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.


Ignore that man between the pictures

Apr 29th, 2011 4:54 pm | By

Nick Cohen on republicanism v the monarchy in Time is very droll, because of a certain inconsequence on the part of the editors. It goes like this:

When the 18th century English dissenter Richard Price, friend of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, warned that fawning before royalty produced “idolatry as gross and stupid as that of the ancient heathens,” he aptly titled his denunciation “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country.”
Ha! Never mind all these pesky words about something or other, just look at the pretty snaps. Oooooooo she don’ahf look luvley in that tyara.
But whatever the complicating factors, only royal propagandists doubt that the marriage of this bland couple is failing to excite the nation.
Okye! I don’t know what “propagandist” means anyway, so I’ll just watch the nice video.
But if the media had taken their cameras to the beaches, parks and pubs of Britain, they would have found millions of others who no longer cared for the spectacle and maybe, just maybe, were beginning to agree with Price, Paine, Jefferson and Franklin that their country deserved something better.
Brilliantly funny, do admit.


Pop culture interlude

Apr 29th, 2011 12:28 pm | By

So James Spader is one of the group of possible successors to Steve Carrell. That would be fun. I thought he was brilliant in Boston Legal.

I liked the red mittens. The oven mitt thing was really mean. The red mittens repaired that.



This is not a job for bomb makers

Apr 28th, 2011 4:43 pm | By

Another thought about “Why Do We Need New Atheists?” (subtle way of announcing a desire to get rid of us, that title). The post is actually a pretty rich study in scapegoating and other forms of disguised hostility, so despite its nastiness and wrongness, it repays a close look.

(The disguised part really interests me. I’ve said before, probably more than once, that one thing I really dislike is hostility or rivalry that tries to dress itself up as its own opposite. I really hate it when people are obviously brawling or competing but pretend that they’re just joking or “teasing” or being absent-minded. I especially hate it when women do that, because it fits a stereotype about us.

This may be one reason Gnus get so much stick. We mostly don’t do that “oh I’m just a sweet little thing” routine – so we leave people plenty of room to pretend shock-horror at our failure to dissemble.)

There is a fear among New Atheists that moderating and dissenting voices are trying to erase the polemic as an avenue of approach. But that’s a polemical overreaction. No one is suggesting that we burn New Atheist books or silence their authors. Those bells have been rung. We can’t un-ring them, nor should we. The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.

On the one hand, no one is suggesting that we silence gnu atheist authors (and where would you get the authority to do that if you were suggesting that?), but on the other hand, this is not a job for bomb makers. In other words, actually yes, we do want you to be silent now, because it’s time to “clean up the battlefields” you created.

Only we didn’t create any battlefields. McLaren loves her some metaphors, and she lets them run away with her. We didn’t create any god damn battlefields, and there is nothing to clean up. What is she talking about? “The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making” – oh that – she’s talking about The Great Return to Conformity. She’s talking about resuming the status quo. She’s talking about restoring The Group to its former hegemony by rebuilding community and making alliances.

We know she’s doing that, because she’s saying we can’t do it. Thus we know she’s not talking about just ordinary life, because how could she possibly say we can’t help with that or that it’s not our job? She couldn’t – so she’s talking about a kind of community and alliance that of its nature excludes us. She’s doing her best, in an opaque way, to tell us we are too weird and extreme and abnormal to be part of the Community.

It’s sinister stuff, frankly. I don’t think she intended it to be, but I do think she has a sad lack of awareness about the resonances of her own rhetoric.

That’s my thought.



God is loving and holy

Apr 28th, 2011 11:13 am | By

Greta Christina pointed out a little nightmare of a post by William Lane Craig at his wittily-named blog “Reasonable Faith,” saying that genocide is ok because God decided.

I haven’t properly read Greta’s article yet because I wanted to read Craig first. I’m doing that now.

He says about the genocide of the Canaanites.

These stories offend our moral sensibilities.  Ironically, however, our moral sensibilities in the West have been largely, and for many people unconsciously, shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime.  The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.

What? The story violates our moral sensibilities but oh, haha, those moral sensibilities come from the place that says the story is fine.

Oh no you don’t. None of that, bub. That’s called having it both ways, or eating your cake and having it, or a contradiction.

The story violates our moral sensibilities because we have better moral sensibilities than the people who wrote the bible. We have the benefit of many centuries of thinking and learning and cumulative wisdom. We did not get them from the bible.

According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself,  He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.

How does Craig know this god is “holy and loving”? He doesn’t. I don’t know that about Craig’s god, and I don’t know that Craig knows it either. I don’t want to be subject to Craig’s cosmic dictator who can kill anyone he damn well feels like killing. I’m not going to agree to Craig’s PR for the dictator.

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

So then all children should be murdered. It totally makes sense – that way they’re guaranteed god’s grace, while if they live to get older, they might lose it, by being gay or an atheist or an imbiber of spirits. Those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy, so what possible reason could there be not to kill all children right now?

Anyway, the best news is, it turns out that Christianity is good while Islam is bad.

Christians believe that God is all-loving, while Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims.  Allah has no love for unbelievers and sinners.  Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately.  Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature.  He is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind.  By contrast Christians hold that God’s holy and loving nature determines what He commands.

So if god kills you tomorrow it’s because of god’s holy and loving nature, even if you don’t go to heaven like the babies and children but instead go to the bad place. You’re pleased, right?



Oh hai, why can’t the new atheists be nice?

Apr 27th, 2011 5:18 pm | By

Why can’t they, asks “interfaith” atheist (don’t ask me, I don’t know how that works) Chris Stedman via a guest post on his blog by someone called Karla McLaren. He says “It’s a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement.” I don’t agree. I think it’s just the 14 millionth installment of “new atheists are bad and mean ick.”

Atheism, McLaren informs us, is more visible thanks to those books by the four New Ones, or as she calls them, “the Fractious Four.” Yes really.

I call them the Fractious Four, which has a cool superhero ring to it (even though their superpower is to argue with everybody).

Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written polemics against religion, and true to the polemical form, they’ve taken a moral absolutist stance which asserts that religion is orders of magnitude more harmful than it is beneficial (if it is beneficial at all). Dennett is a philosopher, and his work is nuanced and, well, philosophical – and I often wonder why he’s included with the polemicists. However, he is, so on we go.

We do? Why do we? Why not not include Dennett if you think he doesn’t belong? Why swallow the clichés whole in order to barf them back at us, even the ones you don’t agree with?

The Fractious Four have put forward some very attention-grabbing ideas in a post-Twin Towers world, where many of us have seriously questioned the purpose and limits of faith and supernaturalism. However, the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them. But see, that’s the point of a polemic … you put forward the most extreme version of your argument, and you don’t make any room for moderating views.

A polemic is a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror. If it’s done skillfully, a truly masterful polemic is melded with a careful overlay of logic, scholarship, and verbal skill. A polemic is made to be powerful and arresting, and it can be a very beautiful thing indeed. But it’s not something you should make a career of, because it’s exhausting (both to create, and eventually, to witness).

And so on, and so on. It’s all like that – treacly and belligerent at the same time, and of course wildly inaccurate in the usual way of gnu-haters. This is the basin of warm sick that Stedman urges on our attention.

The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.

In order to move forward, we need to rely on more than mere polemics. How about if we try dialectics?[iii] Dialectics can be just as fun as polemics (and they require just as much skill), but dialectics have the added benefit of creating community, building intelligent synthesis out of seemingly intractable positions, and teaching people how to manage – rather than merely weaponize – their emotions.

It’s one long “shut up, ur doin it rong, stop doin it the way ur doin it and do it the way I do it, stop arguing and get busy creating community.” It’s written in a fey style so that it perhaps comes across as friendly, but it is in fact very unfriendly indeed. It’s packed with fiercely hostile language about argumentative atheists and their rage and extremism. With friends like these we’ve already got all the enemies we could possibly find room for.



Definitions

Apr 27th, 2011 12:40 pm | By

The question is, how do we decide what “new atheism” is? What is new atheism, who gets to decide, how do we know?

The answer turns out to be that we simply define it as that which we dislike. Easy. Circular, but easy.

Rob Knop for instance:

Do the New Atheists really believe that they aren’t being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion? Or, are the religious the “other” against whom any sort of rude behavior is justified?

There we go – easy. “The” New Atheists are – always and everywhere – being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion. End of story. Simple. “I dislike ‘New Atheism’ because ‘New Atheists’ be dickish and I know this because I dislike them and I dislike them because I know this.”

The anecdote=data version:

Thanks Josh – that is a really helpful description of New Atheism. I have a friend who is a New Atheist and I find it really tough to discuss religion rationally with him…. I fail to understand why he feels so strongly that all religion is bad, and also why he feels so strongly that religion undermines science.

I know someone who fits your description therefore all New Atheists fit your description.

The reliable Anthony McCarthy is a stalwart group-definer:

I use the term “new atheist” for atheists who demonstrate that they practice negative stereotyping of religious people, practice bigotry, false characterizations and similar, negative things.

He uses the term that way and then he proceeds to make large sweeping generalizations about “new atheists” plural, thus adding his mite to the bonfire being readied to fry the despised group. (I don’t mean “fry” literally, Joe. Relax.)

There’s the “they all don’t ever read anything” claim:

NA’s often complain that their intemperate approach is a “style.” I disagree. I think it’s a way of casually dismissing all the hard questions that thoughtful people (like Max Weber that I mentioned above) ask. The pose of NA’s isn’t just style, it’s contempt for everything outside of their small circle of nerdly concerns.

There’s the definition by someone called Raging Bee

The only thing “new” about the “New Atheists” is their new wave of often pointless obnoxiousness, and their willingness to say things that are often as insulting as they are dead wrong.

And on and on. You get the idea. The point is – there’s a faction of people who know one big thing, which is that they loathe and detest “the New Atheists,” and they define the group they hate by saying what it is they hate about them.

It’s not a very thoughtful or enlightening way to analyze a subject.



A death in the family

Apr 26th, 2011 3:15 pm | By

Bugger!!

The mother eagle at Norfolk Botanical Garden was hit by a plane and killed this morning.

The eaglets are alone on the nest; the father is in a tree nearby. (They’ll be ok. If the father can’t provide food the eaglets will be removed. They’re almost old enough to feed themselves anyway.)

Dammit.

Update: more here. (Starts with horrible goddy ad though. You’ve been warned.)



Be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush

Apr 26th, 2011 12:52 pm | By

Stephanie Z has an excellent comment on Josh Rosenau’s post about how I’m totally wrong about what he means by “the New Atheism.”

It’s worth remembering where this debate came from. Atheists, only recently starting to stand up and be counted in any number, are seeing the people who have been saying the same things that atheists have been saying for centuries (as noted in comment 5, then largely ignored) being told to hush up because they’re being noticed for once and that’s making trouble. These are frequently also the people who gave your rank-and-file atheist the courage to come out and who provide sympathy when coming out results in the crap it always results in. But hush, because what these other people are doing is really important.

Of course, it is important. But so is being supported and encouraged as an out atheist. So is being able to tell people how religion hurt you or those you love without having to put bows on it. So is being able to tell other people that they have a real choice to get out of abusive religions. So is being able to run for public office. So is being able to keep your job. So is being able to keep your kids.

But hush. And be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush. Be nice to the people who are telling you that you matter less than what they’re doing. Be nice to the people who are doing good work but only talk about why people like you are bad. Be nice to the people who might, someday let you eat at the grown-up table if you stay quiet enough at the children’s table first (and when there are no more grown-up problems you might interfere with). Hush and trust them, despite the fact that they’re calling you the problem.

Yeah, no. Atheists are being aggressive, in part, because they’re being told to go back to being passive. They’re being argumentative because there’s a constant onslaught of messages leveled at them and everyone they have to deal with that becomes the unquestioned social background if they don’t. They’re being rude because everybody is rude sometimes, and they’re not going to be left out if you’re not. They’re being condescending because you’ve been told this before in some form, but you can’t seem to move past the fact that someone insulted you in order to hear it.



Watch those assumptions

Apr 25th, 2011 12:39 pm | By

Josh Rosenau has reservations.

As I’ve said before, it’s hardly surprising that making a group more visible is a better way to build public acceptance than being less visible, and I support efforts to increase atheism’s visibility. But New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists – or nontheists more generally – to get the word out that they’re here and want to be taken seriously.

Yes it is…at least under the most usual and obvious definition of that much-used pejorative label “New Atheism.” The minimal definition of “New Atheism” is, surely,  atheism that makes a point of increasing atheism’s visibility. “New Atheism” means getting the word out that atheists are here and want to be taken seriously. So how could it not be the only way to do exactly that? It’s like saying being a bus driver is not the only way to drive a bus. You could work up exceptions, but it would be a bit precious and otiose.

No it’s pretty clear that what Rosenau is doing here is simply assuming that “New Atheism” means “atheism that is rude and aggressive and strident and mean.” That is one assumption too many.



In some tiny corner of the cosmos

Apr 25th, 2011 11:54 am | By

I wanted to say a few words about the pope’s Easter chat yesterday but I had too many words to say about too many other things so I didn’t get to it. Others have said a few words about it now, but I’ve only glanced over them so far because I wanted to say whatever it was that formed in my head when I first heard (in translation, on the BBC World Service) the salient passage, first. See? I know it’s old news; I’m late; but there was something I wanted to say.

It starts with the usual thing about the Logos. In the beginning was the. You know.

The creation account tells us, then, that the world is a product of creative Reason. Hence it tells us that, far from there being an absence of reason and freedom at the origin of all things, the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom.

No it doesn’t. It’s some words in a book. It purports to tell us something, but it doesn’t actually tell us in the sense the pope means. It’s some writing. I can say “In the beginning was the Ice Cream”; that doesn’t make it true; no more does the gospel of John make what it says true. It sure as hell doesn’t make it true that the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom.

Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.

The pope’s god has nothing to do with freedom, and damn little to do with reason or love. Again it’s just words – just logoi. Words are good but they’re not magic. Popes treat them as if they were magic. That’s their trade, I suppose.

As believers we answer, with the creation account and with John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom. Hence it is good to be a human person. It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it.

Yes it is. And that itself is an extraordinary and inspiring fact. The pope doesn’t know what he’s missing.



Cardinal to everyone: more power for us please

Apr 24th, 2011 5:15 pm | By

Outraged privilege squalls again. Outraged privilege wants even more privilege please, and no grumbling.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has used his Easter message to attack “aggressive secularism”…Cardinal O’Brien said the enemies of Christianity wanted to “take God from the public sphere”.

Whereas the cardinal and his all-male gang want to fill up the public square with their imagined god who endorses all their nasty encrusted hatreds and panics and secret bum-gropings. Well of course they do: that way they would have even more power than they already have. If they had enough power they could even shut up the journalists and bloggers and survivors who keep talking about all that child-rape and child-slavery.

The Cardinal said: “Perhaps more than ever before there is that ‘aggressive secularism’ and there are those who would indeed try to destroy our Christian heritage and culture and take God from the public square. Religion must not be taken from the public square. Recently, various Christians in our society were marginalised and prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs because they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle.”

Yes yes yes, they were “prevented” from throwing gays out of hotels and yanking their adopted children away on the vicious grounds that “they were not willing to publicly endorse a particular lifestyle.” Right – consensual relationships between adults evil, child-rape by priests a little rude perhaps but nothing to fret about.

Dr Evan Harris, a campaigner for the separation of Church and state, branded the Cardinal’s remarks “paranoid and unjustified”.

He said: “It is not ‘aggressive’ to call for an end to religious privilege in society and many people of faith agree with the call for the state to be neutral in religious matters.”

Andrew Copson also retorted.

He said: “What these attacks ignore is that campaigners for secularism in our public life are overwhelmingly motivated, not by anti-religious prejudice, but by a positive desire for equality and an equitable public sphere.

“These alarmist speeches, designed to stir up the faithful and foster a false narrative of persecution, are divisive and sectarian.”

Such attacks “obscured” the reality of the situation, he said. “The churches are seeking to defend a level of influence and privilege totally out of proportion to their significance,” Copson added.

Damn right.



1 for me, 1 for you, 1 for 6.7 billion people

Apr 24th, 2011 1:18 pm | By

I’m still faintly surprised by some of the reactions to Sam Harris’s book, and to the criticisms of it, so I re-read some this morning. I didn’t slap my brow and say “gosh it’s way better than I thought.” Nope.

Consider, for instance, p 199 n. 11.

…many people assume that an emphasis on human “well-being” would lead us to do terrible things like reinstate slavery…Such expectations are the result of not thinking about these issues seriously. There are rather clear reasons not to do these things – all of which relate to the immensity of suffering that such actions would cause and the possibilities of deeper happiness that they would foreclose.

That’s a terrible “argument” – it’s not an argument at all. It’s one of the many many places where he simply doesn’t make an argument, perhaps because he expects us to supply all the missing bits ourselves.

It is not self-evident that slavery would increase suffering overall – it is self-evident only that it would increase suffering for the slaves. Harris doesn’t even manage to say that much – and if he can’t manage that, what can he manage?

His defenders seem to think all that kind of thing is obvious. It isn’t.

Slavery doesn’t exist because people think “Aha, if some people were slaves, then everyone would be happier.” It exists because people think “If some people were slaves then we would be happier.” Harris’s note simply jumps right over that. He does that all the time, and that’s why the book is so irritating.

Take a look at pp 40-1, where he belatedly admits that “genuine ethical difficulties arise when we ask questions” about what’s good for other people as well as for me. He clears up that little difficulty as briskly as if it were a bit of lint on a sweater. Consider Adam and Eve. Surely they could have figured out how to maximize their well-being. There could be lots of ways to thrive, and ways not to, but they can do it

and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion people to this experiment?

Seriously. That’s what he said. I’m not making it up. Look for yourself.



Oh yes you did, oh no I didn’t

Apr 24th, 2011 12:22 pm | By

Curious incidents on the Open Letter to the NCSE and BCSE thread at Jerry Coyne’s. 428 comments at present and counting. A guy called Roger Stanyard, who works for the BCSE and has lately been telling Jerry and co. to stop dissing religion because, tried to explain about how the UK is different from the US. This was entirely beside the point, as several people tried to explain in return, but Stanyard doesn’t listen good.

Those of us that run the BCSE have no mandate or freedom whatsover to back New Atheism. A goodly number of our members are religious, or indifferent to religion or are uncomfortable with New Atheism.

If we limited membership to New Atheists we wouldn’t have any activists.

Ya…that’s super super interesting, but it’s not relevant, because oddly enough Jerry’s open letter doesn’t say “Dear BCSE please back New Atheism and please limit your membership to New Atheists.” What it says is: you keep heaping invective on New Atheists and tarring people like Richard Dawkins with opprobrium, and you’re losing allies as a result.

I for one tried to clear things up for Stanyard, more than once. I also tried to pin down the essence of his confusion.

What Roger Stanyard, and other accommodationists, seem to be saying is “because we at the N/BCSE have to avoid criticizing religion, therefore we want all scientists and friends of science also to avoid criticizing religion.”

This is not reasonable. That “therefore” makes no sense. It’s like asking that nobody who votes Democratic in preference to voting Republican ever criticize any Democrat.

His cogent and civil reply began

When are you going to get it into your thick skull that the United Kingdom is not the United States.

Nobody here gives a stuff about Democrats and Republicans or your culture wars.

The BCSE has no option but to take a radically different position from you.

Yes, thank you…Meanwhile and a good deal more significantly, he also attributed a surprising statement to Richard Dawkins; Dawkins turned up and asked him to substantiate it since he (RD) did not remember saying such a thing and found it highly unlikely; Stanyard said he got it from Larry Moran; Jerry asked Larry Moran; Larry Moran said Nope, I don’t remember saying that, I remember telling you not to bash atheists…and Stanyard demanded apologies all around. Go figure.

That’s not even all of it. It’s high-class ructions, I tell you what.



Priorities

Apr 23rd, 2011 4:09 pm | By

A priest named Roy Bourgeois publicly supports the ordination of women, and participated in the ordination of his friend Janice Sevre-Duszynska, for which the Vatican promptly excommunicated him. Then he went to a film festival that showed a movie on the subject, so the Maryknolls are kicking him out and plan to ask the Vatican to laicize him, i.e. take away his priesthood forever.

This swift and unequivocal action has never been the response of these same church leaders to the rape, sodomizing, sexual torture and torment of children — from infancy through adolescence — by thousands of male Catholic clergy worldwide.

It’s always interesting to see what the Vatican considers important and what it doesn’t.



Mark your calendars

Apr 23rd, 2011 2:39 pm | By

Anthony Grayling is going to be on The Colbert Report on Tuesday to talk about The Good Book.

That’s hitting the jackpot when it comes to promoting a book. It’s also likely to be pretty good fun in itself – like going on tv to have a chat with Alan Bennett, or Jonathan Miller, or John Cleese, or Michael Palin. I would be quite happy to do any of those things, or all four of them, and I would also be quite happy to go on tv to chat with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

By all accounts, Colbert is a very nice guy. I’ve met someone who once worked for the Report – she had gone from that job to being an admin at CFI. Julian and I were having dinner with her about the fourth day we were there, and she told us she’d worked for Colbert. Julian was a bit startled when I exclaimed “You worked for Colbert?” I had to try to explain to him the significance of Colbert. Anyway – she said he’s a truly nice guy, and very considerate of the employees.

Hey up for philosophy for the people, eh? A philosopher does Colbert; not bad!



How to count well-being

Apr 23rd, 2011 8:39 am | By

In the wake of some discussions of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape I’ve been dipping into a few other books on morality, all of which are (frankly) much more rewarding to read than the Harris book. Mary Whitlock Blundell’s Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: a Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics, for instance, the title of which is self-explanatory. Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue, which summarizes a lot of research in a number of fields. And Bernard Williams’s Morality. From the chapter on Utilitarianism:

For we are going to be able to use the Greatest Happiness Principle as the common measure of all and everybody’s claims, only if the ‘happiness’ involved is in some sense comparable and in some sense additive. Only if we can compare the happiness involved for different people and over different outcomes, and also put them together into some kind of General Happiness, can we make the thing work.

Just what I said, only of course not so well.

Bentham’s version, pleasure and the absence of pain, didn’t do the job, not satisfying the conditions of being calculable, comparable, and additive, or the condition

of being an indisputable objective: the more it looked like the sort of pleasure that could conceivably be dealt with in those quasi-arithmetical terms, the less it looked like something that any rational [person] must evidently be aiming at…Apart from anything else, there is the difficulty that many things which people actually include in the content of a happy life are things which essentially involve other values, such as integrity, for instance, or spontaneity, or freedom, or love, or artistic self-expression…

Well-being is not sufficient.



13 angry men

Apr 21st, 2011 5:31 pm | By

Five out of six men accused of gang-raping Mukhtaran Mai in 2006 have been acquitted by the Pakistan Supreme Court.

Nine years after the gang rape, Mai’s struggle for justice ended with the court ordering five of the six accused to be freed. A distraught Mai, who has won international acclaim for her bravery in a deeply chauvinistic society, said that the release of the men had put her life in danger.

It was such a pretty story. Her 12-year-old brother was accused, falsely, of having sex with a woman from another clan. To punish the brother, the village “elders” sitting as a tribal “court” decided Mai should be gang-raped, and so she was. 14 men were accused of carrying out the “sentence.” Only one has been found guilty.

“I am scared these 13 people will come back to my village and harm me and my family,” Mai said, in her remote home in the south of Punjab province. “I have lost faith in the courts and now I am leaving my case to the court of God. I am sure God will punish those who molested me.”

Mai has started a school for girls and a non-governmental organisation that promotes women’s education. She vowed that she would not flee her village, and would continue with her work.

It’s a fucking outrage.



Not a moment sooner, k?

Apr 21st, 2011 5:18 pm | By

David Barash wrote another pro-gnu-atheist post a couple of days ago, and Jacques Berlinerblau posted a chippy comment there. His comment was rather sinuous, but the upshot was that yes gnu atheists are just as horrible as everyone says so ha.

nsmyth made reference to “critical atheists” and she or he has perhaps finally identified the proper term to describe the many scholars who are nonbelievers themselves but who have serious reservations about New Atheist worldview.

These critical atheists–the list grows longer every day–are subjected to all manner of vitriol and invective by Gnus. Now, the infidel tradition is full of vitriol and invective so I am not entirely opposed to that sort of thing and not averse to giving it a spin myself. But the point raised by nsmyth stands: there just doesn’t seem to be any attempt by many NAs to think through these criticisms seriously.

It’s JUST vitriol and invective, a reflex like a gagging mechanism triggered by any criticism. That’s why it frustrates so many critical atheists (I assure you David this is not a small cohort and not lacking for serious scholars). Again, I have written a fair amount about this. You can read it if you like and if you do I would be more than happy to discuss it with you privately or publicly.

Love, Jack.

You see how it is: The gnu atheists – they do vitriol and invective, and they don’t think, plus they do vitriol and invective. I’ve written about it.

Well who could argue with that? Not I, certainly – but I did ask him for just a little in the way of specifics. Just a crumb, to be going on with.

“Again, I have written a fair amount about this.”

What did you say?

Really. Just a hint. Just one little paraphrase. So far you haven’t said a thing, you’ve simply scolded like a crow.

What did he say? Well, not “how dare you compare my scolding to that of a crow!” – but rather, something more civil but also more exigent and dismissive.
Always great to hear from you. Go to the CHE review I wrote about Hitchens’ God is Not Great. Then a piece in the old Washington Post Book World on Michael Novak’s No One Sees God.

Then read the book I wrote Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics. After that, I would urge you to read The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (written before the Gnus emerged, but should be of interest to you nonetheless).

There are other sources, but that’s enough for now. I have a book coming out soon on the subject. So head out to your local library, read up, and let’s talk when you have that all read. But not a moment sooner, k?

So the deal here is, anti-gnus get to do any generalized character-assassination they want to about gnu atheists, but if gnu atheists have the audacity to ask, “Like what?” then the anti-gnus are entitled to tell the gnus to go read everything and shut up in the meantime.

This is the sophisticated nuanced vitriol-free scholarship that is supposed to be so much better than what the Gnus do.

Meh.



Blair v Hitchens

Apr 20th, 2011 3:32 pm | By

The New Statesman has a lot of articles on religion. This is old news; I just thought I’d mention it.

It has a lot of Name people saying why they believe in god. Why? Because

In our increasingly secular society, many religious people feel their voices are not heard.

So the Staggers hands them a microphone. The bishops in the House of Lords and all those “faith” schools aren’t enough; their voices have to be even louder.

Cherie Blair, barrister
It’s been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.

See…that’s why we get irritated. Her heart doesn’t know it to be true. Hearts don’t know things. She means something else – not literally heart, but something like the bit of her head that doesn’t feel like doing joined-up thinking. But whatever bit of her anatomy it is, it doesn’t know what she says it knows. She has a woolly “understanding” of something she can’t “explain” yet somehow the woolly bit of her brain “knows” it to be true. The hell it does.

Peter Hitchens, journalist
I believe in God because I choose to do so. I believe in the Christian faith because I prefer to do so.

Now that I don’t mind so much; it has the virtue of honesty. One doesn’t have to peel away annoying bullshit about knowing with your heart.

(You thought I meant the other Blair v Hitchens, didn’t you. Good joke eh?)



Another interview

Apr 20th, 2011 3:02 pm | By

I mentioned that interview I did for Humanistpodden the other day; here it is. Johan is remarkably knowledgeable about inter-atheist quarrels, among other things.

Update: And another thing, as long as I’m in me me me vein. I’m now a columnist for Free Inquiry. The first column will be in the August-September issue.