Maybe Conan would like to do it?

Feb 1st, 2010 2:44 pm | By

This is not good news.

The Center for Inquiry has announced that there will be three new hosts for its popular podcast, Point of Inquiry. Joining the podcast are Chris Mooney, Karen Stollznow, and Robert Price…Mooney is expected to host about half of the approximately 50 new shows per year.

DJ Grothe, who was the host, left in December for a job as President of the James Randi Foundation. I was pleased at the time for DJ and for JREF, but worried for Point of Inquiry. DJ was a very good host.

Chris Mooney seems to me to be a very peculiar choice for that job. (He and Matthew Nisbet were both protégés of Paul Kurtz’s – Nisbet in particular used to make a great point of this, and for all I know still does.) Mooney is not: Thoughtful enough. Inquiring enough. Reasonable enough. Fair enough.

He’s especially, I think, not inquiring enough. He doesn’t even seem to get what it is to be inquiring – it’s not his thing. His thing is advocacy. Now advocacy is very useful, and it’s good that there are people who do it, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right people to host podcasts about inquiry. Mooney is if anything hostile to inquiry – he’s a results guy. I can’t see him having the right kind of curiosity and open-mindedness to do a good job with PofI.

And then the fairness issue I think is a major stumbling block. Since the recent regrettable events, I wouldn’t trust Mooney to be fair to anyone who had disagreed with him in the last eight months or so – and that covers a hell of a lot of people, many of whom are naturals for PofI. That’s a huge change from DJ. It really seems like an odd choice – and not in a good way.

Addition: here’s the Point of Inquiry I did in 2007. And here’s Russell’s from last October.

Summer camp or boarding school

Jan 31st, 2010 5:27 pm | By

Not good.

Ten members of an American Baptist Church are to appear in a Haitian court this morning after being accused of running an illegal adoption scheme. The group from Idaho said that they were carrying out a rescue mission and had accompanied more than 30 children as part of a plan to take at least 100 orphans out of Port-au-Prince to an orphanage that they run in the neighbouring Dominican Republic…She said that the group had documents from the Dominican Governmen but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities…

Why not? Did they try? Was it impossible in the circumstances? The article doesn’t say. At any rate clearly documents from another government do not amount to permission to take children out of their own country. If I decide to grab a child and take her to Ulan Bator, it’s not good enough for me to say I have documents from the government of Mongolia. Mongolia isn’t in a position to give me permission to abduct a child from a country that is not Mongolia.

The children, aged from a few months to 12, seemed to have little idea where they were being taken when The Times met them, with some saying that they had parents in Haiti. George Willeit, of SOS Children’s Village, a care centre on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where the children are now staying, told The Times: “What we know is that some of these children still have their parents. There was an older girl, aged 8 or 9, and she was crying and saying, ‘I’m not an orphan. I still have my parents’. This girl was thinking that she was going to a summer camp or boarding school. She didn’t know what was happening to her.”

No good. Bad. Help and rescue are all very well, but not in a hole-and-corner way. Not least, they have to make triply or quadruply sure to create ample records of what they’re doing so that the children can be found if relatives are looking for them. Even Idaho Baptists don’t get to take short cuts.

Deciding in advance

Jan 30th, 2010 1:55 pm | By

Wheaton College has a ‘statement of faith’ that everyone at Wheaton has to ‘follow.’ The statement is long, and specific, and detailed. It’s not a mere cloud of benevolent sentiments, it’s a list of concrete factual assertions prefaced by ‘we believe that,’ and agreeing to the whole thing is, as I understand it, a condition of employment and attendance. It includes (and ends with) ‘WE BELIEVE in the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust, the everlasting punishment of the lost.’

Yet Wheaton College considers itself an academic institution of some kind. Wheaton College considers itself a place of higher education, yet a condition of getting the putative higher education that Wheaton College offers is agreement with a long list of inherently absurd factual claims.

Those two facts don’t go together. They don’t belong together. Education is pretty much the opposite of swearing an oath to a particular set of unquestioned and unquestionable ‘faith-based’ assertions. Swearing such an oath amounts to swearing not to be educated in anything except the narrowest technical sense.

Rules of supermarket deportment

Jan 29th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

A brief frivolous interlude to consider one small aspect of daily life.

A Tesco store has asked customers not to shop in their pyjamas or barefoot…A spokesman said Tesco did not have a strict dress code but it does not want people shopping in their nightwear in case it offends other customers.

Or not so much offends them as makes them feel sick. That’s how it affects me. The sight of people outside in the world in their bedroom slippers, or with bed hair, or in their pyjamas, makes me feel very queasy indeed. It’s much the same if I see people flossing their teeth or cutting their toenails in public; or picking their noses, or applying unguents to a suppurating wound, or peeling a scab, or searching around in their hair in case there are any lice or ticks or fleas lurking up there. There are things people shouldn’t do in public, and those are some of them. I applaud Tesco’s attempt to maintain a vestige of dignity and seemliness in modern life.

Elaine Carmody, 24, a full-time mother of two young boys, described the ban as “ridiculous” and “pathetic”. She said she had regularly gone shopping at the store in her pyjamas until about a week ago when she was turned away when she went to buy cigarettes. She said she had been “popping in for a pack of fags,” but if she had been doing a full shop “then we obviously would have gone in clothed. But we only wanted fags and they still refused us to go in for a pack of cigarettes,” she added.

Ah isn’t that nice – Elaine Carmody is so frantically busy being the mother of two young boys that she can’t manage to put real clothes on before she goes to Tesco, so she regularly went shopping there in her unsightly pyjamas. Of course, she assures us, with her unerring grasp of the niceties, if she had been doing “a full shop” then obviously – obviously! – she would have put actual clothes on, but they ‘only wanted fags’ – she and her two young boys. Well of course they did, and what a cozy family group they do sound, running into Tesco in their jammies for a packet of fags and then running back home to smoke them. Yet Tesco didn’t find them appealing! It’s astonishing, isn’t it?

Elaine Carmody says quite a lot more; the BBC pretty obviously finds her hilarious. They thoughtfully provide a picture of her in her pyjamas, too, so that we can get an idea. We get one.

Village life

Jan 27th, 2010 5:14 pm | By

I have nothing to add.

A 16-year-old girl who was raped in Bangladesh has been given 101 lashes for conceiving during the assault. The girl’s father was also fined and warned the family would be branded outcasts from their village if he did not pay. According to human rights activists, the girl, who was quickly married after the attack, was divorced weeks later after medical tests revealed she was pregnant. The girl was raped by a 20-year-old villager in Brahmanbaria district in April last year…Muslim elders in the village issued a fatwa insisting that the girl be kept in isolation until her family agreed to corporal punishment.

Her rapist was pardoned by the elders.

No, I have nothing to add.

The mystery of the providence of God

Jan 26th, 2010 12:56 pm | By

The horrible slush keeps pouring out as if from a broken sewer pipe.

Instead of admitting that we do not know how to reconcile a loving God with terrible disasters like Haiti and Indonesia, some theologians come up with cruel solutions…We do not know the answer to this conundrum except to say that is the nature of freedom in an imperfect world and that is the mystery of the providence of God. God will work all things for our good even if we don’t understand. That is what faith is: the moment we say we understand, there is no longer any faith.

We do not know except to say – it’s always ‘except to say,’ isn’t it – it’s never just we do not know. What’s really meant is They don’t know but I do. We do not know except to say ‘that is the mystery of the providence of God.’ That’s knowing a hell of a lot! And it is of course knowing way more than we do in fact know. We don’t know if there is anything that matches the name ‘God’ and we certainly don’t know anything about what such a god’s ‘providence’ might be, or that what happened in Haiti is some of it. We don’t know jack shit, and saying ‘all we know is that that is the mystery of the providence of God’ is the very opposite of saying we do not know. It’s just part of the endlessly tiresome conceit of religious people to think they can get away with saying ‘we don’t know except for just this one big thing’ – to think they can get away with eating their cake and having it in that brazen way. I’m so humble, I know we don’t know, and also, I have the knowledge of ‘faith,’ so I do know, so I get the credit for both – humbleness and faithy knowledge.

And the upshot of this contemptible enterprise is still to end up in the same place – God will work all things for our good even if we don’t understand – so it’s okay that God crushed a lot of people to death at once and let a lot of others die very slowly in pain and thirst and fear. Well fuck that. It’s not okay. If God exists and did that, God is a monster. Don’t explain away horrors.

James Wood, in his alternately insightful and contemptuous Op-Ed article, concludes by dismissing the views of a Haitian bishop — who affirms that “what happened is the will of God” and “we are in the hands of God now” — as “little more than a piece of helpless mystification, a contradictory cry of optimistic despair.”…The bishop’s theology is neither mystifying nor contradictory, and in fact represents one version of a view held by many Christians and other religious people: namely, that God is deeply present in and through the events of the world — often inscrutably, but always powerfully and lovingly — and though we cannot for the life of us see how, even catastrophes include divine presence and power.

Yes, of course that’s a view held by many Christians and other religious people; it’s still both wrong and cruel. Dressing it up in unctuous churchy language doesn’t make it any less of either. Telling people that smashing tens of thousands of people to death is something to do with a God who is loving is just to sanctify a nightmare.

The perpetrator of that second one is an associate professor of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School.

Just say No to equality

Jan 25th, 2010 12:36 pm | By

The Church of England comes right out and admits it – it is opposed to equality. It’s politely regretful – or to put it another way, it politely pretends to be regretful. But when a choice has to be made, it chooses the principle of male authority, and that’s that. It would like to be all liberal and modern and right-on and all, but when the stakes are this high, it just can’t do it. So sorry.

The Christian Churches, alongside many other faiths, support the Equality Bill’s wider aims in promoting fairness in society and improving redress for those who have suffered unjust treatment.

Except for we don’t. We say we do – but then when we’re actually expected to act on it – we don’t. We wish we could – we would so love to – we wish you all the very best – but we don’t. So, so sorry.

The odyssey

Jan 24th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

James Wood doesn’t think much of theodicy.

But even when intentions are the opposite of Mr. Robertson’s, and in a completely secular context, theological language has a way of hanging around earthquakes. In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors

Which is why I wish Obama would leave the goddy stuff out. The intention was good, but really, if that’s the grace of God, what’s God thinking? That we have better building codes and more medical facilities and bigger airports so therefore God should do the earthquake in Haiti because that way it will be really worth watching on tv?

The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.”

Exactly. I said much the same thing in my essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief, though I said it in a slightly less respectful tone.

People seem to know that God is good, that God cares about everything and is paying close attention to everything, and that God is responsible whenever anything good happens to them or whenever anything bad almost happens to them but doesn’t. Yet they apparently don’t know that God is responsible whenever anything bad happens to them, or whenever anything good almost happens to them but doesn’t. People who survive hurricanes or earthquakes or explosions say God saved them, but they don’t say God killed or mangled all the victims. Olympic athletes say God is good when they win a gold, but they don’t say God is bad when they come in fourth or twentieth, much less when other people do.

Why don’t they? Why do people thank god for good things and look carelessly out the window when it comes to bad things? Why is it all thank you thank you thank you and never damn you damn you damn you? I suppose because once it gets to damn you damn you damn you it’s time to leave, so we don’t hear so much about it.

Flashing lights, and a beeping noise

Jan 23rd, 2010 5:31 pm | By

Call me sentimental but I do think this is a quotation for the ages. It’s from the guy who made the ‘bomb detector’ thingy out of an antenna and a hinge and a plastic tag, and sold lots of them for $40,000 each, and got arrested on suspicion of fraud for doing that.

We have been dealing with doubters for ten years. One of the problems we have is that the machine does look a little primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.

Do admit. The sunny innocence, the tenderly confiding honesty of that brings tears to the eyes, does it not? He sweetly admits there are ‘doubters’ – people not convinced that a stick and a bit of duct tape and a ‘card’ and a bit of plastic can actually detect explosives. He admits that one little stumbling block (to what? charging $80,000 apiece?) is that the ‘machine’ (the bendy stick with the bit of plastic inside) looks a little primitive even though in reality of course it is more elaborate and complicated and technical and sciencey than an MRI or a particle accelerator or an iPod or an electric toothbrush. And then, in the bit that is so limpid and childlike and of the dawn dawny, he murmurs of his exacting technical labors on a new model with flashing lights. So what you would have then, see, would be a bendy stick with a ‘card’ and a bit of plastic all topped, like a car wash, with flashing lights. So there you’d be shuffling around the checkpoint in Afghanistan, swinging your bendy stick around sniffing for explosives, and your life would be made more glamorous and exciting and Christmassy and convincing by these exciting flashing lights on your bendy stick. Until you stepped on the bomb, of course.

It won’t work unless the operator is relaxed

Jan 22nd, 2010 11:57 am | By

Another entry for the ‘I thought I was beyond being shocked’ category – a very expensive ‘bomb detector’ that has nothing in it but ‘the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores.’ Iraq has been paying $40,000 apiece for them – and using them to detect bombs – and they can’t detect bombs because all they have is ‘the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card.’

Well that’s a nice way to make money!

The Iraqi government has spent $85m on the ADE-651 and there are concerns that they have failed to stop bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of people…The device is sold by Jim McCormick, based at offices in rural Somerset, UK. The ADE-651 detector has never been shown to work in a scientific test. There are no batteries and it consists of a swivelling aerial mounted to a hinge on a hand-grip. Critics have likened it to a glorified dowsing rod. Mr McCormick told the BBC in a previous interview that “the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar”.

Oh is it! So what was it doing on the market then?

He says that the key to it is the black box connected to the aerial into which you put “programmed substance detection cards”, each “designed to tune into” the frequency of a particular explosive or other substance named on the card. Newsnight obtained a set of cards for the ADE-651 and took them to Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory where Dr Markus Kuhn dissected a card supposed to detect TNT. It contained nothing but the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores. Dr Kuhn said it was “impossible” that it could detect anything at all and that the card had “absolutely nothing to do with the detection of TNT. There is nothing to program in these cards. There is no memory. There is no microcontroller. There is no way any form of information can be stored,” he added. The tags which are supposed to be the heart of such an expensive system cost around two to three pence. “These are the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card,” Dr Kuhn told Newsnight.

Dear god. How do people live with themselves?!

Straightening out the kinks

Jan 20th, 2010 5:42 pm | By

Chad Orzel said a strange thing the other day.

OK, fine, as a formal philosophical matter, I agree that it’s basically impossible to reconcile the religious worldview with the scientific worldview. Of course, as a formal philosophical matter, it’s kind of difficult to show that motion is possible. We don’t live in a formal philosophical world, though, and the vast majority of humans are not philosophers (and that’s a good thing, because if we did, it would take forever to get to work in the morning). Humans in the real world happily accept all sorts of logical contradictions that would drive philosophers batty. And that includes accepting both science and religion at the same time.

That’s very blithe – hey ho, we believe all sorts of things that are completely incoherent and that’s just fine, in fact if we didn’t we would be unable to move. That’s not really right, actually – sorting out things that are incoherent is generally useful, and it’s a good deal too glib to just shrug them off as purely formal and of interest to no one but philosophers.

Sean Carroll is much better.

In the real world, scientists have different stances toward religion. Some of us think that science and religion are (for conventional definitions of science and religion) incompatible. Others find them perfectly consistent with each other. (It’s worth pointing out that “X is true” and “People exist who believe X is true” are not actually the same statement, despite what Chad and Chris and others would have you believe. I’ve tried to emphasize that distinction over and over, to little avail.)

Yes so have I; I tried so over and over on Chris’s posts that I got banned from commenting there (and also from commenting at Talking Philosophy); also to little avail. Chris does seem to have grasped the point now, but he hasn’t said ‘Oh right, oops, my mistake, sorry for all that name-calling’; instead he just pretends we disagree with him that there are scientists who are also religious. We don’t. It would be to little avail to try to get Chris to acknowledge that though.

And there are some scientists — quite a few of us, actually — who straightforwardly believe that science and religion are incompatible. There are absolutely those who disagree, no doubt about that. But establishing the truth is a prior question to performing honest and effective advocacy, not one we can simply brush under the rug when it’s inconvenient or doesn’t make for the best sales pitch. Which is why it’s worth going over these tiresome science/religion debates over and over, even in the face of repeated blatant misrepresentation of one’s views. If science and religion are truly incompatible, then it would be dishonest and irresponsible to pretend otherwise, even if doing so would soothe a few worried souls. And if you want to argue that science and religion are actually compatible (not just that there exist people who think so), by all means make that argument — it’s a worthy discussion to have. But it’s simply wrong to take the stance that it doesn’t matter whether science and religion are compatible, we still need to pretend they are so as not to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not being honest.


A moral desert

Jan 20th, 2010 5:16 pm | By

An impoverished religious mind at work:

Recently, atheists seem intent on proving they can be good without God. I always get a kick out of evangelizing atheists and how they’re so desperate to prove that they’re as good (and usually better) than us religious types.

No, we’re not desperate, but we do like to counter the slanders of many theists to the effect that we can’t be good without God. If Matt Archbold were making a good faith argument (so to speak), he would acknowledge that many theists claim that atheists are necessarily immoral, and that we naturally disagree with that. But he’s not, so he didn’t.

But let’s give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt because us religious types like to do that.

No you don’t. That is one thing you emphatically do not ‘like to do,’ not when it comes to atheists at least. You ‘like to’ give us the very opposite of the benefit of the doubt (as this whole piece abundantly illustrates).

I have to wonder from what philosophical grounding does Dawkins’ altruism emanate? Why is other human life worth anything if there is no God?

What an ugly mind is here revealed.

The rest of what he says is ignorant and unreflective, but that question is downright ugly.

Defining sexism downwards

Jan 19th, 2010 3:57 pm | By

I did not know – some male students at St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney set up a pro-rape Facebook page.

The group, which was named “Define Statutory”, described its members as “anti-consent” and was listed in the sports and recreation section of the site…It was shut down at the end of [October], but had been live on Facebook since August, according to an investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald…The Sydney Morning Herald said the page was part of a broader culture at the residential colleges that “demeans women in a sexist and often sexually violent way”.

And here I was fuming (or should I say bitching?) about sexist epithets and men who type thousands of words insisting that ‘stupid bitch’ is not sexist. Kind of puts it all in perspective. Except actually I think it’s (broadly speaking) all part of the same thing. I think both items are part of a broader culture in a lot of places that demeans women in a sexist way. I think the bizarro phenomenon of men who ought to know better verbally spewing on women whenever they feel like it is pretty much by definition part of a broader culture that demeans women in a sexist way. That’s why it shocks me that men give themselves permission to do that – it reveals that contempt for women is commonplace in areas where I would have thought it had gone out of fashion decades ago.

But no – apparently it’s still seen as hip and edgy and funny to treat women like dirt. Apparently sexism is being defined downwards so that it isn’t really sexism unless, I don’t know, it comes with a signed affidavit stating This Is Sexism. Rod Liddle apparently is of that school, unless he really didn’t post this on a Millwall fans’ website:

Stupid bitch. A year eight sociology lecture from someone who knows fck all. You could equally say that we were similar to any group which disliked a certain aspect of society, felt estranged from it but were sure we were right. The logical extension of her argument is that the status quo is always right, which is absurd, because if that were true nothing would change. Someone kick her in the cnt.

He was there commenting right after I had, so I asked him if that one was his, saying bitches with cunts would like to know. He said

I don’t remember saying it and it certainly doesn’t read like me, but it’s quite possible that at some point I might use that temrinology to make a certain point, perhaps the opposite to the one you imagine. Just as you have done, right now. “Bitches with cunts would like to know” is a canny, sardonic pay off to your post. Take it out of context and what have you got?

I don’t know, but what you haven’t got is ‘I wouldn’t say shit like that in a million years.’ Instead you have men earnestly explaining the terrifically subtle and fascinating difference between saying ‘stupid nigger’ and saying ‘stupid bitch,’ a subtle difference that boils down to: the first is absolutely out and the second is really quite all right and you’re being a dreary fanatic if you say it isn’t. Which boils down to saying casual contempt for other races is not okay and casual contempt for women is fine.

The milk of human kindness

Jan 19th, 2010 11:42 am | By

Compassion is at the heart of every great religion.

Laurie Taylor kept a diary when he was at school, filled with the doings of himself and his best friend Richard.

But nowhere in the closely written pages is there a single reference or a solitary allusion to the most significant feature of my life at boarding school with Richard. There is not a word about the fact that at the time we were both being sexually abused by two of the priests who ran the school…We talked to each other about what was going on. We knew that it was not right but both of us were caught in the trap that has been described so well by other victims of the Catholic priesthood. Our deeply ingrained religious beliefs made it almost impossible to believe that priests could be anything other than holy men. Somehow we must be the sinners. And, of course, the priests knew how to play upon this belief. “Look what’s happening to you,” they’d say when their gropings produced an involuntary erection. “Look at that. You’re a very naughty boy. But if you keep quiet I won’t say anything about it.”

Yet they did eventually summon the courage to go to the headmaster and complain about the two priests. He brushed them off. A few weeks later Richard was expelled – for ‘being a homosexual.’

There’s compassion for you.

This is cohesion?

Jan 17th, 2010 1:58 pm | By

I’m reading Nicholas Wade’s book The Faith Instinct. The core of his claim is that religion is part of human nature and that it has evolved because it helps people survive because it fosters group cohesion. He argues that belief in supernatural agents who are watching and will punish wrong-doing and cheating is a powerful way to enforce group norms and that this is very useful for survival, especially in primitive societies without secular mechanisms for law enforcement.

Not wholly new, and not wholly mad. But – I have to wonder. CNN last night was showing UN trucks in Porte-au-Prince trying to distribute food, and what I kept seeing was a lot of men pushing each other and shoving their way to the front and grabbing for the food. ‘No women,’ I kept saying; ‘no women, no women; it’s all men; it’s all pushing and grabbing and men, there are no women. Maybe the men are taking the food back to women and children…’ But the reporters said they weren’t. The reporters said the men were pushing everyone aside and grabbing the food, and children and women were getting nothing. They said it was not a good situation.

Okay. We keep hearing how extremely religious Haiti is – and how crap its infrastructure is, so it must be badly in need of these watchful supernatural agents who motivate people to do the right thing. Okay – then why are the men pushing aside everybody who’s less strong than they are, and grabbing all the food they can grab? What kind of cohesion has religion bestowed on Haiti if that’s how things are? I can’t help wondering.

Heads God wins, tails you lose

Jan 16th, 2010 2:08 pm | By

I heard a nice chat on the BBC World Service the other evening. Roger Heering was naturally very worried that the people of Haiti might have lost their ‘religious faith’ due to the recent unpleasantness, and he and a woman from a faithy charity group talked about it. ‘You might think this would undermine it,’ he said to her anxiously, but she was quick to reassure him. ‘It actually seems to have strengthened it,’ she said in a pleased tone. They hugged themselves in glee, and then Roger Heering turned to the sports.

But that’s interesting, isn’t it – having all the buildings fall down and tens of thousands of people die and tens of thousands more lying around screaming in agony is another point for God. Well if that’s the case, what would be a point against God then? What would God have to do to make everyone decide God was a shit? Not just letting children lie under a slab of concrete for hours and hours crying in pain and fear and misery and then die. So, what then? It’s frankly quite hard to think of anything. If that kind of thing goes in the credit column, it’s hard to think of anything that would be considered a demerit.

So what, you could say; what business is that of mine? But it is, because people don’t just think there is this God, they worship it. It’s not a matter of recognizing the existence and power of the local warlord or Mafia boss, it’s a matter of bowing down to someone taken to be superlative in all the good ways and none of the bad ones. Well if torturing people to death is something a god superlative in all the good ways does, then torturing people to death is apparently a good thing to do. So actually it does matter if a lot of people believe that perpetrating horrors is a reason to worship someone even more.

Of course there’s also the usual thing of calling it a ‘miracle’ when one person is rescued while the tens of thousands of people killed or mangled are just ‘whatever.’ It’s the same with that ridiculous ‘saint’ in Australia.

When Kathleen Evans arrives at the pearly gates, she will have a simple question for St Peter: ”Why me?” The 66-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 20, who identified herself yesterday as the recipient of the second miracle bestowed through the intercession of Mary MacKillop, has no idea why she was ”chosen” to be cured of cancer. She only knows that 17 years after a non-small carcinoma was found on her right lung, followed by secondary growths in her glands and brain, she is free of cancer.

And that she ‘prayed to’ a nun named Mary MacKillop, ‘and she wore a picture of Mother Mary with a small piece of cloth from the nun’s garments pinned to her nightie.’ That’s what she knows. And the nun gets the credit for this one disappearance of cancer, and nobody gets the blame for all the other cancers that don’t disappear. Credit for the good stuff, a free pass for the bad stuff – that’s ‘religious faith.’

Universal declaration of bishops’ rights

Jan 15th, 2010 12:40 pm | By

You wouldn’t think people would be in a hurry to say stuff like this.

[Bishops] warned that Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill suggests some rights are considered “more important than others”. They backed calls for a “conscience clause” to be added to the law so that the rights of religious worshippers are not ignored by attempts to protect minorities.

You wouldn’t really think they would want to say quite so bluntly and clearly that they think ‘the rights of religious worshippers’ are in conflict with attempts to protect minorities. In fact, you would think, or at least I would think, they would want to shy right away from saying that. Haven’t they read their Karen Armstrong? Aren’t they aware of the lifeline she’s sending them by rushing around the world announcing that compassion is at the heart of every great religion? Don’t they realize they’re taking a machete to that lifeline by hopping up and down and squalling to the newspapers that their rights demand that they be able to pick on minorities?

Labour’s flagship equality legislation, currently in committee stage in the House of Lords, seeks to outlaw any form of discrimination against disadvantaged groups in the office or the market place. However, there are fears that it could undermine the ability of worshippers to express the traditional teachings of their religions, many of which believe that homosexuality is a sin; that only men and women can marry; and that sex outside marriage is wrong.

There’s that agentless ‘there are fears’ again – the same one we saw when ‘there were fears’ that Does God Hate Women? would anger Muslims. Could that be because the content is so nasty? Could the reporter feel more squeamish than the bishops do about linking bishops with dread of people being unable to shout in the office or market place that homosexuality is a sin? But why don’t the bishops feel more squeamish about that? Because they’re all 106 and were brought up to hate poofters and just can’t get over it?

The Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Rev John Hind, warned that the Government was wrong to make people separate their personal religious beliefs from their behaviour in the workplace. He said: “The attempt to privatise belief, whether philosophical or religious, is a profoundly dangerous tendency and one that we need to address as we consider not only this but later amendments.”

That depends, bub. It depends on what the belief is. If the belief is, for instance, that children can be possessed by devils or turned into witches, then that belief really does need to be kept out of the workplace.

Who can answer?

Jan 14th, 2010 5:53 pm | By

On page 39 of The Dawkins Delusion Alister McGrath quotes Peter Medawar as saying, in The Limits of Science:

That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer…I have in mind such questions as:

How did everything begin?
What are we all here for?
What is the point of living?

Doctrinaire positivism – now something of a period piece – dismissed all such questions as nonquestions or pseudo-questions…

So far so familiar. But what I really want to know is – who or what can answer the last two questions? (The first seems in principle a scientific question, even if science can’t in fact answer it.)

Who can answer those questions? What discipline can answer those questions? Plenty of people and some disciplines can offer answers, of course, but who can really answer them, in the sense of offering an answer that really is an answer?

As far as I know the answer is no person and no discipline. Does that make me a boringly out of date positivist? Or were the positivists maybe not quite so boring and out of date as people like to paint them? I don’t know, so I won’t belabor that. But I will belabor the first part. Those two questions are obviously subjective questions and as such not answerable in the normal way. It’s like asking ‘Does caviar taste good?’ There is no one answer to that, and there’s no one answer to Medawar’s questions, either.

Maybe what he meant was not so much ‘answer’ as ‘explore’ – but if so, then science can’t really be excluded after all. Science could perfectly well contribute to an exploration of those questions, as could many other disciplines. That’s especially true since for a lot of people the point of living is to find things out and what we are all here for is to increase human understanding.

I’m sure you already know that. I just felt like saying it.

If quacks and bunko artists can be convicted of fraud…

Jan 13th, 2010 12:00 am | By

Daniel Dennett throws down a challenge to various pieties.

I also look forward to the day when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution must answer to the charge of dishonesty. Telling pious lies to trusting children is a form of abuse, plain and simple. If quacks and bunko artists can be convicted of fraud for selling worthless cures, why not clergy for making their living off unsupported claims of miracle cures and the efficacy of prayer?

Because of the free exercise clause, that’s why, or at least it’s one reason. The free exercise clause is a very problematic little item. One can see why it appears, and in some form perhaps is, necessary in a world where powerful people use their power to interfere with less powerful people in any way they can find, but one can also see why in the form it takes in the First Amendment to the US consitution it gives away too much. It sounds noble to ban interference with the free exercise of religion, but the free exercise of religion can mean animal torture, it can mean witch hunts, it can mean genital mutilation, it can mean forced marriage, forbidding girls to go to school, preventing children from getting needed medical treatment. As Dennett says, it can mean preachers telling people whoppers, and even extracting money from them on the basis of whoppers. It’s not all good.

Like champagne

Jan 12th, 2010 4:07 pm | By

After time foolishly squandered arguing with people who unflaggingly and contentedly defend sexist epithets and insist that they are entirely different from racist epithets and repeat with immovable obstinacy that of course they would not call a black person a stupid nigger but calling a woman a stupid bitch is just fine – after that it is refreshing to read less stupid more clear-sighted remarks. Remarks that are two years old, to be sure, but one gets one’s refreshment where one can.

…in the last week, I had a really retro and disheartening conversation about sexist language—a really retro and disheartening conversation about sexist language that I’ve had dozens of times before.

You and me both.

It began in the comments section of another blog, when I objected to a contributor denouncing a male public figure he didn’t like as an “all-around cunt.” Naturally, I was mocked for pointing out that demeaning and marginalizing sexist language has the capacity to make women feel demeaned and marginalized.

Check, check, check.

I emailed another contributor whom I know better to inquire if using the n-word as an insult is considered appropriate at the blog, and if it would have been acceptable for the public figure to be deemed an “all-around faggot.” I was told that anything was allowable “within reasonable limits.” Racial slurs would not be tolerated or defended, but the use of sexist language was acceptable. Which, by my calculations, means that if you’re lambasting a black male public figure, calling him a stupid n—-r is out of bounds, but calling him a stupid cunt is totally cool.

Siiiiigh. Exactly. A Steve at Daylight Atheism said the same thing (swapping ‘cunt’ for ‘bitch’) over and over and over again. This makes me want to bang my head against the wall – and I can’t seem to tear myself away.

“nigger” has obvious racist intent behind it in the context you describe. “bitch” on the other hand does not carry the sexist message in the way “nigger” carries the racist one.

See? Predictable as a clock – but much more infuriating. ‘Yes I do too so get to call you a stupid bitch, you stupid bitch!’

Back to refreshing Feminism 101:

There are ways to use words and there are ways to use words—and knowing the difference, rooting out the subversive context from that which simply perpetuates oppression, is not remotely difficult. And no matter how often women use it in a reclamative fashion, it doesn’t give anyone (of either sex) permission to use it as an insult.

Ah, that’s better. Like a nice tall glass of ginger ale on a hot afternoon.

(I hope this post doesn’t summon ‘wice’ from the vasty deep. Go talk to that Steve, wice; you’ll get along beautifully.