When facts are missing, just surmise

Nov 18th, 2009 1:18 pm | By

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It’s a very slight book which one could read in an hour, but I’m reading it slowly because I’m taking a lot of notes, and also because it makes me sick, so I don’t like to read it for long at a stretch. I gave myself a break from it for a few days, and when I picked it up again after this break, I was struck all over again by its truly objectionable combination of rudeness and glibness and shallowness and pretension. I really hate that combination, and Terry Eagleton wears it as if it were a mink coat and he were a heedless aristocrat.

I’ll explain what I mean. The rudeness is in the insistent, wild, evidence-free denunciation of largely imaginary people he labels ‘Dawkins’ and ‘Hitchens’ and, mostly, as a pair, ‘Ditchkins.’ The glibness is in his habit of assertion, his absurd comparisons and analogies (‘it’s as if,’ he’s always saying, and it never is), his air of authority which is not backed up by any strength of argument or breadth of learning. The shallowness is in his failure to notice any of this. The pretension in his assumption that literary critics are some kind of universal authorities.

I can illustrate all this by extensive quotation, and I will; this is by way of throat-clearing. I’ll give you just one tiny example to warm your hands over in the meantime.

[T]he scientific rationalist passes too quickly over the thorny issue of what is to count as certainty, as well as of the diverse species of certainty by which we live. [p 115]

No she doesn’t. That’s just an absurd generalization, with not a shred of example or evidence, not to mention argument – and it is, as such, entirely typical. It is his style, his schtick, his thing.

The next paragraph pretends to expand on the point, but doesn’t.

Nobody has ever clapped eyes on the unconscious. Yet many people believe in its existence, on the grounds that it makes excellent sense of their experience of the world. (One doubts that this includes Ditchkins, since the English tend to have common sense rather than an unconscious.)[p 115]

That, too, is absolutely typical – he slams Dawkins and Hitchens with a guess about what they may or may not think – completely without embarrassment or diffidence. He does that repeatedly throughout the book. It’s rude, it’s glib, it’s unfair, it’s stupid, and it’s crap ‘scholarship.’

You can see why the book is hard to stomach.

Taking Eaglestrong seriously

Nov 17th, 2009 4:35 pm | By

Richard Norman offers to take seriously the claims of Eagleton and Armstrong and other critics of The God Delusion in order to ‘try to do justice to the nuanced diversity of the views of the religious,’ agreeing at the outset that

Dawkins does over-simplify. Although he knows perfectly well that most Christians are not creationists, he sometimes writes as though they were, and implies that all religious belief is just obviously refuted by science and Darwin. He is inclined to treat all versions of religion as equally irrational.

He considers the relationship between religion and science first, pointing out that Dawkins is right that the claim that ‘God’ is a simpler answer to questions about why the universe exists and why it is ‘fine-tuned’ in such a way that etc etc is ‘to misunderstand the requirement of simplicity.’ It’s very simple to say ‘God’ of course, but a mind that could fine-tune a universe is actually…not simple; ‘it stands much more in need of explanation than what it is supposed to explain.

We cannot just assume that the only good explanations are scientific explanations. We need to take seriously the claim that scientific explanations are incomplete, and need to be supplemented by a different kind of explanation. But what we can properly insist is that any proposed alternative kind of explanation must still meet the same standards for what counts as a good explanation. In particular, a good explanation can’t be one which makes things even more inexplicable.

Right, but this is where I get confused. Surely ‘the same standards for what counts as a good explanation’ are at least continuous with science – not some radically different kind of thing. In a sense, standards for what counts as a good explanation are what science is all about. So if the standards are the same – then what does it mean to say that scientific explanations are incomplete, and need to be supplemented by a different kind of explanation? How can they be supplemented by a different kind of explanation when the standards for what counts as a good explanation are not different? I’m not sure that’s not a concession without any real content – yes by all means supplement science with a different kind of explanation; the only stipulation is that the explanation can’t be just pulled out of your ass.

Then there’s the ‘faith’ question.

Dawkins says at one point: “Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe.” That’s much too sweeping. By the very act of producing counter-arguments, Dawkins has to acknowledge that some Christians, at any rate, do make a case for what they believe. It’s just that their case isn’t good enough.

Yes but the fact that some Christians do make a case for what they believe doesn’t mean that, according to Christianity, they have to. I don’t think it is all that much too sweeping. It doesn’t rule out the claim that some Christians try to make a case for what they believe, because that fact is perfectly consistent with the additional fact that faith is considered a virtue – and faith is considered a virtue; it’s no good pretending it isn’t. Doubts are considered tragic, or guilty, or both. Some, and maybe many, Christians also consider doubts quite reasonable and understandable, but that’s because ‘Christians’ includes a lot of people. Christianity as such, however, places faith front and center, not doubts. Faith is the goal, faith is the value, faith is the hooray word. Making or trying to make a case comes way far back in the field.

Norman considers the ‘sideways move’ that people like Armstrong and Eagleton make and finds it risky.

A religion built around metaphors and stories, rather than doctrines, seems to me to be inherently unstable. If talk of divine creation is just a metaphor for the awe-inspiring beauty and complexity of the natural world, it can hold that meaning for anyone…Isn’t an identity based on metaphors and stories always going to be fragile and porous? I cannot see how, in the end, a distinctive religious identity can be possible unless it is based on the acceptance of at least some non-metaphorical factual beliefs – beliefs about the existence of a personal deity and about how his intentions and purposes explain our world. Those beliefs do, inescapably, need to be rationally defended. And they can’t be. On that point, certainly, Dawkins is right.

That’s how it always looks to me. I can see at least some of what believers get out of religion – but I also see that as depending on those beliefs, and the beliefs as not rationally defensible.

There are communities and then there are communities

Nov 17th, 2009 12:55 pm | By

What exactly are they talking about? What do they mean by ‘communities’? It does make a difference.

We are working to help people and local organisations create strong, attractive and economically thriving communities and neighbourhoods. Our aim is to ensure that they are given all the support they need to make the best of their communities and overcome their own difficulties. These are problems like community conflict, extremism, deprivation and disadvantage.

That sounds (mostly) benign and useful. In fact it sounds like what Barack Obama used to do – and in doing realized that he wanted to change more than just local ‘communities.’ People live in (literal) communities and neighbourhoods, and it is good to help those communities and neighbourhoods thrive. But…people also ‘live in’ non-literal ‘communities’ and some of what the communities department does seems to apply to that kind of community – but they’re not clear about it, so their mission statements and lists of objectives are bound to be at least somewhat misleading.

Or, on the other hand, perhaps they are talking only about literal communities on the website, but in that case, the ‘communities secretary’ is doing something very peculiar in setting up a panel of religious ‘experts’ to advise the gummint. Why would that even be part of his remit, if he’s the secretary for communities-and-neighborhoods as opposed to the secretary for communalism? It seems like Animal Control setting up prayer meetings. Superfluous, intrusive, and fundamentally not their job.

Theocracy anyone?

Nov 16th, 2009 12:25 pm | By

Sometimes the level of disgustingness can still surprise and disconcert and sicken.

Faith groups are to be given a central role in shaping government policies, a senior minister has vowed. John Denham, the communities secretary, said the values of Christians, Muslims and other religions were essential in building a “progressive society”. He attacked secularists who have called for religion to be kept out of public life. Mr Denham revealed that a new panel of religious experts has been set up to advise the Government on making public policy decisions.

What is a ‘communities secretary’ and why does the UK government think it’s a good thing to have one? Why does New Labour have such a chronic frozen painful hard-on for ‘communities’ and community-thought and ‘faith groups’? Why is it so soft in the head? Why is it so determined not to treat people like grown ups?

Mr Denham argued that Christians and Muslims can contribute significant insights on key issues, such as the economy, parenting and tackling climate change.

Meaning they can contribute such insights as Christians and Muslims? Insights that they would not be able to contribute if they were not Christians and Muslims? If so – what, exactly, would those be? What kind of insights? Arrived at how? What can Christianity and Islam tell anyone about the economy? And as for parenting – those could be some pretty dubious insights, unless the ‘communities secretary’ picks his ‘religious experts’ very very carefully indeed.

“Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril,” he said. “We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time. Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society.” The minister said that the Government needed to be educated by faith groups on “how to inform the rest of society about these issues”.


I can’t even say anything rational on that; the disgust is too visceral. Why? Because it’s so abject, so crawling, so untrue, so stupid, so insulting. We don’t need “faith” to build a more progressive society; “faith communities” don’t make a contribution on the central issues of our time – most of them do the exact opposite, pitching fits about contraception, gender equality, gay rights, secularism, liberalism, individual rights, non-procreation, and on and on. “Faith” is by no means the only or a particularly good source of honesty or generosity and its talent for solidarity all too often slides into hatred of or indifference to everyone outside the “faith group.” And the government, above all, does not need to be educated by “faith groups” on how to shove religious ideas down everyone’s throats – the very idea is intrusive, presumptuous, patronizing, and mind-bogglingly insulting.

He added that he was sympathetic with religious leaders, such as Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had complained of the rise of aggressive secularism in Britain. “I don’t like the strand of secularism that says that faith is inherently a bad thing to have and should be kept out of public life,” Mr Denham said. The religious panel is being launched this week to coincide with a series of interfaith initiatives designed to increase social cohesion. It is being headed up by Francis Davis, a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, who is a prominent figure in the Catholic Church.

Well isn’t that sweet – the UK government will from now on be advised by a panel headed by a prominent Catholic. Soon the UK will catch up to the US, whose Supreme Court is majority-Catholic.

The incredible disappearing god

Nov 15th, 2009 5:25 pm | By

You know how people like Armstrong and Eagleton and – well most of the ‘we hate the new atheists’ crowd are always saying that the ‘new’ atheists are clueless and naïve and stupid and wrong to talk about that literal God that is a person who lives in the sky and answers prayers that nobody believes in and that according to Armstrong most people always did not believe in? You know, right? Well somebody forgot to tell philosophers, apparently, because the ones who wrote essays for Philosophers Without Gods talk about that literal God. They don’t talk about the God that is the ground of being, or the God that is a sign for something beyond whatever – they talk about the familiar God: a supernatural person of some kind who made everything and cares about us and is all-powerful and all-knowing and Good. So apparently they’re all clueless and naïve and stupid and wrong too.

Georges Rey, for instance, in “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”:

I should say roughly what I shall mean by “God.”…What seems to me essential to most conceptions, and is at issue with atheists, is that God is a supernatural, psychological being, that is, a being not subject to ordinary physical limitations but capable of some or other mental state, such as knowing, caring, loving, disapproving – and indeed, at least in Christianity, is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, and necessarily benevolent… (p. 246, italics his)

David Lewis (or Philip Kitcher, who wrote Lewis’s essay from notes and conversation after Lewis’s death) simply takes that God for granted in his “Divine Evil”:

The most ambitious versions of the argument claim that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and completely benevolent deity.

And that’s the God that’s at issue pretty much throughout – probably because no one would be motivated to write an article on doing without a sign that points to the transcendent, or “the ground of being.” You’d be finished before you started – “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean” would cover it, and that’s not an essay. Eaglestrong are being something less than forthright in claiming that that literal God that is omnipotent and watching over us is the God of only about three foolish people who haven’t been paying attention while everyone else switched to the more sophisticated version when Aquinas was in knee-pants. What they say is not correct. The facts are otherwise.

Idylls of childhood

Nov 15th, 2009 11:59 am | By

Meanwhile Nigeria has a different child abuse problem. Small children are accused of being witches and if they’re lucky turn up at the CRARN center scarred and emaciated. Nwanakwo, age 9, had acid poured down his throat by his father after a pastor at a prayer meeting told him he was a witch. Sam Ikpe-Itauma, president of the Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) in Akwa Ibom State bids him a sad and angry good-bye.

Cheap (white) labour for the commonwealth

Nov 15th, 2009 11:29 am | By

Apparently the British government after World War II deported a lot of children to Australia without their parents’ permission. I did not know this.

On arrival in Australia, the policy was to separate brothers and sisters. And many of the young children ended up in what felt like labour camps, where they were physically, psychologically and often sexually abused.

Did they indeed – well doesn’t that sound familiar.

In testimony before a British parliamentary committee in the late 1990s, one boy spoke of the criminal abuse he was subjected at the hands of Catholic priests at Tardun in Western Australia. A number of Christian brothers competed between themselves to see who could rape him 100 times first, the boy said. They liked his blue eyes, so he repeatedly beat himself in the hope they would change colour.

The dear Christian brothers – how they do keep turning up in these stories of bullying and abuse.

But what I don’t understand is why these children were deported in the first place. The story says ‘The British government saw them as a burden on the state’ – so I suppose they were in foster care or institutions? Separated from their parents for various reasons? It must be something like that…but to move from that to deportation…yikes. And this was presumably Attlee’s government. Yikes again.

There’s a short history at the Child Migrants Trust but it still leaves out some vital facts – it doesn’t even make it clear whether or not all the children were already separated from their parents or not. It seems clear that all the parents must have been very poor and very powerless – it seems impossible that any of them could have been rich or influential or even middle class enough to make an effective stink.

Just point to the right page

Nov 14th, 2009 12:30 pm | By

Theistic moral reasoning.

Suppose the Nazis are out looking for Jews, and they ask you where some Jews are, and you know – what do you do? Do you lie, or do you say ‘yes, I know, they’re in the cellar at number 22 Goethestrasse’? Well let’s think about it, says Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis. Jesus said (Mark 12:28-31) that the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor, so the first trumps the second (because Jesus said so Mark 12:28-31).

Jesus tells us that all the commandments can be summed up into these two statements. But of these two, the first is to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. So, this would trump the second. Our actions toward God should trump our actions toward men…If we love God, we should obey Him (John 14:15). To love God first means to obey Him first—before looking at our neighbor. So, is the greater good trusting God when He says not to lie or trusting in our fallible, sinful minds about the uncertain future?

And the answer is, as the framing of the question may have already hinted, that the greater good is trusting God and telling the Nazis where the Jews are.

Which means, apart from everything else it means (which is a lot – one could expatiate on the meaning of this claim for hundreds of pages), that Bodie Hodge is so blind and so indoctrinated and so obtuse that he is willing to tell other people to trust that some words in a very old book are the uncontaminated unaltered undoctored trustworthy words of a god and that it is safe to let them trump the protection of human beings from mass murder. That fact all by itself is simply terrifying – even before you get to questions about why anyone would trust a god who would expect them to act that way. Bodie Hodge apparently can’t even imagine even for an instant that he and his fellow believers actually have no way of knowing that any particular book is the authentic unaltered word of ‘God’ and therefore should be very cautious about obeying instructions to do things that in any other context would be the utmost wickedness. That fact by itself makes Bodie Hodge an object of horror.

This is what makes religion so horribly dangerous – it’s this conviction that one knows what one doesn’t know, and the failure to realize that, and act accordingly. It’s this loathsome, ruthless, armored certainty, which is avowedly and proudly not about trying to do one’s best for other human beings.

We’re always being accused, we ‘new’ atheists, of wanting to eradicate all religion (and sometimes of wanting to eradicate all believers), but I think most of us don’t want that. But I think most of us decidedly do want to eradicate that kind of certainty. Bodie Hodge makes our reasons very obvious.

Common humanity

Nov 13th, 2009 6:26 pm | By

A Montreal lawyer, Azim Hussain, is not a fan of Holocaust denial.

The Holocaust denial of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an abuse of the Jewish victims of that genocide, and of the Allied soldiers who sacrificed their lives in order to end the genocide. The Iranian president obviously does not realize that thousands of Muslim Allied soldiers died in World War II. Unbeknownst to many, including many Muslims, soldiers from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent enlisted in huge numbers in the armies of their colonial masters to fight to end the Nazi onslaught. From 15-year-old Indian boy-soldiers fighting in Italy to Noor Inayat Khan, a female spy sent by the British into German-occupied France, Muslims made an immense contribution to the Allied war effort. If we take only the Indian subcontinent as an example, the British-organized Indian army had 617,353 Muslim volunteers.

I was staggered by that figure – six hundred thousand volunteers – in colonial India. Jeezis. I didn’t know that – and Hussain points out that many Muslims don’t either. So that’s a fact that should get out more.

History is rooted in a common humanity. It is that common humanity that impelled Muslims during World War II to sacrifice their lives for the sake of everyone’s freedom, and it is that common humanity that is undermined when Ahmadinejad makes it a hobby to rail against the Holocaust. If he does it in ostensible support for the Palestinians, he should know that the Palestinians do not need such specious “solidarity.” Advocating for Palestinian rights does not require a denial of Jewish suffering in World War II.

As Norm says, in the post where I found this, “Indeed – just as upholding the rights of the Jews in Israel does not require a denial of Palestinian suffering in the Nakba.”

More transcendent quantum energy for YOU

Nov 12th, 2009 11:54 am | By

Now don’t laugh. You mustn’t laugh. It would be terribly rude to laugh. Whatever you do, do not laugh.

The “EmoTrance” project is taking place at the Haydon School in Pinner, Middlesex. Nineteen pupils are being trained in “emotional transformation”, which is described in a press release from EmoTrance.com as a “practical system for energy healing and energy working”…The EmoTrance.com press release says the therapy helps students to “identify where emotions are held in their body”. It quotes one pupil as saying: “I felt hatred towards a person, yet when I went through EmoTrance after some layers of energy were removed I felt as if I could accept this person.”

The release adds that the pupils are practising the therapy on each other, having been “trained to Student Practitioner of EmoTrance level, which is fully recognised and licensed by the Sidereus Foundation”. The Sidereus Foundation offers courses in “energy psychology”, “quantum mind healing” and reiki, which it teaches via “unique advanced distant quantum initiations”.


Okay, it’s hopeless, we can’t possibly not laugh.

All the courses are based on the “revolutionary insights into how energy works” gained by Silvia Hartmann, whose website has a section explaining the theory behind EmoTrance. It says: “In 2002, I had accumulated so many patterns and techniques, all based on a central understanding how the universe works, that it became necessary to create a framework for teaching this… After some considerable thought, I chose the basic technique of feeling energy directly through the body, and then FEELING what happens when you move this energy as the perfect introduction.”

Ooooooh – after some considerable thought she did that. That’s good – and of course we know she did the thinking right, because she gots a central understanding how the universe works, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Don’t miss David Colquhoun’s comments. And then check out EmoTrance land, and Dr Sylvia Hartmann land, and Dr Sylvia Hartmann on Metaphysical parenting. Shall I give you a taste of the latter?

In EmoTrance, we have the concept of the “Creative Template”. That is who a person was designed to be by the Creative Order at the moment of conception; and then this Creative Template moves through time to its ultimate conclusion, which is death of the physical body and transcendency of those energy systems which are not reliant on the physical body…

People make unfortunate health goals for example, or appearance goals, personal performance goals, that are either based on: 1. Themselves BACK in time – when they were 16 or something, or “before the accident” which causes CHAOS when applied to a 50 year old who is actually AFTER the accident; or 2. Someone who isn’t them at all – that’s when a red haired Xena The Warrior Princess type girl tries to become Brittany Spears, or even worse, when a fully grown black man tries to become Bridget Bardot when she was 18.

Oooh I hate when that happens! Don’t you hate when that happens? When a fully grown black man tries to become Brigitte Bardot age 18? I see it all the time, and it just drives me nuts.

Wishful thinking

Nov 11th, 2009 4:31 pm | By

Joe Hockey has been reading Karen Armstrong, it appears.

Those who seek to proclaim the prescriptions of the Bible selectively or literally provide an armoury of ammunition to those like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Laymen like myself struggle with the logic of such an approach. While debate rages about such matters, the true message of the scriptures – of compassion, justice, equality, dignity, forgiveness, charity and respect for other people – inevitably takes a back seat.

That’s the true message of ‘the scriptures’ is it – in spite of all the content of the scriptures that says no such thing but rather the very opposite? In spite of all the abundant material in the scriptures that urges cruelty, brutality, inequality, humiliation, revenge, anger and hatred for other people? Somehow in spite of all that ‘the true message’ is…….what people want it to be.

I don’t accept that any of the great religions envisage a God or a divine force that sanctions the worst failings of humanity. Religion asks of us to become better people – to choose a life of giving and compassion. This “Golden Rule” is a thread that runs from Confucius to Christianity, from Buddhism to Islam. For me this is the essential message of all faiths – that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves…The God of my faith is not full of revenge, as the Old Testament would suggest with a literal interpretation…It is not a loving God who wilfully inflicts pain and suffering. No God of any mainstream religion would do that if God’s love is real….My God does not discriminate against women, or favour first born children over others…All of these things have been claimed as acts of God at various times in our history. They provide easy targets for those who argue that religion causes harm rather than good. However, they are not propositions that I believe have any foundation in the mainstream religions.

He can ‘believe’ that only if he has sedulously avoided finding out what is actually in the ‘scriptures’ of the big monotheisms and if he has avoided learning anything about what religion was understood to mandate over the past three thousand years. Maybe his God doesn’t discriminate against women, but everyone else’s God certainly did for century after century after century…and the God of most people hasn’t stopped yet. Joe H should check out the Vatican’s view on all this, and that of your average online imam. He should have done that before he wrote this piece.

The enemy of me is the enemy of God

Nov 11th, 2009 11:53 am | By

Iran has a section of its penal code that makes quite clear why it gets to execute pretty much anyone who opposes it.

Article 186 of Islamic Penal Code states that when any group or organization attempts armed confrontation against the Islamic Republic of Iran, so long as its leadership is intact, all its members and supporters who are aware of the organization’s positions and take steps to further its objectives, are “enemies of God,” even if they are not involved in its military branch. Article 190 of Islamic Penal Code states that there are four possible punishments for “war against God or corruption on earth”: death, death by hanging; amputation of the right hand and then the left foot; or permanent internal exile. Article 191 of the Islamic Penal Code gives the judge the discretion to choose the punishment.

I trust that’s clear enough. Iran is the same thing as God, so anyone who opposes Iran by joining some armed group becomes an enemy of God, and therefore Iran gets to terminate such opposition here on planet earth by sending that opponent to…somewhere else. You can’t say fairer than that, can you.

Jumping v stretching

Nov 10th, 2009 5:41 pm | By

Anthony Grayling points out that university students aren’t there to get maximum ‘contact hours’ with faculty.

The assumption that lies behind the contact hours issue is a deeply mistaken one. It is that universities are a simple extension of school, and that as at school, students should be given as much attention as possible. This misunderstanding is astonishing coming from Peter Mandelson, who read PPE at Oxford, though comprehensible enough among students first encountering a much more independent working style than they had while being prepared for the endless hoop-jumping at school…University is emphatically not about spoon-feeding and hand-holding through courses, but the very opposite. It is not about maximising contact hours, but about autonomy in thinking, researching and writing. We once used to ask, “What are you reading at university?” In those words lies the clue to what a university education is supposed to involve. People who get into university change educational gear and direction on doing so. They read and attend lectures, they write essays and discuss them with their tutors and peers. To do this in a knowledgeable and intelligent way, they have to do a lot of thinking, studying and discovering, the bulk of it for themselves, because no one else can do it for them.

And…that’s paradise, you know? That’s the whole point. The jumping through hoops part is no fun – it’s doing a lot of independent thinking, studying and discovering that is fun.

Theocracy rules ok

Nov 10th, 2009 1:27 pm | By

The Catholic church has veto power over significant US legislation, to the point that Pelosi has to ask it for its approval in order to get a bill passed.

Now House leaders are not only negotiating with fellow lawmakers, but also with representatives from the bishops’ organization, Democratic sources said. “It’s come to this,” said one bewildered senior Democratic lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations…Several Democrats, including Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pennsylvania, said they are in touch with their Catholic bishops back home. Altmire said he must have the approval of his bishop in Pittsburgh before he can vote yes.

The bishops got their way.

The provision would block the use of federal subsidies for insurance that covers elective abortions…Both sides credited a forceful lobbying effort by Roman Catholic bishops with the success of the provision, inserted in the bill under pressure from conservative Democrats…Beginning in late July, the bishops began issuing a series of increasingly stern letters to lawmakers making clear that they saw the abortion-financing issue as pre-eminent, a deal-breaker…Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, stole a private moment with Mr. Obama to deliver the same warning: The bishops very much wanted to support his health care overhaul but not if it provided for abortions…Bishops implored their priests and parishioners to call lawmakers. Conservative Democrats negotiating over the issue with party leaders often expressed their desire to meet the bishops’ criteria, according to many people involved in the talks. On Oct. 8 three members of the bishops conference wrote on its behalf to lawmakers, “If the final legislation does not meet our principles, we will have no choice but to oppose the bill.”

The bishops told Pelosi to jump, she asked how high.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders came up against antiabortion members of their own party, who vowed to kill the healthcare bill unless the leadership accepted their uncompromising version of a ban on using federal funds for abortion…She conferred with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to be sure the new restrictions were acceptable. She even consulted by telephone with a cardinal in Rome.

And so on and so on and so on. The Catholic church has veto power over significant US legislation. The US is a partial theocracy. Very partial, to be sure, but any is too much. The stinking Catholic bishops should back off and mind their own stinking business.

They thought of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, did they?

Nov 9th, 2009 5:33 pm | By

The pope says it’s kosher – John Henry Newman did miraculously cure Deacon Jack Sullivan of a nasty spinal problem.

Deacon Sullivan, 71, said he prayed for the cardinal’s help in August 2001 after being diagnosed with severe spinal disc and vertebrae deformities, a condition, he said, which left him “bent double” and in “excruciating pain”. The deacon said he had watched a television programme in the US about Cardinal Newman and had then prayed to him first in June 2000. He said: “The following morning I got out of bed pain-free, whereas previously I was in agony. I thought, ‘wow, what’s happening?’. My prayer was answered to Cardinal Newman.” He said he then went through a pain-free period, which doctors had no explanation for, before the pain returned the following April.

Right, right, I get all that – and it’s very impressive and exciting. The part I don’t get though is exactly how the pope knows that’s what happened. Obviously there was a miracle – I’m not questioning that – but the details seem hard to verify. What I wonder is, is the Deacon sure it was John Henry Newman he prayed to? And is he sure it was the right John Henry Newman? Is he sure it wasn’t a different John Henry Newman, who lived in Kidderminster and was not known for his work with the poor?

Can he be sure, for instance, he didn’t pray to some other eminent Victorian – Gladstone, perhaps, or Harriet Martineau? If he prayed to all three of them, can he be sure Newman was the one who did the job? Or maybe he misremembers, and he didn’t pray to Newman, but sang to him, or read him a poem, or just thought about him. Or maybe it was George Eliot he thought about.

And is he sure he has his dates right? Is he sure all this didn’t happen in June 1999, or October 2000? Which would throw the whole thing off, one assumes. Is he sure he didn’t think about Jane Carlyle in April 2002? And is the pope sure? And if the pope is sure, how is he sure? How does he manage it? How does he check all these possibilities? They never say, do they – they just say he’s decided.

I suppose they must have a technique. And they wouldn’t want to tell us about it, would they, because then we might start doing the same thing, and then there would be more saints than anyone could handle. All right, that sounds good enough. I won’t say another word about it.

Karen Armstrong, time-traveling pollster

Nov 8th, 2009 4:22 pm | By

Karen Armstrong’s breezy way with facts and references can sometimes produce declarations that are really funny. On the first page of chapter 10, ‘Atheism,’ for instance, she starts with a preacher launching ‘a crusdade’ against Deism in 1790 and goes on with the rise of Evangelicalism into the 1830s. No references of course. The next paragraph starts ‘On the frontiers, nearly 40 percent of Americans felt slighted by the aristocratic republican government…’

!!! Really?! How the hell does she know that? She doesn’t even say at what particular moment in time that bizarrely exact claim was (according to her) true, and she certainly doesn’t say how she knows or how anyone else knows either. That’s not surprising, because no one does know that; no one could know that; there was no way for anyone to know that between 1790 and the 1830s. Actually there’s no way for anyone to know that even now, since even polling measures what people say they think or feel, not what they feel.

It is, frankly, typical of Armstrong’s level of thought to make such an absurd claim. It’s as if she winds herself up like a toy and then just cranks out some yards of prose, without really thinking about anything she’s saying. She tells stories, but unfortunately she presents her stories as factual narratives, and that’s very misleading.

This would matter much less if she weren’t so widely considered a deep and powerful and learned thinker. But she is, so it does.

And another thing. There’s no entry in the index for Aquinas. That surprised me when I looked for it, then I found him in the text – but she calls him Thomas. So I looked under Thomas, and there he is. But there’s no ‘Aquinas: see Thomas of Aquinas’ in the index. In any case – what’s that about? He’s known as Aquinas, not Thomas. He’s not like Leonardo, who is Leonardo, not da Vinci. I looked in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: he’s under Aquinas. So what’s Armstrong doing? Is this some Catholic thing? Is it an affectation? Or is she just clueless. I don’t know, but it’s damn silly.

Words are not interchangeable

Nov 8th, 2009 12:41 pm | By

Sholto Byrnes says aha – but his aha depends on a confusion of terms, a lumping together of different words with different meanings as if they all meant the same thing. That kind of aha is not a good kind, because people can just say, sharply or compassionately depending on temperament, ‘oh dear, you’ve made a muddle there.’

Let’s be clear: they could now be afforded rights under law specifically formulated to protect religion and belief. And those are two words that many scientists, rationalists and atheists don’t like to be associated with at all.

Nonsense. We have no problem ‘being associated with’ belief; we don’t claim to have no beliefs or to want no beliefs or to object to beliefs as such. Of course we don’t! Religion and belief are different things.

Atheists in particular hate it when they are referred to as “fundamentalist” or if they are accused of making a religion out of science. I’ve done both in the past, acts that have swiftly been followed by much foot-stamping and name-calling in the blogosphere.

But that’s a different thing. We do object to the first one because it’s just a silly distortion of the word, and we object to the second when, for instance, it’s just a wild assertion about atheists in general, as it so often is. We don’t say that no atheists ever ‘make a religion out of science’; we do say it’s just rhetorical abuse to claim that we all do.

[I]t seems to me that most militant atheists are characterised not just by an absence of belief in a god, but by a trust in science so certain and ardent that it is entirely akin to religious belief — and a highly devoted, if not fanatical, one at that. No, they say, these are not matters of belief. These are facts. Science says so.

No we don’t. We don’t say that. Sholto Byrnes is remarkably bad at accurately characterizing people he disagrees with. He skids into gross exaggeration and over-generalization the minute he puts fingers to keys. He should work on that.

Armstrong’s Wittgenstein

Nov 7th, 2009 4:29 pm | By

More of Armstrong playing at Grown Up Scholarship. On page 279 she lays down the law about Wittgenstein for almost the whole page.

In his later years, Wittgenstein changed his mind. He no longer believed that language should merely state facts but acknowledged that words also issued commands, made promises, and expressed emotion. Turning his back on the early modern ambition to establish a single method of arrivingat truth, Wittgenstein now maintained that there were an infinite number of social discourses. So it was a grave mistake “to make religious belief a matter of evidence in the way that science is a matter of evidence”

And there we have our first reference: it is to “Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cecil Barrett, Oxford 1966′ – so not something Wittgenstein himself published, but a posthumous compilation. Armstrong goes on for the rest of the long paragraph, making Wittgenstein say much what she says on the subject; the next reference is to the same book, the six after that are to ‘Maurice Drury, “Conversations With Wittgenstein,” in Ludgwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, and the final one is to Ray Monk’s biography.

Not primary core Wittgenstein, in other words, but peripheral, compiled Wittgenstein, and chat, and a biography. One suspects cherry-picking, and one also suspects superficiality. One is not impressed.

Checking references

Nov 7th, 2009 9:01 am | By

Reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God is an irritating experience, and not just in the more obvious or predictable way. There is also the matter of her pretense of scholarship, which upon inspection turns out to be rather thin. For example:

Chapter 11, ‘Unknowing,’ begins with three pages of factual statements with names, dates, and other particulars, beginning with the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900 and what David Hilbert said there, what it implied about confidence in scientific progress, what Virginia Woolf said, what Picasso and James Joyce were up to, moving on to the First World War, the depression, and the war after that, with a pause halfway through to sum up: “It was now difficult to feel sanguine about the limitless progress of civilization. Modern secular ideologies were proving to be as lethal as any religious bigotry.”

Then we move to “Modern science had been founded on the belief that it was possible to achieve objective certainty.” We get a brisk mention of Hume and Kant, then James Clark Maxwell, then Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, then Becquerel and Planck, and at last we arrive where we knew we were heading, at Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg. “Niels Bohr (1885-1962) and Werner Heisenberg (1901-76) developed quantum mechanics, an achievement that contradicted nearly every major postulate of Newtonian physics.”

That, thank god, is the end of the third paragraph. We’ve taken in a lot and are panting slightly. One more paragraph to go, to complete this magisterial survey. “So much for the traditional assumption that knowledge would proceed incrementally…In the bewildering universe of quantum mechanics” and so on, you can write it in your sleep. But what’s interesting about all this is that there is not one reference for any of it. Not one. It’s all poured out of Karen Armstrong’s teeming mind, apparently, so thoroughly assimilated and absorbed that there is no need to reference it – it is just her Knowledge. We do not get a reference until the end of the fourth paragraph of the chapter, three pages in (p. 264), for a direct quotation from Einstein. And what is the reference? Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 356.

In other words, most of that three pages is just a summary of part of a secondary book, a popular history of ideas, but it’s not presented that way. She nowhere says ‘to summarize pages 355-6 from Richard Tarnas’s best-selling book’ or similar – she just spouts it all as if it were an overflow of her vast erudition. That’s not illegal, but it’s not best practice, either. (Apart from anything else, it doesn’t really give Tarnas adequate credit, because it looks as if the reference is just to the direct quotation.) It’s not best practice, and in someone like Armstrong, it’s also deeply irritating. Why? Because she does convey an air of authority and wisdom and deep learning. There’s that ridiculously boastful pile of books on the front cover, for one thing! There’s the third sentence on the first page, in the Introduction, for another: “‘That book was really hard!’ readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. ‘Of course it was!’ I want to reply. ‘It was about God.'” A barely-veiled boast – I Write Hard Books. Well this book at least is not hard, it’s pseudo-hard, and when you look closely at it it also turns out to be pseudo-erudite and inadequately referenced.

The first three pages aren’t an aberration, either; she goes on the same way. Page 266 gets really down to it with Heisenberg and that other fella. “In 1931, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel (1906-78) devised a theorem to show that any formal logical or mathematical system must contain propositions that are not verifiable within that system; there would always be propositions that could be proved or disproved only by input from outside. This completely undercut the traditional assumption of systematic decidability.” Then there’s what John Dewey (dates provided, as always) said in his Gifford Lectures in 1929, then there’s commentary about our limited minds, all reference-free, then there’s a quotation from “the American physicist Percy Bridgman” (dates provided again), including (this must have thrilled Armstrong) “We are confronted with something truly ineffable.” The direct quotation, at last, gets a reference: “Quoted in Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind“. Another secondary source, you see – and one with an apparent agenda. This is thin, second-hand, warmed-over, paraphrased stuff, but it’s not presented that way. Armstrong has a reputation as a scholar, but it’s not always earned.

Why we write

Nov 6th, 2009 4:11 pm | By

Udo and Russell have their say on the putative schism between atheist camps.

In a different world, the merits, or otherwise, of religious teachings might be discussed more dispassionately. In that world, some of us who criticise religion itself might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be kept separate from the state. Unfortunately, however, we don’t live in that world.

No, we don’t, and furthermore, all the fuming and name-calling from the people who despise the “new” atheists is, perversely or tragically or amusingly, just fanning the flames of “new” atheism. That’s partly because nearly all of the fuming and name-calling is noticeably unfair and inaccurate, and so it just irritates instead of persuading, but it’s also because the intensity and fury awakens our curiosity. It does. I often see people asking – people sometimes ask me – why “new” atheists care, why we’re so interested in theism, why bother, why not just ignore the whole thing. Well this is part of why – it’s because the more fury and unfair rhetoric there is, the more we wonder what’s going on, what theists and fans of theists are so worked up about, what they’re thinking, what all this is based on. So we look into it – and we are interested and perhaps surprised by what we find, so we talk about it, and that’s why we don’t ignore the whole thing.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising — and totally justifiable — that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into law?

Yes, that’s what I mean. Even when religion claims authority in the political sphere in something that doesn’t directly affect us, we still question the source of the authority (some of us do). We’re interested. The louder the claims of authority are, the more interested we are. We start to wonder, or to pay more attention than we used to. What is that about? we wonder. Where does this idea come from, and why do poeple accept it so readily? How do people manage to ignore the many obvious problems with it? So we investigate, and write about our investigations, and then the despisers come along and call us a great many harsh names for doing so, and then we get our backs up. We are allowed to investigate this, and we are allowed to talk about it, and we are not any of those things we just got called. So next time we dig twenty feet down instead of ten.