Notes and Comment Blog


Don’t forget the women’s rights seminar

Mar 7th, 2007 6:31 pm | By

Also, a reminder: you fortunate people in or near London get to go to a seminar on Women’s Rights, the Veil and Islamic and religious laws tomorrow.

Speakers: Sonja Eggerickx: President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union; Ann Harrison: Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Department of Amnesty International’s International Secretariat; Maryam Namazie: frequent contributor to B&W and 2005 National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year Award Winner; Taslima Nasrin: Physician, writer, radical feminist, human rights activist and secular humanist. Co-sponsored by the International Campaign in Defense of Women’s Right in Iran- UK, the National Secular Society and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. Free. University of London Union
Room 3D, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY. 6 to 10 p.m. I’d go in a heartbeat if I were in London.



The Secular Islam Summit

Mar 7th, 2007 6:01 pm | By

Check out the Secular Islam summit blog. Check out the St Petersburg Declaration.

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.

…We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.

…We call on the governments of the world to

reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostacy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights;

eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women

Read it all. Excellent stuff. Shoulders to the wheel, all; support these people; spread the word.



Either it’s an unknown, or it’s implausible

Mar 6th, 2007 3:49 pm | By

There are two choices, it sees to me. Either ‘God’ is the god of religion, of churches and mosques, that gives rules and answers prayers – in which case it’s part of nature and history; or it’s something else, which we can’t comprehend.

Either it’s the first, which is like a giant cop, or a combination cop and nurse, or it’s the second, which is [ ? ]. The first is not reasonable to believe in, because a god like that would (or should) provide unmistakable evidence of its existence and its wishes (because what in hell is the point of keeping it a secret?). The second is perfectly reasonable to believe in – but is it reasonable to call that ‘God’?

The combination of the two makes no sense at all. An unknown that tells us what to do, a mystery that we’re supposed to worship in specific terms, a question mark that loves us – it’s an incoherent jumble. Yet it’s the usual idea of ‘God’ – half parental half concealed; half judge half Cloud of Unknowing. It might as well be half Bactrian camel half peanut butter.

If it’s simply (or complicatedly) what we don’t know, or causes that we don’t know about, and the like, who would object? Who would disbelieve in the existence of such things or concepts, or think it not reasonable to believe in them? But why on earth call that ‘God’? Is it because its fans are desperate to retain a person god? But that’s not reasonable either; not for theological reasons, but for biological ones. We know now what humans are, and how we got to be what we are. Do we really think ‘God’ (or Betsy, as we might as well call it) is like that? But if human nature and human abilities are a product of natural selection, how could Betsy’s nature and abilities be similar? So the ‘person’ thing seems pretty untenable, no matter what you do.

Before 1859, it must have been different. It must have been (seemed) self-evident that humans were mysteriously special and strange and interesting, unlike other animals and very unlike trees and rocks. All explanations were unsatisfactory, and a person-like god making us as miniatures of itself could have been the least unsatisfactory. That’s not unreasonable. But once the peculiarity of humans no longer seems so peculiar, a person-like god becomes less necessary and less explanatory. In fact it raises questions rather than explaining. (Does it have an appendix? Does it have a small intestine? Why?) A person-like god now seems not like a spiritual version of ourselves but like an inexplicable giant ape. Why would there be a god like that? Okay it has no body (but then we’re getting into unknowable territory, which is the other choice, but never mind for now), but it has a person-like mind of some sort. But – our minds are human minds. They’re not Pure Minds, they’re not examples of What Mind Should Be; they’re human minds. A person-like god seems like a not very reasonable belief – it has to be person-like and yet completely different in every way that matters. Well then we’re just back to Incomprehensible again, in which case we’re back to Nobody Knows again, which means we’re back to Why call it God again.

One of the ironies in all this is that theists are so seldom expected to define their god – just invoking the name is supposed to be adequate – it’s supposed to be self-evident who and what it is. Theists and some agnostics claim that atheists have too much certainty, but belief in a shifting inscrutable but bossy demanding god is – at the very least dangerous. Believers don’t always use their god to bully and oppress, but the risk is always there – it’s well adapted for such a purpose. I would argue that atheists are not wrong to be pretty certain that, at a minimum, it is dangerous to believe in elusive mysterious inscrutable gods who impose strong laws and punishments on human beings.

Because there is no appeal. No accountability, no chance to revise, discuss, re-think. There are no defense lawyers, no appellate courts. And in fact no present god, either, but only human intermediaries. Why should we – and how can we? – be so sure they have it right?

Mark Vernon adds this in a comment on Stephen’s post on the mystery move:

Both the atheist and the theist will do away with false gods, and false theories, as they ponder the mystery. But whereas the atheist will conclude there is no god, and the universe is pure, if delightful, chance. The theist will conclude that the universe is pure gift – as articulated by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The difference between believing the universe is chance and gift strikes me as a very great one.

Yes, it’s a big difference, but on the other hand ‘chance’ might not be quite the right word (brute fact might be better); and as Stephen points out, ‘gift’ has some problems too. And in any case, it always makes a big difference how one thinks of things, but that fact doesn’t change reality. It makes a difference whether we think various natural forces caused it to rain today, or that our dearest friend made it rain today; but that doesn’t determine what caused it to rain today, so pointing out the difference between the two ideas is beside the point if the dispute is over whether or not ‘god’ exists, or whether it’s reasonable to think so.



The enlightenment driven away

Mar 6th, 2007 11:27 am | By

Well exactly. Just what I’ve been thinking, and fuming at, for weeks.

“The enlightenment driven away…” This very strong and bitter line [of Auden’s – OB] came back to me when I saw the hostile, sneaky reviews that have been dogging the success of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best seller Infidel…Two of our leading intellectual commentators, Timothy Garton Ash (in the New York Review of Books) and Ian Buruma, described Hirsi Ali, or those who defend her, as “Enlightenment fundamentalist[s].” In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Buruma made a further borrowing from the language of tyranny and intolerance and described her view as an “absolutist” one…In her book, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the following: “I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.” This is a fairly representative quotation. She has her criticisms of the West, but she prefers it to a society where women are subordinate, censorship is pervasive, and violence is officially preached against unbelievers. As an African victim of, and escapee from, this system, she feels she has acquired the right to say so. What is “fundamentalist” about that?

What, indeed? What, what, what? I would really like to know. I read that nasty, ‘hostile, sneaky’ review of Buruma’s in the Sunday NY Times, and was thoroughly and profoundly irritated by it – as well as a little frightened. If he thinks that, he’d be willing to compromise on my rights as well as Hirsi Ali’s (not, be it noted, his own). I don’t want the Ian Burumas doing that. I find it alarming that they seem to be willing to consider it (and also, frankly, that they don’t even pause to notice that it’s other people’s rights that are in danger much more than their own, and to worry that that might make their own views look a little suspect).

The Feb. 26 edition of Newsweek takes up where Garton Ash and Buruma leave off and says, in an article by Lorraine Ali, that, “It’s ironic that this would-be ‘infidel’ often sounds as single-minded and reactionary as the zealots she’s worked so hard to oppose.”…Accompanying the article is a typically superficial Newsweek Q&A sidebar, which is almost unbelievably headed: “A Bombthrower’s Life.” The subject of this absurd headline is a woman who has been threatened with horrific violence…She has never used or advocated violence. Yet to whom does Newsweek refer as the “Bombthrower”? It’s always the same with these bogus equivalences: They start by pretending loftily to find no difference between aggressor and victim, and they end up by saying that it’s the victim of violence who is “really” inciting it.

The Bombthrower. Staggering, isn’t it.

Garton Ash and Buruma would once have made short work of any apologist who accused the critics of the U.S.S.R. or the People’s Republic of China of “heating up the Cold War” if they made any points about human rights. Why, then, do they grant an exception to Islam…?…Is it because Islam is a “faith”? Or is it because it is the faith – in Europe at least – of some ethnic minorities? In neither case would any special protection from criticism be justified. Faith makes huge claims, including huge claims to temporal authority over the citizen, which therefore cannot be exempt from scrutiny. And within these “minorities,” there are other minorities who want to escape from the control of their ghetto leaders…This is a very complex question, which will require a lot of ingenuity in its handling. The pathetic oversimplification, which describes skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism as equally “fundamentalist,” is of no help here. And notice what happens when Newsweek takes up the cry: The enemy of fundamentalism is defined as someone on the fringe while, before you have had time to notice the sleight of hand, the aggrieved, self-pitying Muslim has become the uncontested tenant of the middle ground.

Right. Hirsi Ali is the ‘bombthrower’ while people who are offended by dissent from Islam are her victims. Very strange.



A counterweight

Mar 5th, 2007 5:09 pm | By

Mina Ahadi has the right idea. She also has police protection, because – you’ll never guess – she’s had death threats.

Human rights activists have formed a “Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Germany” to help women renounce the Islamic faith if they feel oppressed by its laws…Iranian-born Mina Ahadi, 50, said she set up the group to highlight the difficulties of renouncing the Islamic faith which she believes to be misogynist. She wants the group to form a counterweight to Muslim organisations that she says don’t adequately represent Germany’s secular-minded Muslim immigrants…Renouncing Islam can carry the death penalty in a number of countries.

Misogynist? Just because of a few little death threats? Nah.

I’m also critical of Islam in Germany and of the way the German government deals with the issue of Islam. Many Muslim organisations like the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) or Milli Görüs engage in politics or interfere in people’s everyday lives…The associations pretend that they represent everyone and to some extent are acknowledged as such by the German side. That’s bad. We have to give a signal against that and say: Not in our name. We are secular humanists. We want to give these people a voice. Someone has to make a start. We’re advocating human rights…We want to form a counterweight to the Muslim organisations. The fact that we’re doing this under police protection shows how necessary our initiative is.

Yeah, you could say that. Good luck, Mina Ahadi.



Giving the mystery a name

Mar 5th, 2007 4:50 pm | By

More from Mark Vernon. And more again. I’m still not convinced though.

But this is the over-riding issue, it seems to me, in the atheists’ dismissal of God: if they really want to be conclusive then they must address the best ideas of God available, the criterion for that being those of the great theologians…Unfortunately, or irritatingly, though, they will find that the best theologians say that God is not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis they want to apply. For the very simple reason that God is beyond human comprehension, else not God. This is not to say that reason has no role to play in theology: it’s primary purpose is to do away with false gods.

But if ‘God’ is beyond human comprehension, then how can (human) reason do away with false gods? How can it do one but not the other – or if it can’t do one, how can it do the other? How can you know this is counterfeit, and this is a fraud, and this is no good, if you don’t know what the authentic version is?

And there’s also the wearyingly familiar problem, which I apologize for repeating, that if ‘God’ is beyond human comprehension, then why do people say things about it at all? If it’s beyond human comprehension – why doesn’t that mean that there is just nothing at all for humans to say about it? It still seems like a cheat. ‘God’ is beyond comprehension so it’s ‘not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis atheists want to apply,’ but it is amenable to the kind of analysis theists want to apply. How can that not look like a shell game? Not to mention the pesky fact – again, much repeated – that many people do claim to comprehend god and make all sorts of factual claims about it, especially about the way it wants us to behave and not behave, which people it wants us to treat badly, how hard to hit children, and the like. In that sense the theologians’ beyond comprehension god is beside the point. The problem with religion is all the claims that people do make about god, so it’s in a way irrelevant to point out that theologians mean a different kind of god.

Stephen Law comments here and here. He answers the ‘God is beyond human comprehension else not God’ move this way:

But now here’s my question: what is the difference between the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon’s theist who says there’s a mystery about why there is anything at all, and calls this mystery “God”? Surely the difference is entirely trivial and semantic?

It seems so to me. There’s this [ ] that we don’t comprehend, called ‘God,’ or there are a lot of things we don’t comprehend, and because we don’t comprehend them we don’t give them names. There’s an unknown unknown; let’s either call it ‘God’ or not call it anything. There’s a mystery about why there is anything at all; let’s call it ‘God’; no, let’s not give it a name. That does indeed seem like a trivial difference. (I think Stephen meant to say ‘anything’ instead of ‘nothing’ in the theist version: I think the two mysteries are meant to be the same mystery rather than different mysteries.)

Update: Yes, Stephen meant ‘anything,’ so I’ll change the wording, noting it here because commenters have quoted the first version.



Woman is created for the purpose of knowing god

Mar 4th, 2007 12:06 pm | By

Solana Larsen, who is blogging from the UN Conference on the Status of Women, points out the press release announcing Condoleeza Rice’s choice of delegates to attend the conference.

Bramon is a major fundraiser for Bush, and so is Guillermin Gable. Both are succesful business women, and Guillermin Gable is a member of Women Corporate Directors. Ooh well, that should make them qualified to take democratic global decisions on women in poverty, shouldn’t it? The real star is Pia Francesca de Solenni. She won an award from the Vatican for her PhD thesis. Guess what it’s about.

I am profoundly, bottomlessly sick of this administration’s insistence on appointing political hacks to everything from FEMA to putting Iraq back together to attending conferences on the status of women. I’m sick to death of their contempt for knowledge, experience, expertise (real expertise, not expertise in knowing whether god exists or not), competence, and reality. I’m also sick of their religion-and-family schtick. Of course I had to look up what her PhD thesis was about.

Woman is created in the image of God. Like man, she is created for the purpose of knowing, ultimately knowing God. True feminism, therefore, respects woman´s essential identity as an image of God.

Ah. So I’m a false feminist then.

As a result of many feminist theories, woman begins to be considered an atomistic individual, an individual without relations to others. Yet, we see that every aspect of our life – for both men and women – we need others.

Uh huh. But do we need others as equals, or as either dominant or subordinate? Feminism doesn’t say we don’t need others, it says women shouldn’t be systematically as a gender subordinate to men. Atomism has nothing to do with it. Red herring; straw woman; bullshit.

As Christians, we recognize the inherent equality of all human beings, man and woman. The differences are constructive even if we don´t understand them. Remember that the differences existed before original sin. The tensions that arise from them, however, are due to original sin. Why should we settle for any system of thought that gives us anything less than being created in the image of God?

Because we don’t know who or what that is, and we don’t think you know either; because we think it’s the other way around: ‘God’ was created in the image of humans, not vice versa; because we don’t think this hypothesized god exists; because we don’t like your god; because this god has allowed countless centuries of inequality and oppression, so we think systems of thought that give us more than being created in the image of your wrathful vengeful cruel male god are better than the system of thought you offer. That’s why.

Larsen also pointed out this item from ‘Concerned Women of America’.

There is disagreement, too, about who does the best job of protection girls and women from discrimination and violence. The left argues that women need to be “empowered” to protect themselves. While those of us from the right agree that women need self-confidence and self-esteem, we believe that girls and women have inherent worth and that being raised in a family headed by a married mother and father is the best way to nurture strong feelings of self worth.

Well, that depends, doesn’t it. What if the married mother and father have funny ideas about women and girls, and raise their daughters to believe they’re weak and stupid and subordinate? Or perhaps that they’re dirty and voracious and dangerous? Like most things, families are only as good as they are – there is no magic mechanism that makes sure all families are Good and Healthy and Fair.

Furthermore, one problem with all this rabid insistence on family family family is that it pushes a none-too-subtle message that women are primarily wives and mothers. That’s the not-very-hidden agenda of all these Focusonthefamily type outfits – they’re Kinder Küche Kirche with Murkan masks on.

Director of Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, Jennifer Marshall, put it beautifully. “Research has indicated that girls fare better in terms of health, safety and general welfare when they live in an intact family, with a married mother and father. Around the world, family plays an essential role in protecting young girls from violence, yet some feminist NGOs have put more emphasis on asserting girls’ autonomy and sexual independence. Healthy marriage and strong family are critical to an effective strategy for protecting the most vulnerable and eradicating exploitation through sex trafficking and other forms of abuse. The significance of fathers in promoting their daughters’ welfare, in particular, must not be overlooked.”

That is beautiful – except for the tiny unimportant fact that ‘around the world,’ fathers all too often play an essential role in beating the crap out of girls, selling them to settle poker debts, forcing them to marry much older men, keeping them out of school, and various other minor abuses. So that’s a stupid thing for Jennifer Marshall to say, isn’t it. It’s just plain stupid – to generalize in that silly way and ignore the abundantly reported reality that fathers are simply not universally kind or even fair to their daughters and do not universally treat them well or even fairly. Some do, some don’t. There are places where pretty much no fathers treat their daughters fairly. Sentimental drooling about family doesn’t change that.



Return of Sandra Harding

Mar 4th, 2007 11:17 am | By

Ah-a. Sandra Harding has a new book – and it does look like a corker. Happily, people are taking note, and adding it to their science studies course outlines as required reading. Splendid.

The idea of this science as value- or culture-free is pulled apart by postcolonialist analyses of the culturally distinctive ways that Western science has developed…Harding problematizes the claim to universality that Western science rests upon…This evaluation is not only presented in terms of how we might transform the scientific traditions of the “Global North”, but also how we might transform the way we study science to be more critical, reflexive, and politically-engaged.

Great. Study of science that is more politically engaged. Great idea. Of course, the Bush admin has been doing that for more than six years now, but more encouragement is always welcome. And of course the first step is to problematize the claim to universality that Western science rests upon – because of course it’s not universal at all, it’s purely local, and researchers in Manila and Mumbai and Lima are bound to find different, local results if they’re doing the work properly.

The first section of this book also reviews the antiracist and feminist argument that modern Western science exacerbates social inequalities through discriminatory projects, philosophies, technologies, and social structure. One of the most intriguing chapters of this section is devoted to an analysis of the discriminatory epistemologies and philosophies of science (chapter 5); here Harding reaffirms her commitment to standpoint theory in light of recent and innovative work on its application to science studies.

Ever read Harding on standpoint epistemology? It’s impressive stuff, I can tell you. Women have a different epistemology because they have different lives. See?

(No, that’s not unfair. She really is that crude.)

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that this volume makes can be found in its second section, comprised of three chapters on the topic of Truth, Relativism, and Science’s Political Unconsciousness. In these final essays Harding pulls together…proposed means of securing a future “world of sciences” with the possibility for advancing social justice…Harding lays out the “central foci of a still emerging network of postpositivist philosophies of science” in a way that allows for an interlocking plurality of sciences to exist that are best suited to particular local resources, goals, environments, and cultures for producing effective and socially-just outcomes…Here she brilliantly analyzes how both the anti-democratic and (supposedly) pro-democratic ideals of Western science are deeply problematic, preventing this model, which “speaks in a monologue”, from being suitable as a universal system.

Right. It speaks in a monologue, so it’s undemocratic, so it’s not ‘suitable as a universal system.’ It’s inappropriate. It’s impolite. It speaks in a monologue in the sense of saying some findings are not supported by evidence and so probably wrong. Well obviously that’s neither democratic nor kind – didn’t we all learn not to talk that way in kindergarten? I think so. So that’s that for that kind of science then; on with the new kind.

Instructors in particular will appreciate this new resource of not only a comprehensive overview of arguments in both past and present critical science studies, but also an “updated” and clarified understanding of one of the most important and influential writers in this area, who clearly has continued to push forward with innovative engagement.

One of the most important and influential, alas – that’s why she made an extended guest appearance in Why Truth Matters: because she is indeed, however incredible it may seem, influential.



Trope shmope

Mar 2nd, 2007 5:59 pm | By

Mark Vernon discusses what he calls ‘common mistakes of atheists’ – but the examples he gives aren’t examples, because they don’t make the mistakes he says they make. His attributions are rather sloppy. Okay very sloppy. He doesn’t quote, he just says.

If you do the rounds of the philosophically minded blogs of atheists, it is common for arguments about the non-existence of God to be rehearsed. Typically, they present ‘proofs’ that require empirical evidence. For example, Stephen Law, argues that if God is all-powerful and all-good, then the fact that there is so much evil in the world provides evidence that tilts the odds decisively against God’s existence.

But arguing that something tilts the odds is not the same thing as ‘presenting “proofs”,’ and Stephen Law hedges things a good deal more than that.

Would this constitute a “proof” that there’s no God? Depends what you mean by “proof”. Personally I think these sorts of consideration do establish beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no all-powerful all-good God. So we can, in this sense, prove there’s no God. Yet all the people quoted in my last blog say you cannot “scientifically” prove or disprove God’s existence. If they mean prove beyond any doubt they are right. But then hardly anything is provable in that sense, not even the non-existence of fairies.

And so on. He doesn’t just ‘present proofs,’ so that ‘for example’ is misleading.

Vernon also just says about me, and I’m not convinced by what he just says.

Or they say that God is a supernatural entity for which there is as much evidence as fairies – a familiar trope on butterfliesandwheels.

Is it? A familiar trope? Is that something I say a lot? I’m not sure I’ve ever said it, and I am sure I don’t say it a lot, so what does he mean ‘a familiar trope’?

And more to the point, why do theists and pro-theist ‘agnostics,’ which is what I take Vernon to be (since he certainly seems to spend a lot of time rebuking imaginary atheists for saying things they don’t say, for a just plain agnostic) – why do they do that? Why do they mischaracterize atheists and then scold the caricature so much?

Well, maybe because they don’t have much to say if they don’t. I don’t know. But I must say I’m beginning to suspect it. All this complaining about imaginary atheists is beginning to remind me of people who say everyone to the left of Bush is a traitor.

Vernon says more, and most of it seems pretty woolly to me.

Now, I am an agnostic. So I think that the jury is out on the existence of God and, in fact, always will be. Why? Because the very best theologians – those who it is only reasonable to consult before claiming to have disproved the thing about which they are experts – say so.

Wait – what? ‘I think the jury is out on the existence of God and always will be; why? Because the very best theologians say so.’ Did he really mean to say that? Or did he lose track because of the inserted clause, and say something much cruder and sillier than he meant to. Probably. But then there’s that inserted clause, which is also not very good. Atheists don’t claim (most of them) to have ‘disproved’ the existence of god. And what does he mean ‘disproved the thing’? How would you disprove a thing? And then the ‘about which they are experts’ bit – experts in what sense? And experts in what? The thing, we know; but what does that mean? Do they have special expert knowledge that there is a god or that god does exist (and what kind of god it is and what it does and what it wants us to do)? If so why don’t they make it public? I realize they have arguments, but I’m not sure that having arguments that god exists (or ‘about the thing,’ for short) makes them experts. I have no problem agreeing it makes them scholars, but experts? No. No, frankly, I think that’s a stupid word to use about a supernatural subject – unless of course one of these experts comes up with some real evidence (yes, evidence) that a supernatural entity exists. That would be expertise. But just saying? Not so much.

There’s more, but that’s enough. I find this kind of thing depressing.



Equivocation and ambiguity are not always virtues

Mar 2nd, 2007 12:33 pm | By

To be fair to Terry Eagleton, he’s perfectly capable of being entirely lucid and even (dare I say it) sensible. I leafed through The Eagelton Reader earlier today to find a sample – and it was not difficult. From an essay called ‘Deconstruction and Human Rights’:

Equivocation and ambiguity are not always moral virtues; and there seems no doubt that such finespun obliquity on issues of central political importance has done much to disillusion those erstwhile enthusiasts for deconstruction who somewhat gullibly credited its promissory note to deliver some political goods.

There you go. Clear as a bell.

Update: I shortened the quoted passage, to omit a swipe at Derrida that I almost didn’t include to begin with, but ended up including for the sake of offering some context. But Roger points out that it’s inaccurate – and I don’t agree with the point of it anyway (which seems to be that all writing ought to be politically useful in some way, or at least ought to be rebuked for not being), so out it goes. My main goal was just to be fair to Eagleton; and the passage is more elegant on its own anyway.



Faith faith faith, and Slee

Mar 1st, 2007 5:37 pm | By

I’m not the only one who wasn’t impressed or convinced by that piece by Stuart Jeffries. Caspar Melville is another.

Stuart Jeffries piece on faith and unbelief is an example of a certain kind of liberal intellectual position which seeks to stand above the current debates about the place of religion in contemporary society…He quotes without challenge the preposterous assertion from Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, that “atheists like Richard Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” (since when is writing books and making arguments comparable to mass murder?)…Jeffries is quite right to point out that these days secularists seem exasperated. But who can blame us when the case against unaccountable and undemocratic religious privilege is so misrepresented by articles like his?

Well exactly. If people like him didn’t keep saying silly things like that, people like us would be better-tempered and sweeter and would stop blowing up tubes and buses, or rather not so much blowing them up as, well, not blowing them up. We wouldn’t stop not blowing them up – we’d – oh never mind.

David Thompson also comments.

What we’re hearing instead, and hearing very often, are statements like another quoted in Jeffries’ article, by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath: “We need to treat those who disagree with us with intellectual respect, rather than dismissing them – as Dawkins does – as liars, knaves and charlatans.” This rather presupposes that intellectual respect could in all fairness be assigned to a person who presents no credible argument to support grandiose claims regarding the origin and nature of existence, and the alleged preferences of a hypothetical deity on whose behalf he affects to speak. Well, if you want to avoid being viewed as a knave or a pompous little fraud, it helps to have the goods to back up your claims.

And it’s just asking too much to demand that we treat all those who disagree with us with intellectual respect. What if they’re not intellectually respectable? Civility is one thing, but intellectual respect is another.

David cites that comment by Colin Slee too – I daresay everyone who discussed that article cited that comment. It certainly did stand out! So much so that it caused me to lapse into a rare but sincere fantasy about violence.

Ben at Religion is Bullshit has a splendid comment. Stuart Jeffries is probably feeling pretty silly by now! One can hope so anyway.

Stephen Law has posts about the ever-popular ‘atheism is faith’ trope here and here. He also has ones on cultural relativism here and several other places – I don’t have the strength to link to all of them: you should just go explore the whole blog.



A reader

Mar 1st, 2007 12:27 am | By

In sharp contrast to Our Terry, here’s a nice thing – a former MP (Labour) for Reading East who is reading Why Truth Matters and thinks it’s worth reading.

If you go to the Butterflies and Wheels site, you will find a fascinating thread prompted by a piece by Nick Cohen in the Observer yesterday; the piece was largely about the jailed Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Suleiman, but also mentioned Chinese government attempts to police the internet – but as so often it is the comment thread which proves the more illuminating. It is a fact that hardly any bloggers posting in English have had anything to say about Kareem. It is a fact, for instance, that when I posted on this subject a few days ago there were no comments. Not one at the time of posting now. I can only suppose that is because nobody is interested – otherwise they’d comment, wouldn’t they?…I wonder though, and I hope this is not true, whether the silence on this subject is illustrative of a more general view, perhaps on the Guardian-reading so-called Left?

I’ll have to comment. But I did post several news links here, so I’m interested. But I wonder too about that more general view.

I went to the butterfliesandwheels site because I am reading a book by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom called “Why Truth Matters” . It’s worth reading, and is a challenge to a non-intellectual like me. It is about scepticism, relativism and doubt. If you want to give it a go Mr Amazon will come round on his bike and deliver it to you. It has made me look up all sorts of things I never did when I was in politics full time – like Manichaeism for instance…As far as I can understand Manichaeism as it is thought of today, it means to refer to the view that some things are just wrong. No relativism, no ifs or buts, just wrong. This is really the core of my own disillusion with the Guardian-reading tendency in British (more properly English) thought and society. Female genital mutilation, for instance, is wrong. Not culturally specific, wrong. Women often have it done to them by their own grandmothers. That doesn’t make it right.

Yep. You betcha. That’s why we’re writing a book about that – all the wrongs that are done to women that are just wrong, and not any less wrong if their grandmothers do it to them. We’ll all join hands and fight back – Jane Griffiths and B&W readers and writers and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maryam Namazie and Marie-Therese O’Loughlin and Gina Khan; we’ll all resist. You’ll see.

Another reader is our friend Richard Dawkins (or perhaps Josh, but I assume Dawkins does at least some of the choosing). I have to admit I’ve kind of longed to see something from B&W there, so I’m chuffed about that. Laugh if you like.



If it’s difficult, fix it

Mar 1st, 2007 12:12 am | By

Time to get out the trusty old grain of salt, and put it to good use. It’s to do with Terry Eagleton again.

In the preface to his latest book, The Meaning of Life, Terry Eagleton writes that his subject matter is fit only for the crazed and the comic, and hopes that he inclines more towards the latter. “I have tried to treat a high-minded topic as lightly and lucidly as possible,” he says. He has certainly managed the light bit…But comic? Or lucid? There are precious few gags on offer – unless you count passing references to Monty Python and Douglas Adams – and the prose is so dense in parts, you can re-read a passage several times and still be none the wiser. The words make sense on their own, but somehow, when combined, they rather lose their meaning. But then, literary and cultural theorists tend to have different benchmarks of levity and clarity from the rest of us. As Britain’s answer to Derrida, Althusser and Deleuze, Eagleton has standards to maintain, and he doesn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered at the suggestion that – so it often appears to the rest of us – theorists are wilfully esoteric and exist only to talk to other theorists. If it’s difficult, it’s difficult, and it’s not the job of the theorist to make things overly accessible; it’s the reader’s job to put in the intellectual legwork to meet the writer on his or her own turf.

No. No no no no. All wrong. It’s not that it’s ‘difficult,’ it’s that it’s pointlessly difficult. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s that it’s difficult way out of proportion to its merit or interest or significance, and that it’s difficult on purpose for the sake of being difficult, as opposed to unavoidably as a result of the nature of the subject matter. Got that? Terry Eagelton doesn’t write about anything that needs to be made incomprehensible, therefore he ought not to do so.



Scraping the bottom

Feb 26th, 2007 11:37 am | By

And speaking of fundamentalists v liberals, this piece by Stuart Jeffries is truly disgusting. It’s a whole new level beyond the usual mewling Guardian drivel about religion. It’s really contemptible.

Today, it’s the religious on one side, and the secular on the other. Britain is dividing into intolerant camps who revel in expressing contempt for each other’s most dearly held beliefs. “We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England.”

That’s a revolting, outrageous, immoral thing to say. Reading it, I keep wishing Colin Slee were in front of me – tied down, naturally, or else very small and weak – so that I could punch him.

“You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths – and, indeed, thinking atheists – in the other corner. ” says Slee.

Oh, right – it’s the Anglicans and Catholics and ‘other faiths’ who are intelligent and thinking, along with thinking atheists as an afterthought. Does Slee take himself to be an example of a thinking liberal? After that comment?

There’s a great deal of nonsense, then a resoundingly stupid conclusion.

What should such a public square be like?…[I]t could be based on respectful understanding of others’ most cherished beliefs, argues Spencer: “We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.” It is, at least, a hope…

But what about ‘other value systems’ that in fact are not coherent, reasonable, or valuable? Why should we be ‘more willing’ to treat them that way if that is not in fact the way they are? Why should we not be allowed to note that ‘cherished’ is one thing and ‘coherent, reasonable, and valuable’ are others, and that there is no necessary connection between them? Why are we being told to engage in some masquerade in which we pretend that every moth-eaten ridiculous ‘belief’ anyone has must be treated with respect as coherent, reasonable, and valuable? As if everyone were four years old and would cry boo-hoo if someone said ‘That’s crap’?

I leave it to your wisdom to determine.



The Mega Interrogative

Feb 26th, 2007 10:53 am | By

Prospect’s Big Question is interesting in parts. The question is ‘Left and right defined the 20th century. What’s next?’ My answer of course is some version of reason and faith, or reason and supernaturalism, or open thinking and closed thinking, inquiry or dogmatism, revisability or certainty, fallibilism or authority. Thinking or obedience, you could call it; thinking or submission. Or you could call it liberalism or authoritarianism. Or, the Enlightenment or the Counter-enlightenment. You get the idea – and you’re certainly not surprised. What else would I say?

Human rights, is one thing I could say, but I take that to be subsumed under all the first terms. It’s all the second terms who say human rights are good except when they conflict with religious etc or traditional etc or national etc. That’s one big (huge) reason the second term is my sworn enemy – it’s because when there is a conflict or tension between the two, it chooses the dogma over the rights, the unchanging Word of Someone over changing ideas of which people it is okay to oppress.

But that’s only one reason, even though it’s a big one. The chief reason is simply the inherent value of the first term. The ability to think freely and question and doubt and change your mind is a human treasure, equivalent to the treasure of language itself. So I’m pleased to see that some of the thinkers who answered the question answered it in those terms.

Francis Wheen:

The new struggle is between the best of the Enlightenment legacy (rationalism, scientific empiricism, separation of church and state) on the one hand and, on the other, various forms of obscurantism and value-free relativism, often disguised as “anti-imperialism” or “anti-universalism” to give profoundly reactionary attitudes an alluringly radical veneer…What makes this battle so serious is the array of forces ganging up on the Enlightenment version of modernity—pre-modernists and postmodernists, new age progressives and Old Testament-style fundamentalists. They have little in common but the one big thing—their visceral hatred of reason.

Erik Tarloff: ‘My fear is that we are facing another round in the recurrent conflict between rationality and superstition (represented at the present time by religious fundamentalism).’ Philip Pullman: The struggle will continue to be what it has always been: wisdom against stupidity. In the 20th century the odds shortened greatly in favour of stupidity, because stupidity now has the means to destroy human civilisation entirely.’ Joe Boyd [he’s a music producer]: ‘The big divide in the coming decades will be between the “reality-based community” and the “ideologically-based community.”’ Julian Baggini: ‘The new conflict is between liberal universalism and a communitarianism which asserts the need for cultures to maintain their own values and traditions.’

Todd Gitlin’s version is a bit different, and interesting:

The coming cleavage is between zealots and realists. Zealots think the world will yield to their strenuous, righteous will. These include Islamists, utopian free traders, neoconservatives, purists of all stripes. Realists think that you work with the world you have, not the world you wish you had.

That’s different because it’s possible to be a rational zealot and a zealous realist – in fact I would claim that it’s possible to mix zeal and realism. But it is an interesting dichotomy, anyway.

Susan Greenberg:

We all made fun of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” and “unknowns.” But it is a useful analytical framework. And the main faultline of the future will be between those who recognise when they don’t know something, and those who cannot or will not.

I didn’t make fun of it; Rumsfeld was quite right, and it’s an important point. It is indeed a useful analytical framework – it annoyed me that so many people did make fun of it – because that’s just symptomatic of the fact that a lot of people not only don’t recognise when they don’t know something, they don’t even recognise that that’s a problem. Hence the world is full of stupidity, as Pullman points out. One of the very first steps on the path of doing what you can to avoid stupidity is knowing that you don’t always know you don’t know and that that is indeed a problem. (In fact Julian’s second blog post on TPM’s spanking new blog is about universal human stupidity; it’s titled ‘I’m stupid, and so are you.’)

Two more. Nicholas Humphrey:

How can anyone doubt that the faultline is going to be religion? On one side there will be those who continue to appeal for their political and moral values to what they understand to be God’s will. On the other there will be the atheists, agnostics and scientific materialists, who see human lives as being under human control, subject only to the relatively negotiable constraints of our evolved psychology.

Will Hutton:

The key argument in the decades ahead will be between moral fundamentalists, animated by faith or nationalism or some combination of both, and Enlightenment liberals.

Between fundamentalists and liberals; which has the advantage that some religious believers belong and/or would place themselves on the liberal side.



The joy of changing your mind

Feb 25th, 2007 11:20 am | By

I was thinking earlier today about religion as a meme, and the familiar point that (as Steven Weinberg summarizes it in the TLS) ‘the persistence of belief in a particular religion is naturally aided if that religion teaches that God punishes disbelief.’ I was thinking about the fact that what that means is that religions that do teach that are a racket, in a quite literal sense. A racket, and also circular. ‘Believe in this god because it will punish you if you don’t.’ ‘But why should I believe that?’ ‘Because it will punish you if you don’t.’ ‘Yes but why should I believe that it’s this god that will punish me, what if it’s actually a different one that will punish me for believing this one?’ ‘Because this one will punish you if you believe that.’ And so on. That’s one of the problems with Pascal’s flutter, of course. So anyway, it’s circular, and a racket. And it’s a very nasty racket at that – one of the nastiest that could be imagined.

Why? Because it systematically and deliberately disables one of the core human abilities: flexibility: the ability to change our minds.

That really is horrible, you know. I don’t think we appreciate how horrible it is, because we’re so used to it. But it is very horrible. Look, it’s a privilege being human. We get to have long-term memory, and we get to have language so that we can extend our memories by exchanging them and discussing them with other people, and we get to extend them further and make them more reliable by recording them in various ways. Think of that. Even the cleverest of other animals can’t tell each other what their ancestors did; they know nothing at all about anything that happened outside their own memory and observation. It’s a privilege having such complicated minds, and flexibility is one of the luxury appointments of those minds. The ability to change them is a fantastic thing, and religion’s short-circuiting of that ability is an appalling way of proceeding. We’re so used to it we take it for granted, we don’t notice the horror of it, but really it is a bad thing.

It’s one of the best things about us, the ability to change our minds, and it makes possible many other best things about us – the ability to learn, for a start. Imagine disabling people’s ability to learn. Terrible business.

Dawkins touches on this in an interview at Alternet, in reply to the observation that ‘People finally say, “What’s it to you? Why not be an atheist if that’s what works for you, and leave the rest of us to be as religious as we wish?” This, I believe, is offered as a challenge to your open-mindedness or your respect for others. You’re being called “an atheist fundamentalist.”

“Fundamentalist” usually means, “goes by the book.” And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, “nothing can change.” Of course, that’s not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense.

Nothing can change, you see. What a horror. What a nightmare that idea is. Those poor deprived people. It’s heart-rending.



Beware of certainty

Feb 25th, 2007 10:25 am | By

An interesting point about expertise and epistemology and how they interact in courtrooms.

The evolving science that surrounds DNA, for example, demands caution and careful interpretation, while the criminal law and our adversarial system expects a simple explanation – often nothing better than a “yes” or “no” answer. So the hired expert who presents his data with certainty and determination is more likely to win over a jury than the more hesitant doctor, scientist or expert who is prepared to acknowledge doubt. That’s why Gene Morrison was able to bamboozle the courts for as long as he did – not because he had a fake PhD (after all, even TV diet experts have those), but because he presented what he had to say with certainty and conviction and the scrutiny of the science behind what he said was never robustly questioned either by the defence or by the prosecution.

Beware of certainty; be especially ware of people who make claims with certainty; be triply ware of people who make claims with certainty in areas where certainty is not possible.



What is honour? A word.

Feb 24th, 2007 6:11 pm | By

This is unpleasant stuff. Unsurprising, but unpleasant. A statement by the Cambridge Muslim Welfare Society about that business at Clare College.

With sorrow and anger the Mosque notes the publication, in the student newsletter Clareification, of material which deliberately insults the honour of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad (s.w.s.). Mindful of its duty before Almighty Allah and before humanity to defend the honour and good name of the Final Prophet, the Mosque condemns this provocation in the strongest terms.

Its duty? To tell everyone in the entire world that it is forbidden to ‘insult’ the honour of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad (s.w.s.)? To impose the taboos and rules of one religion on everyone everywhere, despite the impossibility and unreasonability of expecting everyone to share that view of the BPM? To worry more about the ‘honour’ of someone who died in the 7th century than about – pretty much anything else? That’s its duty?

We hope and trust…that the students will offer a full and unconditional apology for their irresponsible action. The University’s record of freedom of expression is a matter of record and of pride. However it is clear that incitement to religious and ethnic hatred is at all times immoral, and that its consequences for harmony between communities and nations can be grave. It is particularly important that the boundary between fair comment and hate speech be respected and understood at the present time…

Is insulting the honour of the BPM ‘incitement to religious and ethnic hatred’? Is the boundary between ‘fair comment and hate speech’ so well demarcated that it is self-evident where it is? Is it up to Mosques to decide? Is that worry about harmony between communities a threat? A lot of questions here. But it makes me nervous when religious people think they get to tell everyone what to do.



Having it all

Feb 24th, 2007 11:01 am | By

The problem with soothing official boilerplate is that it tends to ignore incompatibilities – it tends to say ‘Yes yes of course we can do everything, of course we can fly through the air and creep along the ground and dive beneath the sea, all at the same time.’ It tends to say everyone can have everything everyone wants, next question please. The Department for Education and Skills reaction to the MCB’s helpful educational guidelines for instance.

The Department for Education and Skills has no involvement with the document produced by the MCB. We have already provided schools with a wealth of official guidance, which makes clear they should take into account, and recognise, the needs and cultural diversity of all their pupils regardless of their background….It is important that education provides the right ethos which encourages high aspirations, good citizenship and mutual understanding, and that schools recognise the cultural and faith needs of all their pupils.

Right, except the only problem is that you can’t do all those things. That’s why all this business about recognizing the putative ‘cultural and faith needs’ of everyone is not a cheery straightforward uncontroversial matter. Shall we spell it out? Yet again? Might as well, I guess. Maybe if we keep on spelling it out, over and over again, eventually spokespeople for departments will realize they can’t get away with soothing boilerplate on this particular subject any more. Okay: to spell it out: some cultural and faith needs include the need to prevent half of humanity from having high aspirations. Does that clear it up at all?

Okay I’ll try to be even blunter. Some cultures and some faiths don’t want women to have high aspirations at all; as a matter of fact there is nothing, literally nothing, that some cultures and traditions hate more than women with high aspirations. Some adherents of cultures and traditions like that shoot women with high aspirations in the head, precisely for the crime of having high aspirations. Other such adherents set fire to such women. So you can’t do both. You can’t do both, you can’t do both. Sad, isn’t it – but you can’t. You have to choose. You can do only one. Either recognize putative cultural and faith needs, or encourage high aspirations. Those two goals are violently, tragically incompatible. Hideously incompatible. Repellently incompatible. You have to choose one, and you have to choose the right one. You have to learn how to say ‘The hell with cultural and faith needs.’



Everybody agrees about everything hurrah

Feb 23rd, 2007 12:04 pm | By

Terry Eagleton says wrong things again.

The basic moral values of the average Muslim dentist who migrates to Britain are much the same as those of a typical English-born plumber. Neither is likely to believe that lying and cheating are the best policy, or that they should beat their children. They may have different customs and beliefs, but what is striking is the vast extent of common ground between them on the issue of what it is for men and women to live well.

Is he joking? No, apparently not, he apparently means it – he means that ‘the average Muslim dentist’ and the ‘typical English-born plumber’ and, presumably, by extension, everyone else in the world is unlikely to believe that they should beat their children. Really?! There’s a universal consensus that people should not beat their children? The inadvisability of beating one’s children is uncontentious? Who knew!

Or to put it another way, what a ridiculous claim. Of course it’s not – it’s not an uncontentious claim even in the US or UK, and it’s certainly not one in places average migratory Muslim dentists are likely to come from. Especially, I would point out, ever so tactfully, if the children in question have the bad judgment to be daughters.

So what does he mean by his very next words? ‘They may have different customs and beliefs’ – right, such as beliefs about whether or not it’s a good idea to beat children, and customs about beating children. Yet all the same, they have the same basic moral values, which just happen to bear an uncanny resemblance to the basic moral values that Terry Eagleton would like them to have, such as the error of beating children. And even happier and pleasanter and more delightful, there is a vast extent of common ground between them on the issue of what it is for men and women to live well. At least according to Eagleton. I would have said he was wrong about precisely that point, but there you go.

David Thompson comments too, and so does Tom Freeman.

Update: Rosie Bell (our friend KB Player) also comments, as does our friend Ed.