Notes and Comment Blog

Who, me?

Oct 5th, 2009 5:27 pm | By

In which we learn that Dawkins does not actually have fangs and a dripping cleaver.

To most observers, Dawkins is the textbook aggressive champion of evolutionary theory…In person, Dawkins fails to live up to the “aggressive” label…So he is genuinely puzzled by people calling him aggressive. “Well, I’m nothing like as aggressive as I’m portrayed. And I’m always being labelled ‘strident’. In the bestseller lists it always has a little one-line summary of the book, and for my new one it says ‘strident academic Richard Dawkins’. I’m forever saddled with this wretched adjective. I think I’m one of the most unstrident people in the world.”

Well don’t I know the feeling – though of course on a much smaller scale. I’m spared the thing about the bestseller list for example.

But in my tiny way, don’t I know the feeling. I’ve been called strident – I’ve even been called aggressive, though not all that often. I wouldn’t go as far as Dawkins…I wouldn’t say I think I’m one of the most unstrident people in the world, or one of the most unaggressive, either. I’m not that delusional. I am often verbally aggressive, often deliberately so. I am sometimes tooverbally aggressive – I’m apt to get irritable and impatient. (As does Dawkins – and if doesn’t know this about himself, that’s a little odd. I think his reputation for ferocity is wildly and unfairly exaggerated, for political reasons, but if he thinks he’s never waspish or hasty or sharp – he’s not thinking hard enough.)

But there is a difference (and a difference that matters – quite a lot, as a matter of fact) between being sometimes waspish or irritable or impatient or disputatious, and being aggressive or militant or mean or a bully. This has been part of the issue with Mooney and Kirshenbaum ever since last May – their willingness, not to say eagerness, to use hostile rhetoric to describe people who disagree with them. I don’t think people should do that. I think it’s unfair. I would even say it has a whiff of the bully about it.

Dawkins Does a McLuhan

Oct 4th, 2009 5:59 pm | By

Jerry Coyne took a few minutes from all the fun he was having at the Boys’ Atheists jamboree to do a quick post on Dawkins and accommodationism.

An alert reader called my attention to two blog posts by Josh Rosenau and Chris Mooney/Sheril Kirshenbaum, both claiming that Richard Dawkins explicitly voiced accommodationist views in a Newsweek interview. “He’s changed!” they say.

Has not, Jerry says.

Well, I know Richard Dawkins. I am at a meeting with Richard Dawkins. I just discussed these accusations of accommodationism with Richard Dawkins. And I can tell you, Chris, Sheril, and Josh, that Richard is not one of you.

And, satisfyingly, he includes Richard’s written confirmation that he is no accommodationist:

How utterly ridiculous. All I was saying is that it is possible for a human mind to accommodate both evolution and religion because F. Collins’s mind seems to manage the feat (along with lots of vicars and bishops and rabbis).

Then Jerry expresses a hope which seems unlikely to be fulfilled…

Now that Dawkins has verified this, it would be nice to see Rosenau, Mooney, and Kirshenbaum correct their postings. And they need to stop pretending that the existence of religious scientists and religious people who accept evolution proves that science and faith are compatible. We settled that issue long ago. The issue is philosophical compatibility.

As I pointed out in the comments, Mooney did once grasp this point, though without admitting he had grasped anything new, or changed his thinking, or learned anything from his critics, much less apologizing for maligning them for weeks on end. I pointed out this oversight at the time, but fat lot of good it did me. Anyway he lost his grip on the point again, and now he’s just back at the same old stand.

Oh look, there’s one now

Oct 3rd, 2009 12:18 pm | By

Wow. Just…wow.

Took in Richard Dawkins doing a reading, question-answering, and book-signing for his most-recent publication tonight, in a sold-out theater at the U of Toronto…The theater contains around 600 seats, and of the 80 people I counted, about two dozen were women. That’s approximately 30%. By comparison, Ophelia Benson was carping yesterday about women only comprising 20% (i.e., 4 out of 21) of the speakers at the Atheist Alliance conference. I say that the latter figure is within engineering/experimental accuracy (or whatever confidence interval), especially since the speakers at any conference should be from at least the top 20% of the professionals in it; and unless the conference is a Celebration of Womynstruation, you’ll already be “scraping the bottom of the top of the barrel” to get to within 10%, in caliber and quantity of work.

Wow. Because he (Geoffrey Falk) doesn’t know that – at least I’m pretty sure he doesn’t, because he doesn’t show that he does, and because I don’t, and because I think it is not obvious from the whole list. That was my point – not ‘hey why just Dawkins and Coyne and Dennett and no women’ but ‘hey why those 17 men and only 4 women’ – given that the men farther down the list aren’t such obvious candidates as Dawkins and Coyne and Dennett. It’s not remotely obvious that all 17 men on the list are ‘from at least the top 20% of the professionals in’ atheism – whatever that would even mean (atheism not being much of a profession, as far as I know).

And, of course, it’s also not even faintly obvious that ‘you’ll already be “scraping the bottom of the top of the barrel” to get to within 10%, in caliber and quantity of work.’ It’s merely assumed that that’s the case. We talked about some of the Name female atheists who could have been invited; some Name female atheists are in fact bigger Names than some of the male atheists on the list. We now know that the AAI did invite some Name female atheists who didn’t accept, such as Taslima Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Katha Pollitt. We also now know that it’s possible to lobby to be invited to these things and that it’s possible that some of the men on the list lobbied to get on it. What we don’t know is that under 10% of all high-caliber high-productivity atheists are women.

As an indication of how blinded people can be by their twisted little half-wit ideologies, I doubt that the question of racial representation on that panel has even occurred to Benson. But really, if she’s not happy about women being a mere 20% (translation: less than half) of the speakers at Ye Olde Convention, she should be just as unhappy about the races not being proportionately represented, even independent of their actual contributions to the field. (“Meritocracy? We don’t need no steenking meritocracy!” No, what they want is “fairness,” where every group gets the same rewards, regardless of whether or not they’ve worked for them. You can see how such people would be strongly attracted to socialism/Marxism, no?) Otherwise, you see, she’s a racist bitch.

Except that that’s just what I didn’t say. I think we decidedly do need stinking meritocracy, despite the psychic and other drawbacks to meritocracy. One reason I loathed the Bush presidency was because it was so wildly defiantly insanely anti-meritocratic; ditto the Palin candidacy. One thing I love about Obama is that he never plays dumb – he never spits in the eye of the meritocracy that got him where he is. No, I don’t want automatic numeric “fairness,” and I never said I did. But I think wild disproportion needs some explaining.

As for all the other nonsense – one, women are half the population – so if they are under-represented, that is not a small issue. Two, I have no idea what the racial makeup of the list is, so any disproportion there might be didn’t jump out at me the way the male-female ratio did. Three, of course, it’s my ox that was being gored – but then I did say that. Yes, I fight my corner sometimes. So?

That lively contribution to the debate led me to an earlier intervention that was also quite…sparkling.

Falk challenges some post about representation in desert island discs (I didn’t read it) and then goes on…

I wound up on that utterly insane posting indirectly via Ophelia Benson’s slightly less nutty feministing about how only four of the twenty-one speakers at the upcoming Atheist Alliance International conference are women. They certainly could have invited her. Female, atheist, two cogent (if not particularly page-turning) albeit co-written books to her credit, no taint of the sin of “white male privilege” (though still not purged of the sin of being white—and thus inherently privileged—in general; not that I can recall her ever owning up to that obvious issue, as basic consistency would demand).

Three books! Not two; three.Co-written, but three.

The 4/21 number is obviously not “Because there are no atheist women.” But when you’re talking about the upper echelon in the field, i.e., the people who’ve published the most high-quality material … are you certain that more than ~20% of the best in the field have tits? (Benson barely does; but I digress.) Are you sure that the one-in-five number isn’t just the product of, you know, meritocracy?

Fascinating, isn’t it?

I was talking just the other day about how quickly and how easily a lot of men fall into sexist taunts the instant a woman disagrees with them or they disagree with her. Well…I wasn’t making it up. (No, I haven’t the slightest idea how he thinks he knows.)

He goes on to discuss my intellectual limitations, which is fair; he points out that I’ll never have a Big Idea, which I certainly agree with. I’m at most a commentator of some kind, I’m certainly not an originator. Then he raises an interesting question.

And I still really doubt that she would have ever figured out what a menace Islam is—or maybe even that multiculturalism doesn’t work—if it didn’t disproportionately affect her (female) group negatively. Sure, Islam, theocracy and Sharia law are against every principle of classical liberalism; but if those (or socialism, or communism) benefited women, and helped them get even with the (esp. white) men who’ve had it so easy and been so privileged for so long…

And that’s where it ends. Well…yes, and? If…then what? If Islam, theocracy and Sharia law benefited women, then they would do vastly less harm than they do as things are, so my opinion of them would be very different. And? I mean, if Nazism hadn’t had such a thing about Jews, then Nazism would have been very different, and so would people’s opinions of it be. There would still be other things wrong with Islam, theocracy and Sharia, but there would be fewer such things, and they would be less savage. I would still be opposed to them, but things would be different. Falk says that if things were different then they would be different. Well yes, I quite agree, but I don’t see that as suspect the way he apparently does.

He may well be right about his first point. But there again – my ‘(female) group’ is after all half of all humans. That’s a lot of people being ‘negatively affected’ (I would just say harmed, it’s so much blunter and simpler).


Quit picking on that nice Mr Pope fella

Oct 2nd, 2009 11:49 am | By

Melanie McDonagh doesn’t want to hear that old dreary stuff about the Catholic church, thanks all the same.

The old gibe, that anti-Catholicism is the antisemitism of the left, looked like being given a new lease of life.

Is that an old jibe? (I don’t get out much.) Well if so it’s a very stupid one. Leftish anti-Catholicism is about real actions and commands by the Catholic church and its clergy. It’s substantive – it’s about something. What is anti-semitism ‘about’? Catholicism has a lot of substance to get to grips with. It has a hierarchy, and a state, and a long history of official actions and institutions (the inquisition, the index, wars, corruption – little things like that). It gives us its official thoughts at frequent intervals. It applies pressure to governments and politicians. It is an institution. It has power. It runs schools and orphanages and charities, and it doesn’t always run them well, or kindly. Is any of that true of ‘semitism’? No. Some of it (though not much) applies to Judaism, but ‘semitism,’ no. So McDonagh’s ‘old gibe’ is not worth much.

What’s to say about Africa and Aids? Except that if the pope were as omnipotent as people make out, he’d be able to make individuals subscribe to the whole package of Catholic teaching on sexuality, on fidelity within marriage and chastity, not just condoms. I’ve never quite been able to believe in Catholics – Africans or otherwise – who are so scrupulous that they couldn’t possibly use condoms, but will resort to prostitutes.

But that doesn’t explain why the pope is trying to get people to obey his instructions not to use condoms. And it ignores the obvious fact that men don’t want to use condoms anyway and the ‘church teaching’ provides a handy excuse. Has McDonagh never heard the term bareback? If not she should pay more attention, if she’s going to write about the church and condoms. And she doesn’t explain why a slow nasty death is the appropriate punishment for people who don’t ‘subscribe to the whole package of Catholic teaching on sexuality.’ And she doesn’t explain why people – mostly women – who don’t have sex with anyone but their husbands should be punished for their husbands’ sex lives combined with refusal to use condoms; nor does she explain why children should be included in the punishment. She explains pretty much nothing – she just makes a smug crack and lets it go at that.



Oct 1st, 2009 5:23 pm | By

Allow me to make a banal observation: it can be very hard to know how one is coming across, just as it can be very hard to know what other people mean by how they are coming across. It’s all just very difficult! Which is just as well, in some ways – we don’t want to be totally transparent – we don’t want our every gesture and intonation to be unambiguous and indisputable, like 2+2=4. We want a little flexibility, some shading, some room to maneuver – some doubt.

But in other ways it can be tiresome. We may misunderstand other people, and they may misunderstand us, and that’s not always helpful. I’ve just read the Zoë Heller novel The Believers; one of the main characters is a woman who started out in her youth being interestingly and amusingly irascible, so that people would say ‘get Audrey in here to talk to that jerk, she’ll soon sort him out’; but forty years later it dawned on her that what is charming in a young woman is repellent in an old one. That realization wasn’t as poignant or whatever it was supposed to be as it could have been because Audrey is so exaggerated – she is always bad-tempered and rude and just plain unpleasant, she is always on one note and not particularly amusing on that one note. But still – she does stand for something. One can think one is simply being forthright and clear, and then discover that to other people one is being mean and a bully and much too aggressive.

Especially, of course, if one is a woman. It’s a very familiar trope of second-wave feminism that what is seen as leadership and decisiveness in a man will be seen as aggression or ball-breaking in a woman. But that doesn’t mean no woman can possibly be too aggressive. It may however mean that a woman who thinks she is more indignant than aggressive will be surprised to be told otherwise.

This becomes all the more complicated when what the woman is irritable, or indignant, or aggressive about is itself something to do with her being a woman – when she reacts with hostility to a sexist jibe, for example. It may be that she reacts with hostility to sexist jibes on principle, as well as out of actual hostility. She may think that sexist jibes shouldn’t just be ignored or laughed off or brushed aside. We talked about this last month, but of course new occasions are always arising. So…women are kind of stuck, frankly. Damned if they do damned if they don’t. Stuck with sexist jibes if they don’t, seen as aggressive if they do.

Well no, that’s not entirely true. One can be skilled at calibrating one’s response, one can be firm but fair, and so on. But…sometimes one just wants to bark when yet another sexist taunt comes along. So one does. Woof.

Bozo the Berlusconi

Oct 1st, 2009 10:34 am | By

It was embarrassing to be an American during the Bush era, but what’s up with those zany people in Italy? Why do they vote for Berlusconi? Don’t they think owning most of the country’s mass media is power enough? And then…he’s such a…

The Italian Prime Minister has called President Obama “tanned” again — but this time he did not miss the opportunity to joke about the First Lady’s skin colour as well. After his return from the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Mr Berlusconi told a rally of conservative supporters that he was bringing greetings from someone in the United States. “What’s his name? Some tanned guy. Ah, Barack Obama,” he said. He then added: “You won’t believe it, but the two of them sunbathe together, because the wife is also tanned.”

Gee – what a funny joke. I can’t wait for his next tour of Africa.

Independent World Report

Sep 29th, 2009 5:47 pm | By

Look: here is Independent World Report. It’s a new bimonthly reader-supported magazine covering the forgotten and untold stories of the world. It just launched. Subscribe to it if you can!

The editor is Tasneem Khalil. You know Tasneem – he used to report on corruption and police misconduct in Bangladesh, until one midnight he was arrested and his computer was seized and he was beaten up. He’s in Sweden now and he’s started this terrific magazine. I’m proud to say I have an article in the first issue. There’s one on the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. There’s a lot.

Say anything

Sep 29th, 2009 3:22 pm | By

Once again I’m startled at the casual malice of Andrew Brown. No charge is too unsupported to make, it seems. No inhibition causes him to pause and ask himself, ‘Wait, do I really know any of this? Am I just blackguarding a whole category of people on the basis of nothing in particular? Should I perhaps rephrase things by adding a ‘some’ or a ‘may sometimes’ in places just to be fair?’ – no sense of shame prompts him to stop making things up about a group of people he dislikes. Why is that?

Oh well, the pope does it, Kevin Padian does it, so why should a journalist hesitate?

At any rate, he doesn’t.

It’s obvious that in the US, the new atheism is a reassuring fundamentalism for the college educated: it provides them with the assurance of a brighter future and with an enemy (“The religious”) on whom can be blamed all the bewildering and humiliating changes in modern American society…

No it’s not obvious. It’s possible, and it may be true of some people, but it’s not obvious, and Andrew Brown just spinning words about it doesn’t make it obvious.

How can we maintain the distinction, so essential to civilised life, between ourselves and the readers of the Daily Mail? The new atheism supplies a clear and simple answer. Subscribe to a set of pious hopes about reason and progress, read a few of the right books, and you have found a clear social identity…Obviously, it is no longer done to sneer at the working classes for being idle, brutish, smelly, and breeding too much. But it’s perfectly OK to sneer at “faith heads” for all these things: that shows you’re enlightened. It’s pure coincidence that the despicable believers are for the most part lower class as well.

Is it perfectly ok to sneer at Andrew Brown for being exceptionally vulgar? Because he is. It’s sheer vulgarity to abuse people on the basis of your own fantasies that way. That’s not to say that there is no possibility that atheism can sometimes be tainted with intellectual snobbery – but that doesn’t justify Brown’s trashy raving.

Somebody should do a vulgar hit-and-run pseudo-sociology job on why Andrew Brown is the way he is.

The Protestants do it more!

Sep 29th, 2009 10:45 am | By

The Catholic church is so brilliant at PR!

The Vatican has lashed out at criticism over its handling of its paedophilia crisis by saying the Catholic church was “busy cleaning its own house” and that the problems with clerical sex abuse in other churches were as big, if not bigger. In a defiant and provocative statement, issued following a meeting of the UN human rights council in Geneva, the Holy See said the majority of Catholic clergy who committed such acts were not paedophiles but homosexuals attracted to sex with adolescent males.

Great! Brilliant! We’re busy, don’t bother us. Everybody else does it even more than we do, don’t bother us. It’s mostly queers who do it, don’t bother us.

That’s good enough for me! I take it all back about the Catholic church.

The statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the UN, defended its record by claiming that “available research” showed that only 1.5%-5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sex abuse. He also quoted statistics from the Christian Scientist Monitor newspaper to show that most US churches being hit by child sex abuse allegations were Protestant and that sexual abuse within Jewish communities was common.

Aha! Okay then! Only a small fraction of Catholic clergy abuse children, so it’s not a problem then. Most churches that are accused of abusing children are Protestant so child abuse by Catholic clerics is not a problem then. Sex abuse ‘within Jewish communities’ is common so child abuse by Catholic clerics is not a problem then. That’s some impeccable logic! I’m convinced; who wouldn’t be?

He added that sexual abuse was far more likely to be committed by family members, babysitters, friends, relatives or neighbours, and male children were quite often guilty of sexual molestation of other children.

So what’re you picking on us for?! They do it too! They do it more than we do! Little boys do it, so why are you yelling at us for doing it too?! If little boys do it we can do it! That’s fair isn’t it! Shut up, leave us alone, go away, you’re excommunicated, god is going to hit you, shut up!

Representatives from other religions were dismayed by the Holy See’s attempts to distance itself from controversy by pointing the finger at other faiths…The Ryan Report, published last May, revealed that beatings and humiliation by nuns and priests were common at institutions that held up to 30,000 children. A nine-year investigation found that Catholic priests and nuns for decades terrorised thousands of boys and girls, while government inspectors failed to stop the abuse.

Well…but…uh…well…other people beat and humiliate children too! Lots of them do it! Bullies do it – sadists do it – rapists do it – lots of people! So what are you shouting at us for?!

All together now: Compassion is at the heart of every great religion. Amen.

Women? What? What are they?

Sep 28th, 2009 5:06 pm | By

I’ve been wondering about something, and thinking I was the only one who was wondering, and then just now I did a bit of googling and found that I was not the only one who was wondering. Our friend Parrhesia wondered about it last July and then our other friend Salty Current also wondered and went on wondering (scroll down if you’re interested). Wondering what?

Why there are so many men on the speakers’ list at the Atheist Alliance International and so few women.

Yes quite: why is that? Seventeen men and four women – why is that?

Because there are no atheist women, of course.

No, perhaps it’s not that. Because……uhhhhhhh…they forgot?

Who knows. But it’s irritating. And it’s especially irritating to me, this time, because there are several people there that I’m friendly with and would like to meet. But I wasn’t invited. I don’t, offhand, looking at the entire list, see why not. And this business of just…..uhhhhhhh…forgetting, is doubly or triply annoying, because it makes it seem as if it just doesn’t make any difference what you do, you’re always going to be forgotten and ignored and sidelined and overlooked and passed over merely because things have always been run by men so they keep inviting men to things because it seems natural and they just can’t quite manage to remember that oh hey gee what do you know we could have asked some women.

But at least I’m not the only one wondering about it. Some people on that thread even suggested me among the women who might have been asked. Oi, Atheist Boys’ Alliance: wake up! Ask some women next time! Duh.

Who is the pope to lecture the rest of us?

Sep 28th, 2009 12:56 pm | By

The pope is humbly issuing everyone instructions again.

Pope Benedict XVI said yesterday that all of Europe – and not only this former communist country – must acknowledge its Christian heritage as it copes with rising immigration from other cultures and religions.

Must it? Why? That way communalism lies – my religion is bigger than your religion so ha! A secular public square is a much better way to ‘cope with’ immigration from other cultures and religions. (What else would immigration be from? Identical cultures and religions?)

“History has demonstrated the absurdities to which man descends when he excludes God from the horizon of his choices and actions,’’ Benedict said.

Well, history has also demonstrated the savage cruelty to which human beings can descend when they think they are doing god’s will – like Ben’s own church in Ireland, imprisoning women and selling their children, and imprisoning and torturing other children for the crime of being poor, or orphaned, or neglected.

We want no lessons from you, Ben. Go home and think about condoms and AIDS, and repent.

Beware that extreme minority over there

Sep 27th, 2009 5:08 pm | By

It goes on, the relentless othering of atheism.

“The anti-evolutionist fearmongers have to link Darwin to every perceived evil from mankind,” says Kevin Padian, professor of paleontology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.”

Got that? Atheists who think religion is not epistemically compatible with science (which of course is the view that Padian strawmanned by substituting ‘who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist,’ which no one thinks) are extreme, and furthermore, they are not part of the majority of Americans. They must be very bad people indeed. It must be a good idea to hate them very hard. It must be necessary to say bad things about them at every opportunity so that everybody will hate them very hard. There is of course no need for the bad things said about them to be accurate. Good heavens no; there is no need for pedantic accuracy when there is a war on.

Well hello fossil!

Sep 25th, 2009 6:30 pm | By

One reason science is epistemically incomatible with religion is the fact that in science it is not legitimate to form strong affirmative beliefs when the evidence is missing or thin. You see this over and over again reading Why Evolution is True – it’s full of ‘we don’t know the answer to this,’ ‘the evidence is not clear about that,’ ‘thirty years ago we had no idea but now the evidence is abundant’ – you get a sense of how cumulative it all is and how gaps remain gaps pending better evidence.

Religion is entirely unlike that – and that’s not a leap, not a worldview, not metaphysics; it’s epistemology. It’s ‘how do you know that?’

Some examples from WEIT –

But if feathers didn’t arise as adaptations for flying, what on earth were they for? Again, we don’t know. [two possibilities]…And what feathers evolved from is even more mysterious. The best guess is that they derive from the same cells that gave rise to reptilian scales, but not everyone agrees. [p 46]

We expect to find, in the genomes of many species, silence, or ‘dead’ genes: genes that were once useful but are no longer intact or expressed. In other words, there should be vestigial genes…Thirty years ago we couldn’t test this prediction because we had no way to read the DNA code. Now, however, it’s quite easy to sequence the complete genome of species…[p 67]

Now, we’re not absolutely sure why some species retain much of their evolutionary history during development. [p78]

One more, on page 44, goes like this:

All these nonflying feathered dinosaur fossils date between 135 and 110 million years ago — later than the 145-million-year old Archaeopteryx. That means that they could not be Archaeopteryx’s direct ancestors, but they could have been its cousins. Feathered dinosaurs probably continued to exist after one of their kin gave rise to birds. We should, then, be able to find even older feathered dinosaurs that were the ancestors of Archaeopteryx. The problem is that feathers are preserved only in special sediments — the fine-grained silt of quiet environments like lake beds or lagoons. And these conditions are very rare. But we can make another testable evolutionary prediction: someday we’ll find fossils of feathered dinosaurs that are older than Archaeopteryx.

And what do you know!

Beats prophesy any day.

Tariq Ramadan dances a minuet

Sep 24th, 2009 11:41 am | By

Tariq Ramadan explains things.

My position on homosexuality is quite clear…Islam, as Christianity, as Judaism, as even the Dalai Lama…[are] not accepting of homosexuality, saying that this is forbidden according to the principles of our religion…My position, with homosexuals, is to say, “We don’t agree with what you are doing, but we respect who you are,” which I think is the only true liberal position that you can have.

Why no, actually, that’s not the only true liberal position you can have. On the contrary. The true liberal position would be to look carefully at those ‘principles of our religion’ and ask whether they are good principles or not, in secular, human, this-world terms. The true liberal position would be to know that the fact that something is ‘forbidden according to the principles of our religion’ is not necessarily a good reason to disapprove of it, much less to punish or ostracize or threaten it. According to the principles of some (and not a few) religions it is ‘forbidden’ for women to work, or travel without permission, or leave the house. Such ‘principles’ are bad principles and should not be obeyed. The true liberal position would be to realize that no one has managed to offer any real reason for homosexuality to be ‘forbidden’ or for Tariq Ramadan to be telling gay people that he doesn’t agree with what they are doing.

My position on the death penalty, stoning and corporal punishment is once again quite clear. There are texts in the Koran and in the prophetic tradition referring to this. But I have three questions to ask Muslim scholars around the world: What do the texts say, what are the conditions to implement [the punishment], and in which context? As long as you don’t come with a clear answer to this, it’s un-implementable, because what we are doing now is betraying Islam by targeting poor people and women.

Great, isn’t it? ‘There are texts’ – so he can’t (that is, won’t) just say it’s shit and we must have nothing to do with it. No. He has to palter and equivocate and do a little dance. He has to offer a delaying tactic as if it were some bravely defiant stance. Maybe for him in his situation it is, but substantively, it isn’t. Frankly he and his situation aren’t all that important. He may have his reasons for being reluctant to say that stoning is barbaric and should be rejected entirely everywhere in the world – but I don’t care whether he has reasons or not – the important thing is that he didn’t say it. He’s not helpful. He’s certainly not any kind of liberal.

Who needs to see objects that far away?!

Sep 23rd, 2009 5:57 pm | By

Okay, so life is shit for women in Poland.

When Alicja Tysiac became pregnant in February 2000, three eye specialists told her having another baby could put her eyesight at serious risk. But neither the specialists nor her GP would authorise an abortion. After giving birth later that year, Ms Tysiac suffered a retinal haemorrhage and feared she [might] go blind. She now wears glasses with thick powerful lenses but she cannot see objects more than a metre and a half (5ft) away.

Yeah, so? If she didn’t want to go blind she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant! Not in Poland anyway.


Sep 23rd, 2009 5:45 pm | By

Susan Haack makes a very interesting point in ‘Irreconcilable Differences? The Troubled Marriage of Science and Law. She makes many such points, but one in particular grabbed my attention.

Because of its adversarial character, the legal system tends to draw in as
witnesses scientists who are in a sense marginal – more willing than most of their
colleagues to give an opinion on the basis of less-than-overwhelming evidence;
moreover, the more often he serves as an expert witness, the more unbudgeably
confident a scientist may become in his opinion. An attorney obligated to make
the best possible case for his client will have an incentive to call on those
scientists who are ready to accept an answer to some scientific question as
warranted when others in the field still remain agnostic; and sometimes on
scientists whose involvement in litigation has hardened their initially morecautious
attitudes into unwarranted certainty.

That indicates that good working scientists must form habits of not forming beliefs in general when the evidence is inadequate. Most of us probably don’t form such habits. We’re more used to thinking we’re supposed to choose one way or another. Forming the habit of remaining agnositc when there isn’t enough evidence to decide is quite a good thing. Of course there are some forced choices – but there are also plenty of optional ones.

Heeeeeeeere’s Rowan!

Sep 23rd, 2009 11:37 am | By

The archbishop of Canterbury has (not for the first time) joined hands with people like Madeleine Bunting by telling the world how despicable reason is.

We understand ‘reason’ as a way of arguing and testing propositions – usually so as to become better at manipulating the world round us. Because religious faith is not a matter of argument in this way, it is then easy to conclude that faith and reason are enemies, or at least operating in different territory.

See that? The way he casually informs us that reason is usually understood as a way ‘to become better at manipulating the world’? It looks as if he’s been studying his feminist epistemology – science and reason are just about raping nature tra la la.

Bernard himself held to an older and richer understanding of reason as the way in which we shared in God’s vision of an ordered and connected world. You could not say that God was rational because he was good at arguing and came to well-supported conclusions: when theologians said that God was rational, they meant that he was consistent with himself and that out of his own understanding of the richness of his being he created a world of astonishing and beautiful diversity which still had a deep consistency about it.

That sounds pretty, as one would expect from an archbishop, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you already think there is someone called ‘God’ who fits that lavish description, and why would you think that?

The traditional Christian account of ‘rationality’ was bound up with becoming properly attuned to the patterns and rhythms of reality, as I put it a moment ago. And for St Bernard and the tradition he represents, the ultimate test of being reasonable was whether you understood what your place was in the universe. A reasonable person would grasp how humanity stood between the angel and the animal, how humanity was called to a very specific way of exercising the mind in relation to the will of God.

So in other words a reasonable person would be thoroughly confused by belief in all kinds of non-existent entities and meaningless concepts and arbitrary rules. So that’s why ‘the traditional Christian account of “rationality'” is such crap and why reasonable people prefer a better one.

Splendour in the whatsit

Sep 22nd, 2009 5:20 pm | By

Andrew Sullivan justifies the ways of god to human beings (though decidedly not to other animals) – by which I mean he says things about the ways of god to human beings (but definitely not to animals).

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil of tears a little. No one is saying this is easy or should not provoke bouts of Job-like anger or despair or isn’t at some level incomprehensible.

There’s a certain amount of caution there – ‘for me,’ ‘somehow,’ ‘offers a way.’ But the caution doesn’t make much difference to the fact that he’s just saying things.There’s some priestly vocabulary that’s supposed to make the things sound deep – unique human capacity; somehow rise above; divine spark within us; ultimate mystery; fallen, mortal world; Christian response to suffering; transcend this [vale] of tears – but priestly vocabulary is just that, and the sonorities remain just sonorities.

It’s interesting to wonder if even Sullivan would find it so convincing in the demotic. ‘The way I look at it, people’s knack for getting on top of all that stress, even though it’s still a huge pain in the ass, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the twinkle in our eye), even though of course it can’t tell us what we’re doing here in this shit-hole.’ My guess is that he wouldn’t, and that he wouldn’t write it that way because he would suspect that other people wouldn’t either. So out comes the sub-Wordsworthian jargon.

I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything. If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.

But he doesn’t know it, because he doesn’t know it was God that lifted him. He knows that something did – he knows that he had an experience that felt like being lifted into a new life – and I can easily accept that that would be a hugely powerful and meaningful experience. But I can’t accept the claim that he knows the experience was God’s doing. Maybe he thinks he’s helping people by putting it that way. But doesn’t it occur to him that he might help more people by describing the experience as an experience without attributing it to a god? Leaving people free to think it was god if they wanted to and free to think it was human resilience if they wanted to. It might not sound as poetic, or even as consoling, but it would sound more possible.


Sep 21st, 2009 12:27 pm | By

Suhaib Hasan, a judge with the UK’s ‘Islamic Sharia Council,’ explains about sharia.

[T]he overwhelming majority of our work is divorce…Under the Islamic system, the man may end the marriage if he thinks it right…When a woman applies, the process is called a khula divorce. If the husband agrees, the matter is settled, but if not, we invite both for an interview, and we do emphasise reconciliation.

Clear? The man may end the marriage, period, no questions asked. The woman not so much. The man may end the marriage period no questions asked even if the wife doesn’t agree; the woman may not end the marriage period no questions asked even if the husband does not agree. He can; she can’t. He doesn’t have to ask; she does have to ask. His freedom is in his hands; hers is not in hers. Clear?

Custody often raises problems. A woman might argue that she needs the dower to support her children. But the UK has child benefit so we know she will get money from the state. She can’t escape her obligations toward her husband on the pretext of taking care of the children. We might also suggest she give custody of the children to the man if she cannot afford to keep them; she usually refuses. Islamically, we are at a dilemma here. According to Sharia, at the age of seven, the male children are allowed to choose whether to be with the man or the woman. Females, at 14, the age of majority (when Islam deems them “responsible” – able to, for example, trade or marry), should be returned to the man, as it is his, not the woman’s, responsibility to find them a husband.

Yeah – that bitch – she can’t escape her obligations toward her husband (even if he divorced her without her consent) when she can ‘get money from the state’ so she’d better not try to pull any of that sneaky greedy womany shit on us. We are the Islamic Sharia Council and we don’t take no shit from no women.

The knowledge

Sep 20th, 2009 5:51 pm | By

It may be that some of what people mean, when they talk about other ways of knowing and how different they are from science, is that there is a whole range of subjects that are interesting to talk about and think about that are inherently fuzzy – that are not yes or no issues – that are not purely factual – that are not helped or enhanced by experiment or testing (though data may be relevant); and that all that matters because it’s where we live. Stories (or ‘literature’) are about that stuff: they perform, illustrate, enact the iffy quality, the uncertainties, the ambiguities, the negative capability.

None of that is really knowledge – but it rests on a vast amount of background knowledge – including theory of mind. Austistics aren’t good at it, for that reason.

Stories are in a way part of that background knowledge. Our sense of how people behave, how we should behave, how things can go wrong, how quarrels can be fixed, and so on ad infinitum, is woven out of our experience with people and the stories we know; that combines to make up our implicit background knowledge.

In that sense, stories can be seen as a kind of knowledge, but all the same, it’s not the kind of knowledge we cite as we would cite historical or anthropological knowledge. We weave it into our background knowledge but it has a different status, different from experience as well as empirical knowledge. We think or say ‘That happened to me/a friend/my sister’ but we don’t say ‘That happened to Hamlet/Lizzie Bennett/Huck Finn.’ If we refer to stories we say things like ‘It’s like that situation in “King Lear”‘ or ‘This sounds like something from “The Office.””

In any case, all that isn’t a ‘different way of knowing’ – it’s a mixture of the ordinary way of knowing and other kinds of thought and feeling, none of which is weird or spooky or about the supernatural. None of it is particularly relevant to religion. Religion includes some stories…but that’s not spooky, it’s just more stories. It includes some moral talk, but again, that’s not peculiar to religion, and religion doesn’t add anything apart from claims about magical beings, which is fine in fairly tales and magic realism but not to be taken literally.

This does perhaps give a more satisfactory account of literature and stories – they do thicken and enrich our background knowledge: our sense of how people do behave, can behave, might behave.

Gossip is the same thing. Stories are fictional gossip; literature is the higher gossip. Some people perhaps think that religion too is the same kind of thing – but if so they’re dead wrong. Religion imports all sorts of extras that confuse the issues, create new motivations, raise irrelevant fears. The background knowledge is a secular subject or set of subjects, and adding souls and immortality and a deity changes that. We need to know how to behave in this world, the real one, where we’re not immortal and we don’t have souls and there is no god to supervise us.