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.

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood

Mar 9th, 2010 11:20 am | By

No, I don’t agree with Taner Edis, and I agree even less as he clarifies. This is all the odder in that he doesn’t even agree with himself – he prefers secular liberalism himself, but says he can’t defend it. Yes you can, Taner! Try harder! It can be done. It can’t be done absolutely, or permanently, or in such a way that no one anywhere will disagree – but it can still be done.


My political preference is very much the opposite. I would, personally, consider a multicultural regime a dystopia…My reasons for all of this, however, have almost everything to do with my particular interests and aspirations, and next to nothing to do with any claim that these are universal considerations applicable to all reasonable people.

Well you can fix that. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights again. Read Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ Read the first few articles in Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice. Read some Amartya Sen. Re-read Mill.

How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs…

But again, that treats ‘communities’ as if they were people. ‘Communities’ don’t have affairs; people do, one at a time. The affairs of one person may be different from those of another person, and it just isn’t safe to assume that ‘communities’ as such treat all their members equally. We know that some ‘communities’ don’t treat all their members equally, and that that’s why it’s dangerous to give communities certain kinds of autonomy.

[The state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?

Because ‘devout Muslims’ aren’t identical to one another, and because one cannot assume that putative ‘Muslim communities’ contain only ‘devout Muslims,’ and because even devout Muslims don’t necessarily agree about what it means to ‘communally follow sharia law.’ Isn’t this obvious? Consider a teenage daughter who wants to refuse a marriage for instance – the community’s autonomy to regulate its own affairs is not in her interest! Consider a married woman who wants to work or go to school; consider an adult daughter who is seeing a man from some other ‘community,’ against the wishes of her parents; consider any girl or woman who has had or is having non-marital sex; consider any girl or woman who doesn’t want to wear hijab; consider anyone at all who wants to leave Islam. Autonomy for their ‘community’ is slavery or death for them. Sorry but it’s just callous to say ‘why not?’ and ‘why interfere?’.

This is not theocracy—Christians, Buddhists, or even secularists can live according to their own law regulating their interactions within their own communities.

No they can’t. That must mean something much more limited than the actual words say, because the actual words are just wrong. There are a very few religious exceptions in US law, for instance (most of which should be repealed), but there’s certainly no blanket right for people to ‘live according to their own law’ even within their darling communities.

Groups are real, they shape and serve their members’ interests, and it is only practical to arrange state institutions to recognize this reality.

Sure, groups are real in some sense (though not in all senses – they are after all an abstraction in many senses), but they do not necessarily or automatically serve the interests of all their members. This is the thing that is absolutely crucial to remember about groups and communities and even families – they are made up of individuals and it is not safe or fair to assume that all those individuals have the same interests all the time. That is precisely why the state should not treat communities as homogeneous and putative community ‘leaders’ or ‘representatives’ as genuinely representing everyone in the notional community.

Now, there are all sorts of practical questions that arise. How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order. Still, especially since massive oppression itself can threaten the peace, we would need institutional arrangements to help ease such problems.

Oh, god, Taner – there you go right off the rails. That’s a horrible thing to say! Shrug? I’ll be god damned if I will! There’s plenty of that as it is, we don’t need more of it. And do you really mean to minimize the inherent badness of oppression itself, even if it doesn’t ‘threaten the peace’? If so, why on earth? Oppression is bad – humans treating other humans like crap is the curse of our species – it’s the nightmare from which we can’t awake, to adopt Joyce’s phrase – it’s our horrible dreadful heritage, from the Armenian genocide to the corpses in Jos to the misery of generations of children in Irish industrial schools to the tens of thousands of girls kept out of school in Afghanistan. It’s not something to shrug at.

Liberalism can be defended

Mar 8th, 2010 11:38 am | By

Taner Edis thinks Gary Bouma is right about secularism and that Russell Blackford is wrong. I think Taner is mostly wrong that Russell is wrong that Gary Bouma is wrong. Still with me?

Note that, as often in the liberal tradition, the main pragmatic argument Blackford uses to promote a secular regime is that it helps keep the peace between rival sects…Such arguments tend to overlook how such reasoning is difficult to generalize beyond the context of Western European Christianity in the modern era.

Possibly. But then…this may sound crude, but the reality is, Western Europe is a pretty good place to live, and it and its descendants are better places to live than most of the rest of the world. Yes, that does sound crude, but it doesn’t sound exactly fictitious, does it. There aren’t great waves of migrants going from France or Canada or New Zealand to live in Pakistan or China or Nigeria, and that’s not just some random accident. Yes Western Europe and its descendants are prosperous as well as liberal, but then it is generally thought that there is a pretty strong connection between the liberalism and the prosperity. So even if it’s true that secularism currently seems easier to defend in (let’s call it) the liberal world than outside it, that doesn’t really indicate that the illiberal world (to put it crudely) has a good case for theocracy.

But today’s multicultural urban environments are different. We have to deal with not one fragmenting religious tradition, but people thrown together from very different faiths, including various kinds of Muslims, Buddhists, African Christianities, indigenous traditions, etc. etc.

Well not exactly ‘thrown together’ – as indicated above, it’s more a matter of people going to such places on purpose, for reasons, because they want to. It’s a matter of mass migration, of large-scale immigration, of people who are drawn to these places because, for whatever reason, they prefer them to their places of origin. For at least some of those people, secularism and liberalism in general are among the reasons, are among the attractions that draw people from all these very different faiths into today’s multicultural urban environments. It is not necessarily the case that people who move from one place to another want their destination place to transform itself into a simulacrum of the place they left behind. People don’t generally leave home in order to find the same thing elsewhere, so the fact that the new place has many unfamiliar aspects is not automatically a reason to change those aspects. For all anybody knows those are the very aspects that draw people in the first place.

[I]t is hard to say that individualist tendencies are clearly dominant over desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion. Governmental bodies, unless driven by an explicit secularism in the French style, can effectively deal with representatives of religious communities as intermediaries. Keeping the peace often means ensuring that South Asian Shiites and Korean evangelicals and so forth do not feel disrespected and disadvantaged.

Yes it’s hard to say, but it’s hard to say the reverse, too. It’s hard to say (for sure; without risk of being dead wrong; etc) that desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion are clearly dominant over individualist tendencies. And then with the next sentence, we get into the really bumpy territory. What does ‘effectively’ mean there? Sure in some sense government bodies can pretend that various self-appointed people can claim to be ‘representatives’ of all putative members of their putative community, and the two can agree between themselves what is to be done, but the reality is that that’s basically just lazy bullshit, and it gives away genuine representation to people who are not elected and not reliably accountable. It shouldn’t be taken at face value as a good way to ‘deal with’ various ‘communities.’

I think Taner is making the mistake here of treating groups as uniform blocs, when the reality is that all groups are made up of particular individuals, and no matter how instructed or persuaded or indoctrinated those particular individuals are, it cannot simply be assumed that they all think alike on any one question. Even the question of secularism, even the question of individual rights. Some putative members of the putative group may well simply disagree with their putative representatives or leaders – but those people are marginalized and ignored by any system that pretends that self-appointed leaders really can represent people who have no voice.

In a multicultural environment, you have to be careful where and with whom you voice criticism…Atheists will denounce the intellectual pathologies that support supernatural beliefs, but they will do it in academic circles or in small discussion groups. They won’t go to the mass media. That would be foolish, even dangerous.

Well if that’s true we’re screwed – and it’s not true, at least not yet. There is a huge amount of social pressure on atheists to confine our atheism to some small closet or other, but there is also a pretty robust resistance to that pressure. If what Taner says really does describe ‘a multicultural environment’ then I don’t want to live in one – but fortunately I don’t think that’s the only possible understanding of ‘multicultural.’

[A] broader historical experience has made the darker, coercive aspects of liberal politics more obvious. Postmodern multiculturalists legitimately ask why a liberal individualist model, with its violent, anti-communitarian aspects, should remain dominant in the legal realm.

I don’t think so. I think compared to the darker, coercive aspects of communitarian politics, liberalism as such (not liberalism as a front for imperialism or cut-throat capitalism) looks pretty good. I’m not sure what Taner means by that passage, so I won’t belabor the point further, in case I have him wrong.

Now, I don’t particularly like all this. My particular interests drive me toward secular liberalism, even after repeated disenchantment. I dislike tight communities. Multicultural bullshit may be useful bullshit, but I still have an aesthetic dislike toward it that I cannot seem to overcome. But all of this is hardly a basis for public policy.

There I think he’s simply selling himself way short. What he’s describing is not a mere aesthetic dislike. ‘My particular interests’ are what drive people in general toward secular liberalism, especially when they’ve been able to develop a healthy sense of their own interests. People – women, in particular – who’ve been raised within ‘communities’ that see them as inherently and permanently inferior and subordinate are often inhibited from developing a healthy sense of their own interests, but that’s not a reason to raise that inhibition to a general principle. On the contrary. And people’s healthy sense of their own interests is indeed a basis for public policy.

Another vituperative demand for civility

Mar 6th, 2010 12:35 pm | By

Josh Rosenau has an unpleasant and in places inaccurate post about Mooney and his critics. In places it’s also just badly thought through, like here:

…we’ve had Chris Mooney winning a grant so he can write a book. In this day and age, any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations. But because Mooney’s funding comes from the John Templeton Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting a particular view on the compatibility of science and religion, that praiseworthy achievement has won opprobrium.

What, any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations no matter what, no qualifications or stipulations, no matter what the source of the funding is? So any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations even if the funding comes from the Tobacco Institute, or the oil industry, or a cabal of climate-change denialists? I really doubt that he means that – but if he doesn’t mean that, then his claim falls apart. If he does mean that, I disagree with him. I don’t think any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations no matter what the source of the funding is. I think that’s a ridiculous claim.

Some of the inaccuracy has to do with things he claimed I said. I commented on that and other things there, but my comment is being held in moderation, so I’ll repeat some of what I said here.

Ophelia Benson picked up not on that post but on Jerry Coyne’s bribery charges. Not, alas, to chide Coyne for his absurd double standard, but to pile on Chris. The question she poses is whether “Chris Mooney is a man more sinned against than sinning.”

That’s not true. I did not ‘pick up on’ ‘Jerry Coyne’s bribery charges’; my post has nothing to do with Jerry Coyne’s post; I neither linked to it nor mentioned it; my post was in response to one by Sheril Kirshenbaum, and that’s the post I linked to. I wasn’t ‘piling on’ Chris, I was stating my own view.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s wrong to equate getting a grant with taking a bribe. Maybe it’s wrong to demonize your critics just because they demonized you.

Maybe. But then again maybe it does matter, maybe it is worth asking who funds particular grants, and criticizing sources that seem to have a particular agenda or bias, maybe doing that does not equate to demonizing your critics.

I would say it’s the kind of thing Chris Mooney himself has done, and done well, and done usefully. I would say it’s an important and valuable thing to do. I would say Josh’s casual dismissal of it is deeply wrong-headed.

Ophelia is right that there were criticisms offered of their ideas as well, but the notion that their critics were focused only on the intellectual merits of the claims advanced in the book and at Chris’s blog is laughable in its revisionism.

Maybe it would be, but I didn’t say that. What I said was that Sheril ‘should consider the possibility that the personal attacks are actually not baseless – that people accuse Chris of saying things that he really has been saying.’ That doesn’t imply that there’s no personal anger, it states that the personal attacks are not baseless.

Whoever started it, it’s fair to say that Chris and Sheril have gotten their just desserts. Endlessly picking on them because they wrote a book, or criticized a book review before that, is unspeakably petty.

But they have gone on making their personal accusations against people, by name, with exaggeration and weak arguments and (to use Josh’s word) ‘demonization.’ Chris, in particular, keeps returning to the issue and his same old claims. We get to reply.

Ophelia argues (as PZ does implicitly as quoted above) that “Chris picked a fight.” But the idea that he originated the fight is, again, patent revisionism. It’s a fight that’s raged for a long time.

That really is very sloppy. I said Chris ‘picked a fight’; that is not the same thing as saying he originated the fight. Obviously. Of course I don’t think he’s the origin of the whole conflict, but he did pick this particular fight, so it is pretty whiny to claim now that he’s the one being picked on. Josh also fails to mention the huge advantage Mooney has in relative access to media – he fails to mention the fact that Mooney’s been (to use Josh’s language again) ‘piling on’ the ‘New’ atheists in mass media while the ‘New’ atheists have been replying on blogs. The advantage is his, not ours.

And if you aren’t capable of having a civil conversation with people you disagree with, you have no warrant to present yourself as arbiter of “science in its purest form” (sorry Ophelia).

I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.

Pesky pointy-headed pencil-neck geeks

Mar 5th, 2010 6:03 pm | By

It’s a funny thing, but there are people who think it’s worth pointing out that ‘atheists are no more rational than anybody else.’ Gosh, really? And here I was thinking that just by being an atheist, I automatically and indisputably occupied an Upper Level of humankind where the air is thinner and the rationality flows like wine.

No actually I don’t think anything so stupid, and I never have. I do think something much more limited and carefully phrased than that…but of course that wouldn’t be exciting to contradict, because if you make limited carefully-phrased claims then you’re probably not saying anything as obviously and risibly stupid as ‘atheists are more rational than anybody else.’ What would I say? That atheism as such is more rational than theism as such. That’s about it, really. There are plenty of atheists who aren’t atheists for particularly rational reasons, and there are rational people who are theists, though that one is trickier (because I don’t agree that being theist is itself rational). There are also plenty of atheists who are atheists for rational reasons but who still aren’t demonstrably ‘more rational than anybody else’; there are also atheists who are more rational than most people…but that’s so far away from the invented claim that ‘atheists are more rational than anybody else’ that it’s beside the point.

Maybe such claims don’t mean atheists in general but rather explicit or vocal atheists – ‘New’ atheists, in short. Maybe the jibe is really ‘New atheists are no more rational than anybody else,’ because the idea is that any atheist who is overt about it must be thinking she is more rational than anybody else. Maybe the idea is that being overt about it is the same thing as thinking one is more rational than anybody else. But that isn’t necessarily the case. One can want to be rational, careful, critical, thoughtful, reflective, questioning, skeptical, without thinking one is any of those things, much less that is more so than anybody else.

But it’s otiose to point this out, of course; jeers like ‘atheists are no more rational than anybody else’ are part of the Sarah Palinization of discourse. Nyah nyah, you read too many books; neener neener, you think you’re so smart; you New York latte-drinking elitists think you know everything.

I’m offended, call the cops!

Mar 5th, 2010 11:14 am | By

The BBC is tipping its hand again. Check out this bizarre subhead:

Anti-religious campaigners have condemned the conviction of a “militant atheist” who left rude images in Liverpool Airport’s prayer room.

‘Anti-religious campaigners’ being their hand-tipping tendentious hostile ill-mannered term for secularists and, you know, people who believe in freedom of speech – otherwise known as liberals. And what is up with that ‘militant atheists’ and what are the scare-quotes for? Who, exactly, is being quoted there? Anyone? Or is that just a very underhanded way of throwing more mud at atheists while pretending it’s someone else doing it. That’s what it looks like to me.

Anyway – what it’s reporting on is jaw-dropping to a Yank.

[Harry] Taylor, 59, of Griffen Street, Salford, admitted at Liverpool Crown Court religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress…The atheist admitted leaving images of important religious figures in sexual poses but said he was simply challenging the views of others. The chaplain at the airport, who was “severely distressed” by the discoveries in November and December 2008, immediately reported the images to the police, prosecutors said…The maximum sentence for such an offence is seven years in prison.

I can’t even think of anything to add to that – it’s so grotesque it speaks for itself. Is the UK a giant daycare center instead of a country, or what? Are you allowed to go outside without someone holding your hand? Do the police come along to check your underwear every couple of hours?

Please donate to clerical rapists’ defense fund

Mar 4th, 2010 5:10 pm | By

What was that I was just saying about the Catholic church presuming to lecture everyone on how to be good and what a flesh-crawlingly bad joke that is? Well spare a thought for the bishop of Ferns.

Dr Denis Brennan, the Bishop of Ferns, was inviting parishioners (and any individual priests who felt so inclined) to donate money to assist the church in footing a bill, the tally for which comes to more than €10m, to meet the legal costs of defending civil cases brought against the diocese in relation to clerical sexual abuse. In other words the Roman Catholic Church in Ferns is asking the victims of its own bitter failings to pay the price for the crime.

That’s pretty, isn’t it? Empathetic? Compassionate? Thoughtful? Sensitive? Self-aware? Humble? Remorseful? Other-regarding? Unselfish? Generous? Everything admirable?

The reports into clerical abuse in Ferns and Dublin have shown a distressing level of complicity within the wider community. How could the police, the health service, schools and many private citizens, have sat back and allowed such atrocities to happen? The priest who abused my friends was well-known as having a fondness for his altar boys, yet no one ever confronted him about it. And in its arrogance and lack of self-awareness, the church interpreted this as tacit approval.

And in its continued arrogance and lack of self-awareness, the church expects its victims to help it avoid the consequences of its generations of brutality.

Next up: Prince Cholls lectures on empiricism

Mar 3rd, 2010 11:36 am | By

Good old religion, well-known source of every virtue.

Since a Ugandan MP proposed the death penalty for some gay people, homophobia has been on the rise in other parts of Africa…Monica Mbaru, from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, describes these crackdowns as a ripple effect from the Uganda situation. She says many African leaders and communities remain hostile to gay people because of pressure from religious leaders. “Our politicians have great respect for religious leaders and are careful not to disagree with them, especially not on homosexuality,” she says.

So a bloc of people is tormented and hounded and persecuted for no good reason, on the say-so of ‘religious leaders.’

One of the most extreme examples of religious leaders advocating repression of gay people is Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa…In Kenya, too, religious leaders have been at the heart of anti-gay campaigns. In a statement last week, US-based Human Rights Watch quoted witnesses as saying Christian and Muslim leaders had joined together to call for communities to “flush out gays”.

Oh dear – well maybe the Templeton Foundation could set up an Institute to promote the intersection between religion and not persecuting people for no good reason, and then everything would get better.

Or perhaps there’s no need for that, perhaps it’s enough for the Catholic church to do more to lecture everyone on how to be good.

The Church says society will rediscover its ability to trust by practising virtue. It outlines the importance of marriage for couples, and says the country has had “an expansion of regulation”…The report goes on to say that trust has been “severely eroded”. It added: “Few need reminding of how major institutions have failed to live up to their calling.

It cites MPs and banks and even (belatedly) itself – but its own rather spectacular and protracted failure to live up to its ‘calling’ does not give it the slightest pause – it goes right on assuming it has possession of the moral high ground and the duty to lay down the law from that elevation. It doesn’t seem to grasp that among people who pay attention, it has no moral standing whatsoever. The Catholic church saying ‘Be good’ is exactly like the Mafia saying ‘Be good’ – it’s a harsh and horrible joke. The Catholic church has no grounds for claiming that it even knows what ‘being good’ is – the Catholic church is a hideously confused institution that officially considers homosexuality a terrible ‘sin’ and energetic abuse of children a mere byproduct not worth mentioning. It is not the place to go for lectures on morality.

I can haz viktimhood?

Mar 2nd, 2010 11:22 am | By

There is a view, however minority, that Chris Mooney is a man more sinned against than sinning – that he is a victim, the object of an unfair onslaught of criticism from a bunch of internet bullies. His co-author (not very surprisingly) takes that view.

Needless to say, while I was not surprised at the response to Chris’ announcement, I am extremely dismayed. Discussion of each post is anticipated, but baseless personal attacks demonstrate the trouble with blogging…In just the past few years, we’ve watched the number of science bloggers swell, while the tone of much of the commentary changed. Most disheartening, the relationships between bloggers fractured across once cohesive networks as small friendly communities chose sides in a growing culture war.

I’ve taken a robust (to put it one way) position on this particular war, so I am subject to the usual confirmation bias, so keep that in mind, but my view is that Chris is not a victim here. Here’s why.

It is because Chris picked a fight, and he picked it not just on The Intersection but also in Unscientific America and in many mainstream media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, and National Public Radio. He said some very harsh things, and some of them were incomplete or exaggerated or both. This by itself is enough to show that he is not a victim – the fact that he initiated the ‘culture war’ and the fact that he has access to major media, or at least he did for a few months after the book was released. It’s not really convincing to claim that he is a victim when he has far more access to major media than his putative victimizers do, and when he’s been using that access to say harsh and not entirely accurate things about his putative victimizers, in some cases before any of them had done any of this putative victimizing.

Now, he comes by the access honestly – he has it because he wrote a best-seller, and a good one. That’s fine. I don’t in the least begrudge him the access as such (I know, big of me); I begrudge the use he’s been making of it lately.

Sheril complains of ‘baseless personal attacks’ – but then she should address herself to Chris first of all, and indeed to herself, since she co-wrote Unscientific America. Or to put it another way, she should consider the possibility that the personal attacks are actually not baseless – that people accuse Chris of saying things that he really has been saying. She complains of a ‘culture war’ – but then she should ask herself why she and Chris elected to set one off. The ‘new’ atheists are not the Gavrilo Princip here – we didn’t shoot no Archduke.

And then, once the Archduke was shot, we’re not the ones who refused to discuss anything. We’re not the ones who kept just issuing unilateral declarations while steadily refusing to let the ambassadors come in and discuss. We’re not the ones who told some ambassadors they couldn’t even set foot across the frontier. So…all in all, I just don’t believe that Chris and Sheril are victims; I think they’re agents.

And in conclusion

Mar 1st, 2010 12:19 pm | By

A little more on Monsieur Poisson. I know – it’s silly – it’s a waste of time – it’s just ol’ Stash – who cares. But it’s also the New York Times, albeit only its blog, and ol’ Stash is a Name, and it’s interesting to notice how pervasive his tricksiness is. There is tricksiness in every paragraph, and often in every sentence. It’s interesting that a reputable academic allows himself to be so…disingenuous. He sets up a strawman version of ‘secular reasons’ in the first sentence and then gives variations on it throughout the rest of the article – thus vitiating the whole piece.

A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command.

It’s interesting that he chooses stealing – when the more obvious choice would of course be murder. But with stealing he gets to frame it as a matter of property rights, whereas if he chose murder he would be forced to admit that there are secular reasons that do not boil down to economics. He doesn’t want to admit that, and by god he never does admit it.

Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons.

‘Secular reasons’ pertain just to ‘good order and prosperity’ – nothing more ambitious than that. No equality, no freedom, no rights, just useful but minimalist order and prosperity.

And that is how he gets himself to the all-important claim:

This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular reasons and secular discourse in general don’t tell the whole story; they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.

Well naturally – if secular reasons and secular discourse were as Fish described them, I too would contend that they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life. But secular reasons and secular discourse are not as Fish describes them! His description is grotesque – he seems to have secular reasons and secular discourse confused with the most autistic kind of economics. Or rather, he seems to be pretending he does – I doubt that he is really as confused as he pretends to be.

He goes on doing the same thing until the end, naturally, but I won’t bother quoting every place he does it; it’s obvious enough.


Feb 27th, 2010 6:30 pm | By

I was rushing the other day so my look at Stanley Fish was general; I’m still rushing today but I want to look at a couple of details. Fish starts off:

In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.

That’s one of the tricksy items – the inclusion of morality and ideology along with religion. Secular reasons are supposed to be separate from religion, not from morality or ideology. Right in the first sentence Fish stacks the deck in favor of himself by pretending that secularists claim and want to have no morality and no ideology when it comes to policy decisions. That’s a ridiculous claim – and the whole piece relies on it.

Later, for instance, we get

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.

Yes, but so does Fish’s claim, because in fact ‘secular discourse’ doesn’t confine itself to ‘statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees.’ Fish needs to pretend it does in order to end up where he does, with the lack of a leg for secularism to stand on, but his pretense is just that.

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles…” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”

Note the ‘says Smith,’ as if Fish doesn’t quite want to own such a reactionary and silly claim. If he’d said something like ‘it is difficult to look at it and answer normative questions in such a way that no one will ever disagree,’ then he’d have a point, but he said something much more sweeping than that, and the leg he is standing on is made of marshmallow fluff.

Disturbances in the field

Feb 26th, 2010 12:28 pm | By

Well naturally – Chris Mooney has attained the apotheosis of a Templeton Fellowship – one of the ‘Templeton–Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion.’ Well of course he has. It’s not as if they were going to overlook him, is it!

In the fellowship program, a diverse group of eminent journalists examine key areas in the broad field of science and religion through independent research as well as seminars and discussion groups, led by some of the world’s foremost physicists, cosmologists, philosophers, biologists, and theologians, at the University of Cambridge.

The broad field of science and religion – there is no such ‘field.’ They mean subject, but if they call it a field, that gives unwary people the impression that there is a genuine, respectable, established academic discipline of ScienceandReligion. There isn’t. There are lots of ‘institutes’ and conferences funded by Templeton, but that’s a different thing. And then look at that bizarre pile-up – ‘the world’s foremost physicists, cosmologists, philosophers, biologists, and theologians’ – four genuine items and then a joker at the end, wham.

After decades during which leading voices from science and religion viewed each other with suspicion and little sense of how the two areas might relate, recent years have brought an active pursuit of understanding how science may deepen theological awareness, for example, or how religious traditions might illuminate the scientific realm.

Because Templeton has been energetically shoveling money into that ‘pursuit’! Not because it’s a serious subject or an interesting branch of inquiry, but because a financier made a lot of money and the money is being used to fund the pursuit of bullshit.

Fellowship organizers note that rigorous journalistic examination of the region where science and theology overlap – as well as understanding the reasoning of many who assert the two disciplines are without common ground – can effectively promote a deeper understanding of the emerging dialogue.

How does one go about rigorous journalistic examination of something that doesn’t exist? How does one examine the region where science and theology overlap when there is no such region? Well, one doesn’t, of course, one just pockets the large sum of money and enjoys one’s visit to Cambridge.

At any rate – this is Mooney, and Mooney is this, and that’s that story.

The fella says here

Feb 25th, 2010 12:12 pm | By

Stanley Fish is being tricksy, as he generally is, but it’s a pretty crude form of tricksiness for a supposedly sophisticated literary ‘theorist,’ especially one who is reputed to have seen through Everything at least forty years ago.

He’s comparing secularism with its opposite by setting out what he takes to be their respective views.

Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems.

This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular reasons and secular discourse in general don’t tell the whole story; they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.

No they don’t, is the reply; everything said to be left out can be accounted for by the vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism; secular reasons can do the whole job.

Oh? Everything can be accounted for by the vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism? That’s the secular reply? I don’t believe it. I think most people clever enough to be secularist are also clever enough to realize that not everything can be accounted for, no matter what the vocabulary.

He goes on to make heavy weather of the difference between facts and values, and a book on the subject by one Steven Smith, and a brief acknowledgement that Hume got there first – and then abruptly ends with a sweeping claim that he hasn’t actually justified.

But no matter who delivers the lesson, its implication is clear. Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

And the bell rings and the students rush off to Beginning French.

20 questions – no make that 21

Feb 24th, 2010 5:27 pm | By

Jerry Coyne points out another outbreak of godbothering from Francis Collins – which is all the more inappropriate (the apt word, for a change) now that Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health. (The outbreak is inappropriate, not the pointing it out.) The publisher does not omit to get in the obligatory slap at those god damn pesky impertinent inappropriate noisy New Atheists:

“Is there a God?” is the most central and profound question that humans ask. With the New Atheists gaining a loud voice in today’s world, it is time to revisit the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith.

‘Is there a god?’ is not the most central and profound question that humans ask; far from it; at this stage of the game it could better be called the most futile time-wasting childish infatuated question that humans ask. The voice the ‘New Atheists’ have gained, if they have gained one, is really not all that loud compared to the voice the Old Theists have had and continue to have for the last however many thousands of years, so I really don’t see why so many people feel compelled to pitch such a huge fit about a few atheists finally plucking up the nerve to say atheist things aloud instead of under their breath in a closet when no one is home. I really don’t. I really don’t see why so many people are so god damn truculent about having to share a minuscule corner of the discourse with atheists. I don’t see why our ‘gaining a voice’ is treated as some kind of foul presumption.

At any rate (she said, smoothing herself down and coughing slightly and picking up the scattered objects that fell off the desk), what is this about revisiting ‘the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith’? Had that ‘tradition’ fallen into desuetude? Not that I’ve noticed. It seems to me that the putative ‘long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith’ has been shouting away without a break since Aquinas was a schoolboy.

And that’s just the publisher’s blurb. Collins himself is worse…but check him out at Jerry’s, I’ve run out of time and (for the moment) patience. I’ll just say this. What I would like to know is, even if ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ is a stumper (and of course it is, in its way, as are so many questions of that kind), why does anyone think the answer to it could possibly be ‘God’? Why does anyone think the answer to it is obviously ‘God’? Why does anyone think that’s a good and satisfactory answer? Why does anyone think that’s a logical and reasonable and even inevitable answer? I don’t know. It seems to me ‘I don’t know’ is a better answer, and ‘we don’t know’ is better still. Saying ‘God’ sounds to me like saying ‘Janet’ or ‘Larry.’ It sounds like a risibly human, small, parochial answer – it sounds like saying an orange cat is the reason there is something rather than nothing.

Those grovelling bishops kissing Pope Benedict’s hand

Feb 24th, 2010 11:27 am | By

A scorching piece on Catholic brutality in Ireland by Sharon Owens.

The church that forbade birth control, yet despised big families of starving, barefoot children. The church that encouraged education yet hated free-thinkers. The church that revered Mary the Mother of God, yet treated all mortal women as sinners and whores. The church that raved about poverty and humility, yet lined the walls of the Vatican with priceless works of art. The church that took the pocket money off children during Lent, yet covered up the brutal rape and buggery of little boys and girls for more than 50 years. And I wondered, looking at those grovelling bishops kissing Pope Benedict’s hand, do they really understand, even now, why there is a crisis in the church? Have they any idea of how the survivors of abuse must feel? Have they no empathy whatsoever for the unnamed Magdalene slaves who died of exhaustion or malnutrition or a broken heart and were quietly buried behind those high stone walls? I’m beginning to think only snobs, sociopaths and narcissists are drawn to religious life in the first place, for I have yet to see a flicker of shame, regret or sadness from any bishops.

Except, of course, for themselves and their colleagues and their church.

Hair of the dog

Feb 24th, 2010 11:17 am | By

It turns out that American foreign policy isn’t too religious, it’s not religious enough. So says the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and “uncompromising Western secularism” that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The council’s 32-member task force, which included former government officials and scholars representing all major faiths, delivered its report to the White House on Tuesday. The report warns of a serious “capabilities gap” and recommends that President Obama make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”

Yeah great – then we can have the Christian nukes to go with the Islamic nukes and the Hindu nukes and the Jewish nukes. Coolerino.

“It’s a hot topic,” said Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement in Arlington County and a Council on Foreign Relations member. “It’s the elephant in the room. You’re taught not to talk about religion and politics, but the bummer is that it’s at the nexus of national security. The truth is the academy has been run by secular fundamentalists for a long time, people who believe religion is not a legitimate component of realpolitik.” The Chicago Council’s task force was led by R. Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame and Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. “Religion,” the task force says, “is pivotal to the fate” of such nations as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen, all vital to U.S. national and global security.

Well yes, religion is ‘pivotal to the fate’ of all those nations because the leadership of those nations takes religion far too seriously. It’s not obvious that the best way to deal with that is to emulate it – or to listen to advice from people who equate secularism with fundamentalism.

Tariq Ramadan has a prezzy for us

Feb 23rd, 2010 11:22 am | By

Ah the indispensable wisdom of Tariq Ramadan. He’s full of it.

We are equal citizens, but with different cultural and religious backgrounds. So, how can we, instead of being obsessed with potential “conflicts of identity” within communities, change that viewpoint to define and promote a common ethical framework, nurtured by the richness of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds?

I have no idea. I don’t in fact think we can do that – for the boringly simple reason that it combines two incompatible items: the (welcome) claim that we are equal citizens, and the claim that ‘diverse religious and cultural backgrounds’ are (in and of themselves, with no qualification) rich and nurturing. The drearily obvious problem there is that many ‘religious and cultural backgrounds’ are strongly and coercively anti-egalitarian. Many cultural and religious backgrounds consider women inherently and profoundly inferior. Many consider gays abhorrent; many group people into clean and unclean, touchable and untouchable; many consider slavery acceptable. Just saying ‘hoo-ray diversity’ ignores all that, or, worse, hides it. I suspect Ramadan of doing the latter – because he’s nowhere near stupid enough or sheltered enough to be unaware of it.

[A]n ethics of citizenship should itself reflect the diversity of the citizenship. For while we agree that no one has the right to impose their beliefs on another, we also understand that our common life should be defined in such a way that it includes the contributions of all the religious and philosophical traditions within it. Further, the way to bring about such inclusion is through critical debate.

Who’s we? I understand no such thing. And the claim that such ‘inclusion’ relies on critical debate introduces another incompatibility. Religious traditions are not about genuine critical debate. Traditions as such are not about genuine critical debate – the two are fundamentally opposed. Once genuine critical debate gets going, traditions become vulnerable. That’s not to say that no traditions can survive critical scrutiny, since plenty of them are harmless or beneficial, but it is to say that they’re not automatically partners or allies of critical debate, because they’re not rooted in it in the first place.

Islam is perceived as a “problem”, never as a gift in our quest for a rich and stimulating diversity. And that’s a mistake. Islam has much to offer…Islamic literature is full of injunctions about the centrality of an education based on ethics and proper ends. Individual responsibility, when it comes to communicating, learning and teaching is central to the Islamic message.

And so on and so on. That’s nice, but what about it is specific to Islam and cannot be found in other, secular systems of thought? Nothing. So what does Islam have to offer that no other sets of ideas have to offer? Nothing. Ramadan just bangs on about various ok ideas that can be found in Islam as well as other places (though he omits the last five words) and lets it go at that.

More broadly, the Muslim presence should be perceived as positive, too. It is not undermining the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian ethical and cultural roots of Europe. Neither is it introducing dogmatism into the debate, as if spiritual and religious traditions automatically draw on authoritarian sources. They can operate within both the limits of the law and in the open public sphere. On the contrary, the Muslim presence can play a critical role in thinking about our future and shaping a new common narrative. It can help recall and revive some of the fundamental principles upon which the cultures of Europe are based.

Here he’s shifted his ground, in a shifty way – he started out talking about what Islam has to offer, not ‘the Muslim presence.’ But translating ‘the Muslim presence’ back into Islam, what he says is pure assertion, and some of it is pretty damn bald, too. Yes Islam is inserting (though not introducing) dogmatism into the debate – as witness this very piece, for a start. ‘Spiritual and religious traditions’ do draw on authoritarian sources – not automatically, perhaps, but historically and as a matter of fact, yes. Tariq Ramadan is an interesting example of that very thing, dressed up in convincing modernish academicky garb.

(I was careful not to look at any of the comments before writing this because I knew if I looked at them I would decide ‘no need to bother’ and I wanted to say what I thought even if a couple of hundred people had already said it. I’ve looked at some now, and sure enough. The Graun is weird – insisting on this endless relentless Islamophilia while something like 90% of its readership tries to remind it of the secular heritage of the left and the not altogether progressive quality of life under sharia.)

Everything by proxy

Feb 22nd, 2010 10:35 am | By

It’s interesting and frightening how pervasive the thought is, that people can be taken to represent or stand in for something else, in such a way that it’s useful and meaningful and appropriate to attack the former in order to punish or instruct or threaten the latter.

I just read one example in one of the answers to last week’s CIF ‘Belief’ question. Jonathan Romain knew a guy whose daughter was killed in a car crash whose cause was unknown.

But Henry knew why it had happened. God was punishing him for not going to synagogue. I told Henry over and over again that this was ridiculous and God would not punish his daughter for his supposed sin. But Henry was adamant. Suddenly I realised what was going and stopped rebuking Henry. He couldn’t cope with his daughter’s death if it was meaningless…

But he could cope with it by thinking his daughter’s death was about him. He could cope with it by thinking that the way God found to punish him was to kill a different person. It’s not just the obvious moral perversion that’s interesting, it’s the weird egotism. It’s the weird belief that he, Henry, was all-important, while his daughter turned out to be just an instrument for his chastisement. It’s the bizarre belief that his daughter was just some kind of symbol or copy for Him.

Then shortly after reading that I read Norm on anti-semitism in Sweden. The mayor of Malmö said ‘he was opposed to anti-Semitism, but added: “I believe these are anti-Israel attacks, connected to the war in Gaza…”.’ Norm commented:

[H]atred of Jews or attacks on them and their places of worship, schools or other institutions are nothing but anti-Semitism, whether they are linked to passions about Israel or not. For the targets of them are not, in fact, Israel; they are, in this case, Swedish Jews.

Just so. And Swedish Jews, as Norm says, are not Israel, and Americans are not America, and Londoners are not British foreign policy, and so on. People don’t stand in for other people or for abstractions, and random strangers don’t stand in for anything, because they are an unknown quantity. Knowing they are ‘Jews’ or ‘Americans’ or ‘Nigerians’ or whatever it may be is not to know enough. People aren’t proxies, and it’s always stupid and often dangerous to treat them as such.

Vatican priorities chapter 2

Feb 21st, 2010 5:23 pm | By

Right, the Vatican and the pope and secrecy and what oh what is the catholic church supposed to do about all these priests having sex with children. Wikipedia provides a parallel translation of Crimen sollicitationis, with a little commentary. Clearly the subject is using the ‘sacrament of Penance to make sexual advances to penitents’; that’s the crime, that’s the accusation at issue, that’s the problem. It’s a church thing. And one bit of the commentary reveals the…weirdness.

Except in connection with the sacrament of Penance, canon law imposed no legal obligation – though a moral one might exist – to denounce clerics guilty of engaging in or attempting a homosexual act; but the procedure described in Crimen sollicitationis was to be followed also in dealing with such accusations (71-72). And any gravely sinful external obscene act with prepubescent children of either sex or with animals engaged in or attempted by a cleric was to be treated, for its penal effects, as equivalent to an actual or attempted homosexual act (73).

If you read that carefully it bcomes clear that the issue is the priest, and the priest’s sin, and obscenity. It’s about the priest being dirty. It’s not about the priest harming anyone else. It’s dirty nasty sinny – it’s equivalent to an actual or attempted homosexual act. Eric pointed this out in comments, and there it is, spelled out. It’s not about harm, it’s about smut. It’s not about others, it’s about the self. It’s not altruistic or compassionate or even basically minimally decent, it’s self-regarding and self-protective and self-obsessed (the ‘self’ here being the church and the priesthood in general).

So no, I have no immediate plans to withdraw anything I’ve said about the pope. On the contrary, I’m learning that I haven’t yet understood how twisted and impervious they really are.

The cutting room floor

Feb 20th, 2010 5:13 pm | By

I’ll get back to the pope and the Vatican and secrecy and Crimen Sollicitationis – today was a bit rushed – but meanwhile, there is the related, large, vexed subject of suffering, and what to think of it, and what to think of what religion tells us about it and does about it. I did a piece on the subject for Comment is Free – but I didn’t say everything I could have (in a longer piece) or thought of.

I didn’t for instance say that it’s true (as one commenter mentioned) that suffering can teach us sympathy for other people (or it can get us to shut up inside ourselves – it all depends), and that it’s also true that we wouldn’t need sympathy for other people, and other people wouldn’t need our sympathy, if there were no suffering, so we can’t really say it’s good to have suffering because it teaches us sympathy when the sympathy it teaches us is parasitic on suffering.

And yet – I share the feeling, or intuition, that in some sense we would be worse off if sympathy just didn’t exist. What, even if suffering didn’t exist either? Yes, sort of. But the thing about that is, we are what we are, and what we are is an animal that is never immune from suffering, and that (obviously) shapes how we think about these things. So we’re trapped in this circle.

Anyway I don’t think sympathy is worth the worst kinds of suffering, which are all too common. And I don’t think we should make friends with whatever it is that makes suffering inevitable. Natural selection stinks. If you think God did it, you should think God stinks. We shouldn’t let God get away with the ‘suffering is necessary for compassion therefore it’s a good thing’ excuse. We can have doubts about life with no sympathy at all, and still think God stinks.

I didn’t say that at Comment is Free because I said other things. One can’t say everything, though commenters at C is F seem to expect one to. They also ask ‘Why didn’t you say what I would have said instead of what you wanted to say?’ I have great sympathy for them, but I cannot help.


Feb 19th, 2010 11:51 am | By

We need an expert in Vatican jargon, or Catholic doctrine, or Jesuitical Vaticanesque doctrinal legalistic jargon. Hamilton Jacobi alerted us in a comment on ‘The pope invited the bishops to explain’ to the possibility that the pope’s 2001 letter didn’t mean what The Observer reported it to mean. I took a look at the English version* and I’m not at all clear on what it’s saying. It’s not unmistakably saying ‘Bishops must hide clerical sex abuse of children from the police’ and it could well not be saying that at all – so I have to withdraw some of what I’ve said on that subject in the last few days about the coverage of the pope’s scolding the Irish bishops. At least provisionally, I have to withdraw it. The first part of the letter looks as if it at least could be saying that 1) sex abuse by priests is a ‘delict against the sanctity of the sacrament of penance’ and 2) as such it is a church matter, and that that part alone is what is church business and no one else’s. It looks as if it could be consistent with meaning it’s also a criminal matter…although it also looks as if it could be consistent with the church refusing to do anything about the criminal matter because to do so would violate the putative ‘sanctity of the sacrament of penance’ – which would pretty much leave the pope back where he was, and I would withdraw my withdrawal.

Farther down it gets even more ambiguous, and I’m just not at all clear what it’s saying.

The church might say we don’t have to be clear what it’s saying, it’s none of our business, it’s the church’s business – but of course that’s just what’s at the heart of this: it isn’t just the church’s business, obviously, and if the church thinks it is, the church needs to get its priorities straight.

So what do you think? Can you figure out what it’s saying?

It must be noted that the criminal action on delicts reserved to the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith is extinguished by a prescription of 10 years.(11) The prescription
runs according to the universal and common law;(12) however, in the delict perpetrated
with a minor by a cleric, the prescription begins to run from the day when the minor has
completed the 18th year of age.

What does that mean, for instance? I can’t make head or tail of it.

I don’t suppose any lawyer theologians read B&W regularly…but if any do…how about a little exegesis for us heathens?

*Catholicism is a global religion, so it seems fair to take translations as no less official than the Vatican’s Latin version, unless of course they’re just bad translations.