Notes and Comment Blog

You can do both

Sep 22nd, 2007 5:41 pm | By

Peter Tatchell asks some pointed questions.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has executed three more Arab political prisoners…There have been no protests from Britain, the EU or the UN. The UN’s silence comes on top of the truly appalling vote by UN Human Rights Council to abandon its monitoring of human rights abuses in Iran…While condemning Israel for abusing the Palestinian people, Arab states are silent about the abuse of fellow Arabs by the Iranian regime. The anti-imperialist left is also mute. Why the double standards? Palestinian Arabs get the support of progressives and radicals everywhere; Iranian Arabs get no support at all. They swing from nooses in public squares like cattle hanging in an abattoir. Does anyone care? Ahwazi Arabs accuse Tehran of Persian chauvinism, racism and ethnic cleansing, as I previously revealed in Tribune. The response to that article from some Islamists, left-wingers and anti-war activists was to denounce me as racist and anti-Muslim. But how can it be Islamophobic or racist to defend Arab Muslims against Tehran’s persecution?

Ummmmmm…because by criticizing Iran you are playing into the hands of the neocons who want to bomb the bejeezus out of it? Yeah, that’s it. The neocons, pleased with the triumph in Iraq, want to carry on the good work in Iran, therefore – therefore, I say – Iran’s repressive reactionary government can do no wrong, and anyone who says it can is (of course) racist and anti-Muslim – not to mention ‘Islamophobic.’

Quite rightly, most Arabs do not support a US attack on Iran. Military intervention would strengthen the position of the hardliners in Tehran; allowing President Ahmadinejad to play the nationalist card and, using the pretext of defending the country against imperialism, to further crack down on dissent. Many Ahwazis believe the route to liberation is an internal “people power” alliance of Iranian socialists, liberals, democrats, students, trade unionists and minority nationalities.

And outsiders can give moral support and publicity, just as they did with apartheid.

Some anti-war leftists refuse to condemn the Tehran dictatorship and refuse to support the Iranian resistance; arguing that to do so would play into the hands of the US neocons and militarists. I disagree. Opposing imperialism and defending human rights are complementary, not contradictory.

Yeah. Third Camp, you see. It opposes both US militarism and Islamism.

Why should the criticism of religion provoke such an outcry?

Sep 20th, 2007 1:27 pm | By

As we saw, Matthew Nisbet cites Paul Kurtz as someone whose lead he is following when he says things like ‘Messages must be positive and respect diversity…[M]any scientists not only fail to think strategically about how to communicate on evolution, but belittle and insult others’ religious beliefs.’ A helpful commenter on his Kurtz post pointed out a recent editorial by Kurtz in Free Inquiry – from the February/March 2007 issue, it was.

The fact that books by Dawkins and Harris have made it to The New York Times best-seller list has apparently sent chills down the spines of many commentators; not only conservative religionists but also some otherwise liberal secularists are worried about this unexpected development. We note that the people now being attacked are affiliated with FREE INQUIRY and the Center for Inquiry. The editors of FREE INQUIRY, of course, are gratified that the views espoused in these pages have received a wider forum. What disturbs us is the preposterous outcry that atheists are “evangelical” and that they have gone too far in their criticism of religion.

Really? The public has been bombarded by pro-religious propaganda from time immemorial—today it comes from pulpits across the land, TV ministries, political hucksters, and best-selling books…Until now, it has been virtually impossible to get a fair hearing for critical comment upon uncontested religious claims. It was considered impolite, in bad taste, and it threatened to raise doubts about God’s existence or hegemony. I have often said that it is as if an “iron curtain” had descended within America, for skeptics have discovered that the critical examination of religion has been virtually verboten. We have experienced firsthand how journalists and producers have killed stories about secular humanism for fear of offending the little old ladies and gentlemen in the suburbs, conservative advertisers, the Catholic hierarchy, or right-wing fundamentalists.

For skeptics have discovered that the critical examination of religion has been virtually verboten. Exactly. This is what I’m saying.

Science columnist William J. Broad, in a piece published earlier this year in the Times…, criticized both Daniel C. Dennett and Edward O. Wilson (another Center for Inquiry stalwart)…Broad faults E.O. Wilson for writing in an earlier book (Consilience) that “the insights of neuroscience and evolution . . . increasingly can illuminate even morality and ethics, with the scientific findings potentially leading ‘more directly and safely to stable moral codes’ than do the dictates of God’s will or the findings of transcendentalism.” Broad remonstrates against such views, maintaining that they exhibit “a kind of arrogance,” and he likewise recommends that scientists declare a truce in their critiques of religion. To which I reply that it is important that we apply scientific inquiry as best we can to all areas of human behavior, including religion and ethics. I fail to see why it is “arrogant” to attempt to do so.

Because…because…well because it alienates fellow citizens.

We note that the National Review and the Jewish Forward are also worried by “militant secularists” who question established religions—they were objecting to an advertisement the Center for Inquiry/Transnational ran on the op-ed page of The New York Times (November 15, 2006), headlined “In Defense of Science and Secularism.” We think it appropriate to defend the integrity of science and the importance of secularism at a time when both are under heavy attack…But why should the nonreligious, nonaffiliated, secular minority in the country remain silent? We dissenters now comprise some 14 to 16 percent of the population. Why should religion be held immune from criticism, and why should the admission that one is a disbeliever be considered so disturbing?…Given all these facts, why should the criticism of religion provoke such an outcry?

Read the whole thing, as the saying goes. It’s very unNisbetesque.

Some affirmations

Sep 19th, 2007 12:27 pm | By

As we saw, Nisbet quotes Paul Kurtz on the need to be for things as well as against things. ‘It is what you are for that counts, not what you are against!’ I agree with that – and I’ll tell you some of the things I’m for.

I’m for free inquiry – open, fearless, unashamed, uninhibited inquiry. That means inquiry that is not expected to be deferential to majority opinion or belief; inquiry that follows the evidence wherever it goes without worrying about what the neighbours or bosses or ‘moderate believers’ will think.

I’m for telling the truth, on the whole, especially in public discourse. (That means no, I’m not for telling people they’re ugly or boring or fat or old, even if they are. I’m not for telling cruel personal truth, but that’s a different subject, and not relevant here.) I’m for telling the truth more than I’m for manipulating or wheedling. I realize – and realize more since reading The Political Brain – that that doesn’t always work in politics, but that’s one reason I wouldn’t want to go into politics: because I am for telling the truth more than I am for manipulating or wheedling.

I’m for progress, and change, and reform, including in thinking. I think all of those are impeded by the idea that the majority must not be ‘offended’ and that therefore certain ideas are taboo or sacrosanct.

I’m for thinking, and for universal freedom to think – freely, fearlessly, without inhibition.

I’m for knowledge, and learning, and evidence, all of which require free inquiry in order to flourish.

I’m for treating people as sensible grownups who can bear to have their ideas challenged without going into meltdown. That means I’m against treating people as fragile idiots who have to be protected from disagreement.

I’m for honesty in public discourse, which entails making reasonable efforts to address questions and objections rather than ignoring them in favour of repeating the original (questioned) claims.

See how affirmative I can be?

Deferential Inquiry

Sep 18th, 2007 10:35 am | By

Matthew Nisbet answered my question about Paul Kurtz by transcribing some of a Point of Inquiry interview of Kurtz. Kurtz does indeed say things along the same lines as what Nisbet says. There are differences, but there are also large similarities. I was skeptical about that yesterday, and Nisbet did indeed provide the requested link as well as doing some transcribing.

GROTHE: …I take it that you wonder how effective evangelical atheists are if all they are talking about is atheism?

KURTZ: I think they have had a positive impact, and I know most of the leaders, and they publish in Free Inquiry…so they have had positive impact, of course they are criticizing religion. However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that! You can’t talk about abstract atheism, or merely a negative attitude. It is what you are for that counts, not what you are against! So I think on that point, one must affirm a positive humanist morality.

The emphasis is different from Nisbet’s, and the hostility to ‘New Atheists’ is (not surprisingly) not there, but he is talking about (broadly) the same subject. (It’s one that JS and I don’t agree with – we found ourselves saying ‘we’re atheists, we’re not humanists’ quite often at C f I – and that JS amused himself by roundly attacking in his last lecture, thus forfeiting his chance at a standing ovation like the one Julian got; but that’s not the issue here.)

Now we’ve got that straight, what about what Nisbet is saying? It doesn’t grow on me. It makes me bristle, and the more I contemplate it, the more bristly I get. This is no doubt one of those fundamental moral intuitions, one of those emotional reactions that I then attempt to consider rationally. What is it that I dislike so much?

The dishonesty, basically. The secrecy, the manipulativeness, the ‘shhh.’ The whole idea that scientists should be quiet about something they take to be true because if they’re not quiet they are likely to alienate an unknown number of potential political allies.

Even if Nisbet is right about the empirical question of the potential alienation, it doesn’t follow that he’s right about what to do about it. I think his goal of ‘bringing diverse publics together around common problems’ by urging scientists to refrain from challenging the truth claims of religion is antithetical to free and open inquiry. Of course it’s true that free inquiry always risks angering or alienating some or many people who don’t like what free inquiry turns up – but that’s why it’s called ‘free inquiry.’ If we decide in advance to shackle it in deference to pre-existing beliefs, then it’s not free inquiry anymore. The Center for Inquiry, if it heeded Nisbet’s advice, would have to change its name to The Center for Cautious Limited Deferential Inquiry. I think that would be a bad thing.

That frame looks crappy on you

Sep 17th, 2007 4:34 pm | By

I hate this ‘framing’ crap – and I’m not the only one, which is good to know. Matthew Nisbet seems to be doing a good job of communicating to people what framing is and getting them to hate it. Excellent.

Over the coming decades…scientists and their organizations will need to work together with religious communities in order to formulate effective policies and to resolve disputes. A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages, but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.

Scientists must adopt this baby-talk – while at the same time avoiding seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, and also avoiding alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs. Oh must they. Who says? Matthew Nisbet, of course.

He also, very puzzlingly to me, says he’s only ‘following the lead’ of Paul Kurtz among others. Paul Kurtz says scientists must avoid attacking (for which read disputing or criticizing or disagreeing with) people’s religious beliefs? Really?

In discussing Dawkins, I am actually only following the lead of many prominent atheists, some who happen to be his friends (i.e. Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz etc).

Is he being tricky here? (Is he ‘framing’?) In context he seems to be claiming that he’s saying something similar to things Paul Kurtz and others have already says – but he avoids actually literally saying that. He leaves that impression without actually saying it. Maybe he’s just saying that Paul Kurtz has discussed Dawkins, and he is discussing Dawkins too. I did see Michael Shermer’s sloppy criticism of Dawkins (sloppy in that it was inaccurate, as so many of these pieces are), but I certainly haven’t seen anything similar by Paul Kurtz. I think it pretty unlikely that he would write anything of that kind – not unlikely that he would have any criticisms at all, but unlikely that he would write one of these ‘militant atheists should stop it this minute’ items. Look, Paul Kurtz likes B&W, he told me so himself, and nobody who likes B&W would write one of those soppy ‘extremist atheists are big meanies’ articles. I asked Nisbet where Paul Kurtz said anything similar to what Nisbet says, but who knows if he’ll answer. I’m mighty curious, I must say.

I like what Larry Moran said.

Nisbet believes that scientists should spin their scientific messages in a way that avoids upsetting religious people and religious groups…Many of us believe that this is a fundamentally dishonest way for scientists to behave. We believe that science should not be deliberately “framed” by the personal beliefs of scientists whether they are atheists – as are the majority of scientists – or Christians, or whatever. We believe that science should be presented as uncompromised pure science and that it is wrong for scientists to consciously alter their message in order to appease religious citizens who might be offended by hearing the scientific truth. It is not the business of scientists to second guess what the religious public wants to hear, or not hear.

I also like what PZ said.

We can gain some quick policy advantages by, for instance, appealing to purely practical concerns (“We can make more money/we can cure some diseases if you let us do this research”) or by accommodating our tactics to religious beliefs (“God wants you to save the planet!”) at the price of privileging flawed thinking…Let’s encourage people to think science is OK as long as it promotes American business and can be wedged into some theological rationale…and also continue to allow people to believe that religion and quick profits are primary over knowledge and truth. That’s precisely what this approach does, and precisely where it leads to catastrophe.

I hate ‘framing.’

Equating criticism of religion with racism

Sep 17th, 2007 12:19 pm | By

I don’t like Doudou Diene. I’ve said it before here – probably during the cartoons fuss. He’s scary, because he works for the UN.

“Islamophobia today is the most serious form of religious defamation,” Doudou Diene told the U.N. Human Rights Council…Diene, a Senegalese lawyer who was appointed as an independent U.N. expert on racism in 2002, was presenting a report on defamation of religions to the 47-member council. The report also includes sections on anti-Semitism and other forms of religious or racial persecution around the world. African and Islamic countries welcomed the assessment and called for moves to draft an international treaty that would compel states to act against any form of defamation of religion.

A report on ‘defamation’ of religion. An international treaty that would compel states to act against any form of defamation of religion. These folks are working to make it illegal – everywhere – to criticize or dispute religion.

Diene said such caricatures were evidence that “the basic principle of coexistence of different cultures and different religions, which is the lasting basis for peace, is threatened now,” adding that “freedom of expression cannot be used as a pretext or excuse for incitement to racial or religious hatred.”

See? He’s scary.

Fortunately some EU members and others also think so.

European Union members of the council and other countries cautioned against equating criticism of religion with racism. “The EU finds it problematic to reconcile the notion of defamation with the concept of discrimination,” said Goncalo Silvestre of Portugal…”In our view these two are of a different nature.” Religions in themselves do not deserve special protection under international human rights law, he said.

No indeed they do not, and not only do they not deserve special protection, they must not have special protection, because they have vast power, psychological power as well as military and state power, and they have to be wide-open to criticism and disagreement. These demands for protection are demands for the termination of secularism and freedom.

The clash

Sep 17th, 2007 10:32 am | By

How to pretend an incompatibility is just a difference in taste. How to airbrush a genuine stalemate.

[R]eligious convictions limit many Americans’ willingness to accept controversial scientific theories…Science and religion have traditionally, and often incorrectly, been viewed as enemies. This perception has been fueled in part by a number of famous episodes in history that have pitted scientists, like Galileo and Darwin, against the prevailing religious establishments of their time. But more often than not, scientists and people of faith have operated not at cross purposes but simply at different purposes…How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

Right. So it does. Much of the general public chooses not to believe discoveries, no matter how well supported by evidence, that seem to and do contradict religious beliefs. And that, good Horatio, is why science and religion are indeed enemies – especially, it is why religion is the enemy of science: because it teaches people to choose not to believe evidence-based theories that contradict religious beliefs. That means that scientists and ‘people of faith’ do indeed operate at cross purposes. Yes, the purposes are also different, but that doesn’t make them any less cross. Your would-be biologist or geologist or psychologist or cognitive scientist who chooses not to believe well-warranted theories that contradict religious beliefs is going to be an incompetent biologist or geologist or psychologist or cognitive scientist in proportion to the number and salience of the well-warranted theories that are voluntarily not believed. The two ways of thinking are at cross purposes.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding…This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion…These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers.

But that is a real clash. Of course the ‘reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion,’ but that simply amounts to saying that so many people are delusional and willfully ignorant (in the sense of choosing not to believe no matter what quantity of evidence). That doesn’t make religion compatible with science, it just makes it capable of denial, which we already knew.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider

Sep 16th, 2007 2:33 pm | By

Go, Wajeha Al-Huwaider.

A group called the League of Demanders of Women’s Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia will present a petition to King Abdullah this week, asking him to “return that which has been stolen from women: the right to free movement through the use of cars, which are the means of transportation today.”…Heading the new group pressing to overturn the ban is Wajeha Al-Huwaider, an American-schooled education analyst…Last month, she held a one-woman demonstration with a placard demanding, “Give Women Their Rights!” She was arrested, detained for seven hours and freed only after a male “guardian” signed for her. Banned by the Saudi Interior Ministry from writing in the Saudi press, she writes online. The authorities have threatened to take away her job if she continues.

That’s ‘moderate’ Saudi Arabia.

The ban on driving is part of a wide sweep of restrictions on the role of women, which are enforced by the country’s religious police, the Muttawa, a common sight on Saudi streets. Strict segregation of the sexes is used to deny equal educational opportunities for women, and women are allowed to work only in certain vocations. Freedom of movement is severely restricted. Women require a mehram – a male guardian’s permission – to travel, rent an apartment or attend college.

In short, women are considered to be rebellious garbage, and treated accordingly.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider is not impressed. She attacks discriminatory laws which “classify women as having less sense, detract from their importance, cast doubts about their abilities, let them be beaten and divorced, let them be imprisoned within four walls, allow them to be treated as their husbands see fit, let them be bought and sold by legal agreement, and, when the women fail and violate religious law they welcome their barbaric killing.”

Apart from all that, things are pretty good.

Follow what leader?

Sep 16th, 2007 2:01 pm | By

A bishop says something worth saying for a change:

‘It is very common in the world today, including in this country, for people who have changed their faith, particularly from being Muslim to being Christian, to be ostracised, to lose their job, for their marriages to be dissolved, for children to be taken away,’ [Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-]Ali said. ‘And this is why some leadership is necessary from Muslim leaders themselves to say that this is not what Islam teaches.’

Who are these Muslim leaders though? As we know, that phrase gets bandied around a lot, but seriously, who are they? There was a time when that translated pretty straightforwardly (and unfortunately) to people at the top of the MCB, but that facile and unwarranted equation has gone a little out of fashion – but then who are these Muslim leaders? There are prominent Muslims, of course, but they’re not necessarily leaders, and it’s really not clear that they have any particular standing to say what Islam teaches. That’s part of the problem. The lack of an official hierarchy makes Islam in a way less coercive than the Vatican or even than the Anglican hierarchy, but it also makes it harder to control. There isn’t really anyone who can say ‘this is not what Islam teaches’ and be heeded by all Muslims. In that sense Michael Nazir-Ali is sort of asking for the impossible.

The bishop warns that Muslims who switch faiths in Britain could be killed if the current climate continues. ‘We have seen honour killings have happened, and there is no reason why this kind of thing cannot happen.’ In 2004, Prince Charles asked British Muslim leaders to renounce laws of apostasy and the death sentence for converts in Islamic countries, but no public statement was ever made.

Maybe they all pretended it was some other set of Muslim leaders P.C. was asking. At any rate, it’s not surprising that no public statement was ever made, since it’s difficult to claim that ‘this is not what Islam teaches’ when it is what Islam teaches. I hope the Bishop has success with his suggestions, but he has his work cut out for him.

Dispatches obtained Islamic texts sold in Britain that say the punishment for apostasy is death – according to all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. One text called for Muslims to cut off the head of those who reject Islam. The radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir…states in its constitution that in countries that practise Sharia law, apostates are to be executed…A poll of more than 1,000 British Muslims, conducted by the Policy Exchange think-tank this year, found that 36 per cent of Muslims aged between 16 and 24 believe those who convert to another faith should be punished by death.

That’s what I mean. Not an easy job.

Who cares?

Sep 15th, 2007 4:15 pm | By

A week or two ago I was reading another book about emotions and thinking, The Political Brain by Drew Westen (I read it after reading this article in the NY Review of Books). I was struck by this observation on page 15:

Republicans understand what…David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around…Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind…They do so, I believe, because of an irrational emotional commitment to rationality – one that renders them, ironically, impervious to…scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work. [italics his]

Hmmmm, I thought – do I have that? So I thought about it (rationally, I hope, despite the wild sobbing and tearing of hair). Well, I at least have an emotional commitment to rationality, I agreed. I don’t think it’s irrational, because I think rationality is better, for reasons I could enumerate – but it could be the case that that commitment causes me to overlook or forget the importance of emotion. I decided to try to do a better job of keeping it in mind.

But anyway, I have no trouble agreeing that it is an emotional commitment. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t care – everyone could be irrational and coercive up one side and down the other, and I wouldn’t care, because I wouldn’t care. The caring comes first – I get that.

Grayling on Gray

Sep 15th, 2007 12:59 pm | By

Anthony Grayling finds John Gray not altogether persuasive.

In a nutshell the book consists in the repeated assertion that modern secularist thinking is utopian in aspiration, has inherited this aspiration from Christianity, has failed because its belief in progress is false and has in fact been violently regressive…[H]e is against the progressivist ambitions of the secular Enlightenment, and he hopes to annoy its proponents by giving it Christianity for a father and – that weary old canard – Nazism and Stalinism for offspring…In order to establish that secular Whiggish Enlightenment-derived aspirations are the child of Christianity, Gray begins by calling any view or outlook a “religion”. Everything is a religion: Torquemada’s Catholicism, the pluralism and empiricism of 18th-century philosophers, liberalism, Stalinism. He speaks of “secular religion” and “political religion”. This empties the word “religion” of any meaning, making it a neutral portmanteau expression like “view” or “outlook”. He can therefore premise a gigantic fallacy of equivocation, and assimilate secular Enlightenment values to the Christian “narrative” of reformation aimed at bringing about a golden age.

The Humpty Dumpty move – oddly popular with people who want to give the Enlightenment or secularism or atheism or science or all those a good kicking.

[I]n making a nonsense of the word “religion” Gray blurs and blends just where important distinctions are required. A religion is a view which essentially premises commitment to belief in the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, almost always conceived as having intentions and expectations regarding human beings…Most religions, especially if given the chance, share the totalitarian impulses of Stalinism and Nazism (think Torquemada and the Taliban) for a simple reason: all such are monolithic ideologies demanding subservience to a supposed ideal, on pain of punishment for non-conformity. Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism.

No. They don’t.

One thing that cannot be let go by is Gray’s backhanded defence of religion as “at its best … an attempt to deal with mystery rather than the hope that mystery will be unveiled”, and regrets that “this civilising perception” (one gasps) has been lost in the current clash of fundamentalisms. This painfully vague excuse for one of the worst toxins poisoning human affairs will not do: invocation of mystery has been more a potent excuse for evil than a service to the greater good.

An attempt to deal with mystery – sounds oddly like ‘some insights into ways of ultimately enhancing human flourishing.’ Equally nebulous, equally capacious, equally cautiously non-specific. Naughty.

A poll

Sep 14th, 2007 4:18 pm | By

Speaking of morality – Jean has an interesting Ethics Poll: The Talent Show. She wants more takers, so why not amble over and take it (it’s just one question).

Ultimately enhancing human flourishing

Sep 14th, 2007 4:11 pm | By

More thoughts on morality, Haidt, emotion, confabulation, intuition, reasoning, cultural relativism, disgust, purity, and so on.

Haidt at Edge again:

We all care about morality so passionately that it’s hard to look straight at it. We all look at the world through some kind of moral lens, and because most of the academic community uses the same lens, we validate each other’s visions and distortions. I think this problem is particularly acute in some of the new scientific writing about religion.

I’m not sure that is a problem. I can see that it’s a potential problem, and I can believe it’s sometimes a problem, but I’m not sure it is a problem overall – because I think the moral lens of the academic ‘community’ is likely to be better than many other possible lenses. One of the exceptions is when that ‘community’ gets so excited about the fact that other cultures have different lenses that it decides all lenses see equally well.

Which is not to say that Haidt is not interesting here; he is. To summarize: morality and rationality depend on the proper functioning of emotional circuits in the prefrontal cortex; human morality is the product of natural selection; automatic and unconscious processes can cause much of our behaviour, even morally loaded actions that we thought we were controlling consciously. Emotion matters; morality is hardwired; a lot of what we do is automatic rather than conscious. We’re not all that rational. Furthermore, we confabulate: we make up rational explanations for things we’ve done for unconscious reasons. We’re not all that rational, and sometimes when we are rational we’re just telling a story about something we’ve done for reasons we’re not aware of. Okay. But…

These findings suggested that emotion played a bigger role than the cognitive developmentalists had given it. These findings also suggested that there were important cultural differences, and that academic researchers may have inappropriately focused on reasoning about harm and rights because we primarily study people like ourselves – college students, and also children in private schools near our universities, whose morality is not representative of the United States, let alone the world.

Wait. Why ‘inappropriately’? Does he mean inappropriately in an epistemic sense – that that’s not the way to get a broad sample? Or does he mean in a moral sense – that that’s not the way to think about morality? The first of course makes sense, the second is more dubious. I think what’s going on in this article is that he starts out doing the first and then gradually shades into doing the second – he gradually moves from the descriptive to the normative.

Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds. But I do agree with Josh Greene that sometimes we can use controlled processes such as reasoning to override our initial intuitions. I just think this happens rarely, maybe in one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week.

Maybe, but on public and contentious issues, don’t we use controlled processes such as reasoning quite a lot? And more to the point, don’t we have to? Is that not the only alternative to simply heeding our visceral initial reactions and then going with them? Wouldn’t that simply push us back into a world where automatic hatred of black people or gays was normal and unproblematic? A world where all our gut-level contempts and dislikes and desires to bully and exploit would grab the reins and bolt?

Mind you, as potentilla pointed out, he does explicitly say he is being descriptive rather than normative – but I’m not always convinced.

My point is just that every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.

I think that’s wrong. The caste system for instance does not enhance the human flourishing of the people in the bottom castes. Strongly patriarchal ideologies and ways of life do not enhance the human flourishing of women and girls. Chattel slavery did not and does not enhance the human flourishing of the slaves. I’m perfectly willing to agree that my dislike of ways of life that treat some people like shit is emotional first and rational second if at all – but I’m not willing to agree that every way of life is basically good at heart. Mind you, Haidt hedged his bets there – he didn’t say every longstanding ideology and way of life ultimately enhances human flourishing – he said every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some insights into ways of ultimately enhancing human flourishing – which could mean exactly nothing, and be conveniently unfalsifiable. What – even the most reactionary brutal male-dominated way of life sits around having insights into ways of ultimately enhancing human flourishing, then has a jolly good laugh at the whole subject and goes on as before? Well maybe so, but what good is that? Why bother saying it? Why bother saying it if not to rebuke atheists who prefer to second-guess our intuitions?

Pretending to know what we don’t and can’t know

Sep 14th, 2007 12:28 pm | By

Thought for the day. Sam Harris replying to Jonathan Haidt at Edge.

The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet – by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith.

Just so. Often we’re not just encouraged to pretent to know what we don’t and can’t know, we’re more or less ordered to. That’s why we keep resisting.

Young people are not as naïve as some adults think

Sep 14th, 2007 12:18 pm | By

A new course on ‘Islamophobia’

There are clear parallels in the prejudices, stereotypes and misconceptions of Islamophobia and sectarianism, says Mr Gray. But there are also important differences…“One thing I try to get across to young people is that terrorists are not truly Islamic,” he says. “The word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace’, and if you read the Qur’an it has a message of peace on almost every page. The idea of murder is utterly against its teachings. Any text is open to interpretation, but the fundamental truth of the Qur’an is submission to the will of God, who demands that Muslims are seen to be peaceful people.”

The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission,’ and if you read the Qur’an it has different messages in different places.

This distinction between Muslims and Islamists is one that pupils on the course it is designed for (S1-2) are able to appreciate, he says. “In my experience, young people are sympathetic to Islam and are not as naïve as some adults think. They can listen to stories on the news, for instance, and say, ‘Hold on, I’ve studied Islam at school and I know that’s not true’.”

Or they can say, ‘Hold on, I’ve studied Islamophobia at school and I know what I was taught in that course’ – which could itself be thoroughly naïve. Mr Gray sounds somewhat naïve himself.

Besides imparting knowledge and developing understanding, a key aim of the course is to foster this kind of questioning among young people. “We have to challenge ideas and guide pupils to becoming independent learners and critical thinkers. That’s very important,” says Mr Gray.

Provided, of course, they question and challenge in the way Mr Gray has taught them to; provided they become independent learners and critical thinkers who reach the conclusions Mr Gray wants them to reach. It doesn’t sound very much as if he wants them to question Islam, or challenge the ‘fundamental truth of the Qur’an’ or become critical thinkers about Islam. It sounds as if Mr Gray wants them to learn that ‘terrorists are not truly Islamic’ and that Islam means peace and that ‘Islamophobia’ is a bad thing. It doesn’t sound as if he’ll be assigning them any books by Ayaan Hirsi Ali or my friend Ibn Warraq. Questioning is as questioning does.

Questioning the faith of the million

Sep 14th, 2007 11:59 am | By

If a scientific investigation says one thing and an ancient epic says another, who ya gonna believe? Well duh – the epic, obviously.

There was a proposed shipping canal project, but

Hindu hardliners say the project will destroy what they say is a bridge built by Ram and his army of monkeys. Scientists and archaeologists say the Ram Setu (Lord Ram’s bridge)…is a natural formation of sand and stones. In their report submitted to the court, the government and the Archaeological Survey of India questioned the belief, saying it was solely based on the Hindu mythological epic Ramayana. They said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the events described in Ramayana ever took place or that the characters depicted in the epic were real. Hindu activists say the bridge was built by Lord Ram’s monkey army to travel to Sri Lanka and has religious significance. In the last two days, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has launched a scathing attack on the government for questioning the “faith of the million”.

Well exactly. If the million, or the billion, choose to believe that Lord Ram’s monkey army and Donald Duck and his three nephews and the infamous worm squadrons of Aphrodite teamed up to build the Atlantic Ocean which thus has religious significance and therefore no one can step in it or fly over it or ride on it in a boat or a laundry tub – then no one must question that belief and no poxy scientists may submit any poxy reports saying there’s no evidence supporting that belief. Even in secular India. Tra la la, the world gets stupider every day.

Keep your purity

Sep 13th, 2007 11:07 am | By

I got Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis out of the library yesterday. It’s interesting but in places it’s also revolting. Jean Kazez talks about the main problem in an article in Philosophy Now and on her blog.

Haidt gives the example of a Hindu Brahmin relishing food that’s been offered to the gods, purifying himself in the Ganges, and feeling a socially sanctioned repulsion toward people of lower castes. That’s an ideal to strive for?

Apparently, yes. I read the passage in question this morning and…was revolted. He suggests we suppose we grow up as a Brahmin in Bhubaneswar (pp. 228-9).

Every day of your life you have to respect the invisible lines separating pure from profane spaces, and you have to keep track of people’s fluctuating levels of purity before you can touch them or take anything from their hands…Hinduism structures your social space through a caste system based on the purity and pollution of various occupations…The experience of meaningfulness just happens…In contrast, think about the last empty ritual you took part in.

Wrong contrast, bub. In contrast, think about someone in that situation who is not a Brahmin! Think about being one of the people whose ‘fluctuating levels of purity’ the Brahmin ‘has to’ keep track of, or one of the people whose pollution is inborn and permanent – then drool about the experience of meaningfulness. Think about being a dalit or a woman or both and then talk crap about meaningfulness versus empty rituals.

There’s a related passage on 190-1. It’s interesting, but it also goes off the rails in the same blind way. He says that some people he talked to in Bhubaneswar saw the rituals related to purity and pollution as just rules, what you did, but others saw them as ‘means to an end: spiritual and moral advancement, or moving up on the third dimension.’

Purity is not just about the body, it is about the soul. If you know that you have divinity within you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well…you will come back in your next life at a higher level…If you lose sight of your divinity, you will give in to your baser motives…and in your next incarnation you will return at a lower level as an animal or a demon.

Or a woman or a dalit. Yet he doesn’t say that – he skips right over the nastiest aspect of Hinduism, the caste system, and all this hooey about purity and pollution. He just ignores that whole aspect. He should have remembered Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance. He seems for some inexplicable reason to be identifying himself solely with Brahmins and ignoring the fact that most people don’t get to be Brahmins. He wraps the whole nasty mess of that passage up by saying, roundly and utterly incorrectly, that ‘Emerson said exactly the same thing’ and then quoting this:

He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God.

Boy is that ever not exactly the same thing. A Brahmin checking on his own purity is not the same thing as someone doing a good deed. Hello? Good deeds have to be other-regarding in order to be good deeds? Haidt is just seriously blind or confused or both, here. It’s just nonsense to say that purity is about the soul and connect that to saying ‘if you know that you have divinity within you, you will act accordingly: you will treat people well’ – because Brahmins don’t treat people well. Rules that treat some people as inherently or even temporarily polluted are not about treating people well. Dang – isn’t that obvious?


Sep 13th, 2007 9:24 am | By

I have some questions here.

A picture of Jesus can remain on the wall at a south Louisiana courthouse because it is now just one among many portraits of legal icons, a federal judge ruled Sept. 7.

What’s a picture of Jesus? Is it a picture of a guy wearing, like, a sweatshirt with ‘Jesus’ across the front? Because if it’s not, how does anyone know it’s Jesus? It’s not as if there’s a stash of photographs of the guy somewhere you know. There’s not even a stash of sketches; there’s not even one sketch. There’s nothing. There’s also no physical description. Mark doesn’t tell us he was balding and short. John doesn’t tell us he had red hair and a squint. Nobody tells us anything. So what is a picture of Jesus?

The picture is now shown with 15 other people in legal history through the ages. They include Mohammed, who is shown holding the Koran, Charlemagne, Napoleon and King Louis IX of France.

Couple of things here. One, Mohammed has the same problem – nobody knows what he looked like, so what does it mean to have a picture of him along with a picture of Napoleon (who as we all know looked like Marlon Brando)? And two – uh – I hate to be the one to bring it up, but does no one remember what got shouted so much in February 2006? [whispers] We’re not allowed to make or have or display pictures of Mohammed. It’s forbidden – not just to Muslims, but by Muslims to all other people. Be very very careful down there in Slidell County, because you might get solemn visits from ambassadors from ‘Muslim countries’ who will want you to apologize and crawl around on the floor for awhile and throw seven or eight people in jail. So mind how you go.

The former judge who bought the picture said in a sworn statement that he had no idea that it had any religious significance. “To me at the time it appeared to be a depiction of a lawgiver,” retired Judge James R. Strain Jr. said. Lemelle, who noted several times during the hearing that the picture showed someone with a halo, said he wasn’t questioning Strain’s veracity. “But it’s a halo. You can tell him I said that,” he told Johnson.

Ah, a halo – so are they quite sure it’s not a picture of Moses, or Paul, or Constantine? And if they are quite sure – how did they get that way?

It’s not 50/50

Sep 12th, 2007 4:04 pm | By

Another point. To resume with page 51 (which is where we stopped yesterday) – farther down Dawkins points out that

it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap from the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that [its] existence and [its] non-existence are equiprobable.

This is obvious, he goes on, with more unfamiliar and absurd assertions whose non-existence also can’t be proved, such as Russell’s orbiting teapot or the FSM; Russell’s teapot ‘stands for an infinite number of things whose existence is conceivable and cannot be disproved.’ The fact that we can’t disprove them does not mean that the matter is 50/50.

The point of all these way-out examples is that they are undisprovable; yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence.

And it’s the same with the God hypothesis.

That’s probably one reason so many people are claiming so crossly and repetitively that Dawkins is dogmatic. But that’s not dogmatic. Given the knowledge we have and the evidence we have, there are myriad reasons to think God doesn’t exist and few reasons to think it does. It could be that God does exist and has been carefully hiding the evidence all this time – but we remain exactly where we were: there is no good reason to think so. It’s not dogmatic to think that or to say it; it’s just using the faculties we have. What else are we supposed to do – use faculties we don’t have?

It’s all myth, you see

Sep 12th, 2007 11:30 am | By

This is a gleaming example of bad thinking. Alex Stein on Hitchens on God. He quotes the very passage on the guy who believes the story about the graves opening in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, and the occupants walking the streets, that I commented on last month – and then he gets it completely wrong.

“He replies that as a Christian he does believe it, though as a historian he has his doubts. I realise that I am limited here: I can usually think myself into an opponent’s position, but this is something I can’t imagine myself saying let alone thinking.” This inability to imagine fatally flaws much of Hitchens’ thesis. The argument presented by the reverend may seem incoherent. But it doesn’t take much effort to understand that he is presenting a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the world…The reverend accepts that it is almost impossible to prove the historicity of the story Hitchens refers to. To be less kind, it simply didn’t happen. But he doesn’t need to shape his moral universe according to what did or didn’t happen. Instead, he does this as a mythologian, in this case, as a purveyor of Christian myths. For him, the accuracy of the events recorded is insignificant when compared with the contribution the myth makes to the Christian view of the world.

The only problem with that is that it’s not what the reverend said. The reverend could have said that, but he didn’t. He said something genuinely different, and it doesn’t just seem incoherent, it is incoherent, and it is certainly not a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the world. Why does Alex Stein – apparently not a believer himself – feel compelled to translate what the reverend said into something less contradictory and absurd? It is not reasonable to believe something as a Christian while having doubts as a historian. If the historian’s doubts are rational and reasonable (as they of course are, since there’s a notable lack of genuine evidence that dead people have ever walked any streets), they should apply across the board; to have different epistemic rules ‘as a Christian’ is not reasonable, it’s the opposite of reasonable, and Alex Stein is being unreasonable in pretending otherwise.

[I]s the reverend’s position really so far from Hitchens’ own? However much he might protest to the contrary, it would be a mistake to define Hitchens as an ultra-rationalist. For Hitchens has frequently and vigorously promoted the idea that religion has been replaced, not by science, but by literature…Literature is as antithetical to science as is religion.

No it isn’t. Literature is literature, it is avowedly an invention, a fiction. Religion makes truth claims about the world that we are expected (often commanded) to believe. Literature is not in the least antithetical to science, because it genuinely doesn’t make competing (and absurd) claims; religion does, even though some of its defenders pretend it doesn’t as long as the spotlight of skeptical inquiry is on it.

Is the Guardian running a contest for who can write the silliest article defending religion and attacking atheism? If so, what for? What’s its point? That clarity of thought is dangerous while confusion and muddle are like vitamins?