Notes and Comment Blog


Nostalgia for mud

Jan 29th, 2007 5:22 pm | By

Bunting is at the old stand again.

But it is [A C Grayling’s] claim of the west’s steady march of progress to the happy lands of a universal ideal of rationality and freedom that strikes so hollow. The more vehemently one hears liberal progressives claim progress, the more one wonders who they are trying to convince. Increasingly, the stridency with which the non-religious attack the religious belies their own profound insecurity – that the progress they like to attribute to western or enlightenment values is a much-compromised property. It is challenged by almost everything we see around us: climate change, rising levels of mental ill-health, growing economic inequality fuelled by debt and hyper-consumerism. As Oliver James’s new book, Affluenza, makes clear, the nostrums of the west’s “good life” – success, fame, wealth – mask an extraordinary vacuity of purpose, a desperate, restless discontent.

Isn’t that just the truth? Don’t you just want to leap out of your seat and yell ‘Dang, Madeleine, you are so right!’? That stinking old progress we like to attribute to something called ‘western or enlightenment values’ is just such a, a, a dead mackerel, compared with the bliss and joy and heaven of the alternative. How I wish I lived in Bangladesh, or Zimbabwe, or Darfur, or Congo, or Guatemala, or Indonesia, instead of here in the poxy old ‘West’ with its poxy old enlightenment values. How I wish I were dirt poor, and illiterate, and crippled from overwork and childbearing (or in fact dead, which is more likely), and malnourished, and bossed around by some man who sits smoking and bullshitting with his friends all day while I do all the work. Doesn’t that just sound like paradise? I do so agree with Bunting about that – how I hate all this education, and clean water, and edible food, and electric light, and functioning plumbing and sewer systems, all these streets and buses and libraries and shops, all these books, all this music, all these schools and universities cluttering up the place.

Anthony Grayling agrees with her just as warmly as I do. He is as impressed with her good sense and powers of observation and inference as I am.

Ms Bunting will be on top of the mailing list for the large tome I’ve just spent years writing (I thank her for this advertising opportunity) on the way liberties, first of conscience, then thought, then the person, then for working people and women, were wrested from the bitter opposition of church and absolutisms premised on “divine right” and their joint legacy of oligarchies of privilege and patriarchy. If the Catholic Church were still running Europe, Ms Bunting would not be writing for the Guardian. Actually, if this was 1950s Ireland, she might not be writing anything.

Indeed she might not. Especially if she’d grown up at Goldenbridge, or been shoved into one of the Magdalen laundries. But she appears to be, frankly, not clever enough to grasp that not very difficult point. She’s just clever enough to do the Christianophobia schtick, and not one bit cleverer.

Finally, Ms Bunting wheels out the bunkum that we (here in Britain?) live in unhappier and more spiritually impoverished times because we do not dwell – well, where? In the warm glow of Torquemada’s Inquisition pyres? On a slave plantation in Jamaica? Would she prefer to be in a harem, or an undermaid in a medieval kitchen?

No, but she thinks she would, which is what makes her so absurd. One of the things – she has other ways:

Having abdicated so much ground in political life – particularly over the economy – liberal progressives have to scrabble together another way to define their notion of progress, and they have recycled old anti-clericalism to attack religion. Faith has become a curiously faddish target in a new, ersatz politics. Judging by the outcry over the past few days, Catholics, or Christians in general, are lurking on every street corner to deprive the English of their most cherished liberties, as they have done all through history. The National Secular Society even raised the cry of English kings down the centuries last week: “Who runs Britain – the government or the Vatican?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, and Catholics have a duty to care for the millions of people who are under their authority, so shut up about them, even if they do demand special exemptions from regulations mandating equal treatment. If it were some dreaded arrogant liberal progressives demanding such an exemption, would Bunting be so briskly dismissive? I don’t know, but [darkly I doubt it.



The church’s tender concern for children

Jan 28th, 2007 11:47 am | By

Well damn. As Andy Gilmour reminds us in a comment on the last post, the Archbishop’s record on concern for children isn’t what it might be. Isn’t so flawless that he is really the ideal person to be saying what kind of person should be ruled out in advance from eligibility to adopt children. Maybe he really ought to worry about gay couples less given that he did such a bad job of worrying about a priest before.

One of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales has defended his decision to allow a known paedophile to continue working as a priest, despite warnings he would re-offend. A BBC investigation found evidence suggesting Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor ignored the advice of doctors and therapists that Father Michael Hill would carry on assaulting children.

It may have been just a case of compassion, of believing that the priest had changed and ought to have another chance, but even then, the Archbish could have erred on the side of caution out of concern for children and givent the priest another chance in a different kind of job. But he also, according to the BBC, ignored advice.

Documents seen by the BBC suggest the archbishop ignored the advice of doctors and therapists who warned that Hill was likely to re-offend. Archbishop Murphy-O’Connor has now agreed that boys abused by the priest should receive compensation, but as part of the settlement they were required not to speak publicly about what happened.

What right does the church have to set conditions? And how does the church square that with its vaunted conscience and its boasted principles? Why doesn’t it put the children ahead of its own interests? Why in this case didn’t it simply prostrate itself in guilt and remorse and sorrow and do everything it could to make amends, rather than making conditions and silencing the victims?

In short, what principles? What conscience?

A BBC News investigation in 1999 revealed evidence that some Catholic bishops in the UK were failing to follow the church’s child protection guidelines, allowing priests accused of child abuse to continue working. Since 1994 the Catholic Church has had strict rules in place which state that if a complaint is made against a priest, social services should be informed and the priest removed from parish duties.

Err…



Principle, conscience, beliefs

Jan 28th, 2007 10:25 am | By

Well, it’s difficult for nice Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, clearly, but – but he does fall back on a lot of emotive but undefined terms, doesn’t he. As do Sentamu and Williams. They all do – because they have to, because they have nothing else to say. What else are they going to do? Just say ‘we hate poofters, they’re icky!’? Say they just can’t stand the thought of men humping each other, it makes them come over all trembly, so they have to dig their little episcopal heels in and say No? Apparently not. So instead of that they just say resounding nothings, that don’t mean anything until the meaning is specified, which it never is. It’s all conscience, and principle, and church teachings, and beliefs, and sensitivities, and morality, and the family, and a man and a woman.

We don’t believe in discrimination – homosexuals should be treated with respect and sensitivity – but the best way of bringing up a child, and the government says so, too, is having a mother and a father.

That’s as concrete as the Cardinal gets. But even if it’s true, it doesn’t cover the subject, because 1) there are more children needing adoption than there are mother-father couples wanting to adopt them and 2) there is more than one thing to compare with the mother-father option: there are gay couples but there are also single gays (which the church does allow, making the cardinal’s remark irrelevant), single straights, potentially (I would suggest) other adult groups, and – last but decidedly not least – institutions. Even if mother and father is the best option, what the cardinal fails to address is the question whether institutions are better than gay couples – and everybody who’s not stark raving mad agrees that responsible loving couples of any kind are better than institutions. So the cardinal’s comment there is beside the point on at least two counts. And that’s his best effort.

Moral views may be changing but our view is rational and has been held for many, many years in this country as the normality. Shall we leave it there?

No. Here’s why. Your view is not rational, for the reasons cited above among others, and the fact that it has been held for many years does not make it so, as you and anyone who pays attention ought to know perfectly well. All sorts of hateful views get held for many many years as normality; it happens all the time; that doesn’t magically make the hateful views nice or okay or acceptable or moral.

We’re not talking about huge numbers. It’s a principle…This is about the rights of the government to legislate, but is also about the rights of conscience – the rights of large numbers of citizens to live according to their beliefs.

But what kind of principle? What kind of conscience? What kind of beliefs? They’re only as good as they are, Cardinal.

Catholics are obliged to obey the law, just like any citizen, but I believe there is such a thing as conscientious objection. On adoption, our beliefs in the primacy and the foundations of family life are a matter of conscience to us.

One that justifies you in a priori excluding gays from being considered for adoption? My conscience says no. It’s a principle.



Crunch

Jan 28th, 2007 9:49 am | By

Right. This is where two principles slam right into each other. They are frankly irreconcilable. They can’t both be fully accommodated, any more than two bodies can occupy the same space.

The Catholic Church is to go to war over new legislation on rights for homosexuals, vowing to create “gay rights martyrs” if the laws are passed. In a change of tactics, Church officials now say they will not close down adoption agencies as a result of new laws forcing them to deal with applications from gay couples. Instead, they will deliberately break the law in order to bring a case to court. The Church believes it could then challenge a guilty verdict through Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which upholds the freedom of religious expression.

One wonders if it will succeed. One imagines that it might; and that would be a disaster.

This is a perennial problem in the US, as I’ve mentioned before, because of the free expression clause of the First Amendment. That clause is sometimes held to invalidate legislation. How broadly judges define ‘the freedom of religious expression’ is probably going to be an increasingly worrying issue as time goes on. The more broadly it is defined, the less possible a secular state becomes. That is deeply alarming to those of us who don’t want the Vatican or imams or preachers dictating terms for all of us.



And hurry up about it

Jan 27th, 2007 1:08 pm | By

People will get aggrieved and resentful and angry and irritated about anything, have you noticed?

Senior leaders within the Muslim Council of Britain tried to reverse the controversial decision to stay away from Holocaust memorial day, the Guardian has learned…It is understood that Daud Abdullah, the deputy secretary general, and affiliate members from the Muslim Association of Britain joined forces to oppose the lifting of the ban at the meeting last November. They were aided by irritation at the way the government has sought to bring the MCB into line. Last October, Ms Kelly appeared to criticise the MCB and suggested that organisations that snubbed the holocaust event might be starved of funds.

Irritation ‘at the way the government has sought to bring the MCB into line’. But the government gives the MCB money (for reasons which are somewhat mysterious, at least to me). The government might decide to stop giving the MCB money. This is irritating? Why is the government obliged to go on giving the MCB money, even if it decides it’s not crazy about what the MCB does?

It’s probably natural to think that way; to think that once people start handing you money on a plate, they have to continue; but it’s irritating.



Adopted children of God

Jan 27th, 2007 12:47 pm | By

This is one time when I find a religious argument rather attractive – although in fact it’s not really a religious argument as such, in the sense that it doesn’t depend on any supernatural truth claims. The claims are in fact ethical and secular, but they are made more persuasive, emotive, convincing to believers because they are attributed to Jesus. And this version of Jesus is indeed vastly more attractive and moving than the usual one, and it’s certainly more attractive than the threatening demands of the established churches to be allowed to continue to exclude a despised group. As Simon Barrow points out. The churches seem to have lost the plot, if they think excluding despised groups was Jesus’s pet project.

Despite continuingly emollient words about service and conscience, the church message to the prime minister is still crystal clear: “allow us to discriminate against lesbian and gay people, or we pull the plug on ‘our’ adoption agencies”. This kind of threat is not quite what Jesus had in mind, I think, when he said, “suffer the little children to come to me”…These words were, tellingly, addressed to people who had acquired a habit from religious authorities of putting their own interests ahead of the most vulnerable. Children were usually last in the pecking order in Jesus’ society, which is why he singled them out as exemplars of God’s special concern for those at the bottom of the heap. That’s the gospel. The Catholic Church, like many historic religious bodies, is not at the bottom of the heap…Still seeing its future as a powerful stakeholder, the church naturally struggles with the deliberately marginal ethos of the early Christian movement, and instead is tempted towards policies which enshrine positional arrogance over pastoral care. It has lost its Christian bearings and opted instead for what John Kenneth Galbraith called the deception of “institutional truth”.

And it has not always and everywhere been conspicuous for its tender concern for the people who are at the bottom of the heap. Children in Irish industrial schools come to mind. So do women imprisoned by the church in ‘Magdalen’ laundries, also in Ireland. Victims of paedophile priest join the queue. Maybe the church should worry more about that than it does about its perceived right to go on excluding yet another despised group.

Ironically, one of the key terms the Epistle to the Ephesians uses to describe those who belong to the church is “adopted children of God”. The point is that people belong to the family of Christ not because they are good, worthy, rich, of the “right” family line, ethnicity, gender or theological persuasion. No, they are “in” solely because the God of Jesus loves without discrimination, and they are a sign of that love. This makes the church anti-exclusionary by nature, rightly understood.

I don’t know how true that is (how well it reflects some original nature of the church or of Chistianity), but I do find it rather moving. But I also immediately compare it with the cold, harsh, unloving treatment of children at Goldenbridge – which was not just an absent-minded habit, but a matter of policy – and I marvel at the gap between the ideal and the reality.



Nasty

Jan 26th, 2007 12:01 pm | By

So now it’s time for threats.

Senior Cabinet ministers including Gordon Brown and John Reid have been warned that Catholic church leaders will campaign against Labour candidates…Mario Conti, the Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, has written to five Scottish Cabinet members – the chancellor, the home secretary, trade secretary Alistair Darling, transport and Scottish secretary Douglas Alexander, and defence secretary Des Browne – repeating his warning to Tony Blair that preventing Catholic agencies from discriminating will be a “betrayal”…Last night, the church said it planned to defy the new equality law…[A] Catholic spokesman made clear the sense of rancour within the church.

That last bit really staggers me. The sense of rancour within the church – they feel aggrieved, they feel bitter, they’re pissed off and resentful. At…? At a regulation that forbids them to discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of goods and services. If there’s a sense of rancour, that means they feel they’re right to be angry – they feel they’re hard done by. They think it’s a ‘betrayal.’ None of this handwringing about teachings or our conscience, just bloody-minded resentment – at being forbidden to treat homosexuals as outcasts. So we’re right back in Little Rock in 1957 or Mississippi in 1964 – it’s just as benevolent, just as reasonable, just as excusable.

And Blair still hopes. Hopes what?

Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of both the religious community and supporters of gay rights.

Oh did he. What business does he have being hopeful about such a thing? Why does he want to ‘respect’ the ‘sensitivities’ of ‘the religious community’ at all? Why does he not just consider them not respectable and thus refuse to respect them? Substitute other ‘sensitivities’ and see how that rebarbative formula sounds. ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the white community.’ ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the Gentile community.’ ‘Mr Blair said he was still hopeful of finding a solution which would protect vulnerable children while respecting the sensitivities of the Caucasian community.’

Haven’t we learned by now that we ought not to respect the ‘sensitivities’ of people who want to treat other people unequally, excludingly, prejudicially, unjustly, for no defensible articulable secular reason? Haven’t we? I thought we had – construing ‘we’ to include people Blair would want to include himself among, as opposed to racists and other defenders of ‘No __ Allowed’ signs and blockages of school house doors and arresting or beating up women who refuse to move to the back of the bus. Give it up, Mr Blair; just respect a better set of sensitivities and let it go at that.



Collaborators

Jan 25th, 2007 11:23 am | By

Nigel Warburton asked David Edmonds and John Eidinow a very important interesting searching profound question, one that always gets my alert curious attention, though I couldn’t quite tell you why.

Nigel: How difficult is it to write collaboratively? Not many people manage to pull it off as well as you do…

Okay, I could tell you why; I was joking when I said I couldn’t. It interests me because I sometimes write collaboratively myself, so I’m always interested in how it goes for other people, how they go about it, whether they enjoy it, and if they have any useful little tips.

Julian also interviewed Edmonds and Eidinow, for TPM, Issue 35. He also asked how they managed it.

The particulars of their working relationship are also interesting, though not perhaps for philosophical reasons. How is it that they have avoided the kind of falling-out that dooms so many writing partnerships?

By plying each other with chocolate and brandy? By sending each other little prezzies – tickets to football matches, cufflinks, T shirts with FCUK on them? By taking time out to hold hands and skip lightly around the flower bed every so often? No…

‘We communicate a lot,’ says Eidinow.

Aha! What a good idea! What a really good, sound, clever idea! Why has no one ever thought of that before?

I’m joking again. You can tell that. I will have my little jokes. I’m joking because this is something I’m always trying to convince my collaborator of – that communicating a lot (or at least some, or a bit, or any) is useful for collaboration purposes, and he is always trying to convince me of the opposite, though his method is the quiet one of not doing anything while mine is the noisy one of doing something. It’s sort of like speech acts. We enact the very thing we’re either talking or not talking about – although my enactment is more of an enactment because his enactment, being non-enactment, could bear other interpretations. I, the proponent of communication, enact that proponent-hood by communicating that communication is useful, whereas he, being either a non-proponent of communication, or a proponent of non-communication (which is it, I wonder) – either enacts or doesn’t enact that non-proponent-hood or that proponent-hood of non-communication, by not communicating. Then after the passage of a few weeks or months I enact some more, only louder, and he either does or doesn’t do the opposite, only minus louder.

I’m only joking, and exaggerating, and messing around. Only I do like it when other people who write collaboratively come right out in public and say that they keep on writing collaboratively by communicating a lot, thus strongly implying that a lot of communication is useful for purposes of collaboration. This is all I’m saying. I like it when other people say it because it provides a broad hint that I’m not stark staring mad – or at least that I’m not stark staring mad simply because I think communication is useful for purposes of collaboration. There may be other reasons to think so (she said darkly) but that’s not one of them, at least not if E and E are anything to go by, and why shouldn’t they be?

Actually writing collaboratively can be quite good fun, in its way. Especially when there’s an eight hour time difference between the collaborators, which throws up all sorts of extra challenges.

Right, that’s enough autobiographical chat for one year. This isn’t one of those dear diary places, after all. Except I might tell you about the new Sculpture Park that just opened down the hill from where I live. Some time.



What’s multi about it?

Jan 25th, 2007 10:19 am | By

Agnes Poirier decided to give Ken Livingstone’s multicultural jamboree a miss after all.

The multicultural London motion at that point included Jonathan Freedland, Tariq Ramadan and myself, and therefore offered three different points of view: in a nutshell, English liberal, fundamentalist Islamist and French republican. Are you surprised that I define Tariq Ramadan as a fundamentalist Islamist? Perhaps you thought that, as an adviser to Tony Blair on multiculturalism and a visiting senior research fellow at Oxford, he represented the face of moderate Islam? Forget his reassuring manner. Read Caroline Fourest’s remarkable study of his speeches and audio cassettes in which he asks young Muslims not to mix or marry outside their religion. Or note that he thoughtfully proposed “a moratorium on the lapidation of adulterous women”. Yes, a “moratorium”.

I wonder how many people do think Tariq Ramadan is not an Islamist. Probably quite a few, unfortunately.

On the right to religious dress debate, organisers had clearly another agenda. First, I was told Salma Yaqoob from Respect and French feminist Christine Delphy would speak alongside me. I didn’t know them so I thought I’d research a little. What I found was illuminating. I read scripts of speeches they made over the last three years, which all seemed to concentrate on the veil issue. What inflammatory tone, what incendiary statements about “France’s institutionalised racism”. Having campaigned together against what they called “the ban on Islamic veils”, they seemed to focus exclusively on the French colonial past, mother of all evils. I also learnt that Christine Delphy’s association “School for everyone” had been set up with Tariq Ramadan. This was shrewd of him: as in all matters of “women things”, it’s good to have a back-up who has been a buddy of Simone de Beauvoir: it usually unsettles and quietens the liberal left…Actually, since the law was passed two years ago, the question is not an issue any more in France. Beyond the law, what is fascinating is to see how the French position on religious dress is used by Islamo-leftists, revealing all too clearly the current British malaise rather than proving the existence of a French scandal.

Multiculturalism in this case boils down to Islamism, it seems.

Last thing, at the end of the programme, there was a mention of facilities “available during the day”: a crèche (great, that’s always handy), a “female prayer room” and “a male prayer room”…And is it Ken Livingstone’s idea of multiculturalism, one that acknowledges and condones segregation? Perhaps, you now see the point of French republicanism: don’t give in to any specific religious demands. And let everybody go down the café if they want a change of scenery.

Yes, apparently it is exactly Ken Livingstone’s idea of multiculturalism, one that acknowledges and condones segregation. How depressing it is.



Sensitivities

Jan 23rd, 2007 12:39 pm | By

So where are we.

Downing Street appeared to be wavering today on allowing Catholic adoption agencies exemption from gay rights legislation, after a warning from the leader of Catholics in England and Wales that agencies may close rather than comply with the regulations…Mr Blair’s official spokesman said: “This is an issue with sensitivities on all sides…The key thing we have to remember in all of this is the interests of the children concerned and that there are arguments on both sides. This is not a straightforward black-and-white issue. This is an issue where there are sensitivities on all sides and we have to respect those but equally find a way through.”

But are there arguments on both sides? Or are there just sensitivities. There is a difference. I hope Blair knows that – but I’m not confident that he does. It’s also worth pointing out that in fact we don’t ‘have to’ respect all sensitivities just because they’re sensitivities. I hope Blair knows that too, but again, I’m not confident that he does. It sounds too like the usual community-respect-grievance-fuzz-wool for confidence. This is one reason all this kind of thing gets so…hopelessly lost in the fog: it’s because people know that all they have to do is bleat about sensitivities and respect and conscience and faith and there will be spokespeople eager to say that we have to respect those. Well we don’t. Not necessarily. It depends what they are. The people of Little Rock had ‘sensitivities’ – the white people among them, that is – about integrating the public high school there. No one ‘had to’ respect those, because they were nasty and wrong. You could multiply that example by the thousands or tens of thousands all over the planet. Everywhere you go there are ‘sensitivities’ about various outgroups and ways in which We don’t want to mix with Them and in order to avoid that dread fate we want to shut them out of various public accommodations and services so that we won’t have to, you know, mix with them and be contaminated by them. Those sensitivities do not have to be respected, and ought not to be respected, and it’s not impressive to see Blair or his spokesman saying they do. A Tory MP did a hell of a lot better than Blair did.

The Tory MP John Bercow, who has argued strongly in favour of gay equality, said: “The idea of an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies is an anathema and contradicts the concept of equality at the heart of this legislation. People choose their religion, they do not choose their orientation. I believe equality is equality is equality and it is quite incredible for the Catholic church to insist its religious views should take precedence over others’ human rights.”

Yes, it is. Perhaps this is a more straightforward black-and-white issue than Blair wants to admit.

Let’s have a look at the archbishop’s ‘argument’ then.

[T]o oblige our agencies in law to consider adoption applications from homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents would require them to act against the principles of Catholic teaching. We require our agencies to recruit and approve appropriate married and single people to meet the needs of children in local authority care for whom adoption has been identified as being in their best interest. We place significant emphasis on marriage, as it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured. Marital love involves an essential complementarity of male and female. We recognize that some children, particularly those who have suffered abuse and neglect, may well benefit from placement with a single adoptive parent. However, Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life, a teaching shared not only by other Christian Churches but also other faiths, means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents.

That’s it. And frankly it seems completely worthless. A single parent is okay, though not the first choice – but a gay couple is not okay. Because…’it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured.’ Sorry, that doesn’t work. It is, of course, from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born, because that’s how that works, but adoption isn’t about the birth of new life, it’s about rescuing an existing life from loneliness, abandonment, neglect and unhappiness. The idea seems to be (though the archbish does a damn bad job of spelling it out) that because children are born to two parents, therefore adopted children ought to be put in a situation that mimics a two-parent situation. Well – why? Why ought they? That is not clear. And, especially after learning what we’ve been learning about life at Goldenbridge, I think the archbishop should have made it clear. I assume he didn’t because he couldn’t because there is nothing to make clear. It’s not a real reason, it’s just a ‘sensitivity’ (that is, a taboo) dressed up in religious clothes, as ‘sensitivities’ so often are.



Not to worry

Jan 22nd, 2007 2:16 pm | By

The MCB is so dutiful and giving and conscientious, don’t you think? It assures us that, when it’s absolutely necessary, even a Muslim will in fact do her job.

A Muslim woman police officer refused to shake hands with the head of the Metropolitan Police on faith grounds…The woman’s refusal was based on her view that her faith prevented her touching a man other than her husband or a close relative…Sheikh Ibraham Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said people should not be alarmed by the officer’s beliefs and that Muslim law “was not set in concrete”. He added: “If the officer is called to a male victim who has been shot, the laws go out of the window. If she has to resuscitate that dying person, Muslim law will then change and allow her all sorts of physical contact because a life is at risk and life is so precious. Muslim law will say, ‘forget everything, save this life’.”

Ohhhhh – isn’t that generous? I’m so impressed. If a male victim is dying, then the law goes out the window. Coolerino. But so – if he’s not dying but just mangled, it doesn’t? Or if there’s uncertainty about whether he’s dying or not? Or if he’s quite all right really but trapped and in pain? Does she have to do her job only if the male victim will die if she doesn’t? Is there, like, a get-out clause for all cases short of death? Is that what everyone should be not alarmed about? Or should people instead be alarmed about the whole idea of other people taking up jobs that their religions forbid them to, you know, do?

It all reminds me of Mr Collins –

I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.

And Lizzy’s reflection on him: ‘Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.’



No equality please we’re Catholic

Jan 21st, 2007 5:35 pm | By

God, this is revolting.

Ruth Kelly is trying to water down new anti-discrimination laws to let Catholic adoption agencies turn away gay couples. Backed by Tony Blair, the embattled Communities secretary is at the centre of a full-scale cabinet row over the new gay rights laws…The Catholic church has threatened to close its seven adoption agencies rather than comply with laws that forbid them to discriminate against gay couples. The Prime Minister is supporting her efforts to water down new laws that are supposed to guarantee gay people equal rights to goods and services.

Well, great. Because the Catholic church has such a shining history of taking care of children, doesn’t it.

Of the 2,900 children put up for adoption last year, the agencies placed around 4 per cent. But they found homes for around a third of the “difficult-to-place” children. Ms Kelly argues it is these children that would suffer if Catholic couples were no longer encouraged to adopt by church-run agencies. Gay campaigners argue, however, that gay parents are themselves more likely to adopt the most vulnerable children and nothing should be done to bar them from the system. Ms Kelly refuses to say whether she regards homosexuality as a sin. She has defended failing to vote for civil partnerships or gay adoption on the grounds that they are “issues of conscience”.

What’s that supposed to mean? If it’s a vote, it’s an issue of law; she’s in the government; what right does she have to refuse to vote on an issue not of conscience but of what Lord Whatsit the other day called ‘church teaching’?

Oh dear – I’m coming over all militant atheist. If Ruth Kelly wants to inspire a lot more people to turn militant atheist, she’s going the right way about it.

Joan Smith is cross with her.

Ms Kelly stands accused of preparing to give in to homophobic lobbying from Roman Catholic bishops. It seems that these worthies, who present themselves as champions of children’s rights in their relentless campaign against abortion, would rather see kids remain in institutions than hand them over to same-sex adoptive parents. Faced with equality legislation that would make such discrimination illegal, they’ve lobbied the Government and found sympathetic listeners in the Prime Minister and Ms Kelly who – this is not a joke – is the cabinet minister responsible for equality.

Yeah well – we know they preferred to see them in institutions in Ireland rather than hand them over to their own mothers, in many cases not because the mothers were abusive but because they were unmarried. We know they have a very warped idea of what is immoral and what isn’t. Forbidding condoms during a pandemic, moral; keeping children in institutions rather than letting them go to gay parents, moral; being gay, shockingly immoral and sinful and bad.

If I were thinking about how best to promote the welfare of children in need of adoptive parents, I certainly wouldn’t take much notice of an organisation with such a scandalous record. No doubt Ms Kelly takes a different view, but then she would: she’s a devout Catholic, and in a sane world that would disqualify her from taking decisions which might provide special treatment to an organisation of which she is a member. Those of us with a surer grasp of morality are entitled to explain to Ms Kelly that for the second time in a month she faces something called a conflict of interest, and the Prime Minister’s support cannot alter that fact.

Why is Blair supporting her?

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is set to become the leader of England’s Catholics, recently warned the Government not to “impose on us conditions which contradict our moral values”. “It is simply unacceptable to suggest that the resources of… adoption agencies … can work in co-operation with public authorities only if the faith communities accept not just the legal framework but also the moral standards being touted by the Government,” he sermonised last November. When it comes to Mr Blair, the archbishop is preaching to the converted, according to senior ministers. The Prime Minister first asked Alan Johnson, then responsible, to include a loophole in anti-discrimination legislation to allow the Catholic ban on gay parents early last year. When he refused, the PM moved him and handed the equalities brief to Ms Kelly, whom he knew could be trusted to back him on the issue.

Well what a pretty story.



Militant atheism

Jan 20th, 2007 9:49 am | By

I’ve been pondering something Julian says in Atheism: a very short introduction (again). I think there’s something I disagree with; unless I misunderstand it, which is always possible.

It’s to do with his overall rejection of what he calls ‘militant atheism’ in favour of a less hostile or less noisy variety. I’m not saying there are no reasons to object to noisy and/or hostile atheism – people offer me such reasons often, and I can see that some of them have force. (There’s the fact that it can be boring, irritating and repetitive, for instance!) I’m just taking issue with a couple of particulars here.

On page 106 he says:

Nor do I believe that a firm belief in the falsity of religion is enough to justify militant opposition to it…I think my opposition to militant atheism is based on a commitment to the very values that I think inspire atheism: an open-minded commitment to the truth and rational enquiry…Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one’s own beliefs is, I think, antithetical to such values.

Agreed – except for this objection I have, unless it’s a misunderstanding. It’s the (crucial, I think) bit about ‘hostile opposition to the beliefs of others.’ I don’t think it’s beliefs we’re hostile to (we militant or noisy or hostile atheists). I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s statements, assertions, truth-claims, that we oppose, sometimes with hostility. Like Elizabeth I, we don’t really want to make a window into people’s heads. We (mostly)* don’t mess with people’s internal beliefs, we mess with the externalized version that comes out as assertions or arguments. I think that makes a difference. I could be wrong, but at the moment it seems to me that that makes a difference. Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others may well be objectionable, but hostile opposition to the assertions or arguments of others? Is that objectionable? (Well, it partly depends on how you define ‘hostile,’ of course. If it descends to name-calling, yes; but if it’s just energetic disagreement, that’s another matter.) It seems to me that even militant atheists, even outright brawlers, don’t care about internal states of other people, it’s only external states that meet opposition.

The assertions and arguments are of course based on the beliefs, so that by opposing the assertions and arguments we are in effect also opposing the beliefs – but not, I would say, as such; we’re opposing them as a necessary part of opposing what flows from them. Of course that’s not obvious when these disputes are going on (or afterwards either) – but I think it’s true all the same, and I think it matters.

If that’s right, I think it’s possible that militant atheists get something of a bad rap, even from other atheists. Being (I take it) what is meant by a ‘militant atheist’ myself, of course I have a motivation for saying that, but I think it’s possible all the same.

On the other hand – it may be that by ‘beliefs’ Julian means assertions and arguments as well as mental states. He may mean ‘beliefs’ to cover that whole complex – in which case my objection becomes irrelevant. Or it may be that he would argue that hostile opposition is objectionable in any case. Or it may be both of those. If that’s the case, then I admit that I offer hostile opposition to the beliefs of people like Theo Hobson, Giles Fraser, Keith Ward, Madeleine Bunting, Phillip Blond. In a way I suppose it’s reasonable to call what they write in columns and articles their ‘beliefs’ – arguments and assertions are instantiations of beliefs, at least. I do often feel and express hostility to such arguments and claims – but is that because of ‘a dogged conviction of the certainty of [my] own beliefs’? Hmm. No, I don’t think so…At least, not a dogged conviction of the certainty of oppositional ontological beliefs. I might have a certain amount of dogged conviction that their way of reaching conclusions is wrong…Yes; that’s what it is. That’s what sparks the hostility. It’s not the substantive beliefs, it’s the way of thinking.

So the question becomes – Is a firm belief in the badness of woolly thinking (as opposed to ‘a firm belief in the falsity of religion,’ see above) enough to justify militant opposition to it? Well, yes, frankly; I think it is, at least when the woolly thinking is published in newspapers and on newspaper websites. I think that’s a different kind of thing – different from beliefs about the falsity of religion. Furthermore, it seems to me that if the woolly thinking is offered up in public media, then it is necessarily fair game, in a way that mere beliefs about the non-falsity of religion are not. I think that’s especially true when the woolly thinking is itself rather aggressive, as with Theo Hobson and Co it so often is. There is in fact something inherently aggressive and would-be coercive about conspicuously bad arguments – they have a whiff of force about them, at least to my aristocratic nose. A whiff of ‘believe or else,’ of ‘unbelief is not permitted,’ of ‘submit,’ of ‘how dare you.’

I think that’s what triggers the militant atheism. Not the basic beliefs, not internal states, but aggressively weak arguments delivered as public challenges. You don’t see a great many militant atheists invading churches or disrupting funerals, as far as I know. You see them disputing public claims. And perhaps upsetting dinner tables, but that’s an issue for Miss Manners.

It’s a swell book, by the way, as commenters (and I) said in the previous post on the subject.

*I’m generalizing throughout. I think what I’m saying applies to most militant atheists, but I don’t claim it applies to all. I’m extrapolating from myself, is what it boils down to, and I certainly don’t know that there are no exceptions.



What kind of respect are we talking about?

Jan 17th, 2007 11:04 am | By

We keep hearing about public objections to or fears about the creation of human-animal embryos for research purposes, but the objections and fears that are cited are, frankly, rather pathetic. They also seem to be very much in the minority. In fact it looks as if the news media are creating and inflating these objections and fears, more than they are reporting on their existence. Oh, well that’s a surprise, that’s never happened before. Surely?

The Indy offers some background, including on the opposition.

There are many pressure groups and religious organisations who have voiced their opposition on the grounds that it is unethical or immoral to mix germ cells from humans and animals to create potentially viable embryos. They believe that it undermines respect for human life, and some believe it is also demeaning to animals.

And…that’s it, at least as far as this article goes. It undermines ‘respect,’ it’s ‘demeaning.’ Sounds familiar, doesn’t it – sounds like the wack objections to gay marriage: it undermines respect for the institution of marriage. How and why it does that is never spelled out – what that even means is never spelled out. People who oppose the opposition ask and ask and ask to have the reasoning made plain, but…if they’ve had much success, the results are being carefully hidden.

Why, exactly, does the creation of a certain kind of egg, which will be destroyed within fourteen days, undermine respect for human life? I want to know. What’s the thinking here? That thirteen-day old embryos might end up being dressed up in little outfits and enrolled in school? That they might start marrying people’s children? That they’ll make all the buses and movie theatres and supermarkets too crowded? That they’ll jostle us off the sidewalk and humiliate us? That they’ll want to spend the night in our houses and have their horrible unthinkable disgusting squelchy sex right there with us in the next room listening in fear and horror?

That’s it, isn’t it. It’s sex. The many pressure groups and religious organisations are afraid that they will want to have sex with each other where we’ll be able to hear; they’re afraid they will want to have sex with us. They’ll seduce us, they’ll lie down on top of us in the night when we’re asleep and impregnate us with their horrible hybrid pinkish fibrous mucousy slimy – oh, jesus, help me.

Okay maybe that’s not it, maybe I’m being unfair, as usual. But what is it then? What, exactly, is it? What is it about some embryos in a lab at Newcastle or King’s College London that causes respect for human life to be undermined? Perhaps it’s that potential murderers will, as soon as such embryos exist, no longer think ‘No, I mustn’t, it would be wrong,’ but instead will think ‘Hey, there are those little embryos at Newcastle, they have some cow DNA mixed in – not very much, admittedly, but still some, so what is human life worth? Not much, obviously; therefore I will murder that co-worker who gets on my nerves, because why not?’ Is that it? Well, if so, could it be that the worry is ever so slightly far-fetched and, as it were, strained? That the likelihood of that looks no more robust than the likelihood of any other random fanciful absurd scenario one could come up with? Maybe the next time I take the 74 bus one of the passengers will decide the existence of tomato paste in tiny cans makes life not worth living, and so get off on Stone Way instead of 40th Street.

Why do pressure groups and religious organisations get to ‘voice their opposition’ on worthless empty meaningless grounds that way, and be considered a serious and worth-heeding opposition? Talk about undermining respect – they’re the ones who undermine respect, if you ask me: they undermine respect for human ability to oppose things for good reasons as opposed to completely factitious whimsical made-up ones. This isn’t just messing around, after all! This isn’t like old Coke versus new Coke; this is medical research that could cure horrible diseases. What business do people have opposing it for silly frivolous worked-up reasons? It’s revolting if you look at it hard enough. Is it just for the sake of the self-righteous glow? The little aura of piety? Well – that’s a crappy reason. A crappy, vain, narcissistic, beside the point reason. If we want to fret about respect for human life, why not fret a great deal more about the lives lost or ruined by Parkinson’s or Motor Neurone disease than about some mysterious vague unspecified general ‘life’ that belongs to no one in particular but would be less respected because of those eggs? Respect for human life, indeed. Pull the other one.



Hats

Jan 17th, 2007 11:04 am | By

I did a comment a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think and NASA and the Challenger explosion and Richard Feynman. I got Feynman’s book (What do You Care What Other People Think?, the one that includes his account of the investigation of the explosion) from the library yesterday – it’s a fascinating read. It is all about bad or non-existent communication between managers and engineers, along with the fact that the managers make the decisions. Baaaad set-up. However good a manager you are, you can’t manage a cold stiff non-resilient rubber O-ring into doing its job of holding in the hot gases during launch. That just isn’t a managerial skill. O-rings and rubber just aren’t…manipulable or commandable or influenceable or persuadable in that way. They just do what they do, no matter what plans the managers make, no matter how many zeros the managers add to the number an explosion can’t happen in. That kind of thing just doesn’t change what happens when a cold O-ring isn’t resilent enough to expand when the joint expands. It just can’t be coaxed. It doesn’t expand, the gas escapes, blam; that’s all.

I’ll tell you more another time, but there was this one passage I read this morning that made me sit up and take even more notice than I already was, which is a lot. It’s highly interesting in itself, but it also exactly echoes something I was thinking…the other day, recently some time, but I couldn’t remember when. You know how that is. I enjoyed that ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s just what I was thinking…whenever it was,’ but I wanted to remember when I was thinking it. (I don’t know. I just did.) I knew I could find out though, because I scribbled a note about it at the time. I scribble notes about things like that in a notebook. You never know when you might want to recall them. It took me awhile to find the note, but I did, and oddly, I scribbled it the day after that post. (I date them. I do several every day, so I insert each day’s dates. I don’t know. I just do.) I’d forgotten that it had anything to do with NASA. But I ended up having the same thought Feynman did about the whole matter. I find that interesting.

Here’s some of what I say in the notebook (don’t mind the sketchiness and crudeness, it’s just a note, a scribble, a memory-aid):

Politics is like NASA. It’s about taking off your engineering hat and putting on your management hat. It’s about – agreement, compromise, persuasion, manipulation, acceptance, opinion. It’s got nothing to do with accuracy, evidence, inquiry, critical thinking – it’s all mush. Mush-world. Baby world. Coax world. ‘Is this okay, will this do?’ Who cares; is it right, or not? [etc] But the political way of thinking – at the extreme – is like NASA – and is a kind of magical thinking – if the majority thinks so then it is true, which can even become, if the majority wants it to, it will happen. Like prayer, perhaps – a background idea that our hopes and wishes (and prayers) really do affect rocks and gases – really do protect the shuttle and keep it from exploding.

That’s politics at its worst, of course, but still, it did strike me with a peculiar force or clarity at that moment, and explain to me why I’m really not very interested in politics these days. So you’ll be able to see why this bit of Feynman’s book made me sit up.

The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty. In other fields, such as business, it’s different.’ He cites advertising, where the goal is to fool the customer, and then: ‘When I see a congressman giving his opinion on something, I always wonder if it represents his real opinion or if it represents an opinion he’s designed in order to be elected. It seems to be a central problem for politicians.

Yes. It does. That’s exactly it. It’s wearing a management hat not an engineering hat – which means ignoring what the engineers tell you if it’s not what you or the voters want to hear. Even if that means ignoring the engineers telling you it’s dangerous to launch when it’s this cold and launching anyway, as if managers or politicians have some kind of magical power to over-ride physical reality and make O-rings resilient by the mere power of wishing. Step right up, buy our magic hats, they can make you beautiful and healthy and young, and they can prevent shuttles from exploding and hurricanes from breaching levies.

Once you’ve been impressed by that difference, it’s hard to go back, I think.



Not Hezbollah now, thank you

Jan 16th, 2007 6:26 pm | By

What’s all this about liberal education then? Does it have to do with the free discussion of ideas and a more cosmopolitan sense of the world maybe, as opposed to whatever green-and-slimy thing Bill O’Reilly thought he saw under the bed one day? Michael Bérubé offers some thoughts:

I’ve given up on trying to come up with formulations about the goal of liberal education that everyone would agree with, but I think cosmopolitanism beats the alternatives…What I’m offering, simply, is the much broader stroke of opposing cosmopolitanism to parochialism…I look at how it was, from Clifford Geertz onwards, that the idea of “local knowledges” took such hold of us. Why would the local be taken as a good in itself?…[I]t struck me as strange that the fetishization of the local would become so entrenched…[C]osmopolitanism…still gets a bad rap in quarters where it’s understood to entail rootlessness and a lack of grounding or commitment…Not only do I disagree – I think cultivating the idea of “world citizens,” to take Martha Nussbaum’s phrase from Cultivating Humanity, now more than ever beats every alternative I can think of. It offers a rebuke to certain pragmatic nationalisms – and I also think the talk of supersession of the nation-state is running well ahead of the actual facts. Finally, I would much rather be associated with an internationalist left than with a so-called patriotic left, and I think cosmopolitanism works toward that end.

Same here. With considerable emphasis. Cosmopolitanism, internationalism, world citizenship over the parochial, local and patriotic every time. Hand me my tiny patchwork flag, would you? I want to wave it.

The university is perhaps ‘one of the more genuine public spheres, in contrast to the kind of politics that we get on TV,’ the interviewer suggests.

There is always (and often for good reasons) suspicion of anyone launching a critique of Chomsky because he is so iconic; and all criticism is considered apostasy. So this week on the blog I said, let me try to explain what the difference is between the “democratic” and the “anti-imperialist” left, because the anti-imperialist left these days, I think, is leading itself right off the cliff to – well, the phrase this month is “we are all Hezbollah now.” I’m not Hezbollah, thank you, and I’m also not part of the Iraqi resistance…You don’t want to be in the position of saying, well, the repression and the homophobia of such and such a regime—at least they’re at least anti-imperialist, revolutionary homophobia and repression, as opposed to reactionary, imperialist homophobia and repression. In the last ten years or so, I have not only come around, as I argue in Liberal Arts, to a kind of re-appreciation of what the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was trying to do, but I’ve gotten increasingly impatient with that wing of the left that will cut some slack to whoever is the enemy of my enemy at the moment.

Yeah.

Read the whole thing, as they say.



Christianity invented atheism

Jan 15th, 2007 6:40 pm | By

I shouldn’t say anything about Giles Fraser, it’s what he wants, he’s just doing it to provoke me, I should ignore him – but there are just one or two or three or four things I want to point out, ever so gently, that are tendentious and incorrect. I know (because Allen has told me) that the Guardian just does this, and no one pays any attention, but – just these few little items, very gently and politely.

His overall point is what one might call the Michael Ruse Move: claiming that atheists are IDers’ or fundamentalists’ best friends and that the only really okay sensible good nice okay people are ‘mainstream’ Christians like – well, rather like Giles Fraser, actually.

Fundamentalism was invented only in the 20th century.

The word was, yes, but the thing itself? Uh, no. All Christianity was ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense of orthodoxy-enforcing and heresy-punishing for centuries; that didn’t start along with the hip flask and wireless radio.

Many Christians don’t believe homosexuality is a sin. Far from it. We think it’s a gift of God – a means by which many show love and commitment and compassion. This is not an eccentric view within the church. It’s also the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, though, admittedly, he is insufficiently bold in expressing it.

Well, that’s sweet, but why does the Vicar of Putney get to pretend that it’s inherent to Christianity? One, belief that homosexuality is indeed a sin ya youbetcha is not a novelty, and two, he’s simply talking about moral intuitions which trump religious rules and which anyone can have; there’s nothing specifically Christian about them. Why does he give Christianity credit for it?

But bigots who dress up in the clothing of faith are being encouraged by media atheists in the view that orthodox biblical Christianity is intrinsically anti-gay. That’s rubbish.

Is it. Is it really. So Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, 1 Kings 14:24, Romans 1:26-28, those are all – ? What? Not part of ‘orthodox biblical Christianity’? Er…since when? And according to whom? And how do we know? And why should we trust it?

Ignoring the fact that Christianity invented secularism, on these pages last week Toynbee described the row over sexual orientation regulations as “a mighty test of strength between the religious and the secular”.

Christianity invented secularism, did it. So what was all that about the popes then? The Vatican being a sovereign state? The monarchs who were defenders of the faith? Calvin’s fun-loving regime in Geneva? That was all just the early days of the Enlightenment was it?

Christianity also invented elevators, toilet paper, steam, rayon, and capitalism. Little-known fact.

Thank you for stopping by, Dr Fraser, it was a pleasure having this little chat with you, have a good week.

There, see? Quite polite.



It is my right to blah blah blah

Jan 14th, 2007 1:01 pm | By

Look at this leering little pill. Look at that ineffable smirk. Well naturally, she’s got her picture in the paper, and she’s been given a chance to set up as the new fun thing to be, a Martyr for her Faith. Of course she’s smirking. She must have been beside herself with joy and excitement when a teacher told her to take off the nasty little necklace with torture-execution emblem. She’s probably been waiting to be told that for weeks, wondering what was taking everyone so long. Mind you, she was allowed to wear the same revolting thing as a lapel badge if she wanted to, the pious little creep, but no, that would interfere with the martyrdom-pose, so obviously she wasn’t about to close with that offer. Hell no. Where would be the fun in that? She would hardly get a chance to announce to the Telegraph that ‘I am determined to keep wearing the crucifix whatever the consequences – even if I get suspended or expelled’ if she settled for just swapping a necklace for a lapel badge, would she. Nor would her mother get the chance to drone to the same newspaper that ‘I was brought up to be proud of my religion and we believe it is Sam’s right to be proud of what she believes in and wear a symbol of her faith. It’s a total disgrace. I don’t want Sam’s schoolwork to suffer, but she believes in standing up for what she believes in.’

They must all be just tumbling over each other with bliss in the cross-infested sitting room of their pious devout proud spiritual faith-based religious proud courageous dwelling place. They get to be in the newspaper. Called devout. Talking about what they are determined to do even if they are tortured or killed or imprisoned, or anyway expelled from Robert Napier School, Gillingham, Kent, which is much the same thing if you look at it the right way. Everyone will admire them! Everyone will think how brave and proud and self-sacrificing and devout and brought up they are! Everyone will be so impressed! They’ll probably get to meet the queen, and Charles, and Camilla, they’ll probably get to have Julia Roberts over for dinner, they’ll probably get to make the House of Lords do something or other. It is all so exciting. Darling little cross, what fun it is.



Subject closed – or not

Jan 13th, 2007 1:05 pm | By

Something W K C Guthrie said about Socrates set off a train of thought.

[S]ince no one will try to find out what constitutes right action, or what is the real meaning of freedom or justice, if he thinks he knows it already, the first task was to convince others too of their ignorance.

True enough, probably – unless she already thinks that things keep on being worth thinking about even if she does think she knows something about them already. That’s why a basic stance of skepticism, uncertainty, revisability, is a good thing. If we have it, we’re likely and predisposed to go on (and on and on) trying to find out things even if we have thought about them before. We’re never finished. There are no closed questions.

The belief or conviction that we already know all that needs to be known on a subject probably does impede further inquiry and thought about it. That’s a sensible time-saving mechanism in a world of finite time and attention, especially when it comes to simple straightforward factual information like bus timetables, but it’s also the high road to dogmatism and delusions of infallibility and lack of practice in thinking and questioning on more complicated subjects. The absence of a sense that ‘That subject is settled, closed, there is nothing to think about’ is a necessary condition of thinking about it. If you really think there is nothing to think about, then you won’t.

So, as with biases, I’ve been trying to figure out if I can think of any closed subjects – subjects that are closed for me. Subjects I just wouldn’t want to think about no matter what the new evidence or arguments. Er – I couldn’t do it. I can think of subjects that bore me into fits, and that I avoid discussing or thinking about in certain terms – US politics, for example, which is 95% campaign and only 5% substance (figures pulled out of air), and just unbelievably boring and pointless. But that’s different from closed. I can’t think of anything actually closed. I must be fooling myself! I must be, that must be sheer delusion. Tax policy. Economics. No…I feel resistance, but that’s laziness and ill-informedness, not imputed knowledge. I can’t think of anything I know so much about that there’s nothing to think about. Well that’s plausible enough! Maybe I’m not fooling myself: maybe that’s just the product of ignorance and a bad memory. I’m serious. I find it easy to get interested in subjects I’ve already learned something about, because I’ve forgotten what I learned. I can just start over. Wonderful quality, that! It leaves you pig-ignorant, but also keeps you interested. Let’s see…belief in the existence of the self. We’ve never talked about that (surely?), so let’s get down to it.



STDs don’t know who did what to whom

Jan 13th, 2007 12:12 pm | By

A tangential comment in this piece on why Harvard shouldn’t pretend, as Steven Pinker put it in The Crimson, “‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing” is pertinent to a recent discussion here of condoms and the Catholic church:

Indeed, it is not uncommon for religious leaders to advocate acting on faith in the face of reason – as when Catholic priests forbid married women to use condoms even when their husbands are infected with AIDS.

Of course, Catholic priests (and bishops and archbishops and cardinals and the pope and many theologians and Catholic thinkers and writers) forbid everyone to use condoms under any circs, but the point Lawrence Krauss is making by putting it that way is the one that gets, bizarrely, overlooked by people (and there are some) who defend the Catholic church’s position on the issue by pointing out that people already disobey the church’s teachings by not being monogamous; the condom issue, they say, is subsidiary to that fact, and therefore no reason to blame the church for its loathsome murderous policy. There are a lot of problems with that defense (such as the lack of fit between crime and punishment – adultery is not self-evidently the right sort of thing to punish with a slow unpleasant death), but one of the most glaring is the one Krauss indicates by his way of stating the policy. The ban on condoms is a blanket ban, so, obviously, it punishes monogamous partners (and children) as well as non-monogamous partners. Of course that is not to say the spread of AIDS is the church’s fault and no one else’s, but it is to say that the church (to put it as mildly as possible) ought not to do anything to hinder AIDS-prevention. The church ought not to be helping along ‘punishment’ in the form of a horrible disease – that seems simple enough. (That discussion got sidetracked in the earlier thread by an irritating eruption of sexist bullshit. I run a classy outfit here; if anyone’s going to lower the tone it will be me. Sexist bullshit is right out.)