Notes and Comment Blog

A breath from the pit

Nov 2nd, 2008 11:48 am | By

Bastards bastards bastards.

It can tip you right over the edge sometimes, contemplating how unfathomably foul people can be.

A girl stoned to death in Somalia this week was 13 years old, not 23, contrary to earlier news reports. She had been accused of adultery in breach of Islamic law. Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was killed on Monday 27 October, by a group of 50 men in a stadium in the southern port of Kismayu, in front of around 1,000 spectators…Inside the stadium, militia members opened fire when some of the witnesses to the killing attempted to save her life, and shot dead a boy who was a bystander…[N]urses were instructed to check whether Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was still alive when buried in the ground. They removed her from the ground, declared that she was, and she was replaced in the hole where she had been buried for the stoning to continue.

In sane places, a child of 13 can’t commit ‘adultery’ even if she tries to. But Duhulow didn’t commit ‘adultery’ anyway

An Islamist rebel administration in Somalia had a 13-year-old girl stoned to death for adultery after the child’s father reported that three men had raped her…A lorryload of stones was brought to the stadium for the killing. Amnesty said that Duhulow struggled with her captors and had to be forcibly carried into the stadium…Duhulow’s father told Amnesty that when they tried to report her rape to the militia, the child was accused of adultery and detained. None of the men Duhulow accused was arrested.

So. A child of 13 and her father try to tell the authorities that she was raped by three men, and the authorities in response arrest her, order up a truckload of stones, bury her in the ground up to her neck, gather a crowd of a thousand people, and throw the truckload of stones at her head.

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in the heads of people like that. It’s not just violent lashing out – it’s religious legal official punishment – carried out in cold blood and the pure odor of sanctity. It’s hard to figure that out. What kind of monster do they think they worship, that wants children smashed to death with rocks for being raped? What kind of hideous loathsome savage bloodthirsty tyrannical cruel monster do they imagine wants them to act like that? What kind of nightmare world do they live in? How do they look on their work and approve it?

Palin has the bends

Nov 1st, 2008 11:57 am | By

No. No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not it. The First Amendment does not say that nobody can criticize what you say. On the contrary, as a matter of fact – it says that anybody (and everybody) can criticize what you say. And that you can return the favour, and so on, until one of us has to go home for lunch.

It also does not say that people cannot argue that things you say are morally wrong and should not be said. That is not censorship or attempted censorship, it is a moral argument. It is not a violation of the First Amendment. It is alarming that you (of all people) don’t understand that.

Palin told Washington radio station WMAL Friday she is concerned that her First Amendment rights could be endangered by what she called “attacks by the mainstream media” in response to her political attacks on the Democratic presidential nominee…”If (the media) convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations,” she said, “then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”

Dear oh dear oh dear. And last week she revealed that she doesn’t know what the Vice President’s job is.

Asked by a third-grader what a vice president does, Republican candidate Sarah Palin responded that the vice president is the president’s “team mate” but also “runs the Senate” and “can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes.”



Oct 30th, 2008 1:26 pm | By

Norm has an interesting comment on Ron Aronson’s ‘Choosing to Know’ – but I take issue with it. I wonder if that’s because weird beliefs are more abundant over here, where Aronson and I live, than they are over there, where Norm lives. I wonder if people who believe weird things are more familiar to us than they are to Norm. Lucky Norm if so.

I’m not sure that asking in a general way why people hold weird beliefs – or, otherwise expressed, why they believe things that aren’t true – can yield a single and satisfying answer.

I take issue with that because I think holding weird beliefs and believing things that aren’t true are two different things, which raise different questions and issues. It’s perfectly easy and (often) reasonable and commonplace to believe things that aren’t true without the beliefs being weird. It’s easy just to get things wrong, to remember incorrectly, to misread, to misunderstand, to lack information; but none of that is by itself weird. (It may become weird if people try to point out the misunderstanding or offer information only to meet obstinate resistance – but that doesn’t always happen.) I think what Aronson has in mind in the article are genuinely weird beliefs and that that entails a certain element of perversity or willfulness or resistance to correction – I think that’s what is meant by ‘weird’ beliefs. Weird beliefs aren’t just mistaken beliefs, they’re beliefs that one is surprised to find in apparently reasonable adults.

Norm continues:

Bad faith can certainly play a part in someone’s refusing to recognize a truth which they have in some sense perceived; there is such a thing as wilful ignorance. At the same time, to make this a major explanatory cause for beliefs that are very widely held strikes me as a form of wishful thinking: as if to say that all these millions of people really know the truth already but won’t own up to it; or that the reality of things is always there before us and seeing it takes no effort.

Sure. But for weird beliefs that are very widely held…it’s a different matter, I think. Weird beliefs, as opposed to merely false beliefs, do (perhaps by definition) partake of willful ignorance. Though I suppose one could divide weird beliefs…into, say, weird beliefs that rest on mistaken but extensive and plausible webs of pseudo-argument and pseudo-evidence and pseudo-data and the like, and weird beliefs that rest on hokey tv shows and books by Sylvia Browne and other nonsense that no one over the age of 6 should find convincing. In that case the former type of weird beliefs would conform to Norm’s claim while the second type would conform to Ron’s.

It’s a large and complicated task, categorizing the types of false belief. Where are Bouvard and Pécuchet when we need them?

All we see

Oct 28th, 2008 12:09 pm | By

Theological ruminations in letters to the Guardian.

…there is nothing to lead any person to postulate a teapot circling the sun, but look around – all we see came from somewhere and although such a thought does nothing to prove the existence of a creator, it makes such a being worthy of consideration.

Well yes, all we see came from somewhere, but the question is where. ‘A creator’ could mean any number of things; there is no more reason to leap from ‘somewhere’ to ‘God’ than there is to leap from ‘somewhere’ to Jennifer or Bubbles or Squirrel Nutkin. ‘A creator’ could be a machine or a natural process or software or mice or some entity that we can’t even imagine. The fact that all we see came from somewhere does not by itself provide a reason to identify somewhere as any one particular thing much less any particular person much less a particular person described by some desert goatherds 30 centuries ago.

A vicar says That’s not Our God.

I don’t believe in the God whose existence Dawkins denies either – nor do most people in the British Christian churches.

Really? Really? How, exactly, does the God of the British Christian churches differ from the one Dawkins doesn’t believe in? And how explicit are the vicars in British Christian churches about that different God?

A professor of mathematics at York is not afraid of banality:

Science cannot decide between these world-views, but scientists on both sides believe that science supports their own faith (for atheism is also a faith – as even Dawkins says, you cannot prove there is no God).

Norm comments on that:

Atheists – or at least the kind of atheists whose atheism I am ready to defend, being one – think there is no God because they think that the balance of everything they know, all the putative evidence, all the would-be reasons, for believing in God fall short, whether singly or in combination, of establishing that He exists…It is no more persuasive to call atheism a faith than it would be to say that scepticism about the existence of beings that believers themselves regard as mythical – dragons, unicorns, mermaids – is a faith.

No it isn’t, and yet the attempt keeps being made (and it does at least convince the already-convinced). Why is that? Partly, I would guess, because people have been trained (by the steady drip-drip of just this kind of endlessly-recycled bad argument) to think that, for instance, the fact that all we see came from somewhere means that it came from a particular guy called God. This means that few people think that the existence of all we see constitutes evidence for the existence of dragons, unicorns, mermaids, but they do think it constitutes evidence for the existence of ‘God’. They’re wrong, of course, but they don’t know they’re wrong. The thought is so familiar it’s like a well-worn path that it’s hard to abandon. Part of the definition of ‘God’ is that it is a being who created all this stuff; that’s not true of dragons or mermaids. The problems with the notion that a guy called God created all this stuff are not familiar to most people who believe that (and the believers to whom the problems are familiar usually don’t bother spreading that familiarity around), so it comes to seem like a crude mistake not to think a guy called God is the somewhere from which all we see came. And then professors of mathematics pass it on.

In which tank?

Oct 27th, 2008 5:46 pm | By

It’s very interesting that so many Republicans have decided to supprt Obama. Colin Powell; a number of talking heads including Peggy Noonan; a lot of conservative newspapers. Fox News is in a constant state of worked-up fury at the putative fact that the media are all in the tank (as they like to say) for Obama. Well maybe they are, but if they are, I’m pretty sure that is not purely for party-political reasons. In fact it’s pretty obvious that it’s not just for party-political reasons. It has an enormous amount to do with plain competence, and especially with respect for competence. We know what the other thing is like, and Katrina is the one-word sign for that. It is firing all the experts and replacing them with political hacks and then being caught with your head up your ass when a major American city fills with dirty water like a blocked toilet. It is having an emergency management agency that can’t even get water to flood victims in almost a week of horror. It turns out that even some Republicans find that idea too disgusting to bear. I am glad to know this; I have been wondering for years how prosperous ambitious meritocratic Republicans could stand the cult of ignorance and Just Plain Folksism that enabled Bush II to win two elections.

If McCain does lose [mutters rapid prayer, or curse], it appears the choice of Palin will have been a big part of the reason. I thought and said at the time that it showed he had 1. appalling judgment and 2. a ruthless lack of responsibility, but I had little hope that many Republicans would (openly) agree with that view. I’m very pleased to be wrong.


Oct 27th, 2008 11:57 am | By

I was struck by this picture on the front page of the Times (New York) this morning.

It’s a good picture. It kind of gets it all in – the blue sky, the autumn trees, the capitol in the distance, the huge crowd in front, the bare stage, and the single slight figure outlined against it all. The hundred thousand people facing us, and the one guy facing them frozen in a wave or a benediction. If you hate him, of course, it’s of no interest, or it’s portentous and irritating. If you like him, it’s pretty affecting. For a lot of reasons. There’s some echo of that other senator from Illinois – and doubtless some kind of secular echo of religious iconography – and the echo of the march on Washington and the crowd filling the Mall on that day – and the beauty of the shot itself. It all adds up. I’m being a little mawkish, but…well why not, dammit?

Of course, the picture will become a depressing souvenir if things go wrong (yes, wrong) a week from tomorrow, but meanwhile, it’s a nice snap.

What is fundamental value?

Oct 26th, 2008 12:14 pm | By

Giles Fraser rebukes the godless.

Humanists (and by that I mean secular humanists for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value.

Of fundamental value – what does that mean? I suppose the fact that I have to ask means that I won’t be persuading Giles Fraser of anything – but then, he probably won’t be persuading me of anything either.

I don’t think ‘the human’ is of fundamental value – if by that Fraser means of value independent of, say, other humans, or the (human) past, or future. I think the human is of contingent value – and that that’s enough. I don’t think ‘the human’ is of value to the universe, or to Jupiter, or to other animals. I think the human is of value to humans, and (frankly) to no one else. But I also don’t think it needs to be of value to anyone else to be of real value to us. (I also think the ways we could be of value to non-humans could be quite sinister, and that people like Giles Fraser ignore that possibility in a really silly way. Consider the way ‘the dog’ and ‘the horse’ and ‘the chicken’ is of value to us, then ponder whether we really need to be ‘of value’ to anyone other than ourselves.)

[F]rom the British Humanist Association’s website: ‘Humanists, too, see a special value in human life, but think that if an individual has decided on rational grounds that his life has lost its meaning and value, that evalu ation should be respected.’…[I]t is clear that here is an admission that the value of human life is down graded by those who call themselves humanists. Human life is something that is deemed to have no value for the individual if that individual decides that it has not.

Exactly so. We (I’ll just say ‘we’ because Fraser seems to be talking about atheists too) think that if an individual does not value her own life, then that life (while she views the matter that way, at any rate) does in fact ‘have no value for the individual.’ Indeed that’s simply tautological – if the individual decides that her life has no value, then for her it is deemed to have no value. It seems peculiar for Fraser even to bother pointing this out, let alone disapproving of it.

I am thinking, of course, about the support that so many secular human ists have given for the assisted suicide of Daniel James, the disabled former rugby player who felt, at the age of 23, that his life was not worth living. My friend Jerry, at a similar age, broke his back in a motorbike accident, and could move only his head and tongue. With these he managed to woo his caregiver, marry her, have three children by IVF, and run a pizza franchise. Humanists see the difference between these cases as hanging from the fragile thread of individual choice. That is not good enough.

What is good enough? Assuming that what one person did is what all people can do? Assuming that what one person did is what all people want to do? Assuming that what people want to do with their own lives is irrelevant? Refusing to take specifics into account?

Not only have contemporary atheists snatched the term humanist and claimed it as their own, but — in the name of choice — they have sold out on the very value that inspired humanism in the first place: the dignity of man (and woman, too). Shame on them.

But for some people, survival as a head has nothing to do with dignity. People differ. Different people want different things, different people can tolerate different things. Taking that into account might be part of the ‘value’ of human ‘dignity.’

Mr Greenspan finds a flaw

Oct 25th, 2008 5:19 pm | By

Alan Greenspan is funny too.

[A] humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

A state of shocked disbelief…that people who ran lending institutions were more excited about their own bonuses and profits than they were attentive to shareholders’ equity. Is it just me or does that seem ever so slightly naïve?

Not quite just me; Henry Waxman had a similar thought.

“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?” Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw.”

Ah, have you! Well spotted!

Mr. Waxman noted that the Fed chairman had been one of the nation’s leading voices for deregulation, displaying past statements in which Mr. Greenspan had argued that government regulators were no better than markets at imposing discipline. “Were you wrong?” Mr. Waxman asked. “Partially,” the former Fed chairman reluctantly answered, before trying to parse his concession as thinly as possible.

How would things be looking now if you’d been entirely wrong?

Some people have all the fun

Oct 25th, 2008 5:00 pm | By

Those atheists – what are you gonna do – they’re such a pain. They’re almost as bad as earmarks, or fruit flies, or pally terrorists, or socialists. Atheists are such dreary depressing dismal boring tedious gits that – you’ll hardly believe me when I tell you this – even their funerals are no fun. Can you believe it? Now that takes some doing, to turn a funeral into a gloomy occasion. I could see it if it were weddings or dinner parties or trips to Paris, but funerals? That’s pathetic. When you think what the funerals thrown by normal people are like – well it just makes you sorry for atheists, that’s all. Normal believing people have the best funerals – great music, brilliant food, dazzling wine, dancing till dawn, sex, conversation, prizes, jokes, a ferris wheel – there’s just nothing better. So the fact that atheists manage to turn them into dismal occasions is just half-funny, half-sad. It’s because atheists are so tightly wound, apparently.

Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where’s the point of anything? They so often fall into the category defined by GK Chesterton: “Those that do not have the faith/Will not have the fun.” You only have to attend one of their dreary humanist funerals to see that – I am never going to another of those, just to be made miserable.

Well no; quite; naturally not. It would be simply foolish to keep going to dreary atheist funerals when you could be going to riotous theist ones instead. I can’t wait for my next funeral; I do love a good time.

Apostates are seldom killed; whew

Oct 23rd, 2008 11:02 am | By

Nesrine Malik lets us know that all this fuss about death for apostasy is silly.

Reading AC Grayling’s latest article and listening to the protestations of the Council of Ex-Muslims, you would think that the death penalty is being gratuitously and frequently applied to those who renounce Islam or harbour thoughts of apostasy.

Oh. So if the death penalty is being purposefully and seldom applied to those who renounce Islam, there would be no reason for a Council of Ex-Muslims to exist and no article for Anthony Grayling to write? The death penalty for renouncing Islam is a bad thing only if it’s applied gratuitously and frequently? A rare and cautious execution for renouncing Islam is all right?

I have several friends and family members who are non-believers and apart from some efforts to return them to the straight and narrow or at least go through the motions of religious observance, they have not come into any physical danger.

One, that’s nice, but it tells us nothing. I have several friends and family members who have never been thrown into prison for writing a book someone didn’t like; that doesn’t mean no one has ever been thrown into prison for writing a book someone didn’t like. Two, efforts to coerce people to ‘return to the straight and narrow’ are intrusive and presumptuous enough; they’re nothing to boast of.

Although the Council of Ex-Muslims and AC Grayling depict the threat to life and limb as an indisputable fact, in reality there are differences of opinion among Muslim scholars (ostensibly the hard core of the religion) regarding the death penalty for apostates.

Oh hooray! Goody goody goody goody – some ‘Muslim scholars’ don’t think people should be killed for leaving Islam. Well I’m all of a heap; how liberal is that; I’m so impressed. Imagine if only some ‘Catholic scholars’ or ‘Jewish scholars’ thought people should be killed for leaving the Church or Judaism; imagine the Guardian publishing articles (even on Comment is Free) bragging of that.

Nawal El Sadaawi, a prominent Egyptian writer and social activist, has clashed several times with religious authorities and has even dismissed some of the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) as pagan, but I do not believe she lives in any fear for her life.

Oh really. She should have looked that up before telling us what she ‘believes’ – in fact Nawal El Sadaawi does fear for her life.

Of course, there is always the possibility that violent individuals will take matters into their own hands, as in the case of the Nobel prize-winning writer, Naguib Mahfouz, but these are a minority found in all religions.

Really? Really? Violent individuals in all religions murder people for abandoning their religions? Who, where, when?

Rejecting Islam and being anti-Islam are two different things, as are rejecting religion and being anti-religion. One is a spiritual lifestyle decision while the other entails some action, some campaign to eject religion from public life.

No. Dead wrong. She could perhaps claim that leaving Islam and being anti-Islam are two different things, but rejecting and being anti are pretty much the same thing, and they are not ‘a spiritual lifestyle decision,’ they are a substantive cognitive decision. People ‘reject’ religions for reasons, and those reasons are often such as to make them anti the religion in question. One good reason for rejecting Islam is that it seems to motivate people to produce terrible stuff like this article.

Thrasymachus and the Baptist ethicist

Oct 22nd, 2008 12:25 pm | By

Ronald Aronson answers Baptist Center for Ethics Executive Director Robert Parham who wrote an essay criticizing ‘the new atheists.’ He first addresses the fact that some atheists are blunter than believers have become used to expecting (and that irritation with this is at least understandable).

Why are these so harsh? Above all, each sees himself as breaking a taboo: Thou shalt not criticize religion…I for one am grateful for the space for discussion these writers, along with Dennett (certainly no angry professor) have opened up, and forgive them for not being calmer and more measured.

Same here. I think we badly need the space – and that the taboo in many (or perhaps most) circles, at least in the US, remains unbroken. It’s certainly well and truly unbroken when it comes to politics.

My primary concern is to develop a coherent contemporary secular philosophy, one which answers life’s essential questions for those of us who live without God…I oppose claims of absolute knowledge, and I also oppose those who would see fit to impose their claims on others…Dr. Parham and I are potential allies in opposing those who assume that their values, norms and practices apply to everyone.

I agree with that, especially with what I take to be the spirit of it, but…only up to a point. What point? The point where some claims, some values and norms and practices, have to be imposed on others, have to apply to everyone. The point where the law comes into it, or the point where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various international agreements based on it are in effect. I’m quite sure that’s what Aronson means, but what I don’t know is what language we can use to disavow dogmatism and authority on the one hand while insisting on human rights and secular law on the other. I suppose I’m just saying that disavowals of assumptions that some values, norms and practices apply to everyone have to be made with great care, in order not to say more than we mean. I do assume that ‘my’ value and norm and practice that women should not be subordinated applies (or should apply) to everyone.

Adam Kirsch on Raymond Geuss raises the same issues.

[Geuss’s] attacks on the Bush administration and the war on Iraq, and his loathing of the bourgeois complacency of Rawls and Nozick, all suggest that he has his own conception of justice, which involves solidarity with the oppressed and resistance to the powerful…But it’s hard to see how, on his own showing, any critique of existing power arrangements could have any intellectual or moral coherence. The world of Thrasymachus is a war of all against all, in which the powerful will always win. If Geuss does not want to inhabit such a world—and who does?—he should acknowledge that the inquiry into the nature of justice, which has occupied philosophers from Socrates to Rawls, is not an ideological trick, but the necessary beginning of all attempts to make the world more just.

That’s the problem, isn’t it. If we can’t get agreement or at least consensus, then we’re stuck with power, and being stuck with power is no good, because we can never be sure that Thrasymachus won’t be the most powerful. (Hitler came horribly close to winning the war, at the beginning. Suck on that thought for awhile.) Yet we can’t help knowing that consensus is very hard – and in some cases probably impossible – to get. It’s the only hope, but it’s such a faint one. But, keep trying.

We’re here

Oct 21st, 2008 12:38 pm | By

Ron Aronson points out that atheists and secularists get undercounted in the US.

Surveys regularly receive front-page coverage for reporting, as the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey did, that nearly all Americans believe in God. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concluded that 92% of Americans are believers and that only 5% of Americans don’t believe in God…But something is wrong with this picture. It erases vast numbers of Americans…It encourages the sense that there are two kinds of Americans, the overwhelming majority who believe and belong, and those few do not believe, and are outsiders. But the conventional wisdom that nearly all Americans believe in God is wrong.

A senior fellow at Pew says the issue is: What does one want to know? Yes it is, so one wonders why so many people who run opinion surveys want to know that nearly everyone believes in something that can (at the price of radical oversimplification and obliteration of distinctions) be called ‘God.’

This is exactly the point, which suggests that depending on the purposes of the study — and how the questions are posed — religion can appear more or less widespread, and secularists can be made to virtually disappear or to appear as a major component of contemporary American life.

Why does it matter? Because secularists (to say nothing of atheists) get ignored in US politics and discourse, while religious influence over laws and institutions keeps growing. Even believers shouldn’t want God making the laws, because God is completely unaccountable.

The right to be offended

Oct 20th, 2008 4:21 pm | By

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has read The Jewel of Medina.

Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.

What other religious figures? And how many of them? And in any case how very peculiar to hold long-dead people dearer than one’s parents, and also to consider them to need to be respected, protected and defended. They’re dead – they don’t need to be respected, protected and defended, and furthermore, as ‘religious figures,’ they shouldn’t be respected, protected and defended as a matter of right and duty; they should be closely watched, questioned, doubted, and if necessary disobeyed. This idea that long-dead ‘religious figures’ must be reflexively and unquestioningly respected, protected and defended is typical of the mental prisons that believers build for themselves, especially, it would seem, believers in Islam. That’s a dopy, truculent, defensive, sentimental, taboo-ridden view of the world, and it’s not a healthy view for grownups.

Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution. This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.

Really? Is that ‘the spirit of Islam’? If that is the spirit of Islam, can anyone name one Islamist country (one country largely ruled by sharia or by clerics or both) that demonstrates that? Because I can’t. I can’t think of one single country or part of a country (like northern Nigeria) where clerics run things that fits that description. Not one.

Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.

Well of course ‘the right to be offended’ goes with the right to offend and with any other right anyone can think of. That’s a truism. The right to be annoyed, the right to be bored, the right to be mildly amused, and countless similar rights, are inviolable. But that of course is not the issue. The issue is the right to be offended and force other people to shut up as a result of that being offended – and that’s a whole different story. But naturally Shelina Zahra Janmohamed didn’t want to put it quite that bluntly – so she put it absurdly, instead.

The miracle of prayer

Oct 19th, 2008 9:39 am | By

Chet Raymo quotes Kenneth Miller on prayer:

Finally, any traditional believer must agree that God is able to influence the thoughts and actions of individual human beings. We pray for strength, we pray for patience, and we pray for understanding. Prayer is an element of faith, and bound within it is the conviction that God can affect us and those we pray for in positive ways.

Wait. If we pray for strength, patience and understanding and find (or believe we find) that we have more strength, patience and understanding, that could simply be because praying is a way we get ourselves to have more strength, patience and understanding. It’s true that in that sense ‘faith’ may well work – and that in order to work the faith may have to include the conviction that God can affect us – but that can be true quite independently of whether or not God actually exists or actually affects us. That may be all Ken Miller means by that passage…but it would be a good deal clearer if he pointed out that how much strength, patience and understanding we have is something that we ourselves can (in general) help to determine, and that all kinds of mental tricks and crutches and games can help with that process.

Escape? Of course you can’t escape!

Oct 18th, 2008 1:29 pm | By

I was flicking through tv stations the other evening and happened on Martin Sheen looking earnest, so I paused to hear what he had to say – expecting pleasant murmurs about Obama or urbane skepticism about McCain, I suppose. But no – what I got was some irritating Catholic boilerplate about Washington state’s Initiative 1000, which allows doctors, under certain very limited careful circumstances, to give terminal patients drugs with which to end the misery. Martin Sheen’s against it. This makes me angry. It makes me angry because it shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. No one is offering to force assisted suicide on anyone. The point of the initiative is to make it available (with level upon level of safeguard) to people who need it. I don’t consider it moral for people to interfere with other people’s reasonable wishes in that way. I consider it intrusive, and presumptuous, and a horrible officious superstitious interference with desperate needs. It makes me angry. I do not look forward to needing such drugs myself and being unable to get them because the Catholic lobby has succeeded in persuading people that it is ‘against God’s will’ to cut short the period of terminal illness. I bitterly resent religious bullies telling everyone else what to do on the basis of a non-existent deity who gets to decide what diseases we get and how long we have to let them torture us. We have no reason to think that god exists, and we don’t think it exists, and we don’t think that if it did exist it would have the right to force us to suffer longer than we can put up with merely because our suffering is ‘God’s will,’ so we really really don’t want people who do believe it exists forcing its putative will on us. We want them to fuck off and mind their own business.

But they won’t, of course – they think everything is their business. Nobody is trying to tell them (or anyone else) to resort to assisted suicide, so why they feel so ready to tell other people not to is somewhat beyond me – but they are.

Opponents of a Washington State assisted-suicide ballot initiative say hastening the deaths of terminally ill patients is “playing God.” The initiative, which if approved would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication if requested by terminally ill patients, is against God’s will, faith-based groups say…Washington’s Roman Catholic Church has been the initiative’s most visible opponent…Rev. Paul Pluth, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Seattle, said by taking a utilitarian view of life, the measure “cheapens life, demeans life and debases life’s worth to merely an equation with obvious utility and usefulness.”

That’s just obscurantist pious self-congratulatory verbiage. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a pretext for trying to force everyone to obey Catholic ‘teaching.’ Assisted suicide for the terminally ill no more cheapens or demeans life than gay marriage cheapens or demeans marriage. Catholics want to force unwilling people to suffer at the hands of a torturing god – and they think they are Better People for doing so. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, as Lucretius so wisely put it.

At the Ex-Muslims Conference

Oct 17th, 2008 1:46 pm | By

Anthony Grayling spoke at the Ex-Muslims conference and tells us how it went.

The conference was opened by the head of the Iranian Secular Society, Fariborz Pooya, and addressed by the extraordinary and courageous Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, who subjected Islamism – political Islam – to scrutiny, arguing that it serves as an agency of Islamic states with serious implications for the lives, rights and freedoms of individuals, many of whom have left their countries of origin precisely to escape the repressive political and social climates there…A source of frustration for many is that they are lumped into “the Muslim community” whose self-elected spokespeople are more representative of the Islamic states that many in their “Muslim community” have fled: which is why the Council of Ex-Muslims makes a point of calling itself this, to reinforce the point that not everyone who was born into a Muslim community has to be permanently forced into homogenised membership of it.

Yes, which is why it’s irritating to see Brian Whitaker’s comment (October 16 at 11:01 a.m.).

I really can’t see much point in this organisation. It’s too much in the Hirsi-Manji mould to have any credibility among Muslims – who, after all, are the people it’s supposedly seeking to influence. I suspect it will achieve nothing more than stirring up the usual prejudices.

Oh is that so – then why did my friend Maryam invite my friend Gina Khan to attend, and why was Gina so pleased to be invited? And as for the ‘Hirsi-Manji mould’ – Manji is a Muslim, as is Gina. Why is Brian Whitaker assuming ahead of time that there are no reformist liberal Muslims? That’s rather stupid and one-eyed, isn’t it? Maybe he’s the one ‘stirring up the usual prejudices.’

Among those who spoke were Ibn Warraq, Joan Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the founder of Germany’s Council of Ex-Muslims, Mina Ahadi, a woman as extraordinary and admirable as Maryam Namizie. It is a speaking fact that the lead in these eminently important and courageous movements is taken by women…

How I wish I could have gone. Did any of you go? Tell us about it if so.

One of those speaking at the conference, my friend Ibn Warraq, recently edited a book on apostasy in Islam, which combines a scholarly overview of doctrines on apostasy in the various schools of Islamic law, with a collection of powerful personal testimonies by those who came to leave Islam either for another faith or none. It was interesting to compare the accounts there given with those in Louise Anthony’s book Philosophers Without Gods, which collects similar accounts by ex-Christians and ex-Jews. The personal cost in family and community terms of rejecting the doctrines of any of these religions is very similar; only in Islam does the danger of being murdered for doing so remain.

(I reviewed the Ibn Warraq book for Democratiya).

Nothing of what was discussed at this important and moving conference was anything but real: real lives subjected to death threats, discrimination, coercion and stigmatisation – and all because the people involved think for themselves, a right that the rest of us take for granted and, when it is threatened, jealously guard.

Brian Whitaker please note.

Motives are one thing, facts are another

Oct 16th, 2008 10:32 am | By

This FAIR thing is really terrible. Look at the ‘Dirty Dozen’ for instance. They’re an obnoxious crew, most of them, but FAIR just gives a quote from each without saying what is wrong with it, and it is simply not always self-evident that anything is wrong with it. (The motives of the people saying it may be deeply suspect, but that doesn’t mean that what they say is false, and I don’t think it always is false. It’s not clear what FAIR thinks.) For example David Horowitz (whom I do not admire at all, and who I think often argues unfairly to say the least) says there are 150 Muslim students’ associations which are arms of the Muslim Brotherhood. And…? Does FAIR know that that’s not true? I think at least some Muslim students’ associations in the US do have connections to the MB. Anyway if FAIR does know that it’s not true, it should say so – it shouldn’t just assume that it’s self-evidently not true. Why would it be?

And what Robert Spencer says is not self-evidently false either. Islam is a universalizing religion, it does hold that sharia should be universal, and it does at the very least disapprove of non-believers. The first sentence of the Daniel Pipes quotation has a whiff (or more) of racism, though in context it may be distanced (and I suspect that it is). But the second sentence, unfortunately, is at least arguably true.

FAIR seems to take it as simply axiomatic that Islam is 1) entirely benign and 2) off-limits to criticism, and thus to take it as also axiomatic that anyone who disagrees with 1 or 2 or both is acting from racist motives and also factually wrong. But it is entirely possible – in fact, easy – to think Islam is not entirely benign without having any racist motives at all, and thus to think that Islam is in urgent need of criticism, still without any racist motives. Racists and reactionaries and missionary Christians do confuse the issue, of course, but FAIR ought to be able to make the necessary distinctions.

Sheep may safely graze

Oct 15th, 2008 12:45 pm | By

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting tackles what it (inaccurately and tendentiously) calls ‘Islamophobia’.

The term “Islamophobia” refers to hostility toward Islam and Muslims that tends to dehumanize an entire faith, portraying it as fundamentally alien and attributing to it an inherent, essential set of negative traits such as irrationality, intolerance and violence.

Why should a ‘faith’ be humanized to begin with? ‘Faiths’ are not human, so why is it wrong to dehumanize them? It isn’t wrong; that’s just a rather stupid and unthinking bit of rhetoric. The rest of the sentence (and the rest of the report) simply assumes that it is wrong to portray a religion as having ‘negative’ (meaning bad) traits without first determining whether or not the religion does in fact have bad traits. Imagine talking that way about criticism of other sets of ideas and practices – for instance sets of ideas and practices that FAIR (rightly) thinks are bad. Imagine talking that way about the ideology of the KKK, or Jim Crow laws, or apartheid, or Serbian nationalism. Wouldn’t it seem rather stupid to try to rule out investigation in that way? In short, FAIR seems not to have entertained even the possibility that Islam does in fact have a set of bad traits such as irrationality, intolerance and violence.

This of course is not to mention the obvious fact that ‘Islamophobia’ in fact means hostility toward Islam and not hostility toward Muslims and that it is a bit of underhanded trickery to conflate the two.

The reading matter in pews is limited

Oct 13th, 2008 3:30 pm | By

Andrew Brown is also eloquent on the subject.

The whole point about the net is that, like books, it gives people a shared space and a shared experience that is not physical. If I sit in an internet cafe – or even, God forbid, an office – and talk to someone on the net, I am far closer to the person to whom I am talking than to the noble workers on each side of me, who would never dream of emailing gossip in the middle of a working day. When I read a book, I am communing with the author, and perhaps with all the
other readers, not with anyone else in the railway carriage.

This is one of the exciting things about books (and the net), and turning libraries into youth clubs is one way to make that fact harder to discover.

Learning outside school is an essentially solitary process, too. It requires concentration; it may not require silence all the time – I often find it helpful to read or work in a cafe – but when studying needs outside stimulus, you take the book away from the library, a service they already offer.

The libraries don’t need to provide the noise for you. Noise is easy to find; quiet is not, especially for people who don’t have money.

What is particularly cruel and futile about the Burnham plan is that it destroys the one thing that libraries offer which no amount of internet cafes, Starbucks or even skating can offer: the place where poor students can find the calm they need to try to teach themselves things that are genuinely hard to learn. Middle-class or richer children, or children at good schools, can always find a place to be quiet and study with concentration. But there must be lots of people for whom a library is the only free public space outside a church where you can hope for calm; and the reading matter in church pews tends to be depressingly limited.

Library students everywhere please take note. (They won’t though – they hated this article as well as the Indy one.)

Customers need change

Oct 13th, 2008 3:11 pm | By

Someone who works at a public library and is ‘studing an MSc in Information and Library Studies’ at a University was terribly irritated by that piece on libraries the other day.

The article is awash with dismay over the move to allow library users to eat, drink and, heaven forbid, actually talk. Interestingly, they talk about the ’silence rule’- a concept that is completely alien to either myself or just about any other person I have encountered who works in a public library.

Ah, is it indeed. Why?

Don’t bother asking; the library student never says. It’s such an absurd, outdated, stuffy, elitist, stupid idea that it’s simply self-evident what’s wrong with it. Which is interesting, because one would think (or hope, forlornly) that people who work in libraries would have at least a glimmer of an idea why people who frequent libraries would value silence while they do it. But apparently not.

If these people have their way, the public library would be nothing more than a physical manifestation of all that was bad about the 1950s. Time moves on, society changes, customers needs change. Libraries must, therefore, change.

Why? Again, the student doesn’t say. Society does change, of course, but why that means libraries now have to be raucous instead of quiet is not clear, nor is it clear why ‘customers’ need noise in place of quiet. But then of course we are not students of Information and Library Studies, so naturally we do not understand.

[O]ne thing is for certain, things need to move forward. There should not be enforced silence (we don’t and it certainly isn’t noisy, despite what the critics might assume), there should be an attempt to make the library a cool place to hang out…and, above all, the library should be open and welcoming to everyone, regardless of who they are. Elitism will kill the library service. Eradicating the old-fashioned perception of libraries might just save it.

‘It certainly isn’t noisy’ – well I wish that were the case in the public libraries I know, but it isn’t. I don’t ‘assume’ they’re noisy, I know damn well they are because I use them. I use them, but I don’t consider them ‘open and welcoming to everyone’ – I don’t consider them welcoming to people like me who want to be able to read and think in libraries. They are welcoming to people who want to make noise, they are welcoming to people who want to treat the library like an auxiliary living room or a part-time kindergarten, but they are not welcoming to people who want to use the library as a library.

Why does future librarian assume that being open and welcoming to everyone requires being noisy and raucous? Why does future librarian assume that everyone wants noise and raucousness all the time and everywhere? Why does future librarian not think it is possible to be open and welcoming to everyone by offering quiet in one place and noise in others? Coffee shops are open and welcoming to everyone but they don’t serve fish or provide Balkan dance troupes. Rock concerts are open and welcoming to everyone but they don’t provide quiet and desks and books. Why can’t libraries be open and welcoming to everyone in a library way instead of a different way? Library student doesn’t say, and neither do the three commenters, one of whom has worked in libraries for 25 years. Which is depressing for the future of libraries. Apparently what one learns when one studies ‘Library Studies’ is that libraries should be abolished while (inexplicably) retaining the old name.

I saw library student’s post via a post at Tom Morris’s place. He is eloquent on this subject.