Notes and Comment Blog

How dare you, sir

May 1st, 2007 10:27 am | By

Steven Poole muses on

a possible tension in what passes for my “thought”: evincing on the one hand a kind of Anglo-empiricism, I nonetheless have a soft spot for the works of such writers as Derrida, Baudrillard and Zizek, all of whom are anathema to the Anglophone analytic tradition…[P]erhaps the common factor was this: I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men, and so even when I was troubled by seeming opacity or nonsense, I reckoned that I had better tread carefully.

That’s an interesting ‘and so,’ since it leads to something that doesn’t follow from what ‘and so’ seems to claim that it does. It is not necessary to be sure that one is as clever as the writer of something one is reading, in order to think that the something one is reading is either opaque or nonsense and ought not to be. In fact that’s a silly way of looking at the matter. It could make much more sense to view it the opposite way: ‘This writer may well be cleverer than I am, so why did the writer not write this clearly and/or non-nonsensically?’ One could surmise that there is something else in operation, something other than or in addition to cleverness – vanity for example; a desire to impress; pretension; a taste for posturing opacity which is not incompatible with cleverness. One could surmise that the writer had enough cleverness to write in a posturingly opaque way, but not enough to conclude that that’s a narcissistic, preening, and fundamentally anti-intellectual thing to do. One could recall other clever writers and thinkers who do research and also write about it in clear, accessible ways so that a larger public can learn from it, and one can decide that that is much more worth admiring and respecting than is ‘seeming opacity or nonsense’; one can wish that clever writers who go in for seeming opacity or nonsense had applied their cleverness in different ways. One can think a lot of things. ‘I had better tread carefully’ is not the only thing one can think as a consequence of thinking ‘I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men.’ And I would argue that one ought to think other things, partly because the ‘they are clever: I had better tread carefully’ thought is exactly the thought such writers want readers to have, and that coupled with opacity and/or nonsense is an unworthy desire. Readers ought not to submit to the manipulation; readers ought to resist it; readers ought to expect writers to want to address them as clearly as they know how, not as opaquely. Argumentative writers, that is, of course; literary writers can do what they like, and readers are welcome to be impressed if they fancy it; but I take Poole’s three to be all argumentative writers, and I think there is no merit in chosen (as opposed to genuinely unavoidable) opacity in argumentative writing. I think this slavish idea that opacity could be a sign of great cleverness and therefore ought not to be dissed is a mistake.

The mistake leads Poole to say some peculiar things.

Luckily, the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman, on the occasion of the British release of the documentary film, Zizek!. In doing so, he furnishes a useful example of the word “postmodernist” as it is almost always used nowadays, as a kneejerk insult from reactionary anti-intellectuals…[T]he opinion journalist Johann Hari shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books…Nonetheless, the opinion journalist Johann Hari finds it within himself to accuse Zizek, in his film performance, of “intellectual suicide”. In another world, it might be considered intellectual suicide to denounce a writer with whose works one has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance.

What can he mean, ‘taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek’? Why does he word it that way – as if it were some kind of violation of the holies or lèse majesté? Why shouldn’t Hari ‘take it upon himself’ (much as Poole has taken it upon himself) to ‘denounce’ (meaning criticize) a particular writer? Was he supposed to ask someone’s permission first? Whose? Poole’s? The Archbishop of Canterbury’s? The Department of Homeland Security’s? And then notice the way Poole goes from his assertion that Hari ‘shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books’ to apparent certainty that Hari ‘has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance’ with Zizek’s works – when in fact he obviously has no idea how much of Zizek Hari has read, or how deeply. Notice also the repetition of ‘denounce’ – which is a sly word, probably meant to leave incautious readers with a vague impression that Hari has ‘denounced’ Zizek to the secret police. And of course notice that ‘reactionary anti-intellectuals’ remark. Inaccurate and bullying, groupthink-enforcing and toadying; it’s unpleasant stuff. For my part, I think it’s Poole’s view of the matter that is really anti-intellectual: by telling people not to question or criticize or resist when they read what strikes them as opaque or nonsensical but instead to think ‘this writer [because opaque or nonsensical] may well be cleverer than I am so I will read respectfully and denounce people who denounce this clever [opaque or nonsensical] writer and call them idiots and reactionary anti-intellectuals,’ Poole makes it that bit harder for people who pay attention to him to read critically and thoughtfully.

Utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt

May 1st, 2007 9:28 am | By

Speaking of unshakeable faith, Andrew Sullivan gave a pretty good display of that (and I don’t mean that as a compliment) in the debate with Sam Harris. A pretty good display of knowing what he can’t know, of labeling beliefs as ‘truth’ merely because he has decided to believe them for no very good reason, of admitting it’s all nonsense yet insisting that he knows it all the same.

The reason I cannot conceive of my non-existence is because I have accepted, freely and sanely, the love of Jesus, and I have felt it, heard it, known it. He would never let me go. And by never, I mean eternally. And so I could never not exist and neither could any of the people I have known and loved. For me, the radical truth of my faith is therefore not that God exists, but that God is love (a far, far less likely proposition). On its face, this is a preposterous claim, and in my defense, I have never really argued in this dialogue that you should not find it preposterous. It can be reasoned about, but its truth itself is not reasonable or reachable through reason alone. But I believe it to be true – not as a fable or as a comfort or as a culture. As truth.

His admission that it’s preposterous is disarming, in a way, yet that also makes it all the more annoying. As Sam Harris firmly points out at the end.

In your last essay you admit that your notion of God is “preposterous” and then say that you never suggested I should find it otherwise. You acknowledge the absurdity of faith, only to treat this acknowledgement as a demonstration of faith’s underlying credibility. While I have yet to see you successfully pull yourself up by your bootstraps in this way, I have watched you repeatedly pull yourself down by them. You want to have things both ways: your faith is reasonable but not in the least bound by reason; it is a matter of utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt; you are still searching for the truth, but your belief in God is immune to any conceivable challenge from the world of evidence.

Just so – Sullivan acknowledges the absurdity of faith, only to treat this acknowledgement as a demonstration of faith’s underlying credibility. Well, at that rate, everything has underlying credibility, and epistemic chaos is our own true home.

Shake it

Apr 28th, 2007 2:41 pm | By

In this tv documentary Irshad Manji says – before going on to say in what ways she is critical of contemporary Islam – ‘My faith in God is unshakeable.’ It takes an effort to balk at that statement, precisely because she does go on to say in what ways she is critical of contemporary Islam, and because she gets a lot of threats for doing so; but all the same I do balk at it. I admire Manji, and I hope she succeeds, and I earnestly hope there are a lot of people like her; but all the same, I wish unshakeable faith were not considered a virtue, as (one can tell by the way she says it) Manji clearly does consider it.

There’s a real problem here, because I do get why people want to have unshakeable faith, and why they do think it’s a virtue, but in spite of that, I think that’s a bad way for humans to think, and that it ought not to be valorized.

We’re too fallible and limited to have unshakeable faith in anything. Anything that is doubtful enough to need faith to begin with, is therefore doubtful enough to be dangerous to have unshakeable faith in. It’s okay to have unshakeable confidence that if the stove burner is red hot, you really really really shouldn’t place the palm of your hand firmly on top of it; but you don’t need faith to know that: long experience of burns and pain and hot things are plenty. But faith is about things that aren’t like red hot stove burners, and that’s why it should be cautious and minimal rather than blind and maximal. It’s unfortunate that even generally sensible people think unshakeable faith is a good thing.

Intercepting curiosity

Apr 27th, 2007 11:13 am | By

And there’s Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy.

Kennedy argued that teaching creationism discourages students from applying the scientific method, which emphasizes conducting experiments with reproducible results and drawing logical conclusions from observable, measurable evidence. “What the creationist alternative does to students is to intercept and deaden curiosity,” he said. “If relationships or correlations can be simply allocated to the cleverness of a designer, there’s very little incentive to think up an experiment or undertake an analysis.”

Exactly. That’s one of the most annoying things about the whole brawl – the way believers claim that there are all these profound mysterious areas in which science has no place but religion does, with the implication (which is often made explicit) that science is useful but shallow while religion is Deep, when in fact it’s religion that closes off real inquiry and investigation and settles for utterly banal, boring, small answers. It intercepts and deadens curiosity, and pats itself on the back for doing so. If every question can be answered with ‘God’ then it’s not being answered at all, but the illusion that it is removes the incentive to think further.

Another excerpt

Apr 27th, 2007 10:59 am | By

Hitchens on large claims.

Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require. Thus…Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings. It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or “surrender” as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.

In fact it’s a little hard to think of any teachings that would justify such arrogance and presumption.

God is not great

Apr 26th, 2007 11:01 am | By

Hitchens’s new book is out. He’s an eloquent bastard.

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins…is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.

And that is not a minor difference, or a trivial one, or one that has no consequences; which is why it is irritating when people claim that non-dogmatism is dogmatic.

There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine…[T]o the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty.

The sacred ‘shallow depression in the earth’ versus the library. A good synechdoche.

We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness. While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way – one might cite Pascal – and some of it is dreary and absurd – here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis – both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible!

I think what he means by ‘strain’ is the peculiarly twisted, ad hoc quality one often finds in apologetics – talk about suffering being good because it gives people an opportunity to show compassion, for instance; that kind of thing. That strained quality. As if every time we have an injury we think ‘Oh good, a chance for people to show compassion!’ And as if the more it hurts, the more pleased we are, because the more compassionable we are and therefore the larger the opportunity for others to show compassion. I accidentally whacked myself a couple of weeks ago, and it hurt like hell, and interfered with my functioning for days; it never once crossed my mnd to be pleased about it for that reason (even though I did get compassion and was glad to get it). The proportion was all wrong, you see, just for one thing – the pain and interference with function were bad and nasty out of all proportion to the pleasantness of the compassion. That’s the load of strain. Urrrgghh – drop – crash. No, it won’t work, will it.

The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning – but not the end – of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning – but by no means the end – of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

I think that’s right. The argument with faith is not some side issue; it’s what it’s all about.

A buffoon

Apr 25th, 2007 2:46 pm | By

Fun and games with the cult studs.

[W]e attended a recent PhD confirmation at the Queensland University of Technology, where we teach. Candidate Michael Noonan’s thesis title was Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains….Noonan went on to affirm that his thesis was guided by post-structuralist theory…He then showed video clips in which he had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept. Thus, the disabled Craig and William were sent to a pub out west to ask the locals about the mystery of the min-min lights. In the tradition of reality television, the locals were not informed that Craig and William were disabled. But the candidate assured us some did “get it”, it being the joke that these two men could not possibly understand the content of the interviews they were conducting. This, the candidate seemed to think, was incredibly funny. Presumably he also thought it was amusing to give them an oversized and comically shaped pencil that made it difficult for them to write down answers to the questions they were meant to ask.

So vulgar cruelty is dressed up as poststructuralism now? I didn’t know that.

It is not our intention here to demolish the work of Noonan, an aspiring young academic and filmmaker. After all, ultimate responsibility for this research rests with the candidate’s supervisory team, which included associate professor Alan McKee, the faculty ethics committee, which apparently gave his project total approval, and the expert panel, which confirmed his candidacy…Lest the reader think we exaggerate, let us turn to the views of McKee, the enfant terrible of the post-structuralist radical philistines within the creative industries faculty at QUT. In the university newspaper, Inside QUT, he was reported as saying: “Teaching school students that Shakespeare is more worthy than reality television is actively evil” (italics added) and in his “ideal world programs such as Big Brother would be at the centre of thecurriculum”.

So naturally I googled this Alan McKee genius, and found this brilliant item.

I’m trying to encourage people to break out of their normal habits, to think about the culture they consume. I’m thinking that maybe we shouldn’t just do the same thing, every day week in, week out. So I’m going to start ‘Put down a book week’.

Ha ha ha – like turn off the tv week, only different; geddit? Is that funny or what.

‘TV Turn off week’ is gaining media attention around the world. Under a rhetoric of encouraging people to try something different, it focuses on one particular part of culture and tells them that they should give it up. But why only television, and not books?

Because tv makes you stupid in a way that books don’t, because reading is more active than watching tv is; that’s why we prefer to watch tv rather than read when we’re exhausted; duh. You know that, but you’re pretending you don’t, you pretentious git.

TV is popular culture. It is particularly popular with large working class audiences. And it is consistently attacked more than other media. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I’m guessing that there’s a connection there. There’s no harm in asking people to think about the culture they consume – but how come it’s only the consumers of popular mass culture who have to do it? Why not force some emeritus Professors to watch Channel Ten for a week? It would shake up their habits just as much as turning off tv would for some other citizens.

Who have to do it? They don’t have to do it, you ridiculous pseud; the campaign is voluntary. And that’s why not force some emeritus Professors to watch Channel Ten for a week; because nobody is being forced to turn the tv off.

That’s the guy who approved his student’s reality video that makes fun of a couple of guys with intellectual disabilities. Impressive.

More tiresome guff

Apr 25th, 2007 10:46 am | By

This is getting to be an entire cottage industry, or maybe not even so cottage, this enterprise of saying ‘that Richard Dawkins and those other militant fundamentalist atheists are insulting and patronizing and rude and aggressive while the rest of us are tolerant and respectful and kind and good.’ Now it’s Robert Winston’s turn to take the same old guff out for a spin.

“I find the title of ‘The God Delusion’ rather insulting,” said Lord Winston, “I have a huge respect for Richard Dawkins but I think it is very patronising to call a serious book about other peoples’ views of the universe and everything a delusion. I don’t think that is helpful and I think it portrays science in a bad light.”

But if other people’s views of the universe and everything are in fact a delusion, is that really something that should never ever ever be pointed out on the grounds that it is insulting and patronizing? Should a mistake never be pointed out? Should a delusion never be called a delusion? Should all mistakes and delusions and illusions be sheltered from disagreement in that way? If so – why?

Lord Winston…will argue for a more conciliatory approach to religion in a public lecture at the University of Dundee tonight…”The reason I’ve called it the Science Delusion is because I think there is a body of scientific opinion from my scientific colleagues who seem to believe that science is the absolute truth and that religious and spiritual values are to be discounted,” said Lord Winston. “Some people, both scientists and religious people, deal with uncertainty by being certain. That is dangerous in the fundamentalists and it is dangerous in the fundamentalist scientists.”

But do they? Do they seem to believe that science is the absolute truth? Do they ever in fact say that, or anything that really resembles it? Not that I’ve seen – they tend to say the opposite: that one of the great things about science is that it’s not ‘absolute,’ that it is always subject to change if better evidence comes along.

People keep doing this – extrapolating from what Dawkins and others say in order to claim that they are saying something different and much sillier; but that is not a good thing to do (whatever your ‘religious and spiritual values’ are); it’s not legitimate; it’s not even helpful, not even to people who do think Dawkins is all wrong, because it addresses phantoms. Who is portraying what in a bad light? I’m not sure it’s Dawkins.

Lord Winston, who is a practising Jew, said the tone adopted by Prof Dawkins and others was counterproductive. “Unfortunately the neo-Darwinists, and I don’t just mean Dawkins, I mean [the philosopher] Daniel Dennett in particular and [neuroscientist] Steven Pinker are extremely arrogant. I think scientific arrogance really does give a great degree of distrust. I think people begin to think that scientists like to believe that they can run the universe.”

Right, that’s just what people begin to think; a trio of Darth Vaders trying to run the universe, that’s Dawkins and Dennett and Pinker. You bet.

The philosopher AC Grayling at Birkbeck College, London, dismissed Lord Winston’s arguments as “tiresome guff”. “Belief in supernatural entities in the universe … is false, and in the light of increasing scientific knowledge about nature has definitely come to be delusional,” he said.

Yes but we’re not allowed to say so.

Because they are so clear, they tell you nothing

Apr 24th, 2007 1:48 pm | By

Someone made a very funny comment on Stephen Law’s interview with Nigel Warburton on the subject of clarity. It’s hard to be sure whether the hilarity is intentional or accidental – I find myself hoping, perhaps maliciously, that it’s accidental, because if so it does so neatly make Nigel’s points for him. This point especially:

[M]any lightweight thinkers are attracted to Philosophy because it seems to promise them power through looking clever. Hiding behind a veil of obscurity is one way in which such people have traditionally duped their readership.

Now the dupe:

although you raise some good points about clarity, i think you are only rehearsing the rather tired analytic vs continental divide;clarity is certainly important, especially for politics and things of immediate public and moral interest…yet, philosophy to be philosophy should say things that are not just obvious; this is the problem with most analytic philosophy; it is one dimensional and the clarity reveals nothing. i mean, analytic philosophy is relatively shallow in its clarity, while that of hegel etc have great depth and enable us to think in ways that are perhaps not normal or obvious.this is what philosophy is for philosophy to be philosophy. For example, hegel and the traditions that follow hegel; or for that matter lacan and deleuze etc are not clear, they require repeated reading and thinking about, yet that is what is good about this kind of philosophy, after really wrestling with the language and the mode of expression, we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy. for me, nagel, ayer, etc are not the equal philosophically of hegel, deleuze, sartre etc because they are so clear, they tell you nothing.

That describes exactly the process Nigel meant, I think – ‘after really wrestling with the language and the mode of expression, we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy.’ Yes, we feel that we are, but that’s an illusion, created by the merely surface-level difficulty. And then the absurdity of saying that ‘because they are so clear, they tell you nothing.’ That’s so silly and so perverse that I hope it’s genuine and not a joke – but it’s so silly and so perverse that it probably is a joke. It’s too on-target to be accidental.

Strut strut strut

Apr 24th, 2007 1:15 pm | By

And let’s not neglect good old Iran, and its positive discrimination in women’s favour.

Police say they stopped more than 1,300 women for dressing immodestly on the first day of the campaign in Tehran. More than 100 women were arrested on Saturday; half of them had to sign statements promising to improve their clothing, the other half are being referred to court. The focus of the new campaign is to stop women wearing tight overcoats that reveal the shape of their bodies or showing too much hair from beneath their headscarves…The police complain that some young women strut the streets looking like fashion models – and it is not a bad description.

Oh, well then. Lock them up. If the police are complaining about what women ‘strut the streets’ looking like, then obviously the women have to be imprisoned for not looking the way the police think they should look. Obviously that’s all very right and proper: it’s up to the police to decide what women are supposed to strut the streets looking like. Naturally that’s a police matter; what else would it be?

Get back, slut

Apr 24th, 2007 10:50 am | By

Taking the bus in Jerusalem.

When the Number 40 bus arrived, the most curious thing happened. Husbands left heavily pregnant wives or spouses struggling with prams and pushchairs to fend for themselves as they and all other male passengers got on at the front of the bus. Women moved towards the rear door to get on at the back. When on the bus, I tried to buck the system, moving my way towards the driver but was pushed back towards the other women.

Towards the other servants, the other slaves, the other niggers, the other untouchables.

The separation system operates on 30 public bus routes across Israel. The authorities here say the arrangement is voluntary, but in practise, as I found out, there is not much choice involved.

Well, no, it’s voluntary for the men, you see. If they decide to choose to have the buses divided into front and back, that makes the arrangement voluntary. Capeesh?

Shlomo Rosenstein explains further:

This really is about positive discrimination, in women’s favour. Our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women, this modesty barrier must not be broken.

And that’s why they get pushed back, threatened, and, not to put too fine a point on it, beaten up if they refuse. On a public bus.

Well…what is religion for if it’s not for keeping women down? I ask you. What good is it if it doesn’t sanctify the loathing of women?

Naomi Regen says the buses are just part of a wider menacing pattern of behaviour towards women in parts of the orthodox Jewish community. “They’ve already cancelled higher education in the ultra-orthodox world for women. They have packed the religious courts with ultra-orthodox judges. In some places there are separate sides of the street women have to walk on.” She says that there are signs all over some religious neighbourhoods demanding that women dress modestly. “They throw paint and bleach at women who aren’t dressed modestly…”

Which of course is positive discrimination, in women’s favour. Lucky lucky women.

The quality of mercy

Apr 24th, 2007 10:26 am | By

It’s a very merciful religion if you try to understand it – we’re told. Is that right?

A community debate over religious freedom surfaced in Western Pennsylvania last week when Dutch feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has lived under the threat of death for denouncing her Muslim upbringing, made an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Islamic leaders tried to block the lecture…They argued that Hirsi Ali’s attacks against the Muslim faith in her book, “Infidel,” and movie, “Submission,” are “poisonous and unjustified” and create dissension in their community.

Thus artfully demonstrating just how open to discussion and criticism ‘the Muslim faith’ is, at least according to them.

Imam Fouad ElBayly, president of the Johnstown Islamic Center, was among those who objected to Hirsi Ali’s appearance. “She has been identified as one who has defamed the faith. If you come into the faith, you must abide by the laws, and when you decide to defame it deliberately, the sentence is death,” said ElBayly, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1976.

Of course Hirsi Ali didn’t ‘come into the faith’ in the sense we would normally understand that: she was born into it; that is, she was born to Muslim parents and raised as a Muslim child; that’s a physical kind of coming into it, but it’s hardly an intellectual kind. And that’s even before you get to the question of whether any intellectual commitment should be irrevocable on pain of death, to which I would with all due modesty and uncertainty answer ‘No.’

Although ElBayly believes a death sentence is warranted for Hirsi Ali, he stressed that America is not the jurisdiction where such a crime should be punished. Instead, Hirsi Ali should be judged in a Muslim country after being given a trial, he added. “If it is found that a person is mentally unstable, or a child or disabled, there should be no punishment,” he said. “It’s a very merciful religion if you try to understand it.”

That’s an interesting idea of mercy.

When in doubt, issue a press release

Apr 23rd, 2007 6:34 pm | By

This guy is worse than I thought – this ‘humanist chaplain’ guy. I thought he’d just been talking to a reporter about ‘atheist fundamentalists’ – but no. He (and perhaps other people tangled up in the ‘Harvard chaplaincy,’ whatever that means) put out a press release on March 6 that started right out with that stupid inaccurate (indeed oxymoronic) phrase, along with the fact that the humanists were having a conference for the very purpose of ‘taking on’ these here ‘atheist “fundamentalists.”‘ This wasn’t some chat with a journalist at Starbuck’s, this was the subject of a conference. These humanists are so distraught about the ‘militancy’ and ‘fundamentalism’ of Dawkins and Harris that they’re holding an entire conference to ‘take them on’ – and they issue a press release whose first sentence features that tendentious and inaccurate phrase – albeit, notice, with ‘fundamentalist’ in scare quotes, so that everyone would know they didn’t mean it. Well if they didn’t mean it, why hold a conference to take it on?

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist “fundamentalists.”

This stalwart fella Brian Flemming called them on it.

[C]ertain humanists have a very weird strategy for bringing us all together. One prominent humanist apparently believes that the way to achieve this unity is to hurl brainless epithets at his allies.

Just so. Then Flemming nails Epstein’s refusal to apologize, not to mention his use of an epithet that he himself doesn’t consider accurate –

Of course, Epstein doesn’t actually believe that Harris and Dawkins deserve the appellation he used (“I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists”). Which, to put it simply, makes his claim that they are “fundamentalists” an intentional false accusation. I think it’s safe to call using an intentional false accusation in the first sentence of a press release a really stupid thing to do. Especially to people you claim to want as allies. Especially if it’s obvious that you did it to frame the argument in a way that favors you (My Reason vs. Their Dogma: discuss).

Stupid, and also morally dubious. Or contemptible, to put it a little more harshly.

Then Flemming got a very informative email from frequent B&W contributor Joe Hoffmann. It’s an amusing read (and posted with permission).

Humanist chaplain talking nonsense

Apr 23rd, 2007 1:35 pm | By

Hey guess what! News flash! Red hot item fresh off the presses that no one knew before – sit down before you read it, or the shock and surprise might kill you.

Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who’s leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.

Oh, gee, really? I had no idea, and neither did anyone else. Sharp reporting; well done.

Among the millions of Americans who don’t believe God exists, there’s a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called “New Atheists.” Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on verge of explosive growth, but are concerned it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism.

‘Militancy,’ of course, in the very special terms of this particular endlessly-recycled talking point, means ‘actually disagreeing with the truth claims of religion.’ Kind of a funny way to use the word, as if actually disagreeing with the truth claims of religion were much the same thing as bomb-throwing or at least a bit of window-breaking; but there you go; that’s how talking points are.

Epstein calls them “atheist fundamentalists.” He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

Does he? Really? If so, he’s not paying attention to either group. But he probably doesn’t really see the matter that way, he probably just says he does because it sounds emphatic (or something), and because it’s such a cliché that he can’t resist it. (Compare, for just one instance, the scene in ‘The Root of all Evil’ in which Dawkins asks the gay-obsessed minister why it matters so much, what is the harm in homosexuality, why is it a problem? And the minister says because it’s a sin. And Dawkins doesn’t even retort; he lets it go at that. Are the two of them really equally rigid in their dogma? I don’t think so.)

Some of the participants in Harvard’s celebration of its humanist chaplaincy have no problem with the New Atheists’ tone. Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker said the forcefulness of their criticism is standard in scientific and political debate, and “far milder than what we accept in book and movie reviews.”

Just so – but have the effrontery to apply it to religion, and notice how the rules change.

But Epstein worries the attacks on religion by the New Atheists will keep converts away. “The philosophy of the future is not going to be one that tries to erase its enemies,” he said. “The future is going to be people coming together from what motivates them.”

There it is again – that chronic hyperbole about atheists. Do the ‘New’ atheists try to erase their enemies? Please. And as for people coming together from what motivates them – well some of us are motivated by, for instance, a preference for open discussion, free inquiry, rational argument, caution about belief-formation, curiosity, and respect for evidence. That kind of preference causes us not to want to ‘come together’ with people who have no such preference. Unity isn’t everything, mass agreement isn’t everything, groupthink isn’t everything, conformity isn’t everything. So have fun with the humanist chaplain thing, Mr Epstein, but knock it off with the straw man stuff.

It does make a difference

Apr 22nd, 2007 10:46 am | By

What is it about this kind of thing that is so irritating? Why does it activate all my resistance equipment? Why does it make me snarl?

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins…Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.

Well there’s one reason right there – that breezy command to leave aside the validity question in order to focus on the important bit, which is what the public cannot be expected (by whom? according to whom?) to differentiate between. I hate that kind of thing; it’s a good thorough example of the kind of thing I hate. First the casual bracketing of the validity question, as if it doesn’t matter. But, excuse me, it does matter. If the argument is over the colour of Tinkerbell’s socks or what is Badger’s favourite ice cream, then fine, bracket it; but if it’s over something that matters, it does make a difference whether or not there is good reason to think it is true. If it’s about Tinkerbell’s socks it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says about it, but if it’s about the nature of the world and where it came from and what we can know about it and how we can know and if we can know – then it does matter what everyone thinks and says about it, and it’s asking a lot to say ‘leave it aside for a moment’ in order to tell atheists to shut up about it because ‘the public’ won’t understand. That’s one irritation-source; another is that stupid ‘the fact remains,’ which implies that the public’s putative incapacity is supposed to trump questions of truth. The article just starts from that patronizing manipulative ignorance-mongering assumption and goes on from there. That’s a bad place to start and a bad place to go on from. I’m sick to death of this babying coddling coaxing minimalization of public discourse, and its accompanying attempts to make everyone either shut up or talk baby talk. I hate all this creepy instrumentalism – it’s all method and no end product.

More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality.

So what? What if we are not primarily focused on what 80 percent of anyone believes, what if we are simply more interested in doing our best to get at and tell the truth, instead? What if we don’t think majority opinion should determine what people think and say and write? What if not everything is an electoral campaign? Why does that possibility not seem to occur to Nisbet and Mooney?

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

Yes – and? They were very, very stupid to do that, those of them who did (saying ‘Americans’ did that as if we all did is a tad sloppy, and feeds the tendency of people outside the US to say Americans elected Bush when some of us in fact didn’t vote for the guy) – they were very very stupid to do that and the fact that they did that is not a reason to join them in being stupid, so what’s the point of saying it? Some Americans asked whether Bush was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with, therefore Dawkins should shut up about atheism? It doesn’t follow. And even if it did follow, it would be a creepy pandering anti-rational ploy, and I say the hell with it.

So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge…And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.

Maybe it would, but if part of your concern is in fact with belief and thinking themselves, then that’s beside the point. If you think religion tends to interfere with the ability of believers to think rationally about many subjects, then asking if science and religion can’t just get along is obtuse. ‘Can’t science and credulity just get along?’ Well, no, and that’s the point, so what’s with the pretense that it’s just a side issue which can easily be ditched?

That’s at least some of what is so irritating.

Stop. You don’t know that.

Apr 21st, 2007 10:31 am | By

Matthew Parris points out that skeptics can and sometimes should be impassioned about it; for instance, when confronted by nonskeptics who are impassioned about that.

It is the worst who are full of passionate intensity. Look at the evangelical movement in America, and to some extent, now, here. Look at the Religious Right in Israel. Look at fundamentalist Islam. What they share, what drives them, the tiger in their tanks, is an absolute, unshakeable belief in an ever-present divinity, with plans for nations that He communicates to the leaders, or would-be leaders, of nations. They are the very devil, these people, they could wreck our world, and their central belief in God’s plan has to be confronted. Confronted with passion. Confronted because, and on the ground that, it is not true.

Along with the wrecking our world part – very much along with that. It’s seriously irritating to have one’s world wrecked by people who are passionately and immovably convinced of childish bullshit. If you’re going to wreck our world at least do it for a better reason than that!

Disbelief can be passionate. Sometimes it should be. Agnosticism can be passionate. A sense that we lack certitude, lack evidence, lack the external command of any luminous guiding truth, may not always lead to lassitude, complaisance or a modest silence. Sometimes it should provoke a great shout: “Stop. You don’t know that. You have no right.”

Eg-zactly. I’ve been thinking about that lately; writing a few notes about it. That’s because there’s this Center for Inquiry ‘Beyond Belief’ shindig in July, at which I’m supposed to say some words, so I’ve been thinking about what kind of words to say; I’m planning to say words along those lines. I like those lines. ‘Stop. You don’t know that. You have no right.’

Many people of course think they do have the right; many of those people think that it is the unbelievers who have no right. Many people just know – what they don’t and can’t know, but that doesn’t stop them. Many people just know what they don’t and can’t know, and consider people who say ‘You don’t know that’ arrogant and dogmatic. That’s why we need some passion and energy in order to go on explaining that that’s not how it should go.

Thought experiment

Apr 18th, 2007 2:10 pm | By

Jeremy has a maddeningly interesting thought experiment at Talking Philosophy. It’s interesting partly, I think, because it’s full of holes – if that’s a meaningful thing to say about thought experiments, which perhaps it isn’t, since the terms are whatever the experimenter says they are. And yet – some inspire people to say ‘Yes but’ and others don’t. This one seems to inspire a lot of ‘Yes but’ (although I have to admit that a lot of the ‘Yes but’ting is mine). But it’s also interesting partly because of the issues involved. Quick summary (read the original for the details, it’s not long): imaginary world: harmoniously religious, and happy; no real education; renegade group which educates some children about “a new-fangled way of finding out about things called ‘Science’” so “they’re taught all about scientific procedure (you know, hypotheses, evidence, testing, black swans”. After a few years they go back to their world and try to pass on what they’ve learned but can’t, and they alienate everyone; they miss their old life but can’t return to it; “they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives.” Questions: were they brainwashed? And were they victims of child abuse? And are there any implications for our world?

Part of what interests me is the fundamental implausibility of the imagined world, especially as portrayed via the children’s nostalgia for it:

It is a thoroughly and harmoniously religious country (though in fact belief in God is no more rationally justified in this world than it is in our world). People live happily. They sing hymns together. Burn incense. They share the fruits of their labours…The converts’ initial enthusiasm diminishes, and they find themselves longing for the old ways: for the happy singing, the joy of worshipping the God they no long believe to exist, the togetherness engendered by a shared belief.

I try dutifully to imagine such a world for the purposes of thinking about the thought experiment, but it’s hard, because we’re not like that (and, I suppose, because it seems to give religion the credit for being able to do something that in fact can’t be done, so it makes me twitchy). There is no human group (let alone entire country) that is all happy, all joyous, all blissful togetherness. Some of us are temperamentally too damn fond of apartness for that to work, just for one thing, even before beliefs come into play. But more to the point, there is never that much uniformity and agreement. There are always dissenters, doubters, novelty-peddlers, rebels, askers of questions, jokers, teasers, runaways, stirrers up of trouble.

Another part of what interests me is the (delayed) revelation that the point of the experiment is not (as I thought it was) the question whether or not social isolation is too high a price to pay for (say) enlightenment, or education, or scientific education, but that scientific education is indoctrination. I dispute that, but to no avail. (Well, say not the struggle naught availeth; I think I’m right, so that will have to do.

I’m interested in the first question though. I think the answer is much more mixed and patchy than it can be in this experiment. Social isolation is a higher price for some people than it is for others, and enlightenment or education is worth more to some than to others. It is simply an assertion that “they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives” – that is the thought experiment; but in reality, people in such a situation would have a more mixed experience. Some might be lonely and miserable but others might be a little lonely and not miserable and excited about the new mental horizons they’d discovered, and others still might be actually happy. Education can cut people off from others, that’s well known, but it can also unite them with different others, and/or give them other and very satisfying rewards. It’s the same with religious belief – not having it can cut people off from others, but so can having it. It’s never a matter of X plus all good things on one side and Y plus misery on the other (well, almost never). So the experiment is interesting in being irritatingly oversimplified, so that it provokes thought.

Justice and reconciliation

Apr 18th, 2007 10:37 am | By

Is there something in the water in Cambridge, or what? Is everybody crazy there? Crazy as in stark raving mad?

A Cambridge University student who sparked a huge row when he published anti- Islamic material has issued a grovelling apology. The 19-year-old second-year Clare College student went into hiding after he printed a cartoon and material satirising religion in college magazine Clareification…A Clare College spokesman said: “Because of the gravity of the situation and the diversity of views expressed about the best way of handling it, the Dean of Students set in train procedures for convening the Court of Discipline. As events unfolded, however, a collective decision was taken to pursue instead a course of restorative justice and reconciliation. The general and the guest editor were both formally reprimanded by the Dean of Students, and were also interviewed by the Master. The guest editor was required to publish an apology, and also to meet any students who asked to see him as well as senior representatives of Cambridge religious communities.”

The ‘gravity of the situation’? What gravity? What situation? Why was there any need to ‘handle’ it at all? What business did anyone have convening a Court of Discipline when no crime had been committed? (Had it? Please tell me Cambridge doesn’t actually have a law on the books against publishing cartoons. Please, please, please tell me that.) And what on earth makes them think there is any need to pursue ‘a course of restorative justice and reconciliation’? That kind of language is used in contexts of mass murders, years of systematic oppression, torture, war crimes, genocide. It’s not usually wheeled out because someone published a fairly mild cartoon! The imbecilic writer of the article can talk about ‘anti- Islamic material’ but no one is obliged to take that ridiculous phrase at face value.

A note of apology was distributed to all college members. The college is now arranging a meeting for next term to discuss the problem of maintaining free speech while avoiding offence.

Oh good. Splendid. That should be one hell of a long meeting. As a commenter at Mediawatchwatch wondered, ‘is that at the same meeting that the head of the Maths Department intends to square a circle?’

Thanks to Ben Goldacre to alerting me to this one.

Who’s depriving?

Apr 17th, 2007 1:00 pm | By

We’ve been puzzling over some apparently sweeping language of Martha Nussbaum’s, especially her claim that ‘the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society…requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ What does she mean by ‘not adopting a public conception’? Does she mean, narrowly, a public conception for purposes of political deliberation? Or does she mean, broadly, a public conception in the sense of any public statement or writing? It would be charitable to think she meant the former, but on the other hand, it seems to me, if she meant the former she should have used much more careful language.

But in fact she has a tendency to use tendentious language on this subject; surprisingly tendentious, I think. I was looking through Women and Human Development this morning and was taken aback by some of her wording.

She concludes an extended criticism of what she calls ‘secular humanist feminism’ by saying (p. 180):

To strike at religion is thus to risk eviscerating people’s moral, cultural, and artistic, as well as spiritual, lives. Even if substitute forms of expression and activity are available in and through the secular state, a state that deprives citizens of the option to pursue religion has done them a grave wrong…

To strike at religion? What does she mean ‘strike at’? And what does she mean ‘deprive’? Why does she equate ‘secular humanist feminism’ with a state that deprives citizens of the option to pursue religion? If you think she makes that clear in the book, forget it; she doesn’t. It looks like just pure rhetoric to me, and rather distasteful rhetoric at that, the all too familiar kind that translates disagreement as attack and forthright views as state power. And she goes on doing it.

When we tell people that they cannot define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way – even if we are sure we are right, and that their way is not a very good way – we do not show full respect for them as persons. In that sense, the secular humanist view is at bottom quite illiberal…[E]ven if a certain group of religious beliefs (or even all beliefs) were nothing more than retrograde superstition, we would not be respecting the autonomy of our fellow citizens if we did not allow them these avenues of inquiry and self-determination.

There it is again. What does she mean ‘allow’? Who is telling people ‘that they cannot define the ultimate meaning of life in their own way’? What is she talking about? She seems to be taking opinion and discussion to be exactly equivalent to state power and law – but what on earth is she doing that for? A philosopher of all people! Does she take every claim she offers as exactly equivalent to state power? That would be a tad megalomaniacal, surely.

I don’t like this stuff. I think it’s sinister, and stealthy, and illegitmate. It’s also a peculiar way of attempting to coerce people to shut up by pretending they are trying to coerce people by speaking. That’s a popular move, but I’m surprised to see Nussbaum resorting to it.

DIY Justice

Apr 17th, 2007 12:25 pm | By

Oh – so if the victims are all morally corrupt, then murder is not murder, or perhaps it is murder but the murderers are not guilty. Interesting jurisprudence.

Iran’s Supreme Court has acquitted a group of men charged over a series of gruesome killings in 2002…The vigilantes were not guilty because their victims were involved in un-Islamic activities, the court found. The killers said they believed Islam let them spill the blood of anyone engaged in illicit activities if they issued two warnings to the victims.

Illicit according to whom? Illicit under what and whose definition?

According to their confessions, the killers put some of their victims in pits and stoned them to death. Others were suffocated. One man was even buried alive while others had their bodies dumped in the desert to be eaten by wild animals. The accused, who were all members of an Islamic paramilitary force, told the court their understanding of the teachings of one Islamic cleric allowed them to kill immoral people if they had ignored two warnings to stop their bad behaviour. But there was no judicial process to determine the guilt of the victims in these cases.

And even if there had been, would it then be standard procedure to hand the guilty victims over to an Islamic paramilitary force to be tortured to death?

Now the Supreme Court is reported to have acquitted all the killers of the charge of murder on the grounds that their victims were all morally corrupt.

Well aren’t we all. So let’s hope this fashion for letting vigilantes murder morally corrupt people does not catch on.