Notes and Comment Blog

But Surely –

Jan 25th, 2006 2:15 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re after the school curriculum again…

Jan 24th, 2006 10:44 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salman Rushdie

Jan 24th, 2006 2:15 am | By

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

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

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

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

There is a Reason

Jan 23rd, 2006 7:55 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odd Cult Claims

Jan 21st, 2006 11:16 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tarantella

Jan 20th, 2006 7:09 pm | By

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

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

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

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


Jan 19th, 2006 9:20 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

Think Again

Jan 19th, 2006 2:40 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

The Pope Has a Dream Today

Jan 18th, 2006 7:54 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

The One Forbidden Thing

Jan 17th, 2006 11:20 pm | By

Thought for the Day.

Robert Pennock testifying in Kitzmiller v Dover.

What one expects in science is that one is going to be testing hypotheses against the natural world, and what methodological naturalism does is say we can’t cheat. We can’t just call for quick assistance to some supernatural power. It would certainly make science very easy if we could do that. We’re forced to restrain ourselves to looking for natural regularities. That’s part of what it means to be able to give evidence for something. You’ve undermined that notion of empirical evidence if you start to introduce the supernatural.

You can’t cheat. That’s all there is to it, really. You can’t cheat.


Jan 17th, 2006 10:52 pm | By

Well, quite a good day in a lot of ways. Just for one thing – it’s been raining here almost without cease, all day and all night nearly every day, for about three weeks, and today suddenly (it was raining sideways last night) it’s not only not raining, it’s not only sunny, it’s warm. It’s one of those spring-in-winter days. Balmy, fresh, smelling wonderful, of mud and wet vegetation and clean air. I went for a walk down to the cemetery, and was looking at a bare tree against the blue sky and noticed it had robins perched all over it. They looked like Xmas decorations – they looked festive. I enjoyed that sight for a minute, then realized that the reason they looked so festive was that they were all facing in the same direction – facing the sun, of course. They’re sunbathing, I realized. They’re soaking up the rays after days of rain and dark. Sticking their orange fronts out into the sun, feeling good. I stood and watched them for awhile. That’s your Bird Moment for today.

But on a less parochial note. There’s also the Supreme Court decision on assisted suicide, a rare vote for reason and against the ‘pro-life’ tyrants. There’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf getting to work in Liberia. And, by gum, there’s Michelle Bachelet’s win in Chile. Hurrah.

Michelle Bachelet will be the fourth president from the Concertacion and arguably the most radical. She was politicised by the military coup of September 1973 that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Her father was a general in the Air Force who was opposed to the military government and died in prison. She worked undercover for the Socialist Youth and she was held for weeks with her mother, Angelica, in torture and detention centres before being allowed to flee the country in 1975.

She was locked up, and now she’s the president. Sometimes things do get better.

Open Democracy has articles about Bachelet here and here.

The Uncertainty Principle

Jan 17th, 2006 7:52 pm | By

The Bishop of Motherwell is a funny guy.

The Bishop of Motherwell last night called on the Catholic Church in Scotland to stop “cowering” before the government. The Rt Rev Joseph Devine warned Christians against the “creeping political correctness” that was stifling religious expression. In an address to a Motherwell audience, the bishop said: “The Church needs to rediscover a political voice and stop cowering before the apparatus of government and its politically approved doctrines.”

That’s interesting, don’t you think? The Catholic Church had oughta stop ‘cowering’ before the government – and do what? Set up a rival government? Make the government do the cowering instead? Break the law? Whither religion’s famous humility and uncertainty now, eh?

And there’s ‘to dare to assert that Scotland in a faith context has to be seen as a Christian country’ – that’s a slightly coercive announcement, wouldn’t you say? To ‘assert’ that Scotland ‘has to be seen’ as a Christian country? Or you’ll – what? Punish refuseniks? Expel them? Forcibly convert them, in the manner of Ferdinand and Isabella? Very humble, very uncertain. And people wonder why I’m a little critical of religion. Because it throws its weight around, that’s why; because it demands acquiescence to its demands and respect for its evidence-free beliefs, that’s why. Because Bishops think the ‘politically approved doctrines’ of the government (what the flock else should they be? why shouldn’t government ‘doctrines’ be ‘politically approved’? that beats theocratically approved anyway) should be defied by The Church. Because bishops take failure to agree with their airless retrograde views to amount to ‘stifling religious expression.’ Because, as I keep saying, no amount of ‘respect’ and groveling is ever enough for godbotherers, they’ll always demand more. And they’ll do it in no uncertain terms.

Hag me no Hagiography

Jan 17th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

Hagiography raises a lot of interesting issues.

Waldstreicher falls into a long line of historians who see the other side of Franklin. The wiry, sardonic 39-year-old author is not a fan of rah-rah Franklin books, especially given his view that “Franklin’s anti-slavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated.” He regards Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life as “a good read” with “insightful moments,” but sees Isaacson as “already on the stump, talking about why we should find Franklin inspiring, why he’s better, why he’s neither too far left nor too far right, why he’s so reasonable. It’s been disturbing to see it called the standard biography now,” Waldstreicher says, because “it doesn’t build on any of the scholarship in early American history.”

Rah-rah books about almost anything (except food, perhaps) are suspect enterprises. Perhaps because they start from the desire to say ‘rah-rah’ and then collect the appropriate evidence, rather than starting from the desire to tell the truth and then collecting whatever evidence there is.

The Constitution Center’s exhibition reflects a wave of hagiography in Franklin biography that pooh-poohs criticism of the so-called First American…It marginalizes such longtime lightning rods for Franklin critics as his slave-trade activities, womanizing, hardball politics, and spinmeister shaping of his own image. Waldstreicher’s critique thus comes at a welcome time. It steers attention from the mind-numbing “Benergy” campaign, and lopsided biographies of Franklin that make him a safe adoptable symbol and hero, to a countertradition.

‘Benergy’? Oh, yuk. Oh gawdelpus. And save us all from safe adoptable symbols and heroes. Heroes are okay up to a point, but they can’t be canonized or sanitized – ‘enskied and sainted,’ as Lucio puts it in ‘Measure for Measure’. None of that. That can’t be done without lying; away with it.

Indeed, a voyage through Franklin biographies suggests a near-natural law: The more commercial the project, the more celebratory the tone. The more academic the project, the more evenhanded the view. In Recovering Benjamin Franklin (1999), for instance. philosopher James Campbell flatly finds “much in Franklin’s mindset that is unattractive.”

There’s the real issue. The more commercial, the more celebratory; the more academic, the more analytic or skeptical. So – be skeptical of best-selling biographies.

Art, Poetry, Religion, Uncertainty

Jan 16th, 2006 1:54 am | By

George Szirtes mentioned in a comment on that post Science and Religion that he has a blog, where he commented further on the subject we were discussing there. (It doesn’t have permalinks, so scroll down.) This subject interests me, and I agree with George on most of it. Especially some of it.

My contention is that the experience of listening to, say, Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, strikes some people with the force of truth. It is not some verifiable truth about the existence or otherwise of God. The music doesn’t set itself out as proof of anything. The sense of truth arises because the music seems profoundly true to some element of human experience. In that sense – though not in the ‘grass is green’ verifiable sense – it is experientially true. Art without that notion of truth would indeed be airy-fairy.

Absolutely. Agree completely. Have no trouble whatever agreeing comepletely – am aware of no tension at all between that and my chronic suspicion of the truth-claims of religion – the factual truth-claims, the claims that there is a deity and that the deity is omnipotent and benevolent. I have zero problem being powerfully moved by powerful art – also by certain kinds of landscape, and the quality of the being moved seems to me to be pretty similar. (Eve Garrard has a terrific essay on the way we are transported by landscape and how mysterious that effect can be, in the current [just out] Philosophers’ Magazine.) My paradigm example is ‘Hamlet.’ To some extent I think I know why it moves us the way it does – I’ve dug into it somewhat obsessively, piling up mountains of notes, and I think I know some of how Shaksespeare did it; but only to some extent; for the rest, I just think it’s a kind of magic. Not literal magic, but something that isn’t really completely explicable. Or that is only explicable by saying it seems profoundly true to some element of human experience. Actually that is it, pretty much. Maybe it is explicable. The thing about ‘Hamlet’ is that it seems profoundly true to so many elements of human experience, all packed into three and a half hours – love, loss, regret, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, irony, wit, lying, truth-telling – and an immense amount more. It’s not many plays that can do that. There’s something…exciting, exhilarating, a little alarming about digging into ‘Hamlet,’ because you keep feeling surprised. The more you dig the more you realize Shakespeare wove this web, the tightest most drawn-together web ever woven; that he laid all these little charges, that go off one after another, in every line – and you start to wonder, how the hell did he do that…

So I completely agree with George about that. It’s just that I don’t really think most religion belongs in the same category – because of the truth-claims about the deity. Religion without those truth claims is a whole different ball game, but that’s not what I’ve been talking about here all this time. And it’s not what Dawkins is talking about. (He says that, in one of the essays in A Devil’s Chaplain.)

That, I suspect, is hard for people of a stiffly rational temperament to understand. They look for some verifiable truth claim that they can refute. They think I am making a verifiable truth claim. No. What I am saying is that some truths, certain profound truths to experience, are not easily, if at all, verifiable.

But few if any rationalists that I know of would deny that. They don’t look for verifiable truth claims in everything. They do perhaps point out veiled truth claims that are lurking behind fluffy verbiage, like the kind we keep seeing in those soppy Guardian columns. But that fluffy verbiage is not the kind of thing George is talking about – so I think we don’t disagree all that much.

But we may disagree about the link between religion and uncertainty.

Uncertainty continues to exist: art and the religious instinct, I suggested, proceeded out of uncertainty. The uncertainty principle seems to me humane and ‘true’ in that it corresponds to our experience of life. It behoves even scientists and rationalists to be uncertain about that which they cannot know, because not everything is knowable by scientific method, only that which is verifiable / falsifiable.

But there again – they are. The scientists and rationalists I know are uncertain about that which they cannot know; it’s religious people who claim to know things they don’t and can’t know. And the religious instinct may have proceeded out of uncertainty – that seems quite plausible – but I’m not at all convinced most of it hung onto the uncertainty once it arrived at the religion. Some believers, true, will say that their beliefs are beliefs and that they know they’re not certain; but oh dear, what a lot of believers won’t say any such thing – and what a lot of them get indignant at people who don’t share their beliefs, which seems odd if they’re really uncertain about them.


Jan 15th, 2006 10:10 pm | By

Some brief notices. Daniel Dennett is going to be on Philosophy Talk on January 17 to discuss ‘Intelligent Design’.

Pharyngula has moved to here. Change your bookmarks!

David Luban has a terrific guestpost at Balkinization on what’s wrong (hint: everything) with an article in defense of broad executive power by Harvey Mansfield in the Weekly Standard.

The article is loaded with gravitas, and Mansfield obviously wants to sound deep. But the depth is all on the surface. Read with care, Mansfield’s arguments are profoundly silly.

There’s a lot of that about. People wanting to sound deep, and just being silly instead. A lesson for us all. (Except me, because I never want to sound deep. Rude, hostile, irritating, snide, but not deep.)

Double, Triple, Quadruple Standards

Jan 15th, 2006 6:57 pm | By

Let us now praise famous imams and representatives of various British Muslim organisations – every single one of them male, if I’m not mistaken. What a swell bunch – all two and twenty of them.

In light of the bizarre news that the Metropolitan Police is to “investigate” comments about homosexuality made by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, we, the undersigned, Imams and representatives of various British Muslim organisations, affirm that Sir Iqbal’s views faithfully reflected mainstream Islamic teachings…The practice of homosexuality is regarded as being sinful in Islam.

Yes, and in other religions too, as Ratzinger keeps anxiously pointing out, in case we might confuse him with someone else. So what? Who cares what is regarded as sinful in Islam or any other religion?

Of course the Imams and reps are right that the police investigation is bizarre – but it comes a little oddly from them, frankly. Some of them at least.

All Britons, whether they are in favour of homosexuality or not, should be allowed to freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying. We cannot claim to be a truly free and open society while we are trying to silence dissenting views.

Well, that sounds good, but let’s not forget that Iqbal Sacranie himself remarked that death was too good for Salman Rushdie. Because? Because he had freely expressed his views in a novel. After he did that, an atmosphere not free of intimidation and bullying sprang into being, thanks to Sacranie and others like him. Were they not energetically engaged in trying to silence dissenting views? Has Sacranie ever disavowed that activity? Not that I’m aware of. It was just recently that he expressed the wish that the religious hatred bill could silence dissenting views like Rushdie’s.

Nick Cohen and Evan Harris noted the same irony, or hypocrisy.

The most encouraging reaction to news that the police were investigating Sir Iqbal Sacranie’s foul comments about homosexuality came from gay and secular leaders. Instead of revelling in the discomfiture of the fundamentalist head of the Muslim Council of Britain, they quite properly said that they believed in freedom of speech and that included Sir Iqbal’s freedom to be prejudiced and foolish.

So we did. Okay, okay, I’m not a leader – but I did quite properly say.

As Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, pointed out, the MCB has not returned the compliment. It’s all for freedom of speech when it comes to laying into gays. It also believes that the government has no right to ban the glorification of terrorism. When it comes to freedom of speech about religion, however, it’s a very different matter. At the height of The Satanic Verses affair in 1988, Sacranie said that ‘death was perhaps too easy’ for Salman Rushdie. This did not stop New Labour almost tripping over its feet as it rushed to embrace the MCB when it came to power in 1997. As well as knighting Sacranie, it responded to his lobbying by putting before parliament a law against incitement of religious hatred. In their attempts to keep this unelected homophobe in their big tent, New Labour is prepared to ignore its more liberal supporters – and the conclusively argued opposition of the House of Lords – and force the bill through.

So, we’ll all just have to keep on quite properly saying, over and over again. Monotonous but necessary.

In Poverty Begins Responsibility

Jan 15th, 2006 6:26 pm | By

I know it’s obvious, but this kind of thing gets on my nerves. I know it’s obvious, I know this is The Economist, but still.

When IBM announced an overhaul of its pension plan for employees in America last week, it joined a parade of employers that are shifting more responsibility for saving for retirement on to workers.

Shifting more responsibility. As if those slacker employees have been just flopping around expecting employers to spoon-feed them, because they’re such babies. As if pensions were not simply part of the agreed compensation package, like, you know, wages. If IBM announced an overhaul of its payment plan for employees, which consisted of reducing their salaries by 100%, would that be shifting more responsibility on to workers? Well, yes, that would be one thing to call it, but I can think of other things.

To the extent that this creates and encourages individual choice and responsibility, it is something to welcome rather than to fear.

Excuse me? I beg your pardon? A reduction in pay is something to welcome? A reduction in pay is something to welcome to the extent that it creates and encourages individual choice and responsibility? Is it? But if that’s true, why doesn’t everyone just decide to shift to a zero-pay system, thus creating maximum individual choice and responsibility? Starting with CEOs? They would welcome zero pay and zero pensions and zero stock options, surely – right? And so would people who write for The Economist?

And even leaving that aside, even ignoring the ludicrous and insulting equation of a pay-cut with an encouragement of frontier virtues, there’s another problem with this stupid kind of rhetoric. No matter how responsible one may be, if one works for low wages, one doesn’t necessarily have the spare money to do one’s own saving for retirement. And yes, even responsible people work for low wages; it happens. And since the entire economy depends on people who work for low wages, it’s hypocritical and shameless to blame those very people for working for low wages, and to ignore their existence when equating the absence of pensions with increased responsibility.

Pulling Liberal Rabbits out of Cosmopolitan Hats

Jan 15th, 2006 12:07 am | By

John Gray is often irritating, but this review in The Nation of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is not too bad. It also hooks up with some things we’ve been talking about lately in the discussions on comprehensive liberalism v political liberalism.

In Appiah’s view cosmopolitanism has two intertwined strands: the idea that we have obligations to other human beings above and beyond those to whom we are related by ties of family, kinship or formal citizenship; and an attitude that values others not just as specimens of universal humanity but as having lives whose meaning is bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own.

Hmm. One has to wonder exactly what that means (so one will have to read the book in order to find out, won’t one). I suppose what it means is – it’s not enough to value others just as specimens of universal humanity; in order to value them properly, that is, realistically, one has to acknowledge that they have practices and beliefs that are often different from our own and that matter to them. In other words one has to realize that there may be some difficulty in this process of valuing others. One has to make one’s valuing of other people not conditional on their agreeing with oneself in every particular. That seems to fit, and it’s also worth pointing out. But at the same time – depending on just how much one is expected to value others, and in just what way – such an attitude may be in strong tension with other desirable attitudes or commitments. Others may have lives whose meaning is bound up with accusing children of witchcraft and then torturing them, for instance. We can value those other in the sense of wanting to change their minds, and especially their practice, rather than wanting to torture them back – but we probably don’t simply want to value them and let it go at that. We don’t want to value them as they are, and let them go on doing what they’re doing. So our ‘valuing’ others may be more or less weak, depending on the circumstances.

That’s the same problem we talked about in Respect One and Respect Two. It’s a pre-emptive way of thinking – and as such, it may often be a much worse idea than the merely formal valuing of others as specimens of humanity. We can’t really sign up to a blanket promise to value everyone whose practices and beliefs are different from our own, sight unseen, no matter what the practices and beliefs are. It depends. It depends on just how cruel, unjust, exploitive, violent, arbitrary and the like, the practices are. And since it does depend, the pre-emption implicit in that idea seems to be pretty much ruled out. We can’t really accept that pre-emption, because if we do, we may find ourselves expected to value mass murderers, or slave-owners, or exorcists. The idea seems to be quite similar to political liberalism, and tricky for just the same kind of reasons.

As a position in ethical theory, cosmopolitanism is distinct from relativism and universalism. It affirms the possibility of mutual understanding between adherents to different moralities but without holding out the promise of any ultimate consensus. There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible – and yet these commonalities do not ground anything like a single universally valid morality or way of life. Clearly this is a position that carries within it a certain tension. The idea that we have universal moral obligations is not always easily reconciled with the practices and beliefs that give particular human lives their meaning. Appiah recognizes this tension, and writes: “There will be times when these two ideals – universal concern and respect for legitimate difference – clash. There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”

Just so. Appiah recognizes the tension (not surprisingly). One thing Gray says in that passage strikes me though. ‘There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible.’ Well – no, actually. Not species-wide. Male of the species-wide, but not species-wide. Because one of those beliefs and practices that we don’t all agree on, and a very widespread one, is the practice of not allowing women to take part in communication with the rest of the species at all. There are whole immense cultures where species-wide communication is not remotely a goal – where in fact the very opposite is the goal: where half the humans who make up that species are permanently sequestered and incarcerated and forbidden to talk to male non-relatives ever at all. Species-wide communication is therefore impossible in such cultures; it’s not even an idea or a dream or a goal, it’s more of an abomination. So from that point of view, cosmopolitanism is also not a value there; it can’t be. How can women be cosmopolitan while confined to quarters? They can’t; it’s a contradiction. So unless one is thinking of male cosmopolitanism only – which would be a pretty parochial kind of cosmopolitianism – there is a disabling tension right at the beginning. Real cosmopolitanism seems out of reach until that changes.*

However, human life contains goods and evils that do not depend on our opinions. To be at risk of genocide or subject to torture is an evil for all human beings whatever their beliefs. These evils are not culture-relative, and protection from them is a species-wide good. Once we recognize this, we cannot avoid speaking of universal human values; but this is not the same as having a universal morality…Value-pluralism undercuts the claims of all universal moralities, including liberal morality. Like Berlin in some of his writings, Appiah seems to want to celebrate moral diversity and at the same time endorse the universality of liberal values. The result is that he is constantly pulling liberal rabbits out of cosmopolitan hats.

There you go. It’s just not always possible to celebrate moral diversity and endorse universalism. Sometimes it has to be one or the other but not both.

*Update. Harry points out in comments that I misread that sentence. He reads ‘There are human universals that make species-wide communication possible’ to mean ‘that human beings are alike in fundamental (genetic etc.) ways, and that this universal human nature is what makes species-wide communication possible’ and adds that this is a central pillar in our belief in human rights, and a corrective to postmodern denial of universals. I think his reading is the right one, which means I think mine is the wrong one. Never mind.

Lucretius Knew

Jan 14th, 2006 4:15 am | By

‘Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,’ Lucretius remarked* (that’s one of my few Latin tags. I failed Latin one year. You didn’t fail things in my school, it wasn’t done, but I managed it. I was quite good at failing things when I was fifteen) about what Agamemnon did to his daughter at the behest of a god (he killed her, that’s what, just to get a wind for sailing to Troy). What evil religion can persuade us to. He was right, old Lukers.

There’s this hajj business for instance. Brilliant. Make it a pillar of your religion that if you can make the trip to Mecca, you have to, once in your life. Keep that rule in place when the relgion it’s a pillar of goes from being that of some people in Arabia to being that of many people all over the damn planet, and when the population at issue goes from being – what? a few thousand? – to a billion or two. Then watch the fun. To make sure, arrange some bottlenecks along the way. Millions of people heading for a smallish place, all of them in a hurry – oh, oops, somebody tripped, oops, this fool behind me is pushing, oh shit I’m stepping on someone’s chest, oh hell oh hell oh hell I’m standing on someone’s face, I’m not having an easy time breathing myself –

Very spiritual, isn’t it. Uplifting. Meaningful. Millions of people throw stones at a pillar because ‘the devil’ once appeared there to Abraham – the story goes. Well that’s a good reason for everyone else to go there and throw a stone, and for them to do it on the same day. Yes, very good. Good thinking. And the police can’t do anything about it, because if they tried, there would be an even worse stampede. Well, god forbid anyone should just decide that the hajj is not an obligation after all and end the whole mess. I heard someone gently suggest something similar on the World Service – not even end it, but just maybe spread it out over the year perhaps? No, no, couldn’t do that. But it’s not an actual obligation is it? Yes, it’s an obligation, if you have the capacity, if you have the money and health, it’s an obligation. Oh.

And then there’s this pastor in Tottenahm. He’s very spiritual too.

A London-based pastor has been arrested on suspicion of inciting child cruelty following an investigation into allegations of witchcraft at an evangelical Congolese church in Tottenham. Dr Dieudonne Tukala, 46, from the Church of Christ Mission, is being questioned over claims that he diagnosed several children as “witches”, advising their parents to beat the devil out of them or send them back to the Democratic Republic of Congo so that he could pray for them to be killed…Dr Tukala was accused of telling one couple that their nine-year-old son was possessed. The boy’s father was jailed for five years at Snaresbrook Crown Court in November 2003 after branding his son with a steam iron and forcing chilli powder into his mouth “to drive the devil out”.

Branding his child with an iron. To drive the devil out. People trample other people to death in their eagerness to throw stones at a stone, in the belief that it has something to do with the devil, and other people burn children with irons and beat them, in the belief that they will drive the devil out. There are some things so stupid or so cruel that only religion can persuade people to do them.

Another Guardian Angel

Jan 13th, 2006 2:06 am | By

Now you knew I would have to pitch a fit about this. So here, have a fit.

Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God, which in our political system reads as democracy and equality before the law; and those ideals have often been applied because of religious faith, not in spite of it.

No it doesn’t. Or at least no one knows if it does or not. That’s just that confusion of correlation with causation again. The ‘Christian’ (and not exclusively Christian, and not thoroughly Christian either, given how many exceptions Xianity always managed to find to its supposed ‘view’ over the years) view that all have equal worth before God, and the idea of democracy and equality, just happened to be around in the same part of the world now and then. That doesn’t mean Xianity caused it. And really, is it likely? Has Xianity really been all that egalitarian all this time? Hardly.

The anti-slavery movement had religious motivations of the evangelical persuasion that Buruma fears.

We’re always hearing that – but slavery was justified by Christians in good standing for centuries before the abolitionists even existed, let alone got a foothold. So how much is that supposed to count for? Not all that much, I would say.

Simply bemoaning the fanatics and mourning the demise of liberal democracy gets us nowhere…Faith is important to many.

Yes it does get us somewhere. And anyway what are we supposed to do, applaud the fanatics and cheer the partial retreat (not demise) of secular liberal democracy? And faith is important to many – really?! Who knew? That changes everything.

But Buruma is wrong to regard evangelicals as fundamentalists, because he equates that term with fanaticism and intolerance rather than with trying to apply orthodox Biblical doctrine to today’s world.

Well there’s a distinction without a difference. Trying to apply ‘orthodox Biblical doctrine’ to today’s world is fanaticism and intolerance. What else would it be? Has this guy ever read the dang Bible?

Christianity and Islam – the two faiths Buruma mentions – motivate believers to share their world-views with others. That means they will always want to be in the public square, engaging in the debates of the day.

Yes, we know. Like Iqbal Sacranie, flailing around in his search for a rationalization for his dislike of gays, and falling back on the fact that it is what he learns from his ‘faith’ – as if that makes his nasty nonsense better instead of worse. It’s this wanting to be in the public square arguing for political views that have no justification whatever except the arguers’ ‘faith’ that is so damn dangerous. That, oddly enough, is why secularists oppose religion in the public square.

Yet another to add to the Guardian’s list of slobbering-on-religion articles. And just as lame and vacuous and stale as all the others. I’m beginning to think that people of ‘faith’ just really don’t have anything of value to say on the subject.