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.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild

Feb 17th, 2010 11:47 am | By

We hear so much about ‘militant’ atheists and yet it is theists who like to bully people. A science teacher in North Carolina has been suspended for saying caustic’ things about her students at Facebook. The students have been bullying her.

Parents said the situation escalated after a student put a postcard of Jesus on Hussain’s desk that the teacher threw in the trash. Parents also said Hussain sent to the office students who, during a lesson about evolution, asked about the role of God in creation. On her Facebook page, Hussain wrote about students spreading rumors that she was a Jesus hater. She complained about her students wearing Jesus T-shirts and singing “Jesus Loves Me.” She objected to students reading the Bible instead of doing class work…The flash point for the comments came after the Bible was left on Hussain’s desk in December. The Bible was accompanied by an anonymous card, which, according to Hussain, said “Merry Christmas” with Christ underlined and bolded.

Twelve-year-old sadists.

The Celtic doormat

Feb 17th, 2010 10:57 am | By

Meanwhile, in Scotland…

A study of schoolchildren has found that most of those questioned thought violence towards women was acceptable if there was a reason behind it. The majority of the pupils said it was justified if the woman had an affair, or if she was late in making the tea.

Or anything in between, no doubt.

If commanded, we will obey

Feb 17th, 2010 10:51 am | By

The Catholic church in Ireland is all heart – like Mr Collins, it graciously consents to do what it is obliged to do.

The Primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady said this afternoon that were the remit of the Murphy Commission to be extended to other Catholic dioceses in Ireland, the Catholic Church “will co-operate fully with that inquiry.”

Is that not kind? Is that not generous? Is it not affable and condescending and truly gracious? The Catholic church will co-operate fully with an inquiry into its long habit of letting its priests molest children while it keeps the whole thing secret. I’m totally impressed.

The pontiff also noted “the more general crisis of faith affecting the Church,” the statement said…and he linked that to the lack of respect for the human person and how the weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors”.

Aha! So it turns out it’s the atheists’ fault! It’s not the church’s fault, for being a powerful unaccountable arrogant self-protecting bunch of thugs, no, it’s the atheists’ fault for causing a ‘crisis of faith.’ Of course the child-molesting and the horrors of industrial schools have been going on for generation after generation, so one wonders which crisis of faith the pope has in mind…but never mind, the point is the atheists did it, and that’s what matters.

A name to conjure with

Feb 16th, 2010 5:04 pm | By

The Templeton Foundation is having more and more success at getting its message under the radar. The Times Higher for instance tells us about an upcoming lecture which will include some things we have grown familiar with in recent months.

It is often assumed that religion and science have always been locked in a life-and-death struggle…Such views would have startled the scholars, including some of the greatest names in British science, who founded what became the Royal Society 350 years ago. In a Faraday Institute public lecture, to be delivered in Cambridge this week, Peter Harrison, Andreas Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, will challenge such arguments about the impossibility of being both scientific and religious, pointing out that they “obviously didn’t apply to the earliest fellows”.

Right…and we have learned some things in those 350 years, so what people thought 350 years ago is not necessarily a conversation-stopper now, but no matter – do go on, I’m listening.

In reality, Professor Harrison said, “almost without exception, early modern natural philosophers cherished religious convictions, although these were not invariably orthodox. Some – but by no means all – made the point that they were motivated to pursue scientific inquiry on account of these religious commitments.” Far from being militant atheists, they “believed that the disinterested study of the structures of living things could offer independent support for the truth of the Christian religion, and refute atheism”.

But that of course is not the really important part of what Professor Harrison has to say. I wonder if you can guess what is?

A historian with a first degree in zoology and “an overt religious commitment”, Professor Harrison regards the recent spate of anti-religious polemics headed by Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion as “intellectually vacuous, although their popularity is sociologically interesting”.

That’s it! It’s another deadly blow at the ‘spate’ of anti-religious books (the one that occupies two feet of shelf at most at the University Bookstore here, two feet which are embedded in long shelves packed with pro-religious polemics stretching to the horizon).

The really interesting thing about this is that the article never mentions – never mentions – the fact that the ‘Faraday Institute,’ which sounds so sciency and academicky and serious, is a creation of – wait for it – the Templeton Foundation.

Thanks to Karel De Pauw for the article.

The glowing future

Feb 16th, 2010 4:32 pm | By

A guy called Joseph Mayton at Comment is Free tells us about the ‘reform-minded younger generation’ in the Muslim Brotherhood.

In many ways, these young people have created a new identity and image of the Brotherhood, both in Egypt and abroad. No longer do knowledgeable people view its members as the stereotypical bearded Islamists. Instead, they see members who talk of their desire for democracy and greater freedoms, not to mention their love for American films. The first time I met a group of the MB’s young bloggers a few years ago, they talked for 10 minutes on the upcoming Charlize Theron and Tom Cruise films.

Aw, gee, really? Isn’t that sweet? Some ‘MB’ bloggers are interested in movies with Charlize Theron and Tom Cruise in them, therefore they have ‘created a new identity and image of the Brotherhood,’ therefore the Brotherhood is kind of cool and reformy and okay and interesting. Kind of like if Hitler and Goebbels had only gotten excited about Carole Lombard and Jimmy Cagney, all that misunderstanding between 1939 and 1945 would have been avoided, because there was certainly nothing wrong with those guys that a little exposure to Hollywood wouldn’t have fixed. Same with the Muslim Brotherhood, ok?

You’ll think I’m being unfair, but I’m not; there’s nothing in the article that actually gets to grips with what the Muslim Brotherhood is.

Might makes right in Sevenoaks

Feb 16th, 2010 10:33 am | By

That curate in Kent is standing by what he said – he’s not backing down just because a lot of boring politically correct rightsy types are pissed off. He’s got principle. He really thinks women should be submissive to men.

Two weeks ago the curate delivered a controversial sermon at St Nicholas’s Church in Sevenoaks in which he triggered outrage by partly blaming the high divorce rate on women no longer submitting to their husbands…During yesterday’s sermon Mr Oden said he wished to make it clear that he did not believe women were “weaker intellectually” but that it was “an eternal principle that women are physically weaker than men”.

Well, it’s not the case that all women are physically weaker than all men, of course, but leave that aside – even if that were the case, what would follow from that? Is there an ‘eternal principle’ that physically stronger people should, morally speaking, be the boss of physically weaker people? Is that what follows from Mark Oden’s inaccurate claim? No. Nobody thinks that. In fact there’s a word for that thought, a pejorative word: that word is ‘bullying.’ There is of course a reality that physically stronger people often do boss people who are physically weaker, but that’s not a moral principle. On the contrary the fact that it’s not a moral principle is something that adults try to teach children, and that decent people try to teach bullies. It is odd that an Anglican curate would want to offer an argument from bullying in a sermon.

I am shocked, shocked, that there is child-rape going on in this establishment

Feb 15th, 2010 5:25 pm | By

So the pope is doing the ostentatious hand-washing thing – though of course it would be impolite to murmur anything about Pontius Pilate.

Pope Benedict XVI will today complete his interrogation of Ireland’s 24 bishops before pontificating on one of the most shocking clerical scandals of recent times: the extensive sexual abuse of children by Irish priests and the pervasive campaign to conceal it…The Pope has said he is “disturbed and distressed” by the abuse in Ireland and shares the “outrage, betrayal and shame” felt by the Irish people…Observers note that widespread abuse of children by priests is not unique to Ireland.

To put it mildly. But what fewer observers seem to be noting is the absurdity of the pope’s display of shock-horror now. As I have mentioned before, the pope’s pretense of outrage now sits uneasily with that order he issued in 2001 when he was still just Joe Ratzinger.

…an order ensuring the church’s investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret. The order was made in a confidential letter, obtained by The Observer, which was sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001. It asserted the church’s right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood. The letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

That order. One wonders if any of the Irish bishops are shouting about that letter while the pope shouts at them for obeying it, or are they just sitting quietly while he goes through the motions because all of them know perfectly well it’s a charade, not to say a pageant, and that they just have to read their lines and be done with it.

Yet these are the people who claim the right to tell everyone how to be good. These thugs who fiddle with children and then protect each other as long as they can get away with it, and by way of rest and relaxation tell the people of Africa not to use condoms. With friends like thse who needs the Mafia?!

Crucial distinctions

Feb 15th, 2010 4:48 pm | By

Gary Rosen, the chief external affairs officer of the Templeton Foundation, reviews Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty in The New York Times.

Nor is it clear, as Ferris would have it, that science furnishes the ideal template for liberal democracy. Science, he notes, is antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative…But crucial distinctions are lost in these comparisons. The scientific community may be open to everyone, in principle, but it has steep and familiar barriers to entry…[M]odern science is, in the most admirable sense, an aristocracy — a selection and sorting of the best minds as they interact within institutions designed to achieve certain rarefied ends. Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded.

But crucial distinctions are lost in Rosen’s claim, too. Very crucial. ‘Most people’ are not excluded in the most pernicious sense of the word – formally, permanently, without appeal, because of who they are rather than what they know or what they can do. Nobody is excluded in that sense, and that distinction is as crucial as it gets. People are ‘excluded’ by for instance not wanting to do the hard work it takes to be a scientist, but that’s a very provisional kind of exclusion. Steep barriers to entry are very different from absolute barriers to entry. There are more or less steep barriers to entry to all forms of work, but it remains possible to try, or to dream about trying. That’s a different thing from knowing that you will never be allowed to do a particular kind of work no matter how much education you get and no matter how good you are. This matters enormously, and there’s something faintly sinister about exaggerating the amount and kind of ‘exclusion’ that science entails.

It’s not a normal position

Feb 14th, 2010 5:55 pm | By

Gita Sahgal is not having an easy time.

She fears for her own and her family’s safety. She has — temporarily at least — lost her job and found it almost impossible to find anyone to represent her in any potential employment case. She rang round the human rights lawyers she knows, all of whom have declined to help citing a conflict of interest. “Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they’ve done, it appears that if you’re a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don’t deserve a defence from our civil right firms,” she says wryly.

Moazzam Begg sets us all straight about that.

He counters Sahgal’s view by saying she is, in her own way, a fundamentalist: “She advocates the government shouldn’t even be engaging with the Muslim Council of Britain. It’s not a normal position.”

Because…? Because the BBC thinks the Muslim Council of Britain is as normal as any Council of Britain could possibly be, therefore to think otherwise is not normal, in fact it’s downright perverted, while affectionate support for the Taliban is entirely average and healthy and quotidian. It’s good to get these things sorted out.

Multicultural mayoring

Feb 13th, 2010 1:02 pm | By

In a small town near Barcelona a Moroccan-born Muslim woman with a master’s degree

says she was threatened by Muslim fundamentalists because she took off her veil and tried to live like a Spaniard. The treatment of Fatima Ghailan, 31, prompted an investigating magistrate to bring charges against the sheik of the local mosque, Mohamed Benbrahim, and the head of the Islamic Association, Abderraman el-Osri, the leading figures in Cunit’s Muslim community. The case also generated demands for the resignation of Mayor Judit Alberich, a liberal Socialist who, her political opponents said, catered to her Muslim constituents at the expense of respect for the law.

The self-appointed ‘leading figures’ in the male portion of ‘Cunit’s Muslim community’ – except those who don’t agree with them, of course, who never count when journalists are telling us who the leading figures are. It’s just shorthand of course, and we get the drift, but when there is controversy that usage does bestow a legitimacy on putative leaders that they don’t necessarily have or deserve. We don’t really know whether those two are ‘leading figures’ or just bullies. And clearly Alberich catered to some of her Muslim constituents, at the expense of others of them as well as respect for the law. Clearly not all of Alberich’s ‘Muslim constituents’ want women to be bullied by men for not wearing hijab.

Ghailan was an unlikely champion of assimilation when she arrived in Cunit as a teenager. Her father had been the sheik of a mosque in Morocco, and until recently, she dutifully wore a scarf. But things began to change several years ago. Ghailan received a master’s degree in Barcelona…Then she got a job at City Hall, assigned to work with the town’s approximately 1,000 mostly Moroccan Muslims as a “cultural mediator.” Her job was to encourage Muslims, particularly cloistered women, to participate in the life of the town, to take advantage of language classes and to leave their homes to attend festivals. Ultimately, that is what brought her into conflict with Benbrahim and Osri. As a representative of City Hall, Ghailan wielded power over the immigrant community. That, residents said, was something the traditionalists could not accept — particularly because it involved a woman who refused to cover her hair. Benbrahim organized a petition demanding Ghailan’s firing. Ghailan said the dispute soon escalated; she lodged a formal complaint against Benbrahim in November 2008, charging that he had harassed, threatened and attacked her and her family. A local court issued a restraining order, barring the sheik from going near Ghailan or her family, and launched a formal investigation in which procedure dictated that Benbrahim be taken into custody. But, Ghailan said later, the mayor, Alberich, intervened to prevent the arrest, saying that it would disrupt relations with Cunit’s Muslim community.

Alberich is a woman and a socialist – yet she opted to leave Ghailan exposed to the bullying of an imam.

Gravity, light and time are all manifestations of God’s love.

Feb 12th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

The C of E angling for a Templeton Prize. I’m not sure they’re eligible, but maybe they can manage a grant.

The Church of England’s ruling council has passed a motion calling on Church leaders to emphasise the compatibility of belief in both God and science. The motion urges the Church to fight back in what is the latest move in a battle between atheists and believers. The motion at the general synod in London was proposed by Dr Peter Capon. He believes atheists are forcing the public to choose either belief in God or the logic of science in a bid to push religion out of the public sphere.

Let’s see…atheists aren’t forcing anyone to do anything – but of course theists like to accuse us of that, as one of their many less than honest ways of trying to force us to stfu. And our claims that belief in God is not compatible with a scientific understanding is not necessarily part of any bid to push religion out of the public sphere. And in any case, religion doesn’t necessarily belong in the public sphere, depending on how the public sphere is defined. One reason religion doesn’t belong there is this habit of being less than honest about its critics.

A former lecturer in computer science, Dr Capon said atheists were misleading the public when they claimed science and religion are incompatible. He believed that some popular science and nature programmes also repeated this line too easily, ignoring the fact that many scientists hold spiritual beliefs.

Nope nope nope; the usual mistake; we know ‘many scientists hold spiritual beliefs’; that doesn’t make science and ‘spiritual beliefs’ compatible; that’s a separate question.

Another delegate, Philip Brown of Manchester, said: “Science can only explain how something was created; religion can explain why.”

Nope nope nope; another silly bromide; religion can say stuff about ‘why’ but whether the stuff it says is a genuine explanation or not is another matter, and I have yet to see a religious ‘explanation’ that even looks genuine.

Sadly but not surprisingly, the sidebar labeled ‘analysis’ by a ‘religious affairs producer’ is also full of mistakes.

Dr Peter Capon proposed his motion because he wants the Church to make a stand against well-known atheists, such as Prof Richard Dawkins, who say that science has disproved God’s existence, and therefore it doesn’t make sense to believe in both.

It is wearying to repeat it, but well-known atheists and Dawkins don’t say that science has disproved God’s existence. It would be nice if the critics and resenters of atheists could manage to take that in so that we could stop having to repeat it yet again.

But Dr Capon’s motion was never going to be just about whether religion trumps science, or vice versa. Instead, he was making a plea for faith to be allowed to have its own space apart from science, equal but different…[H]e and many other speakers repeated their belief that some aspects of existence couldn’t be explained by the people in lab coats.

But they can’t be explained by religion either, so that point is not relevant. It’s just about the only one they have left, but it’s not relevant. Religion just is not good at explanation. Give it up.

I wouldn’t fit in at all

Feb 11th, 2010 1:44 pm | By

John Shook argues that morality evolved long before religion did, which seems right, but then he claims more.

If you were suddenly plucked from your life and sent back in time to live with people in Indonesia about 15,000 years ago (or even Ethiopia 150,000 years ago), you would be able to figure out what is going on. The basic social roles, responsibilities, and civil rules would seem somewhat familiar to you, and you’d fit in pretty fast.

Oh no I wouldn’t – not fit in pretty fast I wouldn’t. I might be able to figure out what is going on, but I would also want no part of it. I would want no part of the social roles that would be imposed on me as a woman, and I would probably not be crazy about the civil rules to do with how slaves, foreigners, criminals, prisoners of war, and other inferiors or others were treated – in fact I would be a foreigner and thus probably a slave. I’d be a foreign slave woman, and I would ‘fit in’ pretty fast. No I wouldn’t! Not unless ‘fit in’ means ‘obey because I have no choice.’

Cultural anthropologists have long recognized how all human societies have similar basic norms of moral conduct. Marc Hauser, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has just published a paper about additional studies showing that people’s moral intuitions do not vary much across different religions all around the world.

But they do. People’s moral intuitions about the rightness of killing women for being raped, of stoning women to death in front of their children, of forced marriage, of killing witches, of killing gay people – the list goes on, and those moral intuitions do vary much.

Furthermore, basic morality is highly resistant to religious influence — most people easily reject religious rules that violate their basic moral intuitions.

Really? Then why do some ‘devout believers’ think daughter-murder is mandated by their religion under certain circumstances while other people don’t?

Religion and science are like totally the same

Feb 10th, 2010 5:51 pm | By

Mark Vernon has his own special brand of wool. I do not admire it. It is too unctuous.

Is science closer to religion than is typically assumed? Is religion closer to science? Might rational enquiry, based on evidence, share similarities with faith? These questions were raised by Charles Taylor, the distinguished Canadian philosopher, speaking at a Cambridge University symposium (pdf). He suspects that in the modern world we’ve bought into an illusion, one that posits a radical split between reason and revelation. Today, given the tension and violence that arises from misunderstandings about both, is a good time to examine them again.

It is annoying, and unctuous, that Vernon doesn’t mention that that ‘symposium’ was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Allow me to correct his omission: that ‘symposium’ was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. It was called ‘Faith, Rationality, and the Passions.’ It kicked off with Templeton Prize-winner Charles Taylor. It looks to have been a very templetonian symposium.

Vernon summarizes Taylor explaining that it’s all an illusion, because ‘when you examine the way science actually works you see that there’s a third factor’ which is intuition. You know what’s coming next, of course, even if you haven’t already read Jerry Coyne’s take, or indeed the Vernon article itself – you know that up next is Kuhn and the paradigm shift and normal science, and so they all are. Therefore, Vernon (apparently via Taylor) sums up, religion and science are both faith so ha.

…the neat distinction between science and religion unravels, for religion involves commitments made on faith too. You might protest: revelation purports to come from God and is untestable, two characteristics that the scientist would certainly reject. Except that regardless of its source, a revelation can only make an impact if it makes sense to people, which is to say that they test it against their lives…

Therefore, revelation really is tested, just the way science is, because people ‘test it against their lives,’ whatever the fuck that means, therefore there is no ‘neat’ distinction between science and religion, therefore we can just forget all about all this poxy modernity and reason and science and testing (except for ‘testing it against our lives,’ which is way easy and painless and you can do it while you sleep) and live happily ever after. All shall come first! All shall have prizes! Though probably not Templeton Prizes.

The wisdom of bishops

Feb 9th, 2010 2:44 pm | By

Nice. ‘Compassionate.’ Thoughtful. Caring.

The president of the US bishops’ conference has issued a reminder that New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that works with homosexuals and lesbians, “has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church.” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago added that New Ways Ministry fails to provide “an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching. Like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of church teaching,” the cardinal observed, New Ways Ministry does not speak for the Catholic faithful.

Because, of course, ‘Catholic teaching’ is that ‘homosexuals and lesbians’ are bad, nasty, dirty, ew, put it down, leave it alone, shun it, nasty, bad. Mind you it does of course hide and protect its own employees who stray into same-sex Sin, provided they do it with people who are underage and thus too weak to get the church into trouble – but that is not at all the same thing as treating adults who couple with other adults of the same sex as if they were human beings like any others as opposed to filthy criminals. The church knows what is right and what is not – thanks to its ‘teachings.’

Holding onto a shadow

Feb 8th, 2010 11:47 am | By

Der Spiegel takes a hard look at the Vatican’s secretive ways with abusive employees.

According to the instructions from Rome, the bishops were to deal very firmly with each individual case — so firmly, in fact, that everything would remain within the confines of the Holy Church…On the surface, the Vatican’s objective is to protect the sacrament of the confession. In reality, however, it is trying to uphold the Catholic Church’s claim to being a superior moral authority. Nothing can be allowed to besmirch this authority: not the sexual abuse of children and adolescents, committed by thousands of Catholic priests worldwide…

And there you have it – the Catholic church’s total moral failure, in a nutshell. The failure is total because if the Church actually had any superior moral authority it would instantly realize – it would be aware without even having to pause to realize – that this attempt was an effort to square the circle – was an exercise in meaninglessness. An organization cannot perpetrate gross harms on vulnerable people and then try to uphold its claim to being a superior moral authority by failing to prevent further such gross harms. It’s like trying to have your cake after you’ve eaten it by clinging like grim death to the empty plate. It can’t be done – it’s too late.

But the Church failed to realize that, thus revealing itself to be morally bankrupt, and actively assisting its employees to go on harming people. Secrecy about crimes against people have exactly that effect, and the Church cannot be such a moral imbecile that it is not aware of that fact. The result is that all it upheld is a façade of superior moral authority, behind which lurks suppurating moral rot of the most sinister kind. All it upheld is a glittering shell decorating a gang of child-abusers and their aiders and abettors.

Just get on with the gardening

Feb 7th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

Mark Vernon tells us that the key issue in Kant’s Critiques was understanding the limits of human knowledge.

When Kant said that Enlightenment was maturity this is what he meant, being able to live with this finitude and not reach out for false certainty. So we have Enlightenment humanism as scepticism and grappling with the reality of human knowledge and experience. This I would actually relate to a tradition within religion, though it is one lamentably in decline today. It is called the ‘apophatic’, meaning ‘negative way’. It stands in marked contrast to the ‘cataphatic’, meaning ‘positive way’, the strident assertions of indisputable religious dogma and divine truth. The apophatic is a way of approaching what is ultimately unknown by identifying what that unknown cannot be. In religion it says God is not mortal (immortal), not visible (invisible) – note, saying nothing positive about God.

Okay…but if you say nothing positive about God, how do you know it’s ‘God’ that you’re talking about? Or to put it another way, why is whatever the [?] you are talking about called ‘God’? Why that name in particular? Why not a different name, for a different subject, since this ‘God’ does seem to be a different subject. The ‘God’ that is usually meant by ‘God’ is not ‘that which no one says anything positive about’ – on the contrary. So why use that one name for two such different items?

Well, because we have to have ‘God,’ because it wouldn’t be respectable not to, so we have to hang onto it by simply doing away with all the rules and saying God is this, God is that, God is not this or that, God is everything, God is nothing, God is whatever. God is just whatever you want God to be, darling, and nobody can tell you otherwise. We can be apophatic one day and cataphatic the next and there is not a damn thing those pesky secular bastards can do about it.

Anthony Gottlieb is not much impressed by the whole ‘apophatic’ thing.

Consider, for example, “The Case for God”, the latest of 22 books on religion by Karen Armstrong, who was once a Catholic nun but now espouses a vague, universalist religion of compassion. In her opinion, God “is not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.” Her main idea is that the only authentic and defensible God is one who utterly transcends human understanding and therefore cannot be described at all…What is even more baffling is the idea that one can talk about a wholly indescribable God who cannot be said to “exist” but who nevertheless in some sense “is”.

Quite. Gottlieb goes on to Eagleton next (Armstrong and Eagleton should form an act of some sort, like Abbot and Costello). Same kind of thing. He concludes sagely: ‘A wiser response to the apparent inexpressibility of statements about God may be simply not to express them, and just get on with the gardening.’ That’s my view. If you’re going to be apophatic, why not just move on and do something else? What is the point of saying you don’t know and calling that ‘God’?

Drive-by insults

Feb 6th, 2010 4:48 pm | By

Andrew Brown does love to yank the chain of non-believers.

Judges are paid to discriminate among prisoners before them, and to distinguish those for whom prison is the right treatment from everyone else. Defendants of otherwise good character should obviously get different sentences to habitual recidivists. The real disagreement is whether being a devout Muslim (or Christian) is in itself a sign of good character. Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, though less important than his previously spotless record.

Right, Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, and by implication that its absence is a sign of bad character, or else why mention it at all? She didn’t say ‘you have a spotless record and you drink Ribena’ or ‘ ‘you have a spotless record and you wear trainers’; she didn’t make a random observation that no reasonable observer would construe as a claim about his character; she said ‘you are a religious man.


For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It’s evidence of bad character. For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It’s evidence of bad character.

Interesting, except that Sanderson said nothing like that (and much less did ‘those who think like him’) so one is left wondering how Andrew Brown knows it. No one isn’t, one is left marveling yet again at Andrew Brown’s fondness for the truculent and untrue passing insult.

In Sanderson’s world, judges should say things like “Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence.”

There’s another one. Not true, not pleasant, not justifiable.

I say this, of course, with the utmost affection.

This confusion of the epistemic with the political

Feb 5th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

Jerry Coyne and Orac have commented on Chris Mooney’s article on how to deal with anti-vaxxers but I’ll just add a thought.

Mooney asks what it would take to make the “vaccine-autism debate” (which isn’t a real debate) go away.

A Lancet retraction isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. For vaccine skeptics, that’s just more evidence of corruption and collusion in the medical establishment. Indeed, I doubt any individual scientific development has the strength to move these folks—because we aren’t dealing with a phenomenon that’s scientific in nature.

Quite right; we’re dealing with irrational immovable conviction. What to do?

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking…

As so often with Mooney, I have no idea what exactly he means by that. I do know vaguely what he means, because it’s obvious enough, and it’s all too typical – but I really don’t know exactly. I know he means we need everybody to be nice, and try to heal this ‘gap’ or ‘fissure’ or ‘polarity’ by being nice and looking into one another’s eyes and thinking ‘this is just another nice person like me, after all’…but I also know he doesn’t really literally mean that, because it’s too silly. But what does he mean? I asked in a comment there (which I can do there! because I’m not banned there! because it’s not The Intersection! it’s so exciting):

How? How is it possible to do that when, as you say yourself, “we’re really dealing with something very irrational here”? What does it mean to “encourage moderation” when one side won’t take any notice of evidence or argument? What does it mean to talk of a “polarized situation” as if the issue were fundamentally political rather than empirical? What use is it to import the language of political discussion and compromise into a pseudo-controversy over medical evidence? What reason is there to think that absolutely everything can be translated into the language of politics and “framing” and manipulation?

What does he mean by ‘moderation,’ do you suppose? What kind of moderation can proponents of vaccination resort to? Talking in really soft voices? Smiling while they talk? What? It is not clear, because Mooney (as so very often, or even always) didn’t make it clear. He just used some buzz words, and let it go at that. He’s very lazy about this stuff, when you get right down to it. He’s certainly not lazy in general; his first book was a triumph of energetic investigation. But he is very lazy about this; he thinks buzz words are all that’s necessary.

And he thinks everything is political. I think that’s where I disagree with him most profoundly – over this confusion of the epistemic with the political. I think ‘moderation’ on an empirical question is fundamentally meaningless, and I think making political noises about it just confuses things.

That’s the thought I wanted to add.

No ripples on the pond

Feb 5th, 2010 2:23 pm | By

Chris Mooney is seeking suggestions for his new gig.

I may as well make clear I am not going into this with the goal of having big arguments with leading New Atheists about science and religion.My position on this topic is well known…

No of course not – arguments are never what he wants. What he wants is to say what’s what, and have everybody listen quietly and nod soberly and say ‘Good idea, I never thought of it that way, I shall put your suggestions into effect immediately.’ He’s not at all interested in what people who don’t agree with him say. And if his position on this topic is not well known, that’s certainly not his fault, because god knows he’s been repeating it faithfully and imperturbably for lo these many months. That is precisely why I think he’s the wrong kind of person to host a podcast on inquiry. He’s not interested in inquiry.

The place for a woman is either at home or in the grave

Feb 5th, 2010 2:15 pm | By

Pakistan. A 13-year-old girl.

My brother used to tell me that the place for a woman is either at home or in the grave. I was always restricted to home. He said: “If you leave the house I’ll cut off your head and put it on your chest.” My brother had been to the local school and beaten the girls and the teachers. He said anyone who wanted to study was a friend of America. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted it so much that once I dreamt I was sitting in a hospital, working as a doctor. I wanted to help the poor, those who cannot afford medical fees.

Oh no – that’s not what her brother and her father had in mind for her, or for her younger sister, either.

My father and brother told me to carry out a suicide attack. They were pressuring me to do this. They told me: “If you do it you will go to paradise long before us.” I replied: “Why don’t you tell me I will go to hell long before you?”…They started beating me when I refused. They beat me non-stop. They made my life hell. I never had a single moment of happiness. They did everything other than kill me.

And as for that sister…