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.

Defining ‘badness’

Jun 1st, 2010 11:58 am | By

Robert Lambert and Jonathan Githens-Mazer tell worried Guardian readers about “Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence” as if they’re roughly the same thing rather than being very different things. Dislike of a belief-system is a very different thing from violence against people.

[M]embers of the EDL are echoing sentiments about Muslims they have adopted from sections of the mainstream media and the BNP. It is no coincidence that Nick Griffin has been peddling exactly the same hatred towards Muslims for the last decade. Similarly, a cursory examination of the records of Islamophobia Watch over the last five years provides a sense of the extent of Islamophobia in the mainstream media.

Islamophobia Watch! As if that were a respectable and reliable source! Bob Pitt notoriously sees any kind of disagreement with or criticism of Islam or Islamism as hatred of Muslims, which he labels “Islamophobia” as if that word meant hatred of Muslims, thus helping the MCB and the other “leaders of the Muslim community” to treat Islam and Muslims as interchangeable – yet here are two academics citing Pitt’s vicious blog as if it were an impartial record.

[W]e find a long list of politicians who have sought to define and embrace “good Muslims” while attacking “bad Muslims”. If these “bad Muslims” were limited to the al-Qaida inspired terrorists who bombed London on 7/7 and the extremist members of al-Muhajiroun it might at least be an accurate categorisation. Instead, the concept of “bad Muslim” has come to demonise thousands of ordinary Muslims who do not wish to compromise their religious or political principles.

In other words, the only “badness” is bombing; anything short of bombing is not badness, it is “ordinary Muslims” (which should be understood to mean Muslim men, but of course they don’t say that) not wanting to compromise their religious or political principles. Not wanting to compromise their religious or political principles, of course, means not wanting to stop taking their daughters out of school and forcing them to marry older cousins; it means wanting to go on forcing women to wear hijab, to kill them if they go out with the “wrong” man or get a job or go to university or otherwise act like independent human beings. That kind of thing, because it is not bombing, must not be called badness, and Muslims (Muslim men) who go in for it must not be considered “bad.”

In other words Lambert and Githens-Mazer are perfectly happy for Muslim women to have no rights, and they dress this up as generous protectiveness toward “Muslims.”

We’ve encountered them before. Lambert is a former cop; he headed the Muslim Contact Unit in the Metropolitan Police; he did lots of reaching out to “the leaders” of “the Muslim community” via the MCB and similar all-male Islamist organizations. Then he went off to get a PhD.

I did a comment on their post:

It sounds grand and brave to talk of not wishing “to compromise their religious or political principles,” but in reality not all religious or political principles are good or desirable or fair to others. Some religious or political principles stink. Fascist principles stink, and so do Islamist principles.

This sly evasive paltering with words is contemptible. Lambert and Githens-Mazer should at least have the decency to spell out what it is they’re defending. They cite, of all things, IslamophobiaWatch as evidence of hatred of Muslims; IslamophobiaWatch notoriously treats all criticism of Islam as “Islamophobia” as if there simply cannot be such a thing as reasoned criticism of Islam.

Bad Guardian. Bad newspaper. No cookie.

Checking the compass

Jun 1st, 2010 10:52 am | By

Thomas Jones says in the Telegraph (reviewing Hitchens’s memoir):

The drift from left to right is hardly unusual, and the causes for his disillusionment with socialism and attraction to liberalism – the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, visits to Cuba and Poland under Communism, the pleasures and freedoms of life in the United States – are made plain enough.

I’m not sure that really is a move (or drift) from left to right. That would make displeasure and unfreedom left, and I don’t think that’s accurate. I know, the idea is more that some coercion is worth the price for the sake of more pleasure and freedom (or more something) for everyone, and that does describe part of the left. But still – the right is the party of tradition, and authority, and custom, and religion, and monarchy, and hierarchy. Let’s not forget that. The right is not necessarily or always the party of freedom. In some ways, and not trivial or obscure ones, liberalism is to the left of coercive brands of socialism. Let’s not be “framing” liberalism as right-wing or support for liberalism a move to the right.

“Good job, mullah sir”

May 31st, 2010 12:08 pm | By

[T]he girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

But a cop spotted them, and far from protecting them, he sent them back home. “There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.” Or rather their “husbands” who were more like rapist slaveowners than anything we in the less thuggish part of the world would consider “husbands.”

Forced into a so-called marriage exchange, where each girl was given to an elderly man in the other’s family, Khadija and Basgol later complained that their husbands beat them when they tried to resist [being raped]…

In the video, the mullah, under Mr. Khan’s approving eye, administers the punishment with a leather strap, which he appears to wield with as much force as possible, striking each girl in turn on her legs and buttocks with a loud crack each time. Their heavy red winter chadors are pulled over their heads so only their skirts protect them from the blows.

The spectators are mostly armed men wearing camouflage uniforms, and at least three of them openly videotape the floggings. No women are present.

The mullah, whose name is not known, strikes the girls so hard that at one point he appears to have hurt his wrist and hands the strap to another man.

That’s how it always is with these things – a whole crowd of grown men, many of them heavily armed, combining forces to hit women or even young girls as hard as they possibly can. Bullying at its purest and its starkest freedom from shame. The girls are treated like objects that exist to squeeze penises, and if the objects decline to squeeze their alloted penises, they are treated as sentient for just long enough to be flogged with leather straps.

On Saturday, at the Women for Afghan Women shelter, at a secret location in Kabul, there were four fugitive child brides. All had been beaten, and most wept as they recounted their experiences.

Yes I daresay they did.

Fresh deep boundaries

May 31st, 2010 11:02 am | By

Andrew Brown spots another opportunity to piss on “the new atheism” and pounces on it with his usual cheerful malice.

…the new atheism, with its constant use of “religion” as a term which means something (nasty) is an attempt at social construction. In particular it’s an attempt to make fresh deep boundaries between ingroup and outgroup.

Yes, in some senses, and partly. But one could say the same thing about the civil rights movement; about science; about feminism; about scholarship; about liberalism; about conservatism; about any human endeavor with actual specific articulated ideas or truth-claims. And it might and should occur to Brown that religion too is very often an attempt to make fresh deep boundaries between ingroup and outgroup, but for worse reasons and with less warrant. But Brown is much too hostile to atheism to give that sort of thought any space in his head.

Why even bother to ask

May 31st, 2010 9:01 am | By

Of course. I posted a link to that interview with David Sloan Wilson and wondered if he gets Templeton money, so googled his name and Templeton. Well of course he does. Silly question. Barrels of it, apparently – Google turns up a whole raft of items.

A tinkling cymbal

May 30th, 2010 8:28 am | By

Is your stomach strong enough for more vulgar malice and abuse from that impressive Anglican priest George Pitcher?

He starts with mere stupidity, attributing every good thing in the world apart from coffee and the internet to theology. Yes really: theology. Theology did democracy, the abolition of slavery, education, the family, marriage, our judicial system – everything. Then he goes on to rail at Terry Sanderson, but, quickly bored with that, he returns to his real voodoo doll: Evan Harris.

The NSS (in which, never let it be forgotten, ousted Lib Dem MP Evan Harris is a leading light) likes to go on about opposing religious privilege, freedom for non-believers (as if they haven’t got it) and tolerance. But note that if the likes of Mr Sanderson ever came to power (and the likes of Mr Sanderson include the wall-eyed Harris, who might have a seat in government now if he hadn’t lost his seat – so who says there isn’t a God?) they would withdraw all funding from the teaching of theology, whence all education derives, in favour of what he and his friends have unilaterally decided is “real education”. That is extremist policy that has more in common with totalitarian regimes than with our parliamentary democracy.

Completely random arbitrary abuse of Evan Harris coupled with the imbecilic claim that all education derives from theology; modern Anglicanism at its finest.

Another embattled religious “freedom”

May 29th, 2010 12:07 pm | By

And speaking of tensions between religious freedom and other rights – Helen Ukpabio is another who is attempting to use the law to make her “religious rights” trump other rights.

Since “Saving Africa’s Witch Children” was first shown in Britain, in 2008, Mr. Itauma’s home state has adopted a law against accusing children of witchcraft. But Ms. Ukpabio went on the offensive by suing the state government, Mr. Foxcroft, Mr. Itauma and Leo Igwe, a Nigerian antisuperstition activist.

In the lawsuit, Ms. Ukpabio alleges that the state law infringes on her freedom of religion. She seeks 2 billion naira (about $13 million) in damages, as well as “an order of perpetual injunction restraining the respondents” from interfering with or otherwise denouncing her church’s “right to practice their religion and the Christian religious belief in the existence of God, Jesus Christ, Satan, sin, witchcraft, heaven and hellfire.”

In other words, in the name of religious freedom, Ms. Ukpabio seeks a gag order on anyone who disagrees with her.

Anyone who disagrees with her and who wants to protect children from accusations of “witchcraft” and the resulting abandonment and/or torture and possibly death. She wants the “freedom” to tell people that some children are witches and that she can detect them.

Ukpabio’s critics say her teachings have contributed to the torture or abandonment of thousands of Nigerian children — including infants and toddlers — suspected of being witches and warlocks. Her culpability is a central contention of “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” a documentary that will make its American debut Wednesday on HBO2.

Those disturbed by the needless immiseration of innocent children should beware. “Saving Africa’s Witch Children” follows Gary Foxcroft, founder of the charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, as he travels the rural state of Akwa Ibom, rescuing children abused during horrific “exorcisms” — splashed with acid, buried alive, dipped in fire — or abandoned roadside, cast out of their villages because some itinerant preacher called them possessed.

A freedom too far.

A shabby pretext

May 29th, 2010 11:23 am | By

Inayat Bunglawala is pondering (in a rather inconclusive and unproductive way, which I suppose in his case is probably just as well) the tensions between religious freedom and other kinds of freedom, religious rights and other kinds of rights. One thing he mentions needs more second-guessing than it usually gets.

Professor Roger Trigg kicked off last night’s discussion by pointing out that Article 9 of the European convention on human rights guarantees that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to … manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” However, Professor Trigg argued that, in reality, a number of recent cases showed that this religious freedom was being trumped by other human rights.

He cited the case of a registrar in the London borough of Islington who had objections to conducting civil partnership ceremonies. The registrar happened to be a Christian and “could not reconcile her faith with taking an active part in enabling same sex unions to be formed”. This was a case where the freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs in practice appeared to come into direct conflict with the right not to be discriminated against due to one’s sexual orientation.

Here’s what I think needs closer examination: in what sense is it really part of the registrar’s religious beliefs that gay people shouldn’t get married?

Is that something Jesus is quoted as saying? Is it a central Christian belief? Is it a religious belief at all?

Not that I know of. As far as I know, it’s just a traditional entrenched customary belief – a “Yuk” belief, to borrow from Leon Kass and Jonathan Haidt. It doesn’t really have any strictly religious content. Yet it gets called a religious belief. Why? Partly to make it seem more respectable, and partly precisely to take advantage of the rights that Bunglawala mentions. A mere stupid bit of bigoted dislike doesn’t deserve or get the dignity of a right, but if you say it’s a religious belief – oh well that’s different. Only it isn’t. But a lot of people say it is. It’s mostly a con, and should be treated as such.

An exciting breakthrough

May 28th, 2010 3:51 pm | By

Okay this is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in awhile. On Facebook at least. Salman Rushdie learned from a Facebook friend how to find various “interesting characters” to “add to one’s ✍ writing.” So now he gets to spark up his famously dull prose with little pointing hands ☛, umbrellas ☂, telephones, and other tiny symbols. One wag remarked

oooh! can’t wait for
☀☃✗✈✖☺☆by Salman Rushdie – Published by Random House


In philosophy ‘certainty’ has a specific meaning

May 28th, 2010 12:17 pm | By

Jim at Apple Eaters sees Pessin’s ‘paradox’ the way I do.

Man, there is so much sloppiness here that I want to bite something. First, in philosophy “certainty” has a specific meaning, and it means that there is no doubt. If that’s not what Pessin has in mind, he should define the term. The point there is that, even if I recognize that I am fallible and capable of mistakes, I likely am not certain that I have made some mistake in my reasoning. Were that the case, I would be going over that reasoning carefully to find the error. Rather, I just see that it is possible that I made a mistake, but that is nothing like having certainty about it.

Just what I say. If he doesn’t really mean ‘certain’ then he should say so – he shouldn’t pretend he means ‘certain’ in order to pretend there’s a paradox but then treat the certainty as actually just a possibility. That’s [Jon Stewartian high-pitched squeal] cheating.

Accepting contradictions is not a way to accomplish anything except confusion. Being sloppy in your definitions only spreads confusion. Confusion is not peace. In fact, confusion is often the origin of conflict. Pessin is the kind of philosopher who gives the rest of us a bad name.

Just what I say.

C and not-C

May 27th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

And then there is this fella Andrew Pessin, who says you can be certain and also uncertain and that way all shall win, all shall have prizes. You do it using the Paradox of the Preface.

Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:

I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.

I could buy that if he had made it “I am sure, of each and every sentence” and so on. I could buy it if he had made it I am convinced, or I strongly believe, or I really really think. But by making it “I am certain” he turns the whole thing into gibberish. If you are already quite certain that you have made a mistake somewhere, then you can’t also be certain that you haven’t – you can’t be certain that every sentence is true.

Maybe he meant a kind of colloquial version of ‘certain’ which is like the colloquial version of ‘literal’ in that it doesn’t mean what the word means. I have noticed that a lot of people use the word to refer to claims that they can’t possibly be certain of, and wondered if they actually think it is an exact synonym of ‘sure’ or ‘convinced.’ But if he did…that’s kind of stupid, frankly, since the whole piece depends on that word, and he used it sloppily. You can’t be certain that you have made no mistakes and at the same time certain that you have made a mistake.
Anyway, I avoid this kind of tangle by simply never being certain or even sure that I have made no mistakes.

The usual stupid way of time and the masses

May 27th, 2010 5:11 pm | By

And while I’m at it, allow me to pause over Grayling’s comment, too.

An equally bad thing about the Dalai Lama’s article is that he calls Buddhism a religion‚ and indeed in the superstitious demon-ridden polytheistic Tibetan version of it that he leads, that is what it is. But original Buddhism is a philosophy, without gods or supernatural beings—all such explicitly rejected by Siddhartha Gautama in offering a quietist ethical teaching; but he has of course been subjected to the Brian’s Sandal phenomenon in the usual stupid way of time and the masses.

Sad, isn’t it. Time and the masses can’t leave a very good and interesting ethical teaching alone, no, they have to stuff superstition and demons into it, to make it more exciting and colorful and photogenic and thrilling. They have to sex it up, in short. But wouldn’t it be nice if time and the masses could learn to sex things up in other, better ways – with sex, perhaps, or lashings of bright color and embroidery and tinkling bells, or food, or music. Demons are fine for stories, but you don’t want to go taking them seriously.

Secrets of the Dalai Lama

May 27th, 2010 4:57 pm | By

Here’s a useful item lifted from a comment on Jerry Coyne’s post on Anthony Grayling on the Dalai Lama. The comment is by Michael Kingsford Gray, who has been making sweeping and wrong generalizations about philosophers at Jerry’s, but all due credit to him for the useful item:

1) Who told a press conference in 1997 that men to men sex and woman to woman sex is sexual misconduct?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

2) Who told a Swiss magazine in 2001, that sexual organs were created for the reproduction of the male element and the female element, and anything that deviates from this is not acceptable?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

3) An anti-abortion lobby group called “Consistent life” was given a huge boost after on of the world’s most prominent religious leaders offered his endorsement?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

4) Who published a collection of religious teachings declaring that masturbation is forbidden?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

5) Who declared that oral sex is not acceptable, even between a husband and wife?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

6) Who published a collection of religious teachings in 1996 declaring that anal sex is not acceptable, even between a husband and wife?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

7) Who said that having sex during the day is sexual misconduct?
The Pope, or the Dalai Lama?

Of course, every single answer is: The Dalai Lama.
That usually throw these happy-go-lucky Buddhist wanna be for a six!
(Especially the ban on daytime sex.
The Pope is far more liberal on many of these issues)

1. San Francisco Chronicle, 11 June 1997
2. Dimanche magazine, Jan 2001
3. Reuters, 22 Jan 2001
4, 5, 6 & 7. “Beyond Dogma (The challenge of the modern world)” by the Dalai Lama (1996)**


May 26th, 2010 11:55 am | By

For the record – the (critical but reasonable) comment I tried to post on Chris Mooney’s post on science and communication yesterday has now been deleted. Yesterday it was showing up (for me only) as being held in moderation, and today it’s gone.

It is possible of course to think that no matter how reasonable one particular comment may be, the person behind it is not. Mooney doesn’t delete all dissent on his posts, so clearly he does think something along those lines – that I am myself inherently unreasonable and unallowable, even if I do manage to fake up a reasonably mild comment at some particular moment.

I think he’s wrong. I can easily see why he would resent my criticisms, but the fact remains, I think he’s wrong. I think I’m not so unreasonable as all that. I think I’m a more honest and forthright disputant than he is.

Hau tu komyewnikate

May 25th, 2010 4:40 pm | By

Chris Mooney has explained about the need for science communication, or as he calls it, Sci Comm Training.

Science needs both to create new knowledge and also to disseminate it effectively so that that knowledge has an impact–so that it changes the world in a positive way. Why on earth would these two important ends be set in opposition to each other?

Yes of course it does, but disseminating knowledge is not necessarily the same thing as “framing,” nor does it necessarily need to know about “framing.” Framing is more closely related to public relations and political campaigning than it is to education, and that’s one major reason scientists and fans of science don’t all think Mooney is the ideal person to give “boot camps” in how to disseminate scientific knowledge.

I said something like that, and a bit more, in a comment that I tried to make at The Intersection, thinking perhaps after all this time the ban on me had expired, or rusted, or been lifted. I thought I would see, at any rate. But my comment has not been posted, so clearly the ban is still fresh and vigorous. So I’ll drop it off here.

The problem continues in this post – the “communication” here includes misdescribing at least some of the disagreements around all this.

I, for one, have nothing against “science communication” as such. I do however have doubts that you are the right person to teach science communication, Chris, for the simple reason that you’re not very good at it yourself. That’s not meant as an insult – it’s not a crime not to be good at a particular thing.

One part of being good at communication is surely an ability to predict the effect of your communications on your audience. You don’t seem to have that: you were surprised by the reactions to your “civility” post a year ago. You were surprised by my reaction, for instance – you may remember we had a (reasonably friendly) email exchange about it. It’s odd that you were surprised, and the fact that you were surprised hints to me that you don’t have full control of your communications – you don’t entirely know what you’re doing. This would seem to be a disqualifier for teaching the subject.

You don’t seem to be able to grasp why the concept of “framing” is not welcomed with cries of delight by people whose vocation it is to try to get at the truth. That to me seems to be another disqualifier for teaching communications. Your overall refusal to engage with critics seems like another.

Even the Dalai Lama kicks at atheists

May 25th, 2010 4:27 pm | By

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, says tolerance is good and religions are good. Unfortunately, as G Felis pointed out, he says more than that.

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

No we don’t. We may offer generalized criticism of religious belief as such, but that’s not the same as issuing “blanket condemnations” of all believers themselves. The DL did a blanket condemnation of us.

New sandbox rules

May 24th, 2010 12:32 pm | By

Karl Giberson explains about political science in the US and what it means for how we have to behave:

America has a complex and enduring commitment to pluralism. We want people to be free to act — and believe — as they please. But we must all play in the same sandbox, so we are attentive to the idiosyncrasies of our playmates, especially when they don’t make sense to us.

By “attentive” it turns out he means we don’t disagree with them, and by “idiosyncrasies” it turns out he means beliefs, no matter how unreasonable and arbitrary and evidence-free. So we must all play in the same sandbox, meaning, apparently, that we must all spend our lives three inches from all 300 million of the rest of us, and therefore we must never disagree with any of the beliefs of any of the 300 million.

What a happy and fulfilling life that sounds like! In airless proximity to 300 million people and forbidden to dispute any of their beliefs no matter how demented those beliefs may be. If that’s what pluralism means, I’d better start packing for Antarctica, where there’s a little room to breathe.

Giberson goes on to explain that “informed religious belief can accommodate modern science” and that things are looking good in that department, then he goes on from there to explain that the only problem is, “New Atheists.” Then he goes on to spend the vast bulk of the piece saying what’s so awful about “New Atheists” – thus violating his own rule about how to play in the sandbox, I would have thought, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

Dennet’s brother-in-arms, atheist Jerry Coyne, raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and me over the coals in The New Republic for our claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science.

Enough with the jokes; now I’m serious. That’s a really offensive claim. Not offensive in the frivolous sense the word is so often used to convey, but genuinely offensive, because it is untrue. Coyne doesn’t rake Miller and Giberson over any coals; he says good things about both of them in that long review in The New Republic; he also disagrees with much of what they claim in their respective books. He does it honestly, and carefully, and with detailed argument. That is not the same thing as raking people over the coals! It is offensive for Karl Giberson to make that accusation in a large-circulation national newspaper. Yet here he is telling other people how to play nicely. It’s so typical – say things about atheists that are not true, in the very act of telling atheists to be Nicer.

For the sake of argument, let us set aside questions about the truth of religion vs. the truth of science. Suppose there is no such thing as religious truth, as Richard Dawkins argued in The God Delusion. Allow that the “New Atheist Noise Machine,” as American University communications professor Matt Nisbet calls it, has a privileged grasp of the truth. Even with these concessions, it still appears that the New Atheists are behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies.

Does it? Or does it just appear that they are describing reality as they see it, and disputing other descriptions of reality that seem to them to be wrong. That’s how it appears to me. It also appears to me that Karl Giberson is confusing “saying something I don’t like” with “behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies” – while doing some genuine bullying himself.

There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished, beliefs just because they don’t comport with science.

But nobody is “demanding” that – because nobody is in a position to demand that. People are pointing out incompatibilities, in public discussions. It seems to me there is “something profoundly un-American” about treating that as impermissible.

I had thought Giberson was a mistaken but decent guy (I got that impression from Coyne’s review, ironically enough), but now I know better.

Those who can’t, give a “boot camp”

May 23rd, 2010 5:39 pm | By

Hmm. I see where Chris Mooney says he is

giving a four hour “boot camp” on science communication to a group of graduate students and other interested parties. The session begins with an overview of the “theory” of science communication–why we must do it better, what the obstacles are, and how a changing media environment makes it much tougher…Then, the session goes into a media “how to”–rules for interacting with journalists, media do’s and don’ts, and an overview of various key communication “technologies,” such as framing.

Interesting, but one question that occurs to me right away is what makes anyone (including Mooney) think Mooney is the right person to teach anyone how to communicate? He’s strikingly bad at it himself. Really he is. Yes I know I’m not an impartial observer, but all the same – he is.

He could so easily have done a better job of “communicating” and “framing” last summer – he could have answered questions instead of ignoring them, he could have taken critics seriously instead of repeatedly trashing them, he could have admitted it when he absorbed other people’s arguments and began regurgitating them, he could have dropped the petulant whining about bloggers he dislikes in the national media. He could have said basically the same things (minus the trashing and whining) but done a better job of it – a less alienating job of it – a less piss everybody off job of it. But he didn’t. He just kept pouring more gasoline on the fire, instead. So in what sense is he an expert on “communication”? In what sense is he even good at it?

He does please the Templeton Foundation, of course, but then the Templeton Foundation is not what you’d call hard to please. They’ll lavish money on anybody who shouts that science and religion are best friends.

Update: link fixed! Sorry – was late in the day when I did this yesterday.

Update 2: Abbie has a very funny post on the subject, with a lot of very funny comments (which eventually become all-Pluto all the time, at which point I recommend ceasing to read).

Timeless twoofs

May 23rd, 2010 12:53 pm | By

Jerry Coyne points out this here Clergy Letter Project. It’s a thing where a bunch of clergy sign a letter saying science and religion can be compatible. Very useful in its way, no doubt, but it says some dubious things on the way there.

Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation.

Oh really? What “timeless truths” does the beloved story about Noah and the ark convey? That there is a god watching human antics as if we were a bad movie? That we are so bad and disgusting that this god may decide to delete us all and start over, deleting all the other animals at the same time? And that then god will decide there is one righteous fella and decide to preserve him and his kids and a pair of each animal, and start over from them? What timeless truths does all that convey? That humans are horrible? That god is incompetent? That humans are horrible except for one righteous guy? Are those timeless truths? Are they truths at all? And is that story such a great way to convey them? Better than the Odyssey for instance? And as for Adam and Eve – we know what that teaches: that women are sly stupid disobedient bitches who ruin everything and drag men down with them.

And how can the bible or any other book convey any kind of truths about “the proper relationship between Creator and creation” when there is no “Creator” to have a proper relationship with? In other words that whole idea just begs the very question that is at issue, the compatibility of science and religion. The reason the two are not compatible is that science doesn’t assume the existence of a magical evidence-free “Creator” while religion does, so if you try to explain that the two are compatible by burbling about “timeless truths” about “the proper relationship between Creator and creation” then you’re arguing in a circle.

Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

By starting from the assumption that there is a “Creator” and a “proper relationship” we should be having with it, which is a pair of claims about the real world that we live in, so it’s not as separate from science as the project wants to claim. Typical.

Lunchtime O’Jokes

May 22nd, 2010 12:29 pm | By

Decca Aitkenhead’s article on Hitchens is very snide, but one suspects there is a good deal of truth in it. In particular I can’t help being amused by her portrayal of his sense of humor.

The march of time certainly hasn’t altered one thing about Hitchens, which is, alas, his unaccountable pleasure in word games of the most puerile variety. Page after page is devoted to the infinite hilarity derived by Amis, Rushdie, McEwan and Hitchens from substituting in the titles of well-known books, films and songs the word “dick” for “heart”, or “fuck” for “love”, or “cunt” for “man”.

“Oh, I know,” he chortles, when I bring this up. “Shameful.” He surely can’t still find these jokes funny, can he? “Oh yeah, I do. I sometimes wake up laughing at them. Yup. Never get bored of it.” And this from a man who once wrote that women weren’t funny.

Now, I can imagine a few of those being funny (except for the cunt part, but we’ve already found out that the word has a somewhat modified meaning in British English), but an infinite stream of them? Not so much. Endless repetition really isn’t all that funny, yet I do know some people who really think it is, and tirelessly engage in it. They’re all men. And they are all peculiarly (indeed, conceitedly) blind to humor in women. One shouldn’t generalize from one’s own narrow experience, but all the same, I find Aikenhead’s weary incredulity quite funny. I too have spotted what looks like a correlation between unfunny jokes in the self and inability to recognize funny jokes in the other – something that is more than just ‘I am funny and you are not’; it’s a peculiar kind of humor coupled with a peculiar kind of tin ear.

Still. To be fair, it’s hard to believe that that really applies to any of the males Aikenhead mentions, since they can be genuinely funny as well as boringly pseudofunny.

Still again…there is that pub joke of Hitchens’s…

Why does he say to the barmaid, “Put a Xerox in that” when he wants another drink? He’s meant to be an international sophisticate, not a home counties golf club bore.

“I think it’s rather ingenious.” He beams. “You don’t want to say, ‘Same again’, like everyone else. It works like a sonnet. It gets them every time.”