Notes and Comment Blog


Inspector Plod

Jun 12th, 2007 10:10 am | By

Oh dear – they messed that up.

Banaz Mahmod made no secret of her belief that her father wanted to kill her. She was in hospital, nursing wounds incurred in an escape from him, when her boyfriend recorded a video of her…Ms Mahmod also told police, four times, that she feared for her life and produced a list of three men she believed would murder her – but all to no avail…It emerged during the trial that a female police officer concluded Ms Mahmod had made up her story to get her boyfriend’s attention.

Oh well, we all make mistakes.

The campaign of intimidation against Ms Mahmod began when she met the man who was to become her boyfriend, Rahmat Sulemani, after fleeing an abusive, two-year arranged marriage, which had been punctuated by beatings and sexual violence…When word of the affair started getting back to Mahmod’s “controlling, powerful” brother Ari that the couple had been seen out together, a family “council of war” was held. But the decision about what to do had apparently already been taken. A day before, Ari telephoned Amir Abbas Ibrahim, an associate in Birmingham, to arrange for the burial of Banaz’s body.

Quick off the mark, aren’t they. ‘Hey look, there’s Banaz with a man – right, we’ll have to kill her; phone Amir to fix the burial.’

Mahmod tried to kill his daughter first on New Year’s Eve 2005, when he lured her to her grandmother’s house and forced her to drink brandy, but she ran away. Afterwards she collapsed and was taken to hospital. She refused to leave the ambulance at first, insisting her father was trying to kill her and, once in hospital, recorded the message. When asked to investigate, PC Cornes was more concerned with a window broken as Ms Mahmod escaped from the house, and wanted to charge her with criminal damage.

Well hey, what’s more important, a woman’s life, or a window?

Ms Mahmod thought she would be safe at home because her mother was there. The next day, when her parents went out, the men were able to come to the family home and murder her…The campaign group the Southall Black Sisters has demanded an investigation by the IPCC…One Metropolitan Police officer said last night the initial handling of the case had set back by 25 years the Met’s efforts to encourage victims of crime to come forward.

Especially if they have the bad luck to break a window when escaping.



All the hornets

Jun 12th, 2007 9:15 am | By

Anthony Grayling considers the squawks of the offended believers.

To the annoyance of many, the alarm of some, and the satisfaction of others, the half dozen books recently published that powerfully set out the case against religion and religious beliefs – books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Michel Onfray – have all sold in large numbers…The appearance of these books shows that the immunity of religion to forthright questioning and challenge is over, and with it its claim to automatic respect, privilege, sensitive handling and a place at the high table of politics and public life….The hard truths spoken about it in these books and the public debate surrounding them are as genies freed from the bottle: they cannot be put back.

I do hope he’s right about that – and it does seem like the kind of thing that’s hard to put back. Once it’s out, well, it’s out. It’s hard to unknow it.

A trawl along the shelves of any major bookstore is enough to reveal the vast output of every conceivable specimen of religious view, though admittedly much of it consists of saccharine would-be uplift merely. There they are in their dozens and score and hundreds, where is the outrage, the condemnation, the complaining about this? Non-religious people simply ignore such books…Yet a mere half dozen anti-religious tomes have stirred up all the hornets in their nests, have offended and outraged the devout, and between them have exposed religious claims and beliefs for what they are.

It is quite funny when you think about it. It’s not as if Dawkins and Dennett and Grayling himself have been pitching huge fits in the Guardian for decades at every single religious book that is published. It’s not as if they’ve been screeching that theists are cowardly and pretentious and jowly and ageing all this time. But six measly anti-theist books, and my god you’d think they were advocating child porn spiced up with a spot of priest-murder. In short, there’s a major double standard in operation here. The books packed full of bullshit get a free pass, the ones pointing out that it’s all bullshit are treated to a chorus of screams and imprecations. Uh – it should be the other way around, you know?



What happened to secularism?

Jun 10th, 2007 1:33 pm | By

Sue Blackmore is right.

“Religious faith is not inconsistent with reason.” I nearly choked on my breakfast when I heard this on the Today programme. These words were spoken by Mr Blair, in his inimitably sincere style. He was addressing an Islamic conference in London, on June 4…But religious faith is inconsistent with reason (and much more that we value as well)…Faith is corrosive to the human mind. If someone genuinely believes that it is right to believe things without reason or evidence then they are open to every kind of dogma, whim, coercion, or dangerous infectious idea that’s around. If someone is convinced that it is acceptable to base their beliefs on what is written in an ancient book, or what some teacher tells them they must believe, then they will have no true freedom of thought; they will be trapped by their faith into inconsistency and untruths because they are unable to throw out false ideas when evidence against them comes along.

The usual reply to that (along with a lot of abuse and random insult about aging and fundamentalism and jowls) is that there are plenty of rational people who have religious faith. The reply to that, I think, is ‘Yes, maybe, but only to the extent that they don’t allow the ‘faith’ to transfer to anything other than religion, which condition itself means that faith is not consistent with reason.’ The two have to be kept firmly separated for reason to be reason (and faith to be faith), and that surely means that they’re not compatible, not that they are.

[U]niversities should be teaching people how to think, question, and understand these things, not to have faith in “truths” proclaimed without reason or evidence. Tony Blair pronounces the word “faith” with just that touch of special reverence in his voice, as though it were something to respect, something we should admire in others and grant them licence to believe whatever they want on its account. Indeed he proclaimed that the conference was “an opportunity to listen; to hear Islam’s true voice; to welcome and appreciate them; and in doing so, to join up with all those who believe in a world where religious faith is respected”. How despicable. How creepy. How frightening when we see the dire consequences of faith-based actions all around us…I, for one, do not want to live in a world where religious faith is respected…[O]ur great universities should continue to teach people to think for themselves, to respect the truth, and to take nothing on faith.

Exactly, about that touch of special reverence in the voice. That’s what the word ‘faith’ is for, really: to summon up that creepy tone of voice. The hell with that.

Blair says some very dubious things in that speech.

We have successful Muslims in all areas of our national life – business, sport, media, culture, the professions. We have our first Muslim MPs, first Muslim Members of the House of Lords; hopefully the next election will bring more and hopefully also the first women Muslim MPs.

That’s a bizarre thing to hope. Does he hope the next election will bring more Sikh MPs? More Hindus? More Jains? More Shintoists? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Baptists? Mennonites? Dukhobors? Orthodox Jews? Catholics? Christians?

Probably not. But then why more Muslims? Because he’s treating them as a minority group, excuse me a minority community, rather than (or as well as) adherents of a religion. But he shouldn’t do that, because that causes him to say there should be more adherents of a particular religion in Parliament, and that’s an anti-secular suggestion if I ever heard one.

In the face of so much high profile accorded to religious extremism, to schism, and to confrontation, it is important to show that religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress, or the celebration of diversity. Religious faith has much to contribute to the public sphere; is still a thriving part of what makes a cohesive community; is a crucial motivator of millions of citizens around the world; and is an essential if non-governmental way of helping to make society work. To lose that contribution would not just be a pity; it would be a huge backward step.

Another anti-secular suggestion, to put it mildly.

There is also a clear move across the world to assert strongly the moderate and true authority of Islam. In Jordan, in 2004, under the leadership of HM King Abdullah, a statement, the Amman Message was released seeking to declare what Islam is and what it is not, and how it should be manifested. I was deeply impressed when, the next year, the King convened 200 leading scholars from no less than 50 countries, who unanimously – unanimously – issued a Declaration on 3 basic issues: the validity of different Islamic schools of thought and theology; the forbidding of declarations of apostasy between Muslims; and criteria for the issuing of fatwas – religious edicts – to pre-empt the spawning of illegitimate versions.

What does he mean the true authority of Islam? Why is he talking admiringly about the authority of a religion? Why is he impressed by that Declaration? What about declarations of apostasy between Muslims and non-Muslims or ex-Muslims? Why is he validating the idea of fatwas at all, however criteria-bound they are?

Also in 2005, the summit meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference issued a declaration and a 10-year action plan. The summit reaffirmed Islam as a religion of moderation and modernity. It rejected bigotry and extremism. It supported work to establish the values of Islam as those of understanding, tolerance, dialogue and multilateralism.

That’s not all the OIC did in 2005. Furthermore – Blair neglects to mention the little matter of the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. Well he ought to. The whole damn speech is evasive that way. Flattering, obsequious, and evasive. He ought not to do that.



Hansa

Jun 9th, 2007 10:35 am | By

A personal note for once. Irony-free; soppy; mawkish, even. A side of me you don’t know. Never mind – this is both public and personal, so I want to go with it.

Bad. Ashes on head department. Sniffing; closing throat; more sniffing; eyes filling; another kleenex gone. Bad, bad, bad news. Horrible news. (I let out such an outraged pained ‘No!’ when I heard it…)

At the Woodland Park Zoo, it was like a death in the family. Plainly distraught, even barely able to speak at times for choking back tears, zoo administrators announced the death of 6 ½-year-old elephant Hansa, who was found dead in her stall Friday, her mother standing by her side.

I watched them on the local news last night, and it’s true: they could barely talk, they kept losing it, I’m losing it in remembering them losing it. Don’t laugh – elephants are like that. Elephants are like that, and as for a six-year-old elephant you saw being born and taking her first steps and going for her first swim – well.

And her mother was standing by her side when the keeper found her. I wondered where Chai was; now I know: standing next to her. [pause to get another kleenex]

The thing is, I know Chai; I used to be one of her keepers, when she was younger than Hansa was yesterday. Chai was one of my babies, so I was very caught up in the whole exciting (and quite dangerous) adventure of her trip to Dickerson Park Zoo in St Louis to breed, and her long gestation, and the birth, and Hansa’s adorable infancy. Elephant breeding is very difficult; we used to discuss it a lot when I was there, when the new facility was being planned; it was very worrying having four cows and not breeding any of them. So Hansa’s birth was a colossal triumph, in all sorts of ways – for conservation, for good zoo practice, for the survival of both Chai and Hansa. So it’s a terrible, heartbreaking, shattering disappointment.

But it’s also just plain personal. Elephants are like that. Elephants are special – that’s not news. They’re complicated, they’re affectionate, they’re tall; you bond with them. Take my word for it. I’ve worked with them – I’ve given them baths, taken them for walks, ridden on their backs, scratched their tongues (they like that), played hide and seek with them. You bond with them.

Chai was a great kid. A bit of a knot-head: she had a habit of bolting when we took her for walks, which was very bad and worrying, because of course it’s terribly dangerous, and if we couldn’t get her out of the habit she wouldn’t be able to leave the yard for walks, and that would not be good. But she was a great kid all the same, and she turned out to be a great adult. Now she’s lost her Hansa. Elephants are very, very devoted. It’s just horrible.

I hate to think of the keepers. I know most of them, and I hate to think of them. I used to creep myself out occasionally, imagining being the first one into the barn in the morning (as I usually was) and finding one of the ‘phants dead. Yesterday one of the keepers had that experience. I keep imagining it. You’d know right away – you never ever ever come in to find any elephants asleep on the floor; not ever; they’re always up and milling around and when you come in they rumble and trumpet. (Rumbling is a sound they make up inside their heads, a little like purring; strangers think it’s growling but it’s not, it’s pleasure and greeting.) To come into the barn and find an elephant lying still on the floor – well there would be little room for doubt.

I heard of a headstone inscription on the radio once: ‘It is a fearful thing to love that which death can touch.’ It is.



Hey, that man made disparaging remarks

Jun 8th, 2007 1:34 pm | By

Is this funny, or alarming? Or is it both?

A Pentecostal teaching assistant who quit her job at a foundation primary school after she was disciplined for refusing to hear a child read a Harry Potter book is seeking compensation for religious discrimination. She claimed that the book glorified witchcraft. Sariya Allen…claims Durand primary school in Stockwell discriminated against her as a born-again Christian and put her at a disadvantage compared with teaching assistants who were not of her faith.

The child needed a more demanding book, she got a Harry Potter out, ‘but Ms Allen refused to listen to her reading it because God had stated in the Bible that witchcraft was “an abomination”.’

She claims that at a subsequent meeting, the first assistant headteacher, Mark McLaughlin, criticised her as “obstructive” for refusing to hear the child read the book. She also claims he “rubbished” her faith and made disparaging remarks about Christian assemblies in schools. “He was saying it’s just my interpretation of the Bible and my view. He said ‘these are your views and you’re a minority because of these’. He thought I was quite extreme because I’m a born-again Christian. I’m a committed Christian,” she said…She is being represented at the tribunal by Andrew Otchie, a barrister who was a candidate for the Christian Peoples Alliance in the 2005 general election. He said her “novel and interesting” case was one of a very few to allege religious discrimination against a Christian since the regulations banning discrimination on faith grounds came into force in 2003.

Well, it’s alarming if it has any traction. If it’s ‘discrimination’ to refuse to take the Bible as a valid and ungainsayable guide to conduct, then that’s alarming. Let’s hope the south London employment tribunal in Croydon has better sense than that.



Barmaid gets Jesus

Jun 8th, 2007 1:16 pm | By

The barmaid is starting to get to Jesus, it seems.

She was talking about the problem of suffering and the existence of an omnipotent and loving God. If God can’t stop the suffering, then he isn’t omnipotent. If he can but doesn’t, he isn’t very loving.

So Jesus gets on the Internet to look for some arguments. He finds Richard Swinburne. He has mixed feelings. He thinks Swinburne’s view is kind of disgusting. I know what he means!

A reader pointed out, giggling gently, that either the barmaid or Jesus has apparently been reading B&W again. Don’t I feel useful.



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.