Notes and Comment Blog


Dec 11th, 2009 12:45 pm | By

Really. Really. There is a limit.

After meeting Ireland’s most senior Catholic clerics in Rome, Pope Benedict said he shared the outrage, betrayal and shame felt by so many of the faithful in the country.

Don’t insult us. Don’t insult everyone over the age of two. Don’t insult the victims of your horrible tyrannical authoritarian unaccountable church. Don’t talk self-serving self-flattering nonsense. Don’t pretend you’re all shocked and upset and distraught now when this crap has been going on for decades upon decades! Don’t pretend you’ve only just found out about it. Come on, Ben – you know we know that’s ridiculous – so don’t insult us.

The Vatican said ‘the Holy Father was deeply disturbed and distressed.’ Well poor baby, but why was he not deeply disturbed and distressed before? Why did he not give a rat’s ass while the report was in progress and the Vatican ignored all its questions? To say nothing of while the abuse and the cover-up of the abuse and the perpetuation of the abuse via refusal to do anything about it, were going on? Why is his distress so god damn late? Why is he bothering to do a Bernie Madoff, pretending to be all sorry and repentant after it is no longer possible to conceal and deny and hide?

”He wishes once more to express his profound regret at the actions of some members of the clergy who have betrayed their solemn promises to God, as well as the trust placed in them by the victims and their families, and by society at large.” The Vatican said the Holy Father shared the outrage, betrayal and shame felt by so many of the faithful in Ireland, and that he was united with them in prayer at this difficult time in the life of the Church.

No he doesn’t! [jumps up and down in fury until the windows rattle] He doesn’t, he doesn’t, he doesn’t! It’s all soothing oil, it’s all sleazy self-exculpation. He does not share the outrage, betrayal and shame felt by so many of the faithful in Ireland because he and his Vatican are what the outrage, betrayal and shame are all about. He doesn’t get to make himself another subject; he’s the object. He’s not one of the victims, he’s the top perpetrator. He has an unbelievable gall claiming to feel all this sorrowful emotion when he is the head of an institution that did everything it could to protect itself and did nothing to protect children who were assaulted by its priests. He shouldn’t be talking eyewash about his emotions, he should be saying the Vatican behaved like a criminal organization. He should resign. They should all resign. They should fold up their tents and go do something useful.

And knock off the ‘Holy Father’ crap, too. With a father like that, who needs enemies?

Let’s get snitty

Dec 9th, 2009 4:28 pm | By

Just to be thorough about it, I also disagree with Hemant Mehta. (I’m not crazy about his title, for one thing – it implies that atheists in general are not ‘friendly’ and perhaps that they are hostile and mean and crabby.) He starts out well, pointing out that ‘aggressive’ and ‘friendly’ atheists actually want the same things and aren’t as distinct as Stephen Prothero claims. But then…

The difference is that the “aggressive” types don’t care who they offend. They’ll go after religion in all its forms — it doesn’t matter if they criticize the Vatican or the local church down the street or your sweet neighbor who happens to be religious.

That just isn’t true. It just isn’t true that we ‘go after’ sweet people who happen to be religious. We do go after people who do horrible things for religious reasons – but that can’t be what Mehta meant by people who are sweet and happen to be religious. He has to have meant sweet people who are not made cruel by their religion. Well we don’t ‘go after’ people like that! We don’t refrain from disputing religious truth claims on the grounds that people like that exist – but that is not the same thing as ‘going after’ them. It does get pretty tiresome to have people constantly accusing us of being more sadistic than we in fact are.

The “friendly” types are willing to do some triage here. They’re not going to spend the same amount of energy going after a local pastor or national politician who happens to espouse a personal belief in a god. There are more important battles to fight.

But what has the local pastor done? It depends, doesn’t it. If the local pastor is just the local pastor, most ‘new’ atheists also don’t spend much energy going after her. The national politician is another matter – national politicians in a secular democracy really shouldn’t be ‘espousing’ a personal belief in a god, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of energy to say so. Of course there are more important battles to fight, but so what? We can multi-task.

I would much rather keep as allies those religious people who do things like support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state.

But why is it one or the other? Why would religious people who support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state stop doing those things merely because some atheists (or all atheists for that matter) are explicit about their atheism? I don’t believe for a second that they would. Who is that stupid and petty? People who support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state are probably already not the kind of people to change all their views and actions because they’re in a snit. They might even be so reasonable and fair-minded and sensible that they really think atheists have every right to be public about their atheism. They might even be interested in the arguments!

I know others prefer a no-holds-barred approach, but I think that’s counterproductive when dealing with the people we want to reach out to the most — those who are on the fence.

What fence? Which fence are we talking about? And who’s ‘we’? What is this imaginary ‘we’ that accommodationists always have in mind? The always-right secular but friendly but atheist but civil but liberal but soft-spoken…Everyliberal? Or what? Why is there a ‘we’ who wants to reach out to people on the fence – why aren’t the people on the fence a ‘we’ who want to reach out to us, but find us too boring and anxious and timid to bother with? There’s something weirdly patronizing and de haut en bas about all this grand strategizing and we-invoking, as if all accommodationists were best buddies with David Axelrod or something. Why do the ‘friendly’ atheists think they have some heavy responsibility for what they perhaps think of as ‘the atheist community’ and how it appears to everyone else? I don’t know – but it makes me so huffy that I think I will become a conservative evangelical Republican, just to punish them.

You gave a simply lovely speech, dear

Dec 9th, 2009 12:11 pm | By

I’m late in doing a meany-atheist dance on Stephen Prothero’s sweet little valentine to the laydeez but here it is anyway.

Today, most Americans associate unbelief with the old-boys network of New Atheists, but there is a new generation of unbelievers emerging, some of them women and most of them far friendlier than Hitchens and his ilk. Although the arguments of angry men gave this movement birth, it could be the stories of women that allow it to grow up.

So men are angry and women are friendly. So angry is the opposite of friendly and vice versa. Well that’s wrong for a start – it’s perfectly possible for people to be both. Being angry about particular things does not rule out being friendly; it especially doesn’t rule out being friendly some of the time. Granted some people are friendly all of the time, but they tend to be bores or intrusive or both. Who doesn’t know this? People who are never angry about anything aren’t paying attention! You can’t have real compassion without anger. If you see the world as it is, you’re going to be angry some of the time.

That fact by itself makes Prothero’s ludicrously sexist opposition incredibly insulting. Men have the energy and passion and commitment to get angry, and women are lukewarm and permanently unthinkingly friendly. Well the hell with that – and fortunately it isn’t true.

I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.

That’s a lot of bad stupidness in one paragraph. One, that is not ‘the old line of the New Atheists.’ Very few ‘new’ atheists say simply ‘Religious people are stupid’ – that’s a typical anti-atheist canard, meant to inflame hatred against any atheists who actually argue the case for atheism. Two – that second thing is crap. If atheism is ‘just another point of view,’ then it really is on all fours with religion (and other ‘perspectives’), where we just choose whatever we want to believe and there is no need for a reality check or an argument or evidence. But atheism of the kind that goes to meetings, as opposed to just non-theism, is based on reasons. People are active or argumentative or meeting-attending atheists for reasons, real reasons, and we don’t agree that atheism is ‘just another point of view,’ because we think it gets things right. We think theism gets things wrong, and atheism gets things (the relevant things) right. We don’t think all points of view are pretty much the same kind of thing, all mixing it up together in the great salad bowl of life.

These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

No. Dead wrong. Wrong all the way down. Wanting to confront religion and dispute its truth claims frankly (which does not equate to having the goal of ‘a world without religion,’ which I think most of us know is a highly unrealistic goal and potentially coercive) is not an invitation to a duel, it is simply an expectation of an equal right to talk freely. It is also not the case that the ‘fair’ alternative is simply ‘a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect,’ because that’s not the real or the only issue. We don’t want to beg for recognition and respect just because we exist, because we are another point of view; we want to be able to say why religious truth claims are mistaken. That’s part of what ‘new’ atheism is about. We are of course legally able to do that, but we’re not always socially or institutionally able to, and that’s why there is a need for campaigning and agitation and, yes, anger.

There was one female speaker, however, and she spoke in a different voice. Amanda Gulledge is a self-described “Alabama mom” who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the “natural goodness” of her two sons…

Got that? Is it clear enough? She’s ‘a mom,’ so she’s acceptable – she’s not one of those angry loudmouth aggressive women who would dream of self-describing as say a lawyer or a geneticist or an engineer – no, she’s a ‘mom,’ and bless her heart, she speaks from that cuddly organ instead of from her pesky and doubtless feeble little head, and she talks about her children. Isn’t that sweet? Don’t you feel less threatened already? Now she’s the kind of woman we can approve of, we professors in religion departments.

You have your perspective, and I have my perspective

Dec 9th, 2009 11:27 am | By

It really doesn’t matter what you believe for no good reason, as long as you believe something for no good reason.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions has brought together representatives from 80 nationalities and more than 220 faith traditions for seven days of debate and dialogue…The parliament could hardly be accused of failing to account for the broadest possible range of spirituality and religious experience. Pagans, Zoroastrians, and even atheists make up the rich mix of perspectives. Organisers have faced some criticism for giving a platform to the Church of Scientology – which some accuse of being more of a business than a conventional religion. But this is an event which is prepared to given even the most unusual new religious movements a fair hearing.

Because – because – because if somebody somewhere believes it, it deserves a fair hearing. And notice how atheism becomes not a denial or rejection of theistic religion but simply one more ‘perspective.’ Even atheism gets a fair hearing. No real attention, presumably, but a fair hearing.

Concerns have been also raised about whether religious perspectives are taken seriously, particularly by secular governments in the West.

Which is a fundamentally absurd concern, since a secular government that took ‘religious perspectives’ (see? there it is again) seriously would not be a secular government any more.

Prominent American rabbi David Saperstein told delegates that religious leaders must work hard to make their voice heard, particularly concerning the moral questions facing the world…”In a world in which you can do everything, what you should do – the moral question – is the fundamental challenge facing humanity. And on that question, the religious communities have urgent, profound, indispensible wisdom to offer” he said.

No they don’t – not as religious communities they don’t. As people they do, but no more so than other people, and in some ways less so. Religion doesn’t bring anything useful to moral reasoning, and it often does impede it or misdirect it.

New improved atheism with added antagonism

Dec 7th, 2009 11:49 am | By

Quote for the day, from Oliver Kamm.

I reject – in the sense that I’m antagonistic towards them, not just that I don’t accept them – all religious claims to truth.

Precisely. That is no doubt what put the ‘new’ in ‘new atheism’ – the addition of antagonism to non-acceptance. The move from plain unbelief to unbelief plus dislike. The adoption of Kingsley Amis’s ‘Yes [I’m an atheist] but it’s more that I hate him.’ The brazen unapologetic frank hostility to all religious claims to truth, because they are religious claims to truth, and therefore not only worthless but also harmful, because religion is not the way to get at truth, and pretending it is just trains people to learn bad non-functional ways to think.

We are allowed to do that. Call it new or call it old, it makes no difference; we are still allowed to do that. Othering, shunning, name-calling, finger-pointing, ‘framing’ – none of them are going to convince us otherwise. Genuinely good arguments might, but all that other crap isn’t going to do the job.

Have a nice day.

The evolution of Robert Wright

Dec 6th, 2009 1:09 pm | By

When othering the ‘New’ atheists, there is no need to be too nice about accuracy. Robert Wright gives a demonstration of that to join the growing stack of such demonstrations from otherwise liberal commentators.

[T]he New Atheists’ main short-term goal wasn’t to turn believers into atheists, it was to turn atheists into New Atheists — fellow fire-breathing preachers of the anti-gospel. The point was to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers.

The usual thing – exaggeration (to put it charitably), malicious rhetoric, sheer invention. (Who says the point was to make it cool to ridicule unbelievers?) Childish stuff – in Foreign Policy. What next, Rush Limbaugh writing for The Wilson Quarterly?

Even on the secular left, the alarming implications of the “crusade against religion” are becoming apparent: Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East.

And then we get several paragraphs about how the ‘New’ Atheists do that sinister thing. It’s sleazy, McCarthy-like stuff, as so much of this kind of thing from the ‘we hate New atheists’ crowd is. I hear the Senator’s whining voice, I see his blue-whiskered mug.

[T]here’s a subtle but potent sense in which New Atheism can steer foreign policy to the right…Most New Atheists aren’t expressly right wing, but even so their discounting of the material causes of Islamist radicalism can be “objectively” right wing.

Uh huh. They claim to be one thing, but they ‘abet’ another; there’s a subtle but potent sense in which they can do something very sinister and creepy which I can’t quite explain; they aren’t actually right wing but in fact they are, and any Stalinist would see it the same way. (Wright quotes Orwell for ‘objectively’ but Orwell was using the Stalinist term with considerable irony.)

Then he just flops all the way over into Armstrong territory, where compassion has always been at the heart of all religion.

All the great religions have shown time and again that they’re capable of tolerance and civility when their adherents don’t feel threatened or disrespected.

Bullshit. All the great religions have shown time and again that when they have unquestioned power, they use it, and they don’t use it for tolerance and civility, they use it for social control and for their own protection and well-being. Robert Wright should take a few minutes to ponder the tolerance and civility of the Irish Catholic church.

Welcome back, your holiness

Dec 6th, 2009 11:35 am | By

I don’t understand New Labour.

[Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor] was poised to become the first Roman Catholic bishop in the Upper House since the Reformation, as part of a drive by the Prime Minister to appoint senior leaders of all the main faiths to sit alongside Church of England bishops. Privately, Gordon Brown had told the cardinal that he was keen for him to provide leadership in the Lords once he had secured backing from the Catholic Church.

Why? Why the hell? Do we really have to bother pointing out that Gordon Brown is the leader of the Labour party? Do we really have to bother pointing out that the Catholic church has not generally been seen as an ally (much less a member) of the left, and that there are many strong and compelling reasons for that? What is a Labour PM doing telling a reactionary Catholic former archbishop that he (the PM) is keen for him to provide leadership in the Lords once he had secured backing from the Catholic Church? He might as well be telling Generalissimo Francisco Franco that he is keen for him to provide leadership in the Lords once he had secured backing from the Falange party. He might as well be sucking up to Pinochet or Marcos or Mussolini. He might as well be patting Antonin Scalia on the back and saying ‘Good job Nino.’ What is the matter with them? Why have they decided they have to cozy up to reactionary religions and their putative leaders?

The cardinal’s refusal of a peerage is a setback to Mr Brown’s attempt to make the Lords chamber more representative of the nation’s religious diversity.

Sigh. It’s hopeless. Mr Brown shouldn’t be doing that, he should be attempting something in the other direction, which would be to make the Lords chamber less representative of any religions at all. He should be trying to reduce the power of the established church, not to build up the power of its rivals.

Dang commOnist muslims, they should all go to muslimville

Dec 5th, 2009 5:21 pm | By

So I guess Tennessee schools must not be very good – not if the mayor of Arlington is anything to go by. He’s on Facebook, so he shared some thoughts there.

Ok, so, this is total crap, we sit the kids down to watch ‘The Charlie Brown Christmas Special’ and our muslim president is there, what a load…..try to convince me that wasn’t done on purpose. Ask the man if he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he will give you a 10 minute disertation (sic) about it….w…hen the answer should simply be ‘yes’….”

See that’s why I’m not a big fan of religion and the claims it makes – I don’t like being told (even in a newspaper story about a small town mayor’s Facebook rant) that the answer to that question should simply be yes. I also don’t like elected officials claiming that other elected officials should answer yes. We’re not supposed to have a religious test for public office.

…you obama people need to move to a muslim country…oh wait, that’s America….pitiful…you know, our forefathers had it written in the original Constitution that ONLY property owners could vote, if that has stayed in there, things would be different……..

What a pinhead. What an ugly dirty squalid little mind. How sad for Tennessee.

Theocratic science

Dec 5th, 2009 12:21 pm | By

Austin Dacey points out an interesting document.

In 2006, ISESCO [the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] published a Guide for the Incorporation of Reproductive Health and Gender Concepts into Islamic Education Curricula, obviously a critically important subject area where some scientific facts are in order. The Guide, which can be found on ISESCO’s Web site, is addressed to curriculum developers, textbook writers, and those responsible for training instructors in formal Islamic education for students aged six to nineteen. Its introduction stresses the need “to supply, at the proper time, adolescents with appropriate health information on the biological aspects within the framework of Islamic rulings and values” and emphasizes “the fact that Sharia, whether in its original or interpretative sources, is the only source for establishing, interpreting, clarifying, and incorporating reproductive health issues, including adolescent health, in the programs of formal education.”

There’s a lot that could be said about that, but one thing in particular is quite important. Defenders of Islamism and Islam and Sharia often like to rebuke critics of same by saying that Islam and Sharia cannot be essentialized because they are not just one thing – they are rather, in some versions of this rebuke, the practices and/or beliefs of all Muslims – which in effect means they are everything and nothing, because there is no way to know what that would be, or what it would not be either.

At any rate, the rebuke and the claim are wrong, as shown by documents like this. ISESCO is an official body of some sort, and ISESCO decidedly assumes there is such a thing as Sharia, ‘whether in its original or interpretative sources.’ It assumes there is such a thing as Sharia, and then having assumed that, it assumes that everything has to be in compliance with it, and then having assumed that, it goes ahead and lays down the law about how to do that. So it’s really somewhat futile for outsiders to claim that Sharia isn’t so bad really because it isn’t any one thing, let a hundred flowers bloom, so…well so there’s just no problem, that’s all. In the real world, official bodies maintain that Sharia is one thing, ‘whether in its original or interpretative sources,’ and that all other things have to do what it says. There is a problem.

In this Guide, as in numerous other documents, ISESCO is only doing its job. Rather than seeking Muslim integration with the global research and academic communities, its stated mission is to advance science “within the framework of the civilizational reference of the Islamic world and in the light of the human Islamic values and ideals.” In this case, ISESCO does not even do students the service of setting forth the relevant empirical evidence for the purpose of beating it senseless with religious precepts.

An organization for Islamic Science is an organization for a contradiction in terms.

We know our rights!

Dec 4th, 2009 11:32 am | By

The Vatican is restless, and fretful, and aggrieved. The Vatican thinks it’s all most unfair.

the Vatican is concerned about the way in which human rights are being used to regulate the activities of church organisations or to restrict religious displays in public places. For example, the decision of the European Court of Human Rights to order the removal of crucifixes from the walls of state schools in Italy was greeted with dismay by Catholics.

Why? What business do ‘Catholics’ have being dismayed about such a thing? Do the state schools belong to them? No. Do they have authority over state schools? No.* So what business would they have sticking their paraphernalia on the walls of classrooms in state schools? And why, looking at the matter from a wider perspecitve, would it be a good thing for classrooms to have lethal torture machines nailed to their walls? They’re nasty, ugly, sick things if you look at them from outside the religion – yet a particular religion wants to impose them on state school classrooms. It’s a peculiar religion, too – it frets about its right to impose lethal torture devices on the attention of school children, but it’s debonair about the rights of school children to be protected from priestly rapists. It has disordered priorities, if you ask me.

*Do they? Is Italy worse than I realize?

Mystery for you, assertion for me

Dec 4th, 2009 10:57 am | By

Beautifully put:

This rejection of the theistic God, and acknowledgment that the problem of evil cannot be swept away through theodicy, might sound like music to atheists’ ears…But rather than characterizing such a position as a significant concession to the new atheists, Armstrong insists on continuing to regard them as her primary opponents. Moreover, she is unable to hold herself consistently to her own apophatic view…[O]n her understanding the apophatic position, rather than discouraging metaphysical speculation, in fact licenses and encourages it…In other words, it is precisely our lack of knowledge of God that enables us to say, well, pretty much whatever we want about God…This is mysticism and metaphysical hand-waving raised to a truly objectionable level. If you do not know what you are denying then you also do not know what you are asserting; our inability to conceptualize cannot, on the one hand, prevent skeptics from denying Christ’s divinity while at the same time allowing the faithful to assert it.

But that is of course how Armstrong attempts to use her claims about metaphors and non-literalism and apophaticism – as a stick to beat the atheists while mostly leaving the theists to their own devices. It’s a transparent ploy, and yet it works.

If the concept of “God” is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about.

Precisely. This is what I keep saying. I said it in the little essay I wrote for 50 Voices of Disbelief:

We’re told, in explanation of these puzzles, that we’re merely humans and we simply don’t understand. Very well, but then we don’t understand – we don’t know anything about all this, all we’re doing is guessing, or wishing or hoping. Yet we’re so often told things about God as if they were well-established facts. God is “mysterious” only when sceptics ask difficult questions. The rest of the time believers are cheerily confident of their knowledge. That’s a good deal too convenient.

Troy Jollimore goes on:

In her more radical mode, Armstrong wants to preserve religious talk from questions of truth—in our ordinary sense of “truth”—by draining them of content. But when we lose content we do not only lose truth, we lose meaning as well. The apophatic retort to the skeptic, then, seems to reduce to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about—indeed, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. So how dare you contradict me!”

Read the whole thing – it’s terrific. (Thanks to Karel De Pauw for sending the link.)

Parking tickets are one thing, and…

Dec 3rd, 2009 11:41 am | By

The Irish Times notes how globally the Vatican thinks and acts.

Ultimate responsibility for the way in which the safety of children was so recklessly ignored does not lie with any individual bishop. It does not lie even with the Irish hierarchy as a whole. It lies with the Vatican. We know this because the approach to allegations of child abuse was consistent, not simply between bishops or across Irish dioceses, but around the world. There was a way of doing things – keeping the crimes secret and moving the abusers on to another parish until the whole pattern began to repeat itself.

World government with a vengeance, that is – a theistic institution that has managed to make itself a state yet has global authority, and is focused on its own well-being before that of anyone else on the planet.

It is in the light of the primary role of the Vatican that we must see the unwillingness of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the papal nuncio to respond to requests for information from the Murphy commission. The Taoiseach, in a painfully deferential statement in the Dáil, has endorsed these refusals as acts of “good faith” consistent with diplomatic norms. This submissiveness is entirely inappropriate to the leader of a republic, some of whose most vulnerable citizens have been grievously harmed by the policies and practices of the Holy See.

Depressing, isn’t it? Once again, the powerful prosperous men of the church and the Vatican are protected and the vulnerable people are thrown to the wolves – by their own government. The prosperous men of the church and the Vatican matter, and the mere people don’t.

The Vatican does not do things lightly. When it refused to deal with the commission except through diplomatic contacts at the level of one state to another, it was not being precious. It was asserting a claim that is crucial to its efforts to avoid the consequences of its own policies. The insistence on being treated as a state rather than as a church is the key to its claim of sovereign immunity.

Which is a thing that it shouldn’t want to have. Yet it does want to have it. It wants to do bad things to people and get away with it. It wouldn’t put it that way, of course, but that’s what it wants and what it’s been doing.

It is quite disgraceful that the Taoiseach should play along with this manoeuvre by endorsing the Vatican’s behaviour towards the commission. If the Vatican is indeed to be regarded simply as a foreign state, then it is a state that has colluded in the commission of vile crimes against Irish citizens.


Walk on by

Dec 2nd, 2009 4:35 pm | By

Good ol’ Rick Warren. He’s a trip. None of that soppy good Samaritan crap for him. None of that ‘let him cast the first stone’ nonsense. No sir. Rick Warren knows what kind of people he likes, and who’s worth saving and who isn’t. He also knows who’s on his team and who isn’t. He keeps track, and he’s not such a fool as to bother helping people who aren’t on his team. That would be foolishness! No flies on Rick.

In recent days, Pastor Rick Warren has come under fire for refusing to condemn an Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda that would make some homosexual acts punishable by death. “[I]t is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations,” said Warren. On his Twitter feed, Warren is now trying to change the subject, claiming that “no one” cared when 146,000 Christians died last year.

Well sure. Uganda’s all the way over there somewhere, in the middle where we can’t even find it; it’s not our job to worry about what happens to people all the way over there. What do we look like, charity workers? Get real. And what did those people all the way over there and their bleeding-heart friends do about all those Christians? Huh? So why should we help them? Bastards.

Yup, that’s our Rick. Walk by on the other side, dude.

There’s a difference between ‘thoughtful’ and ‘wrong’

Dec 2nd, 2009 12:44 pm | By

Oh the tedious predictability and smugness of the middlebrow mind.

Traditionally, religious wars were fought with swords and sieges; today, they often are fought with books. And in literary circles, these battles have usually been fought at the extremes.

It’s smug and predictable to pretend books are the equivalent of swords; it’s smug and predictable to cast anything one wants to sneer at as (somehow, and self-evidently) ‘extreme’; it’s smug and predictable to pretend that religion and atheism are really equivalent and each as bad as the other. It ought to be possible even to disagree with atheism without making that stupid stale untrue move, but apparently it isn’t, at least not for hacks. I would like Kristof not to be a hack, because he does good work, but this dreck is hackery.

…[D]evout atheists built mocking Web sites like That site notes that although believers periodically credit prayer with curing cancer, God never seems to regrow lost limbs.

And? How is that obviously an example of atheism as ‘extreme’? God never does seem to regrow lost limbs, so why isn’t that relevant? Kristof can’t be bothered to say, because he’s in too much of a hurry to say how good Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright are.

Karen Armstrong. Well that’s a sure sign of a mind that isn’t trying hard enough – anyone of adult years who thinks Karen Armstrong is good is not paying attention.

This year is different, with a crop of books that are less combative and more thoughtful…Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God,” likewise doesn’t posit a Grandpa-in-the-Sky; rather, she sees God in terms of an ineffable presence that can be neither proven nor disproven in any rational sense. To Ms. Armstrong, faith belongs to the realm of life’s mysteries, beyond the world of reason, and people on both sides of the “God gap” make the mistake of interpreting religious traditions too literally.

And that’s enough for her to be considered ‘thoughtful.’ A truly thoughtful reader of Armstrong (and other ‘God is ineffable’ types, for that matter) might manage to come up with the thought that a slippery non-literal but still named ‘God’ God is a very useful dodge for theists in a time of scientific education. But not Kristof – he just lets himself be snowed.

I’m hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance. That would be a sign that perhaps we, along with God, are evolving toward a higher moral order.

There’s the banal false equivalence again. Such an armistice wouldn’t be a sign of any kind of moral advance, it would be an instance of the success of relentless bullying by false equivalence, that’s what. Well it won’t work, Mr Kristof – the more you call us things that we’re not, the more irritated and stubborn we get. So get used to the ‘war.’

Why we write

Dec 1st, 2009 6:10 pm | By

I’ve been going back and forth with Josh Rosenau, at his blog and also now via email, and I think we’ve pinned down (for the moment) our basic disagreement – which is about what one writes or talks for. Josh says, perfectly reasonably, that we surely write or talk in order to get some result, however broadly we construe ‘result.’ I say…yes, if we construe ‘result’ really broadly…but I think that may be where the difference is: how broadly we construe it.

At any rate, my goal, if any, when writing is not really to get people to do something. It’s certainly not to avoid disturbing people in any way. My goal is to say what I’m trying to say. It’s to get a thought out there without losing any of it on the trip between my head and the paper or the screen. It’s to be clear, and it’s also to be non-boring. It’s not…to persuade some imagined average person full of average prejudices who might be ‘offended’ by some irreligious observation. Of course, I don’t work for the NCSE! If I did, that kind of thought would probably play a much bigger role in my thinking. And working for the NCSE is an outstandingly useful thing to do – so maybe it just boils down to the fact that Josh and I have different jobs and different readerships and we have formed different habits. In that sense maybe our disagreements just go sliding past each other, gracefully and stupidly as swans, because we’re doing different things.

There is another angle though, which is that the imagined average person full of average prejudices may not exist as we imagine her. Imagining people and their prejudices is not an exact science, so I think it’s a mistake to assume too much prejudice and inability to listen to unfamiliar ideas. I think we can afford to give people a little benefit of the doubt. We can treat people like easily-wounded babies, or we can treat them as toughened adults. Either or both may be wrong – but the second has the virtue of treating people as…adults.

Hey mister, whatcha reading?

Dec 1st, 2009 4:47 pm | By

I had a funny experience this afternoon. I was at the University bookstore, and I went to take a look at the atheist shelf, just to see if there was anything new – after I looked to see if Does God Hate Women? is still on its shelf (it is, next to Why Truth Matters), and noticing as I picked my way through the maze of shelves what a lot of shelves there were with ‘Spirituality’ as their label, especially compared to the one short shelf that holds the atheist books. So I got to the (tiny) atheist shelf and behold – there was another human being there. Aha, thought I; it is spreading! I snickered inwardly, and looked at the shelf, and when this guy put back the book he’d been looking at, I naturally looked to see what it was. It was 50 Voices of Disbelief. This is very bad, but I couldn’t help it – I blurted out ‘I have an essay in that book!’

I know, I know, but come on. Life is short, and how often do you get the chance to do that? Be fair. So I blurted it out, and the guy asked if it was a good book, and I said (truthfully) yes. So he decided to buy it after all. Then he said, looking at the shelf, there were more of these all the time, and I said ‘About time,’ and he said ‘Yes – two thousand years overdue.’ Then I sidled away so as not to embarrass myself any further.

Look, it could be worse. I could have gone back to the philosophy section and grabbed those two books and come back and shoved them in his face. I didn’t do that. Very self-abnegating, I was.

The madwoman in the attic

Dec 1st, 2009 4:46 pm | By

I’ve had occasion to notice it before, and I daresay I will again – some people just seem to be unable to disagree with, or even mention, a woman without breaking out the Special Insulting language. That’s especially noticeable when there are men being disagreed with or mentioned too, and they don’t get the Special Insulting language.

Look at Science and Religion Today.

Jerry Coyne is disappointed. Michael Shermer responds. Josh Rosenau jumps in, and sides, and calls. But I – I don’t do anything as quiet and reasonable as that. Well naturally not: I don’t have the balls.

It’s not as if the tone of what I say, or the part of it quoted there, is wildly different from the tone of the people who have the balls. But I’m the one who…

Well there you go. As Samuel Johnson said, if we wanted to listen to a woman talk we wouldn’t spend all our time talking to each other, now would we.

(It is seriously irritating though. It means that no matter what you do – no matter how carefully you write, no matter how much you know, no matter how clearly you think [and I’m not claiming any of that for myself – I’m just saying], to some people you will still be a stupid frantic over-emotional crazy female who can safely be belittled and sneered at because after all – she is just a woman.

It makes me tired.)

It’s all Catholophobia, surely

Nov 30th, 2009 11:58 am | By

Libby Purves suggests that the Catholic church’s response to its own recent history has been due to its own perspective that the reporting (she quotes a reporter for the Boston Globe) “is fuelled by anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers hustling to tap the deep pockets of the church.” And maybe it is, she says. But.

But such an attitude is not a dignified response to clamorous hysteria. It is self-protective, paranoid arrogance; the canker that threatens all religions and ideologies. We recognise it all too well from history, and from modern fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Once you are convinced that you alone hold the truth — whether your god is Amun-Ra or Marx — you slough off self-doubt and self-examination. You build rich hierarchies of obedience, surround them with impressive ritual and illogical rules, and then circle the wagons to protect your artificial structure.

And you do that so thoroughly and with such fervor that you can even manage to justify (to yourself) protecting perpetrators while threatening victims – even though the perps are grown men and the victims are children.

Kvetch kvetch kvetch

Nov 29th, 2009 4:14 pm | By

A bit more on Shermer, in a very level humble non-fundamentalist tone, because it’s not that I want to enforce orthodoxy with a big heavy stick, it’s that…I disagree with him about some things. I’m not trying to expel him into the outer darkness, I just disagree with him about some things. I’ll say what they are, because I feel like it.

[I]t seems to me that believers who accept Newton’s theory of gravity as the means by which God creates stars, planets, solar systems, galaxies, and universes, can just as readily accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as the means by which God creates life.

I said yesterday in comments but will say again – nuh uh. Even after we change ‘evolution’ to ‘natural selection’ and ‘life’ to ‘species,’ still nuh uh. Not just as readily at all, because natural selection is horrible. Gravity has its flaws too, as you’ll notice if you ever fall off a cliff, but compared to natural selection, it’s sweetness itself. Let’s don’t forget what natural selection is, shall we? It’s that thing that makes organisms compete with each other to see who can be first to eat the other. It’s not nice. It’s not kind. If it was all God’s idea, God has a nasty way of doing things. It’s just not true that it’s as easy for a theist to accept as gravity is. Shermer must know this; he must have written in a hurry; but if he did he did – the piece is still there, and it’s worth disagreeing with.

After the bit I disagreed with yesterday, about what ‘works’ in some undefined sense, he goes on to say

if it is your goal to educate everyone on earth to the power and wonders of science (as it is the Skeptics Society and and to employ science to solve social, political, economic, medical and environmental problems (as it is my personal goal), then we need as many people as we can get on board toward a common goal, whatever it may be (starvation in Africa, disease in India, poverty in South America, global warming everywhere…pick your battle).

I didn’t notice it until later yesterday, after I’d already commented, but that’s an incredibly ambitious claim when combined with the rest of what he says. His claim is that we need as many people as we can get on board toward some common goal, any common goal, it doesn’t even matter what common goal it is – and in order to reach this highly questionable goal, we have to do the accommodationist thing. What that boils down to is that the real goal is simply to get as many people as we can on board toward whatever, and everything else is subordinate to that bizarre goal.

I don’t think he actually meant to say that – it’s too absurd. But he did say it, and I suspect that’s because that is what the accommodationist mindset does – it puts the frantic worry about alienating some number of people before everything else, until it finally finds itself exclaiming madly that we have to unite everyone, everyone I tell you! and that therefore no atheists can say anything that might be disconcerting to anyone. It’s nuts – but I think that’s what the thinking is. I think accommodationists are fundamentally allergic to a certain kind (and a certain kind only) of potentially ‘controversial’ ideas. I think their fretting about this ends up eroding their awareness that total agreement about anything is impossible, and that it’s futile to try to rule out disagreement ahead of time, and that the attempt is not only futile but the dire enemy of free thought and inquiry and speech.

Russell urged us to read Shermer’s essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief, so I did. I have to tell you, I have some disagreements there, too. I’m sorry! I’m a noodge! I can’t help it.

For example…he says on p 69

Most people equate ‘atheist’ not only with someone who believes that there is no God (which is technically not a tenable position because one cannot prove that there is no God; that is, you cannot prove a negative)…

Well that’s not right. It’s perfectly tenable to believe things that you cannot prove. It’s rash, and untenable if you like, to claim certainty about such things, but to believe them? Of course not. I believe that there is no invisible dragon sitting on my desk. Can I prove it? No. I believe it nevertheless. Shermer must have meant someone who ‘claims to know’ or ‘is certain’ – but he didn’t say that.

Another item, on the same page:

A second reason I don’t believe in God is emotional: I’m comfortable with not having answers to everything. By temperament, I have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

That jumped out at me because he had just finished telling us that he was a devout Christian as a teenager – far more devout than his nominally-religious parents. He goes into some detail about that, and the result is that the claim about his temperament sounds very odd. It sounds self-flattering and unconvincing.

I’m just saying – Shermer isn’t a terribly careful writer. I’ve thought this before, about both his belief books. So I’m not doing some anti-accommodationism bandwagon number by disagreeing with him; I just disagree with him about some things, that’s all.

50 Voices of Disbelief is terrific, by the way. Read Sean Carroll’s piece. Read Austin Dacey’s. Read Tom Clark’s. Read them all.

Some racket

Nov 29th, 2009 10:37 am | By

Oh I get it – some of them were never actually priests at all – they were guys who wanted to fuck children and figured out that being ‘a priest’ was a terrific dodge for doing just that – it shunted a big supply of trusting obedient children straight into your hands, and it made it very likely that you would be able to dodge prosecution, punishment, discovery, and even being fired. What a beautiful set-up! Tailor made!

Fr William Carney, a “crude and loutish” priest who “used bad language” and was then aged 29, had lunch with Michael Woods, the then health minister, in 1980. For three years Carney had been making inquiries about his chances of fostering children…Two years later Carney requested permission to foster a particular boy from an institution at the commencement of Ten Plus, a programme designed to encourage the fostering of children aged over 10. This boy subsequently alleged that Carney abused him. After his ordination as a priest of the Dublin diocese in 1974, Carney regularly sexually abused boys and girls. The Dublin Commission records complaints or suspicions about him relating to 32 named individuals and says there is evidence he preyed on many more.

Terrific, isn’t it? Carney was ‘ordained’ at age 23, and got right down to work. All went so swimmingly that six years later he was trying to foster children – with the encouragement of his bishop, who had ‘a soft spot’ for him.

Yet this church has the gall to tell the rest of us what to do.