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.

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.

Beneath contempt

May 19th, 2011 11:16 am | By

Be.neath. con.tempt.

Cowardice. Buck-passing. Blame-shifting. Hiding. Bullshitting.

Refusing to take responsibility.

A report on the child abuse scandal in the US Catholic Church has provoked condemnation for concluding that the permissive society of the 1960s was to blame for the rise in sexual offences by priests.

The investigation commissioned by Catholic bishops said that the peak incidence of sexual abuse by priests in the 1960s and 70s reflected the increased level of other deviant behaviours in American society in the period, including “drug use and crime, as well as social changes, such as an increase in premarital sex and divorce.”

Right, because raping children is exactly the same kind of thing as sex without marriage. That’s high-class episcopal-level moral thinking, is it?

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests dismissed the report as “garbage in, garbage out” because the bishops provid[ed] much of the funding for the report.

But Terry defended the independence of the findings: “This is our report. None of the bishops had any influence on the findings of the study.”

Bollocks. The bishops commissioned it. It’s their responsibility. It’s not “independent” any more than the bishops are.

It’s just class warfare, I tell you

May 18th, 2011 4:42 pm | By

What unites dashing open-shirted Bernard-Henri Levy and dreary “Expelled” “comedian” Ben Stein? Jason Linkins knows.

Levy and Stein find themselves offering up the same response — two of the World’s Most Interesting Men, defending another Interesting Man, on the grounds that the privilege all enjoy makes the crime inconceivable on its face.

Beautifully put, I think. They matter, so they think their friend, who also matters, must be officially Not Guilty, regardless of what he may actually have done. If he did anything, it was Her fault.

And so while it can be acknowledged that the possibility exists that DSK is the perpetrator of a crime (Levy: “I do not know what actually happened.” Stein: “…it’s possible indeed, maybe even likely, that he is guilty as the prosecutors charge.”), the important thing to do right now is remind the world that in this life, Interesting Men are never supposed to experience shame, let alone experience it publicly. Isn’t that the greater indignity?

Note especially what Stein said:

This is a case about the hatred of the have-nots for the haves, and that’s what it’s all about. A man pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room? He’s got to be guilty of something. Bring out the guillotine.

That’s what it’s all about…Really?

It’s amazing stuff. Polanski syndrome.

The old epithet question

May 18th, 2011 12:30 pm | By

What’s wrong with this picture?

A guy commented on a Facebook thread about Carmen Callil’s boycott (as it were) of the Booker International prize over its decision to give it to Philip Roth:

So much to love about that story. Virago indeed. [plus some more that's not relevant]

I said

“Virago indeed”?


He said

@Ophelia — no offense intended. Just reading the article, and following up with a visit to Webster’s.

Sigh. Whether intended or not – it’s sexist. Never mind “offense”; it’s both less and more than that.

But I couldn’t say that, on someone else’s FB page, so I was more diplomatic.

[His name] - sure, but sex- (or race etc) specific epithets are just that. That was the point of calling Virago, Virago…

He said

Respectfully, I’ll take my free pass on irony too, then. Now, about the merits of Ms. Callil’s comments on Roth’s oeuvre…

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s that he doesn’t get to take “his” free pass on irony too. Why? Because he’s a guy. We don’t get to help ourselves to free passes on “irony” when it comes to epithets that don’t apply to us.

Isn’t that obvious? If it’s not it should be. I know I’ve had a few million arguments about it, so I guess it’s not, but godalmighty, I can’t for the life of me see why not.

He wasn’t being ironic in using “virago” about a woman who’d done something he didn’t like. The women who founded Virago were being ironic in using the word, but he was not, and he doesn’t get to hide behind the word “irony” when he just used a sexist insult.

This thread was on the page of a rather well-known writer of Indian origin. I don’t think this guy would call the writer a “wog” or a “darky” or any other epithet of that kind, even ironically. I don’t think he would refer to anyone as a “wog” or a “darky” on the writer’s page, even ironically. Maybe I’m wrong; that’s a conditional verb; but I do strongly believe that – it would be such a clanger. Yet for a woman…

That’s what’s wrong with this picture.

I get fokking tired of it sometimes.

Sympathy for the mighty

May 17th, 2011 12:23 pm | By

Michael Ruse bending over backward and kissing his own ass in his effort to be Nice to religious believers again. The pope says in his Easter sermon that humans can’t be “a chance of nature.” Ruse Understands.

Now let me try to be understanding here. I realize where the Pope is coming from. As a Christian, humans cannot be just a chance occurrence.

No kidding; we all understand that much; it’s obvious. But never mind that – what I want to know is, why does Ruse try to be understanding there? Why is he so keen to understand the pope when he never ever says “Now let me try to be understanding here. I realize where the new atheists are coming from”?

Why is he so eager to give the pope the benefit of the doubt? Does he think the pope is a sad lonely isolated figure who gets no support? Why is he so prompt to suck up to existing established power and privilege and at the same time so intensely hostile to people challenging that power and privilege?

I wonder.

H/t Jerry Coyne.

A split within the movement

May 17th, 2011 11:51 am | By

The Freedom Rides were fifty years ago this month.

They weren’t universally seen as a good idea within the movement at the time – many people thought they were too much: too much of a deliberate provocation, too likely to trigger violence, too risky.

Well – they were a deliberate provocation, made by doing something that was entirely legal, and unexceptionable (to wit, making use of a public commercial facility). They did trigger violence, but the violence finally, after a lot of chickenshit footdragging by the Kennedy brothers, in turn triggered a federal response: when a mob attacked a church full of civil rights activists in Montgomery and pinned them inside, in fear of being burned alive, martial law was declared and federal troops arrived to prevent a mob victory.

The tame safe moderate unprovocative quiet thing is not always the best thing to do.

“We have no remorse.”

May 16th, 2011 3:17 pm | By

Fucking hell.

Police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh have filed preliminary charges against two women accused of killing their daughters.

The women, who were neighbours and are both Muslim, were reportedly furious with their daughters for eloping with Hindu men, police told the BBC.

Zahida, 19, and Husna, 26, were strangled last week after they returned home to make peace with their families.

I know it’s nothing new.  It’s just so depressing. They went home, to make peace with their families – and their mothers strangled them.

That just……..

it makes me despair. Their mothers strangled them. For marrying Hindu men.

One of the accused is quoted by the Indian Express newspaper as saying after being arrested, “How could they elope with Hindus? They deserved to die. We have no remorse.”

Despair piled on despair.

The Kikonians

May 15th, 2011 4:30 pm | By

I thought the first couple of paragraphs of Joshua Rothman’s interview with Patricia Churchland were more interesting than anything in The Moral Landscape. That sounds very rude, but it’s not meant to – it’s just that TML was fundamentally uninteresting to me because it sidestepped everything that’s genuinely interesting about humans and morality. Churchland, on the other hand, zoomed right in on it.

 She starts by explaining what’s most clearly known about how morality works in the brain. We know, she argues, that human moral behavior is rooted in the brain’s “circuitry for caring”—ancient biological circuitry that we share with other mammals. (When wolves care about their offspring, what happens in their brains and bodies is remarkably similar to what happens in ours.) Most mammals care only about themselves and their children. In human beings, though, the circle of caring extends widely, even to strangers.

See? That is interesting, where just insisting “it’s about well-being” over and over isn’t.

I said the same thing a year ago, too. I said it while discussing the article based on the book that Harris published at the time. I said it’s about caring, and that he’d forgotten to spell that out. Inexplicably.

I got it from the Odyssey, and an interesting passage in which Odysseus and his crew invade an island and treat the inhabitants as a predator treats prey.

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.

That’s still what I see as missing from The Moral Landscape, still what makes it an unhelpful and uninteresting book on morality. Churchland’s book, on the other hand, sounds terrific; I’m looking forward to reading it.