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.

Other people far away

Dec 5th, 2008 12:22 pm | By

Norm makes a very sharp and telling point.

Periodically, the Guardian newspaper carries an op-ed piece on how somebody or other, typically a Western government, is sowing fear for some nefarious purpose. If the piece isn’t by Madeleine Bunting, then it’s likely to be by Simon Jenkins. And so it is today. He’s talking ‘scaremongering’, ‘politics of fear’, ‘fear politics’, ‘the pervasiveness of fear’…

Yes isn’t he just:

The media’s fondness for describing any explosion as “al-Qaeda-linked” has turned what was a tiny, if efficient, cabal of fanatics into a global menace, ridiculously on a par with Hitler and postwar communism…At least organised crime and communism posed genuine threats to American liberties. Al-Qaida does not, yet it has become the ruling obsession of Bush’s courtiers.

Norm retorts –

As long as the squads are only kidnapping, torturing and murdering people, you see, law and liberties remain intact – even if not the liberties of those particular people happening to be now dead or horribly injured.

There is something deeply contemptible about this section of Western liberal opinion and its most consistent organ, The Guardian. Its spokespeople can assimilate everything done by Islamist enemies of the rule of law and of the liberties of the not-yet-murdered…[O]nly let there be blood on the streets caused by groups openly proclaiming their hatred of secular law and liberty, and the Simon Jenkinses and the rest of his Guardianista ilk can’t wait to impress upon you how very relaxed you ought to be about it.

Let me zero in on the stupidity of ‘At least organised crime and communism posed genuine threats to American liberties. Al-Qaida does not, yet it has become the ruling obsession of Bush’s courtiers.’ Let me zero in on the stupidity and callous brutality of those two sentences. Here’s the thing: ‘American liberties’ are not the only issue here. It is entirely possible to think that al-Qaeda is no threat at all to American liberties or American anything else and still think that al-Qaida is a very horrible phenomenon, on a par with Nazism morally if not in its power (so far) to murder millions. It is entirely possible to think that we in the US can get along just fine even if al-Qaeda flourishes like the green bay tree in South Asia – and to think that our ability to get along just fine is not the only issue, is not the point here, is not the deciding factor. It is entirely possible to think that what happened in Mumbai was appalling and worth being very shocked and worried about because of the people of Mumbai. It is entirely possible to think that the spread of Islamism in much of the developing world could well leave the US almost untouched and still think it’s an absolute nightmare because of what it will do to the people who live under its crushing punitive rule.

This isn’t a very subtle or sophisticated thought, surely. It’s obvious enough, surely. It’s simple enough. Bad things are bad even if they happen to other people far away. That applies to DR Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, Saudi Arabia – it applies to more places than one likes to contemplate – and it applies to Mumbai and Kabul, too, even if New York and Washington remain unmussed forever.

The sleep of reason begets monsters

Dec 4th, 2008 10:48 am | By

We’ve finished the book. Don’t say what book – the book we’ve been writing – Does God Hate Women? It’s finished.

It’s full of nightmares – but the nightmares are only a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the nightmares there are. Nicholas Kristof has been finding some.

[A]longside the brutal public terrorism that fills the television screens, there is an equally cruel form of terrorism that gets almost no attention and thrives as a result: flinging acid on a woman’s face to leave her hideously deformed. Here in Pakistan, I’ve been investigating such acid attacks, which are commonly used to terrorize and subjugate women and girls in a swath of Asia from Afghanistan through Cambodia (men are almost never attacked with acid). Because women usually don’t matter in this part of the world, their attackers are rarely prosecuted and acid sales are usually not controlled. It’s a kind of terrorism that becomes accepted as part of the background noise in the region.

Because women don’t matter. They’re worth having, but only the way a hamburger or a hammer is worth having; they’re not important or significant or worth a fuss, so once they’re not worth having any more, it’s okay to wreck them.

Ms. Azar had earned a good income and was supporting her three small children when she decided to divorce her husband, Azar Jamsheed, a fruit seller who rarely brought money home. He agreed to end the (arranged) marriage because he had his eye on another woman. After the divorce was final, Mr. Jamsheed came to say goodbye to the children, and then pulled out a bottle and poured acid on his wife’s face, according to her account and that of their son.

He was never arrested.

Acid attacks and wife burnings are common in parts of Asia because the victims are the most voiceless in these societies: they are poor and female. The first step is simply for the world to take note, to give voice to these women. Since 1994, Ms. Bukhari has documented 7,800 cases of women who were deliberately burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks, just in the Islamabad area. In only 2 percent of those cases was anyone convicted.

Okay, world: take note. 7,800 known cases in 14 years in just one city. That’s a lot of burned women.

For the last two years, Senators Joe Biden and Richard Lugar have co-sponsored an International Violence Against Women Act, which would adopt a range of measures to spotlight such brutality and nudge foreign governments to pay heed to it. Let’s hope that with Mr. Biden’s new influence the bill will pass in the next Congress. That might help end the silence and culture of impunity surrounding this kind of terrorism.

Yeah let’s. Well done, Senators. Way to go Joe. Get that baby passed.

The universality of the UDHR

Dec 3rd, 2008 5:07 pm | By

Anthony Grayling is doing a series on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is easy now, as it always has been, to think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fine-sounding efflation of rhetoric, or, conversely, to think that it is a piece of Eurocentric Enlightenment imperialism whose highminded pronouncements – for example, about the equality of men and women – do not please all members of all cultures.

Indeed. Highminded pronouncements about rights and equality of anyone are bound to fail to please some members of all cultures because there are always some members of cultures who want to be able to exploit and dominate other people. The UDHR is intended to be an obstacle in the way of that project.

Grayling says as much in the next installment.

[T]he aim of the first three articles is to erect a presumption of rights as a stockade around individuals to shield them from arbitrary depredation. It is to guard them against becoming prey to the unscrupulous and the more powerful, against hostile majorities, and against tyrannical government. To the sceptic who asks, “Who says that individuals have these rights?” the argument of experience about the minimum required for a chance of human flourishing, and the vividly recent history of circumstances in which millions were regarded as not having any such rights, is a definitive reply.

I don’t say that indivduals actually have the rights, but I do say that we should all act as if they do – which is much the same thing as ‘a presumption of rights as a stockade around individuals to shield them from arbitrary depredation.’ A presumption of rights; that’s all; the sceptic can relax.

The UDHR was devised as an exhortatory document, a statement of aspirations; its preamble says that it is a proclamation of “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, and enjoins UN members states and their citizens to “strive … to promote respect” for them. So although the emphatic rhetoric of the articles makes them sound legalistic and marmoreal, their force is primarily moral.

Sure. A declaration of intent – and one that we had all better adhere to.

But there are dissenters.

One of the standard objections to the UDHR is that it is a western Enlightenment invention, and that its claim to universality is spurious. Few things refute this allegation so swiftly as thoughts of torture and slavery…Doubts about the UDHR’s universality were voiced early, and not at first by people in colonised and developing countries, who welcomed the UDHR with open arms (it was the big powers who were suspicious of it, as threatening to interfere with the exercise of their hegemony), but rather by bien pensants in the western world itself. In 1947 the American Anthropological Association voiced concern that ideas of human rights are ethnocentric…

Because of course highminded pronouncements – for example, about the equality of men and women – do not please all members of all cultures. Good that anthropologists were and are alert to the injustice of expecting unpleased members of cultures to treat other people as rights-bearers, isn’t it.

In any case, cultural bias is not always a bad thing. Those cultures that condemn genital mutilation of girls are justified in condemning the cultures that practice it, because they can make a case that members of the latter cultures would be bound to accept in other respects…[S]o much for relativism. And that is an important point, because Articles 4 and 5 are an explication of Article 3’s “life, liberty and security”, and show that it applies without borders.

I wonder if we can make a deal – we’ll give up SUVs if you give up FGM. A win-win situation.

The Vatican lives up to itself

Dec 2nd, 2008 5:00 pm | By

Good old Vatican – it makes sure we won’t relax our guard and start thinking they’re a nice bunch of fellas there. It makes sure to keep reminding us that no, they’re a nasty bigoted punitive set of dogmatists who insist on their obligation to mistreat people for no good reason.

The Vatican has said it opposes a European Union proposal for a United Nations declaration formally condemning discrimination against homosexuals, which it claims would “de-criminalise” same sex unions.

So apparently it thinks same sex unions are and should remain crimes. That’s nice. Of course, if priests fiddle with children, that should be protected and kept secret, but if gay adults want to pair off, oh my no, that must be called a crime. No poxy secular EU is going to mess around with that.

Access of evil

Dec 1st, 2008 1:14 am | By

What a foul ruthless disgusting privileged shameless contemptible bastard George Bush is. Not that this is a news flash…but new instances of it can still cause the jaw to drop with revulsion and loathing.

The Labor Department is racing to complete a new rule, strenuously opposed by President-elect Barack Obama, that would make it much harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job. The rule, which has strong support from business groups, says that in assessing the risk from a particular substance, federal agencies should gather and analyze “industry-by-industry evidence” of employees’ exposure to it during their working lives. The proposal would, in many cases, add a step to the lengthy process of developing standards to protect workers’ health.

Bastard. Evil smirking selfish protected shameless little bastard. He’s never had to work around toxic substances and hazardous chemicals, his children will never have to work around toxic substances and hazardous chemicals, none of his friends and relations will ever have to work around toxic substances and hazardous chemicals – so what is it to him if other people do have to? So their lungs get seared – so their GI tracts get abraded – so they get cancer – so what? That’s their problem. They should have been born to rich parents if they wanted to work in safe conditions.

Scum. The man is scum. It’s not possible to despise him enough.

Ways of knowing

Dec 1st, 2008 1:00 am | By

I trust you read Tom Clark’s terrific article on epistemology. I’m going to comment on just one section, ‘Misplaced concessions to non-empiricism.’

Most organizations in the U.S. that champion science take the politically safe route of conceding a certain respect to their biggest epistemic competition, traditional faith-based institutional religions such as Christianity. A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural.

Indeed it does, and, annoyingly and unhelpfully (not to say harmfully), it does it without actually explicitly saying it. As Tom says, it suggests it, but it doesn’t spell it out. This is not surprising because of course there is no reason to think it’s true. There is no reason to think religions do have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural – but if it’s suggested, perhaps they’ll calm down a little and let science get on with things. They never do seem to calm down though, and the suggestion is harmful to onlookers who could end up believing that religions do have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural.

In the examples Tom quotes I think the worst bit of phrasing comes from the National Academy of Science –

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.

That comes much too close to saying explicitly that religion has a way of knowing, but that’s the very thing religion doesn’t have. It has lots of ways of claiming to know, of pretending to know, of performing an imitation of knowing; but it has no way of actually legitimately knowing. (Tom says exactly that in the paragraph following the quoted passages. I just felt like saying it too.)

By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist. The reason is simple but needs to be made explicit: religious and other non-empirical ways of knowing don’t sufficiently respect the distinction between appearance and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity. They are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by perceptual limitations, wishful thinking, uncorroborated intuition, conventional wisdom, cultural tradition, and other influences that may not be responsive to the way the world actually is.

Just so – along with the rest of what Tom says about it; it’s hard to excerpt because it’s all so admirably clear and compelling. At any rate – all this is obvious enough and yet it’s kept tactfully veiled in much public discourse simply in order to appease people who are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by wishful thinking among other things. It’s all very unfortunate. The very people who most need to learn to guard against cognitive bias are the ones who are being appeased lest they get ‘offended’ at discovering that. It’s an endless circle of epistemic disability.

Faith-based religions and other non-empirically based worldviews routinely make factual assertions about the existence of god, paranormal abilities, astrological influences, the power of prayer, etc. So they are inevitably in the business of representing reality, of describing what they purport to be objective truths, some of which concern the supernatural. But having signed on to the cognitive project of supplying an accurate model of the world, they routinely violate basic epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s consequently no reason to grant them any domain of cognitive competence. Although this might sound arrogant, it’s a judgment reached from the standpoint of epistemic humility.

The real arrogance is the routine violation of epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s something so vain, so self-centered, about doing that – as if it’s appropriate to think that our hopes and wishes get to decide what reality is. It’s just decent humility to realize that reality is what it is and that we are not so important or powerful that we can create it or change it with the power of thought.

A few young men out on a spree

Nov 28th, 2008 4:23 pm | By

It’s hard to read it without feeling sick – sick with loathing and disgust. With hatred of what people can be at their most horrible – and of what makes them be like that.

[T]he Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus, previously known as the Victoria terminus, a world heritage site and one of India’s busiest stations, was the scene of mayhem, with blood spattered across the station forecourt and platforms. Gunmen shot up the reservation counter of the station, randomly sprayed passengers, believed to be entirely composed of Indian travellers and commuters, and fled. “They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground,” said Nasim Inam, a witness. Cafe worker Pappu Mishra said two men dressed in black walked into the station pulling guns from their bags and shooting commuters. “Their audaciousness was breathtaking,” he said. “One man loaded the magazine into the gun, the other kept shooting. They appeared calm and composed. They were not in the slightest hurry. They didn’t seem to be afraid at all.” At least 10 people were killed.

Just calmly, tranquilly, cheerfully strolling around killing and maiming people, as one might stroll around a big city taking in the sights.

While guests in both hotels spoke of some gunmen asking for Americans and Britons, the death toll made it clear that, by a vast majority, the main victims were Indians and that any foreigner was regarded as a suitable target. Among the dead are Japanese, Italians, Germans and Australians and among the guests rounded up were Yemenis, Spaniards, New Zealanders, Turks and Israelis.

Whatever. Whoever. It doesn’t matter. It never has. Anybody, everybody – everybody is the enemy. They’re all either infidels, or consumers, or Westerners, or Indians, or foreign, or in the way, or not pure enough, or not waging jihad, or something – they all have something about them that makes it quite all right to kill them or maim them. Why not? Al Qaeda tells us it appeals ‘to the “weak and oppressed” around the world so why not shoot up train stations and hospitals?

Gunmen also attacked Cama and Albless hospital and GT hospital, causing fresh panic. The hospital is known as a place where women and the children of the poor are treated and there was puzzlement as to why it had been added to the target list of the attackers.

Because they’re horrible horrible horrible people who like hurting and killing people, that’s why! They blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania all those years ago, killing mostly Africans! And women aren’t supposed to go to hospitals, remember? And children are just future women or infidels or consumers…so why spare them? Why spare anyone? No reason.

Allah the Merciful. You have got to be kidding.

How humanists are like the Taliban

Nov 26th, 2008 11:23 am | By

The British Humanist Association got a grant from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to hold a series of debates about the place of religion in public life.

The four events will include speakers from faith groups but one of the keynote addresses is being delivered by the prominent atheist Professor AC Grayling…

But? Why but? What do they mean ‘but’? That a series of debates about the place of religion in public life should include nothing but ‘speakers from faith groups’? But that would be kind of a stupid ‘debate,’ wouldn’t it? More like a prayer meeting, or a preaching to the choir session? More like a complete waste of time in fact? Why would a series of debates about the place of religion in public life not include atheists, even prominent atheists?

Critics say it is wrong for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to give taxpayers’ money to a controversial organisation whose stance would be found objectionable by many members of the public. Neil Addison, a Roman Catholic barrister who specialises in religious discrimination, said: “It’s a bit like paying the Taliban to lecture on women’s rights.”

Oh is it. Is it really. Because the British Humanist Association has so much in common with the Taliban? Or simply because in both cases the idea is that the thing discussed is not such a good idea. But the equivalency of course is 1) absurd and 2) vicious. You might as well say that abolitionists holding debates on slavery is a bit like the Taliban lecturing on women’s rights. In both cases the parties are opposed to the thing under discussion, but the morality of each position is hardly equivalent. Of course Neil Addison the Catholic barrister knows that perfectly well, but he also knows that his outrageous comment will leave the desired impression. Very Catholic, that is; downright Jesuit, that is.

No actually Mr Addison the Catholic church has a hell of a lot more in common with the Taliban than any humanist group does. Both tell women what to do, both tell women they are subordinate to men, both try to keep women pregnant and dependent. Both hate women unless they are meek and ‘devout’ and mostly out of sight. There’s some ecumenical ‘religious discrimination’ for you. Go tell the UN on me.

How constitutions differ

Nov 25th, 2008 3:49 pm | By

How Bangladesh went wrong.

Bangladesh began sliding slowly towards Islamism following the assassination of Rahman in 1975. In 1977, references to secularism were deleted from the constitution and the phrase “Bismillah-Ar-Rahiman-Ar Rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful”) was inserted. Five years later, General Ershad…introduced the Eighth Amendment, making Islam the state religion. The constitution now states that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.”

Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful, who (according to them) wants men to treat women like dirt, and treacherous disobedient dirt at that.

I was on a bus yesterday that had an ad inside with that saying on it, along with an injunction to ‘Learn More About Islam.’ It’s a ridiculous saying – which is what makes it so irritating to see. The Beneficient, the Merciful, when actual life for most Muslims around the world is so shitty, and getting so much shittier, largely thanks to people who want to ratify all their bullying rules and restrictions with ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful.’ If Allah is so beneficent and merciful, why are the rules and restrictions so harsh and cruel?

Ridiculous being ordered to have absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah when the human interpreters are so untrustworthy.

One sees why Mary Kenny gets grumpy mail

Nov 25th, 2008 11:20 am | By

Mary Kenny must be somewhat impervious to criticism – she’s saying the same absurd things she said last time we took this ride – minus the hilarious gripe about gloomy atheist funerals, to be sure.

‘Atheist bus’* – blah blah –

I found the atheists’ coda “so relax and enjoy life” ludicrously implausible. I’ve never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters. Read GK Chesterton’s great poem ‘The Ballad of the Sad Athiest’. It perfectly describes this kind of dreary and austere puritan.

I think I said this last time, but ho hum, I know my duty, I’ll just say it all over again – but in a high squeaky voice this time, by way of variety. What or whom Mary Kenny has or has not met is supremely beside the point. Mary Kenny does not get to conclude from whatever sample she personally has encountered, what all atheists are like. Besides which, Kenny so obviously has no sense of the need to check one’s own perceptions and biases that I don’t even trust her to know what kind of atheists she’s met – I don’t trust her to avoid the obvious error of remembering the glum atheists and forgetting the cheerful ones; in short, selection bias. One can’t even trust her to punctuate her own sentences (what happened after that parenthesis? a blackout?) so why should one trust her to sort her own memories with caution?

I still believe in freedom of speech and freedom of debate: although it is clear that if the militant atheists had their way, there would be no space whatsoever for Christians or other believers in the public realm.

Is it? Is that clear? Not to me, and Kenny (you won’t be surprised to learn) offers not a shred of a ghost of a reason to think it is. She just announces it, that’s all. She doesn’t remember meeting any sanguine atheists therefore all atheists are miserable blighters therefore they want to expel all believers from the public realm. QED.

I am convinced that this injection of atheism into the culture is directly responsible for the increase in drug-abuse, in crime and, most specifically, in the five-fold increase in suicide that we have seen in these islands over the last 25 years.

Kenny is convinced of a lot of things, on no apparent grounds whatever. She shouldn’t make a boast of it though.

A life without a spiritual sense of purpose, or the moral parameters set by the Ten Commandments — is a living hell.

Jesus god – the ten commandments. Please. Three about crawling to god; sabbath; parents; adultery; and four blindingly obvious minimal prohibitions: murder, lying, theft, and envy. Big fucking deal. Life without that stupid little list, more than half of which is either dead wrong or debatable, is a living hell? There’s not a word about cruelty; nothing about being generous or kind or (Karen Armstrong please note) compassionate; nothing about justice or rights or equality. Yet life without that narrow jejune superstitious unimaginative impoverished piece of crap is a living hell? It seems much more likely to me that a life limited to that grocery list as the sum total of morality would be – not necessarily a living hell but certainly a small airless thing.

Then she goes on to say – pleasantly – that atheists are the cause of parents who torture their babies to death. Back atcha, hon.

*Atheist bus? It’s a bus with an atheist ad on the side. Is it a theist bus when it has a theist ad on it? You don’t seem to see that phrase, so probably not. Yet another case of Special Rules for Atheism.

The pope says more than he meant to

Nov 24th, 2008 11:55 am | By

The pope perhaps spilled the beans even more than the Vatican realizes.

[T]he pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”…To some scholars, the pope’s remarks seemed aimed at pushing more theoretical interreligious conversations into the practical realm. “He’s trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the clouds of theory and down to brass tacks: how can we know the truth about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic creedal differences?”

How indeed. By thinking about the subject in secular, rational, human-based terms, that’s how. By bracketing ‘creedal’ matters altogether and thinking about this world and these humans and these issues. But the pope of course won’t have intended to say that…