree that God is able to influence the thoughts and actions of individual human beings. We pray for strength, we pray for patience, and we pray for understanding. Prayer is an element of faith, and bound within it is the conviction that God can affect us and those we pray for in positive ways.

Wait. If we pray for strength, patience and understanding and find (or believe we find) that we have more strength, patience and understanding, that could simply be because praying is a way we get ourselves to have more strength, patience and understanding. It’s true that in that sense ‘faith’ may well work – and that in order to work the faith may have to include the conviction that God can affect us – but that can be true quite independently of whether or not God actually exists or actually affects us. That may be all Ken Miller means by that passage…but it would be a good deal clearer if he pointed out that how much strength, patience and understanding we have is something that we ourselves can (in general) help to determine, and that all kinds of mental tricks and crutches and games can help with that process.