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.

La la la la la

Sep 2nd, 2010 1:20 pm | By

If you haven’t seen the merengue dog…well it’s a life-altering thing.

Don’t miss it.


Three cheers for “the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death”

Sep 2nd, 2010 12:58 pm | By

Joan Smith is very happy to live in the “geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death” that is contemporary London. Of course she damn well is. She’s allowed to go out in public with without a chaperone there; she won’t be stoned to death there; she won’t be whipped for not wearing hijab there. She can ignore the pope there.

Frankly, I’m tired of hearing religious bigots running down this country….Britain is still one of the most civilised places in the world to live. It’s not Iran, where prisoners are subjected to rape and mock executions; it isn’t Saudi Arabia either…The Catholic Church has picked up this habit of dissing secular culture from hardline Muslims, who dislike pretty much the same things: gay relationships, equal rights for women and the freedom to mock religion.

All good things, you see. Hooray for London – except the reactionary Catholic and Islamist bits of it.

Pankaj Mishra

Sep 1st, 2010 11:33 am | By

Ugly stuff from Pankaj Mishra.

Bestselling authors like Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be the “new heroes”, as the writer Peter Beinart puts it, of the Republican party’s crusade against Muslims. But “professional” former Muslims have long provided respectable cover for the bigotry and, more often, plain ignorance of mainstream western commentators on Islam…Most of these ex-Muslim “dissidents” lucratively raging against Islam in the west wouldn’t be able to flourish without the imprimatur of influential institutions and individuals in the US and Europe.

Most of what “professional” ex-Muslim “dissidents” lucratively raging against Islam? It’s not lucrative for all ex-Muslim dissidents, after all – in fact it’s not lucrative for any of them except possibly Hirsi Ali, and she has heavy expenses because of the death threats. And for most of them it’s unpaid work, and thankless besides. Sara Mohammed doesn’t find it very “lucrative,” I can tell you. Few ex-Muslim dissidents find it all that lucrative to defend women’s rights and gay rights and human rights, and they find it not all that easy or popular, either, in a world where Pankaj Mishras are always ready to sneer and throw mud.

Certainly, the story of Hirsi Ali’s life attests powerfully to the degradations suffered by many women in patriarchal cultures. There is no question that she should feel free to say that Muslims are programmed to kill infidels and mutilate female bodies, however much these opinions may offend some people. There is little reason, however, for most of her opinions to claim serious intellectual attention.

Oh really? Why not? (Because they “offend some people,” of course. Stupid question.)

Yet the mildest criticism of Hirsi Ali’s naivety triggers a tsunami of vitriol from her army of prominent supporters. In recent months Clive James as well as Melanie Phillips have rebuked Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for not joining the chorus of praise for Hirsi Ali, a defender of the western Enlightenment, and for being “soft” on apparently closeted jihadists like the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan.

No. Not for not joining the chorus of praise for Hirsi Ali; not at all; for calling her “an Enlightenment fundamentalist” and other patronizing clueless nonsense.

Thus the writer Paul Berman, a self-described “laptop general” who first stalked Ramadan and hounded Buruma and Garton Ash in the New Republic – once the principal periodical of liberal America – and then expanded his 28,000-word indictment into a much-reviewed book…

And so on and so on, as if there were something deeply sinister about Paul Berman’s analysis – not “stalking” – of Ramadan, or as if it were obviously illiberal of the New Republic to publish it, or as if he had no business writing a book on the subject, or as if it should have gone unreviewed. It’s ugly, nasty, bullying, innuendo-laden stuff.

Free will

Aug 31st, 2010 4:35 pm | By

Jerry has a post on free will (the latest of a series) and it has set off an interesting discussion; see especially the comments by Tom Clark and Russell Blackford, and several by Eric MacDonald.

This subject doesn’t fret me the way it does some people, and I suspect that’s because I’m lazy about it. I’m lazy about a lot of things. It doesn’t fret me because I always end up thinking “but it feels as if I choose and in a way that feeling amounts to the same thing as really choosing.” That’s probably lazy because of the “in a way” or the “amounts to” or both. It’s woolly. And yet -

And yet if we all do live that way, feeling all the time as if we choose various things, then for the purposes of living that way, it does amount to the same thing. Or at least it seems to. It’s like the self, and other such illusions. We can agree that they’re illusions, and yet in everyday life, we go on living and thinking as if they’re not, and we can’t really do anything else.

It’s like vision, too – we don’t really see what we see; what we see is a confabulation – we fill in all kinds of missing bits with our brains to make a seamless whole that our eyes don’t in fact see. I’m aware of that, but I certainly can’t refrain from doing it.

It’s perhaps a little like reading novels or hearing stories, which rely on the convention that the narrator – whoever that is – knows what every character, or some characters, or one character is thinking. Some novelists point out or play with that convention in the novel, but lots don’t; the convention is just there, and we’re entirely accustomed to it so that it seems natural, but in fact it’s radically different from life, in which no one knows what anyone else is thinking.

The fact is human life is full of illusions of this kind; narrative combinations that knit things together that are actually fragmented and all over the place. Most of them are really difficult to set aside for more than a few minutes; some of them are impossible.

And yet…quite often I will suddenly notice how unconsciously I have just done something quite complicated, while thinking about something else, and then I will have a little jolt of awareness of the illusion of free will.

A Saturday afternoon

Aug 31st, 2010 4:30 pm | By
A Saturday afternoon

Ulrika (who did most of the steering me from place to place in Stockholm) told me on the Saturday that she had uploaded audio from the seminar to the Humanisterna site. I looked for it but couldn’t find it, possibly because it’s hiding behind some Swedish words.

But in looking for it I found something else, which is one of the pictures Ulrika took of me while we were walking to her mother’s apartment where the atheist gender group met. That stuff in the background? That’s Stockholm.


They look perplexed, or irritated

Aug 30th, 2010 6:06 pm | By

You know how pundits and armchair “theologians” like Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton like to pour scorn on the idea that anybody except dopy militant clueless atheists thinks God is an omnipotent supernatural being who answers prayers. Well Paul Cliteur points out in The Secular Outlook (p 176) that there is such a thing as the Apostle’s Creed, and also such a thing as the catechism. That’s an obvious enough point, but it’s fun to see people remind us of it, or to remind us of it oneself.

Cliteur goes on to quote Armstrong in The Case for God:

Surely everybody knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality, who created the world and everything in it. They look perplexed if you point out that it is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not a being at all…

He comments

Apparently Armstrong is opposed to clear definitions of the words she uses so profusely in her books. That results in a situation where “God,” “religion,” “Christianity,” and other key concepts are used interchangeably. This is done with an air of superiority and those who ask for more precision are censured as narrow-minded (if not “fundamentalist”) and asking for the impossible.

That made me laugh. He’s quite right – that “they look perplexed” is very much done with an air of superiority, as of an enlightened nuanced subtle theologian looking down on the poor bewildered literalists at her feet. But it’s Armstrong who is just bullshitting (in the technical sense) and her perplexed auditors who are at least reading the script as it was written.

What goes where

Aug 29th, 2010 6:05 pm | By

I had one long-standing mistake corrected on the trip to Stockholm. I had been thinking, ever since first hearing from Christer (in January I think), that Fri Tanke was a magazine as well as a publishing company, and that it had published that article by Julian saying “The New Atheist movement is destructive.” I was wrong. I found this out when we were all out for dinner in Östermalm and talking about the hostility to overt atheism, which they talked about before I did, much to my surprise – I thought Sweden would be better that way than the Anglophone countries, but it’s not. So we were talking about this so I said very cautiously, “…And yet you published that article…” and Christer looked blank and said no we didn’t. Eh?! I said golly, you would know of course, but I could have sworn…And then he realized what I was thinking of: there is a magazine called Fri Tanke, but it’s Norwegian, and it’s nothing to do with them.

Giant shifting of gears in head. They didn’t publish that article. Ah! That’s good…because I never liked it.

Amusingly, it took me until the next day to get it into my head that Swedish Fri Tanke doesn’t publish a magazine at all, though some of the people at Swedish Fri Tanke do publish a magazine for Humanisterna, called Sans. They interviewed me for it.

So. Got that? There’s a Norwegian magazine called Fri Tanke and a Swedish publisher called the same thing and a Swedish magazine – quite like the US Free Inquiry – called Sans. It’s good to get such things sorted out.

Lightning movie reviews

Aug 29th, 2010 5:40 pm | By

I saw a bunch of terrible movies, or bits of them, on this recent trip, what with two long flights and a few spare moments in a hotel room. I found it vaguely interesting how horrible they all were. I thought I’d say which ones they were and why I thought they were horrible in case anyone else has seen any of them too and thought so too, or thought the opposite.

The first one was on the Seattle to Amsterdam flight, and it’s the only one I saw the beginning and end of along with much in between. Spoiler alert – I’m going to say how it ends, so if you care, don’t keep reading – but you shouldn’t care. It was The Joneses. It was about four people who pretended to be a couple with teenage children in order to do lifestyle marketing – look at me, look at my stuff, don’t you wish you had my stuff. The premise was interesting for maybe about ten minutes, but then it just got stupider and stupider – Demi Moore saunters past a bunch of women out walking, so all of them rush off to buy the shoes she was wearing. Right. It ends with the two people playing the couple getting together, and that was supposed to be a happy ending – but what the hell was happy about it? She was a horrible person, and he was turned off by what they’d been doing, so why would it be nice for them to get together? It wouldn’t. It was idiotic.

There was that one with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker – [looks it up] – Did You Hear About the Morgans? I’d seen the trailer on tv more times than I wanted to, and it looked stupid, but I thought for a few minutes before going to sleep it would be ok. It wasn’t. It was excruciating. Not merely boring, but actively repellent. Trying to be funny and failing, and SJP being just…the way she is. Nervy, bratty, demanding, shallow as a fingernail, stupid…a vision of the American Woman.

Then there was Julie and Julia. That’s another I’d seen the trailer for more times than wanted, and I was pretty sure I would hate the Julie parts, but I thought maybe Meryl Streep would make up for it a little. But no. Again, I found it simply excruciating – actively irritating and bad and unpleasant. Why? I don’t know…the horrible patronizing, I think; the relentless stupidification. I’m a woman, so this loathsome saccharine perky cutesy version of women just turns my stomach, and makes me feel like a being from another (and better) planet.

Those two were at the hotel, and I could just watch BBC news instead, so it didn’t matter, it was just a little bit interesting. Who makes these things? And why?

On the Amsterdam to Seattle flight I saw Date Night. That was the least terrible; it was endurable at times; but it was far from brilliant. There was also something unspeakable called Valentine’s Day – which was exactly what it sounds like, and unwatchable.

And speaking of badness, and so bad it’s good-ness, Jerry has introduced a marveling readership to the “pake” – which is a supermarket pie baked into a cake-mix cake then frosted with cream cheese icing. I can’t look at it without feeling faintly sick. I find it hilarious – far funnier than all those movies put together.

What elite credentials can do

Aug 29th, 2010 1:04 pm | By

I like to see professionals using their professonalism to be professional and serious and rule-following and everything.

“I can remember, 30 years ago, if a person wanted to learn about reincarnation, they would go into a bookstore and go into a very back corner, to a section called ‘Occult,’ ” said Janet Cunningham, president of the International Board for Regression Therapy, a professional standards group for past-life therapists and researchers.

See? Like that. It’s good that regression thereapists have an International Board which is a professional standards group so that they will do their regression therapy according to standards as opposed to just any old how. It makes me feel safe, and looked after, and protected, and reincarnated.

The popular purveyors of reincarnation belief these days are not monks or theologians, but therapists — intermediaries between science and religion who authenticate irrational belief.

Who…what? Authenticate irrational belief? What, because they belong to the International Board which is a professional standards group? That means they can just authenticate irrational belief and make it rational, just like that?

Perhaps what Lisa Miller means is that they give an appearance of authentication to irrational belief, which is doubtless true, which is the whole point of the professionalism and the International Board and the standards. But an appearance of authentication is really quite different from an authentication, in a way that matters. You don’t want a surgeon who appears to be authentic, you want a surgeon who is authentic. Granted irrational belief may be a little less likely to nick an important artery and not know how to fix it, but there are other ways to bleed to death.

Critics of hypnotic regression dismiss such visions as scientifically dubious. “The mind fills in the blanks, basically,” said Dr. Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who studies accounts of past lives…Nonetheless, Dr. Weiss’s elite credentials, and his initial skepticism, open the door to belief for people who might otherwise stay away.

Exactly. Just what I’m saying. He’s another John Mack.

Let them work it out for themselves

Aug 28th, 2010 1:50 pm | By

Here’s a bit of free advice: if you have any children in school, don’t send them to the one where Erfana Bora teaches.

I have taught secondary-level science to pupils in both state and faith schools. I am careful to teach my kids all the science they are required to know for their age group…

In my current teaching post at an Islamic faith school, pupils are concurrently taught in Islamic theology lessons that the universe and its contents originate from an omnipotent creator – and the mechanisms for this creative feat are described in some detail in the Qur’an…

Pupils with a faith background will learn the lesson content in a state school while holding their own viewpoints – and will then attempt to integrate two worldviews – inevitably reaching differing points of “belief equilibrium”, as it were. Pupils in faith schools do exactly the same.

All pupils will attempt to “integrate” what they have learned in science classes with the creation myths they have heard in school or church or mosque, inevitably doing it differently so that all pupils have some unknowable jumble of Stuff in their heads, thus demonstrating that Dawkins is quite wrong to think that “faith” does any harm to their cognitive faculties. And this arrangement is a good thing because

it is important that children are made aware of the limitations of scientific endeavour lest they be corralled into a realm wherein nothing is worth knowing unless it has been determined by empirical scientific discovery.

If they were encouraged towards that worldview alone, I believe they would be receiving an education devoid of further enrichment from a faith-based narrative…

As a teacher, I’d be doing my pupils a grave disservice if I insisted that the answers that science can give us should be the limit of our understanding of the world. Kids are bright and don’t need liberating from religion, especially if the alternative is limited to giving credence to atheistic secularism alone.

All kids “are bright” so it’s perfectly fine to teach them two incompatible sets of truth claims about the world and then leave them to figure out how to reconcile them. Let a thousand Venus flytraps bloom.

Hitchens and Manji

Aug 27th, 2010 12:57 pm | By

Hitchens explains what’s really worrying about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (it’s not the location of the planned Islamic cultural center):

For example, here is Rauf’s editorial on the upheaval that followed the brutal hijacking of the Iranian elections in 2009. Regarding President Obama, he advised that:

He should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution—to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faquih, that establishes the rule of law.

Roughly translated, Vilayet-i-faquih is the special term promulgated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to describe the idea that all of Iranian society is under the permanent stewardship (sometimes rendered as guardianship) of the mullahs.

In other words, totalitarian theocracy. Imam Rauf was saying Obama should say his administration respects the guiding principle of totalitarian theocracy. No he shouldn’t. No, he really really should not say that, anywhere, ever.

Emboldened by the crass nature of the opposition to the center, its defenders have started to talk as if it represented no problem at all and as if the question were solely one of religious tolerance. It would be nice if this were true. But tolerance is one of the first and most awkward questions raised by any examination of Islamism. We are wrong to talk as if the only subject were that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind. Sometimes it will be calls for censorship of anything “offensive” to Islam. Sometimes it will be demands for sexual segregation in schools and swimming pools. The script is becoming a very familiar one. And those who make such demands are of course usually quite careful to avoid any association with violence. They merely hint that, if their demands are not taken seriously, there just might be a teeny smidgeon of violence from some other unnamed quarter …

And no, this kind of thing is not part of the glorious patchwork of benign multiculturalism, it’s the entry point for communal theocracy.

Irshad Manji also has useful things to say.

 If Park51 gets built, thanks to its provocative location the nation will scrutinize what takes place inside. Americans have the opportunity right now to be clear about the civic values expected from any Islam practiced at the site.That means setting aside bombast and asking the imam questions born of the highest American ideals: individual dignity and pluralism of ideas.

• Will the swimming pool at Park51 be segregated between men and women at any time of the day or night?

• May women lead congregational prayers any day of the week?

Of course, people who make a fetish of “tolerance” without really thinking about what it should mean tend to think questions of that kind are none of their business. That’s why they need, as Manji points out, to think about all this, not just emote about it.

Our cherished um er ah

Aug 26th, 2010 1:29 pm | By

Russell makes a good point about Quinn O’Neill’s 3 quarks post:

He quotes O’Neill

Success will be most likely if atheists and religioius moderates unite for a common goal; not the eradication of religion, but a securely secular society that optimizes well-being and respects our most cherished freedoms. 

And notes

Yes, that’s what we should aim at – a secular, free society. I agree. But O’Neill doesn’t even understand what our cherished freedoms are. One of them is the freedom to criticise ideas that we disagree with, including religious ideas, and to criticise individuals and organisations that wield social power, including religious organisations and their leaders.

Indeed; well spotted. It’s quite funny when you notice it – sentimentalizing over our most cherished freedoms while betraying a remarkable cluelessness about exactly what they are. One of them really decidedly unambiguously is the freedom to say critical things about particular ideas and beliefs. If you’re going to cherish it, then cherish it.

The freeedom not to respect

Aug 25th, 2010 10:44 am | By

Quinn O’Neill, in her much-discussed piece on religion and reason and “tolerance” offers a familiar confusion:

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is undoubtedly important in securing secularism.  As Michael Shermer eloquently put it: “As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.”

Ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion is important for a lot of reasons, but ensuring individuals’ freedom of religion does not depend on being “respectful and tolerant” of the content of individuals’ beliefs. It does not, and it cannot, because that would in fact interfere with everyone else’s freedom of religion (which, of course, includes freedom of non-religion). That is a very coercive, illiberal line of thought that has been entrenching itself lately, and it must be resisted. You are free to believe what you like, and I am free to pour scorn on any belief, and vice versa. Freedom cannot require the automatic “respect” for beliefs of the rest of the world, because such a requirement would itself be insanely coercive. Demanding “respect” for any belief is itself thoroughly anti-freedom.

O’Neill continues with the confusion.

Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom.  If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). 

Personal attacks on any individuals, if they are literal attacks, are inconsistent with freedom in general and with the rule of law. But of course she’s probably not talking about physical attacks…she’s probably talking about verbal disagreement. Well, that is not inconsistent with religious freedom. Respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is not the same thing as respect for the irrational beliefs themselves. O’Neill simply conflates the two, either sloppily or dishonestly; I don’t know which. The result, at any rate, is sheer bullshit. Yes, of course we have to respect everyone’s right to hold irrational beliefs, but no of course we do not have to respect the irrational beliefs themselves. There’s a difference, and the difference matters.

The rest of it

Aug 24th, 2010 6:22 pm | By

The meeting at Glöm aldrig Pela och Fadime was Friday morning, then there were other things during the afternoon, then there was dinner with the Fri Tanke people and Lena Andersson, a well-known columnist and unapologetic atheist. Great fun. Saturday afternoon I went to a meeting of a group recently formed within the Swedish Humanist Association to raise awareness on the issue of religious oppression of women. It was terrific. Everyone from the dinner was there, and Eduardo Grutzky, who started out in Argentina and spent time in Israel before settling in Argentina, and Sara Mats Azmeh Rasmussen, who writes a columnist for Aftenposten and set fire to a hijab on Women’s Day 2009, and Haideh who is from Iran and was there during the revolution, and Søren Sören (or is that the Danish spelling?) – it was international and passionate and great. Best evah.

In Minneapolis news

Aug 24th, 2010 10:40 am | By

In case you’ve been worrying and fretting and gnawing your fingernails -

PZ got a stent, and is enjoying the drugs, and will be going home tomorrow.


No, you can’t say that

Aug 24th, 2010 7:21 am | By

Messing around with Google in Swedish, I find a blog post by a guy who was at the seminar on Thursday. He includes the wonderful book cover by Elisabeth Wallin and adds that he was the model for the guy on the left – the rabbi holding a big jagged stone ready to throw. How cool is that?!

There was a giant blow-up of the jacket at the launch – it was about the size of a door. In the huge version it becomes clear that all three clerics are spitting on the women at their feet. Once you know that you can see it in the small version – that thing that looks like a wispy beard on the pope is actually a river of spit.

Wallin was supposed to be at the launch but alas she didn’t make it, so I never met her. Too bad; that would have been great, she being so pleasingly controversial and all. But I met other pleasingly controversial people. I was apparently even controversial myself. I’d written an article for the occasion, at Fri Tanke’s request, and it was going to be published by Express Expressen, one of the biggest newspapers. During the launch, Christer got a text message from them saying on second thought, we don’t want it, because – er – well we’ve already said religion is not entirely wonderful, so there’s no need to say it again. The opinion page editor wanted it, but the editor-in-chief intervened to say No.

Don’t go thinking that because Sweden is all secular and cool and leftwing, it doesn’t scowl at frank atheism just like all other right-thinking conformist people. That was what I thought, but I learned better pretty quickly. Frank atheism is frowned on, and as for criticism of Islam – that’s right out. That was being discussed at the launch – I think perhaps I was saying a few words about it, but the fog of jet lag was thick by that time, so I’m not sure; at any rate it was being discussed when Christer got the text message so he was able to use it as an illustration of the very thing that was being discussed. It was an interesting moment. The room full of women’s rights activists and secularists, discussing the fact that there is heavy social pressure not to talk about the role of religion in denying women’s rights, only to be told that a major newspaper has changed its mind about publishing an article on the role of religion in denying women’s rights. The irony is poignant.

Not a dry eye in the house

Aug 23rd, 2010 7:11 pm | By

Catching up. Jerry has some thoughts on Phil Plait’s famous best-selling Booker Prize-winning Library of Congress-approved “don’t be a dick” speech. One thought is that it sounded a good deal too much like “Tom Johnson” and his Amazing Experiences With the Out-of-control Atheist Fiends. Another thought is that Plait didn’t offer a shred of evidence for all his claims of pervasive atheist baddery. Those two thoughts are not unrelated to each other. “Tom Johnson” didn’t offer a shred of evidence for his exciting tale of persecution and spitting, either, and oh hey gee what do you know, it turned out that that was because it never happened and Tom Johnson was just throwing mud at people he doesn’t like. So why should anyone think Phil Plait is doing anything different?

Well one reason is that Plait is a different guy, and has a lot more to recommend him than “Tom Johnson” did. And another reason is…no actually that first reason is the only one I can think of. The fact that he didn’t and wouldn’t and won’t give any examples means that we don’t even know what he means, which makes it possible for people who hate gnu atheists to think he means pretty much everything short of plain secrecy and silence, and also makes it possible for gnu atheists to feel universally if vaguely guilty or implicated. That’s the case even though what Plait actually does spell out doesn’t make me (for one) go “Oh right, I do that all the time! Must do better.”

Insulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers, may make you feel good. . . but is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

Yeah no, see, I don’t do any of that. I don’t see a lot of other people doing that, either. A few blog comments, but that’s about it, and that can’t be what Plait was making such heavy weather about. Can it?

Richard Dawkins (Mr Ground Zero of putative dickish gnu atheism himself) made a very helpful point.

Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. 

When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades)to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

Why have I never thought to say that? Because I’m not clever enough, presumably. It’s dead right, and it gets at one of the things that I hate about the whole framey discourse, which is that it’s always personalized in this stupid way, as if every book or article or review were aimed right at sobbing Suzy R Innocent of Fluffy Falls, South Dakota. It’s not. Books and articles and reviews are written for a broad or narrow public, but a public, not a single person in the hopes of making her cry. People who write, write for the larger world, not for the nice church-going people down the street. We get to do that! We get to write for everyone, and for no one in particular. That means we get to write stuff without worrying too much about whether what we write will hurt the feelings of some fragile Christian who feels lonely and sad because the skeptics won’t eat lunch with her. It means we get to treat Plait’s maudlin invocation of crying believers thanking him for his speech with contempt. That’s good, because contempt is what it deserves.

Another young woman, one I had never met before, similarly approached me and told me much the same story. She was crying as well. Eventually I heard from others who told me there were several people in the audience who were crying because they had felt so alone. Many were feeling so isolated from the skeptical community — and had experienced so many encounters with other skeptics who were rude, boorish, insulting, and dismissive — that they were seriously considering leaving the movement altogether.

I want to know where they keep their stuffed animals, so that I can steal them.


Aug 23rd, 2010 1:25 am | By

Hurry up and get back to blogging, 1.5 of you exclaim, we’re jonesing here. Very well. Since the vagaries of jet lag this time are working even on the westbound leg, and waking me up after three hours of sleep where normally I just crash and sleep for 8 or 9 hours on getting home – I’ll oblige.

First there was this seminar, which you heard about beforehand, the one that started 3 hours after I landed. A lot of it was Q and A, and it was rather like facing an audience of mind-readers. They all seemed to know exactly what I was getting at, and to feel the same way about it, and to have illustrative stories to tell. I wasn’t really expecting that. I was expecting, I suppose, broad general interest and curiosity (in anyone who showed up), since why else bother to attend, but I wasn’t expecting quite such…”oh, you too?”

I chatted to some while signing books afterward, and some of the same people were at the launch a couple of hours later. One lovely guy (hi Jan!) has been following the whole accommodationism-Mooney wrangles and sees Mooney exactly the way I do. Ha. Even in Sweden people have his number.

One of the real high points was the next morning, when I went to the office of Glöm aldrig Pela och Fadime – Never forget Pela and Fadime. They are two women who were murdered for reasons of “honor” and shame, and the campaign is run by a terrific, brave Iraqi woman called Sara Mohammad. I asked if there is any kind of umbrella organization that links the work of people like Sara and that of others like Mina Ahadi, Necla Kelek, Maryam Namazie, Houzan Mahmoud, Homa Arjomand, Azar Majedi, Fadela Amara, etc etc etc – and apparently there isn’t. There should be. We all agreed there should be; solidarity, you know.

That’s an installment. There’s more.

Prodigal something or other

Aug 22nd, 2010 6:31 pm | By

Hello, I’m back – after 19 hours of travel. I left the hotel at about 7:20 this morning and got home at about 5:30 p.m. which was 2:30 a.m. Stockholm time. You see what I’m getting at. 7:20 Sunday morning to 2:30 Monday morning, on the road. It’s a bit fatiguing.

But never mind that. I had the most brilliant, incredible time – it was the best ever. I met all these terrific, brave women…

like Sara Mohammed of Never Forget Pele and Fadime -

like Sara Mats Rasmussen who burned a hijab in Norway on Women’s Day 2009 and has a regular column in Aftenposten

and many more. And that’s quite apart from what a great place Stockholm is.

Totalitarian atheism

Aug 18th, 2010 8:33 am | By

Barney Zwartz channels Mark Helprin (via an article from an anthology titled New Threats to Freedom. It’s the usual atheist-hating sludge pretending to wit: everything is reversed: it’s not religion that is conformist and coercive, good heavens no, it is that pesky dogmatic militant belligerent ‘my way or the highway atheism.’

Really. Really. I know I’ve said this before, but does Barney Zwartz never go into a bookstore? Does Mark Helprin? I was in the University bookstore here a couple of days ago, and the atheist empire has gotten smaller as well as less visible. It used to take up a good chunk of one shelf, so maybe about 2′, at about chest level, under a sign that said Religious studies and atheism. Now there are no atheist books under that sign, or anywhere else on the adjacent shelves. I looked and looked and finally had to ask, and I was led to a distant shelf where there were a few lonely atheist books at ankle level. There’s hegemony for you! Meanwhile there are many shelves under Christianity, many more under Judaism, many more under Islam, many more under Religious studies, many more under various subject headings – shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf. Yet, somehow, it is atheism that is A New Threat to Freedom.

[Helprin] opens with an anecdote from his youth of trying to philosophise his way out of a fist fight, only to be told by his opponent, “don’t give me none a dat college stuff!” This, Helprin suggests, is exactly the sort of tactic Richard Dawkins employs, confining any discussion to a realm that will give the answer he wants.

Really. Helprin “suggests” that Dawkins employs “exactly” the sort of tactic that says “don’t give me none a dat college stuff!” and then punches you.

If Helprin really “suggests” that, he’s being flagrantly dishonest. If Zwartz got him wrong, then it’s Zwartz who is being flagrantly dishonest. Yet both of them, apparently, think it’s atheists who are coercive.

Since time immemorial, insistence on a sole path to truth has been essential to intolerance. Long the preserve of religion, in the 20th century it went atheistic totalitarian, and has now reached the free West, Helprin says.

Totalitarian; that’s quite a strong charge. Yet it’s atheists who are coercive.

Helprin attacks the atheist bus campaign that began in Britain and has reached Australia. “Signs on buses tell you it’s OK not to believe in God. Admitted, but what of signs that said, ‘it’s OK not to be gay’, ‘it’s OK not to be black’, ‘it’s OK not to be a Jew’? While true, these statements are more than the simple expression of a point of view. Accurately perceived, they are an ugly form of pressure that while necessarily legal is nonetheless indecent.”

No. Being gay or black is not a belief or a not-belief. Being gay or black* is not parallel to not believing in God. Saying it’s OK not to believe something should not be construed as a form of pressure when it is obviously an attempt to counter a form of pressure.

After that there’s a lot of windy stuff conflating aesthetics and emotions with something ineffable, and using that to swear at atheists for being narrow and philistine and boring. It’s stupid, malevolent, pretentious stuff.

And now I really am leaving.

*Being a Jew mixes the two.