Mystery for you, assertion for me

Dec 4th, 2009 10:57 am | By

Beautifully put:

This rejection of the theistic God, and acknowledgment that the problem of evil cannot be swept away through theodicy, might sound like music to atheists’ ears…But rather than characterizing such a position as a significant concession to the new atheists, Armstrong insists on continuing to regard them as her primary opponents. Moreover, she is unable to hold herself consistently to her own apophatic view…[O]n her understanding the apophatic position, rather than discouraging metaphysical speculation, in fact licenses and encourages it…In other words, it is precisely our lack of knowledge of God that enables us to say, well, pretty much whatever we want about God…This is mysticism and metaphysical hand-waving raised to a truly objectionable level. If you do not know what you are denying then you also do not know what you are asserting; our inability to conceptualize cannot, on the one hand, prevent skeptics from denying Christ’s divinity while at the same time allowing the faithful to assert it.

But that is of course how Armstrong attempts to use her claims about metaphors and non-literalism and apophaticism – as a stick to beat the atheists while mostly leaving the theists to their own devices. It’s a transparent ploy, and yet it works.

If the concept of “God” is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about.

Precisely. This is what I keep saying. I said it in the little essay I wrote for 50 Voices of Disbelief:

We’re told, in explanation of these puzzles, that we’re merely humans and we simply don’t understand. Very well, but then we don’t understand – we don’t know anything about all this, all we’re doing is guessing, or wishing or hoping. Yet we’re so often told things about God as if they were well-established facts. God is “mysterious” only when sceptics ask difficult questions. The rest of the time believers are cheerily confident of their knowledge. That’s a good deal too convenient.

Troy Jollimore goes on:

In her more radical mode, Armstrong wants to preserve religious talk from questions of truth—in our ordinary sense of “truth”—by draining them of content. But when we lose content we do not only lose truth, we lose meaning as well. The apophatic retort to the skeptic, then, seems to reduce to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about—indeed, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. So how dare you contradict me!”

Read the whole thing – it’s terrific. (Thanks to Karel De Pauw for sending the link.)

Parking tickets are one thing, and…

Dec 3rd, 2009 11:41 am | By

The Irish Times notes how globally the Vatican thinks and acts.

Ultimate responsibility for the way in which the safety of children was so recklessly ignored does not lie with any individual bishop. It does not lie even with the Irish hierarchy as a whole. It lies with the Vatican. We know this because the approach to allegations of child abuse was consistent, not simply between bishops or across Irish dioceses, but around the world. There was a way of doing things – keeping the crimes secret and moving the abusers on to another parish until the whole pattern began to repeat itself.

World government with a vengeance, that is – a theistic institution that has managed to make itself a state yet has global authority, and is focused on its own well-being before that of anyone else on the planet.

It is in the light of the primary role of the Vatican that we must see the unwillingness of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the papal nuncio to respond to requests for information from the Murphy commission. The Taoiseach, in a painfully deferential statement in the Dáil, has endorsed these refusals as acts of “good faith” consistent with diplomatic norms. This submissiveness is entirely inappropriate to the leader of a republic, some of whose most vulnerable citizens have been grievously harmed by the policies and practices of the Holy See.

Depressing, isn’t it? Once again, the powerful prosperous men of the church and the Vatican are protected and the vulnerable people are thrown to the wolves – by their own government. The prosperous men of the church and the Vatican matter, and the mere people don’t.

The Vatican does not do things lightly. When it refused to deal with the commission except through diplomatic contacts at the level of one state to another, it was not being precious. It was asserting a claim that is crucial to its efforts to avoid the consequences of its own policies. The insistence on being treated as a state rather than as a church is the key to its claim of sovereign immunity.

Which is a thing that it shouldn’t want to have. Yet it does want to have it. It wants to do bad things to people and get away with it. It wouldn’t put it that way, of course, but that’s what it wants and what it’s been doing.

It is quite disgraceful that the Taoiseach should play along with this manoeuvre by endorsing the Vatican’s behaviour towards the commission. If the Vatican is indeed to be regarded simply as a foreign state, then it is a state that has colluded in the commission of vile crimes against Irish citizens.


Walk on by

Dec 2nd, 2009 4:35 pm | By

Good ol’ Rick Warren. He’s a trip. None of that soppy good Samaritan crap for him. None of that ‘let him cast the first stone’ nonsense. No sir. Rick Warren knows what kind of people he likes, and who’s worth saving and who isn’t. He also knows who’s on his team and who isn’t. He keeps track, and he’s not such a fool as to bother helping people who aren’t on his team. That would be foolishness! No flies on Rick.

In recent days, Pastor Rick Warren has come under fire for refusing to condemn an Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda that would make some homosexual acts punishable by death. “[I]t is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations,” said Warren. On his Twitter feed, Warren is now trying to change the subject, claiming that “no one” cared when 146,000 Christians died last year.

Well sure. Uganda’s all the way over there somewhere, in the middle where we can’t even find it; it’s not our job to worry about what happens to people all the way over there. What do we look like, charity workers? Get real. And what did those people all the way over there and their bleeding-heart friends do about all those Christians? Huh? So why should we help them? Bastards.

Yup, that’s our Rick. Walk by on the other side, dude.

There’s a difference between ‘thoughtful’ and ‘wrong’

Dec 2nd, 2009 12:44 pm | By

Oh the tedious predictability and smugness of the middlebrow mind.

Traditionally, religious wars were fought with swords and sieges; today, they often are fought with books. And in literary circles, these battles have usually been fought at the extremes.

It’s smug and predictable to pretend books are the equivalent of swords; it’s smug and predictable to cast anything one wants to sneer at as (somehow, and self-evidently) ‘extreme’; it’s smug and predictable to pretend that religion and atheism are really equivalent and each as bad as the other. It ought to be possible even to disagree with atheism without making that stupid stale untrue move, but apparently it isn’t, at least not for hacks. I would like Kristof not to be a hack, because he does good work, but this dreck is hackery.

…[D]evout atheists built mocking Web sites like That site notes that although believers periodically credit prayer with curing cancer, God never seems to regrow lost limbs.

And? How is that obviously an example of atheism as ‘extreme’? God never does seem to regrow lost limbs, so why isn’t that relevant? Kristof can’t be bothered to say, because he’s in too much of a hurry to say how good Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright are.

Karen Armstrong. Well that’s a sure sign of a mind that isn’t trying hard enough – anyone of adult years who thinks Karen Armstrong is good is not paying attention.

This year is different, with a crop of books that are less combative and more thoughtful…Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God,” likewise doesn’t posit a Grandpa-in-the-Sky; rather, she sees God in terms of an ineffable presence that can be neither proven nor disproven in any rational sense. To Ms. Armstrong, faith belongs to the realm of life’s mysteries, beyond the world of reason, and people on both sides of the “God gap” make the mistake of interpreting religious traditions too literally.

And that’s enough for her to be considered ‘thoughtful.’ A truly thoughtful reader of Armstrong (and other ‘God is ineffable’ types, for that matter) might manage to come up with the thought that a slippery non-literal but still named ‘God’ God is a very useful dodge for theists in a time of scientific education. But not Kristof – he just lets himself be snowed.

I’m hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance. That would be a sign that perhaps we, along with God, are evolving toward a higher moral order.

There’s the banal false equivalence again. Such an armistice wouldn’t be a sign of any kind of moral advance, it would be an instance of the success of relentless bullying by false equivalence, that’s what. Well it won’t work, Mr Kristof – the more you call us things that we’re not, the more irritated and stubborn we get. So get used to the ‘war.’

Why we write

Dec 1st, 2009 6:10 pm | By

I’ve been going back and forth with Josh Rosenau, at his blog and also now via email, and I think we’ve pinned down (for the moment) our basic disagreement – which is about what one writes or talks for. Josh says, perfectly reasonably, that we surely write or talk in order to get some result, however broadly we construe ‘result.’ I say…yes, if we construe ‘result’ really broadly…but I think that may be where the difference is: how broadly we construe it.

At any rate, my goal, if any, when writing is not really to get people to do something. It’s certainly not to avoid disturbing people in any way. My goal is to say what I’m trying to say. It’s to get a thought out there without losing any of it on the trip between my head and the paper or the screen. It’s to be clear, and it’s also to be non-boring. It’s not…to persuade some imagined average person full of average prejudices who might be ‘offended’ by some irreligious observation. Of course, I don’t work for the NCSE! If I did, that kind of thought would probably play a much bigger role in my thinking. And working for the NCSE is an outstandingly useful thing to do – so maybe it just boils down to the fact that Josh and I have different jobs and different readerships and we have formed different habits. In that sense maybe our disagreements just go sliding past each other, gracefully and stupidly as swans, because we’re doing different things.

There is another angle though, which is that the imagined average person full of average prejudices may not exist as we imagine her. Imagining people and their prejudices is not an exact science, so I think it’s a mistake to assume too much prejudice and inability to listen to unfamiliar ideas. I think we can afford to give people a little benefit of the doubt. We can treat people like easily-wounded babies, or we can treat them as toughened adults. Either or both may be wrong – but the second has the virtue of treating people as…adults.

Hey mister, whatcha reading?

Dec 1st, 2009 4:47 pm | By

I had a funny experience this afternoon. I was at the University bookstore, and I went to take a look at the atheist shelf, just to see if there was anything new – after I looked to see if Does God Hate Women? is still on its shelf (it is, next to Why Truth Matters), and noticing as I picked my way through the maze of shelves what a lot of shelves there were with ‘Spirituality’ as their label, especially compared to the one short shelf that holds the atheist books. So I got to the (tiny) atheist shelf and behold – there was another human being there. Aha, thought I; it is spreading! I snickered inwardly, and looked at the shelf, and when this guy put back the book he’d been looking at, I naturally looked to see what it was. It was 50 Voices of Disbelief. This is very bad, but I couldn’t help it – I blurted out ‘I have an essay in that book!’

I know, I know, but come on. Life is short, and how often do you get the chance to do that? Be fair. So I blurted it out, and the guy asked if it was a good book, and I said (truthfully) yes. So he decided to buy it after all. Then he said, looking at the shelf, there were more of these all the time, and I said ‘About time,’ and he said ‘Yes – two thousand years overdue.’ Then I sidled away so as not to embarrass myself any further.

Look, it could be worse. I could have gone back to the philosophy section and grabbed those two books and come back and shoved them in his face. I didn’t do that. Very self-abnegating, I was.

The madwoman in the attic

Dec 1st, 2009 4:46 pm | By

I’ve had occasion to notice it before, and I daresay I will again – some people just seem to be unable to disagree with, or even mention, a woman without breaking out the Special Insulting language. That’s especially noticeable when there are men being disagreed with or mentioned too, and they don’t get the Special Insulting language.

Look at Science and Religion Today.

Jerry Coyne is disappointed. Michael Shermer responds. Josh Rosenau jumps in, and sides, and calls. But I – I don’t do anything as quiet and reasonable as that. Well naturally not: I don’t have the balls.

It’s not as if the tone of what I say, or the part of it quoted there, is wildly different from the tone of the people who have the balls. But I’m the one who…

Well there you go. As Samuel Johnson said, if we wanted to listen to a woman talk we wouldn’t spend all our time talking to each other, now would we.

(It is seriously irritating though. It means that no matter what you do – no matter how carefully you write, no matter how much you know, no matter how clearly you think [and I’m not claiming any of that for myself – I’m just saying], to some people you will still be a stupid frantic over-emotional crazy female who can safely be belittled and sneered at because after all – she is just a woman.

It makes me tired.)

It’s all Catholophobia, surely

Nov 30th, 2009 11:58 am | By

Libby Purves suggests that the Catholic church’s response to its own recent history has been due to its own perspective that the reporting (she quotes a reporter for the Boston Globe) “is fuelled by anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers hustling to tap the deep pockets of the church.” And maybe it is, she says. But.

But such an attitude is not a dignified response to clamorous hysteria. It is self-protective, paranoid arrogance; the canker that threatens all religions and ideologies. We recognise it all too well from history, and from modern fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Once you are convinced that you alone hold the truth — whether your god is Amun-Ra or Marx — you slough off self-doubt and self-examination. You build rich hierarchies of obedience, surround them with impressive ritual and illogical rules, and then circle the wagons to protect your artificial structure.

And you do that so thoroughly and with such fervor that you can even manage to justify (to yourself) protecting perpetrators while threatening victims – even though the perps are grown men and the victims are children.

Kvetch kvetch kvetch

Nov 29th, 2009 4:14 pm | By

A bit more on Shermer, in a very level humble non-fundamentalist tone, because it’s not that I want to enforce orthodoxy with a big heavy stick, it’s that…I disagree with him about some things. I’m not trying to expel him into the outer darkness, I just disagree with him about some things. I’ll say what they are, because I feel like it.

[I]t seems to me that believers who accept Newton’s theory of gravity as the means by which God creates stars, planets, solar systems, galaxies, and universes, can just as readily accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as the means by which God creates life.

I said yesterday in comments but will say again – nuh uh. Even after we change ‘evolution’ to ‘natural selection’ and ‘life’ to ‘species,’ still nuh uh. Not just as readily at all, because natural selection is horrible. Gravity has its flaws too, as you’ll notice if you ever fall off a cliff, but compared to natural selection, it’s sweetness itself. Let’s don’t forget what natural selection is, shall we? It’s that thing that makes organisms compete with each other to see who can be first to eat the other. It’s not nice. It’s not kind. If it was all God’s idea, God has a nasty way of doing things. It’s just not true that it’s as easy for a theist to accept as gravity is. Shermer must know this; he must have written in a hurry; but if he did he did – the piece is still there, and it’s worth disagreeing with.

After the bit I disagreed with yesterday, about what ‘works’ in some undefined sense, he goes on to say

if it is your goal to educate everyone on earth to the power and wonders of science (as it is the Skeptics Society and and to employ science to solve social, political, economic, medical and environmental problems (as it is my personal goal), then we need as many people as we can get on board toward a common goal, whatever it may be (starvation in Africa, disease in India, poverty in South America, global warming everywhere…pick your battle).

I didn’t notice it until later yesterday, after I’d already commented, but that’s an incredibly ambitious claim when combined with the rest of what he says. His claim is that we need as many people as we can get on board toward some common goal, any common goal, it doesn’t even matter what common goal it is – and in order to reach this highly questionable goal, we have to do the accommodationist thing. What that boils down to is that the real goal is simply to get as many people as we can on board toward whatever, and everything else is subordinate to that bizarre goal.

I don’t think he actually meant to say that – it’s too absurd. But he did say it, and I suspect that’s because that is what the accommodationist mindset does – it puts the frantic worry about alienating some number of people before everything else, until it finally finds itself exclaiming madly that we have to unite everyone, everyone I tell you! and that therefore no atheists can say anything that might be disconcerting to anyone. It’s nuts – but I think that’s what the thinking is. I think accommodationists are fundamentally allergic to a certain kind (and a certain kind only) of potentially ‘controversial’ ideas. I think their fretting about this ends up eroding their awareness that total agreement about anything is impossible, and that it’s futile to try to rule out disagreement ahead of time, and that the attempt is not only futile but the dire enemy of free thought and inquiry and speech.

Russell urged us to read Shermer’s essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief, so I did. I have to tell you, I have some disagreements there, too. I’m sorry! I’m a noodge! I can’t help it.

For example…he says on p 69

Most people equate ‘atheist’ not only with someone who believes that there is no God (which is technically not a tenable position because one cannot prove that there is no God; that is, you cannot prove a negative)…

Well that’s not right. It’s perfectly tenable to believe things that you cannot prove. It’s rash, and untenable if you like, to claim certainty about such things, but to believe them? Of course not. I believe that there is no invisible dragon sitting on my desk. Can I prove it? No. I believe it nevertheless. Shermer must have meant someone who ‘claims to know’ or ‘is certain’ – but he didn’t say that.

Another item, on the same page:

A second reason I don’t believe in God is emotional: I’m comfortable with not having answers to everything. By temperament, I have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

That jumped out at me because he had just finished telling us that he was a devout Christian as a teenager – far more devout than his nominally-religious parents. He goes into some detail about that, and the result is that the claim about his temperament sounds very odd. It sounds self-flattering and unconvincing.

I’m just saying – Shermer isn’t a terribly careful writer. I’ve thought this before, about both his belief books. So I’m not doing some anti-accommodationism bandwagon number by disagreeing with him; I just disagree with him about some things, that’s all.

50 Voices of Disbelief is terrific, by the way. Read Sean Carroll’s piece. Read Austin Dacey’s. Read Tom Clark’s. Read them all.

Some racket

Nov 29th, 2009 10:37 am | By

Oh I get it – some of them were never actually priests at all – they were guys who wanted to fuck children and figured out that being ‘a priest’ was a terrific dodge for doing just that – it shunted a big supply of trusting obedient children straight into your hands, and it made it very likely that you would be able to dodge prosecution, punishment, discovery, and even being fired. What a beautiful set-up! Tailor made!

Fr William Carney, a “crude and loutish” priest who “used bad language” and was then aged 29, had lunch with Michael Woods, the then health minister, in 1980. For three years Carney had been making inquiries about his chances of fostering children…Two years later Carney requested permission to foster a particular boy from an institution at the commencement of Ten Plus, a programme designed to encourage the fostering of children aged over 10. This boy subsequently alleged that Carney abused him. After his ordination as a priest of the Dublin diocese in 1974, Carney regularly sexually abused boys and girls. The Dublin Commission records complaints or suspicions about him relating to 32 named individuals and says there is evidence he preyed on many more.

Terrific, isn’t it? Carney was ‘ordained’ at age 23, and got right down to work. All went so swimmingly that six years later he was trying to foster children – with the encouragement of his bishop, who had ‘a soft spot’ for him.

Yet this church has the gall to tell the rest of us what to do.

They just can’t get it right, can they

Nov 28th, 2009 1:30 pm | By

Michael Shermer replies, or retorts, to Jerry Coyne.

What is the right way to respond to theists and/or theism? That is the question asked at every atheism/humanism conference I’ve attended the past several years. The answer is simple: there is no one “right way”. There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context.

He expands on the point, but without bothering to say what he means by ‘works.’ It’s a rather silly way to put it, frankly, because one doesn’t always expect one’s responses to ‘work’ – one sometimes simply wants to say what is true to the best of one’s ability, not to do what ‘works.’ This is a big part of the issue between accommodationists and critics of accommodationism, and it’s one of the most irritating things about accommodationists that they almost never seem to get that. Accommodationists always talk about what works, what wins more allies, what is least likely to offend the moderates, and similar calculating issues. Critics of accommodationism on the other hand tend to dislike manipulative rhetoric and tactical evasion, and want to try to tell the truth instead of trying to shape a message for fragile listeners.

Shermer’s apparent unawareness of that disagreement leads him, predictably, into the usual strawman overstatement and sneering.

If you insist that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs before they are allowed to join the common fight against these scourges of humanity, then you have just alienated the vast majority of the world’s population from your project. To what end? So you can stand up tall and proud and proclaim “…but I never gave an inch to those faith heads!”? Well good for you! Just keep on playing “Nearer my Atheism to Thee” while the ship of humanity slips further into the depths of disaster.

We don’t insist that. That is a strawman. What we insist is that we shouldn’t be expected to say things that we do not think are true on the flimsy grounds that some observers think that not doing so will ‘alienate the vast majority of the world’s population from your project’ (and what if we don’t have a project apart from telling the truth as we see it?). There is a difference between insisting ‘that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs,’ and refusing to tailor everything we say to suit some vague idea of what will not threaten other people. There is a big, serious, important difference between those two things. It is irritating that accommodationists so often insist on framing the matter the first way. It is irritating and it does not increase our respect for their probity.

The rest of the quoted passage is of course just snotty jeering. That doesn’t do much for the respect for probity either.

I see a boat, you see a sandwich

Nov 27th, 2009 5:01 pm | By

I wondered as soon as I read or heard (I forget which) that the coma guy was communicating by typing with the help of his caregiver. Uh oh, I thought. No he isn’t. If he’s doing it with someone else’s ‘help,’ then he’s not doing it. This has been tested. It’s the clever Hans effect. The ‘helper’ or ‘facilitator’ does the typing.

James Randi had the same thought, and he saw some video which further gave the game away. He finds it all very irritating.

From the Frontline documentary:

NARRATOR: The facilitator and autistic individual sat side by side, with a screen dividing their visual field. Sometimes they were shown the same picture, sometimes different ones. They tested 12 clients facilitating with 9 staff members, many who were trained in Syracuse. They ran dozens of trials. The results were shocking.

Not one correct answer. Not one. It was Clever Hans.

Cohere, god damn it

Nov 27th, 2009 10:53 am | By

Doesn’t the BBC ever want to puke on itself? Seriously. Doesn’t its gorge ever rise until it can’t stand it any more and it has to shout rude words in a hoarse voice and pour beer over its head and kick the table over? Doesn’t it ever get sick of talking babyish cant?

Secondary schools run by faith groups are better than non-religious schools at building community relations, research in England suggests. A study funded by the Church of England found faith schools were rated higher than others by Ofsted inspectors on what is called “community cohesion”. The church says its schools take all faiths seriously and look for common ground while respecting difference.

What is called by whom ‘community cohesion’? And what’s it supposed to mean? Cohesion of communities, or cohesion between communities? The first makes sense but is a decidedly mixed blessing, the second is ludicrously oxymoronic. Maybe it’s supposed to mean both, without any thought about either one, but just a brainless pious hope that we can all have everything: cohesion and commmunity and tolerance and everybody loves everybody else. Let’s train people to think they all belong to a particular ‘community,’ for preference a religious excuse me I mean ‘faith’ community, but that’s not absolutely required unless of course the people are Muslims in which case it is absolutely required; then when we’ve done that let’s train them to aim at cohesion, without ever quite explaining what we mean by that; then let’s send them all to ‘faith’ schools; then let’s urge them to look for common ground while respecting difference. Let’s give them mixed messages! Let’s make no sense at all and then look around with an air of pleased expectancy at the peaceable kingdom we have created!

The Reverend Janina Ainsworth, chief education officer for the Church of England, says schools with a religious foundation have a particular role “in modelling how faith and belief can be explored and expressed in ways that bring communities together, rather than driving them apart. In Church of England schools that means taking all faith seriously and placing a high premium on dialogue, seeking the common ground as well as understanding and respecting difference.”

Yes take all ‘faith’ seriously because of course it is crucial to take seriously all brands of evidence-free belief, and at the same time do the impossible by squaring common ground with difference. That’s the advantage of people who take faith seriously of course – they don’t have to notice troublesome difficulties of that kind, they can just have ‘faith’ that the impossible can be done. They can talk woolly fluffy feel-good mush, and be pleased with themselves afterwards.

Not surprisingly, Keith Porteous Wood is the one person quoted in the article who makes any sense, by pointing out the obvious –

“The very existence of minority faith schools is a major impediment to cohesion, especially where members tend also to be from ethnic and cultural minorities. Such schools tend to be mono-religious, mono-ethnic and mono-cultural, quite often of children from communities that are already separate from mainstream society.”

Yes but if everyone just keeps saying faith and cohesion and community over and over and over again, it will all work out in the end, surely.

We do get to disagree

Nov 26th, 2009 12:47 pm | By

Greta Christina puts it well.

Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, at least in part, because of immaterial beings or forces that act on the material world.

It’s other things too, but the significant bit is this hypothesis of an immaterial world acting on the material one. ‘The hypothesis that there is a supernatural world, and that the natural world is the way it is because of the supernatural one.’

Quite so. And a hypothesis of that kind makes a difference to how people think and act, and it does have to be open to discussion and dispute. It should not must not cannot be walled off from discussion and dispute.

Suffer the little ones to hold still and shut up

Nov 25th, 2009 3:33 pm | By

Another entry in the ledger where we keep track of the claim that ‘compassion is at the heart of every religion’.

The report into clerical abuse in Dublin archdiocese reveals the “reprehensible behaviour” of the Catholic hierarchy…The report finds the Catholic hierarchy and state authorities failed to respond to allegations of clerical child abuse made against a sample of 46 priests…”The Dublin archdiocese behaved in a manner that was absolutely reprehensible. Over the space of 20 years, they moved the problem on, looked after their own financial interests, looked after their priests and not the victims. The archdiocese is centre-stage. Once you read it, it jumps out at you,” a source said.

The Dublin archdiocese, then, protected its own people, who were all grown men, and by doing so perpetuated harm to children. Offhand, that does not sound conspicuously compassionate. The priests doubtless needed compassion, but first of all they needed to be stopped. They did not need compassion in the form of being allowed to go on abusing children, and the children certainly did not need compassion-for-priests in that form.

Return of the psychic cop

Nov 25th, 2009 10:35 am | By

We still don’t know whether that police trainer was fired for his beliefs or what he did about them or indeed some other reason, such as getting a hard-on while being frisked during a training exercise. ‘”We welcome all races and religions,” a police spokesman said’ – somewhat idiotically, since beliefs aren’t inherently part of ‘races’ while they are inherently part of religions, and some beliefs could well be incompatible with being a good cop or cop trainer.

Assistant Chief Officer Julia Rogers said: “GMP notes and fully supports the judge’s ruling. This matter has never been about Mr Power’s beliefs and we vehemently deny any claim he was discriminated against on those or any other grounds. GMP welcomes all races and religions and employs and actively recruits people with diverse beliefs and from many different ethnic backgrounds.” In an earlier hearing, the employment tribunal said his psychic beliefs fell under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

The not quite explicit assumption seems to be that all beliefs should be protected, in other words that no belief should ever be a reason to fire someone. But that’s crazy. Some beliefs are incompatible with some jobs – obviously. If UK law gives blanket employment immunity to all beliefs, then it’s creating a hornets’ nest.

Struck by a novel and original idea, our commentator decides to look up said Regulations – and finds that they do in fact include an exemption, where, for one, ‘being of a particular religion or belief is a genuine and determining occupational requirement.’ Look in Part II, under ‘Exception for genuine occupational requirement.’ So in fact an employer can fire an employee who has a belief that would interfere with doing the job properly. That would, surely, apply to a police trainer whose belief about psychic powers got out of his head and into his police training. So it’s all a fuss about nothing – unless, I suppose, all the employment tribunals are staffed by maniacs. Which is always possible, especially if their beliefs are protected under – oh never mind.

Where we have human rights we would not have in Muslim nations

Nov 23rd, 2009 11:32 am | By

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is having a hard time putting things together.

Among western elites – artistic, political, scientific, media – I notice more expressions of abhorrence of Islam and its diverse adherents than ever before…Influential anti-Muslim voices are no longer bothering with nuance. Douglas J Hagmann, director of the non-governmental Northeast Intelligence Network in the US writes: “The latest murderous rampage should be enough to illustrate that Islam is totally incompatible with freedom, democracy and the western culture.” I wonder how many of my British friends think exactly this…Radical Islamists peddle partial narratives about the Crusades, forgetting the Nato interventions to save Bosnian Muslims from genocide and the fact that millions of us would never leave the West where we have human rights we would not have in Muslim nations.

Okay stop right there. Stop there, and think about it. Alibhai-Brown should have, and she didn’t – she rushed on to make a different point, instead. She apparently didn’t even register what she’d said. If she had, she couldn’t have left the first part of the article as it was – she would have gone back and re-written it, or possibly abandoned it in despair. She needed to stop and think very hard about the implications of what she blurted out there: that ‘in Muslim nations’ she and everyone else would not have certain human rights. Well – why is that? Why is that the case? Why did even Yasmin Alibhai-Brown not say ‘in most Muslim nations’ much less ‘some Muslim nations’ much less ‘a few Muslim nations’? Why is it the case that ‘in Muslim nations’ in general, some human rights are not available? Is it not possible that that is because of something about Islam itself, which she doesn’t want to admit to? Because if it’s not something about Islam itself, it seems awfully surprising that it applies to ‘Muslim nations’ without qualification, and that even Yasmin Alibhai-Brown takes this for granted as a fact.

The horrible truth is that it is something about Islam itself that renders some human rights unavailable in places where Islam is entangled with the government, which is to say ‘in Muslim nations.’ Islam itself, as the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam makes so unpleasantly clear, does rule out certain rights, especially for certain people, such as women. This isn’t ‘extremist’ Islam, or terrorist Islam, or radical Islam, or any other minority or eccentric Islam, it’s just Islam. That fact could be different – it’s a contingent fact, as it is a contingent fact that some religions have learned to ignore the nastier parts of its holy books while others have not – but in the world as it is now, that fact is not different. Alibhai-Brown almost admitted that – but not quite. She clings to the idea of Islam’s ‘diverse adherents’ and fails to point out how much of the content of ‘Islam’ has to be ignored for that putative diversity to amount to anything.

Sentimental bullying

Nov 22nd, 2009 10:22 am | By

John Denham really does talk the most rebarbative kack.

As communities secretary I am formally responsible for the government’s engagement with faith communities. Lacking some depth of knowledge I set about recruiting a panel of advisors (retained on an expenses-only basis) to advise me on relations with these communities.

And to encourage him to think in communalist terms and to use the word ‘community’ a minimum of six times whenever he opens his mouth, lest any foolish person somehow lose track of the fact that New Labour is obsessed with ‘communities’ to the point of insanity.

Outside of polemic is the real question of how a modern government should relate to the fact of faith. One view is that government should seek to marginalise faith as much as it can. The other, which I hold, is that something which is of immense importance to millions of people – the precise size of this minority or majority is not the real point – should not be lightly dismissed.

Note that – ‘the other’ – there are two and only two; there is one, and then there is the other. Bullshit, and coercive bullshit at that. It is not the case that the only alternative to thinking government should try ‘to marginalise faith as much as it can’ is thinking government should not ‘lightly dismiss’ anything ‘which is of immense importance to millions of people.’ That’s a false dichotomy, a bogusly limited choice, a stupidly narrow frame of reference, and a bullying piece of sentimentalism. It’s not a matter of what should or should not be ‘lightly dismissed,’ it’s a question of what the state should actively foster – particularly at the expense of alternatives, such as secularism, meaning neutrality among religions. Religion is important to lots of people, as Denham sagely points out, but he neglects to point out that freedom from religion, freedom of religion, separation of religion from government, is also important to lots of people. He simply plumps for the stupid retrograde intrusive notion that government should be sticking its nose into religion and shoving religion onto its balky citizens.

Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to set out a reasoned argument for government to take faith seriously. Firstly, the fact of faith for many of our citizens should be respected. Second, many issues which concern governments can not be tackled solely by regulation or spending. Governments and faiths share an interest in the values which lead people to act they way they do.

What does he mean ‘the fact of faith for many of our citizens should be respected’? That it should be acknowledged? But it already is, and that’s not a matter for government, and why should that fact be respected while the opposite fact is strenuously disrespected? That it should be respected in some substantive sense? If so, the hell with that. That it’s the governments job to go creeping around the landscape sucking up to various ‘communities’? That’s just absurd.

Campaigns for international development, peace, decent housing, living wages and many others have often been sustained by those of faith – not alone of course, but as key participants nonetheless. On these issues, and others including climate change and the values of our economy, faiths have views and values that deserve a hearing.

No they don’t. That’s flat-out nonsense. ‘Faiths’ have no views that are exclusively faithy that deserve a hearing – all they have are shared views that deserve a hearing for shareable reasons. ‘Faith’ as such adds nothing useful to views and values, and it often subtracts merit from views and values, by making them subject to threats and rewards, or predictions about some imagined other world.

Don’t cross that line

Nov 21st, 2009 12:46 pm | By

Massimo Pigliucci is patrolling the borders again.

Take, for instance, my recurring argument that some (but not all!) of the “new atheists” engage in scientistic attitudes by overplaying the epistemological power of science while downplaying (or even simply negating) the notion that science fundamentally depends on non-empirical (i.e., philosophical) assumptions to even get started.

But if science depends on those assumptions why aren’t those assumptions simply part of science? Why aren’t the assumptions part of what is meant by the word ‘science’?

We already have science to help us solve scientific problems, philosophy does something else by using different tools, so why compare apples and oranges?

But if science rests on philosophical assumptions, then philosophy doesn’t (exclusively) do something else. If science rests on philosophical assumptions then the two are entangled to some extent.

Pigliucci goes on to say as much, in a way, but he also reverts to the border-patrolling.

So when some commentators for instance defend the Dawkins- and Coyne-style (scientistic) take on atheism, i.e., that science can mount an attack on all religious beliefs, they are granting too much to science and too little to philosophy. Yes, science can empirically test specific religious claims (intercessory prayer, age of the earth, etc.), but the best objections against the concept of, say, an omnibenevolent and onmnipowerful god, are philosophical in nature (e.g., the argument from evil).

But the argument from evil can be at least partly empirical – we wouldn’t know there was any ‘evil’ i.e. suffering apart from our own if it couldn’t.

Now why is it that so many people take sides on a debate that doesn’t make much sense, rather than rejoice in what the human mind can achieve through the joint efforts of two of its most illustrious intellectual traditions?

Well right – but if it’s a matter of joint efforts why worry so much about the borders?

Yes but what was he doing?

Nov 19th, 2009 11:35 am | By

What are we talking about here?

A police trainer who was sacked for believing that officers should use psychics to solve crimes is going to court to prove he was the victim of religious discrimination.

Was he sacked – is he claiming he was sacked – just for believing that? Or was he sacked for practicing it? Surely that makes an important difference – yet, oddly, the piece nowhere makes it clear which possibility is at issue.

Alan Power, who has been a member of a Spiritualist church for 30 years, argues that his belief in the power of mediums should be placed on a par with more mainstream religious and philosophical convictions…At a tribunal in London, Mr Power will claim that Greater Manchester Police broke the law by sacking him for believing that mediums should be consulted in criminal investigations.

But did they? Did they sack him just for believing that, or did they sack him for putting it into practice? Come on, Telegraph, obviously that’s a crucial bit of information; why did you forget to provide it?! Surely it’s quite right that employers shouldn’t be firing people just because they believe X Y or Z; surely that’s none of an employer’s business unless the employee is acting on the beliefs. If this police trainer was actually wasting public time and money by consulting psychics, or training cops to do so, then that would be a good reason to fire him – yet the Telegraph never says a word about that. Bad journalism.

The judge however said something truly ridiculous.

The judge wrote: “I am satisfied that the claimant’s beliefs that there is life after death and that the dead can be contacted through mediums are worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

No, they aren’t – respect is exactly what they are not worthy of, in a democratic society or an oligarchy. Forebearance, other things being equal, yes, but respect, no. Tolerance, in the sense of not being interfered with, yes, but respect, no. I know this is familiar territory – I seem to spend my life making the distinction between tolerance and respect – but since the coercive slide keeps being made, one has to keep pointing it out. Employees should be free to believe anything they want to, but that doesn’t mean they should be free to do anything they want to merely because they do it as a matter of ‘belief’; we should all tolerate each other’s beliefs, which does not entail never questioning or criticising them, but that doesn’t mean we should all respect each other’s beliefs, which perhaps would entail never questioning or criticising them.