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.

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

Feb 15th, 2010 5:25 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucial distinctions

Feb 15th, 2010 4:48 pm | By

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

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

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

It’s not a normal position

Feb 14th, 2010 5:55 pm | By

Gita Sahgal is not having an easy time.

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

Moazzam Begg sets us all straight about that.

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

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

Multicultural mayoring

Feb 13th, 2010 1:02 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 12th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t fit in at all

Feb 11th, 2010 1:44 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and science are like totally the same

Feb 10th, 2010 5:51 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wisdom of bishops

Feb 9th, 2010 2:44 pm | By

Nice. ‘Compassionate.’ Thoughtful. Caring.

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

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

Holding onto a shadow

Feb 8th, 2010 11:47 am | By

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

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

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

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

Just get on with the gardening

Feb 7th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drive-by insults

Feb 6th, 2010 4:48 pm | By

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

This confusion of the epistemic with the political

Feb 5th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the thought I wanted to add.

No ripples on the pond

Feb 5th, 2010 2:23 pm | By

Chris Mooney is seeking suggestions for his new gig.

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

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

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

Feb 5th, 2010 2:15 pm | By

Pakistan. A 13-year-old girl.

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

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

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

And as for that sister…

To the manner born

Feb 4th, 2010 11:32 am | By

Good old Charles, always stirring the pot, and doing it in such a grand aristocratic irresponsible way.

“I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment,” he told a conference at St James’s Palace. “I felt proud of that.”

Ah did you, you darling wee man. Well it’s easy for you, isn’t it, because if all the lights go out you can just get a lot of servants to hold the candles for you.

The Prince, who was talking at the annual conference of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment , went on: “I thought, ‘Hang on a moment’. The Enlightenment started over 200 years ago.”

He’s been studying Madeleine Bunting!

It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. It must be apparent to people deep down that we have to do something about it. We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment still apply now. I don’t believe they do. But if you challenge people who hold the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything, you do really upset them.

That would be partly because nobody holds that and people who do hold Enlightenment values get very stinking tired of being characterized in that stupid way. Nobody nobody nobody ‘holds the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything’ you ignorant git so why don’t you get it right if you want to say something?

Not to mention of course the absurdity of assuming that just because an idea is 200 years old therefore ‘we have to do something about it’ i.e. get rid of it. The monarchy is a good deal older than that but we don’t hear Chuck saying we have to do something about it, do we!

Instead, the Prince advocated a holistic approach to the world’s problems…“What is the point of all this clever technology if at the end of the day we lose our souls, and the soul of nature of which we are a part?”…The Prince also made an impassioned call for houses to be built so that birds, such as swallows and swifts, could make their nests there.

Holistic approach; souls; birds’ nests. For that he thinks he has to do something about the Enlightenment? I don’t see the necessity, myself.

Talk to Yggdrasil

Feb 3rd, 2010 12:36 pm | By

The Lancet has retracted Andrew Wakefield’s article that suggested that vaccines could cause autism. Therefore…

Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.

I see. Years of investigation that turned up conflicts of interest and ‘the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism’ will strengthen Wakefield’s credibility with many parents. What kind of thing would weaken it then?

…an investigation by a British journalist found financial and scientific conflicts that Dr. Wakefield did not reveal in his paper. For instance, part of the costs of Dr. Wakefield’s research were paid by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages. Dr. Wakefield was also found to have patented in 1997 a measles vaccine that would succeed if the combined vaccine were withdrawn or discredited.

Would that do it? No? I suppose it would take a shaman and Tom Cruise doing a joint press conference saying no it’s not vaccines it’s the anger of The World Spirit. Or something.

A short way with dissenters

Feb 1st, 2010 4:15 pm | By

Hey, why not ask the pope to host Point of Inquiry? He’s a reasonable guy – rational, thoughtful, fair-minded, generous, liberal.

The Pope confirmed today that he will make an official state visit to Britain this September – and immediately launched an attack on the Government’s plans to introduce stronger equality legislation for gay men and women. In the first official announcement from the Vatican that the head of the Roman Catholic Church will tour Britain, Pope Benedict XVI called on his bishops to continue campaigning against the Equality Bill which he said threatened religious freedom.

That’s nice, isn’t it? A German fella who’s the boss of a large church based in Rome is telling British bishops to campaign against equality legislation – because it’s really up to Ratzinger to decide what kind of laws the UK should have. Not to mention the whole business of making a big public show of resisting equality in the first place.

In a letter to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, many of whom are currently in Rome on an “ad limina” visit, Pope Benedict publicly criticised Britain’s equality legislation for the first time. “Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society,” he wrote. “Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.”

Yes, there speaks the voice of the papacy and the church – the one that likes to deliver occasional announcements about the ‘natural law’ that dictates that women are different from men and had damn well better not forget it. Reactionary bastards.

In a separate warning to any bishop thinking of deviating from the Vatican’s lead on such controversial issues, Pope Benedict also reiterated the need for the Church to “speak with a united voice. In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate,” he said. “It is the truth revealed through scripture and tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free.”

Yes indeed, and arbeit macht frei. There’s no freedom like the freedom of scripture and the Church’s Magisterium, so kindly recognize dissent for what it is and STFU.

Maybe Conan would like to do it?

Feb 1st, 2010 2:44 pm | By

This is not good news.

The Center for Inquiry has announced that there will be three new hosts for its popular podcast, Point of Inquiry. Joining the podcast are Chris Mooney, Karen Stollznow, and Robert Price…Mooney is expected to host about half of the approximately 50 new shows per year.

DJ Grothe, who was the host, left in December for a job as President of the James Randi Foundation. I was pleased at the time for DJ and for JREF, but worried for Point of Inquiry. DJ was a very good host.

Chris Mooney seems to me to be a very peculiar choice for that job. (He and Matthew Nisbet were both protégés of Paul Kurtz’s – Nisbet in particular used to make a great point of this, and for all I know still does.) Mooney is not: Thoughtful enough. Inquiring enough. Reasonable enough. Fair enough.

He’s especially, I think, not inquiring enough. He doesn’t even seem to get what it is to be inquiring – it’s not his thing. His thing is advocacy. Now advocacy is very useful, and it’s good that there are people who do it, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right people to host podcasts about inquiry. Mooney is if anything hostile to inquiry – he’s a results guy. I can’t see him having the right kind of curiosity and open-mindedness to do a good job with PofI.

And then the fairness issue I think is a major stumbling block. Since the recent regrettable events, I wouldn’t trust Mooney to be fair to anyone who had disagreed with him in the last eight months or so – and that covers a hell of a lot of people, many of whom are naturals for PofI. That’s a huge change from DJ. It really seems like an odd choice – and not in a good way.

Addition: here’s the Point of Inquiry I did in 2007. And here’s Russell’s from last October.

Summer camp or boarding school

Jan 31st, 2010 5:27 pm | By

Not good.

Ten members of an American Baptist Church are to appear in a Haitian court this morning after being accused of running an illegal adoption scheme. The group from Idaho said that they were carrying out a rescue mission and had accompanied more than 30 children as part of a plan to take at least 100 orphans out of Port-au-Prince to an orphanage that they run in the neighbouring Dominican Republic…She said that the group had documents from the Dominican Governmen but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities…

Why not? Did they try? Was it impossible in the circumstances? The article doesn’t say. At any rate clearly documents from another government do not amount to permission to take children out of their own country. If I decide to grab a child and take her to Ulan Bator, it’s not good enough for me to say I have documents from the government of Mongolia. Mongolia isn’t in a position to give me permission to abduct a child from a country that is not Mongolia.

The children, aged from a few months to 12, seemed to have little idea where they were being taken when The Times met them, with some saying that they had parents in Haiti. George Willeit, of SOS Children’s Village, a care centre on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where the children are now staying, told The Times: “What we know is that some of these children still have their parents. There was an older girl, aged 8 or 9, and she was crying and saying, ‘I’m not an orphan. I still have my parents’. This girl was thinking that she was going to a summer camp or boarding school. She didn’t know what was happening to her.”

No good. Bad. Help and rescue are all very well, but not in a hole-and-corner way. Not least, they have to make triply or quadruply sure to create ample records of what they’re doing so that the children can be found if relatives are looking for them. Even Idaho Baptists don’t get to take short cuts.

Deciding in advance

Jan 30th, 2010 1:55 pm | By

Wheaton College has a ‘statement of faith’ that everyone at Wheaton has to ‘follow.’ The statement is long, and specific, and detailed. It’s not a mere cloud of benevolent sentiments, it’s a list of concrete factual assertions prefaced by ‘we believe that,’ and agreeing to the whole thing is, as I understand it, a condition of employment and attendance. It includes (and ends with) ‘WE BELIEVE in the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust, the everlasting punishment of the lost.’

Yet Wheaton College considers itself an academic institution of some kind. Wheaton College considers itself a place of higher education, yet a condition of getting the putative higher education that Wheaton College offers is agreement with a long list of inherently absurd factual claims.

Those two facts don’t go together. They don’t belong together. Education is pretty much the opposite of swearing an oath to a particular set of unquestioned and unquestionable ‘faith-based’ assertions. Swearing such an oath amounts to swearing not to be educated in anything except the narrowest technical sense.