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.

Freedom of humour in Italy

Sep 11th, 2008 5:18 pm | By

Sabina Guzzanti could get five years in prison for ‘offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person’ of Benedict XVI. Who knew? Who knew the pope’s person was ‘sacred and inviolable’ as a matter of law in Italy? I suppose I might have guessed it was if anyone had asked me directly – ‘Excuse me, do you think the person of the pope is sacred and inviolable as a matter of law in Italy?’ – but no one had asked me directly, or indirectly either – ‘Excuse me, how do you think Italian law treats the person of the pope? Any guesses?’, and I didn’t know. I can’t be everywhere at once you know – I only have two hands.

But now I do know, and I think it’s an outrage.

Giovanni Ferrara, the Rome prosecutor, is invoking the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, which stipulates that an insult to the Pope carries the same penalty as an insult to the Italian President.

Oh – so an insult to the Italian President carries a penalty of five years in prison? Who knew? That one I wouldn’t even have guessed, even if someone had asked me directly. I would have said oh don’t be so silly, of course there’s no such law in Italy. Shows what I know.

The July rally [at which Guzzanti committed her crime] was called to protest against alleged interference by the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italian affairs, from abortion to gay rights, but also to attack the Prime Minister for passing “ad personam” laws to protect his own interests and avoid prosecution on corruption allegations.

Gee, I can’t see why anyone would object to laws like that, can you? ‘I, the president, rule that it shall be against the law to attempt to charge with with any crimes I may happen to have committed while in office.’ What’s wrong with that? Guy’s got to be able to concentrate, after all.

The move to prosecute her over her anti-papal remarks was praised by some on the centre Right, including Luca Volonte, a Christian Democrat, who said that “gratuitous insults must be punished”.

By a prison sentence. Of five years. What an interesting way to think about the matter.

Pink News points out that this is all a tad fascist, literally.

The Minister of Justice in Italy has given prosecutors permission to use a Fascist-era law to punish a comedian for mocking the Pope…Now the Rome prosecutor has been given permission to proceed against her under the 1929 Lateran Treaty. The treaty, between the Vatican and the Italian government, was signed when fascist leader Benito Mussolini was in power.

Gone but not forgotten, apparently.


Sep 9th, 2008 6:14 pm | By

In case you’re wondering why posting has been a tad intermittent of late, it’s just that I’m working on revisions of the book and I have other calls on my time at the moment. But I’ll be back to normal garrulity and belligerence soon.

How broadly?

Sep 9th, 2008 6:09 pm | By

Something Madeleine Bunting said in her piece on ‘faith’ schools yesterday.

[O]ver 70% of people in this country still describe themselves as Christian; that may not mean going to church but it may mean wanting children to grow up with broadly Christian values.

But what are broadly Christian values? They’re probably not really Christian values at all, that is, not values that depend on believing that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and was bodily resurrected and hauled up into heaven. (It’s a little hard to know what values would depend on believing that, really. Atonement? But is the Christian version of that really a value? If it is is it a broadly Christian value? It’s well known that the Christian atonement can seem like a very dubious bit of morality indeed to outsiders.) Bunting probably means simply values that are mistakenly attributed to Christianity but are in fact in no way exclusive to Christianity or dependent on it – values like compassion, mercy, universal love, a kind of irrational generosity. Those are admirable values (whatever the worries about the potential of extravagant compassion to encourage cruel people to go on being cruel), but they are not theistic values. It’s also not entirely clear that they’re Christian values even in the sense of ‘Christian’ being a shorthand for the abovementioned values like compassion and the rest – because to many people Christian values apparently means not turning the other cheek but various things to do with sex and alcohol. It is, frankly, not really a useful phrase, being flawed from more than one direction.

A duty to promote ‘community cohesion’

Sep 6th, 2008 5:51 pm | By

Polly Toynbee is not a fan of ‘faith’ schools.

Years of Labour handwringing over community cohesion hardly squares with dividing children by religion. Ask why and here’s the doublethink answer: religious academies now have a “duty to promote community cohesion”.

Is that what the faith school cheering section says? So…they just don’t have a clue? No idea that religion does promote ‘community cohesion’ but at the price of promoting ‘community hostility’ at the same time? They haven’t read the report on Saudi textbooks perhaps – the one that teaches children that ‘A Muslim is forbidden to love and aid the unbelieving enemies of God…They are the people of the Sabbath, whose young people God turned into apes, and whose old people God turned into swine to punish them.’ That’s ‘faith’ school for you.

What is right is contested

Sep 5th, 2008 6:06 pm | By

Ah, Norm took issue with Julian’s piece too.

By his choice of example Julian makes life too easy for himself. Mockery of the weak is an egregious practice of course. But what if someone makes a criticism of Islam – or any religion – in perfectly measured terms and some take offence, perceiving this criticism as mockery? What if the satirical treatment of a sacred figure in a work of fiction arouses anger, pleas for censorship, death threats? What if it is disputed between different parties whether certain images or statements are offensive or not? In such cases, the right to say what you think – within the usual limits concerning incitement to violence and defamation – trumps what any of us might believe is the right way to behave.

That’s the complaint I make about Nussbaum and about other people who claim that we can all agree on certain basic principles: that by their choice of example they make life too easy for themselves. It’s no good using people who don’t want to fight in wars as an example, because that’s easy; you have to pick people who want to murder their daughters for marrying without permission, because that’s not easy. It’s so not easy that it seems to demonstrate that in fact we can’t all agree on certain basic principles. We can all agree that we want justice or peace or an end to violence, but aha aha, it always turns out that other people mean something different by justice or peace or an end to violence from what we meant, and it turns out we can’t agree at all. (If we could, why would Saddam have done what he did for so long? Why would genocides have happened? Why would Jack Abramoff have pocketed so much money for keeping US labour laws out of the Marianas while workers there lived such horrible lives?) It’s tragic that we can’t all agree, but it’s true.

Think twice before mocking

Sep 4th, 2008 6:03 pm | By

I don’t entirely agree with Julian here. (Maybe all the commenters have said what I’m going to say; I don’t read comments at Comment is Free any more and haven’t read these. If they’ve already said this just go watch Sarah Palin re-runs or something.)

The piece is about religion and mockery and free speech and the predictability of what people say about them.

But isn’t mockery good, and any belief system incapable of putting up with it deficient in some way? That’s true, but you can’t just ignore the background against which lampooning takes place. Christians, for example, are not oppressed, despite what some wannabe martyrs would have us believe. British Muslims, in contrast, are a somewhat beleaguered minority. We should think twice before mocking them because, while comedy speaking truth to power is funny, the powerful laughing at the weak is not.

Of course, but that is to conflate two issues: mockery of Christians and Muslims, and mockery of Christianity and Islam. I don’t think I’ve spent much time and energy, if any, saying we shouldn’t be told not to mock Muslims. I have spent a lot of time and energy saying we shouldn’t be told not to mock Islam, or any other religion or any other set of ideas. I think there’s a big difference. I don’t much want to mock beleaguered minorities, but I also don’t want to extend that to holding the beliefs or the ideas of beleaguered minorities sacrosanct. That’s especially true given the fact that within any beleaguered minority there are of course people with more power and people with less power, and the people with more power may well use beliefs and ideas to justify their own power. That is in many ways true of people in the beleaguered minority known as Muslims.

There can of course be cases in which mockery of a religion or set of ideas is a way to mock the people who hold them. But even so, I think it’s important to make the distinction, and to keep it in mind.

They’re getting closer

Sep 3rd, 2008 7:29 pm | By

Spare a thought for the unfortunate people of Yemen. They’re getting their very own Saudi-style virtue squad, which they didn’t even ask for and don’t actually very much want.

For many Yemenis, and for women in particular, this was another alarming sign of the growth of Salafi extremism — an unwelcome import from neighbouring Saudi Arabia where the “mutaween” religious police are part of the scenery. “These people scare the hell out of me,” complained Nadia al-Sakkaf, the editor of the Yemen Times.

Yeah they’d scare me too if they turned up where I live.

The first signs appeared a few months ago in the Red Sea port of Hodeida, where young men and women began to be accosted by bearded vigilantes demanding proof that couples were related…Daoud al-Jeni, a self-styled “virtue activist’, described his mission as being to curb “obscenity and prostitution”. Anti-vice teams, some armed with sticks, have also been operating in Aden, the former British colony in the south.

Yes but the problem with people like Daoud al-Jeni and other self-styled virtue activists is that they think everything is obscene, especially everything female. The only non-obscene female is one who’s firmly inside a house which has no windows facing the street.

“This is a step backward for human rights in Yemen,” warned Hurriya Mashour, the deputy head of the state-backed Womens National Committee…Zindani and like-minded ulema, or scholars, have long demanded government action against “moral corruption”…They have also opposed calls for a legally enforceable minimum age for marriage in a country where girls as young as 12, especially in villages, are frequently married off to older men.

Because there’s nothing at all obscene about a 12-year-old girl being married off. No, that’s not obscene, it’s just women’s faces (and the rest of them) that’s obscene.

Aid organisations working in the poorest country in the Arab world are also worried by the virtue committee, and especially about the setback it represents to the cause of empowering women, who are already battling 70% illiteracy and one of the biggest gender gaps on earth. “This is a country with so many serious problems and it has a terrible image,” said one foreign development expert. “They are going to shoot themselves in the foot on this. This is not entirely different from how the Taliban started out and it would be a huge tragedy for the women of Yemen if they get caught in the political crossfire.”

Not good.

Bad decisions

Sep 2nd, 2008 3:22 pm | By

Nothing to cheer about.

Lori Viars, a mother of two and evangelical Christian from Lebanon, Ohio, cheered the candidacy as well as the decision of both Palin women to keep their babies. “The whole family is pro-life, and they put that into practice even when it’s not easy,” Ms. Viars said.

It’s nothing to cheer. Palin is adamantly anti-abortion, so her daughter age 17 has to have an unplanned baby, has to be a mother years too early, and has to marry her high school boyfriend, which is a recipe for disaster. ‘Bristol’ Palin has to ruin her life because of inflated concerns about a fetus.

What’s up with ‘Bristol,’ anyway? Chelsea, Bristol – what’s their point? Is everybody naming children after UK cities now? Are the kindergartens filling up with Cheltenham Smiths and Swindon Clarks and Nottingham Carters and Doncaster Joneses? And if so, why?

In Birmingham it is common to see women shrouded in black

Sep 1st, 2008 11:59 am | By

More self-righteous self-pity.

My sister has worn a face veil for six years. She lives in Birmingham, where it is common to see women shrouded in black, however the sight is more unusual in Southampton, where my parents live and where, at the weekend, my sister was called “a ninja woman”.

It’s common in Birmingham to see women shrouded in black, is it – well how appalling. You might as well say it’s common to see black people in chains in Liverpool. You might as well say it’s common to see Jews wearing yellow stars in Manchester. You might as well say it’s common to see gay people wearing pink banners with ‘Dangerous Degenerate’ printed on them. How bizarre and depressing and stomach-turning to see a Guardian columnist so breezily reporting such a squalid fact. Even worse to see her go on to tell a righteously indignant story about it.

My sister called him “a lying bigot”, which is all she could muster on a Sunday afternoon in Primark, en route to Clark’s to have her children fitted for new shoes, but she delivered it rather splendidly, to the bemusement of shoppers who, if they hadn’t noticed her before, suddenly found her rather interesting.

She’s trying to do two things at once here, Riazat Butt is, and they pull against each other. She’s trying to have it both ways, and that’s irritating. On the one hand her sister’s decision to wear a piece of black cloth over her face is perfectly normal and ordinary and no big deal, on the other hand it’s a brave and splendid and ‘interesting’ thing to do. On the one hand her sister is rebellious and special and cool, on the other hand she’s entirely average and familiar and like everyone else, shopping at Primark and Clark’s and buying shoes for her children. Well which is it? If she wants to play the Primark and Clark’s card, then it’s a mistake to wear a black cloth on her face. If she wants to wear a black cloth on her face, she can’t pretend she’s merely acting like everyone else in the world. I don’t think people necessarily should act like everyone else in the world. But I also recognize that some kinds of not acting like everyone else in the world are going to attract stares, and even comments. Calling someone a ninja woman is rude – but then dressing up like a ninja woman is also rude, and worse than rude.

She always made a point, she said, of walking up to people and asking them why they had called her names. The response was either silence or denial…”People never say things to your face.”

As Allen Esterson said when he alerted me to this piece, that’s quite a good unconscious joke.

My sister wears a face veil because it is something she wants to do. She knows not all Muslim women feel the same and she is not on a mission to force others to adopt the same dress code as her. She is not breaking the law. She is, as she sees it, minding her own business, being a mother and bringing up her children.

Being a mother and bringing up her children…to do what? To think that women are so obscene and filthy and distracting to the people who really matter in the world that they have to cover up everything including their faces? I’m not impressed.

Let’s not make the concept vacuous

Sep 1st, 2008 12:41 am | By

Nigel Warburton talks to Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association. I particularly liked this bit -

I think it is more coherent to call Christians, for example, ‘Christians’ rather than ‘Christian humanists’ and Humanists ‘Humanists’ rather than ‘secular humanists’. If we try to call any and every philosophy that in some way has something to do with people ‘humanist’ then we make the concept itself vacuous. There is a recent book in the Teach Yourself series by the agnostic Mark Vernon which runs into this sort of difficulty. Thankfully, this is not a very prominent debate within Humanism and I think the common usage of ‘Humanism’ is still that of a non-religious philosophy.

That’s why so much of what Mark Vernon writes seems wrong-headed, at least to me. He’s so intent on, on the one hand, portraying atheists as dogmatic and fanatical and impoverished, and on the other hand, portraying religion as reasonable and rational and humanist. He seems to be on a mission to defend religion and denigrate atheism, despite (he always insists) no longer being religious himself. There’s a whole crowd of atheists and agnostics now making a career of rebuking atheists while flattering theists; Vernon’s one of the standard bearers of that crowd. They’re very tedious (and in Matthew Nisbet’s case, worse than tedious).

O my holy sleeves!

Sep 1st, 2008 12:39 am | By

When should ‘religious beliefs’ trump medical precautions? Hmm, let’s see. Never.

Many Muslim women all over the UK could be at risk of losing their jobs after the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, introduced the “bare below the elbow” policy. This policy was first introduced in January 2008 and stated that, when any member of staff is in contact with a patient, they must have their full arm from the elbow and below completely bare.

That doesn’t put Muslim women at risk of losing their jobs; it puts them at risk of having to bare their arms below the elbow when in contact with patients. In other words it presents them with a not very onerous job requirement that is in place in an attempt to prevent lethal infections. In other words, big fucking deal. Some jobs come with requirements of that kind; that’s just a fact of life. You can’t dress any old way you want to when you’re working with food, for example. Religion doesn’t give people the right to endanger the health of other people. You can’t be a surgeon and say your religion forbids you to scrub your hands, and that’s all there is to it. There is no human right to ignore hygiene regulations in a hospital. Suck it up.

Ayesha believed the dismissal was unethical as it violated her equality and diversity human rights…Ayesha described the “continuous nightmares” she suffered regarding the situation and upon her dismissal how she was “emotionally torn apart”. She feels viciously discriminated against, and this incident has left her seriously doubting any future job security. Ayesha feels shocked that she was forced to choose between her religious beliefs and her livelihood. She hopes to “prevent the policy from being universally applied, so other Muslim women do not experience the same trauma.”

Trauma nothing. If you work in a hospital, you are inevitably going to have various dress and hygiene requirements. Period. Grow up, enter the real world, have some sense, deal with it. And bag the self-pity, too.

The most evil, filthy things

Aug 31st, 2008 7:04 am | By

The reporter for Channel 4 is filming undercover as the woman preacher gives her talk.

What should be done to a Muslim who converts to another faith? “We kill him,” she says, “kill him, kill, kill…You have to kill him, you understand?” Adulterers, she says, are to be stoned to death – and as for homosexuals, and women who “make themselves like a man, a woman like a man … the punishment is kill, kill them, throw them from the highest place”. These punishments, the preacher says, are to be implemented in a future Islamic state. “This is not to tell you to start killing people,” she continues. “There must be a Muslim leader, when the Muslim army becomes stronger, when Islam has grown enough.”

What can you say? What is there to say? This is fascism; fascism of the worst kind; the kind that not only thinks whole large sets of people should be summarily killed, but also feels perfectly happy to say so in public (though highly exclusive and sectarian and carefully non-integrated) places. This is the worst possible nightmare – the worst possible kind of human being, and the worst possible vision of society. This is a utopia in which all the best kinds of people are ‘thrown from the highest place’ by a set of malevolent narrow mindless death-loving ignorant shits. This is hell on earth. Everything good wiped out, everything bad given power to tyrannize and control and destroy.

The mosque is meant to promote moderation and integration. But although the circle does preach against terrorism and does not incite Muslims to break British laws, it teaches Muslims to “keep away” and segregate themselves from disbelievers: “Islam is keeping away from disbelief and from the disbelievers, the people who disbelieve.” Friendship with non-Muslims is discouraged because “loyalty is only to the Muslim, not to the kaffir [disbeliever]“. A woman who was friendly with a non-Muslim woman was heavily criticised: “It’s part of Islam, of the correct belief, that you love those who love Allah and that you hate those who hate Allah.”

As Saudi textbooks teach children – in those words.

Like many of the other women at the circle, I was soon invited to private sessions in houses around London, to “learn more” about Islam – or their version of Islam. Um Saleem was also at some of these sessions. Here, the women were given strict restrictions on their lives: it is reiterated that British Muslim women cannot travel far without a male guardian, cannot mix with men, and have to remain fully covered up at all times. One woman in the audience queried the strict rulings that she cannot travel without a mahram – a male member of the family – escorting her. She asked: “Sister, if me and my husband, we can’t go together, what do I do if I want to go?” She was told she cannot travel by herself. She asked again: “So what do I do?” “You go with your husband,” Um Saleem replied. There were also restrictions on education or work opportunities. One woman, who works for the NHS, was told she should leave her job as it meant mixing with men and not wearing a full Islamic garment. “You know that working in an environment that is not Islamic, working with the kuffaar, all this takes you away from the religion and hardens your heart and it would be lying to you if I say it’s OK,” Um Saleem explained. Um Saleem also criticised Muslim women who integrate into society – a view that is counter to the aims of the Regent’s Park Mosque. “You see Muslims in every sphere of everyday life in this country, I see Muslims, it breaks my heart when I see them working in banks, short sleeves, tight scarf like this, make-up, being with the kuffaar all the time, even speaking their language,” she said.

Yeah, terrible, isn’t it, women out in the world doing ordinary work in ordinary places and being around people just as if they were people, even speaking their language – it’s shocking, isn’t it.

The Mosque’s official bookshop was another focus for the Dispatches film last year when our reporters discovered intolerant and fundamentalist DVDs…I found the same fundamentalist preachers’ works still openly displayed and sold there. DVDs preaching that disbelievers are “evil, wicked, mischievous people … they do the most evil, filthy things”; that men are in charge of women and should control them…Darussalam International Publications told me that the bookshop sells a wide range of material which they “do not necessarily agree with”. It said: “We try to represent a variety of…opinions through the products we sell…in order to spread peace, respect, tolerance and understanding.”

Ah yes of course! Peace respect tolerance and understanding! Of course selling ‘products’ that preach hatred of ‘disbelievers’ and subordination of women is just the way to spread peace respect tolerance and understanding.

This stuff is so bottomlessly disgusting. It makes me want to move to another planet, or become another species, or build myself a fortified bunker. It makes me despair of human beings.

Worship of violence

Aug 30th, 2008 2:45 pm | By

No, it’s not just another ‘choice’.

It may be an unusual case, but it’s hardly the first time that extreme religious belief has resulted in cruelty to children. Now that the “misery memoir” has become a cliché of contemporary publishing, it’s worth remembering that many of the most significant accounts of childhood misery have been associated with religious repression…[I]n Memoir, one of hundreds of books chronicling brutal Irish Catholic childhoods, John McGahern writes of a life in which sudden physical blows were followed by sudden instructions to bow down in front of a crucifix (a fetishisation of extreme violence if ever there was one) and pray. “Authority’s writ ran from God the Father down and could not be questioned,” he says. “Violence reigned… in the homes as well.”

It’s a violent God. The crucifix itself (as Christina Patterson notes) is a symbol of violence. It’s one of the weirdest and most repulsive things about Christianity, that it uses an execution device as a pervasive symbol. Don’t tell me about atonement; the cross has no more to do with atonement than does the gallows or the guillotine or the electric chair or the lethal injection. People don’t walk around with little gallows around their necks – but crosses, oh, that’s a different matter. It isn’t though – it’s an ancient form of execution by torture. It was common as mud – it wasn’t special to Jesus, it was just what the Romans did with anyone poor and obscure and non-Roman who misbehaved, and that was a lot of people. It wasn’t glamorous, it was as squalid as possible. One might as well walk around with a photo of someone being waterboarded as a decoration.

We live in a country in which the proliferation of schools established only to impose particular sets of religious prejudices on young children unable to know, or seek, better is encouraged. Like everything else, it’s about “choice”…No, it isn’t. In this country – whose state religion, incidentally, rarely did anyone any harm, except a bit of boredom on a Sunday morning – we should do better. If parents have the right to believe what they like, their children have the right to an education that teaches them that certain things are wrong, and that, as Edmund Gosse says in Father and Son, it is “a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself”.

And to say no when the man with the knives comes around.

Trying to comprehend the significance of it all

Aug 30th, 2008 2:05 pm | By

Self-flagellation is a good thing.

There are elements of the Zaidi case that will sound familiar to those who grew up in a Punjabi Shia household. There is nothing odd in the father of the household engaging in this particular practice. But I have personally never seen anybody coerced into it, although coercion can, admittedly, take many indirect forms.

Nothing odd, that is, in the father of the household engaging in self-flagellation. Well that depends on what you mean by ‘odd.’ It may be something one has seen before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not odd. I’m going to go right out on a limb here and say that whipping one’s back with knives is, indeed, odd, also stupid and undesirable, especially when done in front of other people, especially when some of them are children. The Dinonysian is not something to be messed with.

[T]he danger of this case is that the ritual of self-flagellation itself is demonised. Those adults who engage in self-flagellation with knives, chains or blades, do so with a consciousness of the ceremonial nature of the act, keenly watched by onlookers, children and adults alike, who, though they have seen it all before, continue to be mesmerised by the sheer spectacle of it – the display.

Exactly; hence the danger and the lack of desirability. It’s not a good (a humane, a responsible, a fair, a decent) idea to stage mezmerizing spectacles of severe self-injury in front of children, or anyone else either. There are things one ought not to mesmerize other people into wanting to do themselves; self-injury is one of those.

This excitement is, for most, mixed with an actual sense of profound identification with the suffering of Imam Hussain…[I]n an age where Muslim communities appear to be in a state of flux, it is this very sacrifice of Hussain that, paradoxically, provides an antithesis to extremism and violence. How? Because it gives a powerful sense of meaningful identification to those, especially among the younger generations, who see beyond the self-inflicted scars and the rituals themselves, and who in some way try and comprehend the significance of it all.

Paradoxically indeed; so paradoxically that it makes no sense. A sense of meaningful identification for those who see beyond the self-inflicted injuries and who in some way try and comprehend the significance of it all. Yes but in what way? And what is the significance of it all? And whatever it is why can’t it be comprehended without the blades hitting the back? If there’s something to be comprehended why can’t it be comprehended in a literal direct explicit rational way? And where – really, where – does the antithesis to extremism and violence come in?

Wondering if

Aug 27th, 2008 4:59 pm | By

I’m wondering, because of a discussion with Don in the comments, if there is a valid distinction between saying ‘there is no good evidence that “God” (as commonly understood) exists’ and affirmatively claiming that ‘God’ doesn’t exist. I think there is, but I’m wondering if I’m cheating in thinking that.

Surely not, though. Not least because it is perfectly possible to know there is no evidence for something without taking that as evidence for not-something. There is no evidence for an infinite number of things (that someone had a particular thought a year ago, for instance) that may well be true just the same.

God of course is somewhat different, since given the usual definition of God, we know that there would be evidence if a God so defined wanted there to be evidence. An omnipotent God must be able to produce evidence of itself – so in the case of a God so defined, the lack of evidence is a little suspicious. Either it’s playing silly games, or it doesn’t exist; both possibilities are disconcerting for believers.

Yes it is too so a question for science

Aug 26th, 2008 5:41 pm | By

In a high school biology class.

“Can anybody think of a question science can’t answer?”

“Is there a God?” shot back a boy near the window.

“Good,” said Mr. Campbell, an Anglican who attends church most Sundays. “Can’t test it. Can’t prove it, can’t disprove it. It’s not a question for science.”

Can test it if it’s the kind of God that pokes around in our world. Is a question for science if it causes people to win sprints and get sick and get well and survive hurricanes.

PZ is on the case.

I despise that chicken-hearted answer. There are two reasonable ways to address that. One is to accept the usual open-ended, undefined vagueness of the god entity and point out that the reason it can’t be answered is that it is a bad question — it’s not even wrong. Science doesn’t answer it, but then no discipline can, because it’s a garbage question like “what color are invisible elephants?” If that’s what window-boy intends with his petty little gotcha, he deserves to have the inanity of his idea disparaged.

The other approach is to pin the question down. What god? What actions has it taken in the natural world? How does it influence us specifically? Then you can tackle that god with science by testing the purported effects it has. A potentially falsifiable or verifiable god is a legitimate target of scientific investigation…of course, that kind of god seems to vanish as soon as it is scrutinized, and its advocates rapidly fall back on the not-even-wrong version of a deity.

Just so.

I do wish – forlornly – there weren’t such a torrent of goddy nonsense in the US presidential campaign. I know that’s asking for the moon, but I do wish. I wish Obama didn’t have to ‘reach out’ to the godbotherers.

Russell Blackford is putting together a book of essays on not believing in God. I’m one of the contributors and I sent my essay off today.

Listen, she kept pestering us about her son

Aug 25th, 2008 12:29 pm | By

Life is exciting in Afghanistan, too.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has pardoned three men who had been found guilty of gang raping a woman in the northern province of Samangan. The woman, Sara, and her family found out about the pardon only when they saw the rapists back in their village.

What a surprise that must have been.

“It was evening, around the time for the last prayer, when armed men came and took my son, Islamuddin, by force. I have eye-witness statements from nine people that he was there. From that night until now, my son has never been seen.” Dilawar said his wife publicly harangued the commander twice about their missing son. After the second time, he said, they came for her. “The commander and three of his fighters came and took my wife out of our home and took her to their house about 200 metres away and, in front of these witnesses, raped her.” Dilawar has a sheaf of legal papers, including a doctors’ report, which said she had a 17mm wound in her private parts cut with a bayonet. Sara was left to stumble home, bleeding and without her trousers.

Yes but they didn’t bury her alive. Afghanistan is making progress.

Feeling peevish

Aug 25th, 2008 12:17 pm | By

In Balochistan, Pakistan, three teenage schoolgirls planned ‘to marry men of their own choice through a civil court by defying the centuries-old tribal traditions.’

When the fuming elders of Umrani tribe came to know about the intentions of these girls to appear before a local court, they picked them up from their homes along with two of their elderly women relatives. The crying girls were pushed into official cars and driven to a deserted area. There they were pushed out of the cars, made to stand in a queue and volleys of shots fired at them. As the bleeding girls fell on the sand, the tribesmen dragged them into a nearby ditch and levelled it with earth and stones before the girls could breathe their last. As the two shocked elderly women tried to rescue the hapless girls, they too were gunned down and buried in the same manner. The killers after burying these women returned to their tribe like conquerors without any action against them. The step taken was to send a loud message to the rest of the tribe’s girls.

Romantic, isn’t it. Life as it used to be – passionate, vivid, exciting, turbulent, heroic.

Personal and religious views

Aug 23rd, 2008 4:53 pm | By

No that’s not right.

The ACLU sued in January, and Smoak ruled this summer that Davis violated Heather Gillman’s rights. “I emphasize that Davis’s personal and religious views about homosexuality are not issues in this case. Indeed, Davis’s opinions and views are consistent with the beliefs of many in Holmes County, in Florida, and in the country,” Smoak wrote in an opinion released last month. “Where Davis went wrong was when he endeavoured to silence the opinions of his dissenters.”

But that doesn’t work. Davis’s personal and religious views about homosexuality are issues in this case. They’re an issue because they’re not sufficiently convincing or justified or universal or defensible to justify his actions. If they had been, they would be. If the student had been violent, or threatening, or a cheater, then the principle would be both permitted and right to discipline her. The reason he doesn’t get to discipline her for being gay is that the law has evolved in response to general societal acceptance of the idea that homosexuality doesn’t actually harm anyone and shouldn’t be treated as a crime. Davis’s personal and religious views are that homosexuality does do harm (though it’s never very clear to whom, when Christians get in a lather about the subject) and should be treated as a crime. So his views are an issue and they are being set aside. As they should be – and it’s no good pretending they aren’t.

Christian feminist is an oxymoron

Aug 22nd, 2008 11:18 am | By

Oi! Catherine Elliott is writing our book.

[T]he term “Christian feminist” is an oxymoron; it’s a glaring contradiction in terms on a par with “compassionate conservative” and “pro-life anti-abortionist”. Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this. Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.

You’ll have noticed that male clerics like to say that they’re terribly sorry but it’s an absolute rule of their outfit that women can’t be clerics because you see it has always been that way and therefore it is heresy to change it now. Convenient but not convincing.

Since men first conceived of the notion of a single omnipotent creator, that divine being has taken the form of a man: no matter what name he answers to, be it Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or just plain God, what’s not in doubt is that he’s a he. His teachings and his various holy books reinforce the message that this life exists for men, while the best women can hope for is some kind of reward in the next one; as long as we do as we’re told of course, without questioning our lords and masters, and as long as we manage to remain pure of heart and mind while we prostrate ourselves at their feet.

And crank out the babies and cook the food and grow the crops – don’t forget that part. Oh and close the legs or open them as commanded by their owner.

It’s in the name of social cohesion that the Archbishop of Canterbury now expects us to quietly accept the inevitability of Sharia law in this country: one rule for us and another for our Muslim sisters. Well I’m sorry archbishop but no, there should be no ifs or buts on this one; we’re either equal under the law or we’re not. We should be no more prepared to sell out Muslim women in the name of religious tolerance than we are Christian women.

Quite. See Chapter 6, passim.