Notes and Comment Blog

On a sermon at Duke University chapel

Sep 11th, 2010 12:12 pm | By

Guest post by Eric MacDonald

Take the point that he makes just at the end, where he speaks of Jeremiah’s idea of god making constant adaptations. He speaks of the vessel broken in the potter’s hands, and then he says this:

This is the story of Israel: the vessel was broken, the covenant was spoiled, and God made something beautiful by fashioning it into a pot shaped around the Jew named Jesus.

Notice how he simply runs the Jewish scriptures and the Christian Jesus together, without acknowledging the theft, without even acknowledging that Jesus has nothing to do with Jeremiah’s potter, nor with the story of Israel. That was a Christian structure built on Jewish foundations, a clear act of plagiarism.

But then he goes on in the same arrogant vein to say:

This is your story. Your life was spoiled, your pot was cracked, your hopes were broken, your plans were ruined; and God the potter made something that could never have been out of something that should never have been.

No, I can tell Dr. Wells my story. My story is of a life that was spoiled and hopes that were broken and plans ruined, not by acts of sinfulness, but by the capriciousness of life, the contigency of our brief and uncertain stay. And if a god is in charge of this, then he made something that should never have been out of something that could have been.

Just one more quote:

In science Christians can find a pattern, and a logic, with analogies and parallels to the very purpose of God. They can see depth, and complexity, and diversity, and simplicity, that together reflect the activity and character of God.

This is all fantasy, of course. But let me respond to these words with the anguished words of C.S. Lewis. Not many people quote these words, because they believe that Lewis took them all back at the end of the book. But you can’t take words like these back. Of course, he does wave his magic wand around, and supposes that he has solved the problem, but you can’t solve problems like this with magic wands. There is no magic, and Lewis was not a magician, despite The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The book is A Grief Observed. Lewis’ wife had just died in great pain. She had cancer of the bone. He asks himself the question:

Why should the separation [of lover and beloved] … which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs? ¶ ‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God.

It’s Epicurus’ old conundrum, of course. But Lewis doesn’t solve it. He makes it clearer. If pain here is consistent with God’s love, then there can be no guarantee that, if we go to be with God, there will be no more pain there. God’s goodness is consistent with it after all. That’s the way that evidence works. That’s the way that science uses evidence. Dr. Wells doesn’t get to use it in a different way. If the character of God is shown, as Wells says, in the world that science reveals to us, then God is as cruel and capricious as the world is. It’s just that simple, and if he can’t see that, then he doesn’t understand it either.

In fact, the world without science is crueller and much more uncertain. It was not God’s intervention that made things better. Things only started to get better, and then, of course, only relatively better, when science began to unlock the secrets of the natural world. To suppose that there is any useful relationship between religion and science is a simple dream, a theological fantasy.

That’s why Wells’ comment about the arts and philosophy is so silly. Whereas theology certainly has no foundation, philosophy and literature and the arts do. Wells simply misunderstands the scientific critique of religion. Science doesn’t dismiss the arts or philosophy or so many other things that enrich human life. These things can be dealt with critically. We can seek to understand how and why music or literature or poetry moves us and makes us more fully human, and there are critical disciplines which address themselves to these questions. But religion is the one thing that has no critical basis, nothing that we can point to, nothing that we can use to give it determinate shape and meaning. Religious literature or music or architecture can be enjoyed. We can analyse it and assess its value and profundity. But religion itself is mere froth on the surface of the beautiful things that religious people have created. They are human things, like novels and poems, plays and movies, symphonies and concertos, and they play a part in the cultural life of human beings.

But the religious part of religion is empty. There is no god, and no gods. These were just imaginary beings created to account for the wonder of being alive in the flesh and conscious. So, Wells is right. We do want to expose religion’s pretences and its follies. It has no place at the university, except in so far as it can be studied scientifically, as a comparative anthropological or historical study, or in so much as it can be explained by psychology and cognitive science. Anyone who preaches such nonsense at a university should expect to be exposed for the charlatan that he so obviously is.

Sadly, it’s not that simple

Sep 10th, 2010 6:00 pm | By

A guest post by Peter Beattie

Alom Shaha, of Why Science is Important fame, has a new piece in the Guardian, arguing that “angry atheists” are too quick to hurt the feelings of believers by implying they are stupid and should be more aware that they are capable of holding irrational beliefs too. Empathy, and how we say things, may be more important than what we say.

Superficially, it would be very hard to disagree with all this, and in fact none of the usual suspects in the “‘angry atheist’ brigade“–and I won’t even go there, nor into the tired “fanatical atheism can be as ugly as religious fanaticism” bit–to my knowledge ever have disagreed with it. Of course no one advocates calling people stupid, hurting their feelings, or being oblivious to one’s own fallibility. It’s just not as simple as Alom paints it.

First, the implication of stupidity. Two things: calling an idea stupid does not equal calling a person stupid; and even with the assertion that ‘Person A is stupid’, in most cases there is the clear implication that Person A is stupid for doing/saying/believing a specific thing, quite analogously to the Forrest Gump principle of ‘stupid is as stupid does’. All of us violate that principle at least once a day, but we still recognise that this doesn’t define us as a person.

Second, the hurt feelings. Again, two things: some people will be offended, no matter how mildly the opposition to their ideas is worded; and of course nobody offends  gratuitously, but it may serve a purpose if it is complemented by an explanation, i.e. an opportunity for an audience, and an invitation to them, to raise their intellectual game, in Richard Dawkins’s phrase. Say about PZ Myers, for example, what you will, but he always builds that bridge and extends that hand.

Third, the fallibility. A fair look at the most high-profile outspoken atheists will show you that one of the things that defines them (in this role) is their honest questioning: in his documentaries, Richard Dawkins tries to be understanding to a fault; Jerry Coyne’s discussions of other people’s arguments are as fair-minded and scrupulous as they come; Dan Dennett has taken the ‘principle of charity’ to new heights; and PZ, too, is open to have his mind changed—but only, and of course only, with good reason.

What this issue boils down to, I think, is that we’re looking at the problem the wrong side up. Granting people the right to be offended because they had their feelings hurt by an attack on their ideas opens the door to all manner of infringements upon free speech. If we actually want to raise our (and other people’s) intellectual game—and in a progressive society, how can we not want that?—we will have to show, educate people about, and advocate a different approach towards contentious issues. PZ just now put it best when he said that such issues would simply go away “if a few people learned to shrug their shoulders and react rationally instead”.

So let’s try and be teachers about this instead of potential self-censors. And by all means, make the message as nice as you can while keeping it effective. But also keep this in mind: “Good experiences aren’t necessarily pleasant.

Where are we going?

Sep 10th, 2010 11:59 am | By

I lifted this sermon preached at Duke last Sunday from Jerry. I’m always lifting items from Jerry. What can I tell you? He finds interesting stuff. There’s a lot of irritating nonsense in the sermon, so there are leftovers for me to work on.

It’s nice to have an actual sermon, as opposed to something written for a media outlet. It’s nice to get confirmation that clerics really do talk nonsense in their sermons without having to go to church to listen to them do it.

The last six years have witnessed the publication of a series of books, from a variety of authors, attacking religion with a virulence not seen for a long time. This movement has been called “The New Atheism.” It believes religion should no longer be tolerated but should be exposed, challenged and refuted at every opportunity, with a conviction founded on scientific certainty.

That’s not a leftover, but I have a couple of things to say about it. One, it’s offensively obtuse and partial and entitled. This “virulent” “series of books” amounts to about ten on a generous counting; the number of books attacking atheism with “virulence” is much much much greater than ten, yet this Reverend Sam Wells thinks the atheist books are an outrage while the anti-atheist books aren’t even worth noticing. In other words he has a blatant double standard (as do pretty much all the gnu atheist-haters). He simply assumes that a flood of religious and anti-secular books is perfectly routine and acceptable, while a tiny (though popular) blip of atheist books is something he gets to complain about.

Two, he is wrong and stupid and illiberal to claim that tolerance of religion excludes exposing and challenging it. He is wrong and stupid and illiberal to imply that tolerance of religion rules out exposing and challenging it. He is illiberal and rather bad to try to persuade other people of that.

The prophet Jeremiah describes God as a potter, handling and cherishing the clay, and making something beautiful out of clay that has been deformed or damaged. The Christian life begins when we realize that we are that clay.

But we aren’t that clay. We can’t “realize” we are that clay, because we aren’t. We aren’t clay at all, and we have no reason to think we are something that was handled and cherished by someone named “God.” That’s clearly supposed to pass as some kind of quasi-metaphoric claim but also as a quasi-factual one – otherwise the bit about the “Christian life” just makes no sense. We’re always being told that liberal believers don’t believe in the goddy version of “God” – but what else is God as a potter making us? It’s more literal than it sounds to people who have been trained to hear such things with an indulgent ear.

 The relationship between science and theology is like clay: it’s moist and full of potential, and if cherished should become something beautiful. But currently this clay is spoiled in our hands.

How could a (much less “the”) relationship between science and theology become something beautiful? What kind of something? They always say things like that, but they never spell out what they mean. What can theology offer to science?

It’s fascinating to ask, “Where do we come from?” – but isn’t it at least as interesting, and perhaps more urgent, to ask, “Where are we going?” Theologians at this point hold no naïve optimism that as a species or as a universe we’re intrinsically heading for candyland. We’re sinners, as much as we’ve ever been, and we’re no better or worse than our forebears or descendants. But Christian theology is committed to the notion of sudden, final intervention of God in history that brings time to an end and inaugurates an era of glory and fulfilment.

And candyland.

So, that’s what theology can offer to science, and that’s why science manages to curb its enthusiasm.

This fixation on matters ‘spiritual’

Sep 9th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

Paula Kirby says she was, at first, impressed by the pope’s letter to the Irish about the child-rape problem.

How many politicians or corporations have been able to bring themselves to say, ‘You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry’? I was impressed. (On reflection, perhaps more impressed than I should have been, given that statements of contrition trip lightly off the tongues of those who repeat them daily in Mass or in the Confessional, and are told that repentance is all that is required to release them from guilt.)

Exact, as they say in Sweden. The contrition sounded entirely empty and in fact insulting, to me, for that very reason, but then I’ve been soaked in the malfeasance of the Irish Catholic church for a few years now. Anyway Paula got over it as soon as she read further.

Yet this was offset by what followed, a bewildering ramble blaming the problem on the growing secularisation of Irish society and the resulting failure of Catholics to observe practices such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats. It tried to suggest that the sense of betrayal should be directed towards the church authorities in Ireland – creating the entirely misleading impression that those authorities had somehow acted off their own bat and had not simply been following instructions from the Vatican itself.

Didn’t it though. In sort it did what it always does; it failed to admit that the church itself as an institution had behaved criminally and sadistically, full stop. Reading Geoffrey Robertson QC’s The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse made sense of all that for Paula:

The answer, it turns out, is simple. The Vatican is not interested in crime. The Vatican is only interested in sin.

Sin is an offence against God: the victims are God, the church, and the soul of the sinner.

Just so, and this is why Karen Armstrong’s claim that compassion is at the heart of every great religion is such nonsense. No it isn’t. God is at the heart of every “great” religion (making Hinduism and Buddhism something other than “great,” which in this case is probably a compliment). God is at the heart, not compassion, and that means that what humans are supposed to be is above all obedient, not compassionate. It’s not an accident that “islam” means submission; it’s just surprising that it took so long.

This fixation on matters ‘spiritual’, this obsession with religious dogma and ‘sin’ rather than suffering and crime, and with ‘penance’ and ‘redemption’ rather than justice and concern for the victims, is deeply, inherently immoral. For how can there be morality without empathy? How can there be justice without redress for the victim? Under canon law, the law of the Vatican, which the Pope still insists is the only law that may be applied to his child-rapists, the perceived abuse of a wafer counts for more than the actual abuse of real, human, flesh and blood.

And they mean it. This isn’t some aberration, some temporary bit of reaction; this is what the Catholic church is.

Zeal of the X syndrome

Sep 8th, 2010 1:03 pm | By

I googled zeal of the convert syndrome, out of curiosity, even though it’s pretty self-explanatory. The meaning is pretty self-explanatory, but I was curious about what and whom it’s applied to. The answer is: lots of things. Islam, Zionism, Bush/Fox News/Palin derangement, Stockholm syndrome, Yvonne Ridley syndrome (funny that one syndrome refers to others, but apparently it is so).

So anyway, does new atheism fit? Sure, probably. Clearly a lot of things fit, so why wouldn’t gnu atheism? It has aspects of “a movement,” it is in some ways political, so sure, it probably has aspects of zeal of the convert syndrome too.

But I don’t think that’s the source of my “zeal,” at least (assuming for the sake of argument that I have zeal – that zeal is the right word for what I have). I’m not a convert, for one thing…at least not to atheism, though I may be a convert of sorts to a more overt or active atheism. But even that dates back to the mid-90s, and I don’t think a mere “conversion” from quieter atheism to noisier atheism counts as much of a conversion for the purposes of syndrome-ascription.

So I’m not really a convert in the relevant sense, so my zeal, if such it is, isn’t really that of the convert. What is it then? I think it’s the zeal of the person who is chronically surprised at the malice and mendacity of the (for want of a better term) other side. I think what keeps me interested in this, and commenting on it, is the steady stream of dishonest enraged polemic issuing from the people who detest gnu atheism. Without that – I just wouldn’t keep commenting on the subject, because what would there be to say?

So we have a perpetual motion machine here. The other side keeps offering up its fury and scorn and misrepresentation, so people like me keep pointing out the disproportionate fury and the misrepresentation, so the other side does what it does some more, and so on, ad infinitum. Ironic, innit.

The smugness files

Sep 8th, 2010 12:30 pm | By

The Telegraph is rubbing its nasty hands in glee (yes I know newspapers don’t actually have hands – they have gills) about yet another scientist saying ew ick about yet another scientist who missed an opportunity to credit god for making something out of nothing.

[Susan Greenfield]  criticised the “smugness” of scientists who claim to “have all the answers”… in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme discussion about [Stephen] Hawking’s views. Last week he angered many religious believers by saying science “can explain the universe without the need for a creator”.

Says the Telegraph, self-righteously and bullyingly – and in fact smugly. The Telegraph smugly assumes that scientists and others are not supposed to “anger religious believers” by attempting to describe the world as it is. The Telegraph smugly reports the putative “anger” of religious believers as if it were important, and deplorable, and someone’s fault. There’s something more than a little Talibanish about that – ironically enough.

Greenfield said: “Science can often suffer from a certain smugness and complacency…What we need to preserve in science is a curiosity and an open-mindedness rather than a complacency and a sort of arrogance where we attack people who come at the big truths and the big questions albeit using different strategies.”

Meaning what? That scientists shouldn’t point out (which is apparently the sort of thing Greenfield means by “attack”) that certain strategies for getting at “the big truths” (as well as the small ones) are bad strategies because they don’t get at any actual truth? That seems to be what she means, but she’s dressed it up in the usual cozy patronizing PR-speak that disguises the frank anti-inquiry purport of claims like that.

Asked whether she was uncomfortable about scientists making comments about God, she said: “Yes I am. Of course they can make whatever comments they like but when they assume, rather in a Taliban-like way, that they have all the answers then I do feel uncomfortable. I think that doesn’t necessarily do science a service.”

Oh yes? Does she have the same sort of concern about popes and priests and mullahs? They generally assume they have all the answers, in a much more Taliban-like way than scientists do, so is that a problem too? If it is, the Telegraph doesn’t report the fact.

[Greenfield] added that his statement that God was not needed was “surprising”.She said: “All science is provisional and therefore to claim to have the definitive answer to anything is a hardline view. It would be very great shame if young people think that to be a scientist you must be an atheist.”

But it isn’t surprising at all, it’s utterly routine, and she must know that perfectly well. It’s also not the case that he claimed “to have the definitive answer,” and she probably knows that too. The whole thing is just yet more of the predictable party line, and it’s as inaccurate as the party line pretty much always is. It’s also as one-sided as it almost always is – telling off scientists for making claims but never telling off clerics for doing so with much less to back the claims up.

Her remarks are likely to be interpreted as a criticism of Professor Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion who helped to pay for buses emblazoned with adverts declaring “there’s probably no God”.

Says the Telegraph pruriently, shit-stirring for no obvious reason except that it can.

What about evidence?

Sep 6th, 2010 5:23 pm | By

I don’t understand what Tim Crane is trying to say. Maybe it’s just the usual (the ingredients of which are present): religion isn’t science, it’s about meaning; the end. Maybe, but Crane says more than that, and some of what he says doesn’t go well with “religion isn’t science, it’s about meaning.”

Atheists, he says, ask for evidence for religious claims, and reject the claims when the evidence is not forthcoming. Yes that’s right. Then he says in their view those claims are

a bit like scientific hypotheses. In other words, they are claims — like the claim that God created the world — that are supported by evidence, that are proved by arguments and tested against our experience of the world.

Yes, but it’s not just scientific hypotheses that match that description. Crane at one point admits this.

It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science.

But it doesn’t need to be “a kind of proto-science,” whatever that may mean; but it is still a matter of evidence. Factual, historical claims depend on evidence, and if the evidence is not there, then the claims are just bogus. If the evidence is disputed, the claims are disputed. If the evidence has been faked, the claims are blown out of the water and the claimant may be disgraced, or may just be suspended for a year with pay. At any rate the evidence matters, and without it, all you have is stories. This is an important point, and Crane has put it at the center of what he’s saying, but he never actually makes it again. I don’t understand why.

He turns the whole thing into a false choice between science on the one hand and religion on the other, ignoring the great swath of empirical inquiry that’s not science but nevertheless depends on evidence. Why does he? I really don’t know.

It is true, as I have just said, that Christianity does place certain historical events at the heart of their conception of the world, and to that extent, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that these events happened. Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses.

But they don’t have to be; you still reject them, when there is no evidence, for reasons. You reject these claims – don’t you? – because you think they are bad hypotheses in a broader sense, and you think that because there is no evidence to back them up…don’t you? You say it is because you reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that you consider yourself an atheist, and you reject the factual basis of the doctrines because there is no evidence for them – don’t you? So why make such a point of the “scientific” aspect while not mentioning the lack of evidence?

Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

Maybe so, but the claims are false (in the sense that there is no evidence for them) and so, according to Crane, the religions fail. Saying the commitment to meaningfulness is what is central doesn’t change that.

So, I don’t understand what he’s getting at.

52 victim cards per deck

Sep 6th, 2010 12:59 pm | By

The Catholic church is pitching another fit, this time complaining that the BBC is anti-Christian and liberal and secular when it should be pro-Catholic and reactionary and theocratic like – well like the Catholic church.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien said the BBC’s news coverage is contaminated by “a radically secular and socially liberal mindset”…

“Senior news managers have admitted to the Catholic church that a radically secular and socially liberal mindset pervades their newsrooms. This sadly taints BBC news and current affairs coverage of religious issues, particularly matters of Christian beliefs.”

They certainly do think they’re owed a great deal of deference and air time, don’t they, especially for people who are mired in an institutional scandal about pervasive child-rape and obstruction of justice. Perhaps they would like the BBC to spend more time on that subject?

From the other direction

Sep 5th, 2010 3:34 pm | By

Here’s something a good deal better than the BBC and its revolting pandering to the mullahs in Iran and their friends – here is Network against honour related violence. I met a splendid woman who works with it – perhaps she founded it and runs it, I’m not sure – at the book launch in Stockholm. The launch took place starting at 7 pm the day I arrived, so my memory had gone to bed by that time – I don’t remember most of the launch very clearly. This means I don’t remember what she told me, or if she told me her name, or what I told her, apart from something about wanting to be sure to retain some grip on all of this when I woke up the next day; fortunately she gave me a card, which has the name and the URL on it.

Anyway there it is, and it is indeed a network, so it’s an excellent place to find all the related links and names in one place.


Addendum: she was very nice to me, I do remember that – very warm and enthusiastic. She gave me a hug along with the card. I remember her face – and her kind smile – I just don’t remember what we said! Jet lag, eh.

The BBC defends the mullahs, silences their critics

Sep 5th, 2010 11:40 am | By

Update: RDF provides the video for non-UK viewers, so I’ve seen it now, and so can you.

The BBC has outdone itself this time. BBC1’s Sunday Live did a programme on whether it is right to condemn the Iranian regime for the stoning of Ashtiani. Maryam Namazie was supposed to take part (and it is not difficult to guess what she would have said, and how firmly she would have said it), but somehow the programme never got around to her. It did get around to two people who said the other thing, but it did not get around to Maryam. Yes that’s right. It found the time to talk to two apologists for the fascist reactionary mullahs’ regime in Iran but it could not find the time to talk to a secular feminist who thinks women shouldn’t be buried up to their necks and stoned to death for anything and especially not for “adultery.”

The BBC gives a voice to fascist reactionary mullahs and denies a voice to secular feminists who defend human rights.


In the live debate, they managed to interview Suhaib Hassan from the Islamic Sharia Council defending stoning and someone from Tehran saying she faces execution for murdering her husband but somehow there was no time in the debate for me.

Even the presenter, Susanna Reid, said stonings were rare and that none had taken place since the 2002 moratorium! In fact 17 people have been stoned since the moratorium; also there are court documents provided by her lawyer specifying her stoning sentence for adultery. BBC had all this information. Without providing evidence to the contrary, BBC Sunday Live took as fact the regime’s pronouncements on her case. They failed to mention that the man charged with her husband’s murder is not being executed and that the trumped up murder charges are an attempt by the regime to silence the public outcry and kill Sakineh. As Sakineh herself has said: “they think they can do anything to women.”

It beggars belief.

Hooray for sharia

Sep 4th, 2010 4:31 pm | By

The Huffington Post (who else?) gives a woman named Sumbul Ali-Karamali a space in which to say “what is all this fuss about sharia, sharia is perfectly fine, and besides it’s not the law anywhere, and besides everything is culture, and besides islamophobia, and besides you have to interpret.”

There are six principles of shariah. They are derived from the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the word of God. All Islamic religious rules must be in line with these six principles of shariah…The Qur’an is old. The fiqh books of jurisprudence are old. To modern eyes, they can look just as outdated as other ancient texts, including the Bible and Torah. That’s why, just like the Bible and the Torah, the Islamic texts must be read in their historical context.

In other words, it’s the same old have-it-both-ways bullshit. On the one hand it’s the word of god, but on the other hand we can’t help noticing that some of it is disgustingly savage so we sagely observe that it’s old and therefore has to be read “in its historical context,” which being interpreted means altered so that the disgusting savagery gets ignored or turned into a metaphor or otherwise sidelined. But then why not just admit that what you’re doing is trying to shape laws to what is best for human beings (and perhaps animals and the planet) rather than obeying rules handed out many centuries ago by a god? Because we want to have it both ways, that’s why.

Shari’a is a set of religious principles and is not the law of the land anywhere in the world. The 50-some Muslim-majority countries are all constitutional states and nearly all of them have civil codes (many of these based on the French system).

…And? She doesn’t say. The implication seems to be that all those constitutions bar sharia as law, but in fact, that’s far from the truth. Some majority-Muslim countries already make their laws “sharia-compliant” and others are working on it.

The Qur’an contains many verses advocating religious tolerance, too, though the anti-Islam protesters won’t believe it.

Yes we’ll believe it, but we’ll also point out that it contains many other verses advocating much nastier things and that those verses are not a dead letter.

I wonder – in all seriousness – if Sumbul Ali-Karamali herself would actually like to live in Swat or Afghanistan or Somalia or Sudan or Algeria or Saudi Arabia or northern Nigeria. If she wouldn’t, she should think hard about why. If she would, she and I inhabit different universes, and I don’t know how to address her.

Presumed dead in the water

Sep 4th, 2010 1:17 pm | By

Julian Baggini points out “an inconvenient truth about science that religion would prefer to ignore”:

[A]lthough it is true that science doesn’t rule out a role for religion in providing meaning, or a God who kick-started the whole universe off in the first place, it does leave presumed dead in the water anything like the God most people over history have believed in: one who is closely involved in his creation, who intervenes in our lives, and with whom we can have a personal relationship.

Most people over history, and to this day. People who believe in the attenuated hand-wavy god of Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton are a tiny minority of believers.

Your fury is proof of my virtue

Sep 4th, 2010 1:01 pm | By

Update: comments were closed by accident; there’s nothing special about this post that made comments undesirable. Beg pardon.

Norman Birnbaum said in a review of two books on Norman Podhoretz

In the end, the indignation of the critics reinforced Podhoretz’s tendency to think of himself as isolated, his antipathy to other intellectuals. He saw arguments with others as proof of his own virtue.

Yes indeed; there is always that risk, in having opinions that are in some way unpopular or unorthodox or otherwise combative. One can come to think that the more indignant one’s opponents are, the more virtuous One is Oneself.

This is an excellent reason for the Haters of Gnu Atheists to stfu. They don’t want to make us even more smug and conceited and intolerable than we already are, do they? Hmmmmmmmmmmm?

This is not polling

Sep 4th, 2010 11:17 am | By

The Republicans must be spending money like water (thanks to the Citizens United decision). I got a phone call last night from someone who claimed to be doing a “poll” but it transparently wasn’t a poll at all, it was a ridiculous stealth advertisement.

The guy asked a few neutralish questions at first, then asked if, if I were voting today, I would vote for the Democrat candidate for the US senate or the Republican candidate ditto. “You mean Democratic?” I said. He repeated the question. I repeated my question. “Ma’am, I have to read the question exactly as it is.” Right; well only Republicans use “Democrat” as an adjective that way, and they do it to annoy, so we knew where we were. I simply gave him the straight party answer to every question, snickering when they got really obvious (“Do you think Patty Murray is a pork barrel candidate etc etc etc”).

We finished a long batch of questions, and he took a deep breath and said “Now I will ask you some questions about – ” and I interrupted to say this is taking too long, I don’t have all night, how many more questions do you have? He said it depends on how you answer.

Oh does it! So if I don’t give the answer you want, you’ll keep badgering me with loaded questions until I do? So that’s your game – you obnoxious time-wasting dishonest bastards. “How many more questions?” I said coldly. He repeated his schtick. “But you can tell me how many questions there are,” I said. “No Ma’am I can’t,” he said, so I said in an elevated tone, “Well than I can hang up,” and did so.

What an irritating intrusive bullying lying way to carry on. It’s something called The Torrance Company that does the “polling”; they “can’t” say who is funding it. No, I bet they “can’t.”

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.