Notes and Comment Blog


Look out! It’s scientism!

Nov 25th, 2007 12:47 pm | By

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative ‘think tank’ in the US, declares its mission on each page:

The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

Oh yeah? Then what’s the latest piece of obscurantist theistic sciencephobic mystification from Leon Kass doing there? The ideas are so not new that they’re more like a putrefying corpse, they’re about closing down greater economic choice rather than fostering it, and they’re about irresponsible irrational scaremongering rather than about individual responsibility. Fucking typical of most US conservatives of the respectable stripe: they talk resounding bullshit but they line up obediently behind ‘ideas’ that ought to be anathema to them; in short, they’re just party hacks who make right-wing groupthink everything and careful rational thought nothing, while pretending to do something different. A pox on them.

And on the twice-curdled dreck that keeps spilling out of Leon Kass.

But beneath the weighty ethical concerns raised by these new biotechnologies—a subject for a different lecture—lies a deeper philosophical challenge: one that threatens how we think about who and what we are. Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it “soul-less scientism”—which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. The threat to our humanity today comes not from the transmigration of souls in the next life, but from the denial of soul in this one, not from turning men into buffaloes, but from denying that there is any real difference between them.

Impressive, isn’t it? In its ineffable familiarity, its staleness, its pathetic adherence to a formula, its witlessness? I especially admire that ‘let me call it “soul-less scientism”‘ as if all this bedwetting were original with him. Yeah sure Leon, let you and fourteen thousand other people call it that; it still won’t add up to anything useful. (Do you fret about ‘soul-less engineering much? Soul-less shoe repair? Plumbing? Dry cleaning?)

All we have here is yet another incarnation of the absurd strawman claim about a quasi-religious faith that believes biology can give a complete account of everything everything everything, including – would you believe it? – love! creativity! moral judgment! God! That’s a tremendously profound, illuminating, shrewd, cogent, perceptive observation except for the one tiny problem that it’s not true. There is no quasi-religious faith that biology can give a complete account of everything everything everything, that’s a ridiculous claim and it has no function except to rile up a credulous audience. Leon Kass should be embarrassed at himself.

The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West. All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us—must understand that their own humanity is on the line.

That’s a nice touch, isn’t it? Even the atheists among us – those unclean kafirs, those aliens, those Others, those bizarre beyond the pale monsters, whom we normally exclude but this time include, and who are inexplicably and frighteningly ‘among us.’ There’s a wealth of implication in that one nasty phrase, all of it unpleasant. And I’d much rather trust ‘my own humanity’ to an honest biologist than to a creeping hyperbolist like Kass.

Science seeks to know only how things work, not what things are and why. Science gives the histories of things, but not their directions, aspirations, or purposes…Science can often predict what will happen if certain perturbations occur, but it eschews explanations in terms of causes, especially of ultimate causes.

And religion doesn’t, and that’s because science understands the limitations of inquiry and religion doesn’t. The explanations that religion gives of ‘ultimate causes’ are worth precisely nothing, and the fact that it offers such explanations while science doesn’t is not a point in religion’s favor but on the contrary a demerit.

It’s a long piece. There’s a lot more of the same kind of thing – arguing from desired states to the truth of what is required for them to be true (Kass wants to feel dignified, therefore the selfish gene is all wrong; etc) and flinging epithets around the way the elephant’s child flung melon rinds. It’s got no connection with what the Manhattan Institute purports to be about, it’s wishful thinking mixed liberally with vulgar abuse, it’s tripe.



Offended in Dundee

Nov 24th, 2007 4:41 pm | By

How to get into the newspapers: say something fatuous and self-regarding and preeningly righteous.

Second-year dental student Emily Mackie said the university’s decision to call its inaugural Dundee Christmas Lecture “Why Evolution is Right … and Creationism is Wrong” is badly timed and insensitive to Christians.

And this makes it into a newspaper because…nothing ever happens in Dundee? Too chilly up there is it?

But since it did make it into a newspaper, I can’t resist looking at it.

The lecture is being given by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, who claims that all biologists support the theory of evolution and that “intelligent design”—the belief that life was created as part of a divine plan—is wrong.

He ‘claims’ that, does he? Goes right out on a limb and claims that? Imagine. (Steve Jones wrote a little something for B&W once you know – he contributed to the group article on the decision in the Kitzmiller case. ‘Up the Joneses,’ he said, amusingly, celebrating Judge John Jones, Bush appointee and sensible judge.)

Miss Mackie, who is also a member of Dundee University’s Christian Union—reckons the lecture will create divisions rather than bring the community together. She said, “I appreciate that the role of a university is to encourage academic debate on a wide range of sometimes controversial issues. However, as a Christian I am offended that the lecture purporting to coincide with such an important Christian festival has so clearly been chosen to antagonise Christians.

‘As a Christian I am offended’ – there’s one of the worst, most repellent formulas in the discourse of complaint we have today – but boy is it popular. Variations of it were all over Nova’s ‘Judgment Day’: one stalwart citizen of Dover after another talking about being offended. I think that was the first thing the awful Bill Buckingham said – ‘I am personally offended by evolution because the Bible etc etc etc’ – the ‘personally’ was a nice annoying touch. So you’re ‘personally’ offended by reality, so what! The world doesn’t revolve around you, so suck it up.

And by the way the ‘such an important Christian festival’ is codswallop, as Mackie ought to know. It’s an important shopping and eating and air travel festival, it’s not genuinely Christian at all; it has nothing real to do with Christianity (surely she’s heard about the ancient solstice festival?), so she has even less business being offended.

“I also feel that the lecture title allows no scope for a balanced debate on the subject. I call on the university to take a moral stand and choose a new title which better reflects the celebration of the birth of Christ.”

What would that be? “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus: Why Evolution is Right … and Creationism is Wrong”?

Dundee University said its decision to book Professor Jones for its Christmas lecture was “opportunistic” as he is a highly sought after speaker who could only be available at this time…“However, I would deny that we have put opportunism over sensitivity as I think this will provide an opportunity for all sides of the argument to be aired.”

That’s another one – it’s like the mirror-image of ‘offended.’ It’s what you’re supposed to run to the closet and fetch when someone is offended – sensitivity. They’re a co-dependent couple, those two words. Offended and sensitivity; they’re like egg and chips, apple and pears, Ben and Jerry’s. But all the same, there is something very stomach-turning about the idea that a university is supposed to deploy ‘sensitivity’ about the organ of offendedness in godbothering students when planning its lectures on academic subjects.



Spotting violence

Nov 23rd, 2007 12:30 pm | By

Timothy Garton Ash gets it wrong, I think.

He gets it wrong in one rather specific way.

In the form “Islamofascism”, and with the added spice of references to “totalitarianism”, the label elides two things that need to be kept separate. One is the mentality of death-seeking and death-delivering fanatics. The other is a totalitarian political system…Now, if nuclear-armed Pakistan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia fall the wrong way, we could be there sooner than we think – but at the moment the only serious contender for the title of Islamic-fascist state is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Has he been paying enough attention to Saudi Arabia? It’s not a whole lot more benign than Iran. In some ways it has a much firmer grip. I would say it’s a contender.

But the other way is broader.

Most Islamic terrorists are, in some sense, Islamists, but most Islamists are not terrorists. They are reactionaries. They propose a profoundly conservative religious vision of society which, in its attitudes to free speech, apostasy, homosexuality and women, is generally anathema to secular liberal convictions (including, emphatically, my own). But for the most part they do so through peaceful political means, not through violence.

It’s very hard not to make a cheap point about the sentimental views of people who are so sheltered and safe themselves that they can’t even see how things are for other people. It is ludicrous to say that religious reactionaries ‘propose’ their profoundly conservative religious vision of society through peaceful political means – of course they don’t! They don’t propose it, they impose it, wherever they have the power to do that, which is of course at home. They don’t just propose that their daughters shouldn’t see the wrong boys or that their sons had better not be fags or that ‘apostasy’ is forbidden to everyone; they impose all those mandates, and if they are not submitted to, the response is indeed sometimes violence. Surely it’s not a newsflash that religious reactionaries do coerce people when they can and do sometimes resort to violence when they’re resisted? In fact violence of that kind is quite explicitly celebrated in some Christianist writing – that’s an important part of what is affectionately called ‘traditional values.’ One of those traditional values is the importance of corporal punishment of children.

Garton Ash is dreaming if he thinks that peaceful political means are compatible with reactionary religion. Reactionary religion is first and foremost about coercion; that is the essential point of it; that is what makes it reactionary. It is not liberal, it is not about choice, it is not about reasoned debate and free speech and leaving each other alone as long as we do no harm; it is about the opposite of all of those. That’s why it’s hell; that’s why we hate and fear it; that’s why theocracy is anathema. It’s a mistake to minimize it.



Anarchy in the court

Nov 22nd, 2007 4:40 pm | By

And another other thing. Did you know there is no rule of law in Saudi Arabia? That judges get to just make it up as they go along? I sure as hell didn’t. But Human Rights Watch says it is so.

During the recent hearings, Judge al-Muhanna of the Qatif court also banned the woman’s lawyer, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, from the courtroom and from any future representations of her, without apparent reason…On October 3, King Abdullah announced a judicial reform, promising new specialized courts and training for judges and lawyers. There is currently no rule of law in Saudi Arabia, which does not have a written penal code. Judges do not follow procedural rules and issue arbitrary sentences that vary widely. Often, judges do not provide written verdicts, even in death penalty cases. Judges sometimes deny individuals their right to legal representation.

Well what fun, yeah? Courts run on the principle of ‘whatever the judge happens to feel like.’ Judicial reform sounds slightly overdue.



‘Controversial’

Nov 22nd, 2007 4:26 pm | By

And another thing, as long as we’re talking about things I don’t like (we are talking about that aren’t we?) – I don’t like this business of the BBC always calling Taslima Nasreen ‘controversial.’ It’s a sly way of disavowing her, of hinting that she’s not quite the thing. It’s like calling evolution ‘controversial’ – it is, of course, but it has no business being; it’s ‘controversial’ only with people who think the universe should be and therefore must be the way they want it to be as opposed to the way it is. Similarly with Nasreen: she’s ‘controversial’ only with people who like to pick fights, especially with women, especially with women who think women should have one or two rights. The BBC refers to Salman Rushdie the same way, presumably for the same toadying reasons; they shouldn’t.



Stop that woman before she gets away!

Nov 22nd, 2007 11:44 am | By

Another installment of ‘When you have nothing better to do, persecute a woman.’

In an interview in December, the rape victim described to Human Rights Watch her treatment in court:

“At the first session, [the judges] said to me, ‘what kind of relationship did you have with this individual? Why did you leave the house? Do you know these men?’ They asked me to describe the situation. They used to yell at me. They were insulting. The judge refused to allow my husband in the room with me. One judge told me I was a liar because I didn’t remember the dates well. They kept saying, ‘Why did you leave the house? Why didn’t you tell your husband [where you were going]?’”

Yeah why did you leave the house, you whore? Women aren’t allowed to leave the house! You’re a woman, you slag, so why did you leave the house? What the hell do you think you were doing outside the house? Rape is too good for you.

And as for that shameless woman Taslima Nasreen

Controversial Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen has been flown out of the Indian city of Calcutta after violent protests by Muslims…Rioters blocked roads and set cars alight. At least 43 people were hurt. More than 100 arrests were made. Critics say she called for the Koran to be changed to give women greater rights, something she denies.

Violent riots, arson, at least 43 people hurt, because ‘critics say’ she called for the Koran to be changed to give women greater rights. Well that’s a good reason to riot and injure people, and tell a woman what to do and where to live. The Koran must never ever be changed, and not only that but no one must ever even suggest it should be changed, nor must there be any allegations that someone has suggested it should be changed, and if there are any such, then it’s time to whip out the riot costume and get busy. And that’s before we even think about the idea of giving women greater rights, which is too disgusting and contemptible to be dignified with anything more measured than a nice vulgar street riot.

Wednesday’s trouble in Calcutta began after the predominantly Muslim All-India Minority Forum called for blockades on major roads in the city. The group said Ms Nasreen had “seriously hurt Muslim sentiments”. Many Muslims say her writing ridicules Islam.

Well there you go. She had ‘seriously hurt Muslim sentiments’ and therefore the right thing to do is to blockade the major roads. Obviously. Whenever my sentiments are seriously hurt I go out (without asking any judges) and set fire to a few schools and supermarkets. Doesn’t everyone?



The insulted and injured

Nov 20th, 2007 11:38 am | By

The letters in response to PBS’s ‘Judgment Day’ that the ombudsman publishes make depressing reading. They’re so infatuated, so wrong, and above all so narcissistic. It’s all about them. They’re offended, they’re insulted, they’re in a snit. Because of course a scientific theory is about them. It’s not about what it’s about, it’s about them. Religion my ass; vanity is more like it. I’m not related to monkeys, I’m special, and you better say so right now or I’ll stop watching PBS.

I realize that PBS has always treated the neo-Darwinian theory of Evolution as sacred and beyond question but last night’s dose of Darwin-worship was so strong and so contrary to any genuine search for truth that I can no longer consider support of public television a morally defensible practice. For years, I have defended public television among my fellow Christians for its many fine offerings for family viewing, but PBS has become so strident and so relentless in its disrespect for fair debate and dialogue on the subject of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, that I can no longer do so.

Because there are always exactly Two Sides to any subject; not three, not one, not eleven, but Two; and Both Must Be Heard. If, at the end of any given television program, one Side seems to have more evidence to back it up than the other seems to have, then The Fix Was In. It was a cheat, and it’s time to get out the old purple-with-rage stationery and fire off a note to those anti-family demons at wherever it is this time.

I have been a faithful watcher of PBS and the NOVA programs over the many years and have always stood up for those who would say that PBS was too liberal in its programming. Your program insulted me and my family with your very jaundiced view and recreation of facts that were slanted heavily towards Darwinism. You did have one science teacher who was pictured in a Roman Catholic Church, as a presumed Christian who said that IF GOD does exist — No more needs be said. Dan Fahey, Greenwich, CT

The program insulted him and his family. That was the point, of course – the Nova producers sat down and said ‘How can we go about insulting Dan Fahey of Greenwich Connecticut, and while we’re at it, insult his family too? Let’s be thorough here – if we’re going to go to all the trouble of insulting Dan Fahey, let’s insult his family. Otherwise our Victory would be incomplete.

The recent Nova special on Intelligent Design vs. Evolution was one of the most blatantly biased pieces of so-called “journalism” or scientific documentary. It was extremely insulting to the idea of Design. The whole tone of it was very sarcastic against Intelligent Design and completely victimized evolutionary thought by the evil villains of religious ignoramuses. It gave precious little air time to ID scientists who have plenty of legitimate research, but gave plenty of time towards evolutionary research…I propose that evolutionary thought is a religion in and of itself, and this program was its equivalent of a televangelistic sermon…Nova has lost all reasonable credibility through this piece. I have long known that they espouse Darwinian doctrine, however, this piece was biased, inaccurate, insulting, sarcastic and ultimately, due to its primarily cultural and political content, was outside of the scope of Nova’s “scientific” programming.

And did I mention that it was insulting?

I find the Nova episode that aired on Nov. 13 titled Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial was presented in a clearly biased manner. I was offended by this episode and I am a substitute for the public school system.

I was offended, I was insulted, I’m pissed off, I’m in a foaming frothing fury, and what do you atheist elitist snobs at PBS plan to do about it? Eh? Eh? Are you going to pay for my therapy? Send me an economy-size box of Prozac? Relocate me to Mecca? What? Awaiting your reply.



Don’t get a playwright to fix your wiring

Nov 19th, 2007 6:14 pm | By

Never take medical advice from a novelist.

There have been a number of articles in the press recently criticising homeopathic remedies as worthless at best, and potentially lethal at worst, if they are being taken instead of tried-and-tested conventional medicines for conditions such as malaria or HIV…The organisation Sense About Science and journalists such as Ben Goldacre and Nick Cohen are targeting a symposium in London in December that will discuss HIV and Aids and the homeopathic response to such diseases.

Are they? Well done Ben and Nick. (Both strong fans of B&W, I can’t resist pointing out. Winterson probably not so much.)

I admit it is hard to talk about what it is that homeopathy actually does, or why it works. For my part, I want to know more, not less, but I can’t dismiss the thing in the way that Sense About Science, many doctors, and some journalists are asking me to…This homeophobia is, I think, a genuine terror of what homeopathy is suggesting; which is that we think differently about the relationship between the cure and the disease.

Hmmmmmmyeah, and why would there be a genuine terror of that? Because it wouldn’t work perhaps? Because ‘thinking differently’ could land us back in the good old days when cholera and typhoid and tetanus and TB and yellow fever and typhus and polio were all incurable and unpreventable? Hmm?

Homeopathy, in common with other holistic approaches, asks that we look at the whole picture – the person, and not just his illness. Specifically, in the case of homeopathy, the remedy picture…follows the “like by like” premise – that tiny dilutions of the “problem” can prompt the body to effect its own cure…Homeopathy seeks to understand everything we are, everything we do, as a web of relatedness. The reason why I have a recurring sore throat will not be the reason why you have one, and what helps me may not help you.

And if the homeopath understands everything we are and everything we do (that’s understanding quite a lot, isn’t it) then the homeopath will know ‘the reason why’ I have a sore throat and also the very different ‘reason why’ someone else does? And then fix it? Izzat whacher saying?

As I understand it, homeopathy is not a linear medicine – a drug aiming for a target – nor does it seek to remove the human factor. The patient and the practitioner are both important and relevant when it comes to understanding how humans respond to treatment.

It’s all a matter of self-esteem, at bottom. Provided the homeopath really gets the patient, really sees the point of her and understands her very core of beingness, then the patient will be comfortable in her skin, and that is the secret of how homeopathy works. (The dilution is just to impress onlookers.)

Never take medical advice from a novelist.



The mendacity and sheer nastiness

Nov 18th, 2007 1:12 pm | By

So pointless obsessive punitive hostility and meanness can repel religious believers. Close-up acquaintance with the strenuously devout causes people to back away. That’s good to know.

Writing from New Orleans, where he was covering the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, [Stephen Bates] said: “Writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else.” Bates, who says he still regards himself as a Catholic, said he was turned off by the intolerance he saw towards gays and the self-righteousness of Christians who “pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those – always committed by other, lesser people – that are not.”

Interesting – Desmond Tutu has just been saying much the same thing.

“Our world is facing problems – poverty, HIV and Aids – a devastating pandemic, and conflict,” said Archbishop Tutu, 76. “God must be weeping looking at some of the atrocities that we commit against one another. In the face of all of that, our Church, especially the Anglican Church, at this time is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality.”…Archbishop Tutu referred to the debate about whether Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, could serve as the bishop of New Hampshire. He said the Anglican Church had seemed “extraordinarily homophobic” in its handling of the issue, and that he had felt “saddened” and “ashamed” of his church at the time. Asked if he still felt ashamed, he said: “If we are going to not welcome or invite people because of sexual orientation, yes. If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.”

Indeed. The thought has crossed my mind once or twice, that surely even Anglicans have better things to worry about than The Great Homosexual Menace.

Stephen Bates elaborates in the New Humanist:

The vehemence even in the mainstream denominations could be quite startling and bizarrely tunnel-visioned. Graham Dow, the Bishop of Carlisle, has come to public notice for suggesting that the recent floods were God’s judgement on a sinful nation, but not only is he not alone…but they are not his weirdest views. An earlier book he wrote on demonic possession shows he believes devils enter up the anus…and the signs of possession include wearing black, inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, Scottish ancestry or relatives who have been miners. You may laugh – inappropriately – but Dow used to be an Oxford college chaplain, indeed once prepared Tony Blair for confirmation, and has risen to be a diocesan bishop.

Blimey. This is the Anglican church. I’m…surprised.

What really surprised me was the mendacity and sheer nastiness with which the feuds were conducted and, of course, the certainty with which such people knew that God was speaking directly to them and – funnily enough – endorsing whatever action they had decided to take. It is a hermetically sealed, deeply insecure view of the outside world and it does not just infect Anglicans, but many denominations…The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe that those outside their inner circle will be ground to dust on the last day (remember this the next time you open your front door to them) and will only cooperate with the police in child abuse cases if the molestation has been independently and simultaneously witnessed by two elders, which may be setting the bar a little high.

The certainty is the thing I keep barking my shins on. The two-step. The carefree move directly from belief that God exists to confidence that the believer knows all about this God and what it wants the believer and everyone else to do – the complete failure to notice the rather obvious fact that even if there is a ‘God’ we know nothing whatever about it – that absence of evidence may (to the determined) be no bar to belief but is certainly an obstacle to pretensions of detailed and coercive knowledge. So what do you end up with? The combination of mendacity and nastiness with self-righteous certainty. You get a toxic brew, that’s what you get. Ask a religion reporter.



Don’t forget the waterfall

Nov 16th, 2007 4:15 pm | By

Check out the comments on Richard Francks’s Descartes and God. They’re all terrific but especially the one by gfelis, which is to say, our friend G.

Even if Descartes was right about our ability to doubt the existence of the material world when we really, really try very hard to doubt it, his insight merely reveals that absolute proof is a very stringent standard for knowledge (an ultimately unrealistic standard, sensible epistemologists now agree). It does not mean there is “no good reason to believe” in the existence of the material world, it merely means that even the very existence of the material world – as obvious as it is to us – cannot be proven absolutely beyond any shadow of a doubt…Whereas there are many good reasons to believe in the existence of the material world, albeit not conclusive proof beyond any shadow of a doubt, there are no good reasons to believe in the existence of God…It isn’t simply a matter of the existence of God lacking some absolute and irrefutable proof: It lacks any convincing arguments or solid evidence whatsoever. Believing in the existence of God really is very much like believing in that invisible, intangible, never observed no matter how often it’s looked for porcupine under Professor Franck’s bed.

What about the waterfall? This gfelis fella must be forgetting the waterfall. The waterfall is one knock-down argument; everyone knows that.



Such jeering

Nov 16th, 2007 3:26 pm | By

Yet another plea – or more like demand – that atheists shut up. Dave Hill foolishly comes right out and admits that’s what he’s demanding, in the very first sentence.

Even by writing this piece I risk perpetuating what I seek to end: arguments about religion that generate more heat than light.

He seeks to end arguments about religion – well at least we know where we are for a change. And where we are is (as so often) with someone who doesn’t think very clearly. He claims that ‘the critiques [AC Grayling and Polly Toynbee] offer, at least on this site, never develop beyond assertions that all religion should be got rid of because it’s always a bad thing,’ which is absurd (apart from anything else, that would make a one-sentence post, and Grayling and Toynbee don’t write one-sentence posts). Then he gets even more wild. He quotes Grayling on the influence of Catholicism:

Women enslaved to child-bearing, over-large families perpetuating ignorance and poverty, backward social policies and the iron grip of a clergy acting like the Stasi in controlling the minutiae of private lives.

Then he announces that he takes that personally because he ‘married into an Irish Catholic family,’ then he announces that he doesn’t ‘care for privileged British academics informing them that they were so supine as to have had their personal lives “controlled”,’ and then he ends with a flourish by saying ‘Such jeering at Irish Catholics has, of course, a long and ugly history.’

‘Such’ as what? What is that ‘such’ doing there? What jeering at Irish Catholics? There isn’t any, except in Dave Hill’s head! If he thinks the quoted passage about the influence of Catholicism is ‘jeering at Irish Catholics’ then he’s suffering from delusions of reference. That’s a cheap trick – doing a strained and highly subjective interpretation of a chosen passage so that it says something wounding to the self or the self’s relatives or ‘community,’ then moving instantly to treating the strained and self-centered interpretation as well-founded fact. (Then whining about the putative jeering or insult or offense or attack or sneer or abuse or other crime of reference.)

So, Dave Hill wants to end arguments about religion that he doesn’t like, and his method of choice is to accuse AC Grayling and Polly Toynbee of doing things they don’t do. And he calls himself liberal.



Pure as the driven snow

Nov 15th, 2007 11:28 am | By

Speaking of Saudi Arabia

“The essence of Wahhabism is purity,” says Lawrence Wright, author of a Pulitzer-prize-winning book about al-Qaeda. “They are only interested in purification – and that’s what makes them so repressive.”

So if you get a nineteen-year-old girl who gets herself raped fourteen times by seven men, that’s a lot of dirt that needs purifying. It takes 90 lashes, and if she yips about it, it takes 200.

I looked at the role of Wahhabi literature – used in Saudi schools and exported round the world – in promoting suspicion and hatred of non-believers. The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel Jubeir, assured me a series of steps had been taken to reform the country’s educational system to instil values of tolerance. Saudi educationalist Hassan al-Maliki remains to be convinced. “They are teaching the students,” he told me, “that whoever disagrees with Wahhabism is either an infidel or a deviant – and should repent or be killed.”

That’s purification for you. You have just two choices: agree with us (by agreeing with us in the first place or else by repenting and agreeing with us) or be killed. Thus pure societies come into existence: by killing everyone who refuses to agree with the locally-prevailing system of purity. Kind of makes you fond of dirt, doesn’t it.



A short way with sluts

Nov 15th, 2007 11:22 am | By

Well that’s nice. Reasonable; fair; compassionate; useful; sensible; impressive.

An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped. The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes – she was in an unrelated man’s car at the time of the attack.

She was raped fourteen times. The seven men who were convicted got prison sentences but

the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia’s laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other. She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the car of a strange man. On appeal, the Arab News reported that the punishment was not reduced but increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison sentence.

Two. hundred. lashes. For being raped fourteen times. What’s the punishment for being mugged? Being put in an acid bath full of piranhas?



Follow the leader

Nov 15th, 2007 10:43 am | By

Why does Ruth Gledhill call Bari ‘leader of Britain’s Muslims’? Why would anyone (apart from aspiring MCB aparatchiks at least) call him that? Britain’s Muslims don’t have a leader, as I imagine most of them would agree. Britain’s Christians (for instance) don’t have a leader, so why say Britain’s Muslims do? In fact why even talk about ‘leaders’ at all? Think of who else liked to bandy about the word – there was the dear Duce, and the dear Führer – but anyone else? It’s not really a very exact term, so why use it? (Because it’s not an exact term. Yes I know, but that’s what I’m complaining of.) We don’t even call heads of state ‘leader of X’s Ys’ – we call them presidents or prime ministers or juntas, as the case may be.

I’m tempted to think it’s sinister and infantilizing, but when I grab my elbow and tell myself to think more carefully, I have to conclude that it’s just an artifact of the excess deference that was paid to the MCB for a long time. The head of the MCB has to be called something, and since everyone seemed to think the MCB was in some way representative (even though it wasn’t), it doubtless seemed to make sense to call him (it always is a man, of course; one of many strikes against the ‘representative’ delusion) ‘the leader.’ But the whole idea has been getting a second look lately, so let’s pull our socks up and not flatter the head of the MCB any more.



Oh yes, very compelling

Nov 14th, 2007 10:53 am | By

This is quite funny. Christianity Today did a survey asking ‘What do you think is the most compelling argument for Christianity? ‘ The choices are: 1) The exquisiteness of the physical world; 2) The reliability of the Scriptures; 3) The life and character of Jesus; 4) Christianity’s positive influence on culture and individuals; 5) The experiences of individuals; 6) Something else.

Notice anything about the arguments? They’re not arguments! They’re so not arguments. They’re not even gestures at arguments – they wouldn’t be arguments even if you generously supplied some missing steps. Well I suppose 2 could be if some facts were completely different – if the ‘Scriptures’ actually were ‘reliable’ and if they didn’t contradict themselves all over the place. But the others?

The ‘exquisiteness’ of the physical world for instance? Which exquisiteness? That of shit? Tumors? Pus? Maggots? Wet rotting vegetation? Rotting corpses? But okay, suppose you restrict that ‘argument’ to hummingbirds and fuschias and cheetahs and sunsets – what is the argument? Sunsets are pretty therefore Jesus died and was resurrected? I don’t quite follow. Same with the life and character of the guy himself. One, it’s a mixed bag, not to say contradictory (see above), and two, that might be the start of an argument for emulating Jesus in certain selective ways, but it’s not an argument that Jesus died and was resurrected, or that he’s God. 4 of course is a bluntly utilitarian argument for why Christianity is a social good, but I take ‘compelling argument for Christianity’ to mean ‘compelling argument for the truth of Christianity’ – but maybe that’s my misunderstanding. Then there’s 5 – the experiences of individuals as a compelling argument for Christianity. I have an inner sense that Jesus is God – there’s your compelling argument (or do you have to multiply it by a billion to make it compelling? I’m a little behind on the technical aspects of these compelling arguments). It seems weak, because what if you have an inner sense that your cat is God? Or perhaps by ‘experiences’ is meant ‘I was upset so I turned to Jesus and I felt better.’ But then, again, you could still substitute your cat.

Of course there’s always ‘Something else.’ That’s probably the one reserved for all the actual compelling arguments. The ones that we never actually…quite…see.



The demotic Supreme

Nov 13th, 2007 10:20 am | By

Jeffrey Toobin wonders why Clarence Thomas is so pissed-off. (Why indeed. He is a Supreme Court justice after all – what more does he want? Universal adulation? Well – sorry, but that’s not owed to anyone.)

A touchstone of Clarence Thomas’s career on the Supreme Court has been his hostility to what he calls élites…“All the Law School cares about is its own image among know-it-all elites.”…“Nothing but an interest in classroom aesthetics and a hypersensitivity to elite sensibilities justifies the school districts’ racial balancing programs,” he said. “If our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories.”

One wonders what he thinks he is, if not a member of a pretty conspicuous (and tiny, and powerful) elite. Does he think he’s not really part of an elite – especially not a know-it-all elite – because he didn’t get where he is because of his accomplishments or publications or achievements or experience but rather because of his particular combination of race and politics? If he does think that for that reason, one wonders how he manages not to consider the implications – one wonders how he manages to be so self-righteous about his hatred of elites. Who, exactly, does he think put him where he is if not a paradigmatic member of the elite? Who, exactly, does he think George Herbert Walker Bush is? Willy Loman?

Triumph over the élites, Thomas writes, took faith in God and, especially, courage. This, too, has been a longtime theme for him, and he elaborated upon it in the annual Francis Boyer lecture of the American Enterprise Institute on February 13, 2001.

Ah yes – the American Enterprise Institute – that bastion of anti-elitism.

On this night, in other words, Thomas, while celebrating the courage to speak unpopular truths, was telling some of the most powerful people in the worlds of government, business, and finance precisely what they wanted to hear—that affirmative action was bad, that black people didn’t want or need their help, that government did more harm than good. Be not afraid. Indeed, throughout his judicial career Thomas has, in the name of anti-élitism, shown a distinct solicitude for certain kinds of élites—say, for employers over employees, for government over individuals, for corporations over regulators, and for executioners over the condemned. Thomas’s tender concern for the problems of the powerful reveals itself, in the end, as a form of self-pity.

Read the rest.



Through a glass darkly

Nov 11th, 2007 6:12 pm | By

More again on fiction and why we get so involved in it. There are further posts by Richard at Castrovalva and Dale at Faith in Honest Doubt, twice.

I said something in a comment on Fiction and Unreality yesterday that came back into my head this morning (hours and hours ago, and I’ve done many things and been many places since then; it seems like a lifetime ago) and suggested part of an answer to the original question (why we get so involved in stories and with the characters in them).

…of course the thing that makes (good) novels so engrossing is that in fact we know far more about the point of view characters than we do about real people. That’s the magic of the omniscient narrator. Austen can just tell us what Lizzy is thinking, and because it’s a novel, what she tells us is true. We know what’s in Lizzy’s head in a way we can’t ever know what’s in anyone else’s head in reality – we know it as beyond a doubt, as plain fact.

That’s it you see – if we are told what Gilgamesh or Achilles or Murasaki or Lizzy was thinking, then it is so, which is never ever true of real people. We know what is in their heads in a way we never know what is in anyone’s head except our own. That means we know fictional characters the way we know ourselves, and not the way we know other people; we are intimate with and close to fictional characters in a way that we can’t be with real people. We may or may not like them, but we know them.

That’s only part of it, because we know only one or a few central characters that way, and because in some fiction we don’t know any that way, and because it doesn’t apply to dramatic characters (unless we accept the convention that soliloquizers never lie, but then not all dramas have soliloquies), and because there are other reasons anyway. But I think it is part of it, and it’s interesting to keep in mind when reading fiction.

Getting back to Peter Cave’s linkage with erotic love, that could be one reason that works – one feature of being in love is having at least the feeling of knowing the other as well as one knows oneself, or almost as well. Parents of small children probably know their children’s minds as well as their own, because small children mostly don’t conceal or lie about what’s in their minds. Of course this means their minds aren’t worth knowing all that well (except to their parents) – it’s either sad or inevitable or both that as our boringness decreases our urge to conceal what’s interesting increases. The less we’re able to know, the more there is to know. The more transparent we are, the less there is to see through the glass. I could go on this way all night.

Could if I didn’t have other things to do, that is.



Chatting With Bari

Nov 10th, 2007 10:13 am | By

A self-appointed ‘community spokesman’ does some speaking.

Sir Salman Rushdie should never have been knighted, he says. “He caused a huge amount of distress and discordance with his book, it should have been pulped.”

Ah. So any book that causes ‘a huge amount of distress and discordance’ should be pulped? That might include a lot of books, yeh? Plus Bari isn’t altogether consistent.

According to a recent report by the Policy Exchange think-tank, the bookshop at the east London Mosque, which Dr Bari chairs, stocks extremist literature. “The bookshops are independent businesses,” he says. “We can’t just go in and tell them what to sell…”

Or that their books should be pulped? Hmm?

His passion is to integrate Muslim and British cultures – he says integration must go both ways. “Everybody can learn from everyone. Some of the Muslim principles can help social cohesion – family, marriage, raising children with boundaries, giving to the poor, not being too greedy.”

‘The Muslim principles’? So Bari thinks family, marriage, raising children with boundaries, giving to the poor, and not being too greedy are ‘Muslim principles’ which no one else ever thought of and which are a monopoly of Islam? If so he’s wrong. Islam doesn’t even have a monopoly on using ‘family, marriage’ as code for ‘subordination of women’ – that’s practically universal. Christian apologists do the same thing, of course: talk about forgiveness or peace or ‘family values’ as if they were exclusively Christian. They’re not.

Abortion should also be made more difficult. “By the time a foetus is 12 weeks old our religion says that the child has got a spirit.” Homosexuality is “unacceptable from the religious point of view”.

There’s that ‘child’ again – the one the Vatican likes to talk about, the one anti-abortion campaigners like to talk about – you know, the twelve-week-old child that has ‘a spirit.’ But what ‘our religion’ says about a foetus is irrelevant, because it’s mere assertion. It might be accurate or it might not, but ‘our religion says’ is worthless as a general principle.

Is stoning ever justified? “It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances,” he replies. “When our prophet talked about stoning for adultery he said there should be four [witnesses] – in realistic terms that’s impossible. It’s a metaphor for disapproval.”

Oh is it?! Is it really?! Tell that to Malak Ghorbany. Tell it to the women in Iran and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia who have in fact been stoned to death. Metaphor! Metaphor!? Yes it’s a metaphor just the way the death penalty in Texas is a metaphor.

For an antidote, see Gina Khan on the MCB (and other things).



Fiction and unreality

Nov 7th, 2007 5:22 pm | By

The post on fictional characters has spawned a lot of offspring – Norm’s, George Szirtes’s, Mick Hartley’s, Tom Freeman’s.

The subject is related to one that Jean and I talked about a little today – when you’ve been in the blogosphere, have you been to a real place? When you interact via a blog, is that really interacting? Jean has a related post at Talking Philosophy.

I think Internet interaction is decidedly real interaction, but only for the people for whom it is so; that could be everyone, for all I know, but I don’t think it necessarily is. But I think it is so, at least, for people for whom language, thinking, writing, talking are important – or perhaps not so much important as essential. Jean points out in the post that blogging is addictive; so it is, and why? Maybe partly for the same sort of reason we get involved in fictions. Distance in one case, fictionality in the other; either way it’s not about real, fleshy, breathing people in the room with us, and yet it yanks us in just the same. George’s ‘guess is that the imagination does not distinguish carefully between the real and the imagined.’ It may be – in fact there’s evidence to suggest that it is – that the mind does not distinguish carefully between the imagination and memory, either. When you think about someone who is ten miles away at the moment, is that a memory or an imagining? A lot of both, usually, isn’t it? And are we always sharply aware of the boundary between the two? More like never, I would think.



A rule is a rule

Nov 7th, 2007 10:40 am | By

We haven’t had a round of spot-the-community in a long time, so let’s have one now. Let’s look at the way the peculiar insistence on describing everything as a ‘community’ and everyone as a member of a ‘community’ can cause reporters to write what ends up being just plain inaccurate.

There’s a piece in the Independent about an Evangelical Chistian reverend who has been appointed to a human rights outfit.

Secular groups have asked for the removal of the Rev Joel Edwards, a vocal campaigner against legislation banning discrimination against the gay community, from the post of commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

But the legislation doesn’t ban discrimination against ‘the gay community,’ it bans discrimination against gay people; particular, individual, gay people, in particular individual situations. Why say ‘the gay community’ instead of just ‘gays’ or ‘gay people’? Is the need to say ‘community’ so ingrained now that journalists think it’s somehow rude to refer to people in any other way? But if so, why?

And there’s the piece in the Times telling us that Jehovah’s Witnesses say Emma Gough did the right thing.

To agree to a transfusion would have been a transgression comparable to adultery or sexual immorality, a spokesman from the central office of the British community of Jehovah’s Witnesses told The Times yesterday.

The…wot? The central office of the British community of Jehovah’s Witnesses? There’s a central office of something called the British community of Jehovah’s Witnesses? It’s not just the central office of Jehovah’s Witnesses UK or British Jehovah’s Witnesses? But then why isn’t ‘community’ capitalized? Probably because it isn’t called that; the word ‘community’ is just some kind of bizarre honourific now, applied to everyone with a lavish hand.

Terry Lovejoy, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness community in Telford, said: “We are trying to help them through an intense period of grief and mourning.”

What we are not doing, of course, is re-thinking the ‘community’s position on blood transfusion.

At the central office for Jehovah’s Witnesses in London, Paul Gillies, its spokesman, said: “If someone did [have a blood transfusion] they would be saying they don’t really believe in one of the central tenets of the faith…It says to abstain from adultery, to abstain from blood, to abstain from immorality,” he said…“If someone said, ‘Don’t drink alcohol’ and I injected it into my arms instead, that would just be a way round the law’.”

Yes but did someone say ‘Don’t drink alcohol even if a drink of alcohol would save your life?’ Do you recognize any kind of hierarchy of commands and laws and duties? Do you see any difference between, say, ‘please don’t leave your dirty dishes on the table for me to clean up’ and ‘don’t commit mass murder’? Do you see any difference between ‘don’t cross the street in the middle of the block’ and ‘don’t cross the street in the middle of the block even if you’re running away from a tsunami’?

I gotta go, I have a pile of old ‘Watchtowers’ that needs reading.