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.

Atheists like me are less willing to settle for the status quo

Feb 27th, 2011 1:16 pm | By

Jason Streitfeld says some very cogent things on the subject of public displays of atheism.

For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I’m not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us.

Indeed; and more: atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority, in an existing context in which religious authority is not just not rejected, not even just welcomed and embraced, but made all-but-mandatory. If religious authority weren’t always being shoved at us, it might seem otiose to bother rejecting it, but that’s not the situation we’re in – not in the US and not entirely in other parts of the Anglophone world either, let alone more frankly theocratic states. The pope thinks he has every right to order women to bear children they don’t want to bear, and to tell hospitals not to save the lives of pregnant women if it takes an abortion to do that.

News flash: The public already thinks atheists have no moral compass. People just don’t understand these issues, but they think they do. That’s the real problem: people are ignorant of their own ignorance. The public needs exposure to what atheists actually think–not in an inaccessible, academic way, but in a clear, practical and relevant way. Right now, they’re mostly relying on misinformation when they criticize atheists.

And, sadly, they’re getting even more misinformation, and old misinformation repeated and re-enforced, by some atheists. Even some atheists are telling people that atheists are rude, mean, intolerant, bullies, dicks – you name it.

Jean’s argument ultimately rests on the claim that people cannot learn what many atheists want them to learn, and that, at best, our efforts at education will be fruitless. This is what Coyne seems to be bothered about. It’s not just Jean’s conclusion. It is her argument that is so upsetting. Atheists like me are less willing to settle for the status quo. We are far less satisfied with the public’s current perceptions of atheism. Furthermore, we would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt. We are optimistic that the public can learn a whole lot more than Jean seems to think. Of course, atheists will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented for a long time to come. But the discourse might move forward nonetheless. It certainly won’t help if we stop trying.

The status quo aspect is key. The mantra that atheists should be careful of what they say in public (and when in doubt, err on the side of saying nothing) is just more of the same. We already have that arrangement, and we think it’s a bad arrangement, and we want to Fix It. It’s the status quo, and we want to change the status quo, so that things will be better.

They do not represent any of the local communities

Feb 27th, 2011 12:50 pm | By

Tower Hamlets Council is shocked shocked by those anti-gay posters that appeared recently. So is the Mayor, so is Dilwar Khan, Director of the London Muslim Centre, so are the chairs of Rainbow Hamlets LGBT Community Forum.

Andrew Gilligan says some of the shock shock is bogus. Guess which part.

…the East London Mosque speaks with forked tongue. Yesterday, it was due to demonstrate its deep commitment to “standing together against homophobia” by hosting a gala dinner with one Uthman Lateef, a homophobic preacher who has stated: “We don’t accept homosexuality… we hate it because Allah hates it.”

Why does the East London Mosque say one thing while it means another? Because it can. Because it works.

There is a part of liberal white society which would rather ignore or deny the problem of extremism, hatred and bigotry in some parts of some Muslim communities. The lies give them a form of permission to do so.In that same council press release, the chairs of the Rainbow Hamlets LGBT Community Forum, a local gay group, condemned the anti-gay posters but added: “We also condemn those who use these incidents to create a moral panic and stoke up racist or Islamophobic sentiment. At present the people responsible cannot be accurately determined, but it is clear that whoever is responsible, they do not represent any of the local communities.”

Really?! It is clear? How can it be? How can that possibly be “clear”?

Well it can’t, and it’s obvious that it can’t, but the rainbow people apparently think they have to say it is, lest they stoke up “Islamophobic sentiment.” Apparently they find themselves stuck with having to toady to a group that lives next door to them and hates them with a lively and religious hatred.

I think I would move to Ealing, or perhaps Merton.

Ratzinger muses aloud

Feb 27th, 2011 12:28 pm | By

The pope has been telling doctors to straighten women out on something the poor deluded darlings are hopelessly confused about. What – that homeopathic “polio vaccinations” are real vaccinations? That their most important job in life is to have flat abs? That they have to be “spiritual”? No.

Pope Benedict XVI has urged doctors to protect women from the “deceptive” thought that an abortion might be a solution to social or economic difficulties or health problems.

Has he indeed. How, I wonder, does he know that that thought is deceptive? If a woman or a couple doesn’t have enough money to have a child, how is it deceptive to think that an abortion might be a solution to the problem? And what the hell does he know about it? He has all the money he needs, and he’ll never have to bear a child. He has no experience of being up against it in that way. How does he know he knows better what is and is not a solution than people who do have that experience?

As for health problems…well if the pregnancy itself is proving to be fatal, then an abortion in fact is a solution to that particular health problem. In that particular case, the pope is just lying when he says it’s not. What he means is that it’s a solution he won’t allow a woman to have, if he can prevent it.

What a nice thing to say

Feb 26th, 2011 5:02 pm | By

Darrick Lim has been observing the inter-atheist wars. He has kind things to say about me. (Well that’s the important thing; do admit.)

Fellow atheists Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson jump into the fray with their own takes on DBAD. Both are known for taking off the gloves in anti-religion arguments when they deem it appropriate. As an evolutionary biologist, Coyne in particular has little patience for accommodationist views – the belief that science and religion can be reconciled and need not necessarily be at odds with each other. Along with another passionate – some may say ‘cantankerous’ – atheist, the biology professor and blogger PZ Myers (who runs the popular science blog ‘Pharyngula’), Coyne, Benson and other ‘Gnu Atheists’ are considered to be at the ‘meaner’ end of the attitude spectrum.

Ohhhh. That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Mind you, Lim apparently doesn’t consider the putative meanness all that mean; I might not feel very w and f if he meant “meaner” completely literally. But this question of “exactly how mean are the gnu atheists really, when you look at them under a good microscope?” seems to have as many answers as there are people to ask the question, so whatevs.

More malevolence

Feb 26th, 2011 4:25 pm | By

Via Johann Hari:

In May 2008, a 15 year old Muslim girl tells her teacher she thinks she might be gay, and the Muslim teacher in a state-funded comprehensive tells her “there are no gays round here” and she will “burn in hell” if she ever acts on it. (I know because she emailed me, suicidal and begging for help). In September 2008, a young gay man called Oliver Hemsley, is walking home from the gay pub the George and Dragon when a gang of young Muslims stabs him eight times, in the back, in the lungs, and in his spinal column. In January 2010, when the thug who did it is convicted, a gang of thirty Muslims storms the George and Dragon in revenge and violently attacks everybody there.

Because why? Because of a stupid baseless prejudice. Because they eat their boiled eggs from the narrow end instead of the wide end, or is it the other way around. Because they like stripes better than checks. Because they like muesli better than shredded wheat. Because they watch football instead of tennis. Let them burn in hell!

Off with her head

Feb 26th, 2011 4:17 pm | By

Does god hate women? Do Republicans hate women?

 Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin—who last year proposed making rape and domestic violence “victims” into “accusers”—has introduced a 10-page bill that would criminalize miscarriages and make abortion in Georgia completely illegal. Both miscarriages and abortions would be potentially punishable by death: any “prenatal murder” in the words of the bill, including “human involvement” in a miscarriage, would be a felony and carry a penalty of life in prison or death.

Isn’t that interesting? So a woman has a miscarriage…will the cops be pounding on her door wanting to find out if there was any human involvement in that miscarriage? If so, how will she demonstrate that there wasn’t? Multiply by a large number, given how common miscarriage is.

There seems to be no chance such a law will be passed, but the filthiness of the mind that suggested it is worth noticing. Malevolence is always worth noticing.

A minor point

Feb 26th, 2011 11:43 am | By

What is wrong with the word “harm”? Or “damage”? Why is it always “negatively impact” now? Why is a stupid clumsy circumlocution that includes a noun pretending to be a verb preferable to a single blunt word of one or two syllables?

Is it for the same reason that so many people say “poor” when they mean bad? “It’s poor weather for a walk.” Because of some nebulous worry that “bad” might hurt someone’s feelings? Like, say, the weather’s?

Why else would Kathleen Sebelius say it?

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said the rule, issued in the last days of the Bush administration, could “negatively impact patient access to contraception and certain other medical services.”

Or is it because it sounds more official and like something a cabinet member is supposed to say? But if so, why does it? Why does “negatively impact” now sound somehow superior to “harm”? When it’s so stupid? When “negative” doesn’t mean “bad” and “impact” doesn’t mean “affect”? Why two inexact words when one exact one is readily available?

You tell me.

Social pressure? What social pressure?

Feb 25th, 2011 12:16 pm | By

Greta Christina observes that atheism is not always greeted with open arms. It doesn’t always get even a mere hostile silence. It sometimes gets just plain forcible rejection. Just good old “no you may not.” Just “sit down and be quiet you hateful atheist you.”

Resistance to atheist groups from high school administrators, while not universal, is depressingly common. According to JT Eberhard, campus organizer and high school specialist for the SSA, “Most of them seem to elect to try and drag their feet until the interested students either lose interest or graduate. The ‘objections’ are varied. I’ve heard ‘it would be too controversial’, ‘all clubs are secular’, ‘other groups already do the same thing’, and a whole host of other lame reasons.”

And this, you see, is one reason we explicit atheists fight back. It’s not necessarily because we are bullied or oppressed ourselves, it’s because a view that we think right and important and under-represented gets treated like a contaminant.

The need for high school atheist groups — or indeed, for atheist groups of any kind — is baffling to many people. When USA Today ran an article about Brian Lisco and the SSA’s new high school program, it was met with a barrage of hostile comments… partly in the hysterical “Satan is trolling for the souls of our youth!” vein, but largely with puzzlement and snark, along the lines of, “Why would anyone need a club to talk about what they don’t believe in?”

But the powerful resistance these groups have encountered makes the need for them all too clear. The reality is that atheists are the most distrusted and disliked of all minority groups — more than blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gays and lesbians — and polls show that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist than they are for a person in any other minority or marginalized category.

All very recursive. We need groups because of the marginalization, so the attempts to set up groups are marginalized, so we need the groups all the more, so; repeat until tired.

Countering anti-atheist myths is important even when the bigotry isn’t overtly threatening or grotesque. Myths about atheists are widespread, even among more moderate and progressive believers. Countering those myths requires visibility — and visibility is more effective with organization. Groups can provide emotional support to people who are coming out when they face opposition and hatred… and groups can make visibility easier to accomplish. As Eberhard points out, “One of the best ways gay students have acquired a greater level of acceptance is by ‘coming out’, so that many people are now realizing that they not only know gay people but that they like gay people. So it must be with atheists. We need to encourage non-believing students to be proud of who they are if the social stigma is to ever be dissolved.”

And not just in high school. Even among adults, even among meta-adults (which is to say, old adults), myths about atheists are widespread, even among more moderate and progressive believers, and even among actual atheists. Atheists who hate atheists; talk about internalization.

So – let the groups spread – let people grow up familiar with atheists – and eventually the automatic hatred will fade away.

Good morning, Mr Ratzinger, please come with us

Feb 24th, 2011 1:01 pm | By

No doubt it will just be filed and forgotten, but it’s good to see, all the same…

Two German lawyers have initiated charges against Pope Benedict XVI at the International Criminal Court, alleging crimes against humanity…

They claim the Pope “is responsible for the preservation and leadership of a worldwide totalitarian regime of coercion which subjugates its members with terrifying and health-endangering threats”.

They allege he is also responsible for “the adherence to a fatal forbiddance of the use of condoms, even when the danger of HIV-Aids infection exists” and for “the establishment and maintenance of a worldwide system of cover-up of the sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests and their preferential treatment, which aids and abets ever new crimes”.

Well yes, he does, but…there’s a Special Dispensation for popes. No one else, just popes. So sorry.

They claim the Catholic Church “acquires its members through a compulsory act, namely, through the baptism of infants that do not yet have a will of their own”. This act was “irrevocable” and is buttressed by threats of excommunication and the fires of hell.

It was “a grave impairment of the personal freedom of development and of a person’s emotional and mental integrity”. The Pope was “responsible for its preservation and enforcement and, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his Church, he was jointly responsible” with Pope John Paul II.

That’s the ur-crime, of course. They’ll never make it stick, but it is the biggy. That expropriation of people’s minds at birth and continuation of it via threats is a truly horrible arrangement, which the world allows only because it’s so accustomed to it. Maybe this indictment will make people a little less accustomed to it. Maybe this Verfremdungseffekt will jostle the world out of its complacency. That would be something.

Women? What women?

Feb 23rd, 2011 1:02 pm | By

The PBS documentary show Frontline did a special on the Egyptian revolution last night, the first part on the events overall, the second part on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The second part was reported by Charles Sennott. He was on Fresh Air last week, talking about the same subject. I thought the Frontline piece was abysmal. Interesting, to be sure, and informative in its way, but abysmal. He never so much as mentioned women. Not a word. He didn’t mention the implications of a political movement that is a “brotherhood”; he didn’t mention women’s rights; he didn’t mention women in Egypt; he didn’t mention hijab; he didn’t even mention women, period.

Hello? Hello hello hello hello? Is anybody listening? I’m not talking about some tiny group of people after all, I’m talking about half of humanity. Sennott went on for half an hour about the MB, much of it in a fairly approving vein, without ever even mentioning how Islamists view women’s rights.

It was much the same on Fresh Air: lots of cuddly talk about how hip the MB yoof are and how cool it all is and how different the yoof are from the “sclerotic” oldies. But there at least Terry Gross did manage to ask him about women’s rights, so he was forced to admit that yes, the MB does believe in segregation of the sexes and yes it does ultimately want sharia. Gross didn’t press him on that, unfortunately, but she did at least mention it. Frontline, on the other hand – not a god damn word.

That’s pathetic.

If you do decide to go meta

Feb 22nd, 2011 12:56 pm | By

Russell says why metametametameta discussions about Why Gnu Atheists Are So Horrible are likely to be irritating to gnu atheists.

If people who don’t believe they have been especially uncivil are chided not to be “a dick”, or if lies are told about people like them behaving in public in outrageously uncivil ways, and if stories are told that suggest they are uncivil in the manner of the children in Jean’s story, it produces certain emotions. To be blunt, it creates anger and ill-will.

Well yes it does rather. It does that all the more when all these things, and other things too, happen over and over and over again, saying the same thing, pointing at the same people, tutting the same tut. The people who don’t believe they have been especially uncivil start to wonder why the people who keep scolding them for incivility are so obsessed with them. They start to wonder why the scolders are so obsessed, and they start to wonder why they are so obsessed with them.

I wondered that about the post that Russell is answering, for example. I wondered, not for the first time, why Jean Kazez pays such close attention to me.

I wrote the post on January 25, 2011, and I was actually thinking about what I’d been reading at atheist blogs in the weeks and months before that.  There had been lots of talk about “adults” who are critical of “gnus”.

The “adults” are…whom [sic]?  At Butterflies and Wheels, Phil Plait came under withering criticism on Dec. 6, partly because he wasn’t sufficiently critical of Chris Mooney and (see the comments) also  because of his “Don’t be a Dick” speech.  I take it Plait is against contempt, but not against candor.  There was also upsetness (October 17) about Julian Baggini’s speech at Westminister Abbey, in which he encouraged atheists not to be anti-theists.  As the author of an excellent book about atheism he’s hardly a should not be said kind of a guy.   There was also upsetness about Andrew Lovley (Jan. 6), who wrote a post encouraging atheists to be conciliatory instead of antagonistic.  He’s for lots of interfaith talk, not atheists shutting up.

Three posts, all of them mine. Nobody else mentioned. That’s a lot of attention. It makes me feel Special, and I do love to feel Special, but when I look closely I have to acknowledge that the attention is not altogether admiring. It’s more like getting a lot of attention from an undercover cop.

Russell explains why this kind of thing tends to be…provocative.

…there’s a danger in going meta. Once you move away from debating the truth or falsity of ideas to discussing other people’s behaviour, what should or should not be said, and so on, you almost inevitably add to whatever degree of incivility was around in the first place. That’s not to say that going meta is never appropriate. But people who decide to go meta should be aware of the likely outcome – an escalation of ill-feeling, and even feelings of injustice and moralistic anger – and take this into account. If you do decide to go meta, you’d be advised to show a lot of explicit humility and trepidation. If you then use the annoyed responses of others as evidence of their inherent uncivil tendencies, you’d better be aware that this will be seen by them as further unfairness or injustice … and will provoke even more annoyance.

I could be wrong, but I think provoking even more annoyance is usually the point.

Darwin and Bertie

Feb 21st, 2011 4:25 pm | By

Allen Esterson takes a hard look at some tendentious biographical interpretation of Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

…they achieve their aims by a highly selective use of evidence, and by insinuating connections between Darwin’s evolutionary writings and concurrent political events for which there is no documentary warrant.

Well perhaps they were doing postmodern history.

It appears that The King’s Speech is another example of postmodern history. Christopher Hitchens tells us how.

The King’s Speech also part-whitewashes and part-airbrushes the consistent support of Buckingham Palace for Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and their unceasing attempt to make an agreement with Hitler that would allow him a free hand in Europe while preserving the British Empire.

Oh well, that was then. It’s so much pleasanter to think of them as lifelong anti-fascists, don’t you think?

Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic doesn’t think so.

The King’s Speech is historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious…What the film never mentions is that Edward VIII was an ardent admirer of Hitler and of fascism, and a proponent of appeasement long after Germany moved onto Polish soil and hostilities began in earnest…Bertie himself is also romanticized. He is seen presciently raising the question of German aggression before the invasion of the Sudetenland.

Dude, lighten up, it’s a movie. Movies don’t have to get the history right. Come on – movies tell stories, and they can’t do that if they have to get the history right. Have some champagne, step on a peasant, relax.

What’s missing

Feb 20th, 2011 5:10 pm | By

The Philosophical Primate, aka our friend G Felis, did a guest post at Eric’s blog a couple of days ago. One item in particular jumped out at me.

…the persistent and insistent claims that “something is missing” from the New Atheist world view is true: What’s missing is the siren call of easy assent to illegitimate authority — the human instinct to blend in and concede our autonomy to parent-mimicking authorities who, unlike actual (good) parents, do not have our genuine best interests at heart.

QFT, as the saying goes. I love that. It would make a nice bus ad.

What’s missing is the siren call of easy assent to illegitimate authority.

How peaceful the silence is.

Shank’s mare

Feb 20th, 2011 4:53 pm | By

A commenter at Jerry’s suggested a frightening possibility:

JAC, Brother Blackford, OB, and that muscular Eric McD are becoming quite a faction. OMG! You don’t suppose that there are actually EIGHT Horsemen of the Apocalypse?!?11

I suggested we could be the Four Pedestrians of the Apocalypse. I think this is a kind and generous thought, because it gives opposing factions so many openings for jokes. I’m a very giving person.

No actually I just think it’s funny, plus I am a dedicated pedestrian.


Feb 19th, 2011 2:06 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about segregation, because I’ve been thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood and sexual segregation. The MB of course mandates sexual segregation where it can, and would mandate it throughout Egypt if it got the power to do so. Many non-MB Egyptians think sexual segregation is right and good.

Marwa, a nursery school teacher who did not provide her last name, stood with some 200 women of all ages who chanted for the downfall of the regime. She wore a veil covering her hair.

‘I cover my body and support gender segregation during the protests, not as an Islamist statement, but because it is not right for men and women to have physical contact,’ she said.

What I’ve been thinking about segregation is the obvious: it’s inherently anti-egalitarian. Where there is segregation there is always superiority and inferiority. Separate but equal was a brazen lie. People who want to impose segregation of any kind are people who want to impose hierarchy.

Thinking about that led me to thinking about a different subject, which is NOMA, or the putative compatibility of religion and science. That too is a secretly hierarchical arrangement. The Non-Overlapping part of NOMA is an announcement that religion contaminates science as opposed to being genuinely compatible with it.

NOMA makes religion and science separate. It segregates the two from each other; that’s the point. If they were genuinely compatible, compatible substantively, they wouldn’t have to be separate. Overlapping would be fine. NOMA then goes on to do a lot of silly flattering of religion, but the real point is the separation.

This is how it works with de facto compatibility. “There are believers who do perfectly good science,” is the motto on that banner. Yes, and they do it by compartmentalizing, which being interpreted means, segregation. They do it by keeping the two rigidly separate. The need to keep them separate points up the fact that they’re not really compatible at all.

Bullies win another round

Feb 18th, 2011 5:04 pm | By

If you haven’t already, sign the petition to Karzai to save Afghan women’s shelters.

UN analyst Una Moore explains why.

Conservative politicians and media personalities have long railed against Afghanistan’s few women’s shelters and demanded that the facilities be closed. Two years ago, the government appointed a hard-line mullah to lead a commission to investigate shelters and recommend reforms…

Now, the shelter commission’s verdict is in. The government will seize all women’s shelters countrywide and place them under the control of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the police. Women and girls seeking protection will have to plead their cases before an admissions panel of government employees and undergo medically dubious “examinations” to prove they are not guilty of adultery or prostitution. If a woman passes both tests and is admitted, she will not be allowed to leave without official permission. In effect, Afghanistan’s few refuges for abused women are about to become prisons.

Under the new shelter regulations, if a woman’s family comes to claim her, she must be handed over.

Because, you see, the whole thing is obviously a prostitution ring set up by foreigners. Any woman who is not under the thumb of the man who owns her is self-evidently a prostitute. Therefore shelters must be run by reactionary men who will have the women raped by examination on entry and then either imprisoned in the former shelter or returned to the men who own them.

Men are people and women are their livestock. Don’t you ever forget it.

Blatant discrimination against a Christian

Feb 17th, 2011 6:15 pm | By

When is it ok to decline to hire a particular person for a scientific job and hire someone else instead? James Hannam says not when the particular person in question is a creationist. For why? For because that is a religious belief, and it is the particular person’s right to have a religious belief and that right is trampled on when someone else is given the job as director of the student observatory at the University of Kentucky. Martin Gaskell was the best guy for the job as any fule kno and so it was no fair to give that job to someone else.

[T]he mere fact he was sympathetic towards creationists and kept an open mind about evolution appears to have disqualified him from being director of the observatory.

Well how mean is that?! Just because he was towards creationists and gave them hugs when their cats ran away from home? Or was there possibly maybe a little more to it than that?

In the notes for a lecture he gave at the university in 1997, Gaskell claimed, in clear disagreement with scientific facts, that evolution has “significant scientific problems” and includes “unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations”. This suggests a lack of understanding of the nature of scientific theory in general, and evolution in particular.

Oh what do you know, Lawrence Krauss, you’re just splitting hairs. Nobody needs to understand the nature of scientific theory in general just to run a poxy little observatory. Don’t be such a fussbudget. Hannam explains why.

None of this can justify religious discrimination. Liberals stand for a pluralistic society where people can both hold and express a wide variety of beliefs, some of which others might find absurd or distasteful. That means the proper forum for disagreements is open debate, not private emails between members of an academic selection committee.

That’s right! In a pluralistic society observatories should be run by tenth-level ayurvedic detoxxers or thetan-flavored scambolic sorcerers or professional qualified certificated layers on of hands. Anybody! It’s more interesting that way! And the way to figure it all out is to fight in public, not figure out which people to hire in private between people who know something about the job that has to be filled. A crackpot in every job! That’s the liberal dream.

Of pears and atmospheres

Feb 16th, 2011 12:33 pm | By

Jen at Blag Hag is attempting to clarify a few points about sexism and also hoping the drama will die now. I haven’t read all the relevant documents, but the gist of it is that there was a panel at a regional atheist meeting at which a woman objected to a bit of debatably sexist vocabulary and then all hell broke loose.

There’s a video of the relevant part of the panel, and I broke down and watched it this morning.

Here’s the thing. I can see that it’s not a slam-dunk that the word “female” is necessarily sexist…but by god that panel was sexist. It was sexist from the beginning (the beginning of that video, at least). It doubtless wasn’t intentionally sexist, but oh lordy was it sexist. It was reekingly obnoxious. I would have been out of there in about 30 seconds. Not to go cry in the toidy, just to get the hell out.

The panel was all men except for one woman, and that one woman pretty unmistakably found it futile to try to pull her weight. The trouble is that at least two of the men on the panel were loud and domineering and happy to do all the talking. Hello? That’s the kind of thing that has been silencing women for forever! The combination of total outnumbering and loud bossy “this is how it is” pontificating creates a thick fog of male butch macho guyishness that a minority of women just can’t cut through.

The atmosphere in that room was horribly locker-roomish. And it didn’t need to be. If there had been more women on the panel and if the men on the panel had been better chosen, things would have been different. As it was…it was just frankly repellent.

It annoys me that people still don’t get this. I remember being surprised forty years ago that people didn’t get this – even avowedly and energetically feminist men didn’t get this. Even avowedly and energetically feminist men would still cheerfully hijack conversations in such a way that any women present just gave up. Even avowedly and energetically feminist men would still listen to each other but interrupt any woman who started to talk. Even avowedly and energetically feminist men would still not feel the smallest discomfort that the women had fallen totally silent and that male voices alone filled the room.

That atheist panel in fact seems like a throwback to those days, when second-wave feminism was new and the men hadn’t quite re-learned old habits yet. That guy with the stentorian voice who did all the talking should get a clue. People who organize panels should leave guys like that off them.

A whole new field known as quantum biology

Feb 15th, 2011 1:11 pm | By

Deepak Chopra is upset because atheists make too much noise.

For most people, science deserves its reputation for being opposed to religion.

I’m not thinking of the rather noisy campaign by a handful of die-hard atheists to demote and ridicule faith…

Despite the noisy atheists, two trends in spirituality and science have started to converge.

Are the noisy atheists any more noisy than Deepak Chopra himself? He’s not particularly shy and retiring, now is he. It’s my understanding that he makes quite a lot of money by writing quite a lot of books that talk raving nonsense – like about “spirituality” and science starting to converge.

It is becoming legitimate to talk of invisible forces that shape creation – not labeling them as God but as the true shapers of reality beyond the space/time continuum. A whole new field known as quantum biology has sprung up, based on a true breakthrough – the idea that the total split between the micro world of the quantum and the macro world of everyday things may be a false split.

Full of sound and fury…

What is Robert Wright’s basic view?

Feb 14th, 2011 3:57 pm | By

Robert Wright is reliably vulgar. He shows us how it’s done in a throwaway little piece in The American Prospect – one that’s smug, thought-free and pandering all at once. Rather like a piece of political advertising.

He didn’t like nerds when he was in high school. (No, I bet he didn’t.) Then somebody told him about B F Skinner.

As intellectuals go, Skinner was pretty dismissive of intellectuals — at least the ones who blathered unproductively about “freedom” and “dignity,” the ones he considered insufficiently hard-nosed and scientific.

Look, he said, people are animals. Kind of like laboratory rats, except taller.

And I stopped trying to read it. What a cheap mind, what an impoverished vocabulary, what a stale way of writing and thinking.

He became “an ardent Skinnerian.” He would. If you don’t read many books or learn about many ideas, you’re vulnerable to bad ones. If he had known more nerds in high school he might be a less bumptious writer today.

He sums up with a punchy final paragraph.

I’ve held on to the essential spirit of Skinner — which, I now see, was also the spirit of my father. By that I don’t mean anti-intellectualism as much as a bedrock pragmatism. Got a problem? Analyze it as cleanly as possible, and then, having seen its roots, solve it. And don’t waste time dropping the names of any fancy French philosophers. This is still my basic view.

Good, isn’t it – he’s so pragmatic and so butch that he hasn’t got time for pronouns, but he does have enough time to sneer at the very idea of French philosophers – “fancy” ones at that. He sounds like a parody of Archie Bunker.