Notes and Comment Blog

And Repeat

Feb 3rd, 2006 6:10 pm | By

Right, I’m going to go on being predictable for awhile. Can’t be helped.

Sarah Joseph in the Guardian for instance.

The battle is set, of religious extremism versus freedom of speech. These are the lines drawn, or so we are told, in the escalating tensions worldwide surrounding the printing of images of Muhammad in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.

That’s not how I would draw them, actually. That is a little too predictable, and it’s also not quite the point. It seems to me the battle is between the idea that religion should be immune from criticism and the idea that it should not be. Or, perhaps, it’s between the idea that ‘sensitivities’ and feelings of being ‘offended’ and desires for ‘respect’ should receive great deference and attention and loving concern and the idea that grownups are supposed to have learned how to take being ‘offended’ in stride and move on. Or it’s between the idea that ‘the sacred’ should be inviolate and the idea that it should be subject to scrutiny. Or it’s between the idea that ‘blasphemy’ is strictly forbidden and the idea that ‘blasphemy’ is a meaningless word referring to an empty category and should be drummed out of our vocabulary, let alone our laws. Or all those, and a few more.

First, the easy part. Any depiction of Muhammad, however temperate, is not allowed. There are but a few images of him in Muslim history, and even these are shown with his face veiled. This applies not only to images of Muhammad: no prophet is to be depicted. There are no images of God in Islam either.

Not allowed to whom? Interesting that she neglects to include the necessary qualifier. Interesting and revealing, and of course she’s not the only one who’s been using that trick. There’s an authoritarian little move going on by which people try to pretend that taboos apply universally as opposed to only the people who accept them. We can all draw pictures of Muhammad if we want to, and the Sarah Josephs don’t get to tell us it’s not allowed.

And there’s Paul Vallely in the Independent, solemnly explaining the problem for us.

Images of the Prophet Mohamed have long been discouraged in Islam. The West has little understanding of why this should be so – nor of the intensity of the feelings aroused by non-believers’ attitudes to the founder of Islam…Because Muslims believe that Mohamed was the messenger of Allah, they extrapolate that all his actions were willed by God. A singular love and veneration thus attaches to the person of Mohamed himself. When speaking or writing, his name is always preceded by the title “Prophet” and followed by the phrase: “Peace be upon him”, often abbreviated in English as PBUH…More than that, to reject and criticise Mohamed is to reject and criticise Allah himself. Criticism of the Prophet is therefore equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death in some Muslim states. When Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Satanic Verses, depicted Mohamed as a cynical schemer and his wives as prostitutes, the outcome was – to those with any understanding of Islam – predictable. But understanding of Islam is sorely lacking in the West.

What is it that we’re supposed to understand? And what is supposed to follow from this understanding? Are we supposed to say ‘Oh, I see, criticism of the Prophet is equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death – oh well now I understand, and I am filled with respect and deference, and I will go and sin no more. As long as they’re willing to kill people for the sake of all this intensity of feeling, then I have not a word to say against any of it.’ What if we already do understand all that, and it’s exactly what we take exception to? What if we don’t want 7th century taboos imposed on us as 21st century secular somewhat rational people?

Oh, never mind. I’m still trying to recover from listening to Sacranie on the World Service this morning. My head hurts.

Nothing Sacred

Feb 2nd, 2006 8:47 pm | By

Paul Goggins went on the Today programme on the day the religious hatred bill was passed in the Lords version not the government’s version, to explain why the bill (particularly, in the government’s version, with the language about ‘recklessness’, instead of the Lords’) was necessary and a good idea. After some pressing he articulated the basic (I take it) point.

Well I accept, Jim, and we always have accepted that there are fine balances to be drawn here, but religious belief is an important part of identity, and the expression of that religious belief is important to many people, and that others should set out intentionally to stir up hatred about those people because of those religious beliefs has no part in our society, so for all the difficulty in getting the balance right we think it’s right to press ahead with this legislation.

That’s it. Religious belief is an important part of identity, and expression of that belief is important to many people (no! really?!?). Therefore stirring up hatred about those people because of those religious beliefs should be made a crime – but stirring up hatred about people because of any other beliefs should not. Because…? The expression of other beliefs is not important to many people? No, that can’t be right, because it’s not true. Because other belief is not ‘an important part of identity’ (whatever that may mean)? No, because that’s not true either. To the extent that ‘identity’ means much of anything in that phrase other than cuddly feelings about oneself, other kinds of belief and other beliefs are also an important part of identity. Religion may be an important part of identity, but you’ll notice Goggins didn’t say it was the most important part of identity, much less the exclusive source of it. So – why are religious beliefs special? Why does their part of ‘identity’ have to be protected if other parts don’t?

Because they’re special? Because they’re sacred? Because they make people go all red in the face with rage and offendedness and outrage and hurt feelings if anyone makes fun of them? Maybe; probably; but there again: why? Why do they make people go all red in the face and self-righteous, and why do so many people think they have every right not only to feel that way, but to demand that the rest of the world join them in feeling that way? Well – because they’re sacred. Oh dear.

I saw a comment yesterday in this article, which Allen Esterson sent me a link to, which included a comment that apparently disappeared when the article was updated. Someone in what is generally (and I think rather patronizingly and communalistically) called ‘the Muslim world’ said that the right to freedom of speech ought to be balanced with – wait for it – the right to protect the sacred. Er – no. That is just exactly the one thing it must not be balanced with, because that is the one thing that would render it null and void. Refusal to ‘protect the sacred’ is the very essence of free speech. And the mindset that thinks great big holy circles need to be drawn around ‘the sacred’ and policed day and night by indignant men with large guns, is a mindset that if left unchecked will suck all our brains out and leave us like pod people.

Rowan Atkinson answered what Goggins said on the same ‘Today.’

You can’t draft a piece of legislation with the intention of just picking off a few nasty people, because the very nature of law is that it applies to us all. And there’s absolutely no doubt that this bill is seeking to provide immunity from criticism and ridicule to religious beliefs, and I’m a great believer that you should be able to say whatever you like about religious beliefs and practices, and if the practitioners and believers are caught in the crossfire, then they just have to accept that. If the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices is there and is done, then the religion’s followers are just going to have to accept responsibility for those things.

That’s a big problem with this whole idea right there. What Goggins said would seem to imply that religion is the first thing that should be protected and given immunity, but in fact it’s the last thing that should. Religion is in need of constant vigilance and interrogation and steady unrelenting pressure, so that maybe someday in some other happier time, it will stop being a source of misery and deprivation and oppression for so damn many people, especially women. So bring on criticism, mockery, cartoons, robust discussion, and whatever else it takes.

Recent Activities

Feb 1st, 2006 1:37 am | By

Just in case anyone runs away with the idea that I’m being too kind to religion here – let’s take a quick look at some of its recent cavortings.

There are the nice people who burn down new schools in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Militants in southern Afghanistan are reported to have burned down three schools in their latest move against the government’s education system. Officials blamed the former ruling Taleban for burning down the newly-built schools in Helmand province which serve some 1,000 boys and girls.

There are the fun guys who want to prevent women from running in races.

Some 500 women took part in three races in Lahore, although 2,000 due to run had backed out over fears of violence. Islamic protesters had demanded women be barred from taking part, arguing their presence ran counter to Islam…The six-party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance had opposed the mixing of men and women in such public events and had urged protesters to disrupt the race. They insisted that women runners should race separately, and indoors.

And that women should be confined and prevented and deprived in every way possible. Of course they did. Men and women mustn’t mix, therefore women must have their lives made as small and empty as possible. Naturally.

And there are the lovable fellas who line up to call women foul names for the crime of – learning to drive a car.

“I’m a broad-minded person,” declared the Afghan driving instructor. “But I was shocked by her behaviour.” “Really?” I asked. His female student had laughed. Was that really so bad? “It was shameful and embarrassing,” he replied. “Her character is no better than that of an animal.”…One of the women who was learning to drive had been beaten by the Taleban for removing her burqa in a shop, even though the only male present at the time was a twelve-year-old boy…I watched as Roya walked towards the test car. A long line of men had gathered by the side of the road. As she walked slowly along the line, her head bowed down, she heard the whispers of invective and abuse. She refused to tell me exactly what they had said, but I later found out she had been called a “prostitute”, a “bitch” and an “un-Islamic whore.” She failed the test. “We have freedom now,” she said. “But we are not free to enjoy it.”

There are the heroic enthusiasts who threaten Scandinavians because a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking a guy they admire.

And so on and so on. People with mistaken ideas about reality and disgusting ideas about morality, bullying and punishing and tormenting people for the sake of those very mistaken or disgusting ideas. If religion is not the root of all evil, a lot of people spend an awful lot of energy trying to convince the rest of us that that’s exactly what it is.

I hope I don’t get seven years for saying that.

Stiffen the Sinews, Summon Up the Blood

Feb 1st, 2006 1:36 am | By

We (a couple of us anyway) agreed in comments yesterday that motivation is an interesting subject. That’s a big part of what has kept me chipping away at this discussion – the subject of what motivates us to do things, good things and bad things, interests me a lot. It’s important, and it’s hard to figure out – it matters and it’s inevitably somewhat obscure. It matters because it (obviously) influences what we do – without it we wouldn’t do anything. (Which is also another reason it’s interesting – it hooks up with why the mind is adaptive, with what role it plays that makes it worth all the calories it burns.) And it’s obscure because we don’t fully understand even our own motivations (I think), let alone other people’s. And we don’t fully understand them (I think) because they are so complex – they rely on so many different threads, some of which stretch back into childhood – but we’re not aware of all of them when we think about why we do things. I don’t mean warmed-over Freud, I just mean items like things people say when we are eight or ten or thirteen that help to form our beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, likes and dislikes – and then become more or less lost to view.

Oh get on with it. Sorry. The point is, that’s why I resisted Norm’s example of our Polish Catholic friend (she does seem like a friend now) who risks her life to save an endangered Jew because she was taught from childhood that we’re all God’s children. I resisted it not because I resist on principle admitting that there is any good in religion, but because I was unconvinced, and I was unconvinced because it seems to me there are myriad potential and likely reasons one would strongly believe it’s wrong to murder people. It seems to me terribly unlikely that religion would be the only source of such a belief – though it could be the strongest. But I don’t have any trouble believing that religion could operate to motivate our Polish Catholic at another level. I think at the primary level, of beliefs about basic moral commitments, there is a big ol’ web, but at the secondary level, of willingness and determination to act on those beliefs, I can believe things are simpler. When things get difficult, when the Nazis start publicly executing people who save Jews, when the rescuer is called in for questioning – then it becomes a matter of will, courage, determination, resistance to fear – it becomes overpoweringly difficult. That is, perhaps, when the irrational comes into its own. And not necessarily in a bad or contemptible way – not necessarily through fear of hell or the like. No, not at all. It can be through belief that God wants people to be good and will be pained if you fail – irrational belief, if you like, that your tiny (comparatively) and understandable failure to sacrifice yourself will pain God just as much as the outright monstrousness of the Nazis. That kind of belief is a good thing. That’s what people are gesturing at when they talk about abolitionists, and in that way they have a point. Abolitionism was damn dangerous, it got people killed, it took courage to be one; and religion can be a source of courage when more rational reasons don’t quite do the job.

It worries me to admit that, of course, because it plays into the whole ‘religion is the source of morality and without it we’re all shits’ line that we hear so much of. But I think there’s some truth to it, so there you go.

This was touched on in a TPM forum last year – it’s in the archive, but I give the link in case any of you have archive access. Anthony O’Hear said something that I wanted to disagree with but couldn’t; it’s stuck in my mind ever since. (That’s worth noting since hardly anything ever does stick in my sieve-like mind.)

Is that what morality is? Deciding what it means to treat other people well? Why does that give me a reason for treating you well? It’s not a very profound point. I might know what you, Anthony Grayling, tell me it is to treat other people well. But I want to know why I should treat others well.

Simon Blackburn says he would appeal to moral sympathies, O’Hear says that’s a long way from the Kantian moral law, Blackburn says that’s fine, and O’Hear says –

I don’t agree, actually. I do think that people who stand out against tyrants with no hope of reward, the sort of people that Phillipa Foot discusses in Natural Goodness, are admirable people, and I don’t think their actions are necessarily supererogatory. If morality can’t encompass that or tell people that’s what they should do, then it’s rather weak. You’ve said that the only reason for morality is to produce accommodations, but you’re also telling people that you’ve got to produce more than accommodations. What worries me about the language in which you put it is that anybody who reads you is going to think, “Well I don’t aspire to be a hero. I’ll leave that to other people.”

Yes. We leave being a hero to other people. I know I do! Which is why it struck me. I think that’s an interesting and pretty undeniable point.

On the other hand, of course, the outcome of that is only as good as the initial judgment is. All too often the initial judgment is all wrong, is monstrous, is cruel and oppressive and tyrannical. The Vatican goes on obstinately telling ‘the faithful’ not to use condoms, thus condemning tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people to a horrible early death, a great many of them sexually faithful spouses and asexual infants, and more tens or hundreds of thousands of children to orphanhood and destitution – all to uphold a ridiculous and trivial piece of pseudo-morality. What a price for what a reason! So commitment and will are not enough. But – sometimes they are needed, and religion does seem to be one thing that can shore them up, or supply them entirely.

So, as long as I get to alter the wording of Norm’s example slightly, I agree with him. And that’s that.

I Cannot Tell a Lie, Mostly

Jan 29th, 2006 9:48 pm | By

I call this unfair. Andrew Sullivan commented on Norm’s reply to my comment on a post of Norm’s. (Hey that’s one of those tests. One of those levels things. We can only go so many levels before our puny primate brains go all sideways-bent and can’t function. I think she thinks you think he thinks – and that’s about it, or maybe it’s one more. Four, or five, I think, and no more. After that we just unhook and can’t follow any more.) So what did he say? (Sullivan. Come on, that’s level one, you’re supposed to be able to manage that far. Get a grip.) He said Norm is an honest atheist – in implied contrast to people who say something else, perhaps.

Norm Geras is an admirably honest fellow: a leftist who supports democratization in the Middle East, and an atheist who refuses to dismiss all religion as somehow dangerous or untrue. The truth, as he rightly points out, is much more complex.

There’s no somehow about it; we said how. Anyway – it’s not dishonest to think that the good religion sometimes does may be compromised (or ‘tainted,’ if you want to be all quasi-Hegelian about it) by its reliance on unsupported faith. It may be wrong, but it’s not dishonest.

Keith Ward

Jan 29th, 2006 5:45 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Keith Ward’s God, Chance and Necessity, which I mentioned in a disrespectful fashion that annoyed at least one commenter the other day. Now that I’ve read some of it again, I’m all abashed. I’m ashamed and sorry. I must apologize. I wasn’t nearly disrespectful enough. The book is so stupid I can’t read it without squirming.

I’m short on time at the moment, so what I’ll do is, I’ll just give you a few extracts to ponder.

Page 80:

One may think of God as having a universe-long intention to bring conscious beings into a community of freely chosen loving relationships. This intention will shape the initial laws of the universe and the emergence of more complex possibilities within it. In general, God will exert the maximum influence for good compatible with the preservation of the relative autonomy of nature and its probabilistic laws, and with the freedom of finite agents. God’s causality will be physically undetectable, since the divine influence is not a quantifiable property, like mass or energy.

Well, sure, one may think of God as all that. One may think of anything as anything. But that doesn’t make it true, or likely, or convincing to anyone who is paying attention! It’s so drearily obvious that the poor man is just arranging the universe so that he can have his benevolent god in spite of all the bad stuff that happens – it’s so drearily obvious that the explanation is arranged to ‘explain’ inconvenient realities in a consoling manner.

I said I was just going to give extracts. I have less than an hour before I have to rush off. Shut up and quote. Page 83.

Many theists will wish to speak, in addition, of ‘miracles’ as points at which physical structures transcend their normal modes of operation, having been united in a special way with their spiritual basis and goal…[M]iracles are occasions when normal physical realities are modified by a more overt influence of the underdlying spiritual basis of all beings. From a theistic viewpoint, such modification will show finite things in their true relation to their infinite ground. It will not be an arbitrary breaking of rational and self-contained laws. Thus miracles have their own internal rationality, which can probably only be perceived by us when the totality of the cosmic process is completed.

There, that will hold you for awhile. I haven’t taken things out of context to give a false impression, either – it’s all like that. It’s the most unrelenting, fatuous, childish drivel I’ve read in a long time. It’s even worse than the stuff I’ve been reading in Pennock’s ID anthology. Oh, maybe it’s not, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I just think it is because the guy is at Oxford, and because of the pitying way he talks about non-theists, calling them ‘naïve’ for instance. He calls them naïve, when he talks the kind of moonshine in those extracts! But that’s what theists do, isn’t it. They call everyone else deluded, blind, naïve, crude, while themselves talking the most unmitigated bollocks.


Bérubé on the Place of Plebiscites in the Classroom

Jan 28th, 2006 7:43 pm | By

I want to scribble a little more on all this about religion, and is the glass half full or half full of wormwood, and what’s so wrong with ‘faith’ – though I’m not sure I need to after G’s eloquent and incisive summation. I probably will anyway though, because I like trying to scrape down to the bottom of things. Besides, the discussion is prompting some brilliant replies, so why stop now.

But that will take me awhile, and in the meantime I want to point out some great stuff in a talk on academic freedom Michael Bérubé gave on Thursday and then posted on his site.

The principle of academic freedom stipulates that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”; it expressly insists that professors should have autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research. In this respect it is one of the legacies of the Enlightenment, which sought – successfully, in those nations most influenced by the Enlightenment – to free scientists and humanists from the dictates of church and state. And it is precisely that autonomy from legislative and religious oversight that helped to fuel the extraordinary scientific and intellectual efflorescence in the West over the past two centuries; it has also served as one of the cornerstones of the free and open society, in contrast to societies in which certain forms of research will not be pursued if they displease the General Secretary or the Council of Clerics.

Yep. Here we are right now, at this very moment, saying things that would displease the Council of Clerics and George ‘W’ Bush, and no one is stopping us. No small benefit.

…most critics of universities don’t seem to distinguish between unconscious liberal bias and conscious, articulate liberal convictions. They take the language of “bias” from critiques of the so-called liberal media, where it is applied to outlets like the New York Times and CBS News that, in the view of some conservatives, lend a leftish slant to the news both deliberately and unwittingly. But the language of “bias” is not very well suited to the work of, say, a researcher who has spent decades investigating American drug policy or conflicts in the Middle East and who has come to conclusions that amount to more or less “liberal” critiques of current policies. Such conclusions are not “bias”; rather, they are legitimate, well-founded beliefs, and of course they should be presented – ideally, along with legitimate competing beliefs – in college classrooms. Now, notice that I said legitimate competing beliefs. We have no obligation to debate whether the Holocaust happened. And that’s not a hypothetical matter. Late last fall, the philosopher with whom I co-founded the Penn State chapter of the AAUP, Claire Katz, informed me of a graduate teaching assistant in philosophy who had just had a very strange encounter with a student. The course, which dealt with bioethics, had recently dealt with the vile history of experiments on unwitting and/or unwilling human subjects, from the Holocaust to Tuskegee, and the student wanted to know whether the “other side” would be presented as well.

A very useful distinction, and a staggering anecdote. Oh yes, the ‘other side’ of the debate over whether or not to experiment on unwilling/unwitting humans. Or slavery, or genocide. (Interesting that torture is no longer on that list.)

Then Michael discusses accountability, and agrees that public universities should indeed be accountable for how they spend money, for instance. But –

But that does not mean that legislators and taxpayers have the right, or the ability, to determine the direction of academic fields of research. And I say this with all due respect to my fellow citizens: you have every right to know that your money is not being wasted. But you do not have the right to suggest that the biology department should make room for promoters of Intelligent Design; or that the astronomy department should take stock of the fact that many people believe more in astrology than in cosmology; or that the history department should concentrate more on great leaders and less on broad social movements; or that the philosophy department should put more emphasis on deontological rather than on utilitarian conceptions of the social contract. The people who teach these subjects in public universities actually do have expertise in their fields, an expertise they have accumulated throughout their lives. And this is why we believe that decisions about academic affairs should be conducted by means of peer review rather than by plebescite. It’s a difficult contradiction to grasp: on the one hand, professors at public universities should be accountable and accessible to the public; but on the other hand, they should determine the intellectual direction of their fields without regard to public opinion or political fashion. This is precisely why academic freedom is so invaluable: it creates and sustains educational institutions that are independent of demographic variables. Which is to say: from Maine to California, the content of a public university education should not depend on whether 60 percent of the population doubts evolution or whether 40 percent of the population of a state believes in angels – and, more to the point, the content of a university education should be independent of whatever political party is in power at any one moment in history.

That last passage is something of a manifesto all on its own, and a dang good one.

The How Dare You Move

Jan 27th, 2006 8:38 pm | By

I’m interested in this habit of theists and – what to call them – fellow-travelers of theists. People who aren’t theists themselves, but get all riled up at ‘materialist’ positivist etc etc etc arguments, and pitch fits about them. (Not Norm, of course! This is a different subject entirely.) The habit they have is to resort to a certain kind of moral outrage, and while doing that, to distort quite thoroughly what the posito-materialists say.

The certain kind of moral outrage in question is to say (in one way or another) ‘Are you calling me stupid?’

The thought seems to go like this (I say seems because they always leave out a lot of steps, so trying to figure out how they get from where we start to where they end up is part of the subject here): X is saying there is no good reason to believe God exists. X seems to think this is true. I think this is not true. Therefore, X thinks I’m stupid. Many other people also think this is not true. Therefore, X thinks they are all stupid. Therefore, X thinks she is better than everyone else. Therefore, X is arrogant, and trying to tell everyone what to do, and will prevent theist philosophers from getting job interviews.’

Now, the problem with this, as I see it, is that it often happens in the course of discussion, that one person will think one thing and another will think something else. X will think something is true, and Y will think it is not. Is the right move then for them to accuse each other of superiority and arrogance and trying to tell everyone what to do? Sometimes, no doubt; sometimes that is just the ticket, and ends the evening on gales of friendly laughter; but always? I would have thought no.

To put it another way, it ought to be possible, among grownups, to argue for an opinion without being told, simply because one has argued for it, that one is therefore judging everyone who doesn’t agree to be one’s intellectual inferior. Why do I think that ought to be possible? Because if it’s not, all discussion that is not of the most anodyne kind will grind to a halt, and we’ll all fall over and die of boredom. Or else the people who make this argument will be revealed as self-pitying passive-aggressive whiny bedwetters, and they will wish they had left well enough alone. That would be quite a good outcome, actually. I’ll give you an example from comments here, because I found it quite striking and exemplary [I’ll put the missing spaces in, because it’s so annoying to read without them]:

It seems to me that the tenor of Ophelia’s argument which centres on the truth about religion, intellectually arrived at, and therefore necessarily exposing the falsehood of religious belief, implies that in the future a would-be candidate for a professorship in philosophy whose writings argue strongly against OB’s views, would on that basis alone, judged to be the intellectual inferior of someone holding OB’s views.

See – the trouble with that is that it just boils down to saying X shouldn’t try to figure out the truth about religion, intellectually, and expose the [possible] falsehood of religious belief, because – that implies that in the future anyone who writes the opposite would be judged (by whom? when? how?) X’s intellectual inferior. I think the ludicrousness of that is obvious enough that I won’t bother to elaborate on it.

But it’s interesting, because symptomatic. That is of course what the O’Reilly-Limbaugh crowd (and the Pat Robertson crowd, and the similar crowds) are doing when they bark and gibber about elitists sneering at people of faith. It’s a moral blackmail move, and unfortunately, it works all too well. So it’s worth being presented with a particularly blunt and blatant example of it, so that we can see what it amounts to.

In Which I Make at Least One Concession

Jan 27th, 2006 5:25 pm | By

Now to ponder Norm’s answer, or parts of it.

But I fear that she’s lost sight of what this discussion is about. It’s not about whether we accept religion, nor even about whether we give it an all-round good report, in which the positive aspects outweigh the negative ones…The issue was about seeing only the bad in religion as opposed to taking a more balanced view. To justify the former approach Ophelia needs the ‘Hegelian’, contaminating move – and I suggest that that is why you find it in her original post, even though it wasn’t her intention. For if you stick with what she intended, then all you’ve got is that for her the bad in religion is more important than the good, overshadows it, and therefore is too high a price to pay. Nonetheless the good is still there, and it can be identified as such and given its due, with everything said that needs to be said about the other darker side. But you have no basis, now, for just leaving out the good aspects as if they were nothing.

I’m still not convinced that the Hegelian, contaminating move is what I need – unless I misunderstand what the Hegelian, contaminating move is, which is quite possible, since my understanding of Hegel is exiguous. But as far as I do understand, contamination isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that if a particular good of religion depends on a supernatural truth-claim (as, for instance, surely the consolation of religion does), then it is not contaminated but weak, vulnerable, fragile. It still functions as a good in some sense, but at the price of being deluded. Now…there is something to be said for being deluded. (I wrestled with this during the writing of that pesky book. In fact the first thing the book says is that we don’t always want the truth.) But even though there is something to be said for it, it is still being deluded. I take being in a state of delusion to be a high price. Possibly worth it, in some circumstances, but still high. If that boils down to a ‘contamination’ argument – then okay, that’s what I’m arguing.

But that, surely, is how an analogy works. I’m inviting people to think about how we manage to distinguish good and bad in other matters without allowing the bad simply to ‘disappear’ the good.

Yes…But we distinguish good and bad in other matters in different ways for different kinds of good and bad, don’t we? I do, anyway! Bad food is one kind, bad movies are another, bad health is another, bad people are another, bad ideas are another, bad institutions are another. Socrates would probably whack me over the head at this point, but I don’t seem to be able to extract some sort of abstract non-particular essence of good and bad and talk about it indpendent of the kind of thing we’re talking about. I do think a bad person is one kind of thing, and – whatever religion is, is another. Just for one thing, a person has intentionality, so in talking about the good and bad of one person we have to think about how the person herself sorts out good and bad. As Tom Freeman said in comments – consider the patriot who does good things, but does them for white supremacist reasons. Is that a good person? Highly debatable! Or Norm’s Joe. If Joe’s ‘ferocious temper’ causes him to beat up women on a regular basis, do we think he’s a good person all the same? I don’t. I can agree he does good things, but that he’s a good person? No. (I know, I know, determinism – never mind that now!) But religion doesn’t have intentionality. That by itself makes it difficult for me to think about the good and bad of religion in the same kind of way I think about the good and bad of a person. So even if that is how an analogy is supposed to work, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t! That is, it doesn’t seem to help me think about how we manage to distinguish good and bad in other matters.

Finally, in reply to my story of the Polish Catholic who risked her life to save a Jew in danger, Ophelia questions whether the religious belief was a necessary condition of rescue: couldn’t the woman have done the same just through being a good or courageous person, or from a different set of beliefs?…Ophelia ends here by questioning the efficacy of religious belief in moving people to act in heroic ways on behalf of others – and she is now joined in that by some commenters in her comments box. Not only does it fly in the face of evidence collected about the motivations of actual rescuers, and not only does it contradict more general historical evidence about the motivating power of religious belief; there is, as well, a certain (prejudicial) selectivity in only recognizing the power of religious belief to influence people when you perceive that influence to be harmful, but where on the face of things it appears to be for the good, denying that it is what it seems. Isn’t this exactly the sort of fast and loose way with evidence that rationalist atheists criticize in people of faith? There is an air of complete unreality about the notion that religion has never motivated anyone towards the good.

I didn’t intend to question that efficacy in general, but only in particular. I wasn’t making a flat denial that that was what motivated the Polish Catholic, but only asking how one would know. I do think religion can motivate people to be good in general, and I’ve said that in other N&Cs. Still, Norm may have a point. It may be that I do think of religion as more powerful in inspiring domination, anger, hatred, vindictiveness, exclusion, punishment, than in inspiring the opposites – and he may be right that that’s prejudicial selectivity. I’ll have to think about that. (Not that I never have before. But I’ll have to think harder.) I suppose the truth is that I suspect it does. Because of – the evidence of human history; the numbers; the world around us at present. The prevalence of religion compared to the rarity of kindness and good governance. The searching thoroughness of certain kinds of religious sadism and cruelty. I suppose it’s the same with the Polish Catholic. If it really was her religion that made her do what she did, why were there so few people like her and so many people unlike her?

The What Newspaper in the World?

Jan 26th, 2006 8:21 pm | By

I want to answer Norm’s answer – but later. I have – all these things to do, and more keep coming in. Meanwhile I’ve been wanting to say a few acid words about that ridiculous Deborah Solomon interview with Daniel Dennett.

She starts the stupidity with the very first question. (And that’s the kind of thing that always makes me marvel at the way the Times [NY version] is always calmly informing us that it is the best newspaper in the world – that dopy mediocrity. Why have someone interview Dennett who will ask such silly, ill-informed questions? What is the point of it? Why not do better? Because it would be ‘elitist’ to get someone with a clue to ask the questions? But then – if you’re taking that route, then you don’t get to call yourself the best newspaper in the world, do you. You can’t do both.)

How could you, as a longtime professor of philosophy at Tufts University, write a book that promotes the idea that religious devotion is a function of biology? Why would you hold a scientist’s microscope to something as intangible as belief?

Look at all that – what a train wreck. His book ‘promotes the idea’ as opposed to arguing; it’s religious ‘devotion’ that he’s talking about (she should have called it devout religious devotion, just to make sure); she expresses bovine incredulity at the idea that something ‘intangible’ could be a function of biology. Best newspaper in the world.

But your new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, is not about cathedrals. It’s about religious belief, which cannot be dissected in a lab as if it were a disease.

And not only can it not be dissected, it cannot be considered rationally or investigated at all. Nor can depression, or schizophrenia, or memory, or perception, or attention, or language – and bang goes a century of research.

Yet faith, by definition, means believing in something whose existence cannot be proved scientifically. If we knew for sure that God existed, it would not require a leap of faith to believe in him.

Yes. And if we knew for sure that anything existed, it would not require a leap of faith to believe in it. Therefore what? We should believe in anything and everything? Couldn’t you have done better than that?

No, obviously she couldn’t. Dennett is polite – which is heroic of him.

That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.

Does it! Compared to all the fascinating, rich questions you’ve been asking! Best newspaper in the world.

Traditionally, evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould insisted on keeping a separation between hard science and less knowable realms like religion.

What does she think she’s talking about? ‘Traditionally’? Nonsense! Gould made that argument a few years ago, but what’s traditionally got to do with it? And why does she generalize from that to ‘evolutionary biologists like’ Gould? She just means Gould, so that’s what she should have said. And, as Dennett hints (tactfully), she has the widespread idea that Gould was some sort of president of the biologists, but that’s a mistake.

So that’s the world’s best newspaper – assigning a clueless hack to ask questions on a substantive subject. What on earth is the point? Why not either do it right or refrain from doing it at all?

A Mingled Yarn

Jan 25th, 2006 7:43 pm | By

Norm has commented on my comment on his comment on why not mention the good of religion as well as the bad. So I want to see what I think about what he thinks.

First the more minor, contingent issue – my claim that because there is a lot of unmixed criticism of atheism (and rationality, science, secularism) around, people like me don’t always feel like giving mixed criticism back.

I see no reason why opposition to religion, forthright, outspoken opposition to it, cannot, as with anything else, recognize the virtues in what it opposes if there are any.

No, nor do I. It can. But I’m not convinced that it always ought to. I can see plenty of reasons for doing so (tactical, epistemic, moral), but I can also see reasons (same kinds) for not doing so. Sometimes strong, non-balanced comment can shake up people’s thinking – or it can just entrench it further. Sometimes I, for one, feel like going the attempted shake-up route, rather than the mollification route.

But the less minor point is the more interesting to both of us, I think.

But Ophelia’s basic strategy of argument is flawed. In a quasi-Hegelian move, she disallows application of the usual resources of analysis – of analytical discrimination – where religion is concerned. It’s all just a unity, and because something very bad is at the heart of this unity, everything else in it must be bad too, as if poisoned, transmuted, by the badness.

A quasi-Hegelian move? Moi? Surely not! On account of how I wouldn’t recognize one if it bit me. No, but seriously, that’s not what I’m saying, and if it came out that way, I said it badly. I don’t think religion is all just a unity, and it’s not a matter of poisoning, as in contamination. It’s not that the bad bits kind of leak into the good bits, making them dirty or polluted. (Is it? Hmm. Yes, maybe, in a way. I probably do feel that way about it. I do have a visceral dislike of having religion forced on me. But I don’t think what I’m saying depends on that – I think what I’m saying is something slightly different.) It’s that I don’t see how to have the good parts without subscribing to the supernatural truth claims, so I don’t see how to have the good parts without subscribing to (what one takes to be) a lie. It’s not a matter of contamination but one of what is more important. As I said – I think the cost is too high. That’s not pollution, I don’t think, it’s a matter of competing goods.

Joe is a good friend: generous, loyal, funny, a great conversationalist. But he has a ferocious temper, is dishonest in business and in his sexual relationships, is vain and neglectful of his old mother. Must we say that he is all bad, then, because he has these bad qualities, and his other, better qualities, are all mixed in with the worse ones as part of the single personality?

No, but that’s not the right analogy for what I’m saying. Valuing or not valuing a particular person is one thing, and valuing or not valuing religion qua religion is another. I realize some people can take the good of religion and ignore the bad – some people go to church just for the music and community, without believing a word of it. My point is just that other people can’t, or don’t want to, and that there is a reason (a goodenough reason, I think) for that.

There are radicals of one kind and another who can see some of the insights in conservative thought, anti-socialist liberals and/or Weberians who recognize some theoretical strengths within Marxism, Marxists who identify moral and political resources as well as grave deficiencies in classical liberalism. All this is just par for the course. But by her quasi-Hegelian, anti-analytical move, Ophelia would forbid us to approach religious belief in the same way. The move is artificial and arbitrary. You can’t show that religion is all bad simply by focusing on what is bad about it.

But that’s because I take religion to be a different kind of thing. (And I think I’m right, too. If it weren’t a different kind of thing, would it get the special demands for respect and deference, the calls not to ‘offend’ it, that we’re always noticing? Isn’t it generally agreed that religion is a special case of some sort?) Liberals and Weberians don’t base their claims on the existence of a supernatural deity. So I don’t think my move is arbitrary, because the supernatural deity aspect of religion is precisely the stumbling block.

In Warsaw in 1943, a Polish Catholic risks her life to save an endangered Jew. She does so because she has been taught from childhood that all people are the children of God and it is a sin to take innocent life. How, in the face of that – which has happened plenty, and in many other historical variants as well – can one say there has been no good in religion, or that this good is merely apparent because of what it is mixed together with? I could give more than this, but it is enough. Just two things: that religious believers have often been motivated by their beliefs to act in beneficent, caring, selfless, heroic ways; and that there are universalist variants of religious belief which, in historical context, have marked a significant progress for humankind…

But do we know that it was the Catholicism, or the children of God teaching, that made the difference? Do we know that an atheist couldn’t and wouldn’t have had the same thought and the same motivation? Maybe we do, maybe we do – maybe there is some way to know this, and there are studies that back it up. But as of this moment, I’m not convinced that I do know that. I can see that it could be true – but I can also see that it could be untrue. Counterfactually, if the Polish Catholic had been taught from childhood that all people are people even as she is and it is bad and wrong to murder people – is it possible to know that that would not have motivated her to act as she did? And do we really want to give religion the credit for qualities and actions that come from somewhere else – from personal courage, generosity, kindness, for instance? Maybe the Polish Catholic acted the way she did because she was a good human being.

But my point isn’t to deny the existence of good in religion, or to say that it is all bad, it is simply to say that the price is too high.

But Surely –

Jan 25th, 2006 2:15 am | By

Let’s celebrate, shall we? Oh yes, do let’s. Let’s celebrate diversity, and plurality, and variety, and mulitpicity, and multitudinity, and difference, and variosity, and culture. Let’s celebrate culture. Here, have some confetti. Let’s party.

A national festival to promote Muslim culture which is being partly funded by the government has refused to stage an event designed to highlight the lives and experiences of gays and lesbians…Promotional publicity states that the festival will feature the “diversity and plurality” of Muslim cultures, but gay Muslims say they have been refused permission to present an event.

Well of course they have. They’re not plural, you see. They’re not diverse. They don’t fit in, they don’t match up, they don’t belong. How can anyone celebrate diversity with them when they’re so different, and wrong? I ask you.

In her letter to Mr Saeed [Muslim affairs spokesman for Outrage! – OB], the festival’s director, Isabel Carlisle, said: “We have sought to go beyond sectarian, ethnic or other group divisions so we do not enquire into the sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity of the artists … equally, at this difficult time for Muslims living in this country we are not prepared to present works that will give offence to significant numbers.”

Okay wait wait wait – nobody say anything for a minute. Nobody talk. I have to think really hard. Wait. Okay – we have to go beyond sectarian, ethnic or other group divisions, so that we can have a festival to celebrate Muslim culture – which is not sectarian, or ethnic, or group division-y. Okay – how is it not sectarian, exactly? I get how it’s not ethnic, because I’m always saying that, it’s everyone else who keeps wanting to pretend ‘Muslim’ is like a racial or ethnic term, which makes zero sense – I get that, but how is it not sectarian? And how is it not group divisiony? Isn’t group division the point? If it weren’t the point, wouldn’t this festival just be a festival of culture? So – what does Carlisle mean?

Nothing, is my guess. Not a damn thing. She just wants to say something more or less at random to get Mr Saeed to go away, and allow the festival to carry right on saying No to Muslim gay culture. So she says cats are dogs and spots are stripes.

Ms Carlisle told the Guardian: “The festival is non-ideological and non-political and non-sectarian … we don’t want to be subverted by any other agenda and that is principally why we turned Mr Saeed down.”

Right, because Carlisle and whatever ‘we’ she is speaking for already have their agenda, so they don’t want to be subverted by any other brand new different one. Their agenda is – erm – to celebrate diversity and plurality – erm, erm, erm – up to a point. Only up to a point, mind. More than that would be an agenda, and we don’t want that. Only up to a very sharp point, and not an inch farther.

They’re after the school curriculum again…

Jan 24th, 2006 10:44 pm | By

Well this came as a shock. How had I managed to miss it until now? And is there never going to be an end to this kind of nonsense?

The State Board of Education, California, is currently engaged in approving the history/social science textbooks for grades six to eight in schools, an exercise undertaken periodically. The Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation (based in the U.S.) have used the occasion to push through “corrections” in the textbooks approved. Shiva Bajpai, who constituted the one-member ad hoc committee set up by the Board, succeeded in getting virtually all the changes requested by these organisations incorporated into the textbooks. Professor Emeritus at California State University, Northridge, and a Hindutva-leaning adviser to the Board, Bajpai was proposed as expert by the Vedic Foundation. That the Hindutva groups have not had a walkover is thanks to the vigilance and commitment of the many academics involved in Indian studies all over the world.

Here we go again. And again, and again, and again.

Intervention by Professors Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer in the form of a letter, signed by 50 other scholars, presented at a public hearing on November 9, resulted in the Board reversing its initial approval of the pro-Hindutva changes. Prof. Witzel is a well-known Indologist and has often taken up the cudgels against Hindutva ideologues such as David Frawley, N.S. Rajaram and Konrad Elst in the West. Witzel’s letter, endorsed among others by renowned Indian historians Romila Thapar, D.N. Jha and Shereen Ratnagar, to Ruth Green, President, State Board of Education, California, on behalf of “world specialists on ancient India”, voicing “mainstream academic opinion in India, Pakistan, the United States, Europe, Australia, Taiwan and Japan” on the issue, is now part of a concerted campaign encompassing well-known scholars and hundreds of teachers and parents in California.

Well good luck to them, and if B&W can help them at all, perhaps by drawing attention to the subject – it will, that’s what. I’ve emailed PZ; that’s a start.

Asserting that “the proposed revisions are not of a scholarly, but of a religious-political nature and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their areas of expertise”, the scholars have called on the Board to “reject the demands by nationalist Hindu (Hindutva) groups”. From India, 12 historians have written to the CC to reject the changes proposed by the RSS-linked organisations in the U.S…Frantic mobilisation…in support of the changes suggested by the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation, and the pressure of a host of organisations that constitute the `parivar’ in the U.S. resulted in many of the proposed changes in textbooks getting the approval despite scholarly opinion being heavily weighted against it…Of the total 156 edits requested, the CC accepted 97 that conformed to what the Hindutva organisations had proposed.

Read the whole thing. I want to keep quoting and quoting, but there’s such a thing as copyright – so read it. It’s amazing stuff – also all too familiar.

The moves by the Hindu Right in the U.S. are no flash in the pan. The web sites of two of the organisations spearheading the Hindutva campaign – the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation – expressly state the revision of school textbooks in the U.S. as part of their political agenda. They regularly “interact” with State Education Committees that define school curriculum…

Oh, gawd…here we really do go again. Well – once more unto the breach, dear friends. Tell everyone you know.

Salman Rushdie

Jan 24th, 2006 2:15 am | By

Stewart gave us a report on seeing Salman Rushdie at a reading on Friday, and I thought I would make it more visible. Hit it, Stewart:

He had a few nice obvious laugh lines like his reply to the question as to why he now lives in the States: “Well, you know, of course the real reason is I’m an enormous fan of George W.Bush.” Also, a somewhat unnecessary disclaimer that got the reaction he expected: “Let’s just be clear: I’m not in favour of Islamic terrorism. I mean, in case there was any doubt about that, that’s not my view.”

He mentioned his grandmother being “scary” and followed up with: “And my grandfather was the opposite. My grandfather was very gentle. He sometimes tried to be scary but he didn’t fool anybody. And he was – unlike me – he was very religious. I mean, he was a practicing Muslim. He went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, he said his prayers five times a day every day of his life. And yet, for me, he was then and remains now a kind of image of tolerance and civilisation and open-mindedness and culture.”

He was asked about an interview in which he was quoted as linking Islamic terror to a sexual fear of women and clarified as follows: “Well, it’s clear that Osama Bin Laden is not a feminist. The twentieth century – the twenty-first century might be a different place if he were. No, I think in a way, in this interview that was published, they – the journalist – somewhat oversimplified what I was trying to say. Because I was trying to say two slightly different things. I was trying to say, first of all, it is true, in my view, that it is a part of the project of conservative Islam to keep women in their place, in a very secondary and very sequestered place. And you see that from the behaviour of those cultures towards women. I wasn’t trying to say that that’s the project of Islamic terrorism, you know, but I’m saying it is a part of the mindset of conservative Islam. Separately I would say that cultures in which the central moral axis is between honour and shame, rather than, in the West, let’s say in Christian culture, roughly speaking, between guilt and redemption, you know, the morality of such a culture operates differently when it’s an honour culture and the force on the individual self of a sense of having been dishonoured is much, much more powerful than that phrase would mean to a Western mind. And its consequences in terms of action can be much more extreme. And I’ve been writing about this, I think, all my life. I mean, ‘Shame’ is a novel I wrote in 1983, which deals with a very similar investigation of honour culture. Why is it that in certain conservative Muslim families girls are murdered by their brothers and father because they had a love affair with somebody thought to be inappropriate? You know, I mean – to kill your child because she – to kill your sister because she – because she – kissed the wrong guy. You know, it’s a very hard thing to understand. So I was trying to say that this is a culture in which that very strange axis between honour and shame is somewhere at the centre of how people make choices.”

There is a Reason

Jan 23rd, 2006 7:55 pm | By

Norm quoted a question the other day that I’ve been thinking about on and offishly. It’s from a theologian or professor of ‘divinity’ (wot?) called Keith Ward (who wrote a presumptuous godbothering book called ‘God is Better Than Science’ or some such thing which I’ve read and disliked very much). He wonders why Richard Dawkins can ‘only see the bad in religion’. (He means ‘see only the bad,’ but never mind). That’s what I’ve been pondering, as a general question, not a specifically Dawkins-directed question. Why do some atheists ‘see only the bad’ in religion? Or, at least, why do we (because I’m one, although I do in fact sometimes note what one could call ‘the good’ or at least the understandable in religion) choose to concentrate on the bad rather than offering a more mixed or ‘balanced’ view?

There are some not terribly interesting, what one might call pragmatic reasons, to do with the fact that there are thousands of voices yapping about ‘the good’ in religion right now and not all that many insisting on the other thing, so it seems not unreasonable for opponents to go ahead and be opponents, rather than scrupulously giving the religious side its putative due (especially since the religious side so often gives remarkably inaccurate and badtempered accounts of atheism and atheists). But never mind that for the moment; it’s not all that complicated or productive, and it’s related to contingencies which could change. The real reason is not contingent, and it is more interesting, I think – because it’s about something that matters, and that’s the point.

The reason I, at least, am not much inclined to talk about ‘the good in religion’ is because it comes at a price, and the price is too high. The good is inseparable from that price, you can’t get the good without the price, so if you think the good is not worth the price – then for you it is not a good. It can’t be a good because it’s so tangled up with the price – with the bad.

It’s not as if you can make two lists, good, bad, and judge each in isolation. Because the basic problem with religion, the thing that makes people like me adopt a fighting stance, is that it’s not true. That’s not just some minor or detachable problem that one can compartmentalize or bracket – it’s right smack in the middle.

It’s a corruption, a surrender, an abdication, and we don’t make it because – we don’t want to endorse a lie. That’s why.

In other words, yes, we can see that religion has some useful and beneficial aspects sometimes – consolation, solidarity, inspiration, motivation – but they depend on a supernatural belief system, on a systematic illusion, and we don’t consider and don’t want to consider that a good thing.

We think truth matters, and that the human ability to sort truth from fiction, and speculation from findings based on evidence, matters. If religion consisted of maybe, if it were about uncertainty as some of its defenders claim, that would be different – but it’s not. It’s assertive – it makes firm, coercive truth claims. (And then shifts the ground by saying that no one can prove them false. No, of course not, but that is not a reason to assert them as true.)

The pivot is the word ‘faith.’ It’s no accident that that keeps coming up – ‘faith’ is the problem, faith is where religion demands that we treat speculation and hope – invention and fantasy – as true. And that is a bad thing, and we do know that in other contexts. (You’re in the car. ‘Is this the right road?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Faith.’ ‘Err…’) If religion were about, and were named, hope, or speculation, that would be one thing – but it’s not, it’s ‘faith.’ So we don’t see how to cite the putative good aspects of religion without endorsing the lying and refusal to think. It’s all one fabric.

Odd Cult Claims

Jan 21st, 2006 11:16 pm | By

Garry Wills says something odd in his review of Jimmy Carter’s new book.

I was surprised when [in 1976] so much was made of his religion as he ran for president. It began when he was asked, while visiting Baptist friends, if he thought of himself as “born again.” He answered yes – not surprisingly, since the Gospel of John (3:5) says that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, and Saint Paul says that baptism is being reborn into Christ (Romans 6:4). Reporters did not know this as a basic belief of Christians – they treated it as an odd cult claim.

Uh – yes. Because, what is the difference? What is the difference between a basic belief about what one has to do to ‘enter’ a nonexistent (or at any rate highly speculative) place, and an odd cult claim? I’ll tell you what the difference is. There isn’t one. I know everyone pretends otherwise. I know we’re supposed to pretend that as long as a religion has been around for some critical number of centuries (five? eight? fourteen? twenty? thirty?) then its basic beliefs are no longer odd cult claims but perfectly normal and routine and reasonable. But guess what – just adding years to a fantasy doesn’t make it any truer. Not even a little bit. Just adding years doesn’t have any effect of that kind at all. Really – the years are quite inert in that respect.

That led to his second-most-famous remark of the 1976 campaign. Carter was asked in a Playboy interview if he thought he was a holier-than-thou person because he was born again. He answered that, no, in fact he had committed lust in his heart – again quoting the New Testament (Matthew 5:28). That did it. For much of the Carter presidency, the line of some in the press (and, as I know well, in the academy) was that he was a religious nut.

Yes, I remember that. Well – same again. He was a religious nut. He was a lot more benign with it than most religious nuts, but that’s not the same thing as not being one at all.

His attendance at church was not announced; we reporters had to ferret that out by ourselves…Unlike most if not all modern presidents, he never had a prayer service in the White House. His problem, back then, was not that he paraded his belief but that he believed. All this can seem quaint now when professing religion is practically a political necessity, whether one believes or not. There is now an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity.

No, it doesn’t seem quaint now, it seems like – a lost paradise. A time when public religiosity in political candidates wasn’t considered either routine or mandatory – when in fact it was greeted with surprise and mirth. Those were the days.

The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers – the great majority of Americans – derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.

That third sentence is a complete non sequitur, and that ‘even’ is an absurdity. Separation of church and state has nothing to do with separation of morality and politics, for the simple and blindingly obvious reason that church and morality are not synonymous, and are in fact independent of one another. Believers may derive most of their moral insights from their beliefs (or think they do, which comes to the same thing), but that’s mostly because the association is so often made. The moral insights don’t in fact depend on the beliefs, or if they do, they’re the ones that need doing away with, because they have no other justification. ‘God wants me to hate gays.’ Hmm – let’s drop that one, shall we?

It’s a good article in other ways though. As Southern Baptists go, I certainly prefer Carter’s kind to Pat Robertson’s kind. But I do miss the quaint old days when religion wasn’t compulsory.

The Tarantella

Jan 20th, 2006 7:09 pm | By

Look what PZ got! A present in the mail. You have to look – I don’t do pictures. Text text text, that’s all I do.

He’s got all these jealous comments. People saying they’re green, they want one, they’re envious, can they hold it, etc.

So I thought I’d say – I’m getting one too! [dances around]

It hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s on the way. As Coturnix said in comments – ‘That is so nice of him.’ Indeed.


Jan 19th, 2006 9:20 pm | By

One or two more thoughts on theistic thinking, and the strange places it leads to.

There are a number of metaphysical ‘why’ questions one can ask. Why something rather than nothing, why this instead of something else, why order instead of chaos, why life instead of no life, why consciousness, why ‘intelligence,’ why humans. There are also a number of ways one can answer, including ‘unknown’. The kind of answer favoured by theists has to do with purpose – design, and therefore purpose. That may be the most basic point of all, at least for some of them – not the personal god, but purpose. Which is understandable. We don’t want to be like mould or dirt or Jehovah’s witnesses – something that just turns up without invitation or plan or intention or anyone thrilled to see it. We want to be here for a reason, and by ‘for a reason’ we mean the kind of reason we can recognize, as opposed to the kind of reason a cosmic law would be able to recognize if cosmic laws had minds. (See what I mean? Strange places.) At least we think we want that, but then if we think further…we may not think so any longer. Which makes one wonder if theists ever do think further, which in turn makes one wonder why they don’t, if they don’t.

Suppose we grant their premise, for the sake of argument. Okay, we’re here for a reason, we’re here for a purpose. Well, what would that be? Good governance? Art? Wisdom? Love? Peace? Mercy? Kindness? Universal happiness?

Does it seem likely? Does it even seem possible? Or, if it does – if we decide yes, that is the purpose, and we’re not there yet, we’re on the road – what of the cost? Do we want to endorse such a distant purpose at such a horrendous cost? Consider how many millions upon millions of lives are miserable and then cut short (just think for one quarter of a second of Congo, Sudan, Kashmir, Aceh) – what purpose can make that all right? Do we – in cold sober truth, without any handwaving about the ineffable and what we speculate will happen a thousand years down the road – want to endorse such a loathsome bargain? If that is the deity that theists imagine – one that causes suffering and loss to countless billions of sentient, conscious, aware, thinking, memory-rich beings for the sake of some distant ‘purpose’ – do we really want to bend the knee to it instead of reviling and disowning it? If we do, then why do we?

Theists dislike the idea of chance, contingency, brute fact; of non-purpose; but they don’t take seriously enough the real nastiness lurking in the idea of purpose. They don’t realize that non-purpose is not the worst possibility. They pretend to, but they don’t. They pretend, in interviews, to agree that the designer could be an evil demon, but they don’t actually mean it – which is quite remarkably stupid.

Think Again

Jan 19th, 2006 2:40 am | By

An old thought for the day from Philip Johnson, from a 1990 essay in Robert Pennock’s anthology Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics – ‘Evolution as Dogma: the Establishment of Naturalism’.

If some powerful conscious being exists outside the natural order, it might use its power to intervene in nature to accomplish some purpose, such as the production of beings having consciousness and free will.

Such as. Such as the production of beings having consciousness and free will – beings like us, I daresay he means. Well, yes, it might. But – is it likely? I mean, seriously. Think about it. Is it likely? At all? Does it seem even remotely plausible? That ‘some powerful conscious being’ (but who? oh, who? who might it be? Rodan? Mighty Mouse?), powerful enough to ‘produce’ perhaps the cosmos and anyway some conscious beings with free will – would create us? I’m serious, here. Why would it create us? Why not something else? And if it is the same powerful conscious being who is suspected (by IDers anyway) of having ‘produced’ the universe, why would it be interested in us? Are we interested in dust? Yes, some of us are, but as a species? Well surely dust is many trillion times more interesting and attractive and likely-looking to us than we could be to Anonymous Powerful Conscious Being Outside the Natural Order. I’m serious. Because that’s the odd thing about ID – they pretend to be all serious, to be grown-up and philosophical and thoughtful. But in that case – the whole thing just seems so glaringly implausible and ridiculous that it falls to pieces. I can sort of see how people can be theists if they just never think about it very hard or directly, but IDers do (in a sense) think about it, in order to do what they do. And if you do that it just frankly seems ludicrous.

And then, besides that, what on earth makes these people so confident about what the being’s purpose is? What makes them so confident that they know what it is, and what makes them so confident that it’s something they want it to be? What can possibly make them so confident that the being produced us because it wanted something that has consciousness and free will? Why not consider the possibility that it wanted something that jumps when you burn it, runs when you send tigers after it, screams when you torture it? Or that it wanted a snack? Or that it wanted a source of methane? Why not consider an infinite array of possibilities, all of them horrible? Why are they so smugly, mindlessly confident that the one possibility out of all the endless branching possibilities is that the being made us in its own ‘image’ and therefore likes us and is concerned about us and hopes we’ll get it together and do well one of these days?

The more I think about this question, the more puzzling I find it.

The Pope Has a Dream Today

Jan 18th, 2006 7:54 pm | By

The Pope, not for the first time, seems to be a little confused. A trifle misguided. At least according to one of his interpreters.

John Allen, a columnist with the National Catholic Reporter and one of the most respected Vatican watchers, said: “The Pope wants to make sure that everything he does is grounded in fundamentals in terms of objective truth.”

Does he? Well he’s in the wrong line of work, isn’t he. Precisely the wrong line of work. He happens to have chosen for himself an avocation that is as distant from fundamentals in terms of objective truth as an avocation could be. It’s funny how muddled people can get, isn’t it? Trying to walk up the down escalator, asking for fried chicken at Starbucks, wearing their underpants on their heads, eating ice cream for lunch. The Pope must be like that. Just back-assward about everything. Sad.

“The encyclical is his attempt at being a compassionate conservative. In his mind, you can’t really be free and happy unless you accept God’s plan for human life.”

See what I mean? Pure underpants on the head, that is. You can’t really be free unless you accept the rules of a reactionary, hidebound, delusional, authoritarian institution which disguises its unfounded whims and prejudices as ‘God’s plan’ – oh yes, that’s freedom all right. Just the way living in a tiny cupboard under the stairs and coming out for exercise once every two years is freedom. Fiat libertas.