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.

Not Helping what?

Oct 9th, 2010 12:14 pm | By

I’m left with one question in particular about Chris Mooney’s position at the Secular Humanism bash yesterday. He kept saying various versions of ”you’re not helping!” That’s not helping; I still wonder how that’s helping; I can’t see how that’s helping.

Here’s my question.

Helping what? What are we supposed to be helping with? What is this giant X that Mooney is so familiar with but I am not, that we are all supposed to join hands and help with?

Sometimes it seems to be science education in the US; sometimes it seems to be some kind of peace treaty with science; sometimes it seems to have to do with climate change…but most of the time it’s not even as definite as that, it’s just Unity For Its Own Sake.

But why?

Why are we supposed to be totally united at all times? Why are we under such relentless pressure not to have opinions that the majority does not share? Why are we assumed to have some vast overarching Project that requires unity and will Not Be Helped if we refuse to be drafted into that unity?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know why Mooney’s reaction, when PZ calls Francis Collins a clown, is to cry out in agitation that that is Not Helping. Not Helping what? What is it that PZ is supposed to want to do that will be Not Helped if (say) Francis Collins becomes annoyed with PZ? Or is the idea that PZ’s calling Collins a clown will Not Help some larger project that we all want to Help because Collins will abandon or sabotage that project out of annoyance at PZ? If so, 1) what is that project? and 2) if it’s that large, why would Collins abandon or sabotage it out of annoyance at PZ?

Really – Mooney seems to have this very easily-triggered terror that a critical comment from one person about one other person will cause some terrible, general, societal harm. But is the structure really that fragile? Are cascades that easy to set off? PZ calls Collins a clown and, whammo, children flee biology class, and Congress passes laws making fuel economy a felony, and the glaciers melt and everybody dies.

I just don’t get what the mechanism is supposed to be, and I don’t get what One Thing we are all supposed to be doing or working for or supporting that will be in jeopardy if too many gnu atheists say boisterous things about people who see the trinity in a waterfall.

I’m not doing One Thing. (Yes I know it looks that way a lot of the time, but even there, it’s really a lot of things, and besides, it only looks that way.) I have a lot of projects. We all do. We can get together with people for one project and then separate for some other project. We don’t have to all agree about everything in order to work together for some particular project. We don’t want to know. We don’t issue criteria for working on Project Q; we just work on it.

So what exactly is it that we’re Not Helping?

Oh if only we could learn to doubt

Oct 8th, 2010 10:55 am | By

More dopy mindless generalization about “New Atheism” at Comment is Free Belief, this batch courtesy of Ed Halliwell.

Almost two weeks on from the After New Atheism event at the RSA and the trail seems to have gone cold. It sounded so promising – the setup from a humanist writer professing his boredom with the stagnancy of debate…And yet it didn’t quite happen. As Mark Vernon reported, the evening itself was a bit of a damp squib, and normal service has been resumed on comment threads, with Caspar Melville – the aforementioned humanist – understandably crying foul at the pummelling he received for daring to call for more listening and less braying.

Yes, but as we know, Caspar Melville did more than just cry foul; he also invited me to write a dissenting article in reply to his profession of boredom, and then didn’t wait for the next issue of the New Humanist but posted the article online. He’s far from firmly in the “Let’s everybody hate New Atheists” camp, in fact he’s not really in that camp at all.

Now for the mindless generalizations.

[A] way through has been hinted at, including at the event itself. Marilynne Robinson pointed to it when she said that “New Atheism doesn’t acknowledge the centrality of consciousness“…

Oh really? All of “New Atheism” doesn’t do that? Including Dan Dennett? Including Sam Harris? And of course all other vocal atheists? And Marilynne Robinson knows that how, exactly?

Whether it’s fixation on belief in God or fixation on the absence of evidence for God, whenever we project our crystallised concepts onto the world and call them real, we are falling into a kind of theism – creating gods out of our own ideas and making ourselves “right”. We all do it, of course, and it usually ends in the kind of unproductive fight that has characterised the New Atheist debate in recent years.

Whereas…what – the old theist non-debate is quite productive and sensible and good? It’s unproductive for atheists to tell theists “you don’t know what you claim to know” but it’s productive for theists to go on forever claiming to know what they don’t know? In short, why single out “the New Atheist debate” as an example of projecting crystallized concepts onto the world?

So wouldn’t it be more interesting to reframe all this as a psychological rather than scientific or religious inquiry and practise becoming familiar with how our minds work before we try to work out what, if anything, created them? There is a cost – we’d have to let go of being “right”, and instead embrace a deep kind of doubt, one that accepts that the conceptual and perceptual tools we use to explore the world are limited and may be faulty.

But what the fuck makes this beezer think explicit atheists don’t do that? What else is all this about? Atheists are the ones who know we don’t have a special magic faculty that feeds us reliable knowledge about supernatural beings, so what’s he telling us to embrace doubt for?

And by encouraging humility through recognition of our fallibility, we could perhaps move beyond the theism of New Atheism in a way that allows us to be a bit kinder to those with whom we disagree. How about it?

How about what? How about agreeing with the unexamined assumption that “New Atheism” is especially unkind to those it disagrees with? How about blaming explicit atheists for everything while letting theists off any possible hook? No thanks.

More on the Science-n-religion question

Oct 7th, 2010 11:29 am | By

Thomas Dixon commented on one of the recent posts on this issue, and I thought it only fair to make his comment more visible, since that post is now oldish, and I also hope he will comment further.

Dixon’s comment:

I’ve been dismayed by some of the misinformation going around in the wake of the recent BBC Four programme I presented and a related online article I wrote for the BBC News magazine. Just for the record, I am a historian, not a theologian (although my first degree was indeed in Theology and Religious Studies), and membership of ISSR is open to anyone who has made a scholarly study of relations between science and religion, as I have. As I explain in the Preface to my ‘Very Short Introduction’, my aim is to use the history and philosophy of science to shed light on this topic, and not to try to persuade anyone to become either religious or atheistic. My own approach is entirely agnostic.

I hope I didn’t give any misinformation; I don’t think I did. I quoted the OUP page that said Dixon is a Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London, which I assumed would imply that he’s a historian, not a theologian. I further quoted that page that said he is a member of ISSR, and I then went on to give further information about what ISSR is. I think ISSR is a bit of a stealth organization in the usual Templeton fashion, but that doesn’t mean that its members are necessarily tainted or to blame or anything like that – that’s part of the point of the stealth: people don’t always know what agendas may be in play. People may also be aware of the agenda and simply think it’s harmless, and/or an ordinary academic agenda like any other.

In case Thomas Dixon would like to comment again, here’s the question I would like to ask. I never thought the goal was to persuade anyone to become either religious or atheistic; I think Templeton’s goal is to persuade more or less everyone that there is no conflict between religion and science. Is your approach to that entirely agnostic?

Bonjour, canard

Oct 6th, 2010 11:04 am | By

It’s kind of the friendly people at the “Battle of Ideas” (some of whom are also the people at the Institute of Ideas, some of whom are also the people at Spiked, some of whom are also the people who used to be Living Marxism and the Revolutionary Communist Party) to offer up a neat example of the backlash against gnu atheism just when the New Humanist posts online the article I wrote for the next issue, on that very subject. Caspar Melville invited me to write it in reply to his article on the new atheism at Comment is Free. Honorable!

As for David Bowden of the Battle of Ideas…well, he’s all too typical of that backlash.

Claims of heresy, iconoclasm and blasphemy in days gone by have now given way to the language of offence, with both sides equally guilty. Everything from cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed to ice cream adverts depicting pregnant nuns get censored, often pre-emptively, for fear of offending religious groups; yet militant secularists call for the Pope to be refused entry to the country on the grounds he offends victims of child abuse, sexism and homophobia.

Bullshit. Secularists and others call for the pope not to be invited on a state visit on the grounds that he is a criminal for being one of the Vatican officials who protected child-raping priests from the police. Secularists and others strongly criticize the pope for his illiberal anti-egalitarian views and pronouncements on women and gays as well as for his lethal pronouncements on condom use and his church’s ruthlessly lethal policy on abortion (better a woman should die than that a fetus should be aborted). That goes way beyond being “offended,” and Bowden probably knows it. This “both sides equally guilty” crap is just formulaic and lazy.

In their perceived role as guardians of European secular liberalism against the growth of Muslim communities across Europe, it seems that many New Atheists are now compromising the very principles of religious tolerance fundamental [to] this tradition. Secularism should be about allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference.

Bullshit, again. Secularism should not be about “allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values” without any qualifications at all. If the “values” in question include child marriage, or no education for girls, or no medical treatment for illness or injury, or mass suicide, for example, communities should not be allowed to live by them, and adult individuals should not be allowed to impose them on their children.

However what we are now seeing is the bizarre rise of illiberal liberals, where so-called “liberals” assert their right to micro-manage every aspect of individuals’ lives, from the clothes and symbols people wear, to the talks they choose to attend.

No we’re not. We are now seeing lots of people, of different views and allegiances, confronting some of the difficulties of simply “allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference.” We see few if any liberals asserting their right to micro-manage every aspect of individuals’ lives. That’s a canard, and as such, it’s satisfyingly typical of the backlash.

Appropriate decorum

Oct 5th, 2010 12:11 pm | By

A guy called Erich Vieth did a useful interview with Paul Kurtz the other day. There are some odd things in it, which could shed some oblique light on the PK-CFI quarrel.

PK says he left voluntarily but under great duress, which is useful to know. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. Then they talk about why no explanation of his resignation appeared in Free Inquiry, and he said it was because it was censored. Vieth said isn’t that at odds with free inquiry?

PK: It is similar to thought police. Alas! They refused to publish three of my editorials, and they refused to publish my statement regarding my resignation. What a contradiction. Even though I am the founder of the organizations, their position essentially was that I had no right to publicly express my concerns about the direction of the organization or the new management practices adopted under the current leadership — both of which I have grave reservations about. I consider this as similar to a Board of Bishops seeking to control its Founder.

Look closely at that last sentence. Look at the capital F on Founder. He’s saying it’s like bishops trying to control Jesus, and he’s Jesus.

PK: I have been censored and members of the staff have been instructed not to reveal any information about CFI to me. Barry Karr said that since I resigned, I have no right to be made aware of internal matters within the organization. I asked, “What about my moral authority? I said, “This is similar to what happened to Galileo when placed under house arrest.”

Except for the part about being placed under house arrest, and the part about Galileo.

PK: I never intended for the organization to mock religion…

EV: Are you suggesting that it is improper for anyone to ridicule religion?

PK: No, others in society can and should do so, but not Free Inquiry and CFI. As I just pointed out, I have always considered these organizations to be important philosophic and scientific forums requiring appropriate decorum.

But Free Inquiry published the Motoons – it was the only magazine in the US that did. Jesus Galileo seems to be moving the goalposts here.

Don’t I feel special

Oct 4th, 2010 5:37 pm | By

I skimmed The Observer’s profile of Karen Armstrong yesterday, but I must have done a sloppy job of it, because I failed to notice something that if I’d really been properly skimming, would have jumped out at me. I never would have known about it if Nicholas Lawrence hadn’t told me.

But like Kissinger, Armstrong has enemies. Many devout Catholics quietly accuse her of treachery, while professional theologians despise her for emphasising the opposition between rationality and faith. Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom have accused her of being a religious apologist who covers up inconvenient texts to bolster the idea there is no conflict between modern morality and religion in matters, for instance, of gender and sexuality.

Well now I call that handsome! I should send Vanessa Thorpe a box of chocolates. Really – many devout Catholics, and professional theologians, and JS and me. Pretty select company, do admit. The sum total of Karen Armstrong’s enemies (by which is meant, people who think Karen Armstrong is wrong about some or many things), and I get to be in that august company. I even get to be named. I think that’s pretty exciting.

Mind you, she could have plugged the book while she was at it, but one can’t have everything.

More on CFI, with some actual information for a change

Oct 4th, 2010 10:32 am | By

I’ve said more than once that I don’t have a firm opinion about who is more right (or wrong) in the dispute between the Center for Inquiry and its founder and former director Paul Kurtz. I still don’t, but one thing I do think is that when the dispute gets into a major media outlet, the reporting is incomplete.

I have an opportunity to rectify that a little, because I saw something Barry Karr said on Facebook this morning that clarified or expanded a couple of points. I got his permission to quote him, and asked two questions of my own. Karr is the Chief Financial Officer of CFI and Executive Director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Here is the Facebook comment:

PK can be in the building M-F 9-5 anytime he wants and for any events. He is quite aware of this. In fact he was in here Friday afternoon, in his office, talking on the phone, chatting with employees, etc. He was in here Wednesday and Thursday as well. And this was AFTER his allegedly being barred from the buidling. He wasn’t, not true, and he knows it. I find it amazing actually that you think he should have unfettered access during weekend and non business hours. Regardless of what you think of his new organization, he is actively contacting CFI donors asking these people to give to his new organization. And he should have free reign of the building? Huh? that would be irresponsible of us to say the very least.

And here are my questions and Barry’s replies:

OB: Is CFI worried that PK’s solicitation of funding could be in competition with CFI’s?

BK: I think there is some concern. On one hand, if you are doing your job well, you count on the donors to want to support your efforts and activities. We have a great many projects and programs originating with the Center and we believe we are offering our donors many good reasons to continue to support these efforts. We feel our donors are aware of the good things we do and will want to continue to support us. On the other hand, given these difficult economic times, and the constant pressures from multiple sides, there is the possibility of donor fatigue from requests from an increasing number of worthy groups and foundations.

OB: Do you think the Times did an adequate job of seeking out all the relevant facts and of presenting them?

BK: I was a bit disappointed. I think the reporter should have taken the opportunity to talk to Ron about Kurtz’s comments regarding the Center allegedly changing the direction of its mission. It hasn’t. It also strikes me as a bit odd that the reporter could travel up here to visit Paul at his home, but was unable to find the time to visit the Center itself.


There. All fair points, I think, and points that the Times really should have been able to find for itself.

Update October 5: Ron Lindsay posted this comment at WEIT:

Let me comment briefly on the key issue. I must say I find it perplexing that some appear troubled that CFI management would not issue a key to Paul Kurtz after we decided to change the exterior locks. (The locks were not changed primarily because of Kurtz, but that’s another issue.)

Paul Kurtz resigned from all his positions with the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates in May, 2010. Since then he has launched a competing organization, solicited CFI donors, repeatedly sought access to confidential information by questioning our staff, and worked with others to denigrate CFI. Were I to allow unrestricted after-hours access to our facilities to such an individual, then the board of directors should terminate me for incompetence.

And it is worth emphasizing that unrestricted after-hours access is the only privilege that Kurtz does not now have. He can visit CFI’s facilities any time there is a staff person there with whom he wishes to talk. Not only that, CFI allows him to use his former office and his reserved parking spot—the only person to have such a parking spot.

Rather than wondering why CFI has not issued Kurtz a key, I think a more pertinent question is why Kurtz is so bothered that he can no longer be in the building when no staff member is present.

The New York Times could have done a better job of providing that view of the matter, I think.

Update 2: October 5: This is a comment on PK’s Facebook page, last Saturday, by Ed Beck.

Dr. Kurtz is allowed into the building during normal hours, just like anyone else. I, an intern there, let him in twice on Thursday, personally. If it’s what you’re referring to, he staged his photo-op during a return trip later in the day, before anyone knew he was at the door (he didn’t ring the buzzer that time). I opened it as soon as I saw him — although I quickly realized he was posing, not trying to enter.

The first comment on that thread (which is on the Times article, linked by Paul) is also quite…interesting.

Is-ought and all that

Oct 3rd, 2010 5:48 pm | By

Anthony Appiah says something in his review of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape that I don’t get – it looks wrong to me, but Appiah’s a philosopher and I’m not, so help me out here. Maybe he spoke in haste, or maybe a sub changed his wording, or maybe I’m just wrong.

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science…

I thought the point was that facts can’t, as a matter of logic, get you to values. That doesn’t make values not susceptible of rational investigation, surely. Does it? It makes them not straightforwardly susceptible of empirical falsification, perhaps, but there are other ways of rationally investigating things – aren’t there?

Answers on a postcard.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

Oct 3rd, 2010 11:22 am | By

To re-cap: we have The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, edited by Peter Harrison, director of  The Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford, a Templeton-funded outfit whose previous director won the Templeton Prize. Harrison says in his introduction that this Companion gives short shrift to the view that science and religion are in fact incompatible.

We also have a BBC article by Thomas Dixon saying, in a roundabout sort of way, that science and religion are compatible. Dixon wrote the Oxford University Press Science and Religion: a very short introduction. Under “About the author” on that page we learn that

Thomas Dixon is Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London. A member of the International Society for Science and Religion and an expert on modern intellectual history…

So, all agog, we look into what the International Society for Science and Religion might be – and we find out.

 the Society has now grown to over 140 members, including many of the leading scholars in the science and religion field. Indeed the last two presidents, George Ellis, a theoretical cosmologist and Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, and John Polkinghorne, are both recipients of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities – the world’s best-known religion prize, awarded each year to a living person to encourage and honour those who advance spiritual matters.

We find that it’s really about Religion and science, not Science and Religion; that it’s by and for and about theism and theists trying to connect their theism to science; that it’s nothing to do with scientists as scientists trying to connect to religion. We find that it’s what looks very much like a stealth Templeton outfit giving an appearance of an extra splash of prestige to authors who write books about Religion and science.

If we dig around a little more we find one of Templeton’s grants to the International Society for Science and Religion:

Through this project, the International Society for Science and Religion will select an essential reference library for the field of science and religion. Upon selecting some 250 books, a companion volume will be prepared with short summaries and critical evaluations of each book. The project will distribute approximately 150 sets of these books through a competitive program to establish new science and religion libraries throughout the world, particularly in India, China, and Eastern Europe.

Why – that sounds like missionary work, or like cold war propaganda, or both. It certainly sounds like yet another brick in the edifice of this new discipline “Science and Religion” which, thanks largely to Templeton, is eeling its way into major universities in the UK and the US.

Four or five degrees of separation

Oct 2nd, 2010 6:01 pm | By

I was at the bookstore browsing for nothing in particular, and I spotted The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion and took it down for a look. There were other Cambridge Companions listed in the front and back, and they were all religious – which is not surprising, since I now see on the CUP site that it is in the series Cambridge Companions to Religion. Not Cambridge Companions to Science, but Cambridge Companions to Religion. Not Cambridge Companions to both religion and science, but Cambridge Companions to Religion – despite the fact that Science gets top billing in the title.

Well that seems to confirm an impression I’m always getting from this Sci&Relig stuff, which is that it’s a religious endeavor, period. The outreach is all on one side. Science doesn’t have any interest in yoking the two, or in trying to create a discipline in which the two are yoked; but religion apparently has an enormous amount of interest in that. Religion, apparently, wants to try to siphon off some of the prestige of science for its own more dubious ventures, and this is one of the wheezes it is currently trying.

I read some of the introduction by the editor, Peter Harrison. In the last paragraph, he says something to the effect that: you may notice that none of the essays defend the idea that science and religion are in conflict; this is not because of any bias but because nobody who knows much about the subject thinks that that idea has any legs.

Uh. Sounds like any bias to me, I thought. So later, I did a little googling – I looked up Peter Harrison. I was wondering, among other things, if I would find any mention of the Templeton Foundation anywhere. Well I won’t keep you in suspense – I did.

Harrison is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College (which I have to admit is a college I’ve never heard of), and also connected in some way to something called “The Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford.” What the hell is that? you may wonder. It’s “part of the Theology Faculty in the University of Oxford. It has the special aim of promoting high quality teaching and research in the exciting field of science and religion.” Aaaaaaaaand

From 1995 to 2003 the Centre was a beneficiary of the John Templeton Foundation through a grant administered by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley.

And on this page we also find that Peter Harrison is the director of this Centre. A previous director, Dr Arthur Peacocke, won the Templeton Prize in 2001.

So Peter Harrison turns out to have a pretty close connection to Templeton.

By that I don’t mean that he’s a creation or a creature of Templeton – from his bio it’s clear that he’s been interested in religion and philosophy and/or science since he was a student. I just mean that Templeton money seems to have a good deal to do with his career, and that that fact is of interest. Templeton money is successfully promoting the idea of a connection between science and religion, so successfully that it has indirectly helped to produce a book as prestigious as a Cambridge Companion on its pet subject, that treats it in the approved way – a way that disparages the “conflict model” of the relationship between science and religion, and puts a high scholarly gloss on the contentious claim that that model is an old piece of crap.

Thought for the day

Oct 2nd, 2010 5:33 pm | By

From Joe Hoffmann’s Three fewer things to say about atheism:

Just as not all atheists are humanists (and vice versa), atheists will differ about the role of the arts, and they will usually do so by asking a “utility” question: what are the arts good for? Does painting get you to the moon? Does poetry or theater improve life-expectancy? The answer to both questions is that a basketball scholarship will get you into Purdue, but not into Phi Beta Kappa.


Who is making whose life more difficult?

Oct 2nd, 2010 12:44 pm | By

I have one or two more quibbles with Matthew Reisz’s diatribe about atheism and science.

The notion that religion is perniciously simple-minded and locked in an eternal fight with science has been powerfully argued by a number of atheist thinkers, many of them based in the academy, with the charge led by Richard Dawkins in his 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. But what counts as evidence for such a claim?

It’s not really reasonable to give a simplistic version of a “notion” that you claim has been argued by “a number” of people, “many” of whom are academics, and then demand what is the evidence for your own simplistic version of a putative notion that belongs to no one named or quoted or linked. That’s a gotcha rather than a question. In any case, the evidence that various clerics and other religious people have tried to interfere with science is not at all difficult to find; one could start by looking up stem-cell research, or the Texas school board.

Particularly in a society as religious as the US, scientists who are keen to reach out and share their work risk alienating their audience if they are openly contemptuous of religion.

If that’s true, it is some evidence that religion is “locked in an eternal fight with science.” Some scientists are openly contemptuous of religion because the “ways of knowing” of science are so different from those of religion and because scientists cannot count on being free from religious interference. If audiences blackmail scientists by threatening to flounce away in a huff any time scientists are not sufficiently deferential to religion, that is a kind of fight – the kind under discussion in this article, certainly. It is the kind of fight that two different ways of inquiring into the world have when they are incompatible. Historians would have the same fight if religionists were always trying to shut them up or re-write their books for them.

“There is no truth in the idea that being a scientist means being a crusader for atheism, and even many atheist and agnostic scientists are opposed to Richard Dawkins for making their life more difficult,” Giberson adds.

Maybe, but there again, this is a kind of blackmail, and also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Giberson spend a lot of his time writing about atheism and science in such a way as to make the lives of atheist scientists more difficult. He’s always picking fights with atheist scientists (one in particular), and telling them off for not agreeing with religious claims, so he can’t pretend it’s just Richard Dawkins who makes life more difficult for atheist scientists. The fact is, Giberson does that too, and he does it on purpose.

That seminar

Oct 1st, 2010 12:26 pm | By

The audio of the Humanisterna seminar in Stockholm has been posted. The first part is pretty cringe-worthy – I find that my way of playing for time is not a Caroline Kennedy level of “you know”s (though I do say it now and then), but the simpler expedient of repeating most of my words two or three times. That’s intelligent.

Well what the hell, you know? You have to figure out how the sentence is going to end and you need time to do that, so rather than just fall silent for a few seconds, obviously it’s much better to say this this this and then proceed. Right? Sure.

But I had just put in 19 hours of travel, after all; I was talking after having been up all night in an uncomfortable position in bad air watching a bad movie, so what can one expect? It gets better after the opening remarks, when Sara asks me questions. That’s Sara Larsson you hear (if you listen). She’s an editor at Fri Tanke and at Sans, the Humanisterna magazine. I’ve asked her to do a diary for B&W and she has said she will, when time allows.

 I haven’t listened to all of it yet – I don’t know if it includes the audience questions part. I hope so; they were lively questions, and interesting.

No barriers to entry

Oct 1st, 2010 11:39 am | By

So even the Times Higher thinks it has a duty to tell the world that there is no tension between science and religion, that they are perfectly harmonious and compatible, and that the only people who think otherwise are militant atheists. The Times Higher – which has some connection to higher education, and thus to intellectual development and the exercise of reason.

Matthew Reisz leans heavily on Karl Giberson for his “information” on this lack of tension. Giberson has co-written a book about six prominent atheist scientists: Dawkins, Gould, Sagan, Hawking, Weinberg, and Wilson. All of them have written something

 setting out their largely unflattering views on God and the godly.Given that they have thereby ventured well beyond their central areas of scholarly expertise, Giberson disputes the accuracy of many of their claims.

And in doing so, Giberson “ventures well beyond his central area of scholarly expertise” – but does Reisz bother to point that out? I leave it to your wisdom to determine.

But that’s bullshit anyway. We hear it seven million times a day, and it’s bullshit. God is a public subject; there are no barriers to entry; so there can’t be any barriers to non-entry either. That’s only fair, and reasonable. There are no credentials required to believe in god, so there should be no credentials required to disbelieve in god. God is like a public park, or like the ocean, or air: god is there for the taking. (Not “God” the person of course, but god the concept.) Public. If it’s public, it’s public. We get to talk about it just as much as believers do. If they get to say god hears their prayers and answers them either yes or no or I’ll think about it, then we get to say show us the postmark.

Taking the temperature

Sep 29th, 2010 12:19 pm | By

Ajita Kamal defends the role of passion in social movements, in the context of explaining why heat is not necessarily or entirely counterproductive for atheism.

There is a very important role that anger, ridicule and passion play in any social movement. While intellectual understanding is key to a movement that is well-grounded, it is the primary emotions that provide the impetus for social organization. Without this, atheism would simply remain an idea to be discussed in academia and in private settings.

I think that’s spot-on. It’s also true that there are obvious dangers – self-righteousness, verbal or literal violence, confirmation bias, groupthink, tribalism, all sorts. But…we need the movement, and we need the passion. We should relentlessly self-monitor for self-righteousness and the rest of it, but we shouldn’t cool down.

Give Fox News a great big hug

Sep 28th, 2010 11:46 am | By

Ajita Kamal of Nirmukta is thinking about many of the same issues we’ve been thinking about around here.

A common misconception is that freethought implies treating all ideas equally. This could not be farther from the truth. Freethinkers are extremely discriminatory of bad ideas, and adopt a refined reasoning process in judging factual claims.

Exactly, and this is why the idea that the Center for Inquiry (for example) is and should be in the business of promoting “diversity” is so silly. Free inquiry isn’t some default state that flourishes is left alone; it has to be protected and encouraged, because there are always lots of people who want to shut it down the better to promote their own conclusions.

Organized promotion of freethought is a political ideology, even if freethought itself is not. The process of building a culture of freethought involves first creating communities of freethinkers- people who can find and communicate with each other, while living amongst the masses of people who are not freethinkers. Once these communities begin to come together online (and off), much good can be accomplished through activism.

Yes; then again there is always the risk of groupthink and other-hatred; then again if you let that thought trump all efforts to do anything, well then you can’t do anything.

Most freethinkers are wary of all ideologies. These are not usually the ones that are politically motivated towards promoting freethought, although they do benefit from the efforts of those who are.

Ah-ha. That’s a very helpful way of putting it – and accurate, too. I’m torn in that way myself. In general I am wary of all ideologies, all groups, all “communities,” all promotion…but somehow the backlash against gnu atheism has made me become more ideological (if you want to call it that) or more “loyal” (if you want to call it that) or more obstinate and refusenik about this one thing. My feminism has always been like that too, I suppose – opponents tended to firm up my allegiance.

That’s one thing backlashes do, as I think I’ve mentioned a few times – they stiffen the resistance. (So does that mean we should smile benignly on the Tea Partiers and Glen Beck and Sarah Palin? Dear oh dear, what a quandary.) Offer a prayer of thanks for The Enemy.

Whose “squawk”?

Sep 28th, 2010 10:42 am | By

It’s strange to see The Chronicle of Higher Education giving Carlin Romano space to promote the Templeton Foundation.

The Templeton Foundation, which specializes in prodding believers and nonbelievers to discuss such things in civilized ways, has published all sorts of booklets, like “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?”…

That’s a very flattering way of describing what Templeton specializes in. To a less infatuated observer it looks more as if Templeton specializes in flattering its own self – as in the CHE blurb for Romano’s piece:

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave this summer as a Templeton-Cambridge Fellow in Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge.

 See? To anybody who isn’t familiar with Templeton and its “Fellowships” that last bit sounds very very very ultra academic-prestigious. It’s Cambridge. It’s Cambridge twice, which must be twice as good as being Cambridge once. Plus it’s something else that sounds very dignified and prestigious too and it’s just because I don’t keep up that I don’t really know what it is, but being hyphenated with Cambridge and having temple in its name it’s obviously way important and rigorous and up there.

That’s how that works. Templeton “specializes” in locating itself in places like Cambridge so that the unwary will think that it has something to do with the eponymous university, and in giving out things called “Fellowships” so that the unwary will think that Templeton itself is kind of academic.

Romano, meanwhile, specializes in pejorative language.*

Before one gets edgy over Hawking’s latest ex cathedra squawk…Wittgenstein’s and Toulmin’s Cambridge antidote to Hawking’s smugness about God…

Is this the “discuss[ing] things in civilized ways” Romano had in mind?

*So do I, you might point out. Yes, but I don’t do it in the CHE, or about cosmologists.

Remember the nerds of South Dakota

Sep 27th, 2010 3:29 pm | By

Since I wrote a tut-tutting post about Caspar Melville’s tut-tutting post about gnu atheism last week, in fairness I should add that he promptly asked me to write a piece responding to his for the New Humanist, which I have now done; it will be in the next issue. That’s a generous way with critics, do admit.

The truth is, I really don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being bored by gnu atheism. I’m very easily bored myself; I find a great many things irritating; I can certainly understand being fed up with something even if I agree with it. What makes a difference is the context. The context right now is an endless flood of commentary about how boring/irritating/wrong/evil gnu atheism is, coupled with the fact that atheists are perhaps the last minority (apart from criminals and such) that it is just fine to despise. Atheists are perhaps the last minority that it is fine to despise for no really justifiable reason.

I see a lot of bloggy woofing about gnu atheists “whining” about being “victims.” Aw diddums, is the implication. But that’s not it. I’m not “whining” about this because it makes me cry. I’m way too nerdy for that; I don’t care what the great majority thinks; I’d much rather put up fresh curtains in my bunker than try to join The Mainstream. But not everyone is like me. I’m just barely reflective enough to grasp that.

Not everyone is like me, and then, I’m not sure even I would be like me if my circumstances were totally different. It’s easy for me to be like me, in a big cosmopolitan coastal port city with a university and a huge population of nerds. It’s not so easy for people in (say) small towns in the Midwest with no visible nerds as far as the eye can see. I think the backlash against atheism matters for a lot of people, not just (if at all) for me. I’m not whining, I’m not playing martyr, I’m not demanding sympathy, I’m just straighforwardly saying that there is a huge amount of unreasonable and often downright vicious animosity toward atheism and atheists in the US and even in other more secular places, and that that animosity is a form of bigotry rather than a mere disagreement about truth claims, and thus it needs to be pointed out and disputed.

Ignore the logo, no matter how big it is

Sep 25th, 2010 6:07 pm | By

I saw John Shook’s Huffington Post article on “O lord how awful are the ways of thy gnu atheists” a few days ago, and even read a bit of it, but I got bored so I didn’t finish, or comment on it. But Jerry did a post on it today, and the response has been energetic. A good many gnu atheists are irritated at yet another bucketful of crap being thrown at them by another atheist.

In turn, Ron Lindsay is irritated that Jerry criticized the Center for Inquiry (where Shook works) because Shook wrote what he wrote.

Jerry Coyne: I am extremely disappointed that you would make such an unsupported and rash accusation against CFI. If you can point out one instance where either I or someone speaking for CFI in an official capacity has gone out of his/her way to criticize CFI’s “atheist supporters for stridency, hostility, and ignorance,” please do so. If you cannot, please withdraw the statement.

The trouble with that is that an onlooker would have no way of knowing that Shook was not speaking for CFI in an official capacity in the article, given that he was identified as “Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow, Center for Inquiry” at the top of the article. That looks to an impartial observer as if he is speaking in his official capacity.

The same applies to the CFI blog, even though Ron Lindsay and Michael De Dora both like to insist that blog posts must be seen as the author’s independent opinions, not anything to do with CFI.

But I think that’s an absurd expectation. Look at the CFI blog. Would anyone glance at that and think that the post that appeared below the banner at the top was nothing to do with CFI? Look at it! It’s not what you’d call inconspicuous.

It’s odd for CFI officials to try to disavow things that have their name on it in GREAT BIG LETTERS.

A little list

Sep 25th, 2010 11:51 am | By

A beautiful takedown of Ahmedinejad by Muhhamad Sahimi at Frontline. One ludicrous boast after another countered with a statement of the reality.

“Sakineh Mohammadi has not been condemned to death by stoning”:

This is while activists have already posted a copy of the judiciary verdict and punishment for her, and the judiciary chief of East Azerbaijan province, where Mohammadi is from, has stated repeatedly that she will be executed as soon as Sadegh Larijani gives the go-ahead.

Oh – er – ah – that’s a different Sakineh Mohammadi.

“No one has been imprisoned for taking part in demonstrations”:

This is while the Tehran police chief acknowledged last year that on the anniversary of the Revolution on February 12 alone, 20,000 people had been arrested.

Oh – er – ah – um – yes but not for taking part in demonstrations. They all littered.