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.

More lessons in civility

Jun 17th, 2010 11:21 am | By

Backlash against “new” atheists, chapter 479,811.

We were initially surprised that our co-authored book, Unscientific America, was so strongly attacked for observing that scientists should strive to improve their skills at public communication–and that this probably includes not alienating potential religious allies or mainstream America. But in a sense, the attacks made a kind of sense. Mostly, they came from those for whom this advice ran contrary to their particular project of denouncing much of America and the world for alleged ignorance and superstition–the New Atheists.

That’s “backlash” because it’s untrue, and distorted, and misleading. It’s dishonest and unreasonable, and those qualities make it backlash as opposed to disagreement or criticism. It is of course entirely possible to disagree with “the New Atheists” or “new” atheism in a reasonable and truthful way. It’s noticeable and interesting, though, that the vast bulk of the unfavorable reaction to “new” atheism is not like that, but is, rather, untrue, and distorted, and misleading. There has been a torrent of unfavorable reaction to “new” atheism, and I have seen very little of it – to tell the truth I don’t recall any, which of course is not to say that there isn’t any – that is not hostile and dishonest.

The quoted passage is untrue and distorted in several ways. One is that it doesn’t say who “the New Atheists” are, which means it leaves the impression that anyone and everyone that someone might consider a “new” atheist fits that hostile and dishonest description.

That’s an ugly trick. And the description itself is ugly – typical, and ugly. It’s typical of the shameless hyperbole that backlashers permit themselves to indulge in, as if it were simply self-evident that “new” atheists are on a moral level with Nazis or child-raping priests. I’m often considered and labeled a “new” atheist, and I consider myself to have a lot in common with people who are so labeled (and so I consider the label a compliment), so I’ll give my position on this description. I have no “project” to “denounce” much of the US and the world for alleged ignorance and superstition. That doesn’t describe me, and it doesn’t describe the “new” atheists I’m familiar with, either.

It’s a curiously anti-intellectual and paranoiac description of people who make arguments in books and articles and blog posts, too. It makes us sound as if we lead Nuremberg rallies against the majority of human beings.
In that, of course, it is simply typical of backlash rhetoric, which seems to be hell-bent on stirring up as much hatred of avowed atheists as it possibly can. It never stops surprising me how cheerfully willing the backlashers are to play with this kind of fire.

What will any parent do?

Jun 17th, 2010 9:57 am | By

No comment.

Asha’s family was opposed to a marriage because Yogesh belonged to a different, lower caste. Police have described the murders as a case of “honour killing”…The bodies were brought out in the morning once the police arrived. And details began to emerge of the torture and beatings to which the young couple were subjected. “Their mouths were stuffed with rags, there were signs of beating and small burns on legs suggesting that they were possibly electrocuted,” a senior police officer who was the first to reach the crime scene told the BBC.

Asha’s uncle and father were arrested but the two men have shown no remorse.

“I’m not sorry,” a defiant Omprakash Saini told reporters after his arrest. “I would punish them again if given a chance.”

The reporter, Geeta Pandey, went to talk to Yogesh’s family.

The neighbours vouch for Yogesh’s character.

“He was a very good boy,” one of them, Meera Devi, says. “We are very angry. We want justice. If they wanted to kill their daughter, that’s okay. But they shouldn’t have killed our boy.”

At Asha’s home, her relatives are equally angry.

Cousin Lokesh Kumar Saini says: “We had talked to Yogesh and his family in the past and told them to stay away. We had also found a good match for Asha and she was engaged.

“What will any parent do if they see their daughter in a compromising position with a man? What would you do if you were in the same situation?” he asks me angrily. “That’s why my uncles killed them.”

What will any parents do if they see their daughter having sex with a man? Torture her to death, of course! That’s so totally obvious!

The advancement of science and spirit

Jun 16th, 2010 12:41 pm | By

The head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says it’s a myth that science and religion are inherently incompatible. Yes really.

I was not surprised by the findings of a recent Rice University survey that half of the top 1,700 U.S. scientists described themselves as religious. The scientific community, like any other group, includes people with many world views, from evangelicals to atheists.

Right, because scientists are just a “community,” a “group,” like any other; you get your women and your men, your old and your young, your rich and your poor, and your evangelicals and your atheists. Nothing to do with anything inherent in the work you do or the ways of thinking that that work depends on; no no, it’s just a matter of the endless variety of life. Some scientsts are short, and some are tall; some are atheist, and some are theist. See? It’s like that. Random. A mixture. Just how things sort themselves out.

Let’s hope that Ecklund’s unusually comprehensive assessment will help overturn the myth that scientists reject spirituality, or that science and religion are inherently incompatible.

Nominate that man for a Templeton prize!

Update: I failed to mention, because I didn’t know, because I failed to read the last paragraph [note: always look for the funding on these things! always!], that this shindig was funded partly by the Templeton Foundation.

You might learn something

Jun 15th, 2010 5:20 pm | By

Gosh, that was a lively discussion. It was sometimes rather…cryptic, though. When Dan L asked Michael, “where’s the dividing line? Where does philosophy stop and science start?” Michael said it was a tough question, and rather than answer it himself, pasted in a long excerpt from a post by Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking last November. It wasn’t the most helpful excerpt from that post that he could have chosen – there’s a more relevant one later on, for instance:

So when some commentators for instance defend the Dawkins- and Coyne-style (scientistic) take on atheism, i.e., that science can mount an attack on all religious beliefs, they are granting too much to science and too little to philosophy. Yes, science can empirically test specific religious claims (intercessory prayer, age of the earth, etc.), but the best objections against the concept of, say, an omnibenevolent and onmnipowerful god, are philosophical in nature (e.g., the argument from evil). Why, then, not admit that by far the most effective way to reject religious nonsense is by combining science and philosophy, rather than trying to arrogate to either more epistemological power than each separate discipline actually possesses?

Do Dawkins and Coyne say anything so crude and stupid as “science can mount an attack on all religious beliefs”? No. They both know perfectly well, and say, that there are religious beliefs that are nebulous and internal enough to be immune from criticism, and they also don’t talk about “mounting attacks” as if they were Vikings. And is there some place where either of them refuses to admit that the most effective way to reject religious nonsense is by combining science and philosophy? Not that I know of, and I thought both of them did just that.

Massimo is very angry with Dawkins and Coyne, for some reason, and he says hostile and exaggerated things about them as a result. He said rude things to Coyne on the earlier thread. I wish he would stop doing that, and be reasonable, instead.

Update: I did a post on that post of Massimo’s at the time – last November. Another round of useful comments.

Knock three times for ‘yes’

Jun 14th, 2010 12:09 pm | By

Michael De Dora said in a comment on Falling at the first post

Scientific claims are probabilistic explanations based on observation and empirical evidence, and are subject to disconfirmation. The God claim is nothing of the sort. We can’t scientifically measure God or God’s interaction with the world, and the God claim is not falsifiable.

Why can’t we scientifically measure God or God’s interaction with the world? One reason could be because god is not there. Another reason could be because god is especially hard to measure for some reason. If it’s the latter we just need better instruments. I think the reason De Dora is suggesting is that god is in principle incapable of being measured. But if that’s the case, De Dora needs to explain further – how he knows that, why it is the case, what it implies for claims about god, and similar.

It’s not at all clear to me that we can’t try to scientifically measure god or god’s interaction with the world – and of course people have made such attempts, as with the intercessory prayer study. If we try, and find that it isn’t possible because there is nothing to measure, then it would seem fair to conclude that there is no reason to believe there is such a god, and that therefore there are good reasons to believe there is not such a god.

In other words if god is so spooky and weird and ineffable that we can’t measure it or its interactions with the world, or investigate it in any other way, then we have zero reason to think it exists, and a lot of reason to think it doesn’t exist, or at least to think that we can’t possibly know anything reliable about it. If god is immune to all empirical investigation, then that means we have no way to know anything about it, so it is in effect non-existent, as far as we’re concerned.

Doesn’t it?

Update: Or to put it another way, as Ben reminds me -

inference to the best explanation.

That clears that up.

A schism between the nice people and the demons

Jun 13th, 2010 12:26 pm | By

Another columnist does a bang-up job of describing explicit atheists in such a way that everyone will take care to hate them.

the split also underscores a serious and widening schism in the broader community of non-believers, between those who want civil engagement with people of faith, and even cooperation where possible, and atheist “fundamentalists” (as Kurtz and the old guard call them) — true believers in godlessness who belittle religion and religious people at every turn, and yet by doing so can wind up sounding like the very enemy they are trying to defeat.

That’s wrong. It’s false. It’s inaccurate. We are not “fundamentalists” in any meaningful sense, we do not belittle religion and religious people at every turn, some of us don’t belittle religious people at all, and we don’t sound at all like “the enemy.” And notice how sweetly reasonable the other side of this “schism” is made to sound – all they want is civil engagement with people of faith, and who could say boo to that?

So, once again, we are given an unsubtle reminder that we are Other and unacceptable and to be maligned.

“Although we” [quoting Paul Kurtz] “are skeptical of religion, we nonetheless have a positive statement to make. We want to work with religious people solving our planetary problems. This represents a basic philosophical difference.”

No it doesn’t. Explicit atheists have sworn no oath of refusal to work with religious people solving our planetary problems. There is no basic philosophical difference about that. We don’t walk around with “Explicit Atheist” labels on our clothes, so there is no barrier to our working with anyone to solve our planetary problems. It’s a non-issue, one that’s been worked up to make explicit atheists look stupid and evil.

The wider debate among secularists over whether to engage religious believers, or whether snark and sneer are the best ways to defeat faith and rally unbelievers to atheism, seems destined to continue.

Same thing. Exaggerated at best. Snark and sneer is not all we do. David Gibson is himself uncivil and inaccurate. Bad journalist. No cookie.

Equality begins at home

Jun 13th, 2010 11:13 am | By

They get it in Sweden, it appears.

“I always thought if we made it easier for women to work, families would eventually choose a more equal division of parental leave by themselves,” said [former deputy PM Bengt] Westerberg. “But I gradually became convinced that there wasn’t all that much choice.”

Sweden, he said, faced a vicious circle. Women continued to take parental leave not just for tradition’s sake but because their pay was often lower, thus perpetuating pay differences. Companies, meanwhile, made clear to men that staying home with baby was not compatible with a career.

“Society is a mirror of the family,” Mr. Westerberg said. “The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that.”

Sholto Byrnes please note. The family isn’t some wholly private realm that has no effect on the broader society, for good or ill. Family law is not something that can be shrugged off as a minor matter that is not worth worrying about.

Falling at the first post

Jun 12th, 2010 4:18 pm | By

Mary Midgley begins badly.

Science really isn’t connected to the rest of life half as straightforwardly as one might wish. For instance, Isaac Newton noted gladly that his theory of gravitation gave a scientific proof of God’s existence. Today’s anti-god warriors, by contrast, declare that Darwin’s evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of that existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public.

No they don’t. So why should we pay any attention to the rest of what she says? If she can’t even get the first paragraph right, why trust her?

No reason, so I won’t bother discussing the rest of what she says, which is just sentimental gesturing. But it’s interesting that people keep cranking this kind of thing out, without even bothering to improve it. God is special, God is nice, today’s anti-god warriors are nasty. For this Comment is Free needs a philosopher?

You call that a response?

Jun 11th, 2010 4:32 pm | By

Sholto Byrnes has heeded all the comments on his sharia post and has posted a thoughtful well-reasoned explanation of his meaning.

No he hasn’t, of course he hasn’t, I’m making it up. I’m saying what he should have done instead of what he did do. What he did do is complain about comments at Harry’s Place – comments, not the post – and then offer more useless generalities and then accuse the people who disagree with him, which is almost everyone who has said anything about him, of wanting a “bloody and cataclysmic clash of civilisations.” That’s it. No particulars of where there actually is the good benign justice-seeking kind of sharia, or of how that differs from secular law, or of how he responds to the urgent concerns of women who don’t want to wave a forlorn bye-bye to their rights. No, just a snicker, and a whine, and a smear.

[T]he majority of commenters prove my point by focusing on the most extreme forms of sharia — which as I have said, many Muslims feel to be perversions — and concluding that that’s all it is. They don’t seem to be remotely open to the possibility that it could vary in any way.

As I none too gently pointed out, that’s because he hasn’t bothered to say anything about some “less extreme” form of sharia – he’s used the words, but he hasn’t told us where we can look to examine any.

He needs to explain why anyone needs sharia instead of secular law to begin with. He needs to explain what the problems are with secular law that theocratic law would fix. He hasn’t so much as made a pass at doing that – he seems to be simply assuming it. But it’s far from self-evident.

I find his flippancy and indifference highly offensive – “offensive” is for once the right word. He can’t be bothered to defend his own claims, he can’t be bothered to engage with what his critics say, he just shrugs and says he has to go have his weekend now.

This is no time to play Bertie Wooster.

Submission, abject

Jun 10th, 2010 5:44 pm | By

Just a little more about Sholto. It doesn’t seem to have gone very well for him – the comments at the New Statesman are scathing, and Google blogsearch turns up only more scathe, no pleased cries of “At last somebody talking sense about sharia.” He must be feeling sadly disappointed in the multicultural broadmindedness and flexibility of – of – well of everybody but himself, I guess. There’s one comment at the NS that looks favorable at first blush, but when you read on it becomes obvious that it’s a parody. So Sholto is 0 for 0 with the “let’s look at the good side of sharia” enterprise.

Back to the article for a moment.

The example of Saudi Arabia undoubtedly has much to do with this [distaste for sharia]. Yet it is important to stress that to look at that country and then assume that its version of sharia is the only one, or the one to which Muslims all secretly aspire, would be akin to holding up a vision of Torquemada’s Inquisition and concluding that this was what real Christianity was.

So the Saudi version of sharia is not the only one; so what other version is there? He never says. He says that in Malaysia non-Muslims are allowed to ignore it, but he doesn’t point to some other kind of sharia that is benign and fair and reasonable and just the right kind of thing. Actually he doesn’t even say that the Saudi version is not the only one, he just says what it would be like to assume that it is. Maybe that’s because even he doesn’t actually believe that there is a different one, he just wants his readers to think so. Tut tut, Sholto.

He commented only once, and concluded with something really silly when he did:

There are plenty of atheists and anti-religious writers who appear in the NS – surely you don’t object to the debate being a bit wider than that?

Yes, I damn well do, when “a bit wider” means “pro-sharia.” The NS is supposed to be a left-wing magazine and there are some things that are not left-wing by any definition. Sharia is right-wing; it’s savagely, harshly, vengefully right-wing, and there is nothing left-wing about it. Nothing at all. The New Statesman is a disgrace.

Next week on Oprah

Jun 10th, 2010 10:35 am | By

Chuck should team up with Sholto Byrnes. Together they could make Britain a more spiritual and caring place. Chuck has told the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies that environmental problems are on account of not believing in “the soul” and that it’s Galileo’s fault and that scientists are baffling because they don’t see things his way.

“As a result, Nature has been completely objectified — ‘She’ has become an ‘it’ — and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.” The Prince said that he believed “green technology” alone could not resolve the world’s environmental problems. Instead, the West must do something about its “deep, inner crisis of the soul”.

That ‘she has become an it’ is choice, don’t you think? As if he somehow knows that it’s a she (or a he) in the first place? As if he is privy to secret information that nature is a person, with a soul, who deserves a personal pronoun?

Speaking at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies to mark its 25th anniversary, the Prince — who is patron of the centre — said that the West had been been “de-souled” by consumerism.

He said that the present approach to the environment was contrary to the teachings of all of the world’s sacred traditions. The desire for financial profit ignored the spiritual teachings.

Maybe he and Sholto could get Sarah Ferguson to join them and they could all go on Oprah and explain it to everyone, and then global warming would stop and women would all wear hijabs and the lion would lie down with the kid. Sound good?

Vatican to clamp down on liberal secular opinion

Jun 9th, 2010 12:01 pm | By

And how about those fun-loving guys at the Vatican?

Vatican investigators to Ireland appointed by Pope Benedict XVI are to clamp down on liberal secular opinion in an intensive drive to re-impose traditional respect for clergy, according to informed sources in the Catholic Church.

Uh…what? The investigators have been appointed to go to Ireland by the pope to investigate the church’s long history of tormenting children and shielding child-raping priests from the law. Why then do they think the job is to re-impose traditional respect for clergy? And why the fuck do they think the way to do that is to “clamp down” on secular liberal opinion (which frowns on practices like sticking children in prisons and then starving and beating and terrorizing them, also on raping them) and replace it with traditional respect for the very shits who have been doing the tormenting and raping? And why do they think they get to “clamp down” on anything in Ireland anyway? Who do they think they are? What do they think Ireland is? What century do they think this is?

The nine-member team led by two cardinals will be instructed by the Vatican to restore a traditional sense of reverence among ordinary Catholics for their priests…

Which will presumably require explaining away the fact that some of “their priests” used their confessionals as pleasantly secluded spots to rape children in. That could be uphill work.

A major thrust of the Vatican investigation will be to counteract materialistic and secularist attitudes, which Pope Benedict believes have led many Irish Catholics to ignore church disciplines and become lax in following devotional practices such as going on pilgrimages and doing penance.

But that’s got nothing to do with anything! Even if you care, even if you think that’s a bad thing, it’s still got nothing to do with anything. It’s not the Irish Catholics who are at fault here, it is the church, the priests, the hierarchy that protected them and did not protect their victims. What the fuck is the pope worrying about the “laxity” of Irish Catholics for when he’s supposed to be, and pretending to be, doing something about the crimes of his employees in Ireland? What is he doing pretending it is the people of Ireland who are at fault? What kind of vile sanctimonious stony-hearted bastard is he?

A sharting pot

Jun 9th, 2010 11:28 am | By

Of course – a reasonable sensible even-toned review of Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One which stops the reasonable sensible even-toned bit for the final paragraph in order to say the obligatory:

Prothero debunks not only the fallacy of religious sameness, but also the “New Atheists” who have, lately, become so pervasive and culturally relevant. Atheism can take on its own religion, one dedicated entirely to disparaging the god-fearing, and, in doing so, become as nasty, hostile and ill-informed as the religious fanatics they so thoroughly condemn.

Keep it up. The steady relentless malicious othering is just the way to bounce more and more and more people into the “New Atheist” camp.

Sholto Byrnes is “rethinking Islamism”

Jun 9th, 2010 9:21 am | By

Oh jeezis – the New Statesman is telling us to love sharia now – at least Sholto Byrnes is on the NS blog, and he wouldn’t be doing that if the NS didn’t approve. If you see an article in the Nation telling us to love Nazism you’re entitled to conclude that the Nation has lost its mind and is endorsing Nazism. Same with sharia – and yes they are pretty similar. They at least share a ballpark.

But the very concept of sharia has been so oversimplified by scaremongers that in the popular imagination it is inextricably linked with the punishments of beheading, flogging and amputation for crimes such as theft and adultery, and for which Saudi Arabia has long been notorious.

Yes, that’s right, along with stoning to death, and rules of evidence that mean men accused of rape can just say “I didn’t do it” and get off while the women who make the accusation are then automatically convicted of adultery because after all they have admitted to fornication by accusing the man of rape and the man said he didn’t do it (and the woman forgot to bring along the requisite four men of good character to watch, without whom she has no case), so she must be flogged or perhaps stoned to death. And similar items of limpid justice and fairness.

Then Byrnes quotes Tariq Ramadan saying it’s all a misunderstanding, then Byrnes says it’s all a misunderstanding some more, without ever actually managing to offer a particular example of sharia being a good thing. He says in Malaysia it’s not so bad because it applies only to Muslims (which is dubious itself), but he still doesn’t say why it’s actually good. Then he concludes with a great burst of powerful argument:

Of course, there are plenty who will object to any legal system or way of life that has a religious basis, regardless of how it operates. But the one word that is, above all, associated with sharia, stressed by Ramadan in his writings, Mahathir in his interview with me, by Bernard Lewis in his latest book and by countless others, is “justice”. I think we can agree that it is not just Islamists who are in favour of that.

Lots of people say sharia has something to do with “justice,” therefore…

Oh, god. It’s too depressing.

Street censorship

Jun 8th, 2010 6:07 pm | By

Imagine being a writer, or a reader, in Egypt.

More recently, the literary magazine Ibdaa (“Creativity”) had its license revoked over the publication, in 2007, of a poem by the renowned poet Helmy Salem, deemed blasphemous because it personified God with lines such as: “The Lord isn’t a policeman/who catches criminals by the scruff of their necks”…Before Ibdaa was shut down, Salem had already been forced to return a State Award for Achievement in the Arts, honoring his entire body of work. The court that rescinded the award found that “The sin that he committed … against God and against society, challenging its traditions and religious beliefs should fail the sum total of his work, rendering him ineligible for any state honor or prize.”

We need Nicholas Kristof about now, to tell us that yes Islam does crush women and hate gays and forbid people to leave and fuck up literature and art and thought but hey the calligraphy is pretty.

Salem was the victim of a hisba case — what has become the legal weapon of choice in the arsenal of would-be censors. These are cases — based on a principle in Islamic law — in which an individual may sue another on behalf of society, alleging some grave harm has been done it. Several Islamist lawyers specialize in hisba lawsuits and use them with alarming frequency against writers, intellectuals, and professors whose opinions they deem to have denigrated Islam. Egypt’s minority Christian Coptic population also has its self-appointed moral guardians, eager to take novelists to court. And while charges against a book, author, or publisher are being investigated, the book is usually confiscated from the market.

Can you imagine anything more nightmarish? A situation in which any ignorant benighted mindless godbothering fool can take you to court for writing something it doesn’t like, and win? There are a lot of ignorant benighted mindless fools out there, godbotherers and non-godbotherers. Imagine knowing they could shut you down any time they felt like it.

[A]ny one book or film may find itself the center of a public scandal, singled out on the basis of a few lines. The arbitrariness of censorship in Egypt makes publishers (especially the government-run ones) afraid to take risks and leads writers to second-guess themselves. “In Egypt we’re born and we live in a state of constant self-censorship,” the writer Khaled Al Khamissi, whose book Taxi has been an international hit, once told me.

That’s what I mean. Nightmare.

Update: On the other hand – a bit of good news for a change – the last comment on the article linked to a news flash: the prosecutor threw out the case.

Prosecutor Abdel Megid Mahmud threw out the case, saying the epic tales had been published for centuries without problems, and had been an inspiration to countless artists.


Respect is being redefined as agreement

Jun 8th, 2010 1:46 pm | By

Salman Rushdie knows a thing or two about free speech and the other thing.

“We are in danger of losing the battle for freedom of speech,” Mr. Rushdie said. It is being recast as a Western imposition, not a universal human right. Respect is being redefined as agreement, and censorship disguised as a virtuous defence of diversity…Freedom of expression and imagination “is now very much back in question, and is strongly under attack by religious authorities and religious armies of different sorts, and not only Islam,” Mr. Rushdie said.

And religious newspaper columnists are doing their bit, too.

The Odone file

Jun 8th, 2010 7:11 am | By

Want some more Cristina Odone? Why not – she repays attention. She does a nice job of modeling the religious mind for us.

As I read Nomad, the tone of this feverish, self-justifying tome reminded me of a Dutch social worker I met once. Hirsi Ali (who indeed worked for years as a translator for the Dutch social services) shares that same intolerant world view and politically correct instincts.

This is Odone, complaining about someone else being feverish and self-justifying, and intolerant and politically correct. Does Odone think her writing comes across as placid and generous, tolerant and autonomous? Seriously?

In her autobiographical accounts, Infidel (a worldwide bestseller) and now Nomad, Hirsi Ali blames everything that goes wrong in her own and her family life on Islam.

Odone goes Kristof one better – she not only knows more than Hirsi Ali about Islam, she knows more about the cause of everything that went wrong in her life. Hirsi Ali thinks Islam was behind a lot of it, but Odone knows better. How? Well…because, that’s how. Because Islam is a religion, so it couldn’t have been a religion that was the cause, so that’s how. Odone is all-knowing and all-seeing. And humble.

Hirsi Ali’s attack on the faith she has renounced would gain credibility if she could acknowledge its virtues as well as its flaws. But no, Islam is without merit in her eyes, a religion without poetry, charity, or wisdom. Its fanatics are not extremists; they are the norm.

Now, pesky secularists might think that Hirsi Ali would know what she was talking about because she was there at the time and Odone was not, but sensible people can see through that kind of thing with no trouble, thank you very much. Hirsi Ali was there and being there was bad so it made her all like twisted and biased, while Odone was not there, Odone was in the UK where people like her don’t so much get their genitalia chopped off when they’re five or forced into marriage with some stranger a few years later, so she is in a position to second-guess Hirsi Ali about Hirsi Ali’s own experience because Odone is mellow and calm and reasonable and she loves the pope like a father.

After that powerful insight, Odone complains about Hirsi Ali’s success (though she forgets to mention the death threats, and the dead Theo Van Gogh, and the having to live as a fugitive, and the being kicked out of her apartment and then out of the Netherlands), and then she gets down to business.

A Muslim-basher, in our secular culture, is welcome everywhere. Even when they are capable only of the kind of obsessive, one-track thinking that gives social workers a bad name.

A “Muslim-basher.”

I cannot remain civil when commenting on Cristina Odone, so I had best stop. She makes me angry.

Update on CFI

Jun 6th, 2010 1:43 pm | By

There’s been a lot of unhappy and unfortunate stuff going on at the Center for Inquiry lately. I’m not going to link to any sources because I haven’t been able to find any that seem at all impartial (and also because several of them are at Facebook rather than at more public sites). To summarize briefly – Paul Kurtz was ousted or removed or set aside (see? I can’t even find an impartial verb) as CEO, and Ron Lindsay took over that job. There were changes. There were funding cuts or re-allocations. (See? Depends what you call it.) Senior people left, for various reasons. (See?) Paul Kurtz resigned altogether, and published an open letter about his resignation and the changes at CFI. There were pointed editorials in Free Inquiry; there were pointed blog posts at the CFI blog and elsewhere, which generated long threads full of pointed comments from CFI staffers and former staffers and members.

Stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Competing and conflicting accounts; resentments; bad blood; gossip; attempts to tamp down all these; repeat. Public linen-washing. Recrimination.

On June 1 CFI issued an urgent fundraising appeal. That’s an exception to the no links, because it’s a press release and it’s unambiguous. They need money. By all means donate to them if you’re so inclined.

They had a donor who had forked over 800 grand every year; the donor has stopped giving and has also not responded to communications from CFI.

CFI was forced to lay off some people. One of them was Norm Allen, who among other things ran the African Americans for Humanism program. He was also – this is my addition, I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere – their liason with Leo Igwe. I don’t mean “Leo will be cut off from CFI now!” – I just mean that’s another valuable thing he was involved with, and one that I know a little about. Debbie Goddard is taking over much of Norm Allen’s work, and I’m confident that Leo will not be cut off from CFI – though I can’t say I’m confident that whatever money they were spending on their Nigerian branch is safe. I don’t know what their Nigerian branch involves – maybe it’s just a notional branch that really means some part-time volunteers, and maybe it will be no worse off than it was. I hope so.

At any rate, all this did not go smoothly. That’s not surprising. That’s you updated.

Always look on the bright side of FGM

Jun 5th, 2010 12:11 pm | By

Nicholas Kristof tells off Ayaan Hirsi Ali because of course he knows far more about Islam than she does.

To those of us who have lived and traveled widely in Africa and Asia, descriptions of Islam often seem true but incomplete.

Including, apparently, descriptions by people who grew up immersed in Islam, genitally mutilated under Islam, beaten up by their teachers of Islam, issued death threats from adherents of Islam. The descriptions are true – but Kristof wants more. He wants to hear about the pretty calligraphy.

The repression of women, the persecution complexes, the lack of democracy, the volatility, the anti-Semitism, the difficulties modernizing, the disproportionate role in terrorism — those are all real. But if those were the only faces of Islam, it wouldn’t be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world today. There is also the warm hospitality toward guests, including Christians and Jews; charity for the poor; the aesthetic beauty of Koranic Arabic; the sense of democratic unity as rich and poor pray shoulder to shoulder in the mosque.

That first list is quite a doozy! Repression of women, no democracy, anti-Semitism, anti-modernism, affinity for terrorism [and he forgot homophobia, hatred of outsiders and "infidels," madrassas, the death penalty for leaving, and a few more large items] – with all that is it really surprising that Islam gets some criticism? It sounds absurd to admit to all that and then say yes but, especially when the yes buts are themselves dubious. Hospitality to Christians and Jews? What – they get a nice meal before they get driven out of town? And as for the sense of “democratic unity as rich and poor pray shoulder to shoulder” – well it may be democratic unity but it sure as hell isn’t gender unity; women are banished to the back of the bus. Forgive me if I can’t get too sentimental because Kristof gets dewy about rich and poor men praying shoulder to shoulder in the mosque.

Really – he should know better. He should know better to admit repression of women, no democracy, anti-Semitism, anti-modernism, affinity for terrorism and then go on to say “but it’s not all bad.” Fuck that. With that list, it’s bad enough, and good liberals shouldn’t be cobbling together feeble excuses for it.

More tinkling cymbal

Jun 5th, 2010 11:42 am | By

But that’s not all, of course. Odone has more to say than that. Odone has a lot to say.

First of all she complains that Channel 4 chose, to present a show on paedophile priests, a guy who is “an avowed atheist” and who has “no knowledge of the contemporary Catholic Church,” as if both are obvious disqualifications for presenting a show on paedophile priests. Her thinking seems to be that you have to believe in god and be an expert on the Catholic church in order to present a tv show on a concentration of child rapists in a particular profession. In other words her thinking seems to be that only someone who starts out with some sympathy for clerics in general and Catholic priests in particular can do a good job of presenting the subject. But that kind of sympathy is just what has allowed rapists to hide behind the robes of the church for so long. Sympathy is not what’s wanted; what’s wanted is the kind of stony unsympathy that Johann Hari so beautifully demonstrated on the BBC a few weeks ago. You don’t want people who will make allowances and excuses, you want people who will say this is criminal and outrageous and has to stop right now.

Then she goes on to complain that Peter Tatchell is presenting a show on the pope.

How appropriate, huh? Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, getting his hooks into his favourite hate figure. Who cares that in doing so he will be offending the more than four million Catholics in this country?

Ugly, isn’t it – “his hooks.” Who is accusing whom of having a hate figure? And then the self-pity about offending Catholics – because Peter Tatchell presents a show on the reactionary head of a reactionary church. If the four million Catholics don’t want to be “offended” then they should have a better church. (Yes, that’s irony. They can’t have a better church, of course, because they don’t get to decide. But this is why their being “offended” is so beside the point. They aren’t the church, they didn’t create the church, talking about the pope is not talking about them. They’re to blame for sticking with it; others are not to blame for saying what’s wrong with it.)

As for Channel 4, there is a very clear way for it to show itself to be in good faith, rather than bad: it must commission a programme on gays presented by Anne Atkins.

That’s simply disgusting. “Gays” are not the pope; “gays” do not tell millions of people what to do; gays are not the Catholic church or any other church, gays have no institutional power over other people; a programme on gays would not be the same kind of thing as one on the pope, so there is no need to have a homophobic presenter for the sake of “balance.”

Milk of human kindness eh.