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.

It’s a contingent fact that we care

Apr 9th, 2010 10:40 am | By

I mentioned a passage from the Odyssey in my latest comment on Fact 1.5, as illustrating my claim that “It’s not natural to treat strangers or foreigners well, it’s not natural to think that everyone should have equal treatment, it’s not natural to think that women matter just as much as men do.” Having mentioned it I wanted to read it again, and having read it again, I wanted to post it.

It’s in Book Nine, which is where we at last get to hear about Odysseus’s journey from the beginning, when he is staying with the Phaiakians and Alkinöos asks him (in the last lines of Book Eight) to tell his story. After some polite throat-clearing he gets on with it:

I was carried by the wind from Troy
to Ismarus, land of the Kikonians.
I destroyed the city there, killed the men,
seized their wives, and captured lots of treasure,
which we divided up. I took great pains
to see that all men got an equal share.
Then I gave orders we should leave on foot—
and with all speed. But the men were fools.
They didn’t listen. They drank too much wine…

And ate too much meat and gave the neighboring Kikonians time to collect and attack. But you see how the story is told. The first and only glimpse of moral concern (or perhaps it’s prudential, or more likely it’s both) is Odysseus’s concern to make sure all his men got their fare share of the treasure and the women that they had all grabbed. The Kikonians might as well be animated figures in a computer game. This isn’t a factual issue. It’s not that Odysseus and his crew think the Kikonians are robots or zombies – it’s that they don’t care. They should care, but they don’t. Facts are part of getting them to care, but they’re not enough. Facts are necessary but not sufficient.

(For the record, I’m not assuming that Sam Harris thinks facts are sufficient. I was just disputing the list, not his views as a whole, which I haven’t yet read. On the other hand, I don’t agree with his claim that science can answer moral questions; I think science can help answer moral questions, can contribute to moral questions, but not that it can answer them, just like that, boom. Just a difference in emphasis, basically.)

I’ll add something I said on a new post of Russell’s, in reply to his ‘In other words, ethics is ultimately based on the affective attitudes of human subjects, not on the fabric of a reality external to these!’

In other words it all turns on the fact that we care, and it’s a contingent fact that we care. We might not care, and if we didn’t, morality wouldn’t even exist.

There’s a horrible passage in one of Jane Goodall’s early (and for a general readership) books on the Gombe chimps, about one elderly male chimp who was left with a paralyzed arm after a polio outbreak. One day a group of chimps were in a tree grooming each other and the damaged chimp slowly and with huge effort climbed the tree and with an exhausted sigh settled down to be groomed – whereupon all the other chimps left.

We could be like that – and we are a little like that, but not entirely. Or chimps could be less like that – and in other contexts they are less like that. The contingent fact is that chimps have some empathy and we have more, and over our history we have learned to refine and develop and expand it. That’s where morality is. It requires caring, and empathy, and those aren’t automatic.

Fact 1.5

Apr 8th, 2010 12:00 pm | By

More on Sam Harris’s 9 facts and why they don’t (I think) get us from is to ought. Just a little more, because the power is about to be turned off. Work is difficult around here these days.

FACT #1: There are behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone. There are also behaviors, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which do not, and which, in fact, lead to states of wellbeing for many sentient creatures…FACT #3: Our “values” are ways of thinking about this domain of possibilities. If we value liberty, privacy, benevolence, dignity, freedom of expression, honesty, good manners, the right to own property, etc.—we value these things only in so far as we judge them to be part of the second set of factors conducive to (someone’s) wellbeing.

Sure. But it’s more complicated than that, and Facts 4-9 don’t discuss some of the most important complications. The more common situation about cultural practices and the like is that they lead to well-being for some people and misery for other people. It just isn’t usually the case that cultural practice X leads to well-being for everyone or that cultural practice Y leads to misery for everyone. One of the things that cultural practices do is sort people and allot more well-being to some than to others.

I think we lose sight of how new and bizarre and non-natural liberal morality is. I strongly agree that it is a better morality, but alas that is not because it is natural. It’s more because it isn’t. It’s not natural to treat strangers or foreigners well, it’s not natural to think that everyone should have equal treatment, it’s not natural to think that women matter just as much as men do. What is natural is, once one gets past close relatives, likely to be pretty disgusting. Primates are not naturally universally altruistic, to put it mildly. (Bonobos are closer to that description than most primates. But how much can we rely on bonobo nature to claim that humans are naturally generous and egalitarian?) What is natural tends to be zero-sum, and that means that self-interest (at least) is a lot more natural than other-interest. We have to buck our own natures in order to be good, or even decent. That’s fact 1.5, perhaps.

Pope promises reform

Apr 7th, 2010 5:39 pm | By

Good old Onion

Calling the behavior shameful, sinful, and much more frequent than the Vatican was comfortable with, Pope Benedict XVI vowed this week to bring the widespread pedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church down to a more manageable level…”This is absolutely unacceptable,” Pope Benedict said. “It seems a weakening of faith in God has prevented our priests from exercising moderation when sexually abusing helpless minors.”…Starting next year, specially trained cardinals will make unannounced visits to inspect and observe random churches in order to ensure they are not going beyond diocese-wide molestation caps. The inspector-cardinals will grade each parish based on long, private interviews with altar boys in darkened church basements, and careful observation of priests’ sexual activity….As a “goodwill measure,” Cardinal Re said all churches will also be required to display a sign next to the altar showing the number of days since the last molestation.

Oh gee – is that more petty gossip?

Cheating with stipulative definitions

Apr 7th, 2010 5:16 pm | By

I’ve been trying to argue with Sam Harris about his latest map for how to get from is to ought. It’s a list of 9 putative facts, which are true enough as far as they go, but I keep pointing out that the list doesn’t really confront the difference between avoiding the worst possible misery for oneself and avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone. No one’s paying any attention, but it keeps me out of trouble.

Russell discusses the same post.

The trick is to avoid cheating with stipulative definitions and to avoid relying on human psychology or human institutions. You are supposed to derive that I really, really ought to do X without relying on any of those short-cuts. That is the sort of derivation that so many people want, as its a derivation that will transcend subjectivity or semantics or culture. If you do the job, you’ve made normativity “objective”.

Cheating with stipulative definitions is exactly what Francisco Ayala has been doing, as I pointed out a couple of days ago:

‘Religion and science are not properly understood by some people, Christians particularly.’ In other words he is right by definition, because he gets to define what religion and science properly understood are, and the fact that they are not like that in practice is not evidence that he is wrong but just…that pesky Scots fella again.

Must play fair. That’s an ‘ought.’

There’s such a thing as being too special

Apr 6th, 2010 4:03 pm | By

The pope’s co-workers circle the holy wagons.

A prominent cardinal, in a marked departure from tradition, stood near Pope Benedict XVI at Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday and delivered pointedly public support in the face of growing anger over the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal…The remarks…came among a chorus of denunciations by church officials of what they have framed as a campaign of denigration of the church and its pontiff…“Holy Father, the people of God are with you, and do not let themselves be impressed by the gossip of the moment, by the challenges that sometimes strike at the community of believers,” Cardinal Sodano said.

In other words, the people who criticize the pope and the Vatican are not the people of God, and the notion that the suffering of the victims is more important than the suffering of the Vatican hierarchy is mere petty gossip, and the whole thing is just one of those ‘challenges’ that make clerics even stronger.

Many in the church hierarchy, from local bishops to the cardinals who run the church, have grown increasingly aggressive in the face of sweeping criticism, and more specifically, at charges that Benedict failed to act…In the culture of the church hierarchy, the mere idea of a pope — the vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, the successor of the prince of the apostles, the supreme pontiff of the universal church and sovereign of the Vatican city state, as his official titles have it — being called to account like the secular head of a corporation is incomprehensible.

And there’s your problem right there. The pope is not ‘the vicar of Jesus Christ on earth,’ because that’s a magical phrase that refers to some kind of employment relationship with a guy who died two thousand years ago. People don’t get to tell other people what to do and demand all kinds of special deference and respect because they have a self-declared connection with some long-dead human being. It’s silly enough when monarchs do it, and it’s even sillier when ‘popes’ do it.

This is what is wrong with the Catholic church. It’s a bad, diseased way to think, and it’s exactly what’s wrong with them. They think they are in a special caste elevated above other human beings, because of their ‘ordination,’ and this is a terrible, wretched, dangerous way for humans to think. This is obvious. It makes them think they can do no wrong. It makes them sanctimonious instead of good. It makes them incapable (from all appearances, at least) of thinking clearly about their own actions.

We love you dearly, now here’s a bag to put over your head

Apr 5th, 2010 3:53 pm | By

The American Humanist Association tried to give the ACLU $20,000 to help pay for the alternate prom in Mississippi, and the ACLU said no thanks, on account of humanism is as we all know a dirty word.

The ACLU then thought better of it, and apologized…but it also asked the AHA to donate (if it donated) anonymously. Quoth the spokesperson:

“If you would still like to contribute we would be thrilled, but I understand if you do not feel comfortable contributing a donation that you will not be recognized for.”

That’s an interesting way of putting it. It’s not really a matter of “feeling comfortable,” surely. It’s a matter of being insulted at being treated like a source of pollution, and disgusted that what is being held at arm’s length with a pained expression in this way is simply not believing in the imaginary deity that lots of people choose to believe in.

‘There’s no reason that our humanism should be treated as something to be hidden,’ said AHA’s executive director Roy Speckhardt. Well quite – and yet it is treated that way, and by the American Civil Liberties Union at that. But we are mocked and reviled when we point out that atheists are a despised scapegoated outsider-group and that all this determined and mendacious crapping on atheists is not a million miles from McCarthyism. Believe me now? Huh? Huh?

Respect is another one-way valve

Apr 5th, 2010 12:49 pm | By

That interview with Ayala in the New Scientist

They are two windows through which we look at the world. Religion deals with our relationship with our creator, with each other, the meaning and purpose of life, and moral values; science deals with the make-up of matter, expansion of galaxies, evolution of organisms. They deal with different ways of knowing. I feel that science is compatible with religious faith in a personal, omnipotent and benevolent God.

Religion deals with an imaginary or projected relationship with an imagined or projected ‘creator,’ which is a somewhat special kind of relationship, and not really a window through which we look at the world – more like a window through which we conjure a world more to our liking. Religion is far from alone in dealing with our relationship with each other or the meaning and purpose of life or moral values, while science is alone in dealing with the items on its list. Things are blurry and fuzzy and confused from the outset. Sure, science is compatible with all that, but only in the sense that one can always just compartmentalize. It’s not compatible in the sense that one can really combine the two in action. In fact it’s like multitasking that way. Teenagers love to tell adults in a condescending way that they really can text and check email and listen to a biology lecture all at the same time. Yes; we know it’s physically possible to do all three at once, the point is that they are all done badly. That’s what the teenagers don’t get, and it’s what the compatibilists don’t get either. Either you separate the two, in which case you’re tacitly admitting that they’re not compatible, or you don’t, in which case your science will be not so good.

I made a similar point in my piece on Templeton for TPM.

And yet, there are limits even to Templeton’s attempts to bring science and religion together, and that fact seems to indicate that there may be real reasons to be wary of that project, as opposed to simply being “allergic to religious thought”. Even Templeton-funded scientists don’t actually apply religious thought at the coalface – in the lab, in the field, in peer-reviewed journal articles, as the University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, author of the best-selling Why Evolution is True, confirmed.

“Indeed, none of us bring religion into our work,” he told me, “for the same reason that Laplace mentioned: ‘I have no need of that hypothesis.’ Using God or the supernatural never got us anywhere, so we gave it up. And no, nobody, not Francis Collins, or Kenneth Miller, nor anyone uses religion in their own scientific work – not that I know of!”

Anthony Grayling agrees that this is a real stumbling block. “The Templeton strategy is about trying to borrow the respectability, the lustre, the seriousness, the gravitas of proper science for its apologetical agenda. It is an entirely cosmetic matter, and doesn’t reach anywhere near any coalfaces of science. (When science reaches the coalfaces of biblical history etc it tends to have an uncomfortable result for the goddies; which is perhaps why Templeton doesn’t seem to fund much in the way of Palestinian archaeology or dating of the Turin Shroud.)”

The fact that even Templeton-funded scientists don’t actually apply religious thought at the coalface kind of gives the game away, if you ask me. It seems to reveal that all the guff about harmonization and interface is just some polite fiction that everybody ignores in practice.

New Scientist asks Ayala why there is still conflict then, and he says, ‘Religion and science are not properly understood by some people, Christians particularly.’ In other words he is right by definition, because he gets to define what religion and science properly understood are, and the fact that they are not like that in practice is not evidence that he is wrong but just…that pesky Scots fella again.

How can mutual respect between science and religion be fostered?

People of faith need better scientific education. As for scientists, I don’t know what they can do: not many argue in a rational and sustained way that religion and science are incompatible.

Nonsense. Lots of them do. Funny way to foster mutual respect.

Bunting pulls out the ‘new atheist’ file yet again

Apr 5th, 2010 11:34 am | By

Another consignment of rebarbative truculent inaccurate wool from Madeleine Bunting. About…? The Vatican’s petulant cries of ‘petty gossip’ in response to revelations of its settled habit of concealing and protecting child rape? No. The ‘new’ atheists – that’s what’s got her worked up: the endless unappeasable horror of the ‘new’ atheists. Their wrongness. Their violence. Their ignorance. Their deafness to the overwhelming arguments of Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton.

…in the years since the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2006 and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in 2007, there has been an addition every few weeks from enraged philosophers, theologians, historians and journalists, all trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the New Atheists.

Indeed there has. There has been, in fact, a reaction; there has been a classic backlash. There has been a prolific, energetic, often very hostile and very inaccurate backlash. Bunting herself is a part of it – she has written piece after petulant piece complaining of the ‘new’ atheists. This is another. She is part of the very loud and populous chorus trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the shoddiness of the ‘new’ atheists. They could all be right, of course, but the mere fact that they exist doesn’t show that they are right. The wild inaccuracy that so many of them resort to tends to make me think they aren’t right, at least in their overarching assumption that there is something obviously illegitimate about explicit argumentative atheism. Bunting of course takes this assumption entirely for granted.

Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens convey the fury of Old Testament prophets, while their opponents struggle in various well-mannered ways to contain theirs.

Ohhhhhhh no they don’t. Bunting doesn’t, for one. Chris Hedges doesn’t for another. Eagleton doesn’t.

And then, what reason do they have for fury anyway? Why should two or three or four atheist books fill so many people with such fury? Bunting doesn’t say – she just assumes it, because as mentioned she assumes that there is something obviously illegitimate about explicit argumentative atheism.

From my rough survey I would suggest those with philosophical training are the most irritated by New Atheism, while the journalists seem to enjoy the opportunities the row provides…What staggers the “philosophers” (I use the term loosely to indicate writers who use philosophical arguments) is the sheer philosophical illiteracy of Dawkins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution…

Stop right there. Eagleton is in no sense as writer who uses philosophical arguments. Eagleton doesn’t argue at all, he simply announces. There is no argument in his book. I looked for it; it isn’t there. Bunting was fooled, as she was meant to be, by Eagleton’s unearned air of omniscience.

Faced with such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought, there are two options. Either start from the beginning – Charles Taylor’s 800-page A Secular Age or Karen Armstrong’s speed history of western thought, The Case for God – or go for clever brevity, elegantly skewering the argument in the style of Eagleton or John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel. The problem with both genres is they don’t offer the kind of bestselling strident certainty that brought Dawkins such handsome financial rewards.

What such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought? Bunting hasn’t shown us any, she has only asserted it. And as for strident certainty – what, exactly, does she think she is offering in this piece and the rest of her body of work? And then the snide remark about Dawkins’s book sales, as if they too were obviously illegitimate.

She gives us several more paragraphs of warmed-over Armstrong, and finishes by rejoicing that God is being discussed again. (Because there was a time, pre-Dawkins, when God wasn’t discussed? Has she visited the religion section of any bookstores lately? Some of the rows upon rows of books there pre-date 2006.) Then she gets savaged by CisF readers.

The Mafia doesn’t give Easter sermons

Apr 4th, 2010 6:01 pm | By

Sholto Byrnes, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t entirely buy Peter Hitchens’s line on atheism.

For while Stalin’s atheism may have been a necessary condition for the atrocities he committed — I completely agree with Hitchens that “without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order” — it is not a sufficient one. I part company with him when he claims that his preceding sentence proves that which follows it: “Atheism is a licence for ruthlessness, and appeals to the ruthless.”

Good about parting company, but I part company earlier than that. Atheism is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for committing atrocities, and it isn’t necessarily the case that ‘without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order.’ Given holy wars, the inquisition, religious massacres, the revolting ubiquitous cruelty of the Irish church, it just isn’t obvious that atheism permits atrocities any more than theism does. It’s clear that atheism doesn’t rule out horrendous savage murderous violence – but it’s clear that religion doesn’t either. It’s clear that religion doesn’t necessarily make people more compassionate or generous or fair or kind – just as atheism doesn’t. It could be that one or the other tends to do better, but it’s simply not possible to argue that either one reliably prevents – makes not ‘possible’ – any extreme of human brutality.

In as much as the absence of God leaves any system of morality floundering when it comes to unarguable proof of its truth, Hitchens is on to something. An atheist society does not have the in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority that religion would supply, for instance.

Would, if what? Would, when? The trouble with that thought is that there have (to put it mildly) been theist societies that had no built-in defences against the will of a tyrannous majority, at least none that worked. This is a massive stumbling block for the whole ‘belief in God makes people good’ idea. If belief in God really did make people good – good in the sense that people tend to mean it nowadays: compassionate, non-violent, kind – then there wouldn’t have been so many Christian supporters of slavery in the 19th century US. If belief in God made people good then sharia wouldn’t include so many savage punishments and such relentless limitation of women’s rights and freedom. (Sharia as practiced in the real world. People like to point out that various nasty things are not really part of sharia. Maybe they’re not, but that’s not much help when the relevant people think they are.)

Atheism too, of course, has no in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority. In truth nothing does, apart from constitutions and bills of rights. That’s why such things are needed. Depending on the good will or the religious or atheist conscience of millions of people is a terrible idea. Neither religion nor atheism reliably makes people good, or bad either. On the other hand, religion does give a gloss of pseudo-goodness to bad actions, in the minds of people who have been raised on harsh religious beliefs. Atheism can’t put that kind of gloss on things.

I was thinking all this earlier today while I read the piece, and then I suddenly bumped into my own name. That’s an odd experience!

Last summer, I found myself in the middle of a minor fuss after I wrote a scathing review of Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s Does God Hate Women? for the Independent on Sunday. Put simply, my objection was that they detailed terrible barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people, chiefly Muslims, and then pretty much laid the blame on religion, again, chiefly Islam, for those crimes.

Actually it wasn’t the analysis we disagreed with, it was the wild inaccuracy of many of the factual claims, but never mind. Let’s consider the analysis now. I’ll just say what I said there:

We do lay the blame for certain kinds of barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people on religion, for the reason that the perpetrators of the crimes themselves cite religion as the justification for the crimes. We take them at their word. We quoted people saying things like “We will do what Allah has instructed us” (p 174). Without that, a bunch of men stoning a young girl to death in front of a crowd of people would be universally seen as a criminal act; with it, it is seen by some as pious, and not only permitted but mandated. This fact really does make a difference. It makes the same difference that the phrase “church teachings” makes when the pope and bishops fight equality legislation in the UK.

We don’t claim that all religion always makes people act like that, or that some religion makes all its adherents act like that. We do claim that religion makes brutalities that would otherwise be obviously unacceptable into pious acts, and that that fact makes a major difference.

That’s what I said there. Well it’s undeniable, surely. It’s not an all or nothing claim, it’s a something claim. That ‘something’ is not an invention or a fantasy. Just look at the self-righteous way the Vatican hierarchy is carrying on. You don’t see the Mafia acting that way! They don’t give sermons in huge churches saying all this fuss about child rape is just ‘petty gossip.’ They just shoot their way out, or bribe everyone in sight, or both. At least with them there’s no confusion.

What kind of interface?

Apr 3rd, 2010 4:25 pm | By

Michael Ruse says why the Templeton Foundation is a good thing.

More recently, the award has been given to academics working on the science-religion interface. It was therefore appropriate that this year the Prize went to Francisco Ayala, a Spanish-born population geneticist at the University of California at Irvine. Ayala (a former Catholic priest) has long been interested in the science-religion relationship…

The science-religion interface? What’s that? That’s the kind of thing that Templeton always talks about, but what exactly is it? And what does Michael Ruse think it is?

It could just mean, or be intended to mean, scientists and religious believers talking. That would certainly be unexceptionable. The trouble is, that doesn’t really seem like a very plausible understanding of what it means. One doesn’t hear about a history-mathematics interface as a way of referring to historians and mathematicians talking, nor does such an activity seem worth millions of dollars of foundation money. As far as I know, Templeton’s idea of the science-religion interface or relationship or whatever is that they are supposed to contribute to or enrich each other. But that’s just what’s contested. Critics think the two don’t have anything to contribute to each other, especially in the direction religion—>science. Ruse seems to be endorsing or at least taking for granted Templeton’s project, without spelling out exactly what he’s saying.

The Templeton Foundation…is essentially devoted to the promotion of the interaction and harmony between science and religion.

But interaction in what sense? Just chatting in the halls? Or substantive, disciplinary interaction? It does make a difference, to put it mildly.

But it’s useless to repine. Ruse goes on to say a lot of wholly irrelevant things, so it turns out that actually this jumble of a piece was just an excuse to tell the world yet again about his expert witness gig in Arkansas and, more amusingly for him, to say rude things about Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and especially (wait for it) PZ Myers. The closest he gets to explaining why Templeton is all right is to say ‘I don’t see anything morally wrong with someone trying to reconcile science and religion. Clarifying that a little, I don’t see anything morally wrong with religion as such.’ Morally wrong isn’t the issue! The point is that it’s epistemically wrong.

But all of a sudden at the very end he simply agrees to that, or at least seems to.

I don’t want to reconcile science and religion if this implies that religion must be true. At most, I want to show that science does not preclude being religious.

Well – quite. So what did – oh never mind. Ruse just likes to mouth off. It’s pointless to expect him to make sense.

Cardinal attends to what really matters

Apr 3rd, 2010 11:34 am | By

Ratzinger gave his old job to an American when he (Ratz) was bumped upstairs. Cardinal William Levada now heads Ratzinger’s old Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This week he expressed his sorrow and sympathy for what the church has enabled priests to do to generations of children by…writing a long article saying how awful the New York Times is.

He starts by singling out Laurie Goodstein.

Only after eight paragraphs of purple prose does Goodstein reveal that Fr. Murphy, who criminally abused as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school in the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 1950 to 1974, “not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims.”

But in paragraph 13, commenting on a statement of Fr. Lombardi (the Vatican spokesman) that Church law does not prohibit anyone from reporting cases of abuse to civil authorities, Goodstein writes, “He did not address why that had never happened in this case.” Did she forget, or did her editors not read, what she wrote in paragraph nine about Murphy getting “a pass from the police and prosecutors”?

Oh dear god – he doesn’t even get it. He doesn’t even get a point as glaring as that. Why does he suppose Murphy got a pass from the police and prosecutors? Does he think all rapers of children get passes from the police and prosecutors? Does it not occur to him that Murphy got such a pass because he was a priest? Does it not occur to him that this hints at the level of undue deference paid to religion even by secular law enforcement, and does it not further occur to him to feel searching anguish at the thought of the kinds of advantage this has given predators? No, it apparently doesn’t, not for a second. He’s apparently much too busy concentrating on His Gang to feel any sympathy or concern for anyone else. And this is all too typical of the selfish self-centered clueless blind morally bankrupt outfit he helps to run.

As a believer, I have no doubt that Murphy will face the One who judges both the living and the dead.

And that lack of doubt perhaps helps to explain why your organization does such a crappy job of preventing harm to its subjects right here on planet earth. You have no doubt that everything will be all fixed up later on after everyone is dead. Well how convenient! Meanwhile, let them eat brioche.

…about a man with and for whom I have the privilege of working, as his “successor” Prefect, a pope whose encyclicals on love and hope and economic virtue have both surprised us and made us think, whose weekly catecheses and Holy Week homilies inspire us, and yes, whose pro-active work to help the Church deal effectively with the sexual abuse of minors continues to enable us today, I ask the Times to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on.

The pope is not our ‘leader.’ He is not ‘a leader.’ He is the head of an archaic reactionary authoritarian religious organization. He is not a leader and he is in no way a leader that ‘the world can and should count on.’ We do not want your leader, Mr Levada.

Shed a tear for the sufferings of the Vatican

Apr 2nd, 2010 5:30 pm | By

Un.Be.Lievable. They still don’t get it. They still think they are the victims. Still! Half the world has explained it to them with one voice, and they still don’t get it!

The Pope’s preacher today likened recent attacks on the pontiff over the Catholic sex abuse scandal to the “most shameful acts of anti-Semitism”.

Not ‘attacks by priests on children’ but ‘attacks’ meaning criticism by victims and observers on the pope who helped conceal and perpetuate those very attacks by priests on children – that’s what they’re comparing to anti-Semitism! It’s – it’s – it exhausts my capacity to revile it. The self-pity, the world-blotting egocentrism, the blank inability to grasp the misery of people outside their own circle, the moral imbecility – I lack the words to express my disgust.

Father Cantalamessa, noting that this year the Jewish festival of Passover and Easter fell during the same week, said that Jews throughout history had been the victims of “collective violence” and drew a comparison with current attacks on the Church over the scandal. Speaking during a ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica commemorating Christ’s Passion, he read to the congregation, which included the Pope, part of a letter that he had received from an unidentified Jewish friend, who said that he was following “with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the Pope and all the faithful of the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.”

Tell that to the Magdalens, to the little girls who tore up their hands making rosaries every day, to the children who were raped by the guy who was supposed to be (as Joseph Hoffmann tells us) ‘another Christ.’ Tell them you’re being treated the way Jews were treated in Poland and Germany and Russia from 1942 to 1945. Go ahead. We dare you.

The least of these

Apr 2nd, 2010 11:16 am | By

Would you believe it – Gordon Brown is saying Catholicism is often the conscience of the UK. He’s saying it in a new magazine with the rebarbative title “Faith Today.” He’s also spitting on secularism while he’s about it.

Asked if religious faith is essentially “a private, personal pursuit” or has a role in the wider community, he says: “Our common realm is not and cannot be stripped of values – I absolutely reject the idea that religion should somehow be tolerated but not encouraged in public life. Our equality bill is specifically designed to protect religion and belief on exactly the same terms as race or gender or sexuality.”

God, what a dog’s breakfast. First he conflates religion with values, then he emphatically rejects secularism, then he puts religion and belief in the same category as the unwilled qualities of race and gender and sexuality. Vote Labour, vote for theocracy!

“I welcome the role that people of faith play in building Britain’s future – and the Catholic communion in particular is to be congratulated for so often being the conscience of our country, for helping ‘the least of these’ even when bearing witness to the truth is hard or unpopular.”

Total, pure, unadulterated bullshit. Could not possibly be more wrong. Flat opposite of what is the case. The ‘Catholic communion’ in particular has (in case there was any lingering doubt) been decisively revealed for throwing ‘the least of these’ to the wolves for the sake of its own reputation and ability to tell everyone else what to do, for decade upon decade upon decade. ‘The least of these’ are exactly the people the ‘Catholic communion’ has been defecating all over in Ireland for generations. ‘The least of these’ are, precisely, single mothers who lack money and status and so were imprisoned and enslavedand deprived of their own children in Magdalen laundries. ‘The least of these’ are the children of the poor and the unmarried who were imprisoned and enslaved in industrial ‘schools,’ there to be called names and humiliated and deprived and tormented in every way possible by the fucking Catholic communion. ‘The least of these’ are the children who were raped by priests and then if they complained were threatened and bullied into silence. Where does Gordon Brown get the colossal gall to call ‘the Catholic communion’ any kind of conscience? How brutally obtuse can you get? You might as well call the Mafia ‘the conscience of our country.’

Next year in Darwin City

Apr 1st, 2010 5:10 pm | By

At last, at last I get to go to a conference, yee-ha. I feel so included. Plus it will be so much fun – networking, and drinks in the bar, and staying up all night, and sexual gossip, and putting disgusting things in people’s beds, and singing, and sitting around the campfire – wait, I think I’m getting confused. This will be all grown-up and serious, not like summer camp. Which is good, because I hated summer camp – both day camp and go away for two weeks camp. Sending me to camp was I think part of a half-hearted effort to make me more normal and extroverted, but it never worked. If anything it made me less extroverted, being forced to spend a lot of time with a bunch of unchosen strangers.

Oh excuse me, I didn’t mean to lapse into reminiscence. Anyway the Very Big Atheist Conference of 2011 won’t be like that. No lanyards and no marshmallows, for one thing; that will mark a difference right away. And then the exciting opportunity to explain about Etiquette and Comportment for Atheist Ladies – I have so longed to do that, and I am so ideally suited for the task. Never mind the business about not being normal and extroverted, that doesn’t matter – I’m great on the theory. I’m a student of the subject. I’m nerdy and sullen and quick to take offence, but I can say how to be polite and comportful as well as anyone in the business.

So see you all in Darwin City next year! No bed hair please – no deliberately torn jeans – no tongue studs. No pyjamas – no thongs – no baggy falling-down pants – no – wait, where are you going? Come back!

The sole test of a good priest

Mar 31st, 2010 12:40 pm | By

Hitchens coldly observes that the pope is not above the law. ‘The pathetic excuses of Joseph Ratzinger’s apologists evaporate before our eyes.’

So now a new defense has had to be hastily improvised. It is argued that, during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, Ratzinger was more preoccupied with doctrinal questions than with mere disciplinary ones.

So we read that New York Times article and we learn more about the pope’s preoccupations.

Cardinal Ratzinger ruffled feathers almost upon arrival in Munich by ordering priests to return to celebrating First Communion and first confession in the same year, rather than having the first confession a year later, a practice that had become established over the previous decade, and which its advocates considered more appropriate for young children. One priest, the Rev. Wilfried Sussbauer, said he wrote to the archbishop at the time questioning the change, and said Cardinal Ratzinger “wrote me an extremely biting letter” in response.

Hitchens draws out the implications.

So it seems that 1) Ratzinger was quite ready to take on individual priests who gave him any trouble, and 2) he was very firm on one crucial point of doctrine: Get them young. Tell them in their infancy that it is they who are the sinners. Instill in them the necessary sense of guilt. This is not at all without relevance to the disgusting scandal into which the pope has now irretrievably plunged the church he leads. Almost every episode in this horror show has involved small children being seduced and molested in the confessional itself. To take the most heart-rending cases to have emerged recently, namely the torment of deaf children in the church-run schools in Wisconsin and Verona, Italy, it is impossible to miss the calculated manner in which the predators used the authority of the confessional in order to get their way. And again the identical pattern repeats itself: Compassion is to be shown only to the criminals.

So the whole notion that it is invidious to hold the pope responsible for what some priests and bishops do is shown (more shown, re-shown, shown with even more emphasis) to be absurd, because the whole point of the pope is unwavering (and apparently rather aggressive) commitment and loyalty to this deeply sinister reactionary all-male closed organization and its warped way of viewing the world and its inhabitants. In the same manner a high officer in the Mafia would keep his underlings in line.

For Ratzinger, the sole test of a good priest is this: Is he obedient and discreet and loyal to the traditionalist wing of the church?…This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain “confessors,” who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck. Nor can it afford to admit that the church regularly abandoned the children and did its best to protect and sometimes even promote their tormentors. So instead it is whiningly and falsely asserting that all charges against the pope—none of them surfacing except from within the Catholic community—are part of a plan to embarrass him…This grisly little man is not above or outside the law.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

Not to be missed

Mar 30th, 2010 12:13 pm | By

Josh Slocum suggested that I should flag up Alaina Podmorow’s retort to Melanie Butler’s article here, so that people who read just this page wouldn’t miss it. Good idea. So if you read this page and no other – well one, you’re a chump, because the front page is updated every day, so you’re missing news items and the occasional Flashback goody as well as a lot of very good articles – but two, don’t miss Alaina’s piece. Alaina is 13, she founded Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan when she was 9, she has raised a lot of money for women in Afghanistan and has seen the money matched by the Canadian government. She doesn’t agree with Butler’s strictures on ‘Western’ feminists who try to support women in Afghanistan.

No one will ever tell me that Muslim women or any women think it’s ok to not be allowed to get educated or to have their daughters sold off at 8 years old or traded off at 4 years old because of cultural beliefs. No one will tell me that women in Afghanistan think it is ok for their daughters to have acid thrown in their faces. It makes me ill to think a 4 year old girl must sleep in a barn and get raped daily by old men. It’s sick and wrong and I don’t care who calls me an Orientalist or whatever I will keep raising money to educate girls and women in Afghanistan and I will keep writing letters and sending them in the back pack of my friend Lauryn Oates as she works so bravely on the ground helping women and girls learn what it is to exercise their rights. I believe in human rights so I believe everyone has the right their own opinion, I just wish that the energy that was used to write that story, that is just not true, could have been used to educate a girl in Afghanistan.

I’m happy to see that several blogs have linked to Alaina’s article; Terry Glavin’s for one. So don’t miss it.

Pharisee? Moi?

Mar 29th, 2010 5:40 pm | By

And now, for a different take on the whole ‘why are you telling atheists to shut up when we’ve barely had time to open our mouths?’ question, we can consider how these things should be done. With a little panache, that’s how.

[F]reethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology: The God I don’t believe in is bigger than the God you don’t believe in. The harm religion did me was more serious than the harm religion did you. The full-frontal unbelief I represent is truer and purer than the unbelief you’re espousing. Reason saves, faith enslaves. (That’s pretty good: try it on a coffee mug.) In the past, I’ve used the word “Pharisaic” humanism to describe this posture, but because the culprits don’t know who the Pharisees were the allusion has not become…code.

That’s pretty funny, and it’s not made any less so by the fact that I can’t entirely repudiate the picture.

I once repeated a Woody Allen joke in front of a heavily atheist audience, having just told it the week before at a local, liberal temple. “I don’t believe in an afterlife but just in case I’m taking a change of underwear.” My Jewish audience was tickled pink. My atheist friends looked at me as though to say, “Are you saying you do believe in an afterlife”? Twice-born atheists can make an outsider feel as unwelcome in the Temple of Bright as a secular humanist would feel in a tent meeting down in Tuscaloosa. (You know, where Groucho says they take the elephants because it’s easier to remove the ivory there).

Well I can entirely repudiate that picture, because that joke and that kind of joke always makes me laugh. But the whole thing is still pretty funny. If only all critics had that much wit.

Joe sticks it to the man

Mar 29th, 2010 5:11 pm | By

The pope is such a rad rebellious dude – he doesn’t take any shit from anybody, you know? He’s his own man. He makes up his own mind. He doesn’t let the vulgar herd tell him what to say or do or think. Odi profanum et proceo kind of thing.

Addressing crowds in St Peter’s square during a Palm Sunday service, the pope did not directly mention the scandal spreading though Europe and engulfing the Vatican, but alluded to it during his sermon. Faith in God, he said, led “towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion”.

Yeah, man! Sing it! The pope is like Holden Caulfield or somebody – fighting the phoneys all the way. He’s got faith in God, so he’s got the cojones to not let himself be ground down by the petty trivial itty-bitty gossip about priests fucking children and bishops keeping it secret that dominant opinion keeps making such a big stinking deal about. Awesome, dude! The pope totally rocks. (You can make a Peter-petrus-rock-on this rock I will found my church joke here if you want to.)

Not possible to stick with the programme

Mar 28th, 2010 1:07 pm | By

India Knight on the other hand is not accepting the bluster. She’s not interested.

It is simply not possible, having read the papers or watched the news over the past couple of weeks, to stick with the programme. Like many of my generation, I could hardly be described as a good, or even decent, Catholic, but I’d managed to hang on in there, in the vaguest way imaginable.

Vague because it’s hard to pay lip-service to a faith that you feel hates you; a faith that would rather let you die in childbirth than have an abortion, won’t let you take the contraception necessary to prevent said abortion, hates gay people despite having many homosexual priests; a faith that talks ignorant nonsense about HIV and Aids, that would rather watch people die in Africa than let them use a condom; a faith that is unbelievably slow to say sorry about the fact that some of its members are habitual rapists of children.

Quite. And from that point of view, horribly enough, the child abuse scandal is a good thing. Damian Thompson is right in that sense. Because for a lot of people, as Knight indicates, all that other stuff isn’t enough. The fact that it isn’t enough means it just goes on. Since all that other stuff is seriously bad, it’s a good thing that some people are giving up on the church that perpetuates it.

I mean, you know, at some point you just give up. Not one of these things is defensible taken individually. Collectively, they are beyond comprehension. A faith based on central authority and infallibility must understand that failure immediately to condemn the rape of children — in Ireland, in America, in Austria, in Germany, in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Brazil, so far — is essentially to allow it.

And that therefore they have no moral standing. Period. They have been exposed for what they are, which is just human beings like the rest of us, who are more interested in their own-well being than that of outsiders. Their role in their religion hasn’t given them some special moral alertness or sensitivity that goes beyond what the rest of us have; on the contrary.

Religion — all religion, not just Catholicism — is supposed to be good for the soul, but everything I’ve written about here pollutes mine. You can’t take lessons in morality from people who disgust you.


Liberals are stitching up the pope

Mar 28th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

Damian Thompson is still at it – still insisting that it’s all a diabolical plot against that nice man Joe Ratzinger.

There is still no good evidence that Pope Benedict XVI is seriously implicated in the atrocious child abuse scandals that are – rightly – blackening the reputation of the institutions of the Catholic Church. But still the attempts to join the dots continue.

But even if it were true – and there is apparently a lot of evidence that it isn’t – that Ratzinger wasn’t personally ‘seriously implicated’ (what would non-seriously implicated be?) in the church’s furtive way with crimes against children, he still wouldn’t be radiantly blameless, because he is the head of the organization, and one who worked his way up over a period of decades. He’s not a new head brought in from the outside to clean up the rot, he’s someone who has been part of the church machinery for a long time.

I have to ask myself: if a liberal, liturgically wet Pope was castiagted unfairly in this way, would I stick up for him? I can’t be sure, but how shameful if I did not. If I was Benedict XVI, I’d be asking myself if I even wanted to visit Britain this autumn.

Tangential point – what is it with the British and the subjunctive? Two refusals to use it in that short passage; what’s that about? If I were his editor I wouldn’t let him get away with that. If a liberal pope were castigated; if I were Ben 16. Could do better.