Notes and Comment Blog

Atheist propagandists?

Oct 20th, 2007 3:57 pm | By

I don’t think this is quite right. I think it misses the mark.

I’d like to say his heart is in the right place, unlike the current crop of atheist propagandists, but the trouble is that, as with many Episcopalians, it is more mind than heart…I have no use for anti-Darwinian campaigners, but I do have a lot of respect for popular skepticism. The people do not trust those who present themselves as elite…[R]ead any of the self-indulgent, virulent atheists in circulation today – Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens being just two. Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt. That part of the American population that believes God made man in His own image has a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls. I am inclined to say, God bless the people, even when they get it wrong.

Harris and Hitchens being just two; two out of perhaps five; but Ian Hacking (for it is he), like so many people, gives the impression that there is a crowd. It’s all too familiar – first poison the well by mentioning ‘atheist propagandists’ and saying their hearts are not in the right place, then imply that there are hordes of them, then call them self-indulgent and virulent, then refer to their loathsome arrogance and imply that they are know-it-alls. Well – who is the propagandist here?

But more precisely – does the theist part of the American population really have a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls? I would say it doesn’t. Why? Because believing ‘God made man in His own image’ tends to correlate with voting for Bush, and what is Bush if not a know-it-all? And the worst kind of know-it-all at that, the kind who in fact doesn’t know anything. I’m not making a joke here, I’m flat serious. I think there’s something badly skewed about calling a tiny handful of atheist academics know-it-alls while flattering fans of the most blatantly arrogant and self-indulgent know-it-all in the country, if not the world. Bush is orders of magnitude more arrogant and know-it-all than any of them or all of them put together, because he has the arrogance to think he knows enough to do the job he went after. So – why is Ian Hacking enraged at the ‘loathsome arrogance’ of five atheist writers but apparently approving of the people who think Bush is adequate? If theists really had a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls, how could they possibly vote for such a glaring example of one? (Surely Hacking isn’t fooled by the ridiculous folksy airs and syllable-dropping (‘I kspect Merkans to…’) into thinking Bush really isn’t a know-it-all? Surely he can’t be so silly as to confuse pseudopopulist fakery with genuine humility?) I really wonder. I find it odd.

This is not necessarily to say that the atheists in question are not arrogant, but it is to ask if they are more arrogant than, say, know-nothing fundamentalist preachers. I don’t think they are. Fundamentalist preachers pretend to know things that they can’t possibly know, while atheists merely point out that they can’t know what they pretend to know. The two are not equivalent.

Because it is Forbidden

Oct 18th, 2007 11:01 am | By

This is appalling.

Sabrina Rahim doesn’t practice any particular faith, but she had no problem signing a letter declaring that because of her deeply held religious beliefs, her 4-year-old son should be exempt from the vaccinations required to enter preschool. She is among a small but growing number of parents around the country who are claiming religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.

And by doing so, to put countless other children and adults at risk – a small but growing number of parents who feel entitled to endanger other people for no good reason.

[P]ublic health officials say it takes only a few people to cause an outbreak that can put large numbers of lives at risk. “When you choose not to get a vaccine, you’re not just making a choice for yourself, you’re making a choice for the person sitting next to you,” said Dr. Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division. All states have some requirement that youngsters be immunized against such childhood diseases as measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria and whooping cough. Twenty-eight states, including Florida, Massachusetts and New York, allow parents to opt out for medical or religious reasons only. Twenty other states, among them California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio, also allow parents to cite personal or philosophical reasons.

I didn’t know that. I’m staggered. There’s a public health law, intended to prevent the spread of infectious disease, and twenty-eight states allow people to refuse for religious reasons? Forty-eight of the fifty states give exemptions for religious or ‘philosophical’ reasons? Well you might as well just give blanket exemptions ‘if you don’t want to’ – and say the hell with public health.

Unvaccinated children can spread diseases to others who have not gotten their shots or those for whom vaccinations provided less-than-complete protection. In 1991, a religious group in Philadelphia that chose not to immunize its children touched off an outbreak of measles that claimed at least eight lives and sickened more than 700 people, mostly children. And in 2005, an Indiana girl who had not been immunized picked up the measles virus at an orphanage in Romania and unknowingly brought it back to a church group. Within a month, the number of people infected had grown to 31 in what health officials said was the nation’s worst outbreak of the disease in a decade.

One of God’s little jokes, was it?

Never mind what he did say

Oct 17th, 2007 11:31 am | By

And while we’re on the subject of strange readings and stranger arguments, Mark Vernon offers some more of those.

I have sometimes wondered why no enterprising journalist, as far as I know, hasn’t had a dig around in Richard Dawkins’ past in order to find the cause of his revolt against religion. But perhaps there is no need. It is all there in The God Delusion. A little analysis draws attention to three psychoanalytically significant things that stand out in the book. The first, that one can be certain God does not exist. With science, Dawkins has killed him. This, of course, is for Freud an Oedipal slaying of the God/Father.

Except that Dawkins not only doesn’t say ‘that one can be certain God does not exist,’ he says that one can’t. He says that explicitly and at some length. So…what is psychoanalytically significant about Mark Vernon’s misreading, I wonder? No actually I don’t wonder, because I don’t think it is psychoanalytically significant. I think it’s intellectually and as it were politically significant – as yet another example, among a great many, of people – including, bafflingly, atheists – who misread Dawkins in much the same way. Who keep endlessly recycling the same mistakes no matter how many times Dawkins disavows them and quotes what he actually did say in the book.

[I]n the preface Dawkins begins with a reference to his wife (the quote is ‘As a child…’ which is to say that, like the Mother, she is innocent of any actions of the God/Father)…This excessive exercise (twice) in objective assurance (‘a reader other than myself’) from an innocent, consolatory female (his wife) is the maternal figure, and completes the picture in Dawkins’ religio-psychic drama.

That’s a creepily condescending and profoundly silly misreading of the reference to Lalla Ward. That ‘As a child’ is not at all to say that like the Mother etc etc – Vernon makes it sound as if it’s an echo of First Corinthians 13, but it’s just a factual declaration. The full sentence is ‘As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave.’ The anecdote is about the fact that she was miserable, her parents never knew, they later asked her why she never told them, she said “But I didn’t know I could.”‘ It’s got nothing to do with evoking innocence or ‘the Mother’ – on the contrary, it’s more to do with the general human condition of helplessness under authority. The ‘I didn’t know I could’ is the key point, and that’s not the point Vernon is giggling over.

And that’s what’s so supremely annoying about this kind of critic – their perpetual refusal to engage with the actual book and its actual arguments, and their insistence on engaging with invented issues of their own manufacture.

There’s an irony there, if they could only see it. The more people churn out silly straw-grasping inaccurate irrelevant retorts, the worse they make their ’cause’ look. They keep adding to the stack of evidence that they simply can’t think properly, or even read carefully. Is that what they want to convey? I wouldn’t think so.

The analysis? Dawkins’ atheism is grounded in a psychological murder of the God/Father…For Dawkins, the Oedipal counter-current manifests itself not in hearing divine voices but in an unquestioning commitment to a new paternal figure/institution, namely modern science (note the element of trust in science that is necessary to make this commitment, since science alone does not disprove God/murder the Father, only makes God’s existence/Father’s survival improbable). Science is Dawkin’s adoptive Father figure now that he has done away with the old one.

Uh huh. Sure. Now let’s ask about the analysis of this goofy exercise of Vernon’s. Let’s note the irony – of the heavy weather he makes of ‘trust’ in science, while at the same time and apparently without noticing it, he trusts the pseudoscience of Freudian psychoanalysis. He patronizes Dawkins for ‘unquestioning’ commitment to a new paternal figure, Daddy Science, while himself trusting unquestioningly in that discredited fraud Daddy Sigmund. Anybody out there got time to do a Jungian analysis of Mark Vernon?

Do try to keep up, dear boy

Oct 17th, 2007 10:30 am | By

Roger Scruton, with an eyebrow (if not two, or six) lifted in amused skepticism, reads Anthony Grayling. Oh these funny little people who prefer mental freedom to the other thing – how droll they are, but in the end how tarsome.

While treating us to some agreeable ventures in the history of ideas, he recycles the Victorian notion that the West has progressed from oppressive superstition to enlightened liberty.

Dear me, does he really, how very old hat. (But then if we think progress from this to that is a silly idea, why does it matter that it’s old hat? Well because my dear you know ‘Victorian’ – they never got any sex, so it always pays to throw them in by way of eyebrow-raising.) How could anyone think that we had progressed from oppressive superstition to enlightened liberty? Because there used to be laws requiring church attendance? Because atheism got the death penalty? Because of the Inquisition? Because of witchcraft trials? Pffff – nonsense. Simply because we’ve left all that behind, is no reason to think we’ve gained any enlightened liberty. It’s Victorian to think we have. Prudish, sentimental, and above all girly.

Grayling’s scholarly account…makes up for his one-dimensional view of Western history, in which the Good forces of liberty, secularism, democracy, equality and enlightenment are locked in “struggle” (how I hate that word!) with the Bad forces of religion, authority, hierarchy, inequality and darkness. Grayling is surely right to believe that people aspire to freedom and light; but he cannot see, from his ivory tower, that they also need obedience and shadows.

Oh do they. Obedience to what, exactly, on whose terms, for what reasons, in pursuit of what ends, according to what criteria? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t even say why people need obedience. Check out Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the joy of escaping obedience, and then ask yourself what on earth Scruton has in mind.

Grayling sees all liberal ideas as summed up in a single moral imperative, which is the defence of “human rights”. His hostility to Christianity causes him to ignore the church’s defence of natural law, from which the idea of human rights derives. The rights defended in secular terms by John Locke were spelled out more thoroughly by Thomas Aquinas, who is given only fleeting credit. For Grayling, the political influence of the medieval church is symbolised not by Aquinas but by the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada. Why not say, rather, that, while Torquemada disgraced the Dominican Order, Aquinas redeemed it? Aquinas stands to Torquemada roughly as Condorcet stands to Robespierre.

Allow me to quote a comment by Ronald Lindsay, Director of Research and Legal Affairs of the Washington D.C. Center for Inquiry.

For its shameless intellectual dishonesty, this assertion must rank among Scruton’s 10 best distortions. Leaving aside the point that, with the possible exception of Jacques Derrida, Aquinas is the most overrated “philosopher” in the West (and Derrida had better hair), Aquinas expressly endorsed what Torquemada carried out. In the Summa Theologica, Tommy argues that it is imperative that heretics be killed as quickly as they are convicted. ST II-II, Q. 11.

Condorcet, of course, opposed Robespierre. Aquinas would have applauded Torquemada.

That’s probably why not say that while Torquemada disgraced the Dominican Order, Aquinas redeemed it: because he didn’t.

Grayling concludes his book with an extended warning against the way in which the hard-won liberties of the subject are being eroded in Britain and America. He makes a strong point with good-natured grace. But…The right to hunt – on which the way of life of my neighbourhood depends – was recently taken away by a dictatorial House of Commons.

The right to hunt. The right to preserve foxes so that they can be hunted under the pretext that they prey on chickens – that right. Nothing Victorian there – that’s pure Regency. Butch, dressy, exhibitionist, and expensive. Darling Prinny, how we do miss him.

Journalistic disapproval

Oct 15th, 2007 5:14 pm | By

The headline gets it wrong: ‘Amis launches scathing response to accusations of Islamophobia.’ No he doesn’t, he doesn’t mention the word, and neither does Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the piece Martin Amis is responding to. Both of them talk more sensibly and precisely. Alibhai-Brown says ‘the Muslim-baiters and haters’ and Amis says ‘anti-Muslim measures.’ But no, we mustn’t use language in such a finicky careful way, we must use it sloppily, so that people will keep on getting the idea that dislike of Islam is exactly the same thing as mindlessly impartial hatred of Muslims. We must do it twice in the space of two sentences: ‘Martin Amis defended himself yesterday against allegations of Islamophobia.’ We must do our stupid little bit to make criticism of Islam more difficult and socially suspect.

Eagleton doesn’t seem to have gained a lot of fans though – that’s something. Philip Hensher seems to find him pretty thoroughly meritless.

We could be cruel, and point out that Marxists of Professor Eagleton’s stamp have to justify their existence in a way they didn’t when, for instance, I used to attend his lectures at Oxford in the early 1980s. Let us resist the temptation. We should probably treat them with the same respect and mild curiosity that we should of a man who still worshipped at the shrine of Woden.

But Richard Lea is still worried. He thinks Amis is not off the hook yet.

The novelist went on to “declare that ‘harassing the Muslim community in Britain’ would be neither moral nor efficacious”, but made no apology for making remarks describing an “urge” that the Muslim community should “suffer”, nor any attempt to respond to wider concerns over his views concerning Islamism

That final phrase is interesting. Wider concerns over his views concerning Islamism (oy, where was his editor? concerns concering? please) – what concerns would those be? What views concerning Islamism is Martin Amis supposed to have? What are the right-on okay acceptable views concerning Islamism? That it’s maybe a little brutal around the edges but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs? That it’s not to everyone’s taste but then revolutions aren’t for the genteel? What? What views is it possible to have about Islamism other than fear and loathing?

Can you prove it?

Oct 12th, 2007 3:19 pm | By

The ‘Militant atheists are wrong’ mould has turned out another cookie.

In the last few years, so many books have rolled off the presses challenging God, belief and religion itself (by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Christopher Hitchens, among others) that a visitor from another planet might think America was in the iron throes of priestly repression.

Yes – four or five books, maybe even six or seven if you count Stenger and Onfray. Gee wow. Compared to how many books celebrating God, belief and religion itself? Any guesses as to the number? Something tells me it’s more than six, or even seven.

If anything, you could imagine these assaults on religion becoming infamous in the Muslim world, confirming for fundamentalists that the West is every bit as godless – and hostile to Islam — as they thought.

Ah well now that’s a compelling argument. The Islamists will think we’re godless, so shut up.

Voltaire and his colleagues attacked the dominant values of their day, at great risk to themselves. By almost comical contrast, the new anti-religionists are safely needling the dominant liberal culture’s favorite bete noire.

Meaning what? You’re not supposed to attack (or, more accurately, argue against) something unless doing so puts you at risk? That’s a strange (and demanding) criterion.

But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.

No they’re not. They are not contemptuous of ‘any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved’; that is a grossly stupid misunderstanding – an endlessly recycled one, but that doesn’t make it any better.

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.

No, it doesn’t, because they are not demanding proof, and because ‘God’ is not just any old ‘unseen thing.’

The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means.

Yes, yes, yes. But (again) ‘proof’ is not the issue, and God is not the same kind of thing as ‘truth, beauty, goodness and decency.’ Some theists like to claim it is when they’re cornered, but the rest of the time it’s a spiritual person who answers prayers.

For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.

And Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and the rest are not disputing the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane, much less demanding that they be ‘proved.’

But then – I’d forgotten this, but a reader reminded me: Lee Siegel is the infamous sock puppet, ‘sprezzatura’ – the one who posted on The New Republic’s blog saying how brilliant and wonderful Lee Siegel is. TNR suspended him for awhile, then let him come back. Acute embarrassment; exile; return; then before long, back to writing fatuous dreck, without a blush in sight. Not one of the great minds of the century, perhaps.

The same silly trope was deployed in a debate with Dawkins just the other day. They don’t get tired of it, do they.

Some of the exchanges were funny, as when Mr. Lennox suggested that his opponent believed that his wife loved him even though it’s not scientifically provable.

Oh very droll, very fresh, very original. Sparkling as the dew on the grass.

Can we talk?

Oct 11th, 2007 12:30 pm | By

Wish I’d been there. Norm was there – perhaps I could have sat with him and we could have elbowed each other at exciting moments.

The motion ‘We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of Western values’ was proposed by the author Ibn Warraq. He contrasted the West’s openness and flexibility with the ossified ‘closed book’ culture of Islam. ‘Easterners flock to collect their degrees from Oxbridge, Harvard and the Sorbonne,’ he said. Traffic in the other direction is minimal. Rejecting the ‘mind-numbing certainties’ of Islam in favour of the ‘liberating doubt’ of Bertrand Russell, he asked us if Islam would tolerate an equivalent of The Life of Brian.

I wish the values had been called liberal rather than Western, because 1) that is what was meant 2) they are universalizable rather than parochial and they are not unknown outside the West 3) ‘the West’ hasn’t always lived by liberal values, as people of course lost no time in pointing out 4) the point is surely not hemispheric loyalty but merit and 5) the very idea of prancing around asserting the superiority of Western values makes me feel like a prize turkey. But, all the same, the hemispheric aspect is not completely irrelevant, as Ibn Warraq’s comment above highlights.

[Tariq Ramadan] surprised us with a list of Islamic mediaeval thinkers who had espoused the cause of free debate. We struggled to recognise their names. And that was the point. Western history is too blinkered and exclusive to admit the tradition of liberal Islam.

Yes but with all due respect, what’s that got to do with now? Not much. Taner Edis talks about this – the irrelevant defensive resort to past glories:

Today, it’s something of an impediment for the Muslim world to continually look back to the glories of the past and keep saying that the Islamic world used to be a world leader in science. This tends to obscure some very important differences between modern science and medieval thinking. They did some very interesting things in medicine and optics. But all of this was mixed in with astrology and alchemy and what today we would consider dead ends.

Ibn Warraq (whom I am proud to call a friend) rounded things off with a flourish.

The winning majority howled with pleasure when Ibn Warraq summed up the debate: ‘I don’t want to live in a society where I get stoned for committing adultery. I want to live in a society where I get stoned. And then commit adultery.’

David Thompson has more. Douglas Murray asks how a ‘dialogue’ might begin:

Where does [the dialogue] start? Would it start, for instance, with making a joke? Contra Mr Khomeini – not a funny man. Or, would it start with an article, perhaps? Would it start, perhaps, with a film? It did, a few years ago, with Submission, and Theo van Gogh was killed. Could it start with making a joke, perhaps? A joke in a cartoon? Well, apparently not, because we know there were burnings and killings and lootings and rioting across the globe in reaction to those cartoons. If you’re going to start a dialogue, what could you do that would be smaller than drawing a cartoon? This dialogue which we keep on being offered is not [reciprocal].

Smaller than drawing a cartoon…hmm…conversion, perhaps? Would that do?

Creeping theocracy

Oct 8th, 2007 11:31 am | By

This sounds like a fun moment, doesn’t it? An East End Sainsbury’s, staffed mostly by Bangladeshis.

A young Asian checkout operator, with pious beard and a crocheted Kufi Muslim skullcap, made a big deal out of serving a middle-aged white man who had included a bottle of vodka in his groceries. His wasn’t a discreet arm wave for the attention of a supervisor, it was a full-on hissy fit. At the sight of the vodka bottle he reared from his seat as if the conveyer had presented a freshly slaughtered pig’s head….The customer…was having none of it though. “What the bleedin’ ‘ell are you working in a supermarket for if you won’t handle booze?” he shouted, setting the queue to Defcon Two on the London racial tension scale…The hothead till worker’s protest was more testosterone than Taliban but he succeeded in making his point, loudly, in front of 18 female Muslim staff who won’t let their religion bother their job.

More testosterone than Taliban…that’s an interesting way of putting it. I have a feeling that’s a distinction without a difference. Taliban is testosterone, and vice versa. Taliban is all about men bullying women and telling them what to do and telling them they’re filthy and sexual and shameful, defective and wrong and above all subordinate – above all subject to being told what to do by anyone and everyone except themselves. The very first thing Islamists do when they get power is to start telling women what to do. They give one a nasty sense of the world being full of men wandering around fuming at how out of control women are.

Sainsbury’s, “keen to accommodate the religious beliefs of all staff”, now allows Muslim workers who object to alcohol on religious grounds to have a colleague take their place. The company didn’t see that such cack-handed posturing does Islam no favours, reinforcing a perception of an intolerant and unbending religion, which is not, I believe, where the majority of British Muslims are. Worse still is the atmosphere it creates within its own workforce. The craven attitude of Sainsbury’s creates a space the religious fanatics will use to bully their mostly female fellow workers, arguing they are not good Muslims if they choose to serve alcohol when they have the option not to.

Why isn’t Sainsbury’s keen to accomodate the religious or non-religious beliefs of people who want to buy one of the items on sale without any hassle or delay or display of shock-horror from some self-righteous bully at the till? And at that rate, what next? Muslim clerks in Waterstone’s allowed to refuse to sell atheist books or books by women or gays? Bus drivers allowed to refuse to let women on the buses? Muslim teachers in state schools allowed to refuse to teach girls?

Rooting out obscenity

Oct 7th, 2007 11:34 am | By

Women women women – gotta keep them down, you know. If you don’t – sooner or later, they get up, and that won’t do.

Make sure they don’t go to school, and do it by threatening or killing them.

Buildings of two girls schools in the Kabal area of Swat were damaged by a powerful blast on the night of September 29th. Witnesses told Dawn that militants, who have been targeting women’s educational institutions for a couple of weeks, had planted an explosive device in the Government Girls’ High School…Recently, a string of explosions damaged some schools, including the Government Girls’ High School in Matta and the Government Girls Primary School in the Bedara area. An explosive device planted in the Government Girls High School in Qambar was defused by police a few days ago. Students of girls schools are in a state of fear and in some cases people have stopped sending their daughters to schools.

Kill the women who try to teach them, too – kill two birds with one stone. Haw haw haw, that’s a good one! Two birds, geddit? Two birds; killed; haw.

Almost all the girl schools at Lakaro sub-division of Mohmand Agency remained closed on Monday after the killing of one lady teacher by unknown miscreants and inability of the political administration to provide security to women staffers in the wake of threats to them…Some ten days ago the girl schools in Lakaro had received threatening letters from local Taliban warning them to avoid coming to school. Later, they were asked to perform their duties clad in Burqas. Majority of the teachers stopped performing their duties and the schools remained closed…However, the political authorities ignored the threats and avoided taking security measures for protection of the female teachers, which resulted in the tragic killing of one teacher, Khatoon Bibi, resident of Utmanzai, Charsadda.

Khatoon Bibi. Another martyr for education and women’s access to education. There are a lot of them. I hate the word ‘martyr’ because of all the revolting slobber about ‘martyrs’ who murder random people in buses and restaurants; but murdered teachers are genuine martyrs. We’ll miss you, Khatoon Bibi; the girls of Utmanzai and Ghazi Beg will miss you.

Hundreds of women staged a protest in front of the agency education office in Mohmand Agency headquarters Ghalanai on Monday against the threats received by female teachers in the area…The boycott of women teachers meant many schools in Safi, Haleemzai, and Khuvezai tehsils were closed…The administrations of eight schools in Aka Maroof and Sartilgram union councils have closed their schools for an indefinite period following a bomb attack on a girls’ higher secondary school in the Kabal area of Swat…Separately, around 100 people carrying weapons marched in Kabal bazaar and forcibly entered houses to bar residents from playing music. They warned the residents not to play music or they would break their television sets, radios and music players. They asked the residents to cooperate in rooting out “obscenity” from the area.

And since they were carrying weapons, I don’t suppose the residents felt able to reply ‘If rooting obscenity out of the area is your goal, obviously the first (and last) thing you should do is to remove yourselves.’

Do what you’re told

Oct 6th, 2007 11:28 am | By

How very liberal.

Islam does judge actions. It tells Muslims that homosexuality is wrong, that stealing is wrong, that killing is wrong and that judging others is also wrong. But nowhere does it say that a homosexual or a thief or a murderer should be treated as anything less than a human being. What Muslims have done is mix the Islamic condemnation of actions with the person who has carried them out. This creates hatred and animosity – two feelings that Islam condemns.

Homosexuality is ‘wrong’ the way stealing is wrong and killing is wrong, because Islam ‘tells Muslims’ so. If Islam ‘tells Muslims’ that eating peaches, watching sunsets, sneezing, and reading poetry are wrong, will that mean they are wrong? Is it possible to have better reasons for thinking something is either wrong or not wrong than the fact that Islam ‘tells Muslims’ so? Would it be helpful if something told Abdurrahman al-Shayyal that treating homosexuality as comparable to murder is wrong? Would it be useful if something gave him the idea that command morality is only as good as the commands are?

Flemming Rose

Oct 4th, 2007 12:06 pm | By

Reason talks to Flemming Rose.

I am going to write a book about the cartoon crisis and I am going to compare the experience of the dissidents in the Soviet Union to what has happened to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji.

Threat threat threat threat threat – that’s what’s happened to them, and to a lot of other people. Often the threat has been carried out.

reason: Were you surprised by the reaction of those who argued not for unfettered free speech, but “responsible speech?”

Rose: Well, no. I think many people betrayed their own ideals. The history of the left, for instance, is a history of confronting authority – be it religious or political authority – and always challenging religious symbols and figures. In this case, they failed miserably. I think the left is in a deep crisis in Europe because of their lack of willingness to confront the racist ideology of Islamism. They somehow view the Koran as a new version of Das Kapital and are willing to ignore everything else, as long as they continue to see the Muslims of Europe as a new proletariat.

Somehow indeed – the discrepancy between the two K books is large.

Last year, I visited Bernard Lewis at Princeton and he told me: “Your case in unique in a historical sense. Never before in modern times, on such a scale, have Muslims insisted upon applying Islamic law to what non-Muslims are doing in non-Muslim country. It has never happened before. And you can’t really compare the Rushdie affair, because he was perceived to be an apostate.”…Those people who say, “you offended one billion people,” or “you offended a weak minority,” they lack the understanding of the raw power game that was at play here…Naser Khader, a Danish parliamentarian who was very supportive of me and stood up in parliament and said “I am very offended by those who insist on an apology to one billion Muslims, because I am not offended by these cartoons.” But, he said, I am offended by being lumped into this grey mass of “one billion Muslims.”

Exactly. Imagine being a Muslim, and having everyone think you’re such a baby that you get offended that easily. (I’m a baby, I get offended very easily, so I know what it’s like!)

I think Manuel Barraso, who has a background in an authoritarian regime, understood the situation better than others, like, for instance, Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who behaved disastrously…A lot of governments and opinion makers in Europe and the West were driving this line that we have offended one billion people and we should be ashamed of ourselves, free speech and but responsible speech… all this crap…But what really bothers me today—and this hasn’t been reported very widely—is that right after the cartoon crisis, the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the United Nations sponsored a resolution condemning the “ridiculing of religion.” It didn’t pass, but in March of this year the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is the highest international body in the world for the protection of human rights, passed a resolution condoning state punishment of people criticizing religion…[C]ountries like Russia, Mexico and China supported the resolution. And in this resolution, they call on governments to pass laws or write provisions into their constitutions forbidding criticism of religion. This would give a free hand to authoritarian regimes around the world to clamp down on dissidents.

Damn right, as well as to clamp down on all disagreement with religion, which would be global theocracy with a vengeance.

Why you must be secular

Oct 2nd, 2007 5:56 pm | By

Mitchell Cohen in Dissent.

The left everywhere ought to be identified with both tolerance (this has not always been so) and with critical intelligence – the latter often means challenging religious precepts, ambitions and institutionalized power. The hard thing is to balance the tolerance and the criticism, to insist on pluralism but not to allow religion to privilege itself in the public realm. The left should always want people to think for themselves, but this cannot mean “you must be secular like me” since it also should not mean “you must be religious like me.”

That last sentence isn’t right. ‘Secular’ doesn’t mean not religious, it means not theocratic. Wanting people to think for themselves pretty much does mean ‘you must be not theocratic’ because theocracy is the end of thinking for oneself. Theocracy is about obedience and submission, and that’s not compatible with valuing thinking for oneself. You could change ‘secular’ to ‘atheist’ in that sentence, but then you would want to wonder why it’s a matter of ‘must’ rather than ‘should.’ Cohen is presumably talking about political persuasion and discourse, in which case, it seems unreasonable to say ‘this cannot mean “you should be atheist”‘ because political persuasion and discourse is all about shoulds; but it seems downright absurd to say ‘this cannot mean “you must be atheist”‘ because who would say that anyway and what would be the point?

This is an interview, so perhaps he just chose his words hastily – but all the same, we have to be careful not to concede too much. We do get to say ‘you must be secular’ and we do get to say ‘you should be atheist’; neither is illegitimate or comparable to saying ‘you must be religious.’

we cannot say often enough today that the modern liberal state was an act against civil wars created by societies dominated by religion; it is only as the domination of the public realm by religion ends that open, liberal, and social democratic (or socialist, if you prefer) societies become possible. When religious movements are triumphalist, when they believe that they can assert themselves inexorably in the public realm, liberal and social democratic values are jeopardized.

Exactly; that’s why we do get to say ‘you must be secular.’ It’s a precondition, like the First Amendment.

If I express my secular humanist ideas publicly, if I try to persuade fellow citizens of them, I must be open to criticism…But what happens when religious-political claims are open to the same challenge? If a Muslim friend, on the basis of his profound religious convictions, makes an argument for a law that is to govern me, shall I challenge his belief in Muhammad’s prophetic role? Anyone who knows some history knows it is likely to lead to religious wars. The alternative is to ask him (or her) to secularize the principles of argument.

As above. Expecting people to be secular does not entail expecting them not to be religious.

I am struck at how parts of the extreme left apologize for Islamic extremism in ways reminiscent of how an earlier generation found ways to apologize for Stalinism. The objects excused are different but the patterns of apologetics are sadly similar. It shows that there really is something I once called ‘the left that doesn’t learn.’ But there are others – liberals and conservatives – who haven’t learned either, or who suffer memory lapse when it comes to all the persecutions and religious wars in the fabric of Western history and seem to forget the historical importance of the domestication of religion within a liberal democratic framework. There has been excessive indulgence of aggressive political religiosity, whether it is the self-righteous Christian right in the U.S., belligerent political Islamism in the Mideast and beyond, or the fanatical religious nationalism of the Israeli settler movements.

So he’s pretty much saying ‘you must be secular’ (and not at all saying ‘you should be atheist’). That one sentence must have been an aberration.

A bit too non-linear

Oct 1st, 2007 11:54 am | By

Did Ian Buruma write this in ten minutes, or what? It’s all over the place.

It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others suggest that religious faith is a sign of backwardness…

Oh get over it for Christ’s sake. Is there no end to the market for people complaining about this overwhelming flood of atheist books that add up to all of five which is as a grain of sand to a beach compared to the flood of theist bestsellers? There certainly doesn’t seem to be. Is this the top item in The Lazy Editor’s Handbook or what? ‘If nothing else occurs, get some windbag to have a tantrum about the uncontrollable torrent of atheist bestsellers.’

Can religion also be a force for good? asks Buruma, dopily. Noooo – religion can never ever ever be a force for good, not nohow. Duh. Of course it can – we don’t need to be told that ‘sometimes religion can be a force for good’ – we know that.

But it’s too late, Buruma has to tell us.

[W]atching Burmese monks on television defying the security forces of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief.

You don’t say. And watching Saudi religious police send schoolgirls back into a fire to burn to death because they’re not ‘dressed properly,’ it is hard not to see some merit in atheism. So what?

[T]he monks and nuns took the first step; they dared to protest when most others had given up. And they did so with the moral authority of their Buddhist faith. Romantics might say that Buddhism is unlike other religions, more a philosophy than a faith. But this would be untrue. It has been a religion in different parts of Asia for many centuries, and can be used to justify violent acts as much as any other belief. For evidence, one need only look at Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is lashed onto ethnic chauvinism in the civil war between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils.

Um, okay, but I thought you were saying religion is sometimes a force for good? What’s the subject again?

[T]he moral power of religious faith does not need a supernatural explanation. Its strength is belief itself, in a moral order that defies secular or indeed religious dictators. Active resisters to the Nazis during World War II were often devout Christians. Some sheltered Jews, despite their own prejudices against the Jews, simply because they saw it as their religious duty. Faith does not have to be in a supernatural being. The Nazis were resisted with equal tenacity by men and women who found strength in their belief in communism.

Oh, okay, so you’re not talking about religion after all, you’re talking about belief, including belief in communism? Only, I thought you were talking about religion, because that’s what you said at the beginning.

Despite the horrific violence of Islamist fanatics, it should not be forgotten that the mosque too can be a legitimate basis for resistance against the mostly secular dictatorships in the Middle East today. In a world of political oppression and moral corruption, religious values offer an alternative moral universe. This alternative is not necessarily more democratic, but it can be.

Or not. Usually not. So your point is…?

Nevertheless, faith has an important role to play in politics, especially in circumstances in which secular liberals are rendered impotent, as in the case of Nazi occupation, communist rule or military dictatorship.

Oh, man – now I’m really confused.

Liberals are most needed when compromises have to be made, but not as useful when faced with brute force. That is when visionaries, romantics and true believers are driven by their beliefs to take risks that most of us would regard as foolhardy. It is, on the whole, not beneficial to be ruled by such heroes, but it is good to have them around when we need them.

Yes no doubt, but you were talking about religion, remember? Remember the beginning of your article? It’s not that long – you could have checked back once or twice while you were writing it. You started out with a dopy whinge about atheist bestsellers #17,985, then you asked if religion can sometimes be a force for good. How did you end up with romantics and heroes?

Dang – I wish I’d been Buruma’s editor for that piece; I would have thrown it back and told him to re-write it. Actually, I would have just said No thanks; it’s banal at best and incoherent at worst. Try harder next time.

Skip the plebiscite

Oct 1st, 2007 9:21 am | By

Funny what a hard time people have getting this.

Oddly, some of the people commenting on the UCU decision on the Engage website have expressed disappointment that the boycott proposal has been defeated through legal means rather than by a popular union ballot. This is a puzzling response. The Jim Crow laws in the United States were overturned in the 1950s and 1960s through Supreme Court decisions and civil rights legislation, rather than by popular referendums in southern American states. The civil rights movement did not attempt to argue with segregationists to give up their misguided commitment to discriminatory practices. It invoked legal authority in order to compel them to respect the human rights of African Americans. In a liberal democracy the rights of individuals and minorities against racist exclusion are ensured by legal guarantee. They do not depend upon the consent of groups who refuse to acknowledge these rights as indefeasibly binding.

In fact it’s not so much funny as alarming. The more people don’t get that, the more at risk we all are – unless we can be absolutely sure we’re not a member of any possible minority at all; and who can be absolutely sure of that? And anyway we’d still be at risk, because we’d be at risk of persecuting other people, which is hardly an improvement on being persecuted oneself.

It’s so basic. Democracy is not the same thing as justice or human rights or fairness or equal treatment or compassion or anything like that. It doesn’t imply them or presuppose them or (necessarily) bring them about. The majority is not always or automatically right, and it’s certainly not always fair or merciful or scrupulous. Sometimes laws are better than the popular will – that’s one reason laws exist.

No fleece

Sep 29th, 2007 12:41 pm | By

I’ve found Giles Fraser irritatingly woolly in the past, but he’s not woolly on the subject of the Anglican cop-out. He’s very sheared indeed. Nary a punch is pulled.

The deal that the archbishop has brokered with the Episcopal church in New Orleans protects the unity of the church by persuading US bishops that the church is more important than justice…For all the high-sounding rhetoric about how much they value gay people, the church has once again purchased its togetherness by excluding the outsider…OK, so no one has died here…[O]ught we not to get a bit more perspective? No: the struggle for the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the life of the church is a frontline battle in the war against global religious fascism. Robert Mugabe has called homosexuals “worse than dogs and pigs”. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government denies that gay people exist in Iran, and hangs the ones it finds. The Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria thinks homosexuality “evil” and “cancerous”. There can be no compromise with any of this, irrespective of whether it is backed up by dodgy readings of holy texts or not.

No compromise? But what of diversity? What of their culture? What of respect? What of sensitivity? The hell with all that, says the Vicar of Putney; well done.

Many know that the logic of the New Orleans deal is the logic of unity through exclusion…[T]his whole sorry business is as visceral as a group of playground kids coming together to slag off the [child] with the unfashionable haircut or funny accent. Finding someone to point the finger at is the best way of bringing people together. Global Christian cohesion is being achieved by a church that is defining itself against some representative other – in this case, a short, rather geeky gay bishop with a bit of a drink problem. He is a scapegoat straight from central casting. The sad truth is, the issue of homosexuality isn’t splitting the Anglican communion: it’s uniting it like never before…The Rt Rev Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, has brought people together: hands across the ocean, united in homophobia. It was the Episcopal church that held out longest against unholy unification. But in agreeing to these terms, they too have now bent the knee to the will of the collective bully.

Of course, much of the point of religion is the logic of unity through exclusion – but I won’t nag the Vicar about that today.

Connubial acid-throwing

Sep 28th, 2007 11:45 am | By


The ordeal of ill-fated Irshad Bibi, who suffered burns in an acid attack by her husband, seems far from over despite generous offer by an NGO as her very own people blocked her way to accept the help and go for the treatment…[H]er family and relatives stopped her from going to Islamabad for treatment at the expense of the NGO on the plea that “such organisations have the reputation of committing immoral activities and they will use her also for their nefarious designs”…A resident of the area to which the victim belonged defended the family’s stance, saying: “The NGOs are involved in un-Islamic activities and it is a sinful act to get treatment from them”.

Therefore, Irshad Bibi should simply be left untreated. Good thinking.

[Irshad Bibi] said Mukhtar Mai had telephoned her and expressed sympathy with her. “I am very thankful to her. I am also thankful to the media and the NGO which has extended me help”. Sobbing out her ordeal, Irshad Bibi said she wanted to visit her parents and asked her husband, Ajmal, to send her to their place. “Ajmal, however, stopped me saying he will give me good news and at night he came and repeated that he had a big surprise for me. The next moment he threw acid on my face and dragged me to a room from where he fled”…She said when she cried out for help, one of the neighbours telephoned her parents and her father reached the house after two hours, broke open the lock and took her to Sanwan hospital.

So her lovely husband not only threw acid in her face, he also locked her in afterwards. Now that’s what I cal uxorious.

Irshad said her husband would routinely beat her and whenever she spoke to her parents about her domestic life they placated her by saying that “a married woman has to live and die at her husband’s house”. She said her hand was given to her husband in ‘watta satta’.

Right. This is the arrangement. A married woman has to live and die at her husband’s house, having been given to the husband by other people with no right of refusal for herself. That’s a fair arrangement. It kind of reminds me of something else…now what is it…it’s right on the tip of my tongue…come on, think…oh yes: slavery.

Ignatieff on intuition

Sep 27th, 2007 5:42 pm | By

Michael Ignatieff says something in his article on ‘Getting Iraq Wrong’ that ties up with this discussion of belief and intuition we’ve been having.

Having taught political science myself, I have to say the discipline promises more than it can deliver. In practical politics, there is no science of decision-making. The vital judgments a politician makes every day are about people: whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid. The question of loyalty arises daily: Who will betray and who will stay true? Having good judgment in these matters, having a sound sense of reality, requires trusting some very unscientific intuitions about people.

I’ll buy that. That is one place where intuition mostly does work a lot better than reasoning – which is not surprising, because people aren’t reasonable, so trying to make judgments about people by using reason just…doesn’t fit. That’s another thing that The Curious Incident illustrates so beautifully, of course. Christopher is good at logic and he hasn’t got a clue about people. To understand about people you have to be all sloppy and organic and random and sentimental and selfish and generous and hundreds of other messy non-logical things. You have to have all sorts of feelings and impulses and reactions in order to know how they work in other people; you can’t learn them, you have to have them. You’ll probably still get people wrong all the time, but at least you’ll have a shot. Without all the sloppy soppy unreasonable stuff, it’s hopeless.

On Jesus and Buddhism and eschatology

Sep 26th, 2007 5:45 pm | By

There are some excellent things in parts of God is not Great*. I thought I would give you a sample.

Pp. 175-6:

…it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favourite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead…[T]he son of god is revealed as one who, if his milder words are not accepted straightaway, will condemn the inattentive to everlasting fire. This has provided texts for clerical sadists ever since, and features very lip-smackingly in the tirades of Islam.

Pp. 203-4:

It ought to be possible for me to pursue my studies and researches in one house, and for the Buddhist to spin his wheel in another. But contempt for the intellect has a strange way of not being passive…[T]hose whose credulity has led their own society into stagnation may seek a solution, not in true self-examination, but in blaming others for their backwardness…A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, is ill-equipped for self-criticism.

Page 282:

Religion even boasts a special branch of itself, devoted to the study of the end. It calls itself ‘eschatology,’ and broods incessantly on the passing away of all earthly things. This death cult refuses to abate, even though we have every reason to think that ‘eartlhly things’ are all that we have, or are ever going to have.

Worth at least a selective read.

*There are parts where I disagree with Hitchens, and other parts I haven’t read yet because they look to be familiar territory.

Must be a slow news day

Sep 26th, 2007 2:00 pm | By

Interesting. I’m told that Why Truth Matters was scheduled to be discussed on Classic FM this evening, on Newsnight. I don’t know though, I tried the Listen Again button but although I got the player and clicked on the sound button, I couldn’t get it to play. In the unlikely event that anyone is interested, there it is. (In the even more unlikely event that anyone would like to transcribe it for me, do feel free!)

Update: dear kind Arnaud did a transcript for me. (Or perhaps he simply made it up; it’s certainly pleasing enough to be a fantasy.) Merci, Arnaud.

John Brunning: Well next stop, Chris, a book on a subject I know is dear to your heart.

Chris Powling: Very much so. It’s called Why Truth Matters. It’s by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom. Now, they are a couple of philosophers and they are taking on a subject which I have been turning in my mind for many years now. 25 years ago I took an allegedly, once again that very useful word, literature course which turned out actually to be about cod philosophy. We were talking about deconstructionism and postmodernism and relativism and all these “-isms”, most of which I suspected at the time were codswallop. So do Ophelia and Jeremy, thank goodness, and in WTM they are establishing the case for good, old-fashioned rationality. You need to get your facts right, you need to get your logic right and you need to put the two together in a valid argument. About time too, say I.

John Brunning : So not just a fascinating but also an important one, you’d say?

Chris Powling : I think it’s hugely important because of course what it does, really, is challenge the lazy notion that we can all construct our own truths and they are all equally valid, that a religious fundamentalist for instance is as likely to be right as an Oxbridge philosopher, which I think is an absolute nonsense, a complete nonsense and they expose it for what it is. What this book is, I think, is a redevelopment of that old 18th century enlightenment which had rather gone out of fashion. It’s good to see it back.

Wicked Vatters

Sep 25th, 2007 10:58 am | By

Rape is used as a weapon of war. Cath Elliot thinks bishops and their churches ought to ponder that fact a little more deeply.

What the bishop and his church fail to understand is that forcing a woman to continue with a pregnancy against her will is a continuation of the violence against her. It doesn’t matter how much empathy and support is on offer, at the end of the day it is the woman, not the church, who is faced with the reality of an unwanted child…When they occur as part of an armed conflict, forced pregnancy and forced maternity are regarded as war crimes and are breaches of the Geneva convention.

But no matter – there’s always someone around to give them a nice soothing pat, so that’s all right then.

Why should Amnesty now leave its traditional focus and take up a position supporting abortion? It is not a hands-on welfare body dealing with cases on the ground. Those women who have suffered the horror and indignity of rape will not be short of pastoral care from a range of humanitarian groups.

So no problem about forcing them to carry and bear a child implanted in them by their attacker. They won’t be short of pastoral care, so that takes care of that.

Unborn children also have human rights. In a country like ours, in which almost 200,000 unborn growing children are killed every year, there should be a debate about abortion. It has to be and is a very serious moral issue, not just for Catholics.

There are no ‘unborn children’; there’s no such thing as an unborn child; mawkish language-manipulation is no substitute for argument. Notice the bluntness where it serves the purpose and the triple mawkish denialism where it suits that purpose – unborn growing children are killed. No; foetuses are aborted; not the same thing as killing growing children. If it’s such a serious moral issue, then address it seriously, not with tricks.

And it’s not all that serious anyway. It’s worked up, rather than serious. A serious moral issue is what happens to women and girls in DRC and Darfur, not what happens to foetuses. Get your priorities straight.

But with the Vatican’s example at hand, how can Catholics get their priorities straight?

The gravity of the problem comes from the fact that in certain cases, perhaps in quite a considerable number of cases, by denying abortion one endangers important values to which it is normal to attach great value, and which may sometimes even seem to have priority. We do not deny these very great difficulties. It may be a serious question of health, sometimes of life or death, for the mother…We proclaim only that none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another’s life, even when that life is only beginning.

Even if it’s a question of life or death for the mother. She has no right to choose her own life over that of an embryo or a foetus. Furthermore –

The movement for the emancipation of women, insofar as it seeks essentially to free them from all unjust discrimination, is on perfectly sound ground…But one cannot change nature. Nor can one exempt women, any more than men, from what nature demands of them.

Really? What if nature demands of them that they get infected by a virus or a bacterium, and die? Can one not exempt women, or men, from that demand? Do all Catholics abstain from all medical treatment? What if nature demands of them that they be cold because it’s cold, or wet because it’s raining, or hungry because there’s no food nearby? In other words what a stupid smug selective sonorous bit of claptrap. Tell that to the women in the Democratic Republic of Congo gang-raped by a bunch of soldiers – tell them that’s nature’s demand and that no one can exempt them from it. Then go empty the Vatican’s bank account to fund hospitals in DRC to repair all the fistulas that leave the women incontinent and stinking and shunned by their families and friends.