Notes and Comment Blog


Men only

Jun 8th, 2007 10:41 am | By

So she goes into Starbucks in Riyadh, the first Starbucks she’s seen in months; she ignores the flickering eyes of the man behind the counter, the stares of the men in the cafe, she sits down in an armchair – only to have the counter man hiss in her ear “You can’t sit here. Men only.” Oh right – of course; how stupid of me. Men only. Not men only in men’s toilets, but men only everywhere. Men only in the world. Women shoved into nasty little boxes round the back; women shouted at; women told to get out, get out, get out. Women treated like filthy foul sluts for merely existing. Women monitored, watched, glared at, chased, bullied, threatened.

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being…The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.

Why is Saudi Arabia considered ‘moderate’? I keep wondering that. Only yesterday, during some BBC discussion of the kickback matter, the official voice called SA ‘moderate’. What’s moderate about it? It funds global fundamentalism and it treats women like dirt – what exactly is moderate about it? Just a kind of alliance with the US? Is that all? Is that enough? (Answer: no. If that’s all that’s meant, ‘moderate’ is the wrong word. Perhaps more is meant? But what? No direct links with Hizbollah? Is that enough?)



Leave? Of course you can’t leave

Jun 7th, 2007 9:17 am | By

The forces of progressivism cover themselves in glory again.

Labour (PvdA) has been trying to muzzle a young PvdA member who is fighting for the rights and safety of Muslim apostates. An internal memo shows that the party fears the campaign of Ehsan Jami will cause it electoral damage and enrage Muslims.

The party fears the campaign of Ehsan Jami to protect the rights and safety of people who don’t want to be Muslims will enrage Muslims, and therefore they try to silence it or adjust it or make it not quite so – er. Because…because a ‘community’ has every right to prevent people from leaving their ‘community’ and therefore people who do leave or try to leave should have no rights and no safety. Is that it? So if you’re a Baptist, you have to stay a Baptist; if you’re a Tory, you don’t get to stop being a Tory; if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’re not allowed to grow out of it. Is that it? No; but that is it when it comes to ‘Muslim apostates’; and a left-wing party is trying to prevent one of its members from improving the situation. It (apparently) wants Muslims to go on being forced to be Muslims for life whether they want to or not; it wants Muslims alone among the peoples of the earth to have zero choice of beliefs and allegiances; it wants Muslims and only Muslims to be permanently trapped in a religion that will kill them rather than let them simply unjoin. A pretty drastic abridgement of freedom, yet the PvdA doesn’t want it messed with. Well, solidarity forever, that’s all I can say.

Jami announced in May he was setting up a Committee for Ex-Muslims. The committee wants to break the taboo on lapsing from the Islamic faith. The 22 year old Jami, himself an apostate of Islam, says many Muslims do not dare to renounce Islam for fear of reprisals, including death. Jami…will launch the committee officially in September with an international press conference. He says he has already had hundreds of e-mails from Muslims from throughout the world who support him.

Well yeah but those are the wrong kind of Muslims, the ones who believe people should be able to decide for themselves, the ones who are all freedom-loving and Westernized and inauthentic, so who cares what they think, what matters is what the community thinks.

Jami is supported by philosopher and political commentator Afshin Ellian. NRC Handelsblad quoted MP Wolfsen as saying that Ellian has “a very anti-Islam agenda.” But apart from Ellian, who is an Iranian refugee, Jami is “almost exclusively surrounding himself with whites”, which is unwise, Terstal’s email states.

Well yeah. One non-white who is really a white because of having a very anti-Islam agenda, and all the rest are whites, therefore – well I don’t need to spell it out, do I.

Terstall acknowledged in a reaction that his intervention was to some extend dubious, but necessary in the party’s interests. “I do not want to rein in Jami’s enthusiasm, but he must be effective. There are words that he uses that act like a red rag to a bull in the Muslim community, which already has little self-confidence.”

I knew the community would turn up eventually, if I waited long enough; and there it is – all lacking self-confidence, poor thing, so therefore we mustn’t say that people should be able to leave a religion if they want to without being threatened or killed.

Jami said yesterday…that he is not surprised that his party is trying to ‘guide’ him. “It is typical of the PvdA. They do not seem to be able to deal well with this sort of question.” Jami compares his situation with that of the meanwhile world-famous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who switched from PvdA to the conservatives (VVD) at the beginning of her career because she was not allowed by PvdA to speak freely about the emancipation of Islamic women. Jami is however for now refusing to leave the PvdA and will carry on with his committee. “I want to change the party from inside.”

It sounds as if the party needs it.



And besides atheism is ugly and stupid and old and fat

Jun 6th, 2007 5:51 pm | By

What was that I was murmuring about cherished beliefs and their not so healthy effect on people’s ability to think and argue? Hardly were the words out of my mouth, it seems, when Theo Hobson was inspired to give a truly showy demonstration of that very thing.

First, by way of warming up, he threw himself down on the floor and gave a really good loud scream. ‘Atheism is pretentious and cowardly,’ he howled, spit flying, ‘and I hate it really really hard!’ Then he got up and took up the serious business of making his case.

How odd that there seems to be an endless appetite for militant atheism. How odd that anyone over 17 admires these angry ageing men, scowling at us indignantly, and competing with each other in tough-talking God knocking. How odd that they get such an easy press, that their (usually female) interviewers are so fawning. Now it is Christopher “Hitch” Hitchens’ turn. Behold the jowly prophet…

Behold the ill-mannered petulant whiner, with his factual errors and his hyperbole and his frank and frankly irrelevant insults. What ‘endless appetite’? Five books, after a period of decades when such books could not find a publisher? What ‘militant’ atheism? Where are the buses and trains that atheists blow up? How odd that Theo Hobson, who (I surmise) thinks of himself as a benevolent Christian type, resorts to the pathetic insult ‘aging’ – does he think he is going in the other direction? Does he think it’s reprehensible to get older? And then there’s the bit about mostly female interviewers – oh yes – those stupid credulous dim-witted women, fawning on all the aging jowly cowardly atheists.

And that’s just the first paragraph. Needless to say, the rest of it is crap too, but I thought it was interesting to note how venomous and unpleasant pious Theo is once his beliefs are challenged.

I’m reminded of Mark Vernon, who is not even a theist but who seems to have a real hatred of atheists – at least I can’t imagine what else inspires him to talk such nonsense about them as he does in the comments on this post.

So here’s a few gently provocative comments in reply – though no doubt, to begin the provocation straight away, you conviction atheists will immediately reject them out of hand as confusion piled upon confusion, because, of course, you conviction atheists have all confusions ironed out by all-conquering reason, with your beliefs flowing cooly in streams of coherent logic…Doubt and belief go together. Let me just offer three reasons why that might be the case (‘Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish!’, I hear you faithful atheists reply – and you have company, with the fundamentalists)…It is only the fundamentalist – religious or atheist – for whom doubt, confusion, complications are seen as automatic failures of belief, opportunities to score points, or rallying calls for the soldiers to march around. Just being gently provocative.

Obnoxious, isn’t it. Inaccurate and sneery – an annoying combination. (I objected, in fact I objected twice, but answer came there none.) What’s the point? What’s the point of railing at the wrong target? Why not dispute real atheism instead of wild-fantasy atheism? I don’t know, but I find this kind of thing unimpressive.



Faith is hutchputch therefore so is atheism

Jun 5th, 2007 10:13 am | By

It can be interesting to see the effect that a need to protect cherished beliefs can have on the health of a person’s thought processes. That need has a tendency to warp and distort the ability to 1) think clearly and 2) talk or write in a straightforward way.

Hitchens distances himself from the idea that he is a form of believer, claiming that his views are not beliefs like those of religious people but are based on reason. Thereby he privileges atheism and calls the result secular neutrality.

Note the sly implication that Hitchens is doing something illegitimate and probably elitist by ‘privileging’ non-theism. Note the faint implication of paranoia if not cowardice – Hitchens ‘distances himself’ from the (silly, bogus, defensive) idea that he is a believer, as opposed to disputing it or challenging it or saying it’s fraudulent and pathetic – as if he’s afraid of it, as if he thinks it has teeth and claws.

The point that Hitchens fails to understand is that faith is not simply about giving assent to the existence of a supernatural being. Faith is infinitely more comprehensive than this. Faith is a world view, an underlying narrative to people’s lives that helps them to answer profound questions to do with meaning, identity, purpose and the future. On this basis, atheism certainly is a faith and the version of it promoted by Christopher Hitchens is of the extreme fundamentalist sort.

Note first the nonsensical and grandiose redefinition, the brazen Humpty Dumptyism – faith is a world view. Then note the wild leap from that to the claim that atheism is a world view; note the complete non sequitur. On this basis? On what basis? You call that a basis? Faith is a world view, on this basis atheism is certainly a faith? Wo – try writing that out formally, dude; you’ll find it lacks a certain something. And that’s the point. Funny how the enemies of atheism keep doing that – keep making conspicuously bad arguments by way of defending their ‘faith’ or their ‘beliefs.’ An occupational hazard, it seems.



What we can’t know

Jun 2nd, 2007 11:20 am | By

About the theist four-step again – I’ve been pondering the fact that 2) and 4) are a tricky combination. What would it even mean to have reliable knowledge that ‘God’ is ‘good’? It’s not really even possible to know that. It’s possible to believe it in a sense, but not to know it.

It’s possible to imagine having reliable knowledge that God exists – and that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and that it wants us to do certain things and not others. But that it is good? No. Because that’s not knowable in principle.

Imagine it. There’s been some global mass revelation that puts it all beyond question. Included in that is God’s own declaration that God is good. And – it tells us to torture animals for fun, to torture small children, to bully women, to exploit people in proportion to the darkness (or lightness) of their skin; to lie, to cheat, to destroy, to cause pain and harm in every way we can. Would we ‘know’ all that was good? No. We only know God is good if the way God is good – even if God declares its own goodness itself – is what we ourselves think is good; we can’t know it if God’s idea of good turns out to be our idea of horrible wickedness. So all we can know about that is what we already know. (This is just ‘Euthyphro’ again.) If it turned out not to be what we already know, but something that pulled in the opposite direction – we wouldn’t know that; we would know we had awakened into a nightmare.

And even if God told us ‘good’ rules, we still wouldn’t know, because the principle itself is dubious – because it’s external and hierarchical and authoritarian, and thus not good enough.

We could be robots – and have a set of instructions, which produce the least harm possible in any given situation. That wouldn’t make us ‘good.’ It would just be an algorithm. Good isn’t a meaningful concept unless it’s internal to us, unless it belongs to us rather than being an externally imposed command, like ‘turn right at the next stoplight.’

It has to be internal, and also emotional* to mean anything – to match what we mean by the word. The word refers to human motivations and intentions and feelings. An external recipe or blueprint just doesn’t do that.

From that point of view, the whole idea that morality is linked to God is really very fundamentally mistaken, so fundamentally that believers probably agree, whether they know it or not. It’s ‘good’ that they really believe in, not ‘God.’ (If God turned out to be real and also self-evidently cruel and wicked, they would [perforce] believe in God’s reality but not its goodness; they would no longer ‘believe in’ God in the sense that mingles loyalty with cognitive acceptance. That’s a very flat assertion – but I think it’s fair. I pay believers the compliment of thinking they do pretty much universally associate God with goodness.)

Imagine a reliably knowable God whose rules are not incidentally or incompletely cruel but thoroughly and systematically so – the usual ‘God’ in every other way, but sadistic and merciless. Would anyone love that God? No – not even Pat Robertson would. (Fred Phelps might.)

It’s not God that believers love – it’s ‘good.’ It’s Good, and they just conflate that with God.

What a better happier more peaceful world it would be if we all actually understood this. Not perfect, but better.

*Hume’s ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’



Religionized versions of secular ideas

Jun 1st, 2007 2:49 am | By

Is this true?

What is missing from the book is much sense of what a world without religion, or one that had not had religion in it, might look like. Lots of the principles that Mr Hitchens holds dear, like tolerance and justice, are secularised versions of religious ideas.

Are tolerance and justice secularised versions of religious ideas? What does that in fact mean? I suppose that the ideas originated in religion and that no one ever thought of them independently of religion, though they have now become partially secularized, but only partially since there are always people saying they are in fact religious. But is that true? I don’t believe it. I think people were able to and did conceive of ideas like tolerance and justice for secular reasons. I also think religions have not historically been particularly concerned with either tolerance or justice, so it’s not clear to me why they have this reputation for being the original source of such ideas (or those of equality and individual worth, either, which are also often attributed to religion).

It also seems fair to say that the process works at least as much in the other direction – that religions have adopted some political and moral ideas that are much more favoured now than they were historically, thus borrowing some of the moral prestige of what are basically secular shifts in attitudes.



Truth or otherwise

Jun 1st, 2007 12:44 am | By

Something I wonder about – Jonathan Derbyshire commenting on something Chris Dillow said:

“I should stress here that my beef is not with religion as such. It’s about the role it should play in politics. In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them.”

In other words, the truth or otherwise of religious beliefs is irrelevant to the question whether they should play a role in public deliberation. So the putatively religious roots of Gordon Brown’s egalitarianism oughtn’t to worry us so long as they play no role in his public justifications for it.

Is the truth or otherwise of religious beliefs really irrelevant to the question whether they should play a role in public deliberation? I’m not so sure. But it’s tricky – because what’s really relevant is not just whether or not the beliefs are true but whether or not we know they’re true (or not true), and whether we all know it, and how we know it and how confidently we know it. In other words, it’s a reliable knowledge issue again. It has to be. Why, in an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, should religion have no place? Because rational persuasion can get no foothold in the absence of reliable knowledge. What’s needed for rational persuasion is not just truth but also reliable knowledge of the truth. But both are needed – if we have reliable knowledge and what we reliably know is that the religious beliefs in question are not true, then surely that’s not irrelevant.



Stop that wicked woman

May 30th, 2007 9:36 am | By

And then – why is whoever wrote the headline for this article buying into these assumptions?

Anti-Islamic writer stirs hatred, Muslims warn

That’s a really terrible headline. What next? ‘Apostate Islamophobic hoor stirs hatred, Muslims warn’? ‘Evil bitch must be stopped, Muslims warn’?

Well let’s have a look at some of the ‘warnings.’

A visit to Sydney by a controversial Somali writer who calls the prophet Mohammed a pedophile and says Islam is inferior to Western culture has outraged Muslims, who accuse her of inciting hatred.

The usual misleading slippage, that tricks readers into thinking Hirsi Ali’s visit has outraged all Muslims, which is grossly unfair to all the Muslims who are reasonable enough to be not outraged. The usual coercion and confusion and manufacture of outrage via sloppy imprecise careless writing. Now that’s an outrage!

Nada Roude, of the NSW Islamic Council, said Hirsi Ali’s comments on the prophet Mohammed were a “no-go zone”. “They (prophets) are not just like you and me, they have special status – you’re supposed to show respect,” Ms Roude said. “There have to be boundaries in how far you go in respecting other’s beliefs. The reaction from the community is likely to be quite worrying…Anyone who causes harm to our society because they have the right to express their opinion is not welcome.”

Gotcha. Thanks for the warning.



Spot the contradiction

May 30th, 2007 9:08 am | By

How’s that again?

Malaysia’s highest court has rejected a Muslim convert’s six-year battle to be legally recognised as a Christian. A three-judge panel ruled that only the country’s Sharia Court could let Azlina Jailani, now known as Lina Joy, remove the word Islam from her identity card. Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship but says all ethnic Malays are Muslim. Under Sharia law, Muslims are not allowed to convert.

I’m sorry, I must be dense – I don’t understand. Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship but says all ethnic Malays are Muslim – but if Malaysia’s constitution says all ethnic Malays are Muslim, then it doesn’t, in fact, guarantee freedom of religion, does it. Perhaps you meant Malaysia’s constitution says it guarantees freedom of worship? Or that it pretends to, or claims to, or pays lip service to the idea that it ought to? You can’t say it does guarantee it when it in fact allots it by ethnic group, though. That doesn’t compute. More to the point, of course, Malaysia can’t say it does guarantee it when it doesn’t. Also of course, that goes double when the religion one is allotted by ethnic group forbids departure and punishes it by death. Religion mandated according to birth and remaining mandatory throughout life is not a good definition of ‘freedom of worship.’



Four for the price of one

May 28th, 2007 10:24 am | By

The point of the theist four-step post was to note that theists tend to think the four beliefs are one – that the belief that there is an X we call ‘God’ includes other beliefs, especially the three cited.

My real point was to emphasize that they are separate beliefs, not one and not necessarily or automatically linked; that they all have to be evaluated, not just the first; that there’s no obvious reason to assume that if ‘God’ does exist it is good (in a sense we understand) (or any other either) or wants us to be good or that we reliably know any of that.

It is worth emphasizing that, because it is somewhat remarkable how often it gets overlooked, how often the discussion is just about exist/not exist while goodness is taken for granted. It’s a very strange thing to take for granted, given the realities of animal life. It’s not at all a strange thing to hope for, to long for, to wish for, but it’s a very strange thing to assume. In a way it would make far more sense to believe there is a God and spend all one’s time imploring it to be kinder. It would make more sense for people to sit around in churches shouting up at God ‘Why are you such a bastard? Give us a break! Have a heart!’ Churches and mosques should be full of pictures of mass slaughters, everything from genocides to tsunamis and earthquakes and droughts, all captioned ‘Why? Why, God, why? Why are you such a shit?’ Along with those pictures would be all the others, not mass slaughters but just the plain everyday ones, which don’t hurt any less just because they’re single rather than mass. And that’s before we even start with illnesses and pain and bullying, and non-human animals. Churches and mosques ought (if they consulted reality) to be museums of suffering; holocaust museums in fact.

Of course, in a way it’s understandable that people start from the other end – from the hope and belief that there is Good in the world, which is then identified as God. It’s understandable, but all the same, it muddies the waters later on.



Setting the bar

May 27th, 2007 11:20 am | By

I knew I would be told I was setting too high a standard by talking of reliable knowledge (and meaning by it actually reliable knowledge, rather than credible or rationally defensible or arguable beliefs or guesses or intuitions). I knew that so well that when making a couple of notes on belief and reliable knowledge this morning, that was one of the notes I made – the prediction that I would be told that. But the high standard is exactly the point. Why would we want to set a lower standard? Why would we accept a lower standard? I can see why people want to set a lower standard for their own beliefs, and perhaps for their chosen group’s beliefs; but why everyone is supposed to accept a lower standard for certain kinds of beliefs (and not others) in general, I find more puzzling. Especially because the claims we are supposed to accept a lower standard for – a lower standard for defining what reliable knowledge is, remember – are so very large and detailed (albeit conflicting) and unlikely. It is not obvious that the larger and wilder the claim is, the lower the standard for defining reliable knowledge should be. On the contrary. The larger and wilder the claim is, the more we want to know how the person making the claim knows – except, apparently, when it comes to whether ‘God’ exists and whether it is good and what it wants us to do to be good. But that’s just the kind of claim we need reliable knowledge of, and if we don’t have it, we need to be very damn cautious about heeding claims on the subject.

Notice I’m not saying this rules out belief; it obviously doesn’t. But belief isn’t knowledge, and shouldn’t be treated like knowledge. I maintain that it’s not setting too high a standard for reliable knowledge to say that it should be genuinely reliable knowledge. Otherwise it’s not reliable knowledge, and we should talk about something else; but what I’m talking about here is reliable knowledge, so I’m going to define it accordingly, not in some more relaxed way. That’s why I brought it up in the first place. I wanted to point out that we don’t actually have any reliable knowledge on this subject. (Reliable knowledge is a very scarce commodity. Very scarce indeed. But that’s why it’s as well to be modest when making assertions from incomplete knowledge. Assertions about God and what God wants us to do to be good are not always notably modest.)



Yarg yarg yarg, militant atheists, yarg yarg

May 26th, 2007 5:39 pm | By

Yes yes yes. We know. We’ve heard.

But some now say secularists should embrace more than the strident rhetoric poured out in such books as “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris. By devoting so much space to explaining why religion is bad, these critics argue, atheists leave little room for explaining how a godless worldview can be good. At a recent conference marking the 30th anniversary of Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy, organizers sought to distance the “new humanism” from the “new atheism.” Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein went so far as to use the (other) f-word in describing his unbelieving brethren. “At times they’ve made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” Epstein said in an interview after the meeting.

And behold, it worked – here he is with his name in the Washington Post. It’s a way to get attention, and Harvard’s ‘Humanist chaplain’ has been getting it. That’s a shame.

Atheism’s new dogmatic streak is not that different from the religious extremists it calls to task…The suggestion that atheists may be fundamentalists in their own right has, unsurprisingly, ruffled feathers. “We’re not a unified group,” said Christopher Hitchens…”But we’re of one mind on this: The only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason…

Free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason – what could be more dogmatic than that?

The humanists are taking advantage of renewed interest in atheism — in effect riding the coattails of Dawkins and Harris into the mainstream — to gain attention for their big-tent model.

And doing it by pissing on them, and doing that by saying things about them that are not accurate. Triply contemptible – hitching a ride and pissing on the drivers by calling them names that don’t fit.

The article talks to much better people as it goes on, but I do wish journalists would get around to ignoring Greg Epstein.



Murdered journalists

May 24th, 2007 1:27 pm | By

This is hard to read. Painful.

The killers struck along a lonely road south of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on a Sunday in December 1998, spraying automatic rifle fire into a jeep carrying Norbert Zongo, his brother, and two companions. The gunmen set the vehicle ablaze in a bid to obscure their crime, but they could not erase Zongo’s reputation in the West African nation as the uncompromising editor of the weekly L’Independant. Neither, to many people’s eyes, could they conceal whose hands were stained with the killings—officials in President Blaise Compaoré’s government whom Zongo had investigated relentlessly for alleged torture and murder…Deputy editor of La Patria in Manizales, Colombia, Sierra was shot twice on a main street as he and his daughter walked back to the newsroom after lunch in January 2002. Sierra had long probed corruption within la coalición, a political cabal that governed his province with absolute authority…During Rwanda’s genocide, journalists were targeted regardless of ethnicity for being seen as supportive of peace and political reform…Marlene Garcia-Esperat, a well-regarded Philippine broadcaster and columnist whose anti-graft message earned the ire of local officials, was shot in her Tacurong home in front of her horrified family on Easter weekend in 2005.

This is no easier to read.

At Novaya Gazeta, Moscow’s twice-weekly independent newspaper, the staff’s pain is fresh even now, months after an assassin gunned down Politkovskaya—Anya, as colleagues called her—in her Moscow apartment building in October 2006. In a country where 80 percent of the public gets its news from state-controlled television, Novaya’s dogged coverage of social and political issues has won it devoted readers and passionate enemies. Two of its top journalists have been assassinated and a third has died under mysterious circumstances in the past six years; all reported on risky topics before their deaths.

This is one of the things the Internet and blogs can do – keep this stuff in circulation, keep it from fading. It’s exactly the kind of thing that should not fade. The practice should fade, the reports on the unfaded practice should not.



God is a walnut, a mouse, a sunny day, a gleam in your eye

May 24th, 2007 12:27 pm | By

So if God, in Humpty Dumpty fashion, just means whatever any word-spinner says it means, then – why are we expected to heed it or obey it or respect it or not do stem-cell research because of it?

There is a ‘childish notion of an anthropomorphic God that is characteristic of the tribe, of the closed society’ and then there is the non-childish notion of a non-anthropomorphic God.

God exists in the word and through the word…God is a human concept. God is the name we give to our belief that life has meaning, one that transcends the world’s chaos, randomness and cruelty…God is that mysterious force—and you can give it many names as other religions do—which works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty and goodness. God is perhaps best understood as our ultimate concern, that in which we should place our highest hopes, confidence and trust…God is better understood as verb rather than a noun. God is not an asserted existence but a process accomplishing itself. And God is inescapable. It is the life force that sustains, transforms and defines all existence.

Well that’s all quite pretty, but it is not what everyone means by the word ‘God’ – to say the least. It’s very odd to say that God is not this childish notion of a person, then matter-of-factly say that God is the name we give to our belief that life has meaning, as if that were common knowledge and universally accepted. I would go so far as to say that’s dirty pool.

It is by the seriousness of our commitments to compassion, indeed our ability to sacrifice for the other, especially for the outcast and the stranger, our commitment to justice—the very core of the message of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus—that we alone can measure the quality of faith. This is the meaning of true faith…Professed faith—what we say we believe—is not faith. It is an expression of loyalty to a community, to our tribe. Faith is what we do. This is real faith. Faith is the sister of justice.

Same thing. Very pretty, but idiosyncratic; does not reflect common usage or common knowledge; therefore, no basis on which to contest someone else’s account of the matter which more closely reflects common usage and knowledge (whatever other faults it may have).

Faith is not in conflict with reason. Faith does not conflict with scientific truth, unless faith claims to express a scientific truth. Faith can neither be affirmed nor denied by scientific, historical or philosophical truth…There is a reality that is not a product of rational deduction. It is not accounted for by strict rational discourse. There is a spiritual dimension to human existence and the universe, but this is not irrational—it is non-rational.

More Humpty Dumptyism with ‘faith’ along with some unnecessary decoration. There is an emotional dimension to human existence that it is fair to call non-rational, but as for a spiritual dimension to the universe – 1) I don’t know what that means and 2) I think it’s decorative windbaggery.

The danger of Sam’s simplistic worldview is that it does what fundamentalists do: It creates the illusion of a binary world of us and them, of reason versus irrationality, of the forces of light battling the forces of darkness. And once you set up this world you are permitted to view as justified military intervention, brutal occupation and even torture, anything, in short, that will subdue what is defined as irrational and dangerous.

That, on the other hand, I think is a defensible view, and it also doesn’t bother with idiosyncratic definitions or with decorative windbaggery. Argumentative writing is never improved by idiosyncratic definitions or decorative windbaggery; never.



Inquiry wants to be free

May 23rd, 2007 1:22 pm | By

Hitchens has a piece in that current Free Inquiry that I mentioned. It’s about the ‘fundamentalist atheist’ bromide that is making the rounds. He doesn’t find it altogether impressive. He doesn’t find it overwhelmingly persuasive, either.

All you need is to ignore the difference between someone who believes in, say, heaven and hell and someone who doesn’t. The first has a lot of work to do by way of providing anything that even looks like evidence. The second rests his case on the extreme improbability of any such evidence being adduced. Are these positions really describable as morally or intellectually equivalent? Or take the case of someone who believes in punishment for blasphemy or in prior restraint on those who might commit it. Is this the same dogma as the argument that says that religion, since it makes such huge claims, must expect to have them submitted to rigorous questioning?…The faithful believe that certain truths have been ‘revealed.’ The skeptics and secularists believe that truth is only to be sought by free inquiry and trial and error. Only one of those positions is dogmatic.

He got the phrase ‘free inquiry’ in there. I got it into mine, too. I must say, it’s something of an honour to write for a publication called ‘free inquiry.’



The theist four-step

May 22nd, 2007 12:21 pm | By

There’s something called the atheist two-step. Maybe so, but there is also a theist four-step.

1) There is a god. 2) It is good. 3) It wants us to be good in a particular way. 4) We have reliable knowledge of 1-3.

In a way 4) can be seen as the clincher – the least likely of all and the most dangerous of all. It’s 4) that produces these bastards dropping cement blocks on the faces of teenage girls and shooting women government ministers in the head and executing ‘apostates’ and ‘blasphemers.’ If only people could be content to believe 1-3 and realize that 4) is just out of the question, and deadly as well as presumptuous – the world would be a much better place.



Community v community

May 22nd, 2007 12:06 pm | By

The ‘community’ trope turns up yet again and confuses the issue yet again.

Cities and towns across the northern Indian state of Punjab are shut in response to a general strike called by the Sikh community…Sikhs are demanding an apology from the leader of a religious sect who appeared in an advert dressed like one of the Sikh religion’s most important figures. Sikh community leaders say it is an insult to their religion. Last week, thousands took to the streets. One man was shot dead in clashes that followed.

How can a general strike have been called by the Sikh community? What does that mean? What are we meant to understand by it? It’s annoying because it makes the report harder to understand than it would otherwise be. It makes it sound as if all Sikhs called the general strike, when for all we know it could be a small minority of Sikhs that called it. It could also be a large minority, or half or a small or large majority, but calling it ‘the community’ disguises and obfuscates all that and leaves the impression that all Sikhs think alike on the subject. For all we know there are huge numbers of Sikhs furiously rejecting the whole idea of calling a general strike because of some footling insult. It’s actually more insulting to ‘the Sikh community’ to pretend all Sikhs think alike than it is to dress up as a guru.

At least the article does later note that there’s a lot of working up going on.

Some analysts say Sikh leaders, angry at the direct intervention by the DSS in the elections, seized the opportunity to whip up popular sentiments of their community against the sect. They say the latest conflict threatens to lead to a polarisation of the communities and the dispute could trigger widespread unrest.

In one sentence the DSS is a sect, in the next it’s a community. Ho hum.



Obscenity

May 22nd, 2007 11:54 am | By

So petty tyrannical spiteful controlling interfering clerics get their way and yet another woman is prevented from working, living her life, having ordinary grown-up interactions, having fun, expressing joy and exuberance. The world is made just a little safer for narrowness and deprivation and general nothingness.

Pakistan’s Minister of Tourism has handed in her resignation after coming under criticism from a hardline Islamist cleric for hugging her parachute instructor after completing a jump in France, an official said on Tuesday. Nilofar Bakhtiar, one of three women ministers in the Pakistani cabinet, made the parachute jump in March to raise money for victims of an earthquake that killed 73,000 people in Pakistan in October 2005. Shortly afterwards, Pakistani newspapers published a photograph of her giving her para-jumping instructor a hug, and a pro-Taliban cleric issued a decree calling on the government to sack her for “obscenity”.

To people who think like that, everything women do is obscene; women themselves are obscene; their mere unconcealed existence is obscene. They scream obscenity from every pore. Every hair follicle, every joint, every muscle, every flake of skin is throbbing and dripping and shuddering with obscenity; every sound, every movement, every inhalation and exhalation; every thought, every act, every word; it’s all, all steeped in sex and filth and obscenity. There are not enough hours in the day for them to persecute and punish women for being so obscene. But they do what they can.



Look

May 22nd, 2007 8:55 am | By

Look –

The new Free Inquiry.



Too ill to sing

May 21st, 2007 2:04 pm | By

Twelve-year-old girls are treated like dirt, and so are eighty-five-year-old women.

India alone has almost 40 million widows. Traditionally Hinduism frowns on widows remarrying and many have their social and economic power eroded too…Vrindavan is a pilgrimage town now home to thousands of destitute widows. Ashtabala Mundo is one of thousands of widows who have been driven by poverty to the holy town. She was married off when she was still a baby and widowed when she was still a child. “We have to come and sing here morning, noon and night and for all that I only get is $10 a month,” she said. “By the time I’ve paid the rent, I can’t afford to buy cooking oil. So I often go all day without a hot meal,” Mrs Mundo said. The women line up, after singing for several hours, to receive a cup of rice and a few teaspoons of lentils. It isn’t much.

No – a cup of rice and a few teaspoons of lentils is not much for several hours of anything. Making rosaries, singing, anything.

Many of the widows who flock here have nowhere else to go. Hindu widows are not supposed to remarry. With little social or economic status, many become destitute. We met Nirmala Dasi, a frail 85-year-old, begging at the temple gate. When she spoke, she dissolved into tears. “I’ve been too ill to sing at the temple for the last three days so I haven’t had a thing to eat. You don’t get anything unless you go there.” We were soon surrounded by widows with sad stories to tell. “I spend almost everything I get on a room I share with four others. I’ve no relatives, or I wouldn’t be here,” said Mithila. “It’s so cold here, I’m always freezing.”

No further comment.