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.


May 31st, 2011 2:50 pm | By

Sorry, things will go dead for awhile. I somehow got a spyware invader (despite antivirus and spysweeper) and it prevents me from getting online so I can’t download the tools to fix it so…I don’t know when I’ll be back.


Ireland’s disappeared

May 30th, 2011 4:40 pm | By

Magdalenes? What Magdalenes?

…it was Ireland’s hidden scandal: an estimated 30,000 women were sent to church-run laundries, where they were abused and worked for years with no pay. Their offense, in the eyes of society, was to break the strict sexual rules of Catholic Ireland, having children outside wedlock.

Their “offense” – but it wasn’t a mere offense, was it, it was a crime. We know this because of what the passage says: the women were imprisoned for years. They got the kind of sentence a convicted murderer gets. They were locked up, for years, and abused and worked for no pay. That’s an extremely harsh prison sentence – for having children outside marriage.

Until recently, the Catholic Church was the ultimate moral authority in Ireland, and it promoted strict rules on sex. In this climate, the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child was so great that many unmarried mothers were rejected by their families. They were taken out of “decent society” and put into Magdalene laundries by members of the clergy, government institutions and their own families.

In Ireland it was a crime to have a child outside marriage – a crime for a woman, that is; naturally no man was ever locked up and worked for years for that crime – but it wasn’t a crime to imprison women without trial and treat them like shit for many years. That’s Catholic morality – sex is the worst crime there is, as long as it’s not a priest doing it, and imprisoning, abusing and exploiting girls and women is no crime at all. That’s Catholic priorities. That’s what life is like when the church gets to run everything.

I’d like Karen Armstrong to explain that.

The Magdalene laundries were a network of profit-making workhouses run by four religious communities — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity…

Magdalene women worked long hours, typically seven days a week, without pay. There have been accounts of the harsh conditions the women endured, including allegations of mental, physical and, in some cases, sexual abuse. Many lived and died behind convent walls until the last laundry closed in 1996.

Because they had sex. Life imprisonment at hard labor for having sex.

The Irish government acknowledged as far back as 2001 that the Magdalene women were victims of abuse but says that because the laundries were privately run, they are outside its remit. It has resisted numerous calls for a statutory inquiry, the latest from the Irish Human Rights Commission in November 2010. The government also rejected proposals for compensation, saying that the state “did not refer individuals, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries.”

However, there is evidence that the state was involved. The Irish courts routinely sent women who were handed down a suspended sentence for petty crimes to the laundries, which operated as a kind of parallel detention system.

Public records show the government also awarded lucrative contracts to the nuns for its army and hospital laundry without ever insisting on fair wages for the “workers,” nor did it inspect conditions inside.

Testimony from Magdalene women claim that state employees like the Irish police force and social workers brought women to the laundries and returned those who had escaped.

It’s foul.

Everybody is to be more nice like me

May 29th, 2011 1:18 pm | By

More Stedman and McLaren. Sorry. Fair warning, so that you can stop reading now if you’re fed up to the back teeth with them.

Stedman is annoyed that gnu atheists don’t take his and McLaren’s advice on what “will benefit the atheist movement” but instead dare to offer “disagreements and accusations that McLaren, Luna, I (and many who affiliate with us) don’t have the best interests of the atheist movement in mind.”

That’s an odd complaint. It seems like a tangent. I don’t really know what they have in mind, I know only what they do, and what they do is talk a lot of nasty smack about gnu atheists, most of which is exaggerated at best.

Then Chris does a long complaint about people thinking he agrees with every word of every guest post. Well he said of McLaren’s guest post that it was a doozy, in a good way, and that it was “a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement.” Yes, I thought he pretty much agreed with it. If he doesn’t want us to think that, he could always refrain from lavishly praising the guest posts in his introductions.

My ask? That commenters here strive to see posts for what they are; that they make every attempt to assume that the author has the best of intentions and go about raising their disagreements in a way that is civil and demonstrates a genuine desire to get at the heart of the truth.

But that’s too much to ask, giving the energetically insulting tone and substance of McLaren’s post. It’s also a double standard. It’s telling commenters to be more “civil” than McLaren is.

[Note: I'm not going to go down the path of defending the more personal criticisms directed at me -- I have no interest in humoring the accusations that I might not actually be an atheist, or that I don't have the best of intentions concerning the atheist movement, for which I've sacrificed an incalculable amount of time, money, and energy. There's really no reasoning with such baseless criticism.]

Self-important and self-pitying both at once. Again: I don’t know what his intentions are, I know only what he does; what he does is throw mud at gnu atheists at frequent intervals. This is a crowd-pleasing thing to do, so the self-pity thing isn’t going to work.

Now McLaren.

But the anger that was returned in many of the comments (and in retort posts on other sites) was none of these things. A subset of the anger I witnessed contained no respect, no boundaries, and no rules. It was an anger that involved direct slander against me, personal attacks against Chris Stedman (for daring to give me a public forum), and repetitive attempts to silence me, dehumanize me, and control my intellectual output and my voice.

Those are very strong accusations. She gives no examples, no links, no names, no evidence. I don’t believe her. I think she made a lot of rude and inaccurate accusations about new atheists (and maybe some gnus), and got a lot of rude replies as a result. She uses her own anger to inflate the putative crimes of other people, while wrapping herself in the flag of Niceness. It didn’t work last time and it doesn’t work this time. It convinces people who already like that kind of thing, but it repulses people who already despise it.

That’s the trouble with setting yourself up as the Ambassador of Nice. It means you have to be able to perform Niceness yourself. McLaren is transparently bossy and hostile, so she made a mistake thinking she could do that. Another failed diplomatic mission.

The cardinal did not mention

May 28th, 2011 12:20 pm | By

Oh the self-admiring moral bankruptcy of the Catholic church…

It’s doing a conference on AIDS this weekend. It’s as obstinate and evil as it’s been all along.

A Vatican cardinal opened an international conference on AIDS by strongly defending the church’s two-pronged strategy against the disease: education of consciences and mobilization of Catholic health resources for patients.

That is not a strategy. People can be infected by their partners, so educating consciences is not good enough. A woman can be entirely monogamous and still be infected by a non-monogamous partner – obviously, and as everyone knows – so prattle of conscience is just conceited obfuscation.

“Educating people to avoid high-risk behavior, when based on solid moral principles, fully demonstrates its effectiveness and translates into greater openness toward those already affected by the virus,” the cardinal said.

“When responsibility for one’s own behavior is affirmed, in fact, there is greater awareness of the connection with the rest of the community and greater sensitivity toward those who suffer,” he said.

Blah blah blah – it’s just more conceited self-congratulation. It does nothing to prevent infection.

The cardinal did not mention the question of condoms in AIDS prevention. In previous days, the Vatican newspaper ran two articles saying condom campaigns were unsuccessful in stopping the AIDS epidemic; one article said condom campaigns had increased the possibility of AIDS infection by promoting a false sense of security.

Bastards. Demons. Fiends.

Checking for accuracy

May 28th, 2011 11:46 am | By

I was re-reading a bit of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God this morning, and I encountered something odd. It’s in chapter 12, “Death of God”; she gives an account of Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA and how it works, and then says:

But the new atheists will have none of this, and in his somewhat immoderate way, Dawkins denounces Gould as a quisling.

There’s no reference. Well where did he say that? I wondered. I knew he’d used the word at one point, but I didn’t think it was about Gould. I read the bit about NOMA in The God Delusion, and it’s not there. When I got on the computer I googled it, and got nothing.

I don’t think he said it. I think Armstrong made a mistake. Does anybody know?

He did call Martin Rees a quisling, apropos of the Templeton Foundation. But that’s a different matter. It seems to me unlikely on the face of it that he would have called Gould that – they disagreed sharply about a lot of things, but (to the best of my knowledge) in a collegial way.

We just want them to look feminine

May 27th, 2011 3:47 pm | By

The badminton people are still tussling about that “women have to wear skirts” rule that the genius marketing people came up with. There are some crazy-radical voices pointing out that this is sexist.

To create a more “attractive presentation,” the Badminton World Federation has decreed that women must wear skirts or dresses to play at the elite level, beginning Wednesday. Many now compete in shorts or tracksuit pants. The dress code would make female players appear more feminine and appealing to fans and corporate sponsors, officials said.

Women wear more revealing outfits than men in a number of Olympic sports like gymnastics, track and field, volleyball and beach volleyball.

Badminton’s world governing body now finds itself on the defensive, accused of trying to sell a sport by showing more leg and skin. Male players are required only to dress in “proper attire,” officials said.

“We’re not trying to use sex to promote the sport,” said Paisan Rangsikitpho, an American who is deputy president of the Badminton World Federation, which is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular.”

Oh is that all!

This is Michelle Obama’s skirt all over again. Look at the picture on that article – you can see up the skirt. There’s nothing to see, just cloth, but it’s the thrill of looking up it, isn’t it. That seems to be the point of skirts – making women peerable.

Oh well what do I expect, when the only women you see on television are on shows with “Housewives” in the title and are like no human being I’ve ever seen in my life.

Pastoral care of the victims

May 27th, 2011 11:31 am | By

There’s this guy Scott Stephens, who is the editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Religion and Ethics.” Just like the BBC and the Washington Post, the ABC stupidly puts religion and ethics together as if they were a natural pairing, thus implying that ethics is inherently religious in some way and that religion has something, or perhaps everything, to contribute to ethics. That’s all crap. They’re two very different things and it’s not a time and labor-saving device to combine them, it’s a brainless travesty and confusion.

An unpleasant side effect is that you can’t trust the ABC (or the BBC or the WP) to discuss ethics independently of religion.

This Scott Stephens is furious that journalism hasn’t fallen face-down in deference to the report on child-rape in the church.

what coverage the study did receive – especially in Australia and the UK – was haughtily dismissive. It was brushed aside as somehow tainted, inherently flawed, or otherwise implicated in some malign Catholic apologetic. All this because the Causes and Context study was neither as salacious nor as simplistic as the media’s own favoured cadre of disaffected priests – each one a variation on the preposterous Hans Kung – and anti-Catholic jingoists.

No, at least not solely. It was also at least in part because the study was commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops along with the Justice Department. As many have noted, this is as if a study of mafia crime were commissioned by the mafia along with the Justice Department. It would be suspect for that reason. Catholic bishops are not (does Stephens really need to be told this?) seen as disinterested parties. They are not seen as neutral or blameless. They are seen as implicated, in the decades of secrecy and obstruction of justice at the very least. They are seen as people at the top of a secretive hierarchical closed all-male organization with huge and uncheckable powers over people.

It is precisely this form of sneering, stultifying pseudo-morality so often adopted by the modern media – whose self-promotion to the status of judge and arbiter of what warrants public attention, coupled with its fickle affections and compulsive dalliance with social media – that represents the realisation not just of Belloc’s predictions, but of Kafka’s nightmares.

Is Stephens really so stupid or so biased that he doesn’t realize that the Catholic clergy are also self-appointed judges and arbiters? If he’s going to complain of self-appointed judges and arbiters, you would think he could manage to notice the most succesful and lasting examples of all.

… only someone who is wilfully naive or intractably bigoted would refuse to acknowledge that the social antinomianism and fetishisation of sexual liberation in the 1960s and 70s, along with the valorisation of the pursuit of individual pleasure and free experimentation with transgressive sexual practices, created the conditions for a dramatic escalation in deviant behaviour – including paedophilia – both within and without the Church.

That’s exactly how the church does it – it treats child-rape as deviant, as a perversion, rather than as a harm against the child. It views it through the lens of “doing something naughty with the naughty bits” rather than the lens of “doing harm to another person, one who is much smaller and more vulnerable than the agent.” It looks at it as the wrong kind of whoopee instead of the wrong way to treat a child. Stephens is obligingly echoing the church’s line here.

While the reform of a priesthood that had become increasingly dissolute was one of John Paul II’s most enduring legacies, it has fallen to Joseph Ratzinger to carry out reform among the bishops.

Same thing. He just doesn’t get it – in the same way that a lot of French men totally failed to get it about DSK. It’s not about being dissolute – it’s about raping children. Rape is not just another branch of sexual fun. Sexual fun isn’t evil the way rape is, and rape isn’t harmless the way sexual fun is.

Benedict XVI’s determination to purge the Church of what he has repeatedly called the “filth” of abuse and concealment, his pastoral care of so many of the victims of abuse, and his insistence on the Church’s “deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice,” distinguishes this pope not merely as the person who has done more than any other to eradicate sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Pastoral care of the victims? Pastoral care of the victims? The victims don’t think so. The victims think he pretty much spat in their eye.

And this is the guy who covers ethics for the ABC. That’s tragic.

I never can resist

May 26th, 2011 3:57 pm | By

God it’s a gorgeous afternoon. Bright and clear so that all the new leaves and flowers all but hit you in the face with saturated color.

Somebody did a little parody letter/award to Chris Stedman, the point of which is that gnu atheists are picking on him. Wayull, after that hatchet-job by Karla McLaren on his blog, is it any wonder? If you post stuff saying gnu atheists are violent bullies, gnu atheists may react. Them’s the breaks.

To thank you, we’d like to give you the Watch Yourself award. With this award, every socially responsible cause you, your immediate family, or anyone you tag or like on Facebook or Twitter, gets involved in will be appropriated as a debate about Atheism, specifically from a New Atheist perspective. You want to promote LGBT issues? Don’t worry, New Atheists will be there to critique those causes on the basis of how inclusive they are to New Atheists…If you prefer, we can just assign a Task Force of New Atheists to follow you around with a megaphone, helping to contextualize everything that you do in terms of New Atheism, whether or not you ascribe to that movement. 

[shrug] What I said. Chris does tell gnu atheists what’s wrong with them a lot, so some of us push back. So it goes.

And if the idea is that we’re bossy – well what is he? Check out this “event” at something called “Faith House”:

(F)a(i)theist: How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together

He’s always telling us what we must do. Well, I don’t take orders from him, oddly enough, so to work off my feelings of rebellion and insubordination, I sometimes dispute what he says, sometimes on Facebook. [shrug]

It’s funny how the idea is apparently supposed to be about healing divisions and whatnot, but in fact Stedman has created some new divisions. It’s kind of like the deal where people who piss off former friends by the hundreds set themselves up as experts in communication. It’s a lesson to be cautious about what one claims for oneself.

I see Spain, I see France

May 25th, 2011 4:32 pm | By

It’s extraordinary what the Telegraph considers news.

Michelle Obama fights to control summer dress in windy London


What next? Michelle Obama eats a cress sandwich? Michelle Obama moves her head from left to right? Michelle Obama blinks?

Well let’s not hastily accuse the Telegraph of triviality. Of course the story was newsworthy, for the very pressing reason that if Michelle Obama had lost the fight with her dress, the Telegraph would have been able to look up her skirt. Obviously that’s a significant news item in anybody’s book. Granted, it didn’t happen, but even the unrealized potential is newsworthy. In fact why not just skip the risks attendant on the weather and ask her to pull up her skirt herself? That would make an even better story! Playful, friendly, trans-Atlantic – it would be great. Why not ask her what color her knickers are?

What are you looking at? Listen, if women don’t want to be sniggered and leered out, they shouldn’t leave the house. If they step outside, they’re fair game. Everybody knows that.

Let one flower bloom

May 25th, 2011 12:40 pm | By

Gnu-haters are bad enough when they just say it, but when they say it and then later say they didn’t, they’re worse. I got into a disagreement of that kind with Stephen Prothero on a thread of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s at Facebook. Remember Prothero? I did a post about an article of his in December 2009. Lots of people did. It was the one about how gnu atheism is angry and male but women will maybe fix it up.

He said I got him all wrong.

My point is that there are TWO ways to argue for atheism, rather than one. (Actually, there are many more, but two will do for present purposes.) The people who lit into me afterwards (you included) were/are trying to impose ONE way of doing atheism–an imposition I opposed then, and still do.

Right, except that that’s not what he said. This is what he said:

Today, most Americans associate unbelief with the old-boys network of New Atheists, but there is a new generation of unbelievers emerging, some of them women and most of them far friendlier than Hitchens and his ilk. Although the arguments of angry men gave this movement birth, it could be the stories of women that allow it to grow up.

I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

See? He’s unmistakably not saying there are two (or several) good ways to do atheism; he’s saying there’s currently a bad shitty nasty way to do atheism and there’s also a good respectful nice way to do atheism and the latter should replace the former. That’s not debatable – it’s on the page.

Yet he felt entitled to say I was misrepresenting him.

I prefer my way of doing arguing to his way of doing arguing.

They were at least eleven

May 24th, 2011 5:17 pm | By

Miranda did a close reading of the US Conference of Catholic bishops’ report on child sexual abuse.

Feast on this one item:

One of the most egregious aspects of this report is that the researchers arbitrarily redefine “pedophilia” as sexual abuse of victims that were ten years old or younger at the time, despite the fact that the DSM sets the cutoff age at thirteen.

And guess what the result of that is? It changes the stats! Radically. It makes the problem seem a whole lot smaller than it is.

 if the researchers had used the DSM‘s guidelines, the percentage would jump from 22% to almost 73%.

Extraordinary, isn’t it? Just arbitrarily change the definition and poof, the whole mess all but disappears – and the report gets the fun of scolding the media for using the unchanged definition:

Media reports about Catholic priests who sexually abused minors often mistakenly have referred to priests as pedophiles. According to the DSM IV-TR, pedophilia is characterized by fantasies, urges, or behaviors about sexual activity with a prepubescent child that occurs for a significant period of time. Yet, the Nature and Scope data indicated that nearly four out of five minors abused were at least eleven years old at the time of the abuse. Though development happens at varying ages for children, the literature generally refers to eleven and older as an age of pubescence or postpubescence (53).

At which point children simply long to be raped by priests.

What “exists”?

May 24th, 2011 11:33 am | By

Eric is telling Paul W what theologians mean by “the ground of all being.”

Part of the point of speaking about the ground of being is to distinguish god from things that exist. In this guise, ie, as the ground of being, whatever god is — and this is the most unsatisfactory parts of this idea of god — god does not exist, and cannot be treated like any other existent.

I don’t understand that. I can’t force myself to understand it – because I keep thinking, stupidly obstinately, if it doesn’t exist then it doesn’t exist. If god doesn’t exist then that’s the end of it – it can’t not exist yet also be something called the ground of being.

Unless it once existed but is now dead but continues in human memory as something which theologians have decided to call the ground of being. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s meant…or is it. Is it meant to be a concept or an idea? Do we say that those exist? They do in a sense and they don’t in a sense; what’s the conventional language about them? I should know this. Abstractions don’t exactly exist, but they do in a way…Bugger. My philosophical vocabulary is deficient.

Mind you, if that’s what’s meant, it doesn’t get theists anywhere. Atheists certainly don’t dispute that the concept of god “exists.” We just dispute that it can actually do anything independent of what humans make it do. We just argue that like all concepts it has no “existence” independent of human brains.

In other words, a catalogue of existing things might include ships, sealing wax, trees, planets, galaxies, ……., but god would nowhere appear as an existent. But from this point of view, god is the ground of existence. He enables existing things to be.

Well in that case a concept can’t be what’s meant, since god has to be prior to enable existing things to be. So what is meant? I don’t know. Eric doesn’t either; he’s reporting, not endorsing. But even the reporting is opaque. It’s hard to tell if the thing is as hand-wavy as it appears.

Ils ne regrettent rien

May 23rd, 2011 12:24 pm | By

Good old Gallic wit, eh?

Jean-François Kahn asked what was the big deal about DSK’s alleged assault on a hotel maid – it’s just a “troussage domestique” – lifting the maid’s skirt, a tussle with the help, you know the kind of thing.

Jack Lang asked what was the big deal when after all nobody died.

Gilles Savary asked what was the big deal:

Mr Strauss-Kahn, he said, was a “libertine” who enjoyed the “pleasures of the flesh” but this was not tolerated in a “puritan America, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism”.

Actually not; there’s quite a lot in the way of the pleasures of the flesh around here; what’s frowned on is rape. Rape, you stupid git; not sex, rape.


May 22nd, 2011 6:08 pm | By

The How the Light Gets In festival invited Anjem Choudary to talk. That’s an odd choice – he’s a reactionary Islamist. Why invite him? The festival wouldn’t invite a Hitler, presumably, so why invite Choudary?

Festival director Hilary Lawson said pushing unpopular views underground is “irresponsible and dangerous”. She said: “Choudary will take part in two debates. The first, When Women Rule The World, asks what would a world where women were dominant be like, and what will happen to masculinity in a modern, matriarchal society? Choudary will be up against Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and feminist journalist Julie Bindel. In States Of Emergency, he will consider whether terror is a new tool of war with revolutionary philosopher Ted Honderich, Sunday Times columnist Minette Marrin and former Taleban prisoner and Express reporter, Yvonne Ridley.

If Lawson said that, he said a silly thing. It’s not dangerous and irresponsible not to give a platform to reactionary Islamists. It’s not safe and responsible to give a platform to everyone. Giving someone a platform is not the only alternative to driving that someone underground. It’s perfectly possible just to ignore that someone. You don’t have to invite everyone. Publishers don’t have to publish everyone; editors don’t have to commission everyone; and festivals don’t have to invite everyone. Choudary is not an obvious candidate for inviting – he’s not intelligent or learned or eloquent.

I was invited to talk at the festival too, funnily enough. I couldn’t go because I live far away and I’m too poor to pay for a plane ticket, but I was invited. With all due modesty, I think I’d have been more interesting than Choudary.

They withdrew the invitation though, he tells us. He’s very annoyed about it. Well, if he were running a festival, would he have invited us? I think not.

The revival of bigotry

May 22nd, 2011 5:25 pm | By

Guest post by John Stuart Mill.

On Liberty, Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry; and where there is the strong permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution. 5 For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom. For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread. Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear. There is no room for any appeal ad misericordiam in behalf of such persons. But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination over the whole intellectual firmament. Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain, or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world. The sort of men who can be looked for under it, are either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth, whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves. Those who avoid this alternative, do so by narrowing their thoughts and interest to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles, that is, to small practical matters, which would come right of themselves, if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then: while that which would strengthen and enlarge men’s minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned.


May 22nd, 2011 11:35 am | By

Well now let’s see. Making women wear bags over their heads is a foible of Islam’s, and Islam=Muslims, and Muslims are mostly non-white, so making women wear bags over their heads must be somehow egalitarian and about justice and postcolonial and generally right on. Korrekt? You bet. Especially if it’s Leila Ahmed of the Harvard Divinity School – oh what a blissful combination! Leila! Ahmed! Harvard! Divinity School! – who has written a book about the subject.

By the 1970s, disillusioned students and professionals were turning to an activist Islam – Islamism – that promised social, moral and political renewal. Observing strict dress became one means of displaying egalitarian principles and conveying the wearer’s strength and authority. From a symbol of disempowerment, the veil now, for some, became a mark of liberation.

Well, Islamism may have “promised” social, moral and political renewal, but it sure as hell didn’t deliver it. What would that renewal look like? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan under the Taliban? Somalia? That’s an interesting notion of renewal. I think Rachel Aspden might have paused to mention that.

And as for the claim that wearing a burqa or niqab or abaya or hijab is one means of displaying egalitarian principles and conveying the wearer’s strength and authority, I call bullshit. Total, brazen, shameless bullshit.

Out of the basket

May 21st, 2011 10:51 am | By

Such a pity about Jim Wallis and Sojourners (if you like that sort of thing, at least).

But the rejection of so mild a political message, by a magazine whose editor has laboured mightily to establish himself as the face of the religious left, has sparked recrimination and soul searching among progressive people of faith in the US.

Maybe that’s because “progressive people of faith” care way too much about unity and cohesion and community among progressive people of faith and not nearly enough about free inquiry and principle and substantive issues and dissent. We ornery disputatious gnu atheists are the opposite. We’ll be a community of one if that’s what it takes.

Seriously, “progressive people of faith” do seem to have some kind of weird bug about unity, which to a jaundiced outsider would be better named “conformity.” Everything is to be sacrificed to “working together,” as if people who disagree can’t work together despite disagreeing. This imperative fosters an ooky mix of coercion and sentimentality which I find less than congenial.

Jim Wallis’s supporters, who are more liberal than conservative, believe he has had a knack for creating a safe space in which religious leaders who hold divergent views on issues rooted in sexuality can make common cause against hunger, poverty and war. His detractors believe that his is largely a ministry based on media attention, painting him as a skilful straddler and self-promoter, who convenes gatherings of less politically savvy religious leaders, and then emerges as their spokesman.

Yes…I recognize the type, and I’m not crazy about it. That’s especially true because the self-promotion so often comes at the expense of that eternally despised minority, The Atheists.

In Barack Obama’s Washington, there is no more visible Christian leader than Wallis, who is sometimes described as one of the president’s “spiritual counsellors”.

But see I think Barack Obama’s Washington should be secular; that it shouldn’t be haunted by “Christian leaders” at all; that the president shouldn’t have “spiritual counsellors” except in private.

But one cannot be both the left bank and the bridge. Either one is the face of a movement whose values one embraces and espouses, or one practises circumspection to play the honest broker, the great convener, the architect of the grand synthesis. Wallis still wants to be both, and this is now manifestly unhelpful to LGBT people and their supporters.

Pre-cisely. One cannot be both the left bank and the bridge. One can’t do everything, have everything, be everything.

…this argument opens a self-inflicted wound, calling attention to the fact that Wallis’s appeal to the political right is based precisely on his willingness to toss LGBT people and women in need of abortions out of the basket when the balloon starts to lose altitude.

That’s the problem with the “of faith” bit. The reasons for doing that are faithy, and they have no purchase on atheists. Atheists don’t have a demanding heartless Boss to appease.

God put you here to have 20 babies

May 20th, 2011 3:55 pm | By

At the heart of every great religion is compassion.

Catholic bishops have threatened to excommunicate President Benigno Aquino over a reproductive health bill introduced into the Congress yesterday…The aim of the bill is to control population growth, reduce HIV infection rates and eradicate the need for women to seek backstreet abortions.

Well the Catholic church isn’t having that. Hell no. More population growth despite grinding poverty; higher HIV infection rates; more backstreet abortions. The compassionate approach.

…the church, which has enormous clout in the Philippines, is not about to give way. Since 1998, it has quashed several previous versions of the bill. “Sex is not a game that should be taught to children, along with the use of condoms, supposedly to avoid disease,” the Archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, told an anti-contraception rally in the capital two months ago.

Sex is also not a game that should be taught to archbishops, we’re told, yet archbishops don’t hesitate to tell all 7 billion of us all about it. Compassion in action.

Let’s have a Draw an Archbishop Day, and see what Chris Stedman says about that.

Being constructive

May 20th, 2011 12:23 pm | By

Chris Stedman is patting himself on the back again for being more “constructive” and bridge-building and worried about marginalized communities than everyone else. He patted himself on the back on Facebook this morning for a blog post about Draw Mo Day.

In my work for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) I’ve labored alongside Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. My biggest takeaway has been the notion that people of different religious and philosophical identities have a lot more in common than we instinctually imagine. Sure, my Muslim collaborators think Muhammad was the prophet of a God that I don’t even think exists. But, I don’t care much about that difference between us. Our deeper convictions—that all people have the right to dignity, that we need to find a way to achieve a more peaceful world—are the same and, frankly, they matter more.

That’s lovely – as long as their deeper convictions are in fact that all people have the right to dignity (with all that that entails). It’s not safe to assume that with theists, though – theists always have the potential for believing the opposite – that not all people do have the right to dignity. Religions play a very large part in rejecting that very conviction and assertion.

The theists (and Buddhists) Chris Stedman knows nevertheless hold that conviction, according to him. Good; excellent. But he doesn’t get to extrapolate from that that all theists do. He doesn’t get to assume that all theists put human dignity (and thus equality) first and belief in their god or their god’s prophet second.

The significant disagreement among secular folks around EDMD isn’t a new phenomenon. Our community is an oft divided bunch. This diversity can be an asset as often as it is a weakness. But the only way this will be a source for strength is if we can come to a consensus on some ground rules. The first of these must be respect for our ideological differences, a respect we must extend to communities beyond our own.

No it must not. That’s why I refuse to join Stedman’s parade, and why I keep raining on it. (Well, that plus the relentless way he keeps saying how swell he is for saying things like that.) I’m not going to sign up for any ridiculous blanket respect for ideological differences; I’m not going to respect the Catholic church’s ideology about women, for one example, and there are plenty more where that came from.

I guess that means I’m not “constructive.” Well, too bad.

Trouble rears its

May 19th, 2011 4:50 pm | By

James Hannam reiterates that religion and science have always been quite matey despite what Some People say to the contrary.

…today, science and religion are the two most powerful intellectual forces on the planet. Both are capable of doing enormous good, but their chances of doing so are much greater if they can work together. The award of the Templeton Prize to Lord Rees is a small step in the right direction.

Well religion is one of the most powerful intellectual forces on the planet if by “intellectual force” you mean “force that interferes with humans’ best intellectual skills,” but I suspect that’s not what Hannam wants us to take away from his happy thought.

He has some critics on that post, too. Like the one by James Hrynshyn:

…it seems the facts as laid out by Prof. Hannan’s review suggest the precise opposite of the idea that science and religion can work well together. He notes that the two are compatible when science does not challenge anything consequential. So long as science sticks to abstract notions, everyone gets along. But as soon as science challenges anything the churches care about, trouble rears its ugly head.

It’s the usual thing – yes they can “get along” if religion stays in its compartment; no they can’t “get along” in any substantive sense.