Notes and Comment Blog


Thanks, but no

Apr 23rd, 2008 4:23 pm | By

Do atheists crave a replacement for church?

Atheism’s great awakening is in need of a doctrine. “People perceive us as only rejecting things,” says Ken Bronstein, the president of a local group called New York City Atheists. “Everybody wants to know, ‘Okay, you’re an atheist, now what?'”

Nah, thanks – I’m not in need of a doctrine. In fact the very idea is kind of…how shall I say…idiotic? Part of the point of being an atheist is not having to sign up to a ‘doctrine.’ It’s not a matter of thinking those other doctrines are no fun but our doctrine is just the ticket. It’s a matter of not liking doctrines in the first place.

The most successful movements in history, after all—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.—all have creeds, cathedrals, schools, hierarchies, rituals, money, clerics, and some version of a heavenly afterlife.

Yes…but atheists don’t want creeds, hierarchies, clerics, or fairy tales about the afterlife. I’m down with pretty buildings, schools are good, some rituals are okay if I always have a right of refusal, money is just fine if anyone wants to give me some, but the rest of it is a good deal too churchy for me, thanks.

The article goes on to give a toe-curling picture of pseudo-church (Secular Jewish church; go figure) that illustrates just why the idea is so unappealing. Singing secular hymns…noooooo thank you.

When Tim Gorski, a Texas physician, approached Paul Kurtz, an influential atheist who now chairs the Center for Inquiry, an atheist think tank, about his plans to start the North Texas Church of Freethought in the nineties, Kurtz discouraged him, on the grounds that atheists don’t need church.

Just so. Tim Gorski should have started an atheist think tank, instead. Did I ever tell you about the library at the Center for Inquiry? Biggest library of free thought in the country, or the world, or something. I liked to wander around it drooling slightly.

Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.”

Although, as I mentioned, money and pretty buildings are always gratefully accepted if offered.

“In the larger war against supernaturalism, frankly, it doesn’t help to fraternize with the enemy,” [Dawkins] says.

Fraternize with or imitate.



The search for meaning

Apr 23rd, 2008 11:36 am | By

Martha Nussbaum talks to Bill Moyers.

[I]f you look into the religions, they have this deep idea of human dignity and the source of dignity being conscience. This capacity for searching for the meaning of life. And that leads us directly to the idea of respect. Because if conscience is this deep and valuable source of searching for meaning, then we all have it whether we’re agreeing or disagreeing. And we all ought to respect it and respect it equally in one another.

Hmm. I would say, as usual, it depends what kind of ‘respect’ is meant. There are, as usual, different possible levels of respect – recognition respect, substantive respect, and so on. In one way I agree with that (and so, it might surprise many people to know, does that notorious ‘fundamentalist’ atheist Richard Dawkins): I do respect the search for meaning and related projects, I do respect the desire for something more than the purely greedy or trivial or selfish. In another way I’m not sure I do agree with it – though I’m not sure enough that this really is another way to say flatly that I don’t agree with it. I respect the search for meaning, but then my respect goes wobbly if the search is carried on with the wrong equipment, or with self-imposed handicaps, or if it’s declared successful too early. My respect thins out to the vanishing point when the idea boils down to saying ‘people crave meaning therefore God exists’ or ‘people crave meaning therefore it is a crime to say there is no reason to think God exists and any old lies are okay to tell about people who commit that crime.’ Nussbaum doesn’t mean that, obviously; I suppose I’m just registering some caution about the idea because a lot of very vehement and inaccurate critics of ‘new’ atheism do resort to the ‘search for meaning’ defense in just that vituperative way.

Moyers later points out that many conservative Christians believe that ‘without a belief in a supreme being, a person, an atheist, can’t be a moral agent.’

I know they think that. But I think they really should look more closely at the ethical reasoning of people who are agnostics and atheists. And I think it’s obvious that lots and lots of people in this country are– are deeply ethical, do have a sense of the ethically obligatory and of the depth and real requirement of ethical norms, while not connecting that to a divine source.

Yes, I think they should too, but I’m not very optimistic that they will. But I would certainly be pleased if they did, and if Nussbaum’s book gets some of them to do that, very good.



Hedges on sin

Apr 21st, 2008 12:18 pm | By

One more bit of Hedges, because Eric mentioned that his (Hedges’s) theological training left him befuddled by the idea of ‘original sin,’ and I was planning to quote him on sin anyway if I got the time. Pp 13-14:

We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest.

Stark, staring bullshit. Could hardly be more wrong. Obviously there is no need whatever to believe in ‘sin’ to be aware that we can never be omnipotent and that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. Really it’s mostly non-theists who are aware of that in the most thorough way, because theists mostly believe that we will ultimately be ‘redeemed’ or ‘atoned’ in some way. The rest of us just think we are deeply flawed animals and that’s all there is to it.

The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility.

But the ‘new’ atheists Hedges is railing at dream no dreams of a perfect world, nor do they believe in human perfectibility – so clearly they don’t need the ‘concept of sin’ as a check on their non-existent dreams and beliefs.

To turn away from God is harmless…To turn away from sin is catastrophic…The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human.

And Hedges provides quotations to back up this assertion where? Nowhere. Because there are none, because the assertion is false.

We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed…Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept.

Wait – what? It’s catastrophic to turn away from sin because without the concept of sin we don’t realize that humans are flawed, but on the other hand, studies in cognitive behavior (not to mention mere experience of life and humans and ourselves) offer evidence that we are flawed, so we don’t need the concept of sin after all. The man blows his own argument (or rather his baseless claim) without even noticing he’s done it. Where was his editor while all this was going on? Where was Hedges’s brain?



Bad book revisited

Apr 20th, 2008 1:20 pm | By

For some reason I feel like giving you another dose of Chris Hedges. It’s a morbid interest, because really his book (I Don’t Believe in Atheists) is so bad it makes more sense to ignore it than to spend time saying what’s bad about it. Its badness isn’t what you’d call subtle or hidden. But I’m interested in these displays of determined stupidity, for some reason.

Page 6.

Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years…in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.

No they don’t. That’s such an absurd claim that it’s stupid to make it, when it’s so easy to check just by googling. You don’t have to agree with Hitchens and Harris to find that statement laughable. Also, what does Hedges mean by saying he spent seven years in ‘the Muslim world’? Where is that exactly? He means he spent seven years in some countries where Islam is the majority religion, not that he spent those years in all such countries, much less that he spent them on some other ‘Muslim’ planet. His language is (in this book at least) considerably cruder and sloppier than anything Hitchens would write even on a bad day.

Continuing from the previous quotation, or rather, hail of abuse.

They are a secular version of the religious right. They misuse the teachings of Charles Darwin and evolutionary biology just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. They are anti-intellectual.

What the hell does that mean? Other than that Chris Hedges is really pissed off. And what ‘teachings’ of Darwin? He seems to be confusing him with a church; clerics like to talk about ‘the church’s teachings,’ especially when they are trying to justify some mildewed old bit of irrational hatred like rules against HoMoSekShuality; but Darwin doesn’t have ‘teachings,’ he’s not a dang priest. And as for anti-intellectual – that’s just imbecilic. It ignores most of what they say, or simply turns it on its head.

Pages 6-7 – the new atheists don’t have the power of the Christian Right but

they do engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism. They sell this under secular banners. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection, this time made possible by human reason.

It’s very noticeable that Hedges never offers any evidence for this kind of crap (which continues for page after page, and recurs throughout the book). He repeats it ad nauseam and offers zero quotations to back it up – which is not surprising, since there aren’t any, since they don’t believe any such fucking thing. This is grossly irresponsible unwarranted garbage, and it’s a sign of something or other that a reputable publisher failed to throw it back in his face. I don’t think the Times would have let him publish this dreck in the paper – except possibly on the Op-ed page; it’s somewhat shocking that a division of Simon and Schuster published it.

There’s a great deal more of this kind of thing, but you get the idea. He’s beside himself with rage, he makes no effort to be accurate, he considers himself entitled to make wildly exaggerated claims, he can’t think, he can’t read carefully, and he’s overflowing with malevolence. (Which is funny in a way, because one of his chief claims is that religion is somehow necessary for or intimately connected to goodness, compassion, generosity, that kind of thing – yet he himself displays a remarkably unpleasant belligerence coupled with carelessness with the truth.) I looked for scathing reviews but didn’t find any – if anyone sees any, point them out to me.



Give my my spiritual £50

Apr 19th, 2008 4:30 pm | By

The mediums have been taken by surprise, poor dears.

Today, representatives of British mediums will march up Downing Street to deliver a petition containing some 10,000 signatories demanding that the Government change its decision to repeal the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act in favour of a new EU directive…”What we have here is a fundamental attack on our right to practise our religion…,” said David McEntee-Taylor, head of the Spiritual Workers Association (SWA).

Yes…except that ‘fundamental right’ has limits, dalling. It doesn’t have enough limits, but it has some. You can’t kill people and eat them with horseradish and call that practicing your religion and go on your way rejoicing.

However, by treating spiritualism as merely a consumer service, mediums believe they risk being sued if customers are dissatisfied with advice brought from the other side – advice they say they always point out should always be treated with care. The solution to the present impasse, according to lawyers advising the crystal-ball fraternity, is via the prosaic expedient of a pre-consultation disclaimer, describing any dialogue with the deceased in terms of either entertainment or scientific experiment. It does not sit comfortably with purist believers.

So what they’re protesting is having to mention at the outset that there is no actual reason to think that whatever mediums talk to when they talk to whatever they talk to is in fact actually the spirit of a dead person. They want to be able to take money for talking to whatever it is they talk to without having to admit to the people who are giving them money that in fact whatever it is they talk to might be…well, unreliable, or confused, or made up. Yes one can see why they don’t want to have to admit that and why they would prefer to take the money without having to admit anything, but I’m not absolutely sure that desire is rightly called ‘our right to practice our religion.’ It looks more like their claimed right to practice their commercial enterprise which is based on customer credulity. It’s rather as if from Monday to Friday priests and ministers took large fees for chatting to God and then telling their customers what God said. The line between religion and commerce would seem rather blurred in that case, I think.

Psychic mailings netted £40m from the British public last year and the number of telephone and internet services are soaring – an unsurprising fact considering some 50 per cent of the public claims to believe in the phenomenon, according to Professor Richard Wiseman, a stalwart critic of the religion. A further third claim to have had a psychic experience. “The problem is that there is no repeatable scientific evidence to back this up,” he said.

Good grief, so 80% of you are bat-loony? At that rate you’re just as crazy as we are.

While few dispute that there are some con men operating big money schemes, supporters say there is a genuine need to liaise with dead friends and relatives. Lyn Guest de Swarte, editor of The Spiritual News, said for most practitioners it is a “sacred calling”. “A labourer is worth their hire. But if people don’t feel they have been best served they should refuse to pay.”

Okay – and the mediums will be fine with that, will they? They’ll just allow the customers to say ‘Sorry, no good’ and walk out? No shouts of ‘Hey, you owe me £50!’? And then there’s this claim that there’s a genuine need to liaise with dead friends and relatives. Well of course there fucking is – and it’s a need that cannot be satisfied and that’s the great tragedy of all sentient life, isn’t it! But pretending some chump in a paisley shawl can fix that right up is no solution. There is no solution, and that’s that.



Chatting with clerics

Apr 18th, 2008 5:03 pm | By

I can’t help noticing that clerics say odd things sometimes. I suppose it’s their job, but it surprises me anyway. I suppose it surprises me that they don’t try to cover up more.

The Bishop of Oxford (again), for instance. He said something very droll.

I am sure the Roman Catholic bishops are intelligent, rational people, but their starting point on embryo research is mistaken. They believe that the newly fertilised egg, the tiny bundle of multiplying cells smaller than a pin head, has the same right to life as an adult. But more than two-thirds of fertilised eggs are lost in nature anyway. If each of these really is a person, that is, an eternal soul, it would lead to the absurd conclusion that heaven is mainly populated by people who have never been born.

Ah yes, how absurd – but is it any more absurd than the conclusion that heaven exists and that it is mainly populated by people who have been born? Not a lot. The whole idea of a heaven populated by dead people is absurd, yet here is this grown man treating it as a matter of fact.

The other day Gene Robinson, the gay bishop of New Hampshire (the one who has made life so difficult for the archbishop and his friends) was on Fresh Air. Terri Gross asked for his views on abortion, and he gave a both-and reply, the first part of which was that ‘all life is sacred’ and the second of which is that it’s for the woman to decide. It’s odd that churchy people keep saying that, and that no one takes them up for it. They don’t believe all life is sacred! Nobody does, and they’re no exception. Bacteria, viruses, mosquitoes, weeds, parasites, vegetables, fruits, grains – churchy people don’t think those kinds of life are sacred. It’s pompous rhetoric, and they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it, because it can’t possibly be true. Yet get away with it they do.

The other other day Desmond Tutu was on the local public radio station. I admire Tutu, as most people do; from what I know he’s a sterling fella. But he did say this one thing…that the universe is a moral place, and that truth and justice always ultimately prevail. No – it isn’t and they don’t. Especially the universe is not a moral place – I think that’s such a mistake. The universe is a bunch of gas and rock; it’s no more moral than my kettle is when I put it on to boil water. We’re here and the universe is there and the universe couldn’t possibly care less about us or about morality. If there’s going to be any morality it has to come from us. That’s sad, because we’re not much good at it, but we’re all there is. And, alas, truth and justice don’t ultimately prevail, not least because there is no ulitmately, there’s only a series of nows, all of which are shot through with truth and justice not prevailing.



Time for Chuck to grow up

Apr 18th, 2008 11:50 am | By

Speaking of stupid stuff, the struggle continues to persuade the future king to act like a responsible adult and not endanger the health of his ‘subjects.’

The Prince of Wales is being challenged today to withdraw two guides promoting alternative medicine…The documents, published by the Prince and his Foundation for Integrated Health, misrepresent scientific evidence about therapies such as homoeopathy, acupuncture and reflexology…Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, and Simon Singh, a science writer and broadcaster, call on the Prince to recall the publications, one of which was produced with a £900,000 grant from the Department of Health…Professor Ernst and Dr Singh say the Prince accepted the importance of “rigorous scientific evidence” to alternative medicine, in an article he wrote for The Times in 2000, and point out that more than 4,000 research studies have since been published…The first document is a pamphlet, part-funded by the taxpayer, that gives advice on finding practitioners of alternative therapies. It is misleading, Professor Ernst said, because it includes disorders for which alternative remedies have been shown to be ineffective. It states, for example, that chiropractic is used to treat asthma, digestive disorders and migraine, when it has been shown by rigorous trials only to be useful for back pain. The guide also promotes acupuncture for addiction, when studies suggest that it has no benefit, and homoeopathy, which a major review for The Lancet has indicated works only as a placebo.

That’s a good wheeze, isn’t it – to describe worthless treatments as being ‘used to treat’ diseases it can’t treat. It’ll be true, because there are people who ‘use’ them that way, but it’s misleading, because ‘using’ them that way is like me using a hammer to paint the wall blue. It doesn’t work.

Natasha Finlayson, of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, said: “We entirely reject the accusation that our online publication Complementary Healthcare: A Guide contains any misleading or inaccurate claims about the benefits of complementary therapies. On the contrary, it treats people as adults and takes a responsible approach by encouraging people to look at reliable sources of information . . . so that they can make informed decisions.”

That’s rather disgusting. It’s manipulative bullshit to talk about ‘treating people as adults’ by giving them misleading pseudo-information. It’s not treating people as children to give them information that is careful not to mislead, especially when it comes to medical treatments. It’s disgusting that Chuck abuses his unearned power and influence to do this kind of thing. He’s not a doctor, he’s not a medical researcher, he’s not a physiologist, he’s not even a competent journalist, but here he is pushing quack medicine on people who will take him seriously because of who he is. Bad, very bad.



Good journalism

Apr 18th, 2008 11:03 am | By

Chris Hedges has a new book out, a really terrible book on the putative ‘new’ atheists. It’s so stupid it’s unreadable. This is a little surprising, since he was a foreign correspondent for the NY Times for several years, and even though the Times is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, I would expect it to be above the kind of counter-factual drivel Hedges perpetrates in I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Or would I. No on second thought maybe I wouldn’t. Anyway the book is the kind of stupid that makes your jaw drop as you read. You don’t have to wait long, either – only five pages in you find

[The liberal church] accepts along with the atheists and the fundamentalists, Pangloss’s rosy vision in Voltaire’s Candide that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ and that if we have faith and trust in the forces around us, ‘all is for the best. It is this naive belief in our goodness and decency – this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit – that is the most disturbing aspect of all these belief systems.

He’s including atheism in that – specifically the atheism of what he calls ‘the new atheists.’ (He claims they call themselves that, which is typical of his respect for accuracy.) Really?! Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett think we live in the best of all possible worlds? Which Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett has he been reading?

And he enlists this kind of wildly inaccurate characterization in a stupidly belligerent attack on people and ideas and books that don’t exist. It’s cheap stuff. (I’ve heard him on the radio, too, out pushing his book – he works himself into an unpleasant lather of rage at these non-existent atheists. I felt dirty after hearing him.)

He’s on form in this piece.

The “new” atheists, in the name of reason, science and progress, endow themselves with the moral right to abuse others in the name of their particular version of goodness…These atheists, like religious fundamentalists, live in the illusion of a binary world of us and them, of reason versus irrationality, of the forces of light battling the forces of darkness. And once you set up this world, you are permitted to view as justified military intervention, occupation and even torture – anything, in short, that will subdue what is defined as irrational and dangerous.

Nice. Temperate, judicious, careful, precise, accurate, thoughtful, reasoned. Journalism at its best.



Have a nice energy yawn

Apr 16th, 2008 12:00 pm | By

Charlie Brooker saw a ‘Newsnight’ piece on ‘Brain Gym’.

It’s essentially a series of simple exercises lumbered with names that make you want to steer a barbed wire bus into its creator’s face. One manoeuvre, in which you massage the muscles round the jaw, is called the “energy yawn”…Throughout the report I was grinding my teeth and shaking my head – a movement I call a “dismay churn”…because I care about the difference between fantasy and reality…Perhaps the Department for Children, Schools and Families confused fantasy with reality the day it endorsed Brain Gym. Because while Brain Gym’s coochy-coo exercises may well be fun or relaxing, what they’re definitely good at is increasing the flow of bullshit into children’s heads.

Well at least that way the children will feel at home in the world.

Because we, the adults, don’t just gleefully pull the wool over our own eyes – we knit permanent blindfolds. We’ve decided we hate facts. Hate, hate, hate them. Everywhere you look, we’re down on our knees, gleefully lapping up neckful after neckful of steaming, cloddish bullshit in all its forms. From crackpot conspiracy theories to fairytale nutritional advice, from alternative medicine to energy yawns – we just can’t get enough of that musky, mudlike taste.

Well, you see, that musky, mudlike taste is essential for keeping our chakras aligned with our chi so that our cosmic energy crystals will be attuned to the feng shui of our irreducible complexity. It all makes sense if you just join the dots.



Episcopal fluff

Apr 14th, 2008 12:22 pm | By

The Bishop of Oxford seems to be in an irritable mood.

For a Christian it is always too early to give a final verdict, for only at the end of time will all be known, or as Tony Blair put it, it must be “left to God’s judgment”. It is strange how this standard piece of Christian orthodoxy should arouse such ire amongst the cultured despisers of religion just because it came from a Christian prime minister. They should have been worried if it hadn’t.

No it isn’t. It isn’t strange at all. It’s the taking it for granted that is strange. We know it’s a standard piece of Christian orthodoxy, of course, but that’s just it – it’s a standard piece of Christian orthodoxy and it’s a fairy tale. Our ire is aroused when people take for granted that an invented person-like yet mysterious agent will ‘at the end of time’ deliver a judgment on Tony Blair’s decisions. The bishop probably wouldn’t find it strange if people got irritated because Blair said his decisions must be ‘left to Harry Potter’s judgment’ at the end of time, but Christian orthodoxy is supposed to transform fantasy into the unremarkable. Well it doesn’t.

Yes, I prefer to rely on reason rather than eternity, if that is how you insist on putting it…But this is not all the mind does. When you and I read art critics we are looking for more than an ability to argue rationally. We want discernment and discrimination. If you like, we want sensibility as well as sense. This involves the mind to the full but not the mind alone. It is the same when we are thinking about moral or spiritual matters: the whole person is involved.

But what does that have to do with theism? (It is atheism that Harries is railing against.) Nothing, as he goes on to admit himself. But then what, exactly, is his quarrel with what he so elegantly calls ‘the attack dogs of the new atheism’? It’s hard to say. They think moral progress is possible. Harries prefers John Gray. Hmm.



Free at last, free at last

Apr 12th, 2008 11:26 am | By

Oh so that’s how you combat violence against women – by volunteering to wear a hijab.

The purpose of Scarves for Solidarity is to help save battered women while spreading awareness about Islam. The Muslim Student Association is working with sponsors who plan to donate $5 to Battered Women’s Shelter for every female who volunteers to wear a head-scarf/hijab on Monday, April 7th 2007.

That helps ‘save’ battered women because…because…because the hijab broadcasts the message that women need to be concealed. No. Because it conveys the message that women are a distraction to men and therefore have to be muffled from head to foot so that men can get on with their work. No. Because it shows that women are submissive to a male god and a male prophet and a lot of male clerics. No. Because it shows that women obey stupid rules that keep them in their place. No. Because – I give up.

Head-scarves will be available (FOR FREE) at the Union lobby between 12 pm and 3 pm throughout the week of Monday, March 31st. All that is required from you is to wear the scarf provided for you from 10am until 7:30 pm on April 7th. The scarves will all be the same color so that you can recognize other women volunteering to save battered women.

Oh is that all! All that is required from you is to wear a stifling piece of cloth wrapped tightly around your head and face and chin for nine and a half hours – a mere trifle!

There isn’t a set way to wear hijab. You can be as creative as you want as long as your body is covered (except your face and hands) with material that is long, loose, and not transparent.

Oh thank you. Thank you thank you thank you – you are so kind, so generous, so liberal, so relaxed. I can be as creative as I want provided every bit of me except my face and hands is covered with long loose opaque material. Why, my creative little mind is already buzzing with plans to embroider birdies and seashells and feathers on my robes.

They’re so sweet, they even provide an illustration of how it’s done. You pin the fabric at your chin, then you pin it again at the top of your head, and bob’s your uncle, there you are, with your whole head all nicely wrapped up like a corpse. Don’t you feel wonderful? That’s the way to combat violence against women! Well done Stony Brook Muslim Students Association.



Religious reasons

Apr 10th, 2008 11:29 am | By

This is insane. That camp of horrors in Texas –

The sect’s lawyers had sought to limit a search but have agreed temple records can be scrutinised under supervision. A representative of the sect will be appointed to vet documents, computer files and family Bibles for records that should not be used as evidence for legal or religious reasons, the Associated Press reports.

A representative of this pack of male lunatics that imprisons women and children and forces them to act as baby-factories will be appointed to decide what documents and files should not be used as evidence for religious reasons? What ‘religious’ reasons? They have god’s signatures on them? They might include god’s password? ‘Religious’ reasons are the problem here, so how can they be given veto power over what can be used as evidence?

I’ve said it before – the free exercise clause has a lot to answer for.



In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god

Apr 9th, 2008 5:58 pm | By

Why the human brain evolved. So that it could dream up pastimes like this:

A radical rabbi once linked to a plot to fire a missile at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, is hiding in Canada, Israeli police said Monday, announcing that he is wanted for his alleged role in a series of ghastly abuses of his followers’ children…[H]e has been described as the “spiritual mentor” of a group involved in the systematic abuse of children, allegedly using his status as a rabbi to convince a mother of eight that her children’s shortcomings could be beaten and burned out of them…Two of the eight children, aged 4 and 5, were hospitalized in serious condition two weeks ago after Mr. Chen allegedly ordered two of his followers to, among other acts, hit the children with hammers and light their fingers on fire, as a way of “correcting” their behaviour…The mother is alleged to have locked her two youngest children in a suitcase for three days, letting them out for only brief periods during that time. She also allegedly shook and beat them, burned their hands with a lighter and a heater, made them take freezing showers and forced them to eat their own feces. The goal, according to police, was to beat “devils” out of the children…The mother and the other two “educators” are also suspected of pouring salt on the burn wounds, gagging the children with a skullcap, and forcing them to drink alcohol until they vomited…Police searched Mr. Chen’s apartment on Thursday, and discovered journals documenting the violence…The notebooks describe how to prepare special drinks for the children, made of alcohol, salt, pepper and turpentine. The children were forced to drink the liquids until they vomited. “You see, they vomit the Satan inside them,” a letter tells the mother. The notebooks also detail how to beat the children with batons and then pour alcohol on their wounds, describing in exact detail how much time to leave the burning liquid on the body of the sufferer.

Makes you proud of the species, doesn’t it?



All label and no content

Apr 9th, 2008 11:44 am | By

Blair doing God.

Issues of faith have clearly been consuming Mr Blair. Since leaving office, he has converted to Roman Catholicism. This requires much thought and reflection. After confessing serious sins, a convert must make the “Rite of Reception”, including saying that: “I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

And saying that requires thought and reflection? Wouldn’t you think it requires something more like the avoidance of thought, the abdication of thought? To say you believe all that the ‘Holy’ Catholic Church proclaims to be revealed by God is to say you believe something very all-encompassing, very broad, very dogmatic, and very evidence-free. What does that have to do with thought? Dogmatic belief is not the same thing as thought, and in many ways it’s the negation of it.

While Mr Blair may have changed the subject to talk about religion, he remains to his fingertips a politician. He knows that, while the fact of his religious faith is essential to making his initiative work, the content of it might get in the way.

Ah – well that would explain it. The fact of his ‘faith’ is essential while the content is a nuisance. That so often is the case, isn’t it – the word ‘faith’ is used as a self-congratulatory lapel-pin, while the actual literal things people are supposed (by clerics if no one else) to believe are tactfully not discussed. Blair’s ‘faith’ is all label and no content, at least for purposes of public discussion.

But if that’s the case – why call it faith at all? Why attempt to eat your cake and have it? What’s it all about – just having a place to go with the spouse and kids on a Sunday? If the actual content is too awkward to talk about…why hang on to the exoskeleton like grim death?

Who knows. The ways of the faithful are mysterious.



As well as

Apr 8th, 2008 9:10 am | By

The BBC reports that what it calls the ‘next UN investigator into Israeli conduct in the occupied territories’ has defended his comparison of Israeli actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis. But a couple of paragraphs down it adds something that should be (but isn’t) decorated with little red warning flags.

Professor Falk is scheduled to take up his post for the UN Human Rights Council later in the year.

Ah – the UN Human Rights Council. How depressing it is that that sounds like a good thing and is in fact a very bad thing. The IHEU explains why.

By 2005, the Commission for Human Rights had become widely discredited…The Commission was abolished by vote of the UN General Assembly in 2006 and replaced by a shiny new Human Rights Council…Of the first four resolutions passed by the Council, three were resolutions condemning Israel. Whatever breaches of human rights law Israel may have committed, it beggars belief that these were the only violations of human rights on the planet worthy of condemnation by the Council. By way of contrast, the Council adopted a resolution which inter-alia congratulated the Sudan for its efforts to bring peace to Darfur.

The Human Rights Council is a terribly compromised body which doesn’t actually support universal human rights at all.

Professor Richard Falk said he believed that up to now Israel had been successful in avoiding the criticism that it was due.

Yet the Human Rights Council singles Israel out for censure while remaining silent on gross human rights violations in many other places, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe to name two. So has Israel really been successful in avoiding the criticism that it is due? It may have avoided it in the US; I think that’s a fair claim; but in the world at large, and at the UN? Not so much.

A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that Israel wanted the UN investigator’s mandate changed, so that he could look into human rights violations by the Palestinians as well as Israel.

As well as, not instead of. The Human Rights Council, appallingly, seems to be all about instead of.



What is blasphemy

Apr 7th, 2008 3:54 pm | By

From David Littman’s article.

In an 18 February 1994 letter addressed to all delegates at the Commission on Human Rights, the Sudanese ambassador requested an immediate withdrawal of any reference – from the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan – in which certain inconsistences were indicated between the international human rights conventions and the provisions of Sudan’s Criminal Act of 1991. The ambassador alleged that the report “contained abusive, inconsiderate, blasphemous and offensive remarks about the Islamic faith.” A further Sudanese circular, entitled, “Attack on Islam,” claimed that portions of the report “represent a vicious attack on the religion of Islam and contain a call for the abolition of its Islamic Penal Legislation.”

The Rapporteur’s report indicated tensions between human rights and the UDHR, and some provisions of Sudanese law. The Sudanese ambassador to the UN demanded that this be withdrawn on the grounds that it was blasphemous. So the idea here is that it is blasphemous to say there are tensions between particular laws (if they are Islamic laws) and universal human rights – despite the fact that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam itself says what the differences are. So the idea here is that the Cairo Declaration is allowed to announce a separate and different set of ‘rights’ or rather pseudo-rights or non-rights that are entirely subject to Shari’ah (Article 24: ‘All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.’) but it is blasphemy for outsiders to point out the difference. The Cairo Declaration is allowed to declare, but the Rapporteur is not allowed to report. That’s asymmetrical. It’s bad. It’s wrong.

On that occasion the attempt failed.

In spite of death threats published in the government’s newspaper Horizon (16), Dr. Gaspar Biro continued investigations into the many human rights violations in Sudan, fully described in his later reports submitted to the UN General Assembly and to the UN Human Rights Commission. (17) He was supported by resolutions condemning the Government of Sudan.

But the next attempt didn’t.

On 18 April 1997, another “blasphemy” charge was levelled. This time the alleged offending words were from a quoted passage, contained in the report of Special Rapporteur on Racism, Mr. Maurice Glélé-Ahanhanzo from Benin (under “Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism”). This new “blasphemy” charge succeeded after the representative of Indonesia intervened on the last day of the Commission – in the name of the OIC’s 56 Islamic States, on the initiative of Iran – claiming that Islam had been defamed and “blasphemy” committed against the holy Qur’an. This led to the 53-member-state Commission’s consensus decision 1997/125, obliging the Special Rapporteur to take a “corrective action.” Hence a very dangerous precedent: the censorship of a UN Special Rapporteur, in his capacity as an independent expert; and of his UN report on grounds of “blasphemy” – although the facts he quoted are exact.

So Islamist and Arab anti-Semitism gets a free pass because someone said it was blasphemous to mention it, even though the facts cited are correct. Terrific.



Short answers

Apr 6th, 2008 4:17 pm | By

I mentioned that believers can resort to a quick and easy way with difficult questions that secular thinkers and atheists can’t, and that this lack is perhaps one reason students are always moral relativists. We can offer reasons for thinking X is better than Y, or for thinking Z is entirely unacceptable in any moral universe we can think of (executing gays for being gay, genocide, murdering women for talking to an unrelated man), but we can’t hand out anything as brisk and simple and conversation-stopping as ‘God said so.’ Believers* have a short cut which unbelievers don’t have. Believers have an answer that is both quick and easy, while unbelievers have to spend time and effort if they want to explain to skeptics why executing gays for being gay is unacceptable.

Believers have an answer that is both quick and easy, and that’s why it’s such a crap answer. Quick and easy answers are worthless for such disagreements. They’re worthless because they have no content. They’re empty. Saying ‘God said so’ is exactly the same thing as saying nothing. It’s like holding up a street sign rather than saying anything. Why shouldn’t we execute gays for being gays? Why shouldn’t we kill women for talking to an unrelated man? Because Galer Street. That tells you just as much as ‘God said so.’ Just saying a name doesn’t tell us anything. All ‘God said so’ really means is ‘it’s what I think and “God” is like an official stamp on what I think’ – which leaves us exactly where we started. ‘God’ is just the label people put on what they already think is good. They don’t put that label on what they already think is bad. They don’t punch ‘God’ into a good-bad computer they have so that they know which goes with what. They just take God to endorse what they think is right, and that absolves them from the work of testing what they think is right.

This is one of the great appeals of theism, of course, but it’s a snare and a delusion. The shortcut is a shortcut because it leaves out so much, and that’s not a good thing. It may be needed in an emergency, as ‘because I said so’ is sometimes with children, but for the long haul, it’s necessary to do better than that. The answer from authority is impoverished, and morality is not a subject that thrives on impoverished answers.

*Believers here means dogmatic believers. Not all believers are dogmatic – though even many liberal believers betray an odd certainty about certain attributes and views of God. They’re very sure God is good and benevolent and compassionate, for one thing. But they don’t use the ‘God said’ shortcut. Mostly.



It’s all so unfair

Apr 6th, 2008 10:42 am | By

Oh dear, the poor psychics are worried.

[N]ow psychics must add a few riders before they invoke the voices of the dead, thanks to new consumer laws due to come into force…Promises to raise the dead, secure good fortune or heal through the laying on of hands are all at risk of legal action from disgruntled customers. Spiritualists say they will be forced to issue disclaimers, such as ‘this is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed’. They claim the new regulations will leave them open to malicious civil action by sceptics.

Uh…yeah; and? If you promise to raise the dead or secure good fortune or heal via magic, why shouldn’t you be at risk of legal action from disgruntled customers? What should you be – immune? Say you promise to raise the dead, five hundred bucks a try. You fail, the customer tries again, you fail again, customer tries again – and this keeps up until the customer has given you her life savings of fifty thousand dollars. To what are we supposed to attribute all these failures? Bad luck? The weather? The collapse of the housing market? Isn’t there something to be said for the idea that you never actually had a workable plan for raising the dead in the first place, and therefore shouldn’t have been charging a non-refundable fee for the service? I would argue there is quite a lot to be said for that idea.

For the past half-century, ‘genuine’ mediums have been protected by the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act, under which prosecutors had to prove fraud and dishonest intent to secure a criminal conviction, which was difficult. There have been fewer than 10 convictions in the past 20 years.

That’s quite funny. So everyone had to pretend to believe that ‘mediums’ genuinely believed they could raise the dead in spite of a long history of never actually doing so? In spite in fact of a historical record in which there are no (0) cases of people raised from the dead? Mediums could safely offer (for a fee) to raise the dead as matter-of-factly as a grocer selling a dozen eggs or a bus driver accepting a fare for taking you from Putney to Chelsea, undisturbed by the (one would think troubling) fact that the promised service was never forthcoming?

Didn’t anyone ever notice? Didn’t anyone ever stop and say ‘Wait, though – does this actually work? All those people I know of who’ve died – I haven’t seen a single one of them since. If this worked, wouldn’t someone have paid the fee to bring them back? Why don’t we ever see the ones who return? There’s something fishy here’?

Carole McEntee-Taylor, a spiritualist healer in Essex, said having to stand up and describe the invoking of spirits as an ‘experiment’ was forcing spiritualists to ‘lie and deny our beliefs’. She added: ‘No other religion has to do that.’

True, but they ought to. But also relevant is the fact that other religions don’t charge fees on the same basis – they pass the plate, but they don’t make their services conditional on a fee. But most relevant of all is the fact that you have no right to believe you can raise the dead – not in your line of work. A belief like that in your line of work is equivalent to an oncologist believing she can cure cancer by singing the Ode to Joy. You can’t charge people money for raising the dead merely because you (claim to) believe that you can in fact raise the dead when you never have in fact raised the dead. It’s unethical, to put it very mildly indeed.



The secular conscience

Apr 5th, 2008 4:01 pm | By

I went to a talk by Austin Dacey yesterday to the Secular Students’ Union at the University of Washington. He’s a philosopher, he has a new book out, The Secular Conscience, and he’s a United Nations representative for the Center for Inquiry. It seems quite a good thing that CFI should have a UN representative, especially now. I’m looking forward to reading The Secular Conscience. Austin mentioned during his talk how reliably predictable it was that new students would be moral relativists, and the secular students lived up to the advance billing: all their questions were about how to ground morality. After about the fifth or sixth such question Austin wondered why people expect the answers to such questions to be quick and easy and definite, when we don’t expect that about any other kinds of difficult questions. I suggested that one reason is the desire to be able to match the quick and definite way believers can explain how they ground their morality by saying ‘I know X is wrong because God said so/it’s in the Scripture.’ Austin pointed out that thoughtful believers realize that that doesn’t do them any good (for the Euthyphro reason, which he started with). Yes; how unfortunate it is that there are so many unthoughtful believers.

This is related to my questions about what Blair said at the cathedral. If religion isn’t strange convictions, then what is it? What does religion bring to efforts to end global poverty that secular institutions and ways of thinking can’t bring? What does religion add that nothing else can add, other than the strange convictions? I can’t see anything. I can see lots of common ground, but it’s common ground; it’s as open to secularists as it is to believers.

Liberal believers can ignore the nasty parts of the bible and keep only the good bits – but if they do that, they are doing it for reasons that are independent of the bible and of religion. They are using secular moral judgment to do that – but giving religion the credit. That’s the sneaky part, and it’s why liberal religion is not such a beneficent arrangement as people think. It gives religion more credit for human morality, and it gives human judgment less credit. This means it encourages people to think that morality depends on religion when it really doesn’t, and it encourages them to distrust human moral judgment. That just sets them up to be subject to the authority of clerics, which at best stunts their own ability to think about morality and at worst turns them into arbitrary bullies and meddlers.

After the talk I asked Austin if as CFI’s representative to the UN he’d had a chance to protest the Human Rights Council’s ‘no jokes about religion’ declaration. He said there was no channel for doing that, and that creating one is the top priority. Yeah.

Austin is at the Green Lake library tomorrow at 1, and a lot of places after that. Go if you have a chance.



That which is special about religion

Apr 5th, 2008 12:38 pm | By

What’s Blair talking about?

“For religion to be a force for good, it must be rescued not simply from extremism, faith as a means of exclusion; but also from irrelevance, an interesting part of our history but not of our future.” Too many people saw religious faith as stark dogmatism and empty ritual, he added. “Faith is reduced to a system of strange convictions and actions that, to some, can appear far removed from the necessities and anxieties of ordinary life,” Blair said. “It is this face that gives militant secularism an easy target.”

Militant secularism yourself. We’re not the ones who resort to violence when people don’t agree with us, so don’t be so free with your adjectives, not to mention your mindless clichés. But leaving that aside – if religion is not a system of strange convictions, then what is it? I realize it has other attributes, of course (though it’s hard to specify any that universally belong to religion as such), but which ones are inherent in religion and part of its definition? If you remove all the strange convictions from a given religion, what is religious about what is left? I realize there will be something left, but what I don’t see is what is religious about that residue. It seems to me that what is left is simply a lot of stuff that can just as easily be secular, and often is – belonging, meaning, motivation, community. That appears to be the kind of thing Blair has in mind (though who knows for sure, since as always religion gets the benefit of vagueness when we are being told how wonderful it is), but he has no real right to assume that kind of thing is religious and therefore on the credit side of the ledger for religion.

He went on to argue that religion could help to advance humanity and end global poverty. One of his foundation’s aims is to bring people of faith together in pursuit of the UN’s millennium development goals, which include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality and combating diseases.

Well sure, religion could do that. But what could it do to do those things that is religious? What is it about what religion could do to help advance humanity and end global poverty that secular or non-theist groups or organizations could not do? What particular, special, irreplaceable quality of religion is Blair talking about here? The article doesn’t say – and I have a strong suspicion that Blair didn’t either.