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.

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.


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.


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.

Jesus said some good things

Apr 20th, 2011 12:26 pm | By

Chris Stedman is bizarrely indignant that some people disagree with him. Apparently if he writes an article for the Huffington Post, it’s somehow wrong and out of line to write a blog post that disputes it. Why would that be the case? What rule says that Chris Stedman’s articles on the Huffington Post are off-limits to disagreement? I thought it was pretty well known by now that if you write something that gets posted on the internet, there’s always a chance that someone will disagree with it.

Chris did three updates at Facebook to express this “you disagree with me! you really disagree with me!” outrage, along with a good few comments on same. The first, on my post, says

Hmm. Some of the comments on this… Well, I’m glad my “personality flaws” are diagnosable over the internet! Who needs therapy? Hey, at least I’m a master in jedi mind tricks? Okay, but seriously: I’d respond, but I’m about to give a talk at Carnegie Mellon. Perhaps some people who actually know me have some thoughts they’d like to share? Or, you know, perhaps this is best left alone. #dontfeedthetrolls

The second says

Um, woah. Came back from giving a speech / having dinner with the awesome folks at Carnegie Mellon Aha!: Atheists, Humanist, Agnostics to find myself at the center of SIGNIFICANT DISAGREEMENTS all over the atheist blogosphere.

The third (as I mentioned in a comment) says

Who knew that calling people to the ideals of love and compassionate action could ignite controversy?! Oh yeah, Jesus. Lulz. Oh internet, let’s move on to more important things now, shall we? (Like, you know, acting in love and compassion…)

That last is a funny question. “Who knew that calling people to the ideals of love and compassionate action could ignite controversy?!” Think about it.

Ok I’ll bite; I knew. I can explain why, too - one reason is the implied claim that the speaker is good and the recipient of the message is not; that the speaker is loving and compassionate and the recipient is something else. There are others: the suggestion to stop doing one thing and do another instead; the backround campaign of vilification of gnu atheists which makes this kind of positioning seem at least suspect; the fact that that kind of pious advice has more than a whiff of churchy missionary sanctimonious versions of “compassion” that not everyone admires; and so on.

Here’s a blunt statement to motivate Chris to make more outraged updates: not everybody wants “love and compassion” from strangers. As a matter of fact I think most people don’t want that. Love and compassion from strangers is intrusive and presumptuous; it’s too much; it’s not what’s needed or wanted. Chris probably knows that, actually, at some level – I don’t suppose he approaches people saying “I bring love and compassion!” But he doesn’t seem to know that talking about it in the way he does is too close to doing exactly that. There’s a vanity and self-display to it that is really not all that admirable. Check out Matthew 6:3 if you don’t believe me.

Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating?

Apr 19th, 2011 11:17 am | By

I’m going to disagree with Chris Stedman again. Let me preface my disagreement by saying he’s obviously a good guy, a better one than I am. There that’s out of the way; now let me shred him.

No but seriously. He’s a good guy but being a good guy isn’t enough. One has to learn that people have their own plans and projects and ways of doing things. Chris seems to have a missionary streak that prevents him from understanding that.

the last ten years have seen me change my philosophy in several dramatic ways — from born-again Christian to rejectionist atheist to my current work as a Secular Humanist and interfaith activist –

What’s a rejectionist atheist? It sounds nasty. Is it meant to sound nasty? Yes, I think so, a little. It probably means “an atheist who rejects theism” and is meant to contrast with the kinder, gentler, warmer sort of atheist who is an interfaith activist. And this is where the missionary note creeps in, already – this hint that rejecting atheism is not ok because the right thing to do is “interfaith activism.” Atheists who do interfaith activism are a rare breed, though, so I think Chris is being a little too stringent here.

As the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard to plan and lead a service trip to work at the CRYP last month.

And they did good things there, and that’s nice, but…

But it’s not the only way to make the world a better place, and it’s not something everyone wants to do, and the reasons for that are not just laziness or callousness or worldly ambition. I, for one, am uneasy about the noblesse oblige aspect. I don’t like it; it makes me feel squirmy. That’s just one angle on all this that Chris overlooks. He likes up close and personal stuff; good; but not everyone does, and more to the point, not everyone wants groups of Harvard students moving in.

Just a few days ago, I organized and ran a community service project for the American Humanist Association‘s (AHA) annual conference — the first time the AHA has featured one at its annual conference. After years of attending interfaith conferences and Humanist/atheist conferences but only encountering community service events at the former, I realized that if my community wants to be seen as equally ethical individuals, we will need to make good on our values. That we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion — for our own sake, if not in respect to how we’re perceived by others.

But community service events aren’t the only way to do that, and maybe they’re not the best way. “Charity” isn’t the best way to deal with social problems. It may be more uplifting for the participants, but that’s a seriously crappy reason for thinking it’s the best way.

This is a call to Humanists and atheists everywhere: Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people’s mouths are?

This is a reply from one atheist: Different people have different talents. Division of labor is a good thing. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to be told to stop doing one thing and do another instead.

Shut up so that you won’t have to shut up

Apr 18th, 2011 11:42 am | By

Another thing about Ruse’s claim.

Most of all I detest the New Atheism because I think it is playing into the hands of the Religious Right.

But if you decide it’s Forbidden to say certain things lest you “play into the hands of the Religious Right” then you are already playing into the hands of the Religious Right. If you give up the right to free speech as a precaution against theocracy then you are already in a theocracy. It doesn’t make sense to give up secular rights in order to hang on to secular rights.

I don’t want the religious Right deciding what I can say. I don’t want to defer to their sensitivities or their unreasonable beliefs. I don’t want to check what I say for acceptability to the religious Right before I go public with it.

Ruse is arguing for burning the village to save the village. No thanks; I’d rather just hang on to the village.

Dave Barash made a similar point on Ruse’s post:

The argument that we shouldn’t call out the incompatability between science – any science, including evolutionary biology – and religion for fear that this will compromise our constitutional right to teach the former strikes me as logically fallacious, legally naive, pedagogically vapid and intellectually cowardly.

I couldn’t possibly comment.

Another sober reasoned argument

Apr 17th, 2011 5:33 pm | By

Oh no he didn’t, did he? Seriously? Again?

Yes, he did. I know it’s hard to believe, but he did. Yet again, the same thing – the self-obsession, the artless confiding of boring trivial details about his precious Self, the pompous kvetching, the wondering why he can’t stop, the repetition, the childish sneering, the bad reasons.

By now you know who “he” is – Michael Ruse, of course. Michael Ruse pitching yet another absurd embarrassing fit about the dreaded nooo atheists and their failure to do what he tells them.

He’s desperate for attention, so I shouldn’t give it to him, but on the other hand, he’s also publicly self-destructing, so if he gets more attention who knows, maybe a mental health professional will intervene.

Now…heeeeeeere’s Rusey.

I keep swearing off talking about the New Atheists, but like quitting smoking it is easier said than done.  It’s not really that I object to their criticizing me non-stop.  I do rather belong to the school of “so long as you spell my name right” – although interestingly, given that I have a name of only four letters, the misspellings are rife.  (Russe, Russo, Rose, Roose, Rooze, Rouse, and many more.)  In fact I take a certain pride in the fact that our blog, Brainstorm, thanks in no small degree to the splendid efforts of my fellow blogger Jacques Berlinerblau, seems now to be even more hated than Biologos, a Templeton Foundation-supported, Christian blog, founded by Francis Collins, now head of the National Institute of Health.

Good mix of self-importance, anger, vanity, and surrealism, isn’t it.

The latest outcry is by one of the junior New Atheists (in other words, not one of the big four of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) writing from Australia – picked up and intensified (especially in the nastiness towards Jacques and me) elsewhere

And so on, blah blah blah blah – nearly identical to the ones we’ve seen about five times in the last few months. The New Atheism is playing into the hands of the Religious Right; the only thing to do about the Religious Right is let it have its way in everything, like an angry baby twenty feet high; therefore The New Atheism is the enemy.

That’s all bullshit, frankly. If that were really the reason he would try hard to convince us. He doesn’t do anything remotely like that – he jumps up and down in front of us screeching insults and saying “tryandgetme!” I don’t believe for a second that he does all this McCarthyesque blackguarding because he thinks we’re the stepping stone to theocracy.

What a chump. Honestly.

Books like yours balkanize the world

Apr 17th, 2011 11:01 am | By

Robert Winston says the Templeton Prize is just fine, no problem, what’s the big deal, relax, take a chill pill, don’t get your knickers in a twist, why do you have such an attitude. Sam Harris says religious language is unscientific in its claims for what is true. Winston says there’s no such thing as “the truth.” Harris says we can still recognise falsehood. Winston says

I suppose I really wonder why you’re so angry.


Yes really; he says that. Maybe not that abruptly and inconsequentially – that may be editing – but those are the words. Harris attempts to laugh off this sudden rudeness, but Winston isn’t having it. “You write angrily, too,” he says. Furthermore,

books like yours and [Richard Dawkins's] God Delusion balkanise the world a good deal more, because they polarise views. The God Delusion has caused very aggressive reactions from [people who] previously weren’t aggressive.

Got that? The books of Dawkins and Harris caused very aggressive reactions – just as Salman Rushdie’s Naughty Book caused other very aggressive reactions and Theo Van Gogh’s movie caused others and Lars Vilks’s cartoon caused others and the Motoons caused others and so on. We people who offend religious believers in their organs of religiosity are at fault for being so offensive and we are the cause of any aggressive reactions that ensue. It’s not that religious believers are Spoiled by the longstanding custom of treating religion as special and taboo so they now feel entitled to permanent deference; it’s not Privilege; no, it’s that people who try to discuss the subject openly are creators of aggression.

No option when Allah and his Messenger have decreed a matter

Apr 17th, 2011 10:02 am | By

Andrew Gilligan tells us that the Muslim Council of Britain says…well actually I’m not sure what he tells us it says, and I can’t find the statement itself so that I can say what it says as opposed to what Gilligan says. Frankly he could have done a better job with this – he should have included a link and he should have put the crucial bit inside quotation marks so that we would know who said what. As it is it isn’t clear. The words “women,” “niqab,” and “veil” are not inside quotation marks, so I’m left wondering exactly what the MCB said.

Here’s Gilligan’s unhelpful summary:

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said that not covering the face is a “shortcoming” and suggested that any Muslims who advocate being uncovered could be guilty of rejecting Islam.

In a statement published on its website the MCB, warns: “We advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution on this issue, since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief.

“Not practising something enjoined by Allah and his Messenger… is a shortcoming. Denying it is much more serious.”

See? You can’t tell what the MCB said! Gilligan didn’t even specify “not covering the face” is a “shortcoming” for women, so we can’t tell if the MCB said that. Sloppy; very sloppy.

I can’t find the statement on the MCB site, either; maybe they’ve taken it down now. I can find lots of people quoting Gilligan, but not the primary source. This is annoying.

At any rate – if the MCB did say what Gilligan seems to be saying they did, that’s interesting and worth noting. The quoted passage from the Koran is a flawless bit of theocratic tyranny:

The statement quotes from the Koran: “It is not for a believer, man or woman, that they should have any option in their decision when Allah and his Messenger have decreed a matter.”

In other words, “believers” (who are not allowed to stop being “believers,” don’t forget, on pain of summary execution) have to do whatever clerics tell them to do. Period.

Other signatories of the statement include Imran Waheed, spokesman of the extremist group Hizb ut Tahrir and several other extremists including Haitham al-Haddad, who has denounced music as a “prohibited and fake message of love and peace”. All 27 signatories, who describe themselves as “Islamic groups and scholars,” are male.

Of course they are. God hates women.

The morality of the gaps

Apr 16th, 2011 12:53 pm | By

Kenan Malik is not bowled over by Sam Harris on morality.

Harris is nothing if not self-confident. There is a voluminous philosophical literature that stretches back almost to the origins of the discipline on the relationship between facts and values. Harris chooses to ignore most of it…It is one thing to want to “start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and can find helpful”, something that many of us, including many of those boring moral philosophers, seek to do. It is quite another to imagine that you can engage in any kind of conversation, with any kind of audience, by wilfully ignoring the relevant scholarship because it is “boring”.

I share that view. (I agree with Polly-O!) The breeziness of the attempt to settle complicated issues while ignoring the existing scholarship is grating.

“How does Harris establish that values are facts?” He describes an utterly crappy life, and an utterly blissful one. See? Facts.

It is a kind of argument that suggests that Harris might have done well to spend a bit more time immersed in all the boring stuff…The insistence that because it seems obvious that rape and murder are bad, and that wealth and security are good, so there must be objective values, seems about as plausible as the argument that because there are gaps in the fossil record, so God must have created Adam and Eve. 

Kenan sums up:

Creating a distinction between facts and values is neither to denigrate science nor to downgrade the importance of empirical evidence. It is, rather, to take both science and evidence seriously. It is precisely out of the facts of the world, and those of human existence, that the distinction between is and ought arises, as does the necessity for humans to take responsibility for moral judgement. 

I did a review of the book myself a few months ago.

Grayling interviewed

Apr 16th, 2011 11:36 am | By

Matthew Adams interviewed Anthony Grayling for the New Humanist. He met the same fella I met.

The couple of hours I spend with him reveal a warm and generous character, capable of being both expansive and associative, while retaining a sense of measure, order and precision.

With an additional element I didn’t meet.

 That order, however, is not much in evidence in his office. It is a catastrophe of books and papers, though in common with people who inhabit catastrophes of books and papers, he is keen to point out that he knows where everything is.

Ah yes that catastrophe of books and papers; I inhabit that too, but I don’t point out that I know where everything is, because alas I don’t. Most things, perhaps, but not everything.

Anthony is happy to concede that the Bible contains some sound moral lessons and moments of great beauty (his favourite being the Song of Solomon), but for him the whole thing is disfigured by phrases such as “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”. His disdain for the notion of submission before a deity is put with characteristic force: “Just obey, just submit. The usual rather cowed posture of human beings toward divinity in the hope that it won’t inflict too many earthquakes or tsunamis or plagues in the near future.”

The more force behind that observation, the better. It needs to be made with force. The notion in question is one of the worst humans have come up with, and props up many of the others; it’s poisonous; it lurks behind hierarchy and oppression and mindlessness; it stinks.

Adams wonders “why Anthony feels it important to make the case for free thought at this particular moment.” The church fought back hard in the 16th and 17th centuries, Anthony explains, rather like a cornered rat.

“And I think we’re seeing something rather similar at the moment, with events like 9/11. These have just dragged the fig leaf off the claims that religion makes to be a positive and peaceful presence in society, so that people now who never had a religious view or were just a bit disdainful of it are now speaking out frankly and bluntly, and being called militant atheists and fundamentalist atheists and so on.”

The philosophically illiterate charge of fundamentalist atheism has been leveled against many of the figures – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens – with whom Anthony has been aligned (and among whom he is “proud to be counted”).

As I have noted before. People who detest putative fundamentalist atheists will be disppointed if they hope to include Anthony on their side of the Great Split.

He hopes the book, Adams says, ”will help to make the case that a spiritual life can be lived without religion”:

The churches have been so successful in monopolising spirituality. But a walk in the country, a visit to an exhibition, dinner with a friend, or just having a quiet drink in the evening – those are spiritual exercises too. The humanist tradition recognises this, and is much more generous and sympathetic about human nature and its needs and desires. And it recognises that there are as many ways of leading good and meaningful lives as there are individuals to live them.

He ought to know; he lives about twenty of them himself.