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.

A pretty story out of Pakistan

Apr 29th, 2012 4:27 pm | By

Compassion is at the heart of every great religion. (Karen Armstrong)

That’s good, because if it weren’t, religious zealots might do some really horrible things now and then.

A British aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan in January has been found dead, the Foreign Office has said.

Khalil Dale, 60, who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was kidnapped in Quetta, south-west Pakistan.

The body of the Muslim convert was found in an orchard in Quetta with a note saying he had been killed by the Taliban, local police said…It is understood the militants holding Mr Dale had asked for a very large ransom which could not be paid.

The BBC doesn’t say so, but other headlines I saw said he was beheaded.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “He had many friends around the world and regularly travelled back to Dumfries where he was well known and loved.”

He had worked for the ICRC and the British Red Cross for many years, carrying out assignments in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

British Red Cross chief executive Sir Nick Young said Khalil first worked overseas for the Red Cross in 1981 in Kenya, where he distributed food and helped improve the health of people affected by severe drought.

He also worked in Sudan before his posting to Pakistan.

Sir Nick added: “He was a gentle, kind person, who devoted his life to helping others, including some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

So, to be perfectly honest, really the last kind of person who should be kidnapped and then murdered when the money wasn’t forthcoming. Most of us aren’t like that; I’m certainly not; people who are like that shouldn’t be murdered.

Shiela Howatt, who worked with Mr Dale when he was a staff nurse at Dumfries Infirmary in the 1990s, said he was “no stranger to danger”, and had previously been captured in Mogadishu.

“He was an absolutely lovely person devoted to caring for others less fortunate than himself,” she told the BBC.

“He spent his time in war-torn countries where help was needed, where people were desperate and that was Ken’s role in life.”

Mrs Howat, who knew Mr Dale for 25 years, said his fiancee Anne, who is also a nurse, lives in Australia.

The MP for Dumfries and Galloway, Russell Brown, said he also counted Mr Dale as a friend.

“We were all hoping for a somewhat more satisfactory end, but dare I say my thoughts are also tinged with a degree of anger,” he said.

“He went out to do good work in a foreign land, helping people out there as he’s done for many years in different parts of the world, and he gets captured, kidnapped, and meets a horrific death.”

Bad. Very bad.





(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Shermer and Stenger say

Apr 29th, 2012 11:20 am | By

As promised, from Victor Stenger’s Quantum Gods (Prometheus 2009).

First, from the Foreword by Michael Shermer. On a book tour in the spring of 2004 he met the producers of the documentary (although I would call it a “documentary”) What the Bleep Do We Know?

What the Bleep Do We Know? went on to become one of the highest grossing documentary films of all time…The explanation is to be found in the fact that the film is not really about quantum physics. The documentary’s central motif is that we create our own reality through will, thought, and consciousness, which, according to the “experts” who appear as talking heads throughout the film (most of whom are not scientists, let alone quantum physicists), depends on quantum mechanics, that branch of physics so befuddling even to those who do it for a living that it can be invoked whenever something supernatural or paranormal is desired. [p 7]

He quotes University of Oregon physicist (ret’d) Amit Goswamy saying the material world is nothing but movements of consciousness and that he chooses moment by moment his experiences.

I publicly challenged Dr Goswami to leap out of a twenty-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground’s tendencies. [p 8]

He cites Deepak Chopra and J.Z. Knight, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff. He asks Victor Stenger if the Penrose-Hameroff conjecture (about microtubules and stuff) has any merit.

Stenger explained to me that the gap between sub-atomic quantum effects and large-scale macrosystems is too large to bridge. [p 9]

In other words, no.

Stenger explains in the preface what “quantum spirituality” is.

The primary theme of the quantum spirituality movement is that “we make our own reality.” This principle is the subject of many book in which the authors grandly claim a new “paradigm” in our understanding of the nature of reality, with the human mind somehow tuned into a “cosmic consciousness” that pervades the universe. [pp 14-5]

Ok, now I get it. When I say that I too think I’m part of something much bigger than my own self, and cite the species, and animals, and living organisms, and the cosmos, and history, I’m not talking about what quantum spirituality people are talking about when they say they are part of something bigger than their own selves. They’re talking about something else; they’re talking about being somehow tuned into a “cosmic consciousness” that pervades the universe.

Yes. I don’t think we make our own reality, and I don’t think I’m somehow tuned into a cosmic consciousness that pervades the universe.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Finding quantum consciousness

Apr 28th, 2012 4:30 pm | By

A commenter on The golden tree of bullshit said some things about Quantum Consciousness which I don’t understand.

All my life I’ve lived in both the physical and spiritual world leaving me a bit spacey. I’ve always known I was part of something bigger than my own self but had to call the feeling God or Goddess even though the names didn’t fit. After much research I found Quantum Physics which calls what I feel the Quantum Consciousness. At last a scientific explanation for what I do and who I am.

I don’t understand any of that, to tell the truth. As I said in reply, I too know I’m part of something bigger than my own self, in fact many things -

The human species, the animal kingdom, the layer of life on this planet, the galaxy, the cosmos…History; the loose community of people who like to read and think and talk about stuff; nature…and more.

But I certainly don’t have to call the feeling (and it’s not just a feeling, it’s an obvious fact) god, nor does it leave me a bit spacey. (Other things do that.) I can’t begin to understand what that or what Connie mentions has to do with quantum physics, or why quantum physics would call what Connie feels quantum consciousness. I’m lost in a maze here.

So of course I turned to my friend, Google, which offered me Deepak Chopra (just as I expected), and Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose. I have no idea whether the latter item makes any kind of sense or not. Google also offered me Victor Stenger, with whom I once shared the weird Hyatt view-of-the-air-terminal elevator in Orlando last month, and who gave me the fish eye both times I spoke to him. Stenger says it’s bullshit, which is what I thought.

A new myth is burrowing its way into modern thinking. The notion is spreading that the principles embodied in quantum mechanics imply a central role for the human mind in determining the very nature of the universe. Not surprisingly, this idea can be found in New Age periodicals and in many books on the metaphysical shelves of book stores. But it also can appear where you least expect it, even on the pages of that bastion of rational thinking,The Humanist .

The assertion is made that quantum mechanics has ruled invalid the materialistic, reductionist view of the universe, introduced by Newton in the seventeenth century, which formed the foundation of the scientific revolution. Now, materialism is replaced by a new spiritualism and reductionism is cast aside by a new holism.

The myth of quantum consciousness sits well with many whose egos have made it impossible for them to accept the insignificant place science perceives for humanity, as modern instruments probe the farthest reaches of space and time.

…alas, quantum consciousness has about as much substance as the aether from which it is composed. Early in this century, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity destroyed the notion of a holistic universe that had seemed within the realm of possibility in the century just past. First, Einstein did away with the aether, shattering the doctrine that we all move about inside a universal, cosmic fluid whose excitations connect us simultaneously to one another and to the rest of the universe. Second, Einstein and other physicists proved that matter and light were composed of particles, wiping away the notion of universal continuity. Atomic theory and quantum mechanics demonstrated that everything, even space and time, exists in discrete bits – quanta. To turn this around and say that twentieth century physics initiated some new holistic view of the universe is a complete misrepresentation of what actually took place.

The final sentence of the piece:

The myth of quantum consciousness should take its place along with gods, unicorns, and dragons as yet another product of the fantasies of people unwilling to accept what science, reason, and their own eyes tell them about the world.


Well I’ll just go on realizing I’m a part (a very damn small one) of a lot of other bigger things, and let it go at that.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Mona Eltahawy defends her article

Apr 28th, 2012 12:14 pm | By

Yes it makes us look bad but we have to do it anyway.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Donohue to citizens: stfu

Apr 28th, 2012 11:51 am | By

I promised to pay more attention to Bill Donohue, so here goes. (It’s going to be irritating, doing this; the fingernails on a blackboard kind of irritating. The fact that he’s the only one who talks but he still finds it necessary to quote himself as if he were another person – that’s going to be very irritating.) He says Catholics can do whatever they want to so shut up.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue comments on the right of Catholic institutions to determine their own prerogatives:

If a racist Catholic were disinvited from speaking at the commencement exercises of a Catholic college, the only relevant issue would be why the invitation was extended in the first place. But when a pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage Catholic, Victoria Kennedy (the widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy), was disinvited from giving the commencement address at Anna Maria College, the issue was not why she was invited in the first place—it was the decision to disinvite her. That’s because many liberal Catholics are angered by racism and tolerant of abortion. Worse is the spectacle of non-Catholics like Faithful America petitioning the public to get Worcester Bishop Robert McManus (who properly intervened in this matter) to allow Mrs. Kennedy to speak.

You see what I mean about irritating. How would you like it if I said at the top of every post, “Butterflies and Wheels blogger Ophelia Benson comments on [whatever it may be]“? Whom would I fool if I did that? No one. Yo, Bill, you can skip that part – we know it’s you talking, we know there’s not a third party telling us it’s you – just say what you have to say and sign your name to it, that’s all. No need for the fake introduction by a pretend ghost.

So, what he said – check out that “Worse is” – he’s saying that it’s bad that many liberal Catholics are angered by racism and tolerant of abortion. He’s saying Catholics should be tolerant of racism and angered by abortion.

Then he’s saying that what Catholic bishops do is none of our business. Yes it is. They interfere with government. They violate their tax-exempt status by telling parishioners how to vote. They all but wrote parts of the health care bill. What they do is very much our business.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Mine is better!!

Apr 28th, 2012 11:17 am | By

Cristina Odone was very annoyed a couple of weeks ago that religions she takes to be inferior in some unspecified way are sometimes counted as Big Serious Grown-up religions like Catholicism.

Saint Morwenna, who in the 6th century built a church on a cliff with her bare hands, must be turning in her grave. Her beloved Cornwall, the last redoubt of Celtic Christians, is to teach witchcraft and Druidry as part of RE. The county council regards her religion (and that of other Cornish saints such as Piran and Petroc) as no better than paganism.

And? So what? If that’s true (which I doubt), what of it? Why shouldn’t Religious Education simply teach about all religions (or as many as there is time for in the curriculum) impartially? The county council is a branch of government, and as such, ought to be secular. The county council isn’t a branch of the Church of England…much less of Odone’s favored religion.

 When the BBC’s The Big Questions asked me to join its panel of religious commentators two years ago, I was taken aback to find it included a Druid. Emma Restall Orr rabbited on inoffensively about mother nature, but I was shocked that her platitudes were given the status of religious belief by the programme makers. Ms Restall Orr exults in her website that the media has stopped seeing Druidism “as a game” and now invites her on serious faith and ethics programmes from ITV’s Ultimate Questions to Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and Sunday Programme.

Well I’m shocked that Odone’s platitudes are given the status of serious thinking worth a spot in major media. Are Catholic platitudes really better (or more serious) platitudes than Druid platitudes? Odone gets invited on “serious faith and ethics programmes” even though she’s confused enough to think that “faith and ethics” make a natural and sensible pair, so why shouldn’t Orr be likewise?

H/t Roger.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The golden tree of bullshit

Apr 28th, 2012 10:34 am | By

Mark Vernon, always eager to plow new ground and alert us to new insights and ways of looking at the world, asks

Is it just me or has the dialogue between science and religion become a bit stale?

Ok I was joking. That question is staler than last year’s bread. The very idea that there is such a thing as “the dialogue between science and religion” is not only stale but also blatant propaganda by pro-religion types who are desperate to convince everyone that religion’s claims to discover truths about the world are every bit as reasonable as those of science. It’s unpardonably naïve to talk about “the dialogue between science and religion” as if it were an obvious, sensible, reasonable thing with no trace of an agenda or vested interest. It’s unpardonably naïve to talk about it without pausing to thank the Templeton Foundation for all the cash.

The bulk of the article is the usual slush about talking stones and spiritual nature and listen to the music and how evil is materialism. There’s one item that sticks out though.

Barfield argued that we need to recover our full imaginative capacities if we are deeply to know that the world is alive. Matter, he believed, would then be seen for what it once was, as an expression of spirit. (“Matter” is linked to “mater”, or mother, remembered in the expression, mother earth.) This might not be so difficult to achieve because, actually, we experience it every day. When you perceive the matter called a human being speaking, you spontaneously know those perceptions as one person communicating with you, another person. You do not have a theory of other minds, as some philosophers have proposed, driven by a flattening scientistic ideology. We know such matter as spirited people – as souls, you might say.


When you perceive the matter called a human being speaking, you spontaneously know those perceptions as one person communicating with you, another person. You do not have a theory of other minds, as some philosophers have proposed, driven by a flattening scientistic ideology.

That’s one of the most willfully mindless, incurious statements I’ve seen in awhile. “You do not have a theory of other minds” – yes you do! Of course you damn well do. It’s a measurable stage of development*, and if you never acquire it, that means you are autistic. Not having it is a crippling disability for a human. It’s important to understand this, and it’s interesting. Sneering at it as a product of “a flattening scientistic ideology” is revoltingly know-nothing and anti-intellectual.

*You know those experiments – the researcher shows the child a crayon (say), then puts it in a cookie box (say), then a new person comes in and the researcher asks the child where the new person will look for the crayon. Until about age 4 (I think) children always say the new person will look in the cookie box. After that age they realize the new person will be fooled by the cookie box. It’s the difference between understanding that other people don’t know what you know, and not understanding that.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Bruce on Day Five – Monday: Night of the Wankers…

Apr 27th, 2012 5:08 pm | By

A guest post by Bruce Everett

I’m sure you Americans in the readership have the same phenomena where you are, albeit with different tourists, most probably the English; ‘FAWCET-FAWCET-FAWCET-WELL-HOWDY-PARDNER-BATHROOM-FAWCET-MCDONALDS!’

Do you ever get sick of visitors to your country overusing your words, and using them wrong? Technically wrong; wrong connotations; wrong situation; mismatched nuance and misjudged tone?


This is what you look like when you overuse the lingo. It’s not a good look, mate.

I tried preventing this before it even had a chance to happen with CFI’s Debbie Goddard, by confounding her with complete nonsense, and I think it worked. If you ever get the chance to meet her, ask ‘why can’t Fred ride a bike?’

(Don’t ever ask me, ask her.)

I never got to PZ Myers in time though, before he’d called Chris Stedman something like a ‘fluffy feelgood wanker’ (I paraphrase). I not sure about the ‘fluffy’ or the ‘feelgood’, but he did call him a ‘wanker’ – I do remember that bit. PZ’s been using the term ‘wanker’ a lot lately, like he’s the overly proud recipient of an honorary doctorate in

Strine from Steve Irwin University, for achievement in the twin fields of ‘Crikies’ and ‘Ubeudies’.

I do agree though, at least in my understanding of the term; Chris Stedman is a wanker. I’m not sure though, if PZ wasn’t actually looking for a harsher term (it’s not entirely uncommon for some Australian parents to lovingly call their kids ‘wanker’ for being silly, so I’m a bit taken aback at how PZ’s use of the term has been seen by some as so shocking).


Monday morning was the beginning of a wonderful, if a little grey, Melbourne day. I had chores to do, and places to go; it was my last full day in the city of Melbourne.

As it turned out, I ended up having quite an enjoyable breakfast with Rod, one of the volunteers from the GAC (you may have seen him running around in a blue convention t-shirt). Rod was even nice enough to shout. Here’s breakfast…


Coffee, yum, etc…

Note the sepia tone, the latte, the mostly out-of-shot remnants of a vegetarian breakfast, all taken on-location in Melbourne’s inner-suburbs.

To Australians, all these factors add up to one thing…


(Actually, the latte is very common in Australia, consumed by yobs, bogans and working class yahoos. Pretending the latte is wanky, technically makes you a wanker. It’s the same deal with sparkling white wine, incidentally.)


After talk of green energy sources with Rod, talk of the local promotion of Aboriginal cultural enterprises, talk of public housing and wrought iron fences, and talk about this-and-that inner-city topic, it was a handshake before heading off to La Trobe University to meet up with another mate. We talked about Alvin Plantinga’s argument that naturalism was self-refuting (rubbish!); talked about student publications; talked about the continental philosophers over at Australian Catholic University (rubbish!), and talked about which Greek philosopher my mate’s lecturer looked like, all while I had a vegetarian lunch.

To Australians, all these factors add up to one thing…




Before I go any further, I must confess that I once did a bit of interfaithy professional development in values education, run by UNESCO…



Given that discussion, at the interfaithy event of the night called The Road Less Travelled, would be based largely on anecdote, I’ll summarise my own anecdotal observations about interfaith, up-front. These are the thoughts I had on my mind, going into this thing.


There’s too great a fetish in finding shared values, to the point of fabrication – oh, we’re all believers one way or another. (I’m so grateful that Hitchens caught Mos Def out on this, the dross that it is).

There’s ecumenical hostility towards atheists in the interfaith movement, often manifesting as scapegoating for social problems, more likely caused by religion (don’t you love those ‘New Atheists’ and ‘secular fundamentalists’, with their mosque bans and their placards reading ‘go home, this is a Christian nation’? I’ve never seen such a thing, actually.)

There’s far too much tokenism, not just in the selection of tokens from minorities, and in the singling them out from the nasty remainder. There’s also the exaggeration, and fabrication of the nastiness of the ‘nasties’, often enabled by the token themselves.

Z: Y isn’t like the rest of the Xs, and even if most Xs aren’t nasty, THOSE outspoken Xs over there ARE, isn’t that right, Y? (Oh, how we’d like to be able to cooperate with the Xs, if only…*sniff*)

Y: Yes, they’re not helping. They’re making my job harder, helping you cooperate with them. If only they’d be more respectful, you could allow them to cooperate in fixing the problems they didn’t create. Then they could finally be relieved of the consequences of these problems they didn’t create, which they complain about no end, which again, isn’t helping.

Z: Don’t worry Y, we’ll shelter you from those consequences. You’re Being Helpful. You’re an equal around here.

Interfaith pats people on the back for stuff they’re supposed to do, regardless. You’re not supposed to be fighting amongst each other! Congratulate you for getting along? Next you’ll expect an award for not roasting any of your children on a spit this year. Congratulations on your low expectations!

The most useful thing interfaith does in developed countries, it seems to me, is offer an avenue for middle-class singles to hook up for hot, hot, interfaith sex. ‘You are so spirichooal!’ Wakka-chikka-wah-wah!

(Honestly, you’ve got about as much chance of convincing me a good part of middle-class interfaith isn’t about lonely horny people, as you have of convincing me that the spiritualism in Lady Chatterley’s Lover isn’t the result of DH Lawrence focusing on giving himself a solipsist reach-around.)

Interfaith appropriates acts of ecumenical cooperation through innocuous branding, advancing an increasing monopoly over such cooperation. Having a single approach, or movement, monopolising cooperation is a Bad Thing. It stunts innovation, and allows vested interests to more easily hijack or pervert initiatives (see UNESCO).

Perhaps damnably, interfaith enables homophobia, especially on an international stage – people who should never have been consulted on human rights, through interfaith approaches (and an aversion to modernist ‘imperialism’) are now able to steer human rights discussions, simply by virtue of their numbers and faith positions (aka different ways of finding meaning aka different ways of not liking gays). Homophobia is a ‘shared value’, and nothing unites the tribes like the shared loathing of another Other.

(Perhaps it’s worthy of mention at this point that almost by definition, having anything to do with interfaith makes a person a wanker – and I paid for a ticket.)

You may be forgiven for reaching the verdict that I’m a little sceptical about interfaith.


So, at The Road Less Travelled, PZ Myers, Chris Stedman and Leslie Cannold were moderated in discussion by Meredith Doig of The Rationalist Society of Australia (Australian free-thought gets damn good value out of this lady, incidentally), on the big question:  ‘can believers and atheists work together for the common good?’

I’m glad this specific question didn’t get much time, because while it looks good on a flyer, it goes nowhere very fast. Can believers and atheist work together for the common good? Well, yes, obviously. Can I go home now?

When I was a little boy age two, living out in the middle of rural Australia, I had a godless family, while our neighbours were Christians. We didn’t proselytise each other – we had other priorities at the time, namely food and shelter (honestly, my family lived in a corrugated iron shack). We cooperated, and even though we needed to cooperate, we did so primarily because we loved one another.

While I cherish having had this relationship, it’s a particularly unremarkable story, at least here in Australia. It happens all the time, especially amongst the working class – with the interfaith movement nowhere in sight.

So I had a question in mind, particularly for Chris Stedman, before I even rocked up to the event…

If atheists can get along with the religious by other means – without interfaith initiatives – what does interfaith have to offer above and beyond existing cooperation, and what would atheists be expected to bring to the table in order to make such extended cooperation possible?

…then I rocked up.


Truthfully, I was more impressed with Chris Stedman than I expected to be. The fact that he too was pissed off with the shared values fetish, and that he recognised substantive difference as needing to be acknowledged before any kind of binding decision making, went a long way with me.

He was also less effulgent and far less vague than I’d expected, given what I’ve read of his online. (Is he able to be like this on a regular basis, in the US?)

I didn’t entirely buy his objection to being tokenised, though, although I guess it’s not nothing that he at least has this concern. The stoushes he’s had with ‘New Atheists’ online, and the complaining about his job being made harder, at least flirt with the prospect of his making a token of himself.

As for my question, well I didn’t need to ask as it was effectively answered as the discussion unfolded – the upshot of interfaith is getting closer to religious people on an organisational level, while the price is deference, paid in the currency of ‘respect for belief’.


Simon Blackburn raises the concern in ‘Religion and Respect’, published in Philosophers Without Gods (Oxford University Press), of ‘respect creep’ – how demands for ‘respect’ (a ‘tricky term’) through vague terminology, increment until the demand has become for deference.  It’s an essay that anyone treating the civility of ‘respect of religious belief’ as common sense needs to be made to read.

If you consider this ‘respect creep’ in the context of marginalised religious minorities, and empowered religious majorities, it’s not long before you realise that common sense civility in these matters means certain things. The minority will show deference to the majority, while the empowered majority will overlook reciprocity, simply because it can get away without thinking about such details. Naively playing along, in order to ‘cooperate’, in campaigns geared towards anything approaching equality, is a ludicrous strategy.

Something along these lines seemed to pan out in the discussion between PZ Myers and Leslie Cannold – although to be fair to Cannold, whether it was flippancy or Minnesotan modesty, PZ downplayed the significance of the ‘Crackergate’ affair (the point of contention), making it look like a random blasphemy stunt. PZ was told it didn’t help campaigns for separation of church and state when religious beliefs were mocked.

PZ progressed through an array of rationale; ‘bragging’; to show nothing is sacred; scientists care about the truth, and the truth is it’s just a cracker; ‘you know this used to be a ritual used to justify pogroms against the Jews?’ (I paraphrase).

PZ never mentioned there was already an angry Catholic mob campaigning against and threatening some poor sod who accidentally ‘abducted’ a communion wafer, well before the wafer desecration of ‘Crackergate’ fame. PZ never got to mention that his choice of desecration – the nail – was in response to the old anti-Semitic wood carvings depicting Jews crucifying communion wafers.

PZ never got to mention the torrent of (often anti-Semitic) hate mail and death threats he received in response to the desecration.

Obviously, the level of detail involved in ‘Crackergate’ would have taken up the whole night, and then some. I didn’t actually expect PZ to give us the whole story. I would have liked it though if he’d raised the point that he was acting in retaliation against a specific case of the demand for deference; something that goes to the heart of what the discussion was about.

How do you cooperate with a hateful, forceful, bullying and sometimes violent mob that expects deference? This is what PZ was up against in ‘Crackergate’, and it rears its head at other times as well, sometimes even with mock politeness when ecumenical cooperation is sought.

We don’t normally deal with quite this kind of thing here in Australia, and while my own behaviour and interaction with the religious is more in line with Leslie Cannold’s stated views, and while my interest in the truth comes more from a ‘need-to-know’ utilitarianism, I still view ‘Crackergate’ as both a moral, and a politically necessary victory. In this case, the mob needed standing up to and I don’t care one dot when people bemoan how decorum comes into it.

I find a lot of staged acts of blasphemy to be contrived, self-aggrandizing and clichéd attention-seeking (i.e. wanking), but not ‘Crackergate’.


I went away from the gathering with a better impression of Chris Stedman than I’d expected*, a more fleshed out impression of Leslie Cannold, and pretty much the same opinion of PZ Myers as I had a few weeks earlier. (Although Leslie Cannold’s polished mock-familiarity [say when pretending to whisper to the crowd] seemed better geared to larger audiences than the smaller, closer crowd we were in.)

I found the some of the crowd quite annoying (although Jason Ball, and a number of the other young rationalists were around, which was good), being seated to one fellow who just kept complaining about this, that and whatever that had happened around the traps**.

There was a young wanker in the audience, who seeing as how PZ ‘valued disrespectfulness’ (I paraphrase), and how PZ supposedly thought he was ‘better than us [religious people]’ (again, I paraphrase), decided to point out that PZ was unsuited to the role of scientist because he was fat. That was fun. After having his misconceptions and curious assumptions calmly punctured, our young wanker friend was forced to concede, ‘…then… we agree…’

If only every religionist who chimed in about how ‘New Atheists’ were trying to get Francis Collins sacked on account of being a Christian were as open-minded and as able to listen as well as our young wanker, we’d have had a more productive discussion on that front. Maybe the difference is down to the humanizing capacity of face-to-face discussion. Either that, or Miller et al. are bigger, more sanctimonious wankers than I realise.

(A defensive interjection by either a PZ fan, or a dietary science student, wasn’t needed – PZ had things well in hand).

Sadly, I didn’t get too much face-to-face myself at the after-party at Embiggen Books, owing to not going. I had to prepare for my departure from Melbourne, city of wankers, scheduled for early the next morning.

Somehow, I get this sense that discussion of serious matters would have stayed serious, while the overwrought stuff (like ‘respect for belief’) would at last have been treated with due relaxation. I get that feel about after-parties generally, and Embiggen Books specifically; not wanky.

(An exception being, I have this image in mind, of PZ waddling around Embiggen Books, trying to speak Ostrayun, while eating Vegemite smeared communion wafers – very wanky).

Shuffling back out into the dark with my thoughts and reflections, while the party went on, was how my experience of the Global Atheist Convention of 2012, ended. Thanks for having me, Victorians.

~ Bruce

* I may even be able to handle reading his book now.

** Like my GAC coverage?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Donohue’s success

Apr 27th, 2012 3:24 pm | By

Useful background on the Catholic League.

The Catholic League was founded in 1973 by Jesuit priest Virgil Blum. William Donohue assumed leadership in July 1993. Since then, the membership has grown from 27,000 to 200,000. According to Donohue, the League has “won the support of all of the U.S. Cardinals and many of the Bishops as well…We are here to defend the Church from the scurrilous assaults that have been mounted against it, and we definitely need the support of the hierarchy if we are to get the job done.” Thus it can be considered an arm of the Church. It supplements or replaces priest-controlled organizations of the past described by Blanshard and Seldes. The League apparently has a single mission: suppression of all mainstream criticism of the Roman Catholic Church.

There are many recognizable principles governing the behavior of the League. One is revealed in a vicious 1994 attack against the New London newspaper, The Day, for an editorial critical of the Catholic Church: “What is truly ‘beyond understanding’ is not the Catholic Church’s position, it is the fact that a secular newspaper has the audacity to stick it’s nose in where it doesn’t belong. It is nobody’s business what the Catholic Church does.”

Orilly? It’s the Catholic church’s business what everybody does but it’s nobody’s business what the Catholic church does? They’d like that, wouldn’t they. They can meddle as much as they want to while we have to leave them strictly alone.

And then people wonder why atheists sometimes get grumpy.

A second basic premise is the League’s commitment to canon 1369 of the Code of Canon Law: “A person is to be punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly, or in a published writing, or by otherwise using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church.” Canon law is the law of the Catholic Church. All criticism of the pope or the Church is in violation of this law in one way or another. This chapter will make clear that the League follows this canon to the letter and demands that all others conform—or pay the price for their violation.

There it is again already – they want their “Canon” law to apply to all of us, but they don’t want our secular free speech and unhindered mockery to apply to them. Nope; no can do.

Donohue also justifies the League’s aggressive behavior by claiming that it is culturally unacceptable for nonCatholics to criticize the Catholic Church. “Perhaps the most cogent remark of the day,” he asserts, “came from the former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, who politely remarked that his mother always advised him not to speak ill of other religions. It is a lesson that apparently few have learned….Non-Catholics would do well to follow the advice of Ed Koch’s mom and just give it a rest. Their crankiness is wearing thin.” This cultural norm is widely accepted in America, to the enormous benefit of the Vatican.

The Vatican and other theocratic organizations and individuals. Hence occasional grumpiness and inability to oblige.

One final element makes clear the objective of the Catholic League—protection of the papacy against all criticism. Writes Donohue, “It is the conviction of the Catholic League that an attack on the Church is an attack on Catholics.” He offers no rationale to support this theory. Obviously, millions of liberal American Catholics would disagree outright, for it is they who have been attacking the Church.

While at the same time supporting it and validating it. They would do better to abandon it. They would do better to remove the tacit support it gives by not leaving, so that the pope and his henchmen can see that reactionary dogma exacts a price. They could have fewer but better Catholics.

The suppression of all criticism of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy is the goal of the Catholic League. The visit of the pope to the U.S. in October 1995 was a major media event. Given all the gravely serious problems faced by the Church and the enormous amount of dissent by American Catholics, as well as the growing hostility from non-Catholics as a result of the Church’s interference in American policy making, one would expect wide coverage of these realities in the media during his visit. Instead, it was treated as a triumphant return.

The Catholic League believes that it played a major role in this great public relations success—and with good reason. In August 1994, it launched a campaign to intimidate the press in an astounding advance warning to media professionals preparing for the pope’s visit to New York in late October. A letter signed by Donohue announced a press conference to be held just prior to the pope’s visit that will present “10′s of thousands of petitions from active Catholics” that have been collected over the past year. The petition speaks for itself. What else but intimidation of the press is the intent of this campaign?

The November 1995 issue of the League’s journal, Catalyst, is headlined, “Media Treat Pope Fairly; Protesters Fail to Score.” Donohue writes, “By all accounts, the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States was a smashing success. Media treatment of the papal visit was, with few exceptions, very fair. Protesters were few in number and without impact. From beginning to end, this papal visit proved to be the most triumphant of them all.” A month later he writes, “The relatively few cheap shots that were taken at the Pope by the media in October is testimony to a change in the culture.” And of course the desired “change in the culture” is the elimination of criticism of the pope and his hierarchy. The Catholic League is succeeding on a grand scale far beyond what all but a handful of Americans realize.

If that’s true it explains something that has puzzled me for years, which is precisely the reverential way the US media report on the pope and his doings. I didn’t know they’d been overtly bullied into it.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The cruel return of gods

Apr 27th, 2012 12:54 pm | By

I’ve just read a very interesting and useful book by Ezat Mossallanejad, Religions and the Cruel Return of Gods.

Mossallanejad is a survivor of torture in Iran – torture under the shah, not the ayatollah. He escaped to Canada in 1985 and is a Counsellor and Policy Analyst with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. The book is a scorching and thorough examination of religious cruelty and bullying around the world. It’s an immensely useful reference source because it goes region by region and country by country, covering most of them.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Her lunch with George

Apr 27th, 2012 10:32 am | By

So Jemima Khan interviewed George Galloway for the Staggers over lunch (halal and alcohol-free) in Bradford. A coupla converts sitting aroung talking.

Jemima’s mother started life with the handle Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, daughter of Viscount Castlereagh, later the 8th Marquess of Londonderry. Jemima of course married the cricket fella who is now a politics fella. She was besties with Diana and all that kind of thing. Just the ticket for the Associate Editor of the New Statesman. George’s history is rather different, as is his performance of self.

Anyway, the point is, she said forthright things to him about his conversion to Islam, which he apparently prefers to keep shtum.

Interviewer Jemima Khan also exclusively reveals the background to Galloway’s conversion to Islam:

George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, is a Muslim. He converted more than ten years ago in a ceremony at a hotel in Kilburn, north-west London, attended by members of the Muslim Association of Great Britain. Those close to him know this. The rest of the world, including his Muslim constituents, does not.

Over a halal, alcohol-free lunch at a cafe on Bradford’s main high street, Khan tells Galloway: “I know someone who attended your shahadah [the Muslim conversion ceremony].”

He gave her the fish eye, and then, according to the Guardian, walked out. But why? Is it the hotel? Kilburn? The MAB? Which part is wounding enough to walk out on as opposed to correcting?

George Galloway has denied claims made by Jemima Khan in the New Statesman that he converted to Islam in a ceremony in London more than 10 years ago.

The newly elected MP for Bradford West does not deny being a Muslim, but says Khan’s claim of a conversion in a hotel in Kilburn, north-west London, is “simply and categorically untrue”.

Galloway is often asked about his faith but refuses to answer, saying his religion is a “personal matter” of no import to his political activities. He recently married his fourth wife in what has been reported was a Muslim ceremony in Amsterdam.

If Galloway’s religion is a “personal matter” of no import to his political activities, then why did he exploit it during his campaign? Khan and the NS hint at the same question.

In the media, Galloway is often referred to as a Catholic. However, as Khan finds, the Muslim constituents of Bradford knew otherwise:

There must have been some white constituents in Bradford, who, although natural Labour supporters, preferred to vote for the white Catholic candidate rather than the brown Muslim one representing Labour. Meanwhile, his Muslim constituents delighted in the hints – “a Muslim is somebody who is not afraid of earthly power but who fears only the Judgement Day. I’m ready for that, I’m working for that and it’s the only thing I fear.” Many favoured a possible or a potential Muslim over a “lapsed” one, such as Labour’s Hussain, who, Galloway claimed in his campaign, was “never out of the pub”.

A drink-soaked Labourite popinjay, I suppose.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Read Lauryn Oates

Apr 26th, 2012 5:32 pm | By

Do be sure to read Lauryn Oates’s new article at ur-B&W.

Here’s how it begins:

Foreign Policy has a superb series out now called The Sex Issue. In their own words, here is what it’s about:

When U.S. magazines devote special issues to sex, they are usually of the celebratory variety (see: Esquire, April 2012 edition; Cosmopolitan, every month). Suffice it to say that is not what we had in mind with Foreign Policy’s first-ever Sex Issue, which is dedicated instead to the consideration of how and why sex — in all the various meanings of the word — matters in shaping the world’s politics. Why? In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation — the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences. And what’s the result? Women missing from peace talks and parliaments, sexual abuse and exploitation institutionalized and legalized in too many places on the planet, and a U.S. policy that, whether intentionally or not, all too frequently works to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity. Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.

The articles’ criticisms are aimed squarely on the worst offenders in the oppression of women, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as commenting on discriminatory practices elsewhere such as sex-selective abortion in India.

An article by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy called “Why Do They Hate Us” co-opts the question so often said to be asked by Americans, and asks it as a woman. Eltahawy is particularly forceful in her indictment of the misogyny so prevalent in the Middle East:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse.

Eltahawy says not a word of a lie. She tells it like it is, merely describing practices and actions on the part of men towards women that are violent and depraved. When you read such descriptions, free of the sugarcoating so often slathered on by those who squirm at the very idea of criticizing other cultures, you realize just how rare it is to hear the devastating truth.

Read on.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The air is full of feathers

Apr 26th, 2012 4:34 pm | By

I can never catch up. You know how that goes.

And I can even less catch up right now because I read one post and then I have to read posts linked in trackbacks and before you know it the afternoon is gone. This will not do! I could have built a cathedral in the time.

I read this self-confessed rant about Carrier on Ehrman (and, somewhat mystifyingly, also on PZ on Carrier on Ehrman). I read Ehrman on Carrier on Ehrman. I’m going to read Vridar on all three and our friend Eric on all three.

I’ll tell you the truth: I’m not reading them to get a better understanding of the scholarship on Jesus. I’m reading them because there’s so much in them that’s funny. That’s also why I’m sharing them with you. Don’t bother with them if you’re interested in Jesus studies, but do if you want a laugh.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A duty to raise a new generation of bigots

Apr 26th, 2012 11:49 am | By

Simply revolting.

The Roman Catholic church has written to every state-funded Catholic secondary school in England and Wales asking them to encourage pupils to sign a petition against gay marriage…The Catholic Education Service, which acts for Catholic bishops in England and Wales, contacted 385 secondary schools to highlight a letter read in parish churches last month, in which two archbishops told worshippers that Catholics have a “duty to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations”.

The CES also asked schools to draw pupils’ attention to the petition being organised by the Coalition for Marriage, a Christian campaign which has attracted more than 466,000 signatures to date.

This is in state schools, remember. Paid for by tax payers. Not private, church schools, paid for by people who attend the churches and want to pay for church schools, but public, state schools, paid for by people in general, including non-believers, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics who prefer secular education - the large majority, in fact. State schools are being encouraged by a church to teach churchy bigotry and deprivation of rights.

A pupil at St Philomena’s Catholic high school for girls in Carshalton, in the south London borough of Sutton, told the website that children aged 11 to 18 had been encouraged to sign the anti-equality pledge by their headteacher.

She said: “In our assembly for the whole sixth form you could feel people bristling as she explained parts of the letter and encouraged us to sign the petition. It was just a really outdated, misjudged and heavily biased presentation.”

She said some pupils had responded by buying Gay Pride badges to pin to their uniforms. “There are several people in my year who aren’t heterosexual – myself included – and I for one was appalled and actually disgusted by what they were encouraging,” she said. “After all, that’s discrimination they were urging impressionable people to engage in, which is unacceptable.”

Well that’s my kind of pupil. Kids today – they’re so impressive!

A CES spokeswoman said: “We said that schools might like to consider using this [letter] in assemblies or in class teaching. We said people might want to consider asking pupils and parents if they might want to sign the petition. It’s really important that no school discriminates against any member of the school community.

“Schools with a religious character are allowed to teach sex and relationships – and conduct assemblies – in accordance with the religious views of the school. The Catholic view of marriage is not a political view; it’s a religious view.”

Oh you cowardly smoke-blowing shit. ”Might like to consider.” “Might want to consider asking if they might want to.” And then pretending to care about discrimination! And talking about “any member of the school community” as if using the correct formula nullifies the teaching of bigotry and deprivation of rights. And then the stinking gall of saying the Catholic view of marriage is not a political view. The hell it’s not! It’s all about power and control. The CES spokeswoman, being a woman, is a damn fool if she can’t see that. Her male bosses are just evil.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Just what the schools need

Apr 26th, 2012 10:15 am | By

The Washington Post is slobbering all over an evangelist called Joel Osteen. He’s visiting Washington and thrilling the fans, we’re told.

Well, maybe, but I am told he is also visiting a public elementary school today. Why?

As my informant put it:

Fewer than 20% of these students read at grade level.  Fewer than 13% are grade level in science.  Just 16% are doing grade-level maths.  And the best the school and local government can do is bring in a megapastor who espouses prosperity gospel and anti-evolutionism to read to these poorly-taught students.



And JT reports new and worse stuff.

a parent returning a library book noticed books stacked up for giveaways in the school library at Amidon-Bowen Elementary.  The books were Gifts from the Heart, which says that it is dedicated “To a strong and mighty generation who will develop and use their gifts to inspire others, and be ushered into the greater things of Christ.”  The books are reportedly to be given away.

JT has pics of the book; go check them out.

I know also that the ACLU has emailed the school and that the school is, to use their words, “looking into it.”  Let’s give them a little extra incentive.

It is the dream of every lawbreaker to operate in the dark.  Please take a moment to assure Mr. Ham that there are lots of eyes watching.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson

1200 First Street, NE Washington, DC 20002

Telephone: (202) 442-5885            (202) 442-5885

Fax: (202) 442-5026

To e-mail:

Amidon-Bowen Vice Principal Dwayne Ham

401 I St. SW Washington, DC 20024.

Phone: 724-4867 Fax: 724-4868

Drop them a line or give them a tinkle on the phone. They’d love to hear from you.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

They should follow it without any argument

Apr 25th, 2012 5:29 pm | By

It’s a small (comparatively) sect in India that insists on mutilating girls’ genitalia.

The Bohra brand of Islam is followed by 1.2 million people worldwide and is a sect of Shia Islam that originated in Yemen.

While the sect bars other Muslims from its mosques, it sees itself as more liberal, treating men and women equally in matters of education and marriage.

But in matters of slicing off major chunks of the genitals with a razor blade, not so much.

For generations, few women in the tightly-knit community have spoken out in opposition, fearing that to air their grievances would be seen as an act of revolt frowned upon by their elders.

Right. Obviously. This was something imposed on them, and they were cowed into submission. We know. This is what we object to. (And by “we” I mean those of us who do, which fortunately now includes women in the tightly-knit community.)

The anti-Khatna movement gained momentum after Tasneem, a Bohra woman who goes by one name, posted an online petition at the social action platform in November last year.

She requested their religious leader, the 101-year-old Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, ban female genital mutilation, the consequences of which afflict 140 million women worldwide according to the World Health Organisation.

Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin is the 52nd Dai-al Mutalaq (absolute missionary) of the community and has sole authority to decide on all spiritual and temporal matters.

A dictator, in other words – only worse than a secular dictator, because wrapped in the robes of “god says I get to tell you what to do.”

Every member of the sect takes an oath of allegiance to the leader, who lives in western city of Mumbai.

And they’re all born into it, and clearly refusal to take the oath is not an option.

When contacted by AFP, Burhanuddin’s spokesman, Qureshi Raghib, ruled out any change and said he had no interest in talking about the issue.

“I have heard about the online campaign but Bohra women should understand that our religion advocates the procedure and they should follow it without any argument,” he said.

And there you go – that’s why theocracy is a shit system.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Failure to comprehend

Apr 25th, 2012 4:51 pm | By

I don’t understand.

Eleven years ago, Farida Bano was circumcised had her genitals mutilated by an aunt on a bunk bed in her family home at the end of her 10th birthday party.

The mutilation occurred not in Africa, where the practice is most prevalent, but in India where a small Muslim sub-sect known as the Dawoodi Bohra continues to believe that the removal of the clitoris is the will of God.

I don’t understand, because if they think God wants the clitoris removed, how do they explain God’s putting it there in the first place?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The spirit of Tahrir

Apr 25th, 2012 4:02 pm | By

Update: April 27: It may be that this is a fake. There are murmurs to that effect but I haven’t found anything authoritative yet. I’ll update if I do.

Be careful before you read this. Don’t be drinking wine or coffee or lemonade while you read. Put down anything fragile. Close the windows. If you’re at work, brace yourself, so that no flurries of obscenity burst out before you can stop them.

Egypt’s Islamist-dominated parliament is considering two new laws

…one that would legalize the marriage of girls starting from the age of 14 and the other that permits a husband to have sex with his dead wife within the six hours following her death.

Don’t look at me. I did warn you.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Nicer, sweeter, less outspoken

Apr 25th, 2012 12:06 pm | By

Anna Quindlen was on Fresh Air yesterday, and she said something I’ve been pondering a good deal lately.

As a little girl, Anna Quindlen wasn’t afraid of a whole lot. She frequently got into trouble and occasionally shot off her mouth. But as she grew older, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer became what she calls a “girl imitation.”

“[I became] nicer, sweeter, less outspoken [and] less combative,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “All of the qualities that you need to be a good opinion columnist tend to be qualities that aren’t valued in women. And I think that was a bit of a challenge for me when I became an op-ed columnist [for The New York Times] and has been a challenge for many of us who do that as a living.”

I think this is related to the whole “women in atheism” question…and the misogyny in atheism question, too.

Atheism by its nature is “combative” – at least, active or outspoken or explicit or “movement” atheism is. Movement atheism is naturally combative. This could be a big part of the reason it took the movement so god damn long to realize it was forgetting to invite women to its parties. Women aren’t seen as combative.  All of the qualities that you need to be a good movement atheist tend to be qualities that aren’t valued in women. Implicit stereotypes probably made women as a category seem like the wrong kind of people to invite to the parties because women are too nice and sweet to combat god, not outspoken and combative enough to pick fights with god. That could be why male atheists* think of atheism as a boys’ club and something that women will wreck if they’re allowed into it, because they’ll put up curtains and forbid swearing and try to sign a peace treaty with god.

*Those who do

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

“A selective fear of Islamists”

Apr 24th, 2012 5:58 pm | By

Oh the stupid…It just gets worse.

Samia Errazzouki also hated Eltahawy’s article. And she gave us this gem of wisdom as part of her argument:

Eltahawy  points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:

“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”

You have got to be kidding.

Does “the secular state” stone women to death? Does it imprison or stone rape victims while letting their rapists go free and unstoned? Does it force women to wear a bandage over their head and neck on pain of whipping or a heavy fine? Does it arrest them for driving a car? Does it throw acid on girls on their way to school?

Is “the secular state” really on a par with Islamists? Is it really much of a muchness whether you live in Afghanistan or France? Pakistan or Germany? Iran or Canada? Algeria or the US? Somalia or Sweden?

Give me a fucking break.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)