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.

In a country plagued by ignorance and superstition

Mar 26th, 2010 9:12 am | By

I like what Jack Szostak, Nobel laureate, wrote to the NAS about its hosting of the Templeton prize party.

It is inappropriate and counter-productive for the NAS, a scientific organization, to interact in this way with an overtly religious group such as the Templeton Foundation.

We are not a faith-based organization – we ask questions and seek the answers in evidence. In a country plagued by ignorance and superstition, the NAS ought to be a beacon of coherent rational thinking and skeptical inquiry. If science is, as George Ellery Hale stated, our guide to truth, then religion is clearly incompatible with science, as should be apparent from considerations of faith versus inquiry.

But since it’s one of their own who won, they probably won’t be much moved. That’s unfortunate.

No cigar

Mar 25th, 2010 12:35 pm | By

Religious belief thought experiment still stuck in the same place. The author isn’t dealing with the real objections.

…is it “reasonable” for the fella to believe in the monster (if it is then it shows that epistemic warrant is not a necessary condition of reasonable belief). Too right it is… You say that the perception is real, but it does not follow there’s a physical correlate to that perception. Well, of course, it doesn’t follow (how could it given the possibility of hallucination, etc). Our fella is well aware of this point (he is a good sceptic, after all). But the point is that it also doesn’t follow that something doesn’t exist simply because there is no epistemic warrant to support a belief in its existence. And this, of course, is crucial. Our fella believes because his experience is verdical, the monster is not ruled out by logic, and the belief is of pressing and utmost personal sigificance (he cannot take evasive action unless he believes). This is reasonable – i.e., not contrary to reason.

Suddenly ‘you’ are a fella, which is odd, because in the post ‘you’ are just ‘you.’ But anyway – all of that simply ignores the distinction between whether it is reasonable to believe the monster is real during the experience of its crashing through the bathroom window, and whether it is reasonable to go on believing the monster is real after the experience is over. (We were never told how it ended, by the way. What happened? Did it crash back out the window? Did it fade from view? Did it open the bathroom door and exit, closing the door behind it? Did ‘you’ swoon dead away and awake to find it gone? Did ‘you’ simply close your eyes and open them to find no monster, no broken window, no smell, no nothing? This all makes a difference, frankly.)

Over here, at least, I think we’ve all agreed that it’s reasonable to believe the monster is real while it seems to be sharing the bathroom with you – not that anything really deserving the name ‘belief’ is involved, but call it belief for the sake of argument. We get that. But what we don’t buy is that it goes on being reasonable afterwards. As I said, apart from anything else, it would be a good deal more reasonable to worry about a giant brain tumor and try to find a good neurologist. All the questions about physical evidence and inquiry and what floor the bathroom is on and whether, on reflection, ‘you’ might not wonder if a real monster would have avoided contact – all those have been ignored.

I guess ultimately people might just have different intuitions about what’s reasonable in that situation.

No. It’s not a matter of just having different intuitions – it’s a matter of perfectly reasonable (yes reasonable) questions about physical evidence and objections about believing hallucinations forever as opposed to at the instant they occur.

As a side-note: two or three days ago (I can’t remember if it was before I wrote the first post on this or not) I was reading an old New Yorker from last August and found a Barsotti cartoon that might as well have been done to illustrate the thought experiment. Two little guys are racing down the street followed by a large toothy monster; the guy in front is saying, ‘You’re the therapist – you make it go away.’ Is that apt or what?!

And now – heeeere’s Spivak!

Mar 24th, 2010 5:19 pm | By

Aha – you’re in luck. I assumed the postcolonial article on (re)production of bullshit was unavailable online, but in fact it is, so you get to find out who the author is and you also get to read the whole dang thing if you want to.

So. Since a flood of people, which is to say, two people, have requested more extracts, I shall oblige.

At the heart of the relationship between feminism and imperialism is an
Orientalist logic that posits Western women as exemplary and emancipated in relation to
“Other” (Afro-Asian/colonized) women, thereby charging the former with the
responsibility of saving the latter from their backwards (i.e. Muslim), uncivilized

Right. Tell that to the little girls in Ethiopia who don’t want to be raped into marriage at age eight. Tell them it’s an Orientalist logic that thinks they should have something better. Tell Boge Gebre.that – if you have the gall.

By deliberately
attempting to mask the problems that are always associated with representation, 9and the
inconsistencies that inevitably arise within categories of experience, CW4WAfghan’s use
of personal anecdotes both confirms and conceals their own ideology. Reproducing the
oppressive gesture of imperialist feminism, their homogenous image of Afghan women
reduces them to the role of “generalized native informants”, who Spivak asserts, “sometimes appear in the Sunday supplements of national journals, mouthing for us the answers that we want to hear as our confirmation of the world.”

I repeat. Tell that to the little girls of Ethiopia, and the women who used to be little girls and remember what happened to them. Tell them they are ‘mouthing for us.’

There. That’s only page 16, and it’s only a selection. It’s all like that. It’s arrogant patronizing crap. It’s insulting. I wish you joy of it.

Say anything you like as long as it’s inoffensive

Mar 24th, 2010 12:05 pm | By

Once again, some people in the UK seem to have a shaky grasp on the concept of free speech.

A Tory MP was investigated by police after he said in Parliament that the niqab and the burqa is the ‘religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes.’ He was questioned over the telephone by officers and a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, but he was later told that no action would be taken.’ That’s nice, but how odd that he was questioned at all. It was the Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council that thought he needed to be shopped.

Anjona Roy, the REC’s chief executive, said she contacted police by email after her organisation received complaints about the MP’s comments. She also said that the incident had been raised at a meeting of the County Hate Incident Forum, whose members include local authority and police representatives, and it had been agreed that a complaint was appropriate. Ms Roy said she took offence at Mr Hollobone’s likening of the head-to-toe Muslim covering known as a burka to a paper bag. “I think the majority of people would find that quite offensive. If you disagree with people wearing burkas, there are other ways of putting it.”

[through gritted teeth] Yes but ‘quite offensive’ is not a police matter. Mere ‘offensiveness’ is not illegal. The fact that the majority of people would (according to one person) find something ‘quite offensive’ is not enough to make that something a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service. If the only free speech is speech about which no one will say ‘I think the majority of people would find that quite offensive’ then there is no free speech at all. Speech that has to pass the test that no officious head of a so-called Rights & Equality Council will call it offensive is about as far from free as speech can get. ‘Quite offensive’ speech is not against the law except in benighted oppressive stupidity-ridden theocracies and tinpot dictatorships.

When people who don’t get that, but in fact think the very opposite – think that speech that they find ‘quite offensive’ should be reported to the police – are the heads of Rights & Equality Councils, then there’s a problem.

After virtue

Mar 24th, 2010 11:30 am | By

Religious bodies have been demonstrating their virtue again. They’ve quit Labour’s ‘advisory group on religion’ in a huff because the secularists there resisted their demands to be allowed to ignore equality laws.

Muslims had already stopped attending the group…Hindus, Baha’is and secularists are still represented but the Church of England, Salvation Army, Methodist Church and Roman Catholic Church have all left.

Because they don’t want no stinkin’ equality. How impressive.

Peter Vlachos, the National Secular Society delegate, said he was appalled and accused the church groups of “abusing” the forum. He said: “Rather than supporting and championing equality and human rights, the Churches have tried to use the consultative process to try to gain further exemptions from equalities legislation. They wanted the freedom to discriminate and they didn’t get it so now they’ve walked away.”

So – generosity, compassion, justice, equality – all spurned by the churches. So that’s what they’re like, is it? Well I knew that, but I’m a little surprised they’re so open about it.

The Pope recently intervened in the debate over equality legislation in Britain. Benedict XVI is expected to use his visit to Britain in September to preach moral virtue. Leaders across the churches continue to defend the right of Christians and other religions to discriminate against women, gays and others according to their religious beliefs.

Right. The pope, who spent years enforcing secrecy about child abuse in his church, will be preaching ‘moral virtue,’ which takes the form of defending the ‘right’ to discriminate against various groups of people ‘according to one’s religious beliefs.’ Well the hell with that – that’s not moral virtue. The pope wouldn’t recognize moral virtue if it grabbed him between the legs.

(Re)producing horse shit

Mar 23rd, 2010 5:24 pm | By

I’ve been reading an article called ‘Canadian Women and the (Re)Production of Women in Afghanistan.’ I do not like it.

From the abstract, so that you can get the big picture:

Focusing on
the prominent group Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), this
paper looks at the role its advocacy assumes in the context of the “War on Terror”. In
Canada as in the United States, government agencies have justified the military invasion
of Afghanistan by revitalizing the oppressed Muslim woman as a medium through which
narratives of East versus West are performed. While CW4WAfghan attempt to challenge
dominant narratives of Afghan women, they ultimately reinforce and naturalize the
Orientalist logic on which the War on Terror operates, even helping to disseminate it
through the Canadian school system. Drawing on post-colonial feminist theory, this
paper highlights the implications of CW4WAfghan’s Orientalist discourse on women’s
rights, and tackles the difficult question of how feminists can show solidarity with
Afghan women without adhering to the oppressive narratives that permeate today’s
political climate.

Then from the main body:

Building on Krista Hunt’s analysis of feminist
complicity in the War on Terror (Hunt 2006), this essay draws attention to Canadian feminists’ role in (re)producing neo-imperialist narratives of Afghan women. Focusing specifically on the NGO Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan),
it shows how their use of feminist rhetoric and personal first-hand narratives, together
with national narratives of Canada as a custodian of human rights, add to the productive
power of the Orientalist tropes they invoke.

If within Canada, constructions of Afghan women remain one of the most
powerful means by which knowledge about the “War on Terror” is produced,
CW4WAfghan are among the most active and powerful disseminators of such
knowledge. CW4WAfghan express the importance of this role in their twofold mandate:

1) to raise awareness in Canada of the need to secure and protect human rights
and opportunities for Afghan women and, 2) to support the empowerment
efforts of Afghan women in education, health care and skills development
(CW4WAfghan 2008a).

By explicitly focusing on how the second half of this mandate is pursued, my aim is not
to discredit what CW4WAfghan may have accomplished in Afghanistan, but rather, to
see how this work might be undemiined by becoming part of the War on Terror’s neo-
imperialist project of knowledge construction.

And so she does. She wants to get her Master’s degree, so she proceeds with her project of saying invidious things about an NGO working for Afghan women’s rights, for another forty pages. She leans heavily on Foucault and Said, she talks much of knowledge-power and Orientalism, and she ploughs her academic furrow. Meanwhile the women who work for CW4WAfghan do that. I know which I admire.

I might give you more extracts later. It’s replete with interesting items. The sad part is it was published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

The size of a grapefruit

Mar 23rd, 2010 1:08 pm | By

There’s a post at Talking Philosophy called In Defence of Religious Belief. I would comment on it there but I can’t because I’m banned from commenting, so (since I want to say something) I’ll do it here.

It’s a thought experiment. You’ve been having hallucinations of a monster following you. You believe the shrink who tells you you’re mentally ill. ‘You’re a logical sort of person. If you weren’t too classy, you’d even consider becoming a New Atheist.’ But the experiences feel real.

And then it happens. It’s late at night. You’re alone in your bathroom, and the monster comes crashing in through the window – at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought: What if it’s real?

Well of course there is, with an experience like that.

At this point, given how high the stakes are, isn’t it reasonable to believe that the monster is real? Imagine yourself in that situation. What would you say to somebody who told you it was unreasonable or irrational to take evasive action? You wouldn’t be impressed, I suspect. Moreover, it’s not simply that you wouldn’t be impressed at the time – which is not particularly interesting, since you’re in a freaked out state – you wouldn’t be impressed afterwards either, you wouldn’t be impressed on calm reflection (with the claim that you were unreasonable to believe then).

That last parenthesis is important – I overlooked it at first, and objected, but then I went back and saw the parenthesis and my objection became superfluous. But given the parenthesis, the overall claim is a pretty narrow one – too narrow for the rest of the work it’s supposed to do. No, I wouldn’t be ‘impressed,’ or convinced, by anyone who told me I was unreasonable to be terrified by the hallucination while it was going on. That would be absurd. But I don’t think I know anyone who would say that. Of course a terrifying convincing hallucination is terrifying while it is happening.

But so what? That doesn’t translate to the claim that I would be reasonable to go on thinking the hallucination was real after it was over – which I thought was the claim itself, until I noticed that last parenthesis. That’s not the claim – but then what is the claim?

Well maybe it is the claim.

Clearly belief in the monster isn’t epistemically warranted: the perilousness of a situation is not part of that story (though this is not to accept that the belief is entirely without epistemic warrant – the fact that the experience has a verdical quality surely counts for something). But the belief is warranted in a certain kind of rationally defensible way. You’re not making a cognitive mistake if you believe: given how high the stakes are, given the fact that the experience seems to have a veridical quality, it’s reasonable for you to believe it.

This is in the present tense, so apparently the claim is after all that it’s reasonable to believe in the monster in general – not just during the hallucination but indefinitely afterward. I don’t think that claim is right. It could be right if ‘you’ had no knowledge of brain science, but the implied ‘you’ has gone to a psychiatrist and knows what hallucinations are, so that’s ruled out. So no, I don’t think it is reasonable for you to believe it, despite the veridical quality. At least not without asking a few questions first.

The monster came ‘crashing in through the window’ – so there would be broken glass if it were real. Is there any broken glass? Is there any physical evidence at all? Have you looked?

What about the fact that there was no contact? That’s very odd, isn’t it, if the monster is real? It’s ‘in your face’ but it doesn’t actually touch you? It goes to the trouble of crashing through the window (what floor is your bathroom on, by the way?) but it doesn’t attack you or touch you – well what kind of creature is that? Maybe not a real one? Eric MacDonald makes the same objection over there.

And then – if there is no physical evidence, and it didn’t touch you, then it certainly looks as if you had a very powerful hallucination. If that’s the case – there could well be something very wrong with you. You could have one hell of a brain tumor. The reasonable thing to do is go to a specialist, it’s not to go on thinking the monster is real as you did while it was (it seemed) breathing in your face.

The rest of the post of course makes an analogy with religion, but since the monster thing, as written, doesn’t work, I won’t bother with that.

We never, and the others all did too, and shut up

Mar 23rd, 2010 12:21 pm | By

The church isn’t giving an inch – on the contrary, it’s fighting like a starving tom cat.

The Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out for criticism of sexual abuse of children by priests and will not tolerate campaigns to discredit it, the powerful head of Italy’s bishops said on Monday.

Oh right – it’s all so terribly unfair. The church sets itself up as a moral arbiter for the entire world, and then it’s surprised and wounded when we get cross with it for its settled habit of hiding priestly child-rape from the police. Yes indeed, that is like so unfair. And it ‘won’t tolerate’ – what does it mean it won’t tolerate? What’s it going to do? What’s it threatening everyone with? Who do they think they are?

Oh it’s a stupid question. They think they’re the holy version of the Mafia, and of course they’re right, except for the holy part.

Speaking two days after Pope Benedict apologised to victims of sexual abuse in Ireland, Bagnasco said the Church was “not afraid of the truth, however painful and detestable” but would not accept any “generalised campaigns to discredit it.”

Well, chum, the church is just going to have to accept it, isn’t it. It has no way of preventing it, and it has no moral standing with which to deflect it. So go ahead and tell each other what you won’t tolerate or accept, but nobody else (apart from Damian Thompson) will pay much attention.

Fergus Finlay hasn’t much sympathy.

[R]eading the letter as a layman, I have to say it was terribly disappointing, and chillingly dishonest in parts…[T]here was no sense, where victims of abuse are concerned, that the church will in future, at the direction of the Pope himself, abandon the adversarial tactics that have characterised all their dealings with people who have been abused in the past…And right from the beginning of the letter, there is a sense that the Pope has chosen to distance himself and the Vatican from what happened in the church in Ireland. There is an air throughout the letter that he is somehow only just discovering what happened in Ireland and that he is “deeply disturbed by the information that has come to light”. The tone of this early part of the letter is deeply offensive because everyone knows the concealment of abuse, and the refusal to cooperate in any open way with investigation, has been a Vatican tactic from the very beginning. The notion that the Pope has had to chastise the Irish bishops for their conduct – as if their conduct wasn’t deeply embedded in church policy – is thoroughly dishonest.

There now, Cardinal Bagnasco, you see how it’s going? People don’t believe you. It isn’t working. The bluffing, the threatening, the pretending to be surprised, the distancing, the claims that everybody does it – none of it is working. You’re deep in the weeds. You will still have your church, but it will be smaller; fewer young men will sign up to be priests; even fewer people will let the Vatican tell them what to do; deference will be a lot scarcer.

If you guys had any sense you would stop bluffing and threatening and distancing, and at least try to claw back a few shreds of integrity from the wreckage. But clearly you’re determined to make things even worse for yourselves. Whatever.

A little background reading

Mar 22nd, 2010 5:30 pm | By

From the Murphy Report:

In addition to their clerical education, many of those in authority in the Archdiocese had civil law degrees or occupied prestigious appointments in third level education…Despite their participation in civil society, it was not until late 1995 that officials of the Archdiocese first began to notify the civil authorities of complaints of clerical child sexual abuse. In this context it is significant, in the Commission’s view, that every bishop’s primary loyalty is to the Church itself. At his consecration every bishop, as well as making a profession of faith, must take an oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See. [p 7]

1.27 Most officials in the Archdiocese were, however, greatly exercised by the provisions of canon law which deal with secrecy. It was often spoken of as a reason for not informing the Gardaí about known criminal offences.

1.28 A similar ‘culture of secrecy’ was identified by the Attorney General for Massachusetts in his report on child sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese.5 In the case of that diocese, as in the case of Dublin, secrecy “protected the institution at the expense of children.” [p 8]

the highest priority was the protection of the reputation of the institution and the reputation of priests. The moving around of offending clerics with little or no disclosure of their past is illustrative of this. [p 9]

Another consequence of the obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal was the failure of successive Archbishops and bishops to report complaints to the Gardaí prior to 1996. The Archbishops, bishops and other officials cannot claim that they did not know that child sexual abuse was a crime. As citizens of the State, they have the same obligations as all other citizens to uphold the law and report serious crimes to the authorities. [p 9]

As can be seen clearly from the case histories, there is no doubt that the reaction of Church authorities to reports of clerical child sexual abuse in the early years of the Commission’s remit was to ensure that as few people as possible knew of the individual priest’s problem. There was little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child or for the welfare of other children who might come into contact with the priest. [p 10]

And so on. I recommend reading the first 28 pages, at least, if you haven’t already. The whole horrible mess is laid out there. They protected the institution at the expense of raped children.

I don’t like the church’s spoon

Mar 22nd, 2010 12:40 pm | By

Madeleine Bunting again, as with the Ryan report last year, almost gets it, but then she drops the ball at the end.

There will be plenty celebrating the Catholic church’s plight, and it is hard not to agree in some part with MacCulloch, that hubris has played a huge part in this institution’s history and its current crisis. But it is also important to acknowledge that this is more tragedy than anything else. For the victims, their families, their congregations – many of whom see no cause for celebration despite their need for truth – and for those causes on which the church has proved a trenchant champion, stirring lazy consciences on the arms race, global inequality and capitalist excess.

Causes don’t need the Catholic church. They really don’t. This is the most fundamental point of the whole loathsome tale, the one that Bunting almost got but then lost again: the church has no moral standing, so it is not useful for stirring lazy consciences. We just don’t need the church’s help on the arms race, global inequality and capitalist excess – especially since it comes at the price of the church’s ‘help’ on abortion and contraception. We don’t look to the Mafia for help with causes, and we don’t look to the Catholic church either.


Mar 22nd, 2010 12:17 pm | By

You have to wonder sometimes, you know?

95,000 descendants of the prophet Muhammad are planning to bring a libel action in Britain over “blasphemous” cartoons of the founder of Islam, even though they were published in the Danish press. The defamation case is being prepared by Faisal Yamani, a Saudi lawyer acting for the descendants, who live in the Middle East, north Africa and as far afield as Australia.

They’re teasing us, right? They’re not serious. I mean, they’re serious about doing it, sure, but they’re not serious about the ‘descendants of the prophet Muhammad’ bit. They’re being ‘ironic,’ they’re playing to our expectations, they’re parodying their own reputation for believing silly things. Right? They don’t really think it means anything to talk about ‘descendants’ of someone who lived 14 centuries ago, right? Because they realize that over that many generations, any one ‘ancestor’ is lost in the crowd. Any 1400 years ago ‘ancestor’ is just some tiny tiny fraction of your total ancestry, so it’s just stupid to talk about being a ‘descendant.’ They know that – they’re just playing ‘dumb believer’ for the benefit of the audience, or something. They don’t really expect anybody to be impressed that they’re ‘descendants’ of Mo…

[A British lawyer] said the descendants could argue that the cartoons — which first appeared in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005, sparking violent protests around the world — were a direct slur on them. “Direct descendants of the prophet have a particular place within Muslim society…By effectively criticising and making fun of the prophet you are, by implication, holding them up to scandal, contempt and public ridicule,” he said. “So it may be that they will suffer some kind of damage among their own community.”

Well then why don’t we all get together and sue Hanna-Barbera for doing ‘The Flintstones’? That’s got to be a nice little earner.

Particular attention should be given to Eucharistic adoration

Mar 20th, 2010 1:41 pm | By

The pope’s letter has been delivered.

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ…In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel.

Oh. It was secularism what did it. Who knew?

At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country…Particular attention should also be given to Eucharistic adoration, and in every diocese there should be churches or chapels specifically devoted to this purpose. I ask parishes, seminaries, religious houses and monasteries to organize periods of Eucharistic adoration, so that all have an opportunity to take part. Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm…

No you can’t. No you can’t. ‘Intense prayer’ is beside the point. ‘The Lord’ is not there. The presence is not real. Magic, and ceremonies, and fiddling about with people who aren’t there, are not any kind of way to make reparations to real people who have suffered real harm. Forget the sodding Eucharistic adoration, and pay attention to this here, the real world, where you and your colleagues fucked up thousands of children. Skip the cant.

Oh noes, it’s the new atheists

Mar 19th, 2010 5:35 pm | By

Oh look, a new Chris Mooney, just what the world needs. He’s here to tell us the ‘problems’ he has with ‘the radical atheists.’ You’re excited already, aren’t you! And rightly so. He tells a thrilling tale.

Starting in 2005, American public was hit with a fresh wave of secular thought openly criticizing organized religion and religious faith…Many have called these authors and their followers the “New Atheists” – practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief. These atheists were not content to disbelieve and go on with their lives; they also wanted to let religious beliefs know they were wrong (though it should be added it is not like these men broke into homes; they sold books and wrote blog posts). But this new, bold assault on religion did bring many secularists out of the woodwork – and what made wave perhaps unique was a call by men such as Dawkins and Myers to organize around atheism and sharp rhetoric.

That’s not the most elegant writing we’ve ever seen, but never mind, it’s easy to spot the Mooneyisms – the accusation of ‘openly criticizing religious faith’; the sneer behind ‘brash’ and ‘assault,’ the bizarre notion of organizing around sharp rhetoric. We have been here before.

[I]t is generally agreed that some good did come from these books in that they pushed important issues to the public. However, an issue that received less focus was a more strategic one: the fact that many atheists define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism.

No they don’t. And what makes Michael De Dora think he knows they do? He doesn’t say. He perhaps means that many atheists give a lot of time and attention to critique of theism – but he said more than that.

Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.

That’s an argument? For what? That doesn’t look like an argument to me; it looks like a free-standing assertion which doesn’t say much of anything.

This brings us to the second argument: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.

Oy. Who thinks anything else? No one, that I know of. That is some heavy-duty strawman.

The third argument against the march of organized atheism is it’s tendency toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief…However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief…Yet the problem isn’t necessarily the arguments, but the tone. There is not enough room or time here for an exhaustive sampling, and a quick visit to Myers’ blog, or YouTube to watch some clips from Hitchens or Dawkins would give you a better insight…

And we’re off, into a long and screamingly familiar laundry list of things Michael De Dora doesn’t like about MyersDawkinsHitchens…including, of course, ‘Myers has publicly desecrated a communion wafer and called the WWII Pope Pius XII a “sniveling rat bastard”’ – which, also of course, does not bother to say why Myers did that.

This brings us to the fourth argument: this view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together.

As does all disagreement, which is why in the New Dispensation disagreement will be forbidden and we will all be Brought Together. Disagreement shall die and from the ashes shall arise a brand-new Buick furnished with a beaming nuclear family and their dog Spot, driving off into the sunset of togetherness.

Anyway. There’s a fair bit more, but you get the idea. I dislike it. I dislike the rhetoric, I dislike the sly tattle-tale manner, I dislike the coercive conformism, I dislike the anti-intellectualism. It gives me the creeps. And this is the Center for Inquiry.

The buck stops where?

Mar 19th, 2010 12:53 pm | By

Damian Thompson is again upset that people think Ratzinger is implicated in the church’s cover-up of generations of child-rape and other abuse. He ought to read what Hans Kung has to say.

Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility, instead of whining about a campaign against his person? No other person in the Church has had to deal with so many cases of abuse crossing his desk…

In his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from around the world, all cases of grave sexual offences by clerics had to be reported, under strictest secrecy (“secretum pontificum”), to his curial office, which was exclusively responsible for dealing with them. Ratzinger himself, in a letter on “grave sexual crimes” addressed to all the bishops under the date of 18 May, 2001, warned the bishops, under threat of ecclesiastical punishment, to observe “papal secrecy” in such cases.

In his five years as Pope, Benedict XVI has done nothing to change this practice with all its fateful consequences.

I have nothing to add.

I knew I was not a cow, a chattel

Mar 18th, 2010 6:08 pm | By

In Ethiopia, men grab little girls, rape them and then marry them. The little girls don’t like it.

even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life. “That was the culture,” she says. But it wasn’t her culture: like all the other little girls, she didn’t want it. “I started screaming and tried to run out of the hut,” she says…She was taken back to his home, held down in front of his family, raped, and taken to be married the next morning. Dazed, she signed the papers, and waited for a moment when she could flee.

After three days she had a chance to escape, and she ran miles back home; she was crying with joy when she got there – but her parents told her she had to ‘go back to him and be a good wife.’ So she did.

Nurame has a distant sense of another life, one she will never lead now. “If it hadn’t happened to me … I would have been educated and got my own work and lived my own life. I wish to God that had happened.”

There’s a rebellion now, started by Boge Gebre.

When Boge was 12, she was pinned down and had her genitals cut out with a knife…This happened to all Boge’s sisters too – and it killed one of them…Men came to abduct Boge twice – but both times she ran away before they could rape her. “So – here I am!” she says.

When she was told this was her culture and she had to accept it, she found the argument ridiculous. “I thought – how can this be my culture, if it kills me?” she says, leaning forward. “What is culture? It is something that is constantly changing. In Europe, you burned witches. That culture changed. Every woman has a sense of her own dignity. I knew I was not a cow, a chattel, and I did not want to be treated like one. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. This is true whatever your culture. Culture is not stagnant – it is transient.”

That is what ‘culture’ is. That. culture. changed. The victim’s culture is not the same as the perp’s. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. Amen.

That was then, this is now

Mar 18th, 2010 12:20 pm | By

The pope is not a modernist, nor is he any kind of pluralist. He is not one to think that morality improves over time.

When he was crowned Pope nearly five years ago, Benedict promised to clean up the Church. He would not be a showman Pope like John Paul II, he would not flog himself around the world addressing huge stadiums. The Church under his guidance would not have expansiveness as its goal, but purification.

He had a reformist phase in his youth, but he got over it.

…around 1968, he rejected all that and became a counter-revolutionary warrior, dedicated to liberating the Church from trendy nonsense and restoring the purity which he saw the reform movement as having polluted. As such, his ardour has never flagged.

But then…What is Sean Brady’s explanation for the actions he is now apologizing for?

Delivering his St Patrick’s Day mass on Wednesday, Cardinal Brady said: “This week a painful episode from my own past has come before me. I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events 35 years ago. I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologise to you with all my heart. I also apologise to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.”

He’s cagy, he does a classic guy apology (I’m sorry you were offended), but he does in the end admit that he did bad things. Well why did he do them? Because he wanted to? Or because at the time he didn’t get how bad they were?

The latter seems to be the view of the people who still turn up at Armagh cathedral.

The applause that rippled through Armagh’s vast St Patrick’s Cathedral as Dr Séan Brady entered this morning stated in the clearest terms exactly what his parishioners think of their cardinal…Marie Ryan said to condemn him for failing to alert the authorities about notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth 35 years ago was to judge him using today’s standards. “It was a different era back then and a lot of things happened that shouldn’t,” she said.

Ah. It was a different era back then. Times change, people change, views on morality change.

But then – if times change, and views on morality change, and people can look back on their pasts and feel ashamed of things they did many years ago, then -

Then why is the Catholic church so god damn confident that it is right to go on discriminating against gays?

Why does it not occur to the Catholic church that views on the morality of discriminating against people for bad stupid empty reasons have changed, and that it is entirely possible that they have changed for the better, and that the Catholic church ought not to preen itself on insisting on ‘church teachings’ when to other people those teachings are not just wrong but evil?

The church needs to get it. The church needs to realize that it has no moral high ground and no monopoly on moral wisdom; that it is in fact worse than many secular institutions, not better; that it has every reason to be very very humble, and to err on the side of generosity rather than purity. It’s not going to, of course, but it needs to.

Polluting Australia

Mar 17th, 2010 5:49 pm | By

The usual – the Australian media are united in their scorn and loathing for atheists – at least for atheists who actually collect in one spot to talk about atheism. I don’t suppose the united Australian media pour scorn on people who collect in one spot to talk about theism – in, you know, churches and mosques and similar – but atheists doing that are an affront to all decent people.

Honestly, I must be clueless; I keep being surprised by the level of unreasonable hostility, distortion and plain rage people allow themselves to express about something that ought to be as ordinary as milk. Clearly it really isn’t permissible, except purely formally, to be overtly and explicitly atheist even in what look like liberal and largely secular countries. Yes it’s legal, no they won’t come and haul you off to prison, but by golly they will throw everything else in the arsenal at you, they will buckle down and do their level best to make everyone think you’re stupid, conceited, aggressive, wrong, evil, and ugly. No, since you ask, they don’t believe in lively public debate; no, as a matter of fact, they don’t believe that the majority should let the minority have room to breathe; yes, actually, they do believe that the majority opinion should be the only opinion. At least when it comes to important stuff like belief in the mysterious God who loves us all to bits but never drops by to say hello.

Oh and by the way new atheists are evil yeah?

Mar 16th, 2010 4:17 pm | By

Michael Ruse did a piece on God and morality for Comment is Free Belief and talked sense for nine paragraphs, then in the tenth and last went completely random and gratuitous and childish.

God is dead. The new atheists think that that is a significant finding. In this, as in just about everything else, they are completely mistaken. God is dead. Morality has no foundation. Long live morality. Thank goodness!

Stupid, isn’t it. Frightful man – always spoiling for a fight. Everyone says he’s like that in real life, too.

Robes and furr’d gowns hide all

Mar 16th, 2010 3:46 pm | By

Hitchens doesn’t altogether see things the way Damian Thompson does.

On March 10, the chief exorcist of the Vatican, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth (who has held this demanding post for 25 years), was quoted as saying that “the Devil is at work inside the Vatican,” and that “when one speaks of ‘the smoke of Satan’ in the holy rooms, it is all true—including these latest stories of violence and pedophilia.” This can perhaps be taken as confirmation that something horrible has indeed been going on in the holy precincts, though most inquiries show it to have a perfectly good material explanation.

I had the same thought when I saw the exorcist piece. The Devil is at work inside the Vatican; yes isn’t he just.

Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture.

Yet now that the Murphy Report has been published that same Ratzinger has told us that he ‘shares the outrage, betrayal and shame felt by the Irish people.’ He never shared it before; he didn’t share it when he issued that confidential letter to all the bishops; he shares it only now, when he and the Vatican can no longer hide the truth. There’s devilish for you – the flaming gall to pretend to share feelings that you ignored for year after year.

Go on, kick us again

Mar 16th, 2010 12:09 pm | By

Damian Thompson, a Catholic, is in a frothing rage – not at the pope or the all-male hierarchy of his authoritarian church, but at the Times for reporting on it.

There is international outrage in Catholic circles over a headline in The Times this morning that many people regard as utterly misleading and part of the newspaper’s reliably biased coverage (reinforced by vicious cartoons) of anything to do with Pope Benedict XVI…A universally admired Catholic journalist contacted me this morning and accused The Times of (and I am toning this down for legal reasons) an extremely serious error of judgment.

A universally admired Catholic journalist? There is no such thing. There’s no universally admired anything, and certainly not a Catholic journalist. Thompson is clearly very keen to give the impression that the outrage he is describing and attributing is widespread. It may be, but his heated rhetoric doesn’t convince me of that.

Another respected commentator, the American journalist Phil Lawler, takes the headline to pieces on

There it is again. He’s citing Catholics as authorities for the unfairness of coverage of a Catholic issue, without so much as acknowledging the potential for bias, but instead simply announcing that his chosen Catholics are admired and respected. Admired and respected by whom? Other Catholics? Other loyalist Catholics? Other Catholics so loyal that for them the church can do no wrong? Other Catholics so loyal that they are more worried about the coverage than they are about the reality of what the church has been doing all this time? That’s the appearance he gives, at least.

Thompson quotes the ‘respected’ Lawler (ironically named, he turns out to be):

Here’s what we know: While the Pope was Archbishop of Munich, a priest there was accused of sexual abuse. He was pulled out of ministry and sent off for counseling. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in the decision to remove the priest from his parish assignment – got that? remove him.

Yes, got that. But what he wasn’t, was ‘pulled out of ministry and sent off’ to the police. Got that? The police. What he was accused of was a crime, and not no victimless crime, neither, but a peculiarly nasty crime against people. Ratzinger was involved in this failure to report a crime to the police. Got that? To report a crime.

Several years later, long after Cardinal Ratzinger had moved to a new assignment at the Vatican, the priest was again accused of sexual abuse. A grievous mistake was made in this case; that much is clear now, and the vicar general has sorrowfully taken responsibility for the error. Could you say that the future Pontiff should have been more vigilant? Perhaps. But to suggest that he made the decision to put a pedophile back in circulation is an outrageous distortion of the facts.

Is it? Really? In particular, is it really an outrageous distortion? In a sense it’s more of a distortion not to put it that way. Lawler is an American, so he should be aware of the crime of reckless endangerment. He’s right that we don’t know, and it’s not likely, that Ratzinger said ‘let’s not report this priest to the cops so that he can go back into circulation as a pedophile later on.’ But the fact is that that’s what happened, and the not reporting the priest to the cops wasn’t the best way to prevent its happening.

Thompson finishes up by shouting at Ruth Gledhill for saying, ‘The Pope is pretty unassailable. He is not elected…’ Thompson points out, acidly, that there is such a thing as a conclave. Well yes, but ‘elected’ is commonly used to mean ‘democratically elected’ – elected by the people as a whole, not elected by a tiny powerful exclusive secretive body of celibate men. The pope is not ‘elected’ by Catholics, he is ‘elected’ by some cardinals. That makes a difference.

Thompson continues the theme later.

Fr Tim Finigan, one of the most respected traditionalist priests in England and certainly its most influential priest-blogger, described it as a “Disgraceful attack on the Holy Father in The Times”…There is a wider perception that The Times’s entire coverage of the scandals in the Catholic Church, including Peter Brookes’s revolting cartoons, has the flavour of an anti-Catholic crusade…Let me quote my colleague Cristina Odone, former editor of The Catholic Herald: “I have been shocked by the Times’s anti-Catholic coverage.”

Same stuff, see? Loose references to respected and influential and wider perception, and citation of Catholics without mention of the possibility of pro-church bias.

What I’d like to do is put The Times’s elder statesman, Lord Rees-Mogg, on the spot. How can he, as a former editor of the paper and a devout and distinguished Catholic, stand by as the paper he loves traduces the Holy Father?

And there you have theist slavishness at its most revolting.