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.

Seems, madam? Nay it is; I know not seems

Feb 13th, 2011 4:56 pm | By

Russell says Aikin and Talisse have portrayed themselves as accommodationists when they seem in fact not to be accommodationists. I thought I would corroborate that – they’re not accommodationists. They say so in their book.

[W]e do not consider ourselves to be accommodationists. We think that the religious believer’s core commitments are simply false; we also hold that adopting religious beliefs often has bad moral consequences. We stand, really, in firm opposition to religious belief and to the very idea of a supreme deity. As subsequent chapters will make clear, we are not just atheists (people who reject religious belief), but antitheists (people who think that religious belief is morally bad. [p 92]

There you go. You’ll never find an accommodationist saying that. That’s exactly the kind of thing an accommodationist won’t say, for fear that all believers will promptly enlist in the Tea Party in response.

They have “accommodationism” a bit wrong, in my view, but that doesn’t make any difference to the above avowal. They’re not apologizers; they’re not royalists; they’re not embarking on a campaign to go “tut tut tut tut tut” at atheists who think religious belief is morally bad.

They get how the bullying is done, too, which also makes them very different from accommodationists and royalists.

…the popular discussion about atheism is nearly exclusively fixed on the demeanor of the atheist. And the presumption is that openly rejecting religious belief is itself an uncivil act, and thus to be avoided. [p 70]

Not spoken like an accommodationist; do admit.

The 3Q article is really a bit misleading.

Good evening.

An accommodation with political Islam?

Feb 13th, 2011 12:29 pm | By

What does Anthony Shadid mean?

There is a fear in the West, one rarely echoed here, that Egypt’s revolution could go the way of Iran’s, when radical Islamists ultimately commandeered a movement that began with a far broader base. But the two are very different countries. In Egypt, the uprising offers the possibility of an accommodation with political Islam rare in the Arab world — that without the repression that accompanied Mr. Mubarak’s rule, Islam could present itself in a more moderate guise.

What does he mean “an accommodation with political Islam”? And why does he couple that with the different subject of a potentially moderate Islam?

Political Islam means theocracy. It means government by Islam and according to sharia; it means religion and state are one and the same. A potentially moderate Islam means just that – in this context it means that most Muslims in Egypt could adhere to a moderate version of Islam. The two things don’t go together. Theocracy can’t be “moderate”; political Islam can’t be moderate. You can have more and less vicious political Islam, but you can’t have moderate political Islam any more than you can have moderate political Catholicism or Southern Baptistism.

The Arab world has a spectrum of Islamic movements, as broad as the states that have repressed them, from the most violent in Al Qaeda to the most mainstream in Turkey. Though cast for years as an insurgent threat by Mr. Mubarak, the Brotherhood in Egypt has long disavowed its violent past, and now has a chance to present itself as something more than a force for opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarianism.

But Islamic movements are Islamist movements, and they shouldn’t be prettied up by being called “mainstream.” There is more to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood than what Shadid seems to mean by “its violent past.” (There’s the “Brotherhood” aspect just for a start. To belabor the obvious: it excludes women.)

“The people are aware this time,” said Essam Salem, a 50-year-old resident there. “They’re not going to let them seize power. People aren’t going to be deceived again. This is a popular revolution, a revolution of the youth, not an Islamic revolution.”

That’s the first hopeful note in the article. I hope it’s true, and in fact it seems highly plausible; it’s not as if the nature of Iran is a secret, nor is the fact that Iran is packed with people who would rebel if they could but prefer not to be thrown into Evin and then hanged.

While [the MB] remains deeply conservative, it engages less in sometimes frivolous debates over the veil or education and more in demands articulated by the broader society: corruption, joblessness, political freedom and human rights abuses.

Yes but that could be a smokescreen. It could be a Trojan horse. Try not to be totally naïve.

We do not evaluate, we demonstrate the diversity

Feb 12th, 2011 3:58 pm | By

The whufflings of the science museum are still sticking in my craw, making me irritable and restless and apt to shy at sudden noises. There’s just something about them…

The fifth floor gallery, you should understand, is divided into 3, like ancient Gaul.

2 large areas called Modern Medicine and Before Modern Medicine and a smaller area called Living Medical Traditions which was updated in 2006. Within this section there is a small area devoted to ‘Personal Stories’ which show how people choose to use medical treatments from different traditions.

That’s where the whuffling begins, you see. Another term for whuffling would be PR-speak. Spot the PR-speak. It is in “how people choose to use medical treatments” and it is in “medical treatments from different traditions.” The cry of the bullshitter echoes across the plain.

You see, “Susannah” (for it is she) is nudging us into having the right attitude to all this. People choose to use bogus medical treatments so how dare we elitist westerners with our fancy westerner cars and our fancy westerner yachts try to tell people what kind of medical treatments they should be forced at gunpoint to use. They choose it, themselves, in their authentic nonwesterner way, and that is rather beautiful, so who are you. The medical treatments they choose to use are from different traditions, just like totems and song lines and the most beautiful baskets you ever saw, so how dare we scientistic westerners with our scalpels and our carbon 14 dating and our slide rules try to say they don’t work. They are from different traditions, which are authentic and nonwestern and beautiful, so aren’t you ashamed. The medical treatments they choose to use from different traditions are medical treatments, because it says so right there between “choose” and “different traditions,” so go back to your penthouse on 5th Avenue and leave the poor Other alone.

See what I mean? It’s that kind of thing. It’s that sly way of smuggling in stupid pseudo-enlightened multicultural vocabulary as a way of signaling to people that they are stomping on about ten taboos. It’s that sly way of conveying that you’re saying something old hat and colonialist and suspect. It’s that sly way of patting themselves on the back for treating woo as if it were genuine medical treatments.

Then there’s the exhibit itself, with its generous display of the same kind of thing.

Around the world, medical traditions coexist, interact, compete and combine.

Here we describe local cases where individuals have chosen treatments from more than one medical tradition. Some visit practitioners who mix knowledge and techniques from different sources.

Individuals choose a practitioner for many reasons.

See it all? There’s a lot. I’ll mark it for you.

Around the world, medical traditions coexist, interact, compete and combine.

Here we describe local cases where individuals have chosen treatments from more than one medical tradition. Some visit practitioners who mix knowledge and techniques from different sources.

Individuals choose a practitioner for many reasons.

On the one hand it’s all totally legit, it’s practitioners with knowledge and techniques providing medical treatment; on the other hand it’s around the world, so the traditions both compete, on account of they’re different, and coexist and combine, on account of they’re compatible (just like science ‘n’ religion you know). Either way it’s all great stuff, and individuals choose it, so don’t you stand there glowering at us for displaying nonsense as if it were sciencey evidence-based medicine. We can if we want to.

The museum’s official statement is even worse.

[W]e take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Which, since the Science Museum is the Science Museum, is a frank and unabashed abdication of responsibility. The “different” “medical systems” aren’t all medical systems and don’t all belong in a science museum, so the museum’s proudly announcing that they don’t evaluate them but just demonstrate their “diversity” instead is…pathetic.

But oh well – I shouldn’t let it annoy me. After all, it’s not as if medicine makes any difference to anything.

Women of Egypt

Feb 11th, 2011 5:08 pm | By

Yes but it’s worrying that there were so few women in Tahrir Square.

Cairo is notoriously hellish for women. That’s not a good sign for the future. They need to fix that. Women need to get out there and play their part (and that means half, not a bit part); men need to treat them like fellow citizens and equals, not like flowers or prostitutes. Women need to get out there and make sure this isn’t a revolution run by men.

Women need to grab and keep their share of the power and the conversation. If they have their share, it will be that much harder for clerics and Islamists to take over.

Update: a reader sent an optimistic article:

Egyptian women often shun crowded public places, fearing the pervasive sexual harassment that is the norm here. Simply walking down a Cairo street can be an ordeal of catcalls, pinching and unwanted propositions. But women attending the protests reported being treated with an unaccustomed respect.

Brilliant. That’s how it should work – people treat each other as equals united against the oppressive regime.

My stomach is mine, yours is yours

Feb 11th, 2011 11:05 am | By

It occurs to me that Sam Harris could have helped his case if he had stated his core claim more fully from the outset. His core claim omits the very thing that makes morality non-obvious and disputatious*.

His core claim is

For those unfamiliar with my book, here is my argument in brief:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds – and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end).

Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

Yes but. Yes but you left the difficult part out.

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds and on the fact that each mind is separate from all others.

The fact that each of us can directly experience only our own suffering and well-being is why we need morality and values at all; without that it would all be straightforward, like hunger prompting us to find and eat food.

Morality isn’t about “if you’re suffering, try to stop.” We already know that! Morality is about “you’re fine but those people over there are starving, you should share your food with them, with the result that you are hungrier and they are rescued from starving.” And then about arguments over dependency and causation and responsibility and proximity and 50 million other things, many of which benefit from scientific input but few of which are simply settled (or in Harris’s word, determined) by science.

Harris should have included that in his argument in brief all along.

*Update: I think that’s not really the right word. I think that word applies to people who like to dispute, as with “litigious.” But “disputable” wasn’t exactly what I meant…so I used disputatious anyway, despite knowing it wasn’t really right. The really right word doesn’t exist, so I bent one, thus possibly creating confusion. Language is tricky. (No one has emailed me to say that’s the wrong word…I just felt like saying.)

There is need for reflection

Feb 10th, 2011 1:07 pm | By

Poor Ireland, it must be so disconcerting.

The phenomenal economic boom over the past two decades, and the secularization that came along with it, allowed Ireland to think it was no longer what it once was: a backward land dominated and shaped by the Roman Catholic Church. But as the economy has crashed, the Irish have come face to face with their earlier selves, and with a church-state relationship that was and in many ways still is, as quite a few people in the country see it, perversely antimodern.

It’s perhaps similar to being suddenly transported from a cosmopolitan liberal coastal city to a parochial conservative religious town in the hinterland.

Only worse.

As secularism advanced in other parts of the world, successive popes relied on Ireland as a bulwark and pushed Irish leaders to keep the church in the country’s structure. In 1977, Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald noted that in a private meeting, Pope Paul VI stressed to him “that Ireland was a Catholic country — perhaps the only one left — and that it should stay that way” and that he should not “change any of the laws that kept the republic a Catholic state.” That continues to this day, according to Ivana Bacik, a senator for the opposition Labor Party who has been a leader in the effort to extricate the church from the state. As she put it, “In no other European nation — with the obvious exception of Vatican City — does the church have this depth of doctrinal involvement in the affairs of state.”

By what right? In other European nations, laws are generally changed or not changed by the legislators or people of those nations, not by different ones. It’s odd that the nation of “Vatican City” thinks it gets to tell the Irish PM what laws to change or not change. Odd but not surprising.

Last summer, there was talk of a plan to divest the church of its control of state-financed schools, but when I asked a Department of Education and Skills spokeswoman last month what the department was doing, she gave me only the Catholic Church’s current position — that there is need for “reflection” on the issue — and actually referred me to the church for further information.

Or reflection.

The diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world

Feb 10th, 2011 12:20 pm | By

Alex Davenport went to the Science Museum (the one in South Kensington, you know), and found the 5th floor devoted to quackery.

It matters because the SM is supposed to promote science and understanding, not fuel an ever increasingly tiresome debate between those that painstakingly research and collect data and those that appear to pick any old idea then try to convince people it works.

That’s what I would have thought.

The homeopathy stand tells the case study of a girl who had allergies from the age of 3-5 (what are these allergies?) and they say that she was cured by homeopaths.  That’s right, they categorically state that homeopathy helped her.


A museum staffer did a blog post in response, with an official statement from the museum.

In our ‘Living Medical Traditions’ section of the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery we take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present.

Well not in the sense of having banners saying “This stuff really works!” – but what about that stand that says homeopathy cured a child of allergies? That looks like a claim for validity to my untutored eye. David Colquhoun was entirely unconvinced. So was Simon Singh. So were lots of other people.

More via Martin Robbins.


Feb 9th, 2011 4:18 pm | By

Does Mary Midgley give Richard Dawkins a percentage? She certainly should. She’s making a full-time career of telling him to stop doing things he doesn’t do.

Midgley’s new book continues her many years of taking neo-Darwinists to task because, she says, they distort the legacy of the great English naturalist who inspired them.

Yes, many years. Many, many years. More than thirty of the bastards. She was told she had it all wrong the same number of years ago, but her new book continues the same old bullshit she was told was all wrong all those years ago. I’d say she owes Richard a cut.

And what’s this crap about “distorting” Darwin’s “legacy,” anyway? Does she think Darwin wrote a gospel? Does she think Darwin’s work is supposed to be frozen in amber so that everyone can stand around and admire it, along with the work of Albert the Good and Gladstone and Isambard Kingdom Brunel? Darwin was a scientist. His work was and is supposed to be expanded, corrected, falsified, improved, used, stretched out of shape. It’s not a sculpture or a carpet, it’s a theory; it doesn’t need to be protected from the breath of the nasty modern sciencey types with their iPods and blue jeans and tendency to swear. Those nasty modern sciencey types are Darwin’s colleagues; he has a lot more in common with them than he has with obstinate one-idea (and that a wrong one) Midgley.

Midgley argues that the neo-Darwinist perspective rests on an ethos of free-enterprise competition distorted by “the supposedly Darwinian belief in natural selection as a pervasive, irresistible cosmic force” that operates in social and metaphysical realms as well as in physical, biological ones. It results, she writes, in “unbridled, savage competition between the genes” that operates with mythic force within any individual body.

Apparently she has learned nothing since 1979, the date of the original (widely-derided) paper. Her legacy is serenly undistorted – for what that’s worth.

I don’t see how the argument even begins

Feb 8th, 2011 12:36 pm | By

I’ve read an advance copy of Reasonable Atheism by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. It’s a good book. I have some disagreements though, and some things I don’t understand, or suspect I don’t understand, or both; I’ve been waiting to post about them, until closer to the pub date, but now that they’re posting about it, I figure it’s close enough.

One (highly reasonable) point they make is that atheists should argue well instead of badly. One example of arguing well, they say, is taking the Ontological Argument seriously.

We take the Ontological Argument as the litmus test for intellectual seriousness, both for atheists and religious believers alike. Anyone who takes the question of God’s existence seriously must grapple with this fascinating argument. Those who simply cast it aside, or wield it indiscriminately, prove themselves intellectually careless. [p 81 - but this is uncorrected proof]

This is one of the places where I suspect I don’t understand. I don’t get the need to grapple with the ont. arg., because it has no purchase on me to begin with. It starts with premises that I see no reason to start with. I “simply cast it aside.” I don’t see how saying “but a perfect being that didn’t exist would be imperfect and we can conceive of a perfect being therefore that being exists” causes anything to happen. I know I’ve garbled the argument, but this is where the suspected not understanding comes in. I seem not to understand how the argument is anything more reasonable than that. I seem not to understand why anybody has ever thought that an ability to imagine something plus logic can cause the something to exist.

On the next page they say how Hitchens garbles the argument, then give the right version.

[T]he argument derives God’s existence from something we know about God, whether we think he exists or not, namely, that He is perfect.

That’s accurate, by the way; it’s he first, and then He. The “he” must be a mistake; they use capital H throughout the book, which I think is odd for atheists. I don’t think we’re required to be reverent. But never mind that – just explain that sentence to me, because I don’t get it. I don’t know that about “God.” I know that some people who do think “God” exists also think that “God” is ”perfect” – but I don’t take that to mean that I “know” “God” “is” “perfect.” I don’t know a single one of those four words, much less all four of them in combination.

Therefore I don’t see how the argument even begins. I see how it begins for people who do think they know all four of those things, but I don’t see how it begins for people who don’t. Do you?


Feb 7th, 2011 12:19 pm | By

Eric is arguing that we should accept the label “new atheism” and run with it. He sets out three items that define a new atheist:

(i) a belief in the harmfulness of religion, both in a political and an intellectual sense; (ii) a conviction that there is no evidence for belief in a god; (iii) a general agreement that (i) and (ii) mean that we must actively oppose religion.

I would insert a new (iii): a conviction or a sense that the widespread (at least in the US) expectation that one should believe in god as if (ii) were of no relevance whatsoever, is an offensive imposition.

That’s what is New in my New Atheism, at any rate. I’ve been an atheist since adolescence at least, and as far as I can remember I was a very unconvinced nominal “theist” as a child, but I haven’t always been a gnu (to revert to the joke I am reluctant to abandon). I used to groan inwardly rather than argue. But the imposition offends my sense of justice – and I have a way of arguing without actually getting in people’s (literal) faces – so impassive atheism has made way for the vocal kind. There is no reason to believe there is anything properly called “god,” so stop telling me to think there is.

Fight fiercely Anglicans, fight fight fight

Feb 6th, 2011 12:54 pm | By

The Anglican church is worried that it might “lose its place at the centre of public life” in the UK because of the gnu atheists.

Why should it have a place at the center (or centre if you must) of public life? It’s a church. It’s an institution devoted to “worship” of a “god.” Why would that entitle it to a place at the middle of public life?

Besides, some of that place it has pretty well officially nailed down, at least for the moment. It gets its bishops into the House of Lords, where it can meddle with legislation. It gets to lay down the law on Radio 4 most days. It gets to run a hell of a lot of state schools. What more does it want? Just plain naming the archbishop as dictator?

Nah. It wants the gnu atheists to get lost, that’s all.

Drawing particular attention to the threat posed by a new movement of militant atheists, led by Dawkins and Hitchens, it says the Church must respond if it is not to be pushed from the public square.

Oh yes? There’s an actual, literal army of “militant” atheists, all marching behind Dawkins and Hitchens, is there?

Don’t be schewpid. There are some books; there are radio interviews and debates, there are blogs and websites. There is discussion. That’s all. Get a grip. Pull your socks up. Quit snivelling.

The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.

And? We’re allowed to write or read books you know. We’re allowed to argue against religion. Go ahead and argue back, but do try to do it without calling us “militant.”

In recent years, a number of Christians have taken legal action against local councils and hospital trusts after being disciplined for expressing their faith by wearing crosses or refusing to act against their orthodox beliefs.

Aha! You see what he’s done there? (Jonathan Wynne-Jones, it is.) “Their orthodox beliefs” – that queers are feeelthy. As long as they’re orthodox, everyone ought to simply tug the forelock and obey, is that it?

No, sorry, pal – beliefs have to stand or fall on their merits; you don’t get to validate them by calling them “orthodox.”

And then a stranger rode into town

Feb 5th, 2011 5:14 pm | By

As I mentioned in some comments on Strident and Combative, there’s this new Mystery Commenter who goes by “Hammill,” who has been making me increasingly suspicious. It’s an odd bird. It turned up only recently, as far as I can tell – the first times I know of were to comment on a few posts at Josh Rosenau’s, which were about – oh what do you know – me, and Jerry Coyne, and me again.

Gosh, what does that remind me of?

I’m being sarcastic. I know damn well what that reminds me of. I know damn well who else had a decidedly peculiar obsession with me and Jerry Coyne, often to the exclusion of anyone else.

“Hammill” turns up elsewhere too – but always on places Jerry has been posting on, or I have, or both. It’s been getting like being followed, to write a post about something and an hour or two later find “Hammill” there, as if summoned by a dog-whistle.

“Hammill” is very concerned. Very very concerned. Hammill is worried that it will be associated with the dread gnu atheists. It was worrying about that on Rob Knop’s post yesterday, right after Jerry posted on the subject.

I can agree with much of the substance coming out of the gnu atheist community but cringe mostly at its delivery. At times the rhetoric and invective makes me embarrassed to even be associated with them, however tangentially, as a nonbeliever.

Aw, really? Is that right? We embarrass you do we? That’s a shame. I tell you what: why don’t you set up a blog, maybe a group blog with a bunch of your imaginary friends, and start really getting to work on the subject of what it is you don’t like about new atheists. That would be fun, don’t you think? And you could have more of your imaginary friends write lots and lots and lots of comments, all saying things like “Oh golly gee, I thought I disagreed with you until I read that terrible post you linked to by that awful Coyne or that horrible Benson, and then by god I realized you were right and I think the whole thing is simply shocking.”

But maybe that sounds like too much trouble, and you’d rather just spend all your time posting comments at Rosenau’s and BioLogos and Rationally Speaking and Galactic Interactions. They will all keep your IP address secret, I’m sure.

Strident n combative

Feb 4th, 2011 5:02 pm | By

Hey guess what! Did you know that gnu atheists are obnoxious? No? Neither did I! I’ve never heard that before. Yet alas, my darlings, it is so.

most of those in the movement formerly known as “New Atheism” seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word “reason” as a synonym for “application of scientific reasoning”, thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. (As well as a lot of other people, for instance all faculty at a University who aren’t in a science or engineering department…

No. That last bit is wrong; entirely wrong. I told him so – for it is a he: Rob Knop, physicist and Christian – on the post.

We use the word “reason” to include “consistent with scientific reasoning,” but certainly not as a synonym for it.

He replied by moving the goalposts. But enough of this; back to the post itself and its useful new information about the badness of gnu atheists.

a subset of them are incredibly strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed “reason”…

And then go home and eat a neighbor for dinner. It’s all so unfortunate.

Resonant phrases

Feb 3rd, 2011 12:51 pm | By

I want to dispute one small item in Philip Kitcher’s “Militant Modern Atheism.” [pdf]

He describes the people in between the mythically self-conscious and the doctrinally-entangled, “whose ideas about how to interpret doctrinal sentences are far less definite.”

They are not prepared to say, with the mythically self-conscious, that there is no defensible interpretation of those sentences on which they are committed to the existence of transcendent entities. On the other hand, they are not willing to offer any definite interpretation that would provide a content to which they would subscribe.

Oh those. Yes. The hand-wavers; the resorters to purple language. What about them?

Many of them are inclined to take refuge in language that is resonant and opaque, metaphorical and poetic, and to deny that they can do any better at explaining the beliefs they profess.

Yes indeed, yet they also get very huffy if anyone dares to suggest that this might hint at a certain amount of…vagueness and even emptiness in those “beliefs.”

If pressed, they will admit that they can only gesture vaguely in the direction of something that might commit them to the existence of transcendent entities — or might not.

And then they will call you shrillandstrident, for good measure. They will call you a bully; they will call you a New Atheist; they will accuse you of being unreflective.

Their lack of definiteness frustrates militant modern atheists, who find no value in the resonant phrases that pervade theological discussions, but believers will contend that literal language gives out here, that as with great poetry, religious language somehow functions in ways that cannot be captured in the preferred modes of speech of their opponents.

No no no! That’s where Kitcher goes quite wrong. I’m not having that. I find plenty of value in resonant phrases themselves, just not when they pervade theological discussions. But resonant phrases? I yield to no one in my finding of value in them. King Lear for instance – King Lear is full of them. Most of them are brutally simple, but resonant all the same.

“I remember thine eyes well enough.”

“No sir you must not kneel.”

“Art cold, my boy?”

There are three just off the top of my head. Absurdly simple, but if you know the play, they’re like gunshots.

But in fact the way they work can be explained, and they don’t point vaguely in the direction of a cosmic boss who gets to tell us all what to do, and they don’t pretend to be making claims about the nature of the universe. Religious language does not function in the same way as great poetry, and it’s just self-flattery to claim that it does. (Notice that I don’t go around saying my writing functions the same way that Shakespeare’s does. That’s because it doesn’t. Believers don’t get to claim that priestly guff does, either.)

One talk too many

Feb 2nd, 2011 4:45 pm | By

Hmm. Paul Sims at the New Humanist is still enthusiastic about the possibilities of dialogue between believers and non-believers. I agree that that can be a fine thing, or an anodyne thing, much of the time…but there are limits. I’m not sure Paul is sufficiently aware of what the limits ought to be.

Last night, I attended a meeting between representatives of Catholic Voices and members of the Central London Humanist Group (CLHG), which took place in the hall of St Saviour’s Church in Pimlico. It was the second such event, the first having taken place in central London last October – the point, as I explained in a piece in the current issue of New Humanist, is to experiment with the idea of humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner.

But as I mentioned last December, the humanists weren’t sitting down with “Catholics,” they were sitting down with Catholic Voices -

a bureau of Catholic speakers able to articulate with conviction the Church’s positions on major contentious issues in the media.

Shills. PR reps. Propagandists. Apologists. They’re not just random Catholics, they’re people who have appointed themselves to defend whatever the church decides is its “position.” No, I don’t think there is any merit in having a nice chin-wag with people who are in the business of not changing their minds.

And then there is the substance.

They talked about the bishop of Phoenix. Discussion was somewhat heated, but…

it never quite spilled over into an outright argument. This, I think, was helped by the nature of the meeting – the fact that it consisted of just 21 people sat around a table provided a check on it descending into a shouting match, and encouraged people to listen to the points being made. There was, of course, no prospect of full agreement on this most contentious of issues, but I do think we reached a degree of understanding in certain respects…

Fuck that. There is a limit, and the bishop of Phoenix is way beyond it. I don’t want to reach “a degree of understanding” with people who think it’s all right to try to force hospitals to let women die because saving them requires ending a pregnancy of 11 weeks. I don’t want to reach “a degree of understanding” with people who think a woman and a fetus should die instead of a fetus only. I want to say they’re supporting a terrible, evil, immoral policy, and if they can’t see that there’s something wrong with their thinking.

I don’t want to have a “dialogue” with the Taliban. I don’t want to have a “dialogue” with al-Shabab. I don’t want to have a “dialogue” with anyone who defends the bishop of Phoenix’s actions.

Sisters and brothers

Feb 2nd, 2011 12:19 pm | By

The president of the Catholic Health Association, “Sister” Carol Keehan, is proud and happy to uphold the “authority” of Catholic bishops to tell medical personnel and hospital administrators what to do, including, of course, telling them to let pregnant women die if it takes an abortion to save their lives. “Sister” Carol Keehan is saying yes, bishop, it is right and good that you and your bishop friends should be able to forbid doctors to save women’s lives. “Sister” Carol Keehan is endorsing the bishops’ wish for more women to die; she’s agreeing with them that that woman in Phoenix (with four young children) should be dead. With a “sister” like her who needs enemies?

Thank you again for taking the time to talk with Bishop Lynch and me about CHA’s position regarding the ethical and religious directives. I was pleased to hear of your appreciation of the role of Catholic hospitals in providing the healing ministry of Jesus to our country.

The “healing ministry of Jesus” means refusing to save the life of a pregnant woman.

I was happy to have the opportunity to assure you that publicly and privately, CHA has always said to sponsors, governing board members, manager and clinicians that an individual Bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter of the ERDs. We explain that a Bishop has a right to interpret the ERDs and also to develop his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.

Because he’s a Bishop. If he says you have to die, you have to die. Grovel, peasants.

Naturally, archbish Timothy Dolan is very pleased with this abject boot-licking. He sees that it bodes well for the future of more Catholic interference with medical matters and with secular laws on medical matters. Tim Dolan is just delighted at the prospect of further imposition of his nasty woman-hating reactionary murderous dogmas on all of us.

Now that the Patient Care Act is being discussed again, we have an opportunity to definitively resolve the outstanding questions about its inclusion of funding for abortion services and for plans that include abortion.

And an opportunity to guarantee the avoidable death of more women. Hooray.

I am gravely concerned about the problem of illegitimate government intrusion in our health care ministries. For example, significant and immediate concerns exist regarding the threats to conscience that we already identified while the Patient Care Act was under consideration.

He is gravely concerned that secular laws might interfere with his ability to see to it that women die when they could be saved.

85% men 15% women

Jan 31st, 2011 5:43 pm | By

It won’t do, you see. The Wikipedia gender imbalance thing – when taken with all the other gender imbalance things – won’t do.

Jane Margolis, co-author of a book on sexism in computer science, “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” argues that Wikipedia is experiencing the same problems of the offline world, where women are less willing to assert their opinions in public. “In almost every space, who are the authorities, the politicians, writers for op-ed pages?”…

According to the OpEd Project, an organization based in New York that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to “public thought-leadership forums,” a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.

Or atheists talking at atheist or secularist or skeptical conferences. That won’t do, because it perpetuates itself. As Clay Shirky points out, if most “authorities” are men, then the voice of authority sounds male. That’s no good.

It would seem to be an irony that Wikipedia, where the amateur contributor is celebrated, is experiencing the same problem as forums that require expertise. But Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.

What I just said. The voice of authority sounds male; you’re a minority voice so that must be for a reason and the reason must be that you’re not competent so…you’d better just be quiet.

That’s no good.

Oystercatchers and eagles

Jan 31st, 2011 12:36 pm | By
Oystercatchers and eagles

I’m back. The CFI talk was good fun. CFI Vancouver did a great bit on the CBC’s Marketplace a couple of weeks ago: they gathered outside a hospital emergency room (“just in case”) and took an overdose of homeopathic “medicine.” 

It rained almost the whole time on Friday, and the same Saturday. It was a bit tragic, because I was staying in a borrowed apartment on the 34th floor of a tower next to the harbor, which was spectacular, but I knew it would be considerably more spectacular if it were clear, and it seemed that it was never going to be clear. But then Saturday evening, after I’d gotten thoroughly soaked three times, it started to clear and then clear some more, and Sunday was cold and crystal clear. I went out at dawn to walk around the edge of Stanley Park. It was…well it was a hell of a good walk, I can tell you. I saw a bald eagle sitting at the top of a fir tree on the north side. I saw four oystercatchers digging around in the rocks near Third Beach. I saw an eagle flying overhead near Second Beach, then I saw one sitting at the top of another fir tree. I don’t know if that was three eagles, or two, or one.

Then I went back to the borrowed apartment, and nearly fell over when I saw what the view is like on a clear day.

And now I’m back.

Update: I forgot to say: Fred Bremmer took the pictures. I stole them from Facebook.

One more for the road

Jan 28th, 2011 7:44 am | By

I woke up early, so I have a little time to mutter things before I hit the road.

I’ll mutter about Sharon Rupp’s interview of wonderful me. I got a chance to name-check some atheist women:

 She is part of that cadre of professional atheists that includes best-selling authors Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and a host of lesser known writers, none of whom seems to be a woman.”Oh there are women: Polly Toynbee, Katha Pollitt, Greta Christina…” Benson protests, noting that even the humanist-secularist-atheist crowd is subject to that old problem of blindness when it comes to women’s accomplishments. “I’ve asked conference organizers why there are no women speaking and some say it didn’t occur to them, others say they don’t know any.”

Actually I haven’t asked conference organizers, because I haven’t had the opportunity to ask them things, because they don’t organize me. Actually it was PZ who asked them, who asks them every time he speaks at one – “Will you please wake up and ask some women already?” And they tell him, “Uh……we couldn’t think of any.” And he smites his brow.

So props to Vancouver CFI, eh, they thought of one.

Kristof v Olmsted

Jan 28th, 2011 7:20 am | By

The bishop of Phoenix is getting some more glare of publicity, this time from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. I hope more people will start to grasp just what it is that he and his Conference of catholic bishops are saying. They are saying that hospitals – all hospitals if they had their way, not just Catholic ones – should flatly refuse to save pregnant women’s lives by ending early pregnancies. They are saying that if ending an early pregnancy is the only way a particular woman’s life can be saved, then that woman must die. (They make an exception for something they call “indirect abortion,” which is enormously generous of them.)

Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.

Precisely. That’s the bit that needs to be emphasized, and repeated. Some people think the bishop simply doesn’t realize what he’s saying. Oh yes he does.

The hospital backed up Sister Margaret, and it rejected the bishop’s demand that it never again terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a mother.

But the bishop remains a free man. He has not been arrested. There is no talk of arresting him (except for around here). He is using all the “authority” and influence he has in an effort to compel hospitals to let women die, yet no one tries to stop him. People defy him, but that’s as far as they go.