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.

Fatwa train

Oct 31st, 2010 4:42 pm | By

Why is it the Telegraph that mentions such things? Where are the papers to the left of the Telegraph?

Nick Cohen is on the case.

Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity yesterday featured Yusuf Islam aka Cat Stevens singing “Peace Train”. Islam/Stevens previously showed his commitment to peace and sanity by saying that death was the appropriate punishment for Salman Rushdie’s “blasphemy”.

I’m hoping that Rushdie will drop a word to Stewart and Colbert and that they will say something – like perhaps that they didn’t realize that about Islam/Stevens and have no desire whatsoever to endorse fatwas on heretics or blasphemers or apostates.

Sympathy for the doctrine

Oct 29th, 2010 4:41 pm | By

The Freedom House report on blasphemy laws gets it right.

[A]n examination of the application of blasphemy laws indicates that they typically give rise to the violation, not the protection, of fundamental human rights.

By definition, these laws, which are designed to protect religious institutions, doctrines, figures, and concepts—in other words, nonhuman entities and ideas—from insult or offense, impose undue restrictions on freedom of expression.
Precisely. Institutions (including corporations), doctrines, figures and concepts do not need protection from insult or offense, and they cannot be given such protection without restricting freedom of expression. Since they do not need the protection, it is a bad and stupid idea to restrict freedom of expression in order to give it to them. Institutions, doctrines, figures, and concepts are just the sorts of things that people need to be able to discuss freely in order to choose among them. A doctrine that can’t be dissed is a doctrine that has way too much power.

Franco Frattini

Oct 29th, 2010 4:05 pm | By

As you saw if you keep up with the News here, Marc Alan Di Martino helpfully translated some theocratic bullying from Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in the Vatican’s house rag the Osservatore Romano.

Christians also must be able to forge an agreement with Muslims on how to fight those aspects which, like all extremisms, threaten society. I refer to atheism, materialism and relativism. Christians, Muslims and Jews can work together to reach this common objective. I believe it’s time for a new humanism in order to struggle against these perverse phenomena, because only the centrality of the human being is an antidote to fanaticism and intolerance.

Very papal, isn’t it. Also stupid and deceitful – the whole point of theocracy is that it is not about “the centrality of the human being,” it’s about the centrality of that thing way way above the human being: good old God.

Frattini has form when it comes to theocratic bullying. He was on the job during the Motoons fuss (when he was justice commissioner for the EU), telling the European media to “self-regulate.”

Frattini is appealing for the European media to agree to “self-regulate”. “The press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right,” he said.

Yet that man has the gall to talk about theism as giving a rat’s ass about the “centrality of the human being.”

Seriously they want me to wear purple

Oct 29th, 2010 11:58 am | By

The loveliness of the religious mind.

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers committed suicide. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed therselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE

Ooh ick – who’s that – some high school kid, right?

No, it’s a school board member at Midland School District in Arkansas. It’s a grown-up male adult mature citizen over the age of 16.

being a fag doesnt give you the right to ruin the rest of our lives. If you get easily offended by being called a fag then dont tell anyone you are a fag. Keep that shit to yourself. I dont care how people decide to live their lives. They dont bother me if they keep it to thereselves. It pisses me off though that we make a special purple fag day for them. I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it.

An adult, and a school board member. He’s a member of a school board. He plays a role in education.

I would disown my kids if they were gay. They will not be welcome at my home or in my vicinity. I will absolutely run them off. Of course my kids will know better. My kids will have solid christian beliefs. See it infects everyone.

And a Christian.

However, not everyone disagreed with McCance’s comments, which he had defended on his page by citing his religious beliefs.

Gays and lesbians are “thinking they’re all right, and [God is] going to let them think that and go to hell for believing what they’re doing is right,” pastor Harry Craig, of Pleasant Plains Full Gospel Church, told CNN Little Rock affiliate KARK.

God is love; God is compassion; what would Jesus do.

Why Freethought Kampala matters

Oct 28th, 2010 6:08 pm | By

I was very chuffed to see that Time did a story on Freethought Kampala. Uganda needs all the freethought it can get, so publicity is good.

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 97% of Ugandans are believers, and the fact that professions of atheism are invariably met with incredulity has prompted most of Uganda’s freethinkers to keep their skepticism in the closet.
Exactly. This is why solidarity is needed, and why atheists really shouldn’t stay in the closet or go back in the closet if they have the freedom and safety not to. Yes we are too so helping.

But James Onen, a former Pentecostal Christian who once spoke in tongues, is not among them.

Onen, 35, had abandoned his once fervent Christian beliefs by the age of 20, after reading the Bible cover to cover and noting what he said were its logical inconsistencies. Hoping to promote reason and logic, the organization initially focused on the widespread belief — even among Uganda’s Christians — in witchcraft, but it has since taken aim at religion too. Pentecostal Christianity is a particular concern, Onen says, because it promotes the belief that “we are living in a time of spiritual warfare involving evil spirits,” which he says has reinforced the practice of witchcraft.

He’s doing important, needed work. Good luck to him.

Where the rabble-rousers come in

Oct 28th, 2010 12:25 pm | By

Victor Stenger sends encouragement.

It’s time for secularists to stop sucking up to Christians–and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and any others who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in–what a human being can do with her own body. The good news is that young people are joining the rising atheist movement in increasing numbers. I have not met one yet who is an accommodationist.

That is indeed what it is time for. This does not mean, contrary to what accommodationists keep saying (whether they believe it or not, and I suspect they mostly don’t), it is time for us to call believers idiots whenever we encounter them. It means it is time to stop sucking up to them by pretending to think their religious beliefs are entirely reasonable and well-founded.

I think there is room, indeed a need, for both the accommodationist and confrontationist approaches. If you look at the history of every great social movement–the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights–you will see both components. There are people who try to work within the system to make changes. They often succeed, but usually at a snail’s pace–too slow to satisfy the millions who are impatient to have their inherent rights recognized by the power structure.And that’s where the rabble-rousers come in. They confront the system and eventually win the hearts of a majority that becomes awakened to the basic justice of the cause. They also give more power to those trying to work within the system.

We’re needed. We have a part to play. We’re not leaving.

It is just too easy to proclaim a mysterious god

Oct 27th, 2010 3:07 pm | By

More from John Shook’s The God Debates. I’m finding it very quotable.

Religion’s defenders often show a preference for defining atheism as the strongest claim to know that no god exists. If atheists cannot justify such a claim (and they can’t…), perhaps belief in god then appears reasonable?This tactic fails, since it uses the wrong definition of atheism and conveniently forgets how religious believers do claim extravagant knowledge of a supreme infinite being. It is religion that credits an extraordinary capacity for knowledge to humans, not atheism. [pp 22-2]

It is just too easy to proclaim a mysterious god, deride dogmatic atheism’s inability to prove that such a mysterious unknowable god cannot exist, and conclude that the faithful should not be criticized. [p 25]

Ordinary believers only feel more lost when a third theologian must be summoned to explain the precise difference between “god is the formless ground of all being in and for itself” and “god is the mystery of the self-evident that is wholly present.” [p 45]

That last one should be addressed directly to Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong!

The book is excellent. It sorts the familiar theist claims and arguments into categories in a useful way, as well as pointing out what’s wrong with them. I’m looking forward to the chapter on “Theology into the Myst.”

Superficial respect

Oct 26th, 2010 4:08 pm | By

Stanley Fish is at the old stand. (Thanks to Christopher Moyer for the link.) Liberalism, secularism, universalism – he hates’em.

“Liberal principles,” declares Milbank, “will always ensure that the rights of the individual override those of the group.” For this reason, he concludes, “liberalism cannot defend corporate religious freedom.” The neutrality liberalism proclaims “is itself entirely secular” (it brackets belief; that’s what it means by neutrality) and is therefore “unable to accord the religious perspective [the] equal protection” it rhetorically promises. Religious rights “can only be effectively defended pursuant to a specific and distinctly religious framework.” Liberal universalism, with its superficial respect for everyone (as long as everyone is superficial) and its deep respect for no one, can’t do it.

So Fish equates “deep respect” with respect for the rights of the group (or rather the “rights” of the group, since in fact groups don’t have rights, because rights are linked to personhood) at the expense of individual people, and “superficial respect” with respecting the rights of individual people and thereby requiring everyone to be superficial. Fish thinks respect for groups at the expense of individuals is deep and respect for individuals at the expense of groups is superficial. Well – he’s a prosperous straight white guy, and maybe he just doesn’t have the imagination to understand what it would be like to be subject to the authority of clerical bullies.

A place of greater safety

Oct 26th, 2010 3:46 pm | By

Oh for god’s sake.

this is Scotland’s first ‘halal hairdressers’ – a beauty salon which conforms to the strict rules of Islam; a place where Muslim women who wear the veil or headscarf can be seen uncovered without the risk of the gaze of men.

The salon will be a ‘man-free zone’. The frosted windows will stop any inquisitive men passing by from gawping at the clients. No-one can get in without passing through a secure buzzer entry system with CCTV. All this means that the Muslim ladies who have come for a new hair-do can remove their headscarves safe in the knowledge that only other women can see them.

Was this article written by an imam? Probably not, since the name is Helen McArdle. What is she doing buying into the ugly, infantile assumptions behind this stupid enterprise? The “gaze of men” is not really much of a “risk,” especially since pretty much no men in the universe want to look through the windows of a hairdresser’s to watch women getting their hair worked on. “Inquisitive” men won’t be “gawping” at the clients anyway, because they don’t give a fuck. And all this fuss and precaution just feeds into the idea that women need to be hidden away at all times and aren’t “safe” taking their headscarves off unless only other women can see them.

“There are hair salons in Glasgow that are ladies-only, but not like our salon. Our salon is completely discreet, completely hidden from the public, from men, whereas the salons here, men still walk past and they can still see in or come in. Ours has a buzzer entry system, and we’ve got CCTV so that we can see who’s actually approaching the door.

 “Muslim husbands can feel relaxed knowing that their wife is safe, where no man is going to be able to see them, and then they can come home and show their beauty. Muslim clients have never experienced this ever. It’s a great feeling.”


Juan Williams

Oct 25th, 2010 12:24 pm | By

Juan Williams shouldn’t have been working for NPR in the first place. That’s not because he’s too Fox-y, it’s because he’s too thick. He doesn’t have an interesting mind, so he doesn’t have interesting things to say.

NPR quite likes that, up to a point – it doesn’t want its people to sound “too” intelligent or curious or thoughtful. I know that because almost none of them do. A Nina Totenberg probably couldn’t get hired there today – she sounds too sharp and too unplacating. NPR seems to want only people who won’t intimidate listeners by sounding possibly cleverer than the listeners are.

I suspect that’s why they liked Juan Williams in the first place – he has that warm, furry, cozy, slow, soporific note to his voice that nearly all NPR on-air people do. But it turns out he’s just soporific without being “nice.”

My first awareness of Williams (apart from knowing he wrote Eyes on the Prize – which was a pretty impressive credential) was when he replaced Ray Suarez on NPR’s show Talk of the Nation. I had been listening to that show pretty regularly, because Suarez was brilliant – he did a lot of homework, he was interested, he was curious, he could think on his feet, he gave a damn - he was just great. Williams was a shocking contrast. He obviously did no homework at all, he wasn’t curious, his questions were random and uninteresting, and he couldn’t even understand what his guests said. He would say, “So you’re saying X,” and while I ground my teeth in fury the hapless guest would say, “No, I’m saying Y,” and re-state what she had just said.

He’s just thick. He’s no good. NPR should never have hired him as an “analyst” in the first place. They should stop with the cozy approach and dare to hire intelligent people, however scare or intimidating they may sound. People like that will have no interest in being on Fox.

A fun new hobby

Oct 24th, 2010 5:47 pm | By

And as for Lauren Booth

Journalist and broadcaster Lauren Booth, 43 – Cherie Blair’s sister – now wears a hijab whenever she leaves her home, prays five times a day and visits her local mosque whenever she can.

In other words she agrees that she is an inferior and a subordinate who lets a religion tell her to conceal most of her head; she fritters away a large fraction of her time every day talking to someone who isn’t there; and she has made herself subject to the death penalty in certain places if she should change her mind about this conversion lark. She must be dumb as a stump.

A bid for greater community cohesion

Oct 24th, 2010 5:16 pm | By

The more you look at this Global Peace and Unity stomach-turner, the more creepy it gets. Check out the supporters. Who are they? Islamist groups and cops. Period.

No really. The British Muslim Forum, the Islamic Forum of Europe, the Muslim Association of Britain, The Muslim Council of Britain, The Muslim Council of Scotland, The Muslim Council of Wales, UK Islamic Mission, and City of London police and Metropolitan police. That’s it.

Here’s some pleasant and thoughtful chat from the blurb under the UK Islamic Mission.

the UKIM is not only an organization trying to serve the Muslim community, but it is also an ideological movement, It aims to mould the entire human life according to Allah’s revealed Guidance, following the life example of His last Messenger, Mohammed (peace and blessings of Allah he upon him).

The efforts of the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM) are motivated by deep insights gained from the Glorious Quran and the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet, Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and are built on the hard lessons learnt from Muslim history.

And so on.

Or look at the seminars.

1 12:00:00 13:00:00 Applying guidance in everyday life Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad

2 13:30:00 15:30:00 Islam – Modern Challenges SheikhYusuf Estes

3 15:50:00 16:50:00 Giving Dawah in Troubling Times Imam Shabir Ally

4 17:00:00 18:00:00 Like a Garment: Advice Regarding Love and Marriage in Islam Sheikh Yasir Qadhi

5 18:20:00 19:50:00 The future of Islam in the United States Lessons for the British Muslims. Dr Jamal Badawi

Yet this shindig isn’t billed as an Islamic Peace and Unity Event, and in fact it refers to itself as a “multifaith gathering.” Chairman Mohamed Ali spells this out:

The GPU offers a crucial platform for interfaith dialogue and exchange of ideas towards fostering mutual understanding between people from every faith and background in a bid for greater community cohesion.

Does it? Is a jamboree that offers seminars in how to do things the Islamic way, and no other kind, the way to foster fostering mutual understanding between people from every faith and background in a bid for greater community cohesion? Does this Event make you want to cohere to the people throwing it?

Can you say Trojan horse? I thought you could.

Sorry, I have to return a library book that day

Oct 24th, 2010 1:05 pm | By

Well…going down the list of speakers at the Global Peace and Unity Event, I find myself not at all eager to attend. I find myself thinking that it looks like an absolute nightmare.

More so than I would about a comparable Event packed with Catholic priests and bishops and scholars?

Yes, to be honest. More so.


Because most of them seem to represent a very very conservative form of Islam, or just plain Islamism, and I don’t want to live under Islam or Islamism, and I find it nightmarish that their kind of Islam and Islamism is so popular in the UK that it can draw 50 thousand people to an event of this kind. I hate and fear theocracy, and this Event is a More Theocracy Please Event. It creeps me out.

Quiz time

Oct 23rd, 2010 5:41 pm | By

I wasn’t specifically invited to take this quiz, but I’ll take it anyway. Well not really take it – more like look at it. The point is to find out what gnu atheists think, and I think a lot of things, so maybe I think some things related to the quiz.

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?

1-4, I don’t know. 5, big question. Basically because of how the brain works – but there’s a lot more to say than that; it’s just that none of it includes the word “god.” 6, similar. 7, no, there’s no Moral Law.

8. Because we’re sentient, and conscious (cf 5 and 6), and mortal, and fragile. Bad things happen to us, and we think of them as bad, and we may think of some of them as evil. Bad things are how natural selection does the selecting. Legs too short? You’re eaten. Hearing dull? You’re eaten. Drought? You starve.

And then go on from there. Many centuries of experiencing this and talking about it with language and telling stories about it and writing books about it. We know a lot about it. We have a lot of feelings and thoughts about it.


Oct 22nd, 2010 10:44 am | By

I was listening to the introduction to that panel where Dan Dennett set John Haught straight about “scientism”, and David Kelly, president of the CUNY graduate center, said that Haught had been given a “Friend of Darwin” award by the NCSE. He broke off to remark on what a nice award that would be, and everyone smirked or smiled politely, as appropriate. “What?!?” I squawked. I googled. I found it to be so.

NCSE’s Friend of Darwin award is conferred annually to people (and occasionally organizations) whose efforts to support NCSE and advance its goals have been truly outstanding.

Scroll down, and it is even as Kelly said. It’s alphabetical – he’s below Forrest and above Kitcher and Krauss.

So my question to you is: why? Does anybody know? In what sense does Haught advance the goal of defending and improving science education?

Hello Freethought Kampala!

Oct 21st, 2010 6:22 pm | By

This is exciting – an atheist blog in Uganda. H/t to PZ for the link. Excellent. I want more allies in Africa.

James Onen has an excellent post on “scientism” including a video with Dan Dennett and I believe the man said Dr Haught – I’m pretty sure the man to the right of Dennett talking bollocks about literalism and “scientism” is our Friend of the Week John “carried away” Haught. He doesn’t look very contented while Dennett replies.

Secular or atheist?

Oct 21st, 2010 12:20 pm | By

The New Humanist asks if it would be a good idea to set up avowedly atheist or humanist schools. I think it would be a terrible idea. I think all schools should be secular, and no schools should be doctrinaire. A secular school would have all the atheism that is necessary for education.

It’s not that I think atheism is inherently doctrinaire, of course, but in a context where religion is pervasive and granted lots of respect and deference and special privileges (tax exemptions, seats in the House of Lords, access to major media), it is contingently doctrinaire. It’s political. It differs from a status quo. Schools that take positions in that way are automatically excluding some students; that seems not ideal for schools in general.

Secular schools are de facto atheist, because god is not part of the curriculum. That’s all that’s needed, and it’s better than avowed atheism because it needn’t exclude children whose parents aren’t atheists. Some parents of course want god to be part of the curriculum, which is most unfortunate, but avowedly atheist schools wouldn’t address that in any case.

Francis Beckett is actually arguing for secular education, not avowedly atheist or humanist education, but the NH added a poll asking about the latter. I didn’t vote, because I didn’t want to say no but I also didn’t want to say yes.

More Haughtiness

Oct 20th, 2010 5:04 pm | By

Just a little more John Haught. If it’s good enough for Jesus and Mo, it’s good enough for me.

He really does have a little bondage thing going here – one feels tempted sometimes to close the door hurriedly and pretend not to have seen.

And we can trust our search for right understanding ultimately because our minds have already been taken captive by a truthfulness that inheres in things, a truthfulness that we cannot possess but which possesses us. [p 75]

Jeez, get a room.

But more to the point – that’s typical of the way he goes on, and it’s like an incantation but not at all like an argument. What he says is not tethered to any kind of observation or inquiry or awareness or even thought – it’s just a kind of schmaltzy poetry that sounds pretty but doesn’t mean anything. I know that’s obvious, and that I’ve said it before, but it’s just so peculiar – this aestheticky word salad effect. I wonder what he’s like to talk to. Does he come out with this stuff face to face, do you suppose?

Faith, as theology uses the term, is neither an irrational leap nor “belief without evidence.” It is an adventurous movement of trust that opens reason up to its appropriate living space, namely, the inexhaustibly deep dimension of Being, Meaning, Truth, and Goodness. [p 75]

Fetch the sick bag.

What does it do to use capital letters on those words? Is Meaning different from meaning? How? How does Haught know?

No, of course it’s not, it’s just silly conjuring, that shouldn’t impress anyone over the age of four. Yet he’s an academic, with a job, and a title. Funny, innit.

Writers can’t just write anything

Oct 20th, 2010 4:33 pm | By

Shiv Sena complains to Bombay University about Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey, which is on a university reading list. Bombay University says “oh I do beg your pardon” and cuts Mistry’s novel from the list. Shiv Sena hugs itself in glee at this easy victory.

Mistry is not so chuffed. Mistry says a few words.

“The Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar script of threats and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organisation’s founding in 1966,” the author said. “More bobbing, weaving, and slippery behaviour is no doubt in the offing. But one thing remains: a political party demanded an immediate change in syllabus, and Mumbai University [made] the book disappear the very next day.”

But Shiv Sena explained.

Mohan Rawale, a Shiv Sena official, said the book was full of “very bad, very insulting words”, especially about Bal Thackeray, 83, the group’s founder and leader.

“It is our culture that anything with insulting language should be deleted. Writers can’t just write anything. They can’t write wrong things,” said Rawale, who admitted not having read the book.

Well there you are. The book has insulting words in it. It is Shiv Sena’s culture that all insulting words should be deleted…unless they’re directed at Shiv Sena’s enemies, one imagines. There is of course no need to find the insulting words by reading them first; revelation and hunches are perfectly valid ways to detect the presense of insulting words.

In a pig’s eye.

My fiendish plan

Oct 19th, 2010 5:28 pm | By

But seriously.

What makes all these pious advice-givers think that we (we gnus) can’t bring people together (or build bridges and help people cross them) around shared values? What makes them think that gnu atheism is obviously and inherently and always a coalition-preventer? If I wanted to bring people together or build bridges with others (which I don’t, because I’m a nerd), I would just do it. I don’t want to because I’m a nerd, but if I did want to, I could. I could find out how to do it, and do it. I don’t have two heads, or twelve legs, or eyes that shoot sparks.

What do they think we do, anyway – quiz every human being we come within ten feet of about their relgious beliefs? Ask everybody we meet if they are theists? Wear ATHEIST on our shirts at all times no matter what? Have big giant neon signs securely fastened to the backs of our heads, that say ATHEIST – ATHEIST – ATHEIST?

In other words do they really think we can’t form or join a coalition with a bunch of people to do a particular thing without dragging atheism into it? If so, what the hell makes them think that?

And then, the bit about wanting to convert everyone is wrong too.

When a large and vocal number of atheists say that their number one goal is convincing people to abandon their faith, it comes as no surprise that our community is construed as extreme and aggressive.

I don’t think a large and vocal number of atheists do say that. I don’t say that. Here’s what I do say: I say 1) I want atheism to be an available option for people who want it, and 2) I want people to abandon the expectation that religious claims will be treated with automatic deference.

In other words I want us to be able to say what’s wrong with religious claims, instead of having to smile politely or look at the ceiling or examine the gravy for termites while everyone else is “saying grace.” I want to get away from the situation where public religious claims are fenced off from disagreement.

I want, in that sense, to put religious people on the defensive. That’s aggressive, if you like. I want people who like to talk nonsense in public – whether John Haught or Francis Collins – to realize that they are going to get pushed back now.

But that’s all. I don’t want to convert them. I want conversion to be wide-open to them, not hidden away in the back attic under five rolls of geometric-pattern wallpaper and a rusty trike. I want it to be right out there in the open, where they can grab it if they want it. But I don’t want to force it on them. And if they want to join up with me to fight violence against women, why, I’ll join up with them – or I would if I weren’t a nerd.