Notes and Comment Blog

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice

Feb 6th, 2006 5:03 pm | By

David Hadley and Chris Whiley pointed out in comments that my doubts about cartoons as a genre could be considered all wrong. Yes. Maybe I only meant bad single panel cartoons. I’m not sure.

But it was basically a side point anyway; the central point remains. No, the imaginary ‘right’ to protect religious beliefs from perceived insult and mockery does not trump the right to insult and mock religious beliefs. It’s not 1520, nor yet 1640, and people who have the good fortune not to live in theocracies get to act accordingly, let the Pope say what he will.

Munira Mirza says terrific things on the subject.

Censorship in the West bolsters the moral authority of leaders in the Middle East to censor their own citizens. Indeed, the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and Palestine have been opportunistic in using the story as a way of galvanising support and reinforcing the view that only they can protect Muslims from victimisation. Counter to the claims of unelected ‘community leaders’, Muslims do not benefit from censorship.

And counter to the claims or implicit assumptions of supporters of unelected ‘community leaders’, too. The assumption seems to be remarkably widespread that all Muslims, and (especially, and especially mistakenly) all people who live in what are sloppily and misleadingly called ‘Muslim countries’ or ‘the Muslim world’ think with one thought about this issue. But that’s a mistaken assumption. People really ought to keep in mind that a lot of people in ‘Muslim countries’ detest theocrats and religious tyrants, detest them every bit as much as we detest people who want to order public schools to teach creationism and NASA to mention The Designer along with the Big Bang – every bit as much or perhaps a lot more, since the religious tyrants are more powerful and more violent there, and have more searching, detailed, oppressive rules to impose and enforce with beatings and stonings. So the idea that it’s kind or sympathetic or anti-racist to side with the ‘offended’ against the ‘so what if you’re offended’ could well be completely mistaken. We don’t know the stats, because there aren’t polls on the subject in theocracies, and if there were the answers wouldn’t be awfully reliable. But I know people in Pakistan, for instance, who are not at all fond of theocrats. It is my impression that such people are not at all rare.

In Denmark, large numbers of moderate Muslims have sought to oppose the stranglehold of extremist Muslim lobby groups who claim to represent them. In Arhus, they have organised counter-demonstrations. One Muslim city councillor who was involved said: ‘There is a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society.’ It turns out that those sympathetic lefty anti-racists who believe censorship will protect Muslims are actually missing the point. Many Muslims want the same freedoms as everyone else to debate, criticise and challenge their religion.

There you are. Unfortunate that so many people so readily assume the opposite.

Unsurprisingly, Hitchens also says many good things.

As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week’s international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate. “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.” Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was reported as a prepared government statement. How appalling for the country of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration. What does he mean “unacceptable”? That it should be forbidden?

Probably the same thing Jack Straw meant by his waffle. Shut up. Never mind what the First Amendment says; shut up.

Islam makes very large claims for itself…The prohibition on picturing the prophet – who was only another male mammal – is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

Exactly. And that is exactly why we are so determined to say No, and so infuriated that so many people insist on not saying No, insist on submitting, instead. No – no Submission, thank you.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.” ( By the way, hasn’t the word “offensive” become really offensive lately?)

Yes, of course it has. Hitchens was the other half of the conversation when Stephen Fry did his riff on ‘offensive,’ you know.

I will not be told I can’t eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger. But these same principles of mine also prevent me from wreaking random violence on the nearest church, or kidnapping a Muslim at random and holding him hostage, or violating diplomatic immunity by attacking the embassy or the envoys of even the most despotic Islamic state, or making a moronic spectacle of myself threatening blood and fire to faraway individuals who may have hurt my feelings. The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.

Exactly. Tantrums – just what I say. No doubt he got the idea from me.

[A]nother reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.

Also just what I say. Very good that Hitchens listens to me so attentively.

Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions?…Is it not clear, then, that those who are determined to be “offended” will discover a provocation somewhere? We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt…There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts, and it is positively outrageous that the administration should have discarded them at the very first sign of a fight.

It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts. It’s been a depressing week – all those upturned bellies.

Words and Pictures

Feb 5th, 2006 5:52 pm | By

One thing that occurs to me about this cartoon spat…is that I’ve never actually much liked political cartoons, and this underlines why. I suppose, if I’m going to be completely honest (and I suppose I have to be, don’t I, since I’m always yapping about it), I have to admit that in this sense I may be able to see some point in what the “no need to be offensive” crowd are saying. Only some, mind you, and without all their horrible pious drivel about religious beliefs. I like some political cartoons, the kind that rely on extended strips with plenty of words, like Garry Trudeau’s or Jules Feiffer’s or Marjane Satrapi’s. But the one-panel ones that rely heavily on facial caricature? Not so much. I’ve been pondering this a little, and realizing that’s not particularly surprising. It’s like the difference between someone disagreeing with you by making faces and talking in a silly voice and jumping around, and disagreeing with you by discussing the subject at issue in calm, reasoned language. The first is pretty much always a lot more irritating than the second, and for pretty obvious reasons – the first is just about making fun of you, without properly saying why. Just grimacing and saying ‘Nyah nyah, yer mother wears army boots and you smell bad’ isn’t really instructive, whereas the second approach gets to what it is that is at issue. The second approach is explicit, while the first one is not. Cartoons are all about synechdoche, and synechdoche is fine for some purposes, but for substantive disagreement, it probably isn’t. So the people who talk about caricatures of Jews have a point – caricatures aren’t about reasons, they’re just about ‘we hate you you’re ugly’. That’s not an argument.

So…I think Islam ought to be criticised and reasoned with up one side and down the other, without cease, by as many people as possible – but, for preference, in language, not in mocking pictures.

Which means, I’ve realized with some qualms, that I’m sort of arguing that straightforward rational discussion is better for this kind of thing than satire or ‘art’. I sort of hate to say that! And yet…I think it’s true. The trouble with art is that it can’t explain itself, it can’t reply, its consumers can’t reply to it – it’s just there, given. And it usually doesn’t explain itself in the first place – that’s rather the point of its being art as opposed to an article. Art just isn’t particularly good at making argumentative points; that’s not what it does best, or well. The very ambiguity and room for interpretation that make it art make it also bad at being explicit. It’s extremely hard to argue with the non-explicit. Cartoons don’t really have propositional content. The one with the bomb in the turban, for example – that could mean several things.

Make of that what you will.

HB, Skeptico

Feb 5th, 2006 5:13 pm | By

Skeptico is observing its first birthday with a teasing post in a satirical (but not mocking, or offensive, or disrespectful, or blasphemous, nononono) vein. Views on why the poultry traversed the highway, in the style of various people – James Randi, our dear friend Sylvia Browne, Deepak Chopra, Prince Chuck, and many more. I’m there, being predictable as usual. [curtsies politely]

NASA Gets Uppity

Feb 5th, 2006 5:04 pm | By

Well here’s a new wrinkle. Here’s a new outpost of the global war on secularism and rational thought. Here’s a new battalion of God’s Holy Warriors, a new incursion by the ambassadors of theocracy. Barely post-pubescent White House hacks with shiny new journalism degrees and whole months of experience working on political campaigns, explaining cosmology to the benighted people at NASA and telling them what to say – and that’s just one example.

A week after NASA’s top climate scientist complained that the space agency’s public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements on global warming, the agency’s administrator, Michael D. Griffin, issued a sharply worded statement yesterday calling for “scientific openness” throughout the agency. “It is not the job of public-affairs officers,” Dr. Griffin wrote in an e-mail message to the agency’s 19,000 employees, “to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA’s technical staff.”…Other National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists and public-affairs employees came forward this week to say that beyond Dr. Hansen’s case, there were several other instances in which political appointees had sought to control the flow of scientific information from the agency…In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang…

Oh, not that again…

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the “war room” of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen’s public statements. In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang. The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.” It continued: “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.”

Is that staggering, or what?! It’s not NASA’s place to make a ‘declaration’ about the ‘existence’ of the universe (does Deutsch want to deny the existence of the universe? Is he plotting some kind of quasi-Berkeleyian move? Or did he mean to say ‘origin’ and then get confused?) that discounts intelligent design by a creator! Shades of Kansas and its exciting new science curriculum that has been rewritten in order not to rule out supernatural explanations; shades of the dear clever Dover school board that got its head handed to it first by the electorate and then by Judge Jones; only more so, if only because of the breathtaking conceit – even, dare I say, arrogance. Remember that fool Haggard lecturing Dawkins – ‘But please, don’t be arrogant’ – right after inadvertently revealing his own entire ignorance of evolution coupled with his eagerness to set a zoologist straight on the subject? This is like that. Or like that combined with The Adventures of Brownie in New Orleans, or those two combined with Dennis the Menace or Home Alone. A youthful hack with a political-reward job tells people at NASA what’s what about the Big Bang! And tells them they’re not allowed to ‘discount’ intelligent design by a creator! And then comes right out and says it’s a religious issue! I’d better stop before I run out of exclamation points – but you must admit, it is quite something. I keep shaking my head in disbelief – it is not NASA’s place. It is not NASA’s place! Oy veh.

PZ comments at Pharyngula. So does Phil at Bad Astronomy.


Feb 4th, 2006 8:33 pm | By

More. It keeps getting worse and worse and worse, as more people drop to the ground and display their pale soft bellies beseechingly, all the while crooning melodic horseshit about their profound respect for free speech as long as no one ever actually uses it for anything.

The Guardian.

The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend…To directly associate the founder of one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions with terrorist violence – the unmistakable meaning of the most explicit of these cartoons – is wrong, even if the intention was satirical rather than blasphemous.

Freedom of expression, huh huh huh, but don’t go gratuitously offending now. Don’t offend unless somebody gives you a lot of money for it, and it’s absolutely safe to do so, and no one will be offended except one very small dull ineffectual person that no one pays any attention to. And what’s this crap about ‘one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions’? What’s so great about it? What’s so great about any of them? Why are we expected to grovel before them and defer to them and refrain from saying anything disrespectful or accusing about any of their ‘founders’?

In this country concerns about Islamophobia have been accompanied by increased sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims…The extraordinary unanimity of the British press in refraining from publishing the drawings – in contrast to the Nordic countries, Germany, Spain and France – speaks volumes. John Stuart Mill is a better guide to this issue than Voltaire.

‘Increased sensitivity’ resulting in increased social pressure to shut up shut up shut up – to refrain from ever under any circumstances saying anything skeptical or critical about Islam. Increased sensitivity is not always an unmixed blessing.

To be fair, the leader gets better after that, but that’s a remarkably bad beginning, I think.

For refreshment, turn to Ibn Warraq – who also cites Mill, but with an implication contrary to the Guardian’s.

The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.” The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten raise the most important question of our times: freedom of expression. Are we in the west going to cave into pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most precious freedom — freedom of expression, a freedom for which thousands of people sacrificed their lives? A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend…Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest.

Matthew Parris in the Times also refreshes.

I’m afraid we really do have to decide whether the demand is reasonable. I do not think it is. I am not a Muslim. Nor am I a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu. Now it’s very easy to murmur “I am not a Muslim/Christian/Jew/Hindu” as though not being something was terribly inoffensive – a sin, at worst, of omission; a way of avoiding an argument – the suggestion, perhaps, that “your” religion may be “true for you” but, as for me, I’ll sit this one out. But let us not duck what that “I do not believe” really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him…In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.

Just so. And since they are wrong, we should not be expected to obey them or defer to them. And yet it is only these wrong views that we are expected to defer to and be ‘sensitive’ about. Robust views that have some contact with the real world are expected to take care of themselves; it’s the mistaken ones that race around screaming for respect.

Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the “community” of belief among “people of faith”, this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others…People of faith and people of none cannot escape attaching themselves to claims that are inherently offensive – and at the deepest level – to other people. But offence implicitly offered, and offence actually taken, are two different matters.

And if we embark on this course of threats and arson, firings and imprisonment, beatings and killings, every time anyone is offended by anything – why, it will be hardly any time at all before there is nothing left of this particular species but six and a half billion rotting corpses. So let’s not do that.

Of Course You Can, Except When You Can’t

Feb 4th, 2006 2:31 am | By

Back to the real world, where cartoons ‘are’ representations of Mohammed – some depressing oxymoronism from Jack Straw. Of course we respect free speech, but you can’t say that; of course everyone has a right to free speech, but no one can insult religion. Well which is it, bub? It ain’t both! I’m not a free speech absolutist, as I’ve said many times, but this idea that free speech is okay as long as it doesn’t offend anyone is sheer jam tomorrow. If we can’t say anything that might offend someone, our speech is pretty damn restricted, isn’t it!

Speaking after talks with the Sudanese foreign minister, Mr Straw said: “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. There are taboos in every religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of all aspects of Christian rites and rituals in the name of free speech.

Oh? Really? What does he mean? That it’s illegal to say ‘offensive’ things about some aspects of Christian rites and rituals? (Perhaps he’s thinking of the dear blasphemy law.) Does he mean that if one says ‘offensive’ things about some aspects of Christian rites and rituals, the result will be violent riots and death threats, and that that’s a good thing? If neither of those, what does he mean? What, exactly, does he mean?

Nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of rights and rituals of the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh religion. It should not be the case in respect of the Islamic religion either. We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.

Do we? Why? And why doesn’t that work the other way? Why don’t people who want to prevent free speech on the subject of religion have to be very careful about showing the proper respect for our beliefs? Because we don’t chant ‘”7/7 is on its way” while also waving placards and burning flags, during a march through London to the Danish, French and German embassies’? Because we don’t threaten to blow up 57 random people as revenge for our feeling offended?

More bullying oxymoronism, this sample from Bunglawala.

UK Muslims have denied that the reaction to the cartoons’ reproduction has been a threat to freedom of speech. It was a “question of exercising good judgement”, said Inayat Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Britain…”Of course Europe has the right to freedom of speech, and of course newspapers have the right to publish offensive cartoons. This was really a question about exercising good judgment,” he said. “Knowing full well the nature of these cartoons, they were offensive, deeply offensive to millions of Muslims, these newspaper editors should have exercised better judgment.”

But of course Europe has the right to freedom of speech, and of course the reaction to the cartoons is not a threat to freedom of speech. How silly! Of course you can have your pesky freedom of speech! You just can’t say anything we don’t like, that’s all! What is the big stinking deal?

That is a really massively irritating trope – that saying you can have free speech and then instantly saying the opposite, in the very same breath. At leas they could have the honesty to say what they mean – ‘No, you can’t have free speech, because you say things we don’t like, so you have to shut up. And shut up about your free speech, too.’

I’ve had exactly the same thought Mediawatchwatch has had – remembering Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival last summer, talking with Hitchens, talking about the two words that have taken on a creepy resonance (and I knew what they were before he said them), ‘offended’ and ‘respect’. And I can hear him saying what Mediawatchwatch quotes him saying – ‘So you’re offended. So fucking what?’


Feb 4th, 2006 1:50 am | By

Wait, hold on – something has just crossed my tiny mind. These cartoons – that are so ‘offensive’ because they are cartoons of Mohammed – how do the people who are so offended know they are cartoons of Mohammed? There aren’t, like, photographs of him, right? Not to mention the fact that it’s a no-no to make pictures of him anyway, so that if there were photos of him, they’d all have been thrown away by now. But surely it’s much more likely that they weren’t taken in the first place, and that drawings, paintings, watercolours, engravings, etchings, and silhouettes were not made either. And even if they had been they’d probably be pretty dilapidated by now. Pretty crumbly and curly at the edges and faded – at best. And then who knows how accurate the artists would have been, if they had taken any likenesses, which they probably didn’t, on account of how it was taboo (as we keep being reminded, because we’re so likely to forget, with all this shouting going on)? So – let’s face it – nobody knows what the guy looked like. It was fourteen hundred years ago after all. It’s like Jesus. People think they know what he looked like, but they don’t really – they know what Raphael and Rembrandt and people like that thought he looked like. But they didn’t know, see, so that doesn’t help. There’s not, like, an unbroken chain of accurate portrayals of Jesus going all the way back to 35 CE, is there. Same deal with the prophet. Nobody knows what the guy looked like. No idea. Now I know what you’re thinking – well he looked like the cartoons! Mediterranean, bearded, kind of burly (because he was a powerful guy), kind of impressive-looking, a mensch – dark hair, big features – kind of like – oh, Anthony Quinn, say. Well no doubt you’re right, but I have to tell you, we don’t actually know that. Seriously. Nobody does. (Don’t forget the taboo thing.)

So what I’m wondering is, why on earth do all these offended people think the cartoons are of Mohammed? Because the cartoonists said so? Because they have, like, ‘Mohammed’ scribbled somewhere along the edge or on the bottom? Because of the pose and the turban? Well – that’s not much of a reason! I can do that! I can draw a picture of a dog or a cat or a bag of carrots or a teapot (no, not the one that orbits the sun, a different one) and say it’s a drawing of Mohammed, but what good does that do? Me just saying it’s Mohammed doesn’t make it Mohammed, does it. So why does a cartoonist saying it’s Mohammed make it Mohammed?

Now that I’ve had my fun, that’s actually a serious question, as well as a mocking one. Really – why do all the offended people accept that the cartoons are of Mohammed? Because a bunch of non-Muslim Danish cartoonists say they are? But how would they know? And what are they, magic? They can transform a drawing of some generic bearded guy in a turban into a representation of a specific person who died fourteen centuries ago? How? By saying so, by writing his name underneath, by the context of the jokes. But that still doesn’t make the cartoons cartoons of the actual Mohammed – not for people who just don’t accept that that’s what they are. Why don’t all the infuriated Muslims just laugh and shrug and ignore the whole thing? Why don’t they just say ‘those goofy Danish cartoonists, pretending they’ve drawn pictures of Mohammed – like they have any idea what he looked like. I’m so sure’? Why don’t they just say ‘you guys don’t know what Mohammed looked like any more than we do, and probably less (because we have this like inner intuition, which is denied to non-Muslims), so dream on – draw your stupid little pictures if you want to, we don’t care, it’s nothing to do with us’?

Actually the whole taboo is empty, it’s a taboo without a referent. It’s like a taboo on walking on water, or a taboo on sleeping on the wing of a jet plane when it’s in flight. Nobody can make a representation of Mohammed, it’s quite, quite impossible – so why worry about it? Just making representations of a man and naming them Mohammed doesn’t make them Mohammed – so why on earth worry about it?

Because the cartoons were a provocation, were meant to offend, and so on and so on. Hmm. Not really. The shouting is all about the guy himself, and how terribly terribly forbidden it all is. So – why don’t they just wake up and realize that those cartoons are not Mohammed, not in any way, because they can’t be? Why not just laugh at the pretensions of cartoonists and forget all about it?

This occurred to me while looking at the cartoons on Groep Wilders’s blog. Surely it must have occurred to a lot of people. Those are just lines on paper. We all have to buy into the idea that they are cartoons of Mohammed; otherwise they just stay lines on paper. Why buy into the idea if you don’t like it then? Very odd, people are – we believe our own lies.

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.