These old men dress up in frocks to go to work

Dec 21st, 2008 11:28 am | By

Ian McKellen is pleasingly blunt.

The actor Sir Ian McKellen has said he fears that a growing number of faith schools are preaching religious doctrines — such as teaching that homosexuality is a sin — inside the classroom…”It worries me that there is an increasing number of faith schools in this country where it might be thought appropriate for religious views to invade the classroom. If that’s happening, those kids are getting a second-class education.”

Indeed they are, which is why ‘faith’ schools are a bad stupid idea. ‘Faith’ and ‘school’ don’t really belong together – they are in tension, at least if ‘school’ is understood (as it should be) in a modern secular sense. It is possible to have ‘schools’ that teach any old magic, but such ‘schools’ aren’t schools in the usual sense intended, just as madrassas are not real schools in that sense. ‘Faith school’ should be seen as a silly and harmful mixing of two projects that ought to be kept strictly separate because if they’re not the first will irreparably mess up the second. Children don’t (when things are arranged as they should be) go to school to learn how to believe things for no reason on the basis of no evidence; they go to school to learn how not to do that.

It is at least formally possible to have ‘faith’ schools that are such in a largely ceremonial sense – schools that sing a hymn in the morning and then act like secular schools for the rest of the day…but there’s no guarantee of that, so the mindless coupling of the two words is a bad idea.

When asked how religious studies teachers in all schools should explain the stance of Christianity, Judaism and Islam on homosexuality, McKellen said: “They should abandon the teaching of their church, because it is cruel and misplaced.”

Attaboy! No creeping around in a deferential manner, no simpering or ducking, no talk of spirituality or profound beliefs – just, they should ditch it, because it is cruel and wrong and stupid.

The actor said the gay rights lobby group Stonewall, which he helped to create 19 years ago, should visit mosques, synagogues and churches to spread a positive message about homosexuality. “It [religion] is the one area where people are not frightened to be openly homophobic,” he said…”I think it’s a sort of disorder that these old men dress up in frocks to go to work and call themselves celibate, then point the finger at other people…In 2006, McKellen angered the Catholic church when he said its leaders should be pleased that The Da Vinci Code, a best-selling novel and film in which he acted, confirmed that Jesus Christ was not gay, but married to Mary Magdalene.

Did he? Excellent. Any teaser of the Catholic church is a friend of mine.



No hijab no service

Dec 20th, 2008 1:22 pm | By

And for more obnoxious offensive intrusion by busybody theocrats, there’s Turkey.

A report in Turkey has highlighted “very worrying” evidence of increased discrimination against secular Turks…It details widespread social pressure on non-devout Muslims to attend Friday prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan or wear a headscarf…It suggests that a government policy of making appointments to local administrations on the basis of political and religious beliefs, rather than competence, is forcing non-devout Turks to change their habits in order to protect their business or their jobs.

Ooh – that sounds familiar. What does that remind me of? It’s right on the tip of my tongue…

The report cites page upon page of examples: non-religious nurses put on permanent night shift; landlords refusing to take female student tenants unless they wear a headscarf; secular civil servants bypassed for promotion. It talks of increased social pressure to attend Friday prayers and fast during Ramadan, and documents the difficulty in many cities of obtaining licences to sell alcohol.

Even though the AK party always insists it’s not really Islamist any longer. Yeah it sounds like it, doesn’t it.



Mind your own god damn business

Dec 20th, 2008 1:02 pm | By

Bush strikes again – enacting last-minute sweeping regulations, this time to protect religious bigots who refuse to do their jobs.

The far-reaching regulation cuts off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in care they find ethically, morally or religiously objectionable. It was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.

For refusing to do the jobs they were hired to do, and for obstructing other people’s ability to get needed care.

The rule comes at a time of increasingly frequent reports of conflicts between health-care workers and patients. Pharmacists have turned away women seeking birth control and morning-after emergency contraception pills. Fertility doctors have refused to help unmarried women and lesbians conceive by artificial insemination. Catholic hospitals refuse to provide the morning-after pill and to perform abortions and sterilizations.

In other words, zealous theocrats have taken it upon themselves to tell women how to live and what to be by refusing them legal products and services – and Bush has passed a regulation protecting not the women needing legal products and services but the intrusive presumptuous theocrats telling them what to do.

While primarily aimed at doctors and nurses, it offers protection to anyone with a “reasonable” connection to objectionable care – including ultrasound technicians, nurses aides, secretaries and even janitors who might have to clean equipment used in procedures they deem objectionable.

Welcome to the world of biblical medicine.



Gibberish

Dec 19th, 2008 11:54 am | By

And then there’s Lillian Ladele’s solicitor.

Ms Ladele’s solicitor Mark Jones said she would now take her case to the Court of Appeal. He added: “She wants to make it clear that, whatever other commentators may have said, this case has never been an attempt to undermine the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities. The evidence showed that Lillian performed all of her duties to the same high standard for the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities, as she did for everyone. This case has been about the shortfall between the principle of equal dignity and respect for different lifestyles and world views, and Islington Council’s treatment of Lillian Ladele…

Uh – what? What principle of equal dignity and respect for different lifestyles and world views? What principle is that? There is no such principle. What’s Mark Jones babbling about? If there were such a principle, that would mean we would all be expected to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ‘worldviews’ of Nazis, white supremacists, génocidaires, Panslavists, Islamists, Fred Phelps, and so on. We can’t. That would just be another contradiction – we would get the clang clang clang and the hook and the forfeit of our deposit again. We don’t have to respect all worldviews; we don’t have to and we can’t and we shouldn’t and we mustn’t. I don’t respect Rick Warren’s and Lilian Ladele’s (it’s the same one, so we can talk about them as one, which is efficient), and I’m not going to, and it is not a ‘principle’ that anyone ought to. Some world views are not worthy of respect and that’s that.



Relax, all we want to do is silence everyone

Dec 19th, 2008 11:43 am | By

How’s that again?

Islamic states say such resolutions [as the General Assembly resolution condemning ‘defamation of religion’] do not aim to limit free speech but to stop publications like the Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed that sparked bloody protests by Muslims around the world in 2005.

They do not aim to limit free speech, they merely aim to stop publications like the Motoons. So they do not aim to limit free speech, they merely aim to limit free speech. Clang clang clang clang!! Contradiction alert; game over; all bets forfeit.



Disagreements on certain social issues

Dec 19th, 2008 11:25 am | By

No, that won’t do.

President-elect Barack Obama defended his decision yesterday to give a prominent role at his inauguration to an evangelical pastor who has campaigned strongly against abortion and gay marriage. The invitation sparked outrage among gay and lesbian rights organisations and disappointed liberal and social activist groups across the country. They have questioned why, from all the pastors in the country, Obama chose Rick Warren, who took a prominent role in campaigning in California recently against gay marriage, and who has compared abortion with the Holocaust…”It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans,” Obama said…”What I’ve also said is that it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.”

Fine, but that doesn’t entail giving a prominent spot in your inauguration to a reactionary cleric. That’s over-egging the pudding. You can talk to and work with people you don’t agree with, but that doesn’t mean you ought to enhance their power or give them a megaphone.



Which purpose?

Dec 18th, 2008 5:30 pm | By

Time to get cross with Obama. Rick Warren

compares legal abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to incest and paedophilia. He believes that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are going to spend eternity burning in hell. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He recently dismissed the social gospel – the late 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant movement that led a religious crusade against poverty and inequality – as “Marxism in Christian clothing“. Yet thanks to his amiable attitude and jocular tone, he has managed to create a popular image for himself as a moderate, even progressive force in American life, a reasonable, compassionate alternative to the punitive, sex-obsessed inquisitors of the religious right. And Barack Obama, who should know better, has helped him do it.

He’s invited him to give the dang ‘invocation’ on January 20th. That’s depressing.

Warren supported the ballot initiative that stripped gay Californians of their marriage rights. He made the absurd argument that legalised gay marriage constituted a threat to the first amendment rights of religious conservatives. If gay marriage were to remain legal, Warren claimed, those who opposed it could somehow be charged with hate speech should they express their views. This is an utterly baseless canard, but one with great currency in the religious right, the milieu from which Warren consistently draws his ideas.

Canards of that kind are in fact (ironically enough) genuinely destructive of various rights, such as for instance when the Catholic church claims that gay rights violate the freedom of religion because Catholics want the ‘right’ to persecute gays. It’s bad that Obama is encouraging and sucking up to someone like that.

[W]hile Warren says he opposes torture, he doesn’t treat the subject with anything like the zeal he accords gay marriage and abortion. As he recently told Beliefnet.com, he never even brought up the subject with the Bush administration, where he had considerable access. Just before the 2004 election, he sent out an e-mail to his congregation outlining the five issues that he considered “non-negotiable”. “In order to live a purpose-driven life – to affirm what God has clearly stated about his purpose for every person he creates – we must take a stand by finding out what the candidates believe about these five issues, and then vote accordingly,” he wrote. The issues were abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning and euthanasia. Torture, apparently, is something that decent Christians can disagree on.

How ridiculous – how pathetic. Stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning are ‘non-negotiable’ and everything else is more trivial. What a tiny-minded man he must be if he really thinks those are the five worst crimes in the world.

Furthermore – it is absolutely outrageous for anyone to claim that ‘God has clearly stated’ anything. God has done no such thing, and no one has any business trying to enforce that ridiculous notion. It is ludicrous to think that if God really wanted to clearly state some non-negotiable principles it would manage nothing better than to dictate a long rambling patchwork book full of all kinds of things over a period of a couple of thousand years and then stop updating it at an arbitrary point some nineteen centuries ago. If God really wanted to clearly state some non-negotiable principles then it would do that. Even if you think God has stated some non-negotiable principles – it’s still ridiculous to claim that God has done that clearly. Clearly is the very last thing you can call the way God is supposed to have done that. It’s just stupid bullying to say that God has clearly stated that everyone must do what one particular political movement thinks it ought to do.



Belief and responsibility

Dec 17th, 2008 5:47 pm | By

Peter Singer points out the consquences of ignoring science.

Throughout his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that Aids is caused by a virus, HIV, and that anti-retroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it. Instead, he embraced the views of a small group of dissident scientists who suggested other causes for Aids. Mbeki stubbornly continued to embrace this position even as the evidence against it became overwhelming. When anyone – even Nelson Mandela…- publicly questioned Mbeki’s views, Mbeki’s supporters viciously denounced them. While Botswana and Namibia, South Africa’s neighbours, provided anti-retrovirals to the majority of its citizens infected by HIV, South Africa under Mbeki failed to do so. A team of Harvard University researchers has now investigated the consequences of this policy. Using conservative assumptions, it estimates that, had South Africa’s government provided the appropriate drugs, both to Aids patients and to pregnant women who were at risk of infecting their babies, it would have prevented 365,000 premature deaths.

That’s a conservative estimate, notice, and it’s ‘roughly comparable to the loss of life from the genocide in Darfur.’

[T]he Harvard study shows that [Mbeki] is responsible for the deaths of 5,000 times as many black South Africans as the white South African police who fired on the crowd at Sharpeville…

In Mbeki’s defence, it can be said that he did not intend to kill anyone. He appears to have genuinely believed – and perhaps still believes – that anti-retrovirals are toxic.

But – I thought the instant I read those words – he had no right to believe that. Then I remembered The Ethics of Belief. Well this is a classic case. In a life and death situation, one has no right to believe something in the teeth of the evidence. Mbeki was in just the situation of Clifford’s shipowner.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.

Mbeki had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. Singer says as much.

[G]ood intentions are not enough, especially when the stakes are so high. Mbeki is culpable, not for having initially entertained a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, but for having clung to this view without allowing it to be tested in fair and open debate among experts. When Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, South Africa’s leading black immunologist, warned that the president’s policies would make South Africa a laughingstock in the world of science, Mbeki’s office accused him of defending racist western ideas…Mbeki must have known that, if his unorthodox views about the cause of Aids and the efficacy of anti-retrovirals were wrong, his policy would lead to a large number of unnecessary deaths. That knowledge put him under the strongest obligation to allow all the evidence to be fairly presented and examined without fear or favour. Because he did not do this, Mbeki cannot escape responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Disturbing, isn’t it.



As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on

Dec 16th, 2008 11:40 am | By

Kenan Malik on the fatwa twenty years on.

It has now become widely accepted that we live in a multicultural world, and that in such a world it is important not to cause offence to other peoples and cultures. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it: ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’…Today, we have come to accept that books do indeed cause riots and that therefore we must be careful what books we write – or what cartoons we draw, or jokes we tell, or art we create.

Which creates an interesting and alarming closed circle of repression. We ‘must’ be careful what books we write and what things we say – therefore we become critical of the people and institutions who demand that we be careful what books we write and what things we say – but we must be careful what books we write and what things we say – so we can’t write books or say things about our criticisms of the people and institutions who demand that we be careful what books we write and what things we say – and so on. We’re caught in a sinister spiral in which liberals want to resist repression and repressors want to shut the liberals up, which makes the liberals want to resist even more, which makes the repressors want to shut them up even more…

I don’t see this working out well.

Today, all it takes for a publisher to run for cover is a letter from an outraged academic. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised.

See Sherry Spellberg went in the wrong direction here – she hooked up her outrage to the repressors instead of to the resistors. Bad move.

Today, many argue that whatever may appear to be right in principle, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt. The avoidance of ‘cultural pain’ is seen as more important than what is regarded as an abstract right to freedom of expression…The lesson of the Rushdie Affair that has never been learnt is that liberals have made their own monsters. It is the liberal fear of giving offence that has helped create a culture in which people take offence so easily.

Yeah. Let’s turn that around.



Another cleric pipes up

Dec 15th, 2008 11:38 am | By

Another cleric lets us know there is ‘a lively and important discussion to be had…on the whole idea of the engagement between science and faith; then he gives a demonstration of the way ‘faith’ plays havoc with the ability to think clearly – or the ability to write forthrightly. One of those.

Contrary to popular understanding, the Christian community is not fundamentally anti- science…..[T]hrough the ages and still today, many significant scientists have been and are people of faith, and vice versa.

But that’s beside the point – unless the reverend is making a claim purely about hostility. But that’s where the lack of forthrightness comes in. When he says ‘engagement between science and faith’ does he mean likes and dislikes, friendship versus enmity, or does he mean something about validity as a form of inquiry or knowledge? If he’s just saying ‘some Christians like science,’ he may be right but that’s not really the issue; if he’s saying ‘some Christians like science therefore there is no tension between “faith” and science’ he’s perpetrating a non sequitur.

Richard Dawkins’s resurrected conflict theory, pitting faith and science as irreconcilable mortal enemies, is as offensive to atheist colleagues as it is to those of us who call ourselves people of faith.

But again, that’s beside the point. Never mind how ‘offensive’ it is; is it true?

Taking, as Dawkins and others do, such a dogmatic, fundamentalist view of other people’s opinions and then arguing the absolute correctness of their own view, which is that because a monkey shares 99.99 per cent of our genetic code evolution is proven and therefore there is no God, is not dissimilar to the aggressive and unreconstructed fundamentalist rejection of Galileo those years ago.

Very neat illustration of doing the very thing one is attacking someone else for doing – but I suspect that’s not what the rev intended. That ‘and therefore there is no God’ is just silly. It’s not just a dogmatic, fundamentalist view of other people’s opinions, it’s an outright misrepresentation of them; it’s something too silly to bother saying.

We believe that engaging with views that we do not agree with can be constructive.

Ah – but do you? Because that’s not doing it. Offering a fatuous parody of such views is not ‘engaging with’ them, it’s engaging with a fatuous parody of them.

Among the problems with reducing humans to no more than simple gene-propagating machines is the sense of hopelessness that this engenders. What’s the point in love, in beauty, in compassion, in poetry, in self-sacrifice, if all that we see around us is simply a “momentary cosmic accident”, as Stephen Jay Gould puts it[?]

Once again – beside the point. The issue is, or should be, the truth of the matter, not what sort of sense it may engender. Many defenders of ‘faith’ seem to have a really hard time grasping that very basic distinction.

And the debates remain. Why are humans here? Are we fundamentally anything more than just our genes, and the molecules that compose them? Why does anything exist at all? As the president of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees, concedes, “such questions lie beyond science … they are the province of philosophers and theologians”.

No they’re not; not of theologians they’re not; theologians have nothing to offer on the subject. Neither does anyone else, really – no one can offer a definitive answer to those why questions; but theologians actually muddy the water by offering pseudo-answers based on fantasies and wishes.



Free at last

Dec 14th, 2008 1:38 pm | By

Yesssssssssss – Humayra Abedin is free. She’s out, she’s safe, she’s in the hands of the British High Commission, she’s expected to return to the UK tomorrow.

I haven’t felt this lachrymose since 8 pm Pacific Time on November 4th. She’s out. She’s safe. She has her own life back.

London’s High Court had ordered her return to the UK under the new Forced Marriage Act and the High Court in Dhaka has now ruled she must be freed…Lawyer Sara Hossain, representing Dr Abedin, said her client wanted to return to the UK and her family had been ordered to return her passport…She was later released into the custody of the court and handed over to the British High Commission. Dr Abedin is expected to return to the UK on Monday. Judge Syed Mahmud Hossain said her parents’ actions were “not acceptable”.

No they weren’t. Thank you Judge Hossain.

Judge Hossain was shocked.

Yesterday, Judge Syed Mahmod Hossain ordered Dr Abedin’s parents to return her passport, driver’s licence and credit card. “It perplexes me as to why the parents kept her confined and interfered with her personal life. I am shocked,” he said.

Good. A useful lesson.

Dr Abedin’s lawyer, Sara Hossain, said: “Our courts have shown that we can guarantee the liberty of our citizens. This is quite a precedent.”

Damn right.

Now if only we could hear that Jestina Mukoko is free – alive, and free; and that all her colleagues are alive and free too; and that Mugabe has fled to an undisclosed location never to be heard from again – then we could all have a really good sniff.



A rose by any other name

Dec 14th, 2008 4:13 am | By

Tony Blair seems to think that Catholicism has no actual content – that it’s just a name or a label attached to a set of harmless weekend habits.

Mr Blair left little doubt that it was fear of the public and media reaction that led him to delay his conversion until after he quit as PM – even though he had been attending mass for 25 years and was bringing his children up as Catholics…”There was no disrespect… for the Anglican church, it’s just that my family all go to mass, my kids are brought up as Catholic and I have been going to mass for 25 years, so to come into full communion seemed to me my natural home. There is no great… doctrinal dispute I have with the Anglican church… It wasn’t about that at all, it was a very personal decision.”

So his conversion wasn’t actually a conversion then? It was just a name-change? Does his priest know that? Does Ratzinger?

“I hope we’re not in a situation where you couldn’t have a Roman Catholic as Prime Minister. I don’t, to be honest, think it makes any difference to people at all, politically.” Describing his own faith as “the foundation of your life”, Mr Blair said he thought it “sad” that as Prime Minister he was unable to talk openly about it.

I think it’s ‘sad’ that he wanted to join a church that outlaws abortion and contraception and in vitro fertilization and homosexuality, and that declares women inferior in all but name (the euphemism is ‘complementary’). I think it’s ludicrous or worse that he thinks ‘it’ makes no difference at all. I think it’s rather shocking that he simply ignores the reactionary character of the actual existing Catholic church, and pretends it can be reduced to merely a ‘very personal decision.’ He presumably wouldn’t say that about joining any secular reactionary organization; it’s much odder than he apparently realizes that he says it about the appallingly reactionary Catholic church.



Stop that at once, amen

Dec 13th, 2008 2:57 pm | By

The Vatican has told us all what’s what again.

The Vatican says these techniques violate the principles that every human life — even an embryo — is sacred, and that babies should be conceived only through intercourse by a married couple.

Why? Because…intercourse by a married couple is sacred, thus matching the sacredness of the embryo? What if the married couple in question has used contraception in the past? Is their intercourse still sacred? Is the Vatican sure it wouldn’t prefer an innocent test tube that has never used any form of artificial contraception whatsoever? Has the Vatican thought this through?

The Vatican’s intended audience is not only individual Roman Catholics, but also non-Catholic doctors, scientists, medical researchers and legislators who might consider regulating stem cell research and other recent developments in biomedical technology.

Of course. The Vatican awards itself the right to dictate to everyone on the basis of its pious superstitious sentimental version of ‘morality’ in which the embryo is all-important and the wishes of adult human beings are as nothing.

Kathleen M. Raviele, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Georgia who is president of the Catholic Medical Association, said she tells her patients: “God creates through an act of love, and that’s not what’s happening in the laboratory. It’s the technician who’s creating. What in vitro does, is it separates the creation of a child from the marital act.”

In other words, Kathleen M. Raviele and the Vatican have some kind of pettifogging aesthetic dislike of in vitro fertilization, and they feel entitled to impose their personal aesthetic dislikes on other people. In other words the Vatican has an unappeasable passion for sticking its nose into everyone’s business. The Vatican can’t get enough of intruding on matters that are nothing to do with the Vatican and none of its business. It’s an unedifying spectacle.



Try opening both eyes

Dec 11th, 2008 11:41 am | By

Tom Clark discusses David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Haidt and the Beyond Belief 2 conference.

Both Wilson and Jonathan Haidt argued at the conference that a predisposition for religion likely played an adaptive role (perhaps via between-group selection) in allowing humans to achieve our current level of ultra-sociality, in which more or less stable societies of unrelated individuals have replaced nomadic tribes. This is an empirical claim under investigation. It’s therefore striking that both accept the normative claim that religion, or more broadly a departure from evidence-based beliefs, might be a force for good in promoting social cohesion in a way that allegiance to strict empiricism…perhaps cannot.

Let’s look at a little of Jonathan Haidt.

My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and confusion. I dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen. My hosts gave me a servant of my own and told me to stop thanking him when he served me…I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine…I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. And once I liked them…it was easy to take their perspective and to consider with an open mind the virtues they thought they were enacting. Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent.

One problem with that leaps off the page before we even get to the harder stuff: he says he really liked ‘these people’ but he says it right after telling us that he must have liked only the men because he wouldn’t have had a chance to like the women because he wouldn’t have been allowed to get to know them. I’m almost tempted to accuse him of being shifty – but I think he really is convinced by his own patter. But if so – why did he shift from men to people in that suspicious way? Why did he say ‘people’? Why did he try to throw dust in our eyes? Or was it in his own eyes he was throwing it? In other words, what does he think he’s talking about? He tells us quite plainly that the women were treated as blanks and kept away from him, and then instantly tells us that he ‘liked these people who were hosting’ him – which betrays an embarrassing level of moral obtuseness. It’s rather like dropping in on Auschwitz and being treated hospitably by the SS men there and thus concluding that all was well at Auschwitz. He spent time with the privileged people and so decided that their privilege was okie dokie. That’s not ‘an open mind,’ it’s a refusal to think. It’s a failure to grasp that what he was seeing was not (or not just) ‘a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society’ but a world in which men, not women, are the people who count. What he was seeing was not a matter of all family members making sacrifices for the sake of the family but one of female family members subordinated by male family members. He knew he’d seen that, but he was ‘committed to understanding it on its own terms.’ Yes but that ‘its’ refers to the privileged minority of this sex-segregated hierarchically stratified society so in fact the terms he was committed to understanding it in were very partial incomplete and self-interested terms. It’s strange that he apparently manages to remain unaware of that.



On teasing

Dec 10th, 2008 1:19 pm | By

A psychologist tries to convince us that teasing is a good thing.

The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it’s aggression, pure and simple. Bullies steal, punch, kick, harass and humiliate. Sexual harassers grope, leer and make crude, often threatening passes. They’re pretty ineffectual flirts. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts.

Well that makes things simple, but it makes them too simple. Bullying isn’t something entirely and clearly and unmistakably different – there’s a lot of overlap between the two. There’s also a lot of deliberate shifting back and forth between the two, and disguising of the transaction – in short there’s a lot of bullying (a lot of aggression and humiliation) that is called teasing (and perhaps even has a teasing aspect) but is really bullying (at least in part). Keltner gives this away with that ‘no doubt with a sharp edge’ – damn right with a sharp edge, and that’s why the whole subject is so fraught. How many billions of parents have squalled at their children how many times every day ‘stop teasing her/him/them!’? Teasing is very often mixed; it is not always or reliably purely affectionate or friendly or facetious; and it is massively subject to misunderstanding. I think Keltner is right that it shouldn’t be stamped out altogether everywhere, but it does need caution. Surely anyone who’s ever teased or been teased (i.e., everyone) knows this?

We may use “teasing” to refer to the affectionate banter of middle-school friends, to the offensive passes of impulsive bosses and to the language of heart-palpitating flirtation, to humiliation that scars psyches (harsh teasing about obesity can damage a child’s sense of self for years) and to the repartee that creates a peaceful space between siblings.

Exactly – and that’s why it’s not completely different from bullying. Of course harsh teasing about obesity can damage a child’s sense of self for years – it can damage it for life. So can harsh teasing about similar flaws – age, ugliness, you name it. It’s a ‘mode of play’ with huge potential for harm; it needs care in handling.

Still, it’s hard not to remember why teasing has a bad name when it results in what sounds an awful lot like humiliation. In situations where power asymmetries exist, as they do in a frat house, how do we separate a productive tease from a damaging one? In part it’s the nature of the provocation. Productive teasing is rarely physically hurtful and doesn’t expose deep vulnerabilities — like a romantic failure or a physical handicap.

Yes but then there’s the other kind, which does expose deep vulnerabilities, and is not entirely different from bullying.

I bet the Times got a lot of mail on this piece, and I bet I can guess how it went.



The return of the cardinal

Dec 9th, 2008 12:26 pm | By

So then to round out the festival of silliness there’s darling Cardinal Buttercup I mean Murphy-O’Connor again. (Nice of the major UK newspapers to give him so much oxygen of publicity, isn’t it? Wouldn’t do for them just to ignore his absurd woolgathering, would it.)

It’s just the same old stuff – word for word, some of it. Once again ‘atheism has become more vocal and aggressive.’ There’s something intriguing about the way clerics and apologists like to get up and say harsh things about secularists and atheists all the time and then squeal like pigs when secularists and atheists have the gall to say anything in return. It’s kind of like a playground bully complaining about a kid who resists the bullying. Anyway – Cardinal Buttercup is looking around for more soldiers.

This unfriendly climate for people of all religious faiths has led to the recognition that what we have in common as Christian believers is infinitely more important than what divides us…

Right. Credulity is infinitely more important than the actual content that one is credulous about. It doesn’t matter what you believe for no good reason, just believe something that way.

Over the past 40 years, social prejudice against Catholics has largely disappeared, and Catholics have been fully assimilated into the mainstream of British life. Intellectual and cultural acceptance is another matter; and there is a widely perceived conflict between religious belief (and the Catholic Church in particular) on the one hand and the prevailing notion of what it means to be a “liberal” and tolerant society on the other.

Yes, that’s true (though not as true as it ought to be, and even less so in the US). That would be because there is such a conflict. That would be because you want to persecute homosexuals and force women to remain pregnant when they don’t want to and convince people not to use condoms during an AIDS pandemic. There are other reasons too, but I haven’t got all day.

[T]here is a current dislike of absolutes in any area of human activity, including morality (though this does not apparently preclude an absolute ban on anything that can be interpreted as racial, sexual or gender discrimination).

Notice what a lot he gives away there – notice that he apparently objects to bans on anything that can be interpreted as racial, sexual or gender discrimination – notice that he apparently wants to go in for such discrimination – as of course he does.

One area of specific concern for the Catholic Church is marriage and family life. The British enthusiasm for debate and tolerance of alternative views has led to an acceptance of diversity and pluralism. This is welcome, but if an acceptance of diversity and pluralism becomes an end in itself there is a grave risk that long-accepted cultural norms, such as marriage and family, are undermined to the detriment of society as a whole.

In other words not all women will spend their entire adult lives in the kitchen, not all couples will have children, not all couples will be straight, and other such horrors. In other words Cardinal Daffodil is upset that it’s not still 1955. Well suck it up, Cardie.



Whither the hollyhock and the dew on the queen?

Dec 9th, 2008 11:59 am | By

So then there’s this other thing with this ‘junior dictionary’ (what’s a junior dictionary? why not just have a regular dictionary and use it as needed? what’s the point of having a special dictionary that won’t have the words that you don’t know what they mean?) that’s part of a sinister plot to get rid of words about Christianity and the queen and flowers so that there won’t be any more Britishness. Something like that.

Oxford University Press has removed words like “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire” and “monarch” from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like “blog”, “broadband” and “celebrity”. Dozens of words related to the countryside have also been culled.

Really? How does Julie Henry know that OUP replaced the first words with the other words? Did OUP tell her that? Did OUP confess to having held editorial meetings in which everyone sat around saying ‘let’s drop “bishop” and replace it with “blog”‘ and ‘hoo ya let’s do that hey’?

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society.

Well, somebody should give them a good hard kick if they really said that, for sure, but I still doubt the whole replacement scenario.

An analysis of the word choices made by the dictionary lexicographers has revealed that entries from “abbey” to “willow” have been axed. Instead, words such as “MP3 player”, “voicemail” and “attachment” have taken their place.

Entries ‘from “abbey” to “willow”‘ – meaning what? All the words between abbey and willow? Probably not. But what then? Oh, you know – you can do the math – words like clerestory, and nuncio, and archepiscopal, and other words like tapir, and hystrix, and tamandua. But what the two categories have to do with each other…only a master at a private school could say.

Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, a leading private school in Berkshire, said: “I am stunned that words like “saint”, “buttercup”, “heather” and “sycamore” have all gone and I grieve it.

Well quite. Children who want to pray to Saint Buttercup have nowhere to go now. It’s heart-rending.



The clouds part

Dec 9th, 2008 11:38 am | By

There’s this Australian MP who can really spot a sinister coincidence and then having spotted it figure out that it’s not a coincidence at all but a joined-up sequence of events with one (after a gap of six months) causing the other. If only more people had talents like that, All would be Explained.

Labor MP James Bidgood, the first-time MP under investigation for selling pictures of a protester attempting to set fire to himself outside Parliament House, has declared the global financial crisis an act of God…”In 1987 there was another march for Jesus. That took place in April. And guess what happened in October 1987? The stock market crashed.”

Oooooooooooooh – I never noticed that before. Makes you think, don’t it? Makes the chills run up your spine? Ohhhhhhhhhhhh my my my – there was a march for Jesus in April, and in October the stock market crashed. It’s so obvious! Why has no one pointed it out before?!

Well I suppose that could be because some other things happened that April, and then more things in May, and some more in June, and so on…and also because some other things happened in October – so drawing all the lines that join up all these different things gets to be kind of complicated, and scratchy, so people didn’t spot the pattern. I can see where that would happen. But James Bidgood has a special talent that allows him to single out this one thing that happened in April and this other, larger thing that happened in October, and unerringly draw the solid heavy thick black line that joins them up. That’s why he’s an MP and you’re not.



Cherie Blair thinks god is nice to women

Dec 8th, 2008 11:04 am | By

So Cherie Blair is giving a lecture in Rome on Friday titled ‘Religion as a force in protecting women’s human rights’. So…..what’s she going to say then? What can she say? It would be interesting to know.

One wonders if she’s going to just…make stuff up. People do that you know. I’ve noticed it. They like women’s rights, and they like religion, so they want to say the one helps or supports or fosters or protects the other – but there is very little evidence of that, and quite a lot of evidence of its opposite. So what are they to do? Well…just say things, that’s what. Religion allows that, and most other institutions and bystanders allow it too. It’s even expected. Religion is a good thing (the idea seems to be); other good things are good things; religion should be associated with these other good things; therefore when saying things about religion it’s commendable to use a certain kind of verb (helps, supports, etc) between the word ‘religion’ and the good things. No need to look for evidence or consider the plausibility of the use of such verbs; just do the necessary. So Karen Armstrong informs us that ‘at the core of every single one of the world religions is the virtue of compassion’ – which just isn’t true. The seven deadly sins don’t even mention cruelty, which is just as well given how vindictive the OT god is, and Jesus is not much better. It’s the modern piety that religion is all about compassion – that compassion is ‘at the core of’ all religions, whatever ‘at the core’ of means – but compassion has not always been the important virtue that it is now; Armstrong is just blatantly reading her own modern morality back into the old religions. It seems unlikely that Cherie Blair will be attempting anything else.



Conscience and belief is it

Dec 7th, 2008 11:16 am | By

The Cardinal talks the usual familiar self-pitying self-serving bullshit.

“Although the tone of public discussion is sceptical or dismissive rather than antireligious, atheism has become more vocal and aggressive.” Britain’s most senior Catholic leader says that the “unfriendly climate for people of all faiths” has united the country’s three major faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

In complaining about people who don’t share their baseless ‘faiths’ having the gall to speak up. Touching to see them unite though, when in the good old days they used to slaughter each other at every opportunity.

“The vocal minority who argue that religion has no role in modern British society portray Catholic teaching on the family as prejudiced and intolerant to those pursuing alternatives,” he says.

Yes, that’s right – because it is. ‘Catholic teaching on the family’ is highly ‘intolerant’ of homosexuality for no clear or convincing reason; it also endlessly tells women that we are profoundly different from men – equal to be sure, in some formal sense, but different different different – and must (yes must – they’re not shy) not attempt to be like men or in fact to be like anything other than the familiar limited maternal figure. That, you see, is why the ‘vocal minority’ don’t want to be told what to do by cardinals and rabbis and imams.

[T]he cardinal argues that moves to silence the faith communities must be resisted. “There is a current dislike of absolutes in any area of human activity, including morality,” he says.

It’s not a question of ‘silencing’ the ‘faith communities’; it’s a question of not submitting to them, and of not granting them extra political power on the strength of their ‘faith,’ and of not giving a free pass to ‘faith-based’ irrational unjust rules and ‘absolutes’ that oppress or subordinate people.

He blames the culture of individual rights, encouraged by the Human Rights Act, as responsible for creating a society that claims to be tolerant, but in fact denies the rights of religious groups to act according to their conscience and beliefs.

As always, that depends on what is meant by ‘act.’ In the case of some religious groups for instance it means families forcing children to marry total strangers whom they do not want to marry. The culture of individual rights does, when it is awake and attentive enough, deny the ‘right’ of religious groups to act according to their ‘conscience and beliefs’ in cases like that, and other similarly oppressive violent antiegalitarian cases. It does and it should; the only problem is that it doesn’t do it enough; it should do it more. Does Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor approve of forced marriage? Probably not – but then he shouldn’t talk kack about the rights of religious groups to act according to their conscience and beliefs. He should be more responsible.