Pre-infected Condoms

Sep 22nd, 2006 8:34 pm | By

Why did no one (until G Tingey in comments today) tell me Richard Dawkins has set up a foundation and a website? It’s apparently (judging by the dates on some of the postings) been there since May. This is September. I’m out of touch.

So it republishes this Johann Hari piece about the real reasons to feel disapprobation for the pontiff. Here’s an item that stirred a certain amount of distaste in me.

For over a decade now, he has been one of the primary defenders of priests who go to the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world and tell them condoms are the cause of AIDS. In the past year, I have sat in two Catholic churches thousands of miles apart and listened while a Catholic priest told illiterate people with no alternative sources of information that condoms come pre-infected with AIDS and are the reason people die of it. In Bukavu, a crater-city in Congo, and in the slums ringing Caracas, Venezuela, people believed it. They told me they “would not go to Heaven” if they used condoms, and that condoms contain tiny invisible holes through which the virus passes – the advice their priest had doled out.

I knew about the last part, but I didn’t know priests were telling people that condoms come pre-infected and are themselves the reason people die of Aids. I knew priests were telling people condoms were ineffective as well as sinful; I didn’t know they were telling people they were actually the source of infection. I knew they were wicked, I didn’t know they were as wicked as that.

So…there’s one example of a harm that is prompted exclusively by a religious idea. What possible secular reason can there be to object to condoms on principle? And if there were one, what possible secular reason could be strong enough to outweigh the reasons to try to avoid getting and transmitting Aids. One reason preaching against condom-use is so disgusting is that people can be entirely virtuous and faithful and still get Aids from a partner who isn’t, so the Vatican’s policy kills faithful wives along with unfaithful husbands, and then it kills the children of the unfaithful husbands. It takes a real perversion of moral insight to do that, and to go on doing it despite being told that it’s what you’re doing. That’s the kind of thing that makes ‘aggressive’ atheists like me (and like Dawkins, and Hari) angry. There’s enough unavoidable illness and misery in the world; it annoys us that the Vatican goes to so much trouble to create extra, for the sake of – opposing birth control. The game seems not quite worth the candle, frankly.

But there is a deeper philosophical repugnance to Ratzinger lying beneath these individual decisions. His recent lecture was devoted to the premise that the free pursuit of reason will lead all people to a rational belief in the Christian God described in the Bible.

So it’s just a coincidence that most Christians have Christian parents and that most non-Christians have non-Christian parents? Accidents of birth, geography, social surroundings, context, upbringing, education, tradition have nothing to do with it? Interesting. Credulity-straining, but interesting.

Brown on Dawkins

Sep 21st, 2006 9:13 pm | By

Andrew Brown doesn’t admire Dawkins’s new book, despite agreeing on the basics.

In his broad thesis, Dawkins is right. Religions are potentially dangerous, and in their popular forms profoundly irrational. The agnostics must be right and the atheists very well may be. There is no purpose to the universe. Nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has been reliably reported. To demand a designer to explain the complexity of the world begs the question, “Who designed the designer?” It has been clear since Darwin that we have no need to hypothesise a designer to explain the complexity of living things. The results of intercessory prayer are indistinguishable from those of chance.

Despite all the trillions of words in theological journals, ‘who designed the designer?’ is still a question without an answer. But Brown says Dawkins should get to grips with ‘the important truth added in the 20th century: that religious belief persists in the face of these facts and arguments.’

Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it’s nothing to do with their atheism.

That does sound too simple (but I haven’t read the book, so don’t know if it’s a fair account of what Dawkins says – and people aren’t always fair to him). But a slightly different answer might be that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes that they wouldn’t otherwise commit, and that is why the fact that they are religious opinions is shocking. If religious opinions generate murders and wars that would not otherwise occur, then religious opinions are a source of bad things, and that’s bad (whether or not it’s shocking, which is a little beside the point). It may well be that a lot of those crimes would occur anyway, that if there were no religion, some other pretext would be found; it may well be that what is basic is rivalry and anger and hatred and heterophobia, and religion is often just the top-dressing. But it may not; or it may sometimes and not others. For one thing, religion can transform and translate an otherwise obviously contemptible motivation into a glorious and pious one, and thus free people to act on it when they otherwise wouldn’t. I can’t kill those people just because I hate them, or just because I want their land, but if they’re heretics or infidels or followers of the anti-Christ, then I’m doing a good and brave thing. Atheism doesn’t exactly work that way – but it may work other ways, so I think Brown is right to say (paraphrasing) that it’s too simple to say religious believers kill people and atheists don’t. But I don’t think it’s too simple to say that religious enthusiasm or a pious sense of duty can motivate crimes that would otherwise go unmotivated.

The public arena has grown hostile to reason

Sep 20th, 2006 10:13 pm | By

I went to hear Chris Mooney on his book tour on Sunday, at dear Ravenna Third Place, which I have known since before it was born. He mentioned that he’d heard Al Gore was going to do a book about the war on reason, and sure enough. I’ve always found Gore too conservative in many ways, but on the other hand I’ve always liked his, shall we say, anti-anti-intellectualism, or ‘wonkishness’ as it’s usually called. Wonkishness is a good thing.

As described by editor Scott Moyers, the book is a meditation on how “the public arena has grown more hostile to reason,” and how solving problems such as global warming is impeded by a political culture with a pervasive “unwillingness to let facts drive decisions.”

Boringly, the rest of the article talks about nothing but what all this means for various people’s presidential plans, but that one sentence heralds what could be a good and much-needed book, one to put on the shelf next to The Republican War on Science – and, I suppose, that other book that is a meditation on how the public arena has grown more hostile to reason.


Sep 19th, 2006 6:50 pm | By

George Johnson in SciAm offers some welcome clarity.

…there has been a resurgence in recent years of “natural theology”–the attempt to justify religious teachings not through faith and scripture but through rational argument, astronomical observations and even experiments on the healing effects of prayer….Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University astronomer and science historian, tells how in the 1980s he was part of an effort to produce a kind of anti-Cosmos, a television series called Space, Time, and God that was to counter Sagan’s “conspicuously materialist approach to the universe.” The program never got off the ground, but its premise survives: that there are two ways to think about science. You can be a theist, believing that behind the veil of randomness lurks an active, loving, manipulative God, or you can be a materialist, for whom everything is matter and energy interacting within space and time. Whichever metaphysical club you belong to, the science comes out the same…But what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. “In my view,” Collins goes on to say, “DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God.” Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.

Furthermore, Collins’s claim depends heavily on what he means and what other people understand by words like ‘explain’ and ‘special’ not to mention ‘the Moral Law’ and ‘God.’ What he seems to mean there is that DNA sequence will never explain in a way that he (in common with many others) finds satisfying, convincing, psychologically and emotionally complete and adequate. He probably means, approximately, if I may interpret, that the human capacity to have a moral sense seems special in a different kind of way from a string of information. Well, yes. It does. Even an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ (thank you Timothy Garton Ash) like me has that feeling. Human consciousness, complexity, awareness, aesthetic sense, imagination, empathy, hope, memory, anticipation, creativity, elaboration – all do seem special, and unlike (in some ways, though not others) the rest of nature. But the thing is, they would. That is to say that feeling is probably just a by-product of the complexity in question, and inevitable in any being with an elaborated information processing system. We feel special to ourselves because, to ourselves, we are special, and because a complex brain gives us the capacity to have thoughts about what our thoughts are like and how they are different from the thoughts of our cat or that spider or this rock. It would be difficult to have a brain of that kind without also having the thought that there is something special about it.

And then, if you think further about the other end of this discrepancy, this unexplanatory explanation, this explanation that doesn’t satisfy, things get difficult right away, because if the idea is that materialism can’t explain our minds and moral sense but God can, then one thinks about that god who created the universe with its hundreds of billions of galaxies each with hundreds of billions of stars, and one realizes that there’s precious little reason to think it’s Like Us or that we’re like it; little reason to think we’re the same kind of thing as that god only smaller and weaker. It seems to make much more sense to think that our ideas about the Moral Law and in fact our search for God would be of considerably less interest to this god than the ideas about the Moral Law of a flake of pepper would be to us. So, sure, to humans there does seem to be a strange and permanently puzzling gap between our consciousness and a material universe, but saying that God bridges that gap also does seem to be, as Johnson says, a coping mechanism rather than a genuinely convincing explanation.

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, tells of his exasperation with colleagues who try to play both sides of the street: looking to science for justification of their religious convictions while evading the most difficult implications–the existence of a prime mover sophisticated enough to create and run the universe, “to say nothing of mind reading millions of humans simultaneously.” Such an entity, he argues, would have to be extremely complex, raising the question of how it came into existence, how it communicates–through spiritons!–and where it resides.

Well exactly – ‘while evading the most difficult implications.’ That’s just it. Answering ‘God’ isn’t an answer, because it just raises the same question all over again, but magnified exponentially. If it seems strange that we’re here, why would it not seem even stranger that God is here? Why is it that we’re mysterious but ‘God’ is quite enough? The God answer doesn’t answer the questions, it opens a whole universe of new ones. It seems to me a bit lazy and a bit dishonest to pretend that materialistic explanations are inadequate while the God one is just right.

Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No one who has witnessed the merciless dissection of a new paper in physics would describe the atmosphere as overly polite.

But of course that’s just what one is not supposed to do – to put theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No no. No no no no. That’s insensitive, that’s offensive, that’s impermissible. People who do that are bullies and Enlightenment fundamentalists. People who give inadequate one-word answers that always consist of the same three letters, on the other hand, are not bullies at all but spiritual questers.

Junk Politics

Sep 17th, 2006 4:49 pm | By

No I’m still here, I haven’t run off with the minstrels. It’s just that there’s this deadline for TPM (The Philosophers’ Mag, you know) and I’ve been taken up with that. But I was reading an old Harper’s the other day, from November 2003, and found a lively article by Benjamin DeMott on ‘Junk Politics’ (excerpted from an eponymous book published a couple of months later). It’s not online, unfortunately, so I’ll give you an extract or two.

The case is that both the essential planks and the elaborating tropes of today’s junk politics are troublingly underexamined, yet they’ve been functioning for some time as major agents of public confusion…Junk politics introduces new qualifications for high political office…It tilts courage toward braggadocio, sympathy toward mawkishness, humility toward self-disrespect, identification with ordinary citizens toward distrust of brains.

Check, check, check, check.

Quiet accents of candor bring a sense of closeness between speaker and audience…The impression strengthens that heart – heart alone, not records of accomplishment, not positions on issues, not argued-for priorities, not expressive, persuasive talents – must be the electorate’s pivotal concern…Leaders need prove only that they can feel…[DeMott’s elipse] a child’s or parent’s or stranger’s pain. Problems aren’t as difficult as Phi Bete wonks claim.


And…there’s the diffidence-show implicit in leaders’ own mucker-posing speech, rich in solecisms, truculently stubborn mispronunciations [Eye-rack, anyone? OB], non sequiturs, plain absurdities…By intent or otherwise, such speech reflects lack of anxiety about appearing stupid to colleagues or constituents and thereby disses the political calling. The American democratic ideal called for universal, informed participation in the public square: acquaintance with skill of argument, familiarity with standards of coherence, brains. The embrace by those in high office of dim-bulb diffidence tropes – macho brandishings of ignorance – trashes that ideal and draws down added contempt on political vocation.

Check. Bad, bad, very bad.

The NYTBR blows it again

Sep 14th, 2006 8:30 pm | By

Alan Wolfe wrote a very, erm, unsatisfactory review of Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? in the NY Times book review on Sunday. We could just slap it into that largish collection we’re starting to build up of Weirdly, Almost Perversely Bad Reviews from the NYTBR – there’s the one William Vollman did of a book on Nietzsche that Brian Leiter ripped up one side and down the other, there’s the Leon Wieseltier one of Dennett’s new book that Brian also took issue with, there was that Wonkette mess on Katha Pollitt’s new book that I was faintly critical of, and now this.

It starts horridly – “Bérubé comes off as spunky, likable and anything but a left-wing extremist…” Spunky? Spunky? Why not just tell him he’s cute when he argues? Spunky is right up there with feisty, and feisty is a word that needs to be expunged from the language. It’s a wonder people don’t (as far as I know) call me that. Pleasingly, they’re much more likely to call me things like acid, savage, and acerbic, which I have to tell you, makes me beam with quiet but deep happiness. (Then again there was that time someone called me twee. O the agony. But still, that’s not as bad as feisty.)

But then the wheels really come off.

…and he convinces me that Horowitz is as unpleasant as he is ungracious. But he does not persuade me that Horowitz is wrong. I’ve taught in at least two universities known for their leftism, and I know full well that those who teach at them strenuously opppose hiring conservatives and treat students who venerate the military, for example, as misguided. Were Horowitz not in fact intent on replacing left-wing thought police with their right-wing equivalent, I would applaud his efforts.

But that’s why Horowitz is wrong! His schtick is not just saying hey there are too many lefties in universities, it’s working to get laws passed that would ‘fix’ this putative imbalance by getting the state to micromanage every aspect of university teaching, hiring, curriculum, grading, evaluation, and haircut. Der. You might as well say ‘if eliminating the estate tax didn’t benefit the rich while shifting the tax burden onto the poor, I would applaud it’. And then there’s the bit about ‘venerating’ the military, and the sloppy notion that thinking ‘veneration’ of any military might be misguided is a necessarily lefty idea.

It is instructive to learn that anthropology is not a discipline composed entirely of like-minded people because left-liberals do not always agree with poststructuralist Marxists, but this hardly addresses the widespread perception that cultural anthropology has little room for those who might believe that America’s presence in a third-world country might bring about some good.

The what? The widespread what? The widespread perception that what? What does ‘America’s presence’ mean? Some Americans? Undercover agents? Invasion? The whole country picking up and plopping itself down inside a third-world country, squashing everything in sight and slopping all over the neighbours? Surely whether that presence ‘might’ bring about some good or not depends heavily on what that means, but it’s impossible to tell what it means. It’s just loose sloppy hand-waving in the general direction of a thought without bothering to pin it down. That’s lazy, frankly. One gets the irresistible impression while reading this article that Wolfe scribbled it down while watching a football game on tv or something. It doesn’t seem to have his full attention.

Also fueling conservative anger is the fact that universities work remarkably well. They bring jobs and new industries to the regions in which they are located. They tend not to lay employees off with the haste of the private sector.

Hello? Some universities are in the private sector? I know conservatives think they’re some sort of alternative world because they’re not always directly shuttled around by the profit motive, but all the same, quite a few of them are private rather than state. Maybe there was a touchdown just then, and he lost the thread.

And then he wraps up with a disjointed, lazy last paragraph, in which he even admits to a kind of childish boredom. But the Times thought this was good enough. Well it isn’t.

The Fourth

Sep 14th, 2006 7:04 pm | By

I found the old comment on Ates and the one on Homa’s win because I went rummaging through last September’s comments to find out when B&W’s birthday is – to find I’m late again. I was late last year and I’m late again. I always think it’s later, because it didn’t really get going until October, I think, but no matter, it was born on September 10 so that’s it’s birthday. It’s four years old. That’s old, man. Four years old and still going strong. Toot toot.

Eternal Recurrence

Sep 14th, 2006 7:03 pm | By

Well that’s a funny thing – I’ve already commented on that Seyran Ates piece, I commented on it when it was new. I’d forgotten that. And furthermore, that was the day before Homa won her long fight, when Ontario’s premier decided not to allow Sharia in Ontario. Remember that? That was a good day. I ended the comment on Ates and Fadela Amara and others by saying I was looking forward to congratulating Homa on her victory – but I wasn’t expecting to be able to as soon as the next day. That was a good surprise.

It is irrelevant

Sep 14th, 2006 1:02 am | By

What was Seyran Ates saying a year ago?

Why are a few particularly estimable, highly intelligent women and men in very prominent positions, blind in one eye when it comes to the protection of minorities? Why are they blind in that eye with which they have otherwise promoted equal rights for the sexes, and still do? The so-called minority protection with respect to Islam and religious freedom can only be had at the cost of the equal rights of women, and ultimately only serves to perpetuate and reinforce obsolete, archaic, patriarchal structures.

That’s what. That ‘minority protection’ and ‘religious freedom’ for some boil down to subordination and oppression for others; that you can’t have everything; that toleration and respect are good things, other things being equal, but not if they mean toleration and respect for subjection of women.

I want to know, and many thousands of Muslim girls and women have a right to know, why understanding and infinite tolerance is practised with particular cultural traditions that are clearly oppressive of women. Human rights are universal and unconditional. And that goes most certainly for religious objectives. It is only girls and women who are forced to wear head-scarves. And it’s also a majority of girls and women who are affected by forced marriage. I don’t want to enter into the debate about women and schoolgirls who wear the headscarf of their own free will, or about the difference between arranged and forced marriages. Just one note: silence cannot be understood as assent. But very many girls are brought up to be silent on such topics.

Silence cannot be understood as assent, and neither can non-appearance on radio and tv and in newspapers, especially when the people who don’t appear are to varying degrees prevented from appearing in such public fora precisely by their own subordination and segregation. It’s a vicious cycle. Part of the subordination consists of segregation and concealment, so radio producers and newspaper reporters don’t interview Muslim women as much as they do men partly simply because they’re not as visible and audible, they’re not in such conspicuous positions, they’re not as accessible, and perhaps partly out of a bashful idea of good manners or respect; so their voices aren’t heard; so silence keeps on being understood as assent. It’s something to watch for. If an oppressed group’s oppression consists partly precisely in being kept systematically out of the public eye, then that fact should be kept firmly in focus.

Many judgements have been handed down in Germany which have excluded Islamic girls from school classes. The arguments always tend in the same direction. The “others” don’t have to live like we do. For example, in its judgement of March 24, 1994 (InfAuslR 8/92, S. 269), concerning the exemption of an Islamic schoolgirl from gym class, the higher administrative court in Bremen ruled: “…it is irrelevant that adolescent Muslim women are prevented by the demands of their religion from achieving equal status as women in Western society…”

Ouch. Well, what a good thing Seyran Ates is staying. Go, sister.

Whose justice?

Sep 14th, 2006 12:14 am | By

Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner seems like a funny guy – especially for a justice minister, at least in a country that is fortunate enough to have a constitution.

Donner believes that if, some time in the future, two-thirds of Dutch citizens believe that Sharia, Islamic law, should be introduced in the Netherlands, then it must be allowed. That, says the minister, is the ultimate consequence of democracy…The minister’s remarks have caused uproar in parliament. His own Christian Democrat [sic] party is astonished…The largest Dutch party, the opposition Labour Party, also thinks the justice minister is on the wrong track. Labour point out that, in their view, Sharia is in conflict with the Dutch constitution on a number of points. For example, it could never be officially possible to discriminate against women or homosexuals.

Well, there you are. It’s rather basic. Democracy in the form of simple majoritarianism always carries the risk that a majority will decide (vote, want, choose) to persecute a minority or even (in the case of women) a majority, and that’s why farsighted people decided constitutions were a good idea. People aren’t nice, in fact people are crap, so pure majoritarian unhedged democracy is a terrible, terrible idea.

(And by the way, why is Radio Netherlands talking about the Christian Democrat party? Surely they haven’t picked up that rude habit of US Republicans of refusing to say ‘Democratic’ party or candidate because it sounds too complimentary…but why else would they be doing it? That’s not standard usage. I’ve noticed the World Service doing it lately, too, to my deep fury, but I’m astonished to see it’s made its way to the Continent. Christian Democratic party. Cut it out.)

Seyran Ates is Staying

Sep 12th, 2006 7:55 pm | By

Stewart translated an article about Seyran Ates’s change of mind for us, because there is no news in English yet. The article is in Neues Deutschland, by Peter Kirschey. I’ll paraphrase some and quote some, so as not to ride roughshod over copyright.

‘…the German-Turkish women’s rights activist Seyran Ates will continue to be active as a lawyer in Berlin. A week ago she said that she could no longer stand the ceaseless threats from violent ex-husbands of her clients. Therefore she was giving up her right to practice law.’ But parties, women’s organisations and fellow lawyers have expressed solidarity with her, and now they have to act. ‘First and foremost the Turkish associations and organisations must rise to the challenge of permitting her to receive the support she requires for the responsible task of defending oppressed and afflicted women.’ That can’t mean bodyguards or 24 hour protection from enraged ‘men of honour’. ‘This has to do with a climate in which violence within families will not be tolerated as a god-given right, nor macho posturings as gentlemanly delinquency. A civilised society is poor without people like Seyran Ates. Good that she let herself be talked out of it.’

Yeah; very good. Many thanks, Stewart.

Morphic resonance

Sep 12th, 2006 2:17 am | By

Rupert Sheldrake again. What about those experiments he does? Pretty rigorous, are they? Well, here’s what he says in one paper:

The experimenter (either R.S. or P.S.) telephoned the randomly selected callers in advance, usually an hour or two beforehand, and asked them to call at the time selected. We asked callers to think about the participant for about a minute before calling…A few minutes after the tests, the experimenter rang the participant to ask what his or her guess had been, and in some cases also asked the callers. In no cases did callers and participants disagree.

Uh…that doesn’t count? Look – suppose you set up an experiment in which you phone me and tell me to fly from here to Calgary and back. A few minutes after the test, you ring me to ask me if I did it; I say yes indeed. Would you then rush to a scientific jamboree and say you’d conducted experiments that show people can fly? I don’t know, maybe you would, maybe you’ll do anything for attention. But you get my drift – asking people if they guessed correctly is not a very rigorous kind of experiment, is it.

Sheldrake thought deeply about this problem, and he has solved it.

What about deliberate cheating? Perhaps participants and their callers simply lied about the guesses, falsely reporting incorrect guesses as correct…The cheating hypothesis is implausible for three main reasons. First, it is very improbable that a large majority of the participants would have cheated.

Okay…so if you set up an experiment in which you phone 63 people and tell them to fly to Calgary and back and then a few minutes later phone to ask them if they did it – it will be very improbable that a large majority of the participants would have told whoppers; therefore, if 45% of them say yes, some people can fly. Hmm…I’m not sure I’m convinced.

He did get a clue eventually.

Third, as we describe in a separate paper (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003), we carried out further series of experiments in which the participants were filmed continuously on time-coded videotape, starting 15 minutes before each trial. We selected the caller at random only after the filming had started.

Bingo! Well done! But surely the experiments that were not filmed are just plain worthless. Phoning people up and asking them ‘Who’dja guess?’ doesn’t cut it.

Never mind, it’s all morphic resonance, maybe.

Sheldrake prefers teleological to mechanistic models of reality. Rather than spend his life, say, trying to develop a way to increase crop yields, he prefers to study and think in terms outside of the paradigms of science, i.e., inside the paradigms of the occult and the paranormal…He prefers a romantic vision of the past to the bleak picture of a world run by technocrats who want to control Nature and destroy much of the environment in the process. In short, he prefers metaphysics to science, though he seems to think he can do the former but call it the latter…In short, although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned science in favor of theology and philosophy. This is his right, of course. However, his continued pose as a scientist is unwarranted. He is one of a growing horde of “alternative” scientists whose resentment at the aspiritual nature of modern scientific paradigms, as well as the obviously harmful and seemingly indifferent applications of modern science, have led them to create their own paradigms. These paradigms are not new, though the terminology is. These alternative paradigms allow for angels, telepathy, psychic dogs…

And the ability to fly to Calgary and back without breaking a sweat.

Adventure Playground

Sep 11th, 2006 10:22 pm | By

Hey, remember adventurism? That was a good word. Fred Halliday has a look at one kind.

It is striking, however, that – beyond such often visceral reactions – there are signs of a far more developed and politically articulated accommodation in many parts of the world between Islamism as a political force and many groups of the left. The latter show every indication of appearing to see some combination of al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah, Hamas, and (not least) Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as exemplifying a new form of international anti-imperialism…Many in the sectarian leftist factions (and beyond) who marched against the impending Iraq war showed no qualms about their alignment with radical Muslim organisations, one that has since spiralled from a tactical cooperation to something far more elaborated. It is fascinating to see in the publications of leftist groups and commentators, for example, how history is being rewritten and the language of political argument adjusted to (as it were) accommodate this new accommodation…The London demonstrators against the war saw the flourishing of many banners announcing “we are all Hizbollah now”, and the coverage of the movement in the leftwing press was notable for its uncritical tone.

A correspondent in Iran was asking me about that just the other day. How come they support Islamism and groups like Hizbullah? he asked. How is that happening? How indeed.

All of this is – at least to those with historical awareness, sceptical political intelligence, or merely a long memory – disturbing…For while it is true that Islamism in its diverse political and violent guises is indeed opposed to the US, to remain there omits a deeper, crucial point: that, long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking “imperialism”, they were attacking and killing the left – and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west.

See, there are more than two possibilities, that’s the problem. There’s not just, on the one hand, the US and the west and imperialism and hegemony and wickedness, and on the other hand, everything good. No, things are not quite like that. People can hate George Bush just as cordially as I do and still be complete shits – bad people – people who oppress and push around and torment other people. So just seeing a bunch of people and noticing that they hate Bush is not quite enough reason to think they must be on the right track.

The modern relationship of the left to militant Islamism dates to the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution…Jihad was obviously a form of anti-imperialist struggle…Such forms of affinity were in the latter part of the 20th century succeeded by a far clearer alignment of Islamist groups: against communism, socialism, liberalism and all that they stood for, not least with regard to the rights of women…This melancholy history must be supplemented by attention to what is actually happening in countries, or parts of countries, where Islamists are influential and gaining ground. The reactionary (the word is used advisedly) nature of much of their programme on women, free speech, the rights of gays and other minorities is evident. There is also a mindset of anti-Jewish prejudice that is riven with racism and religious obscurantism…It does not need slogans to understand that the Islamist programme, ideology and record are diametrically opposed to the left – that is, the left that has existed on the principles founded on and descended from classical socialism, the Enlightenment, the values of the revolutions of 1798 and 1848, and generations of experience. The modern embodiments of this left have no need of the “false consciousness” that drives so many so-called leftists into the arms of jihadis.

Enough with the adventurism already.

Sen quotes Tagore

Sep 9th, 2006 10:38 pm | By

A thought for the day. From Rabindranath Tagore, quoted by Amartya Sen in “Tagore and his India” in The Argumentative Indian (page 99).

“We who often glorify our tendency to ignore reason, installing in its place blind faith, valuing it as spiritual, are ever paying for its cost with the obscuration of our mind and destiny.”

Follies of the Wise

Sep 9th, 2006 9:52 pm | By

Jerry Coyne on Frederick Crews’s Follies of the Wise.

In Follies of the Wise, Crews takes on not only Freud and psychoanalysis, but also other fields of intellectual inquiry which have caused rational people to succumb to irrational ideas: recovered-memory therapy, alien abduction, theosophy, Rorschach inkblot analysis, intelligent design creationism, and even poststructuralist literary theory. All of these, asserts Crews, violate “the ethic of respecting that which is known, acknowledging what is still unknown, and acting as if one cared about the difference”. This, then, is a collection about epistemology, and one that should be read by anyone still harbouring the delusion that Freud was an important thinker, that psychoanalysis is an important cure, that intelligent design is a credible alternative to Darwinism, or that religion and science can coexist happily.

And should be read immediately by anyone still harbouring all four delusions.

Crews gives peacemaking scientists their own hiding, reproving them for trying to show that there is no contradiction between science and theology. Regardless of what they say to placate the faithful, most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world….Virtually all religions make improbable claims that are in principle empirically testable, and thus within the domain of science: Mary, in Catholic teaching, was bodily taken to heaven, while Muhammad rode up on a white horse; and Jesus (born of a virgin) came back from the dead. None of these claims has been corroborated, and while science would never accept them as true without evidence, religion does. A mind that accepts both science and religion is thus a mind in conflict.

Or a mind that resolves the conflict by pigeonholing the two and keeping them, mentally, completely separate – but that seems to me to amount to the same thing. It can be done; people do it; but it does seem like an exercise in denial, and denial is what we use to suppress conflict.

It is not politically or tactically useful to point out the fundamental and unbreachable gaps between science and theology. Indeed, scientists and philosophers have written many books (equivalents of Leibnizian theodicy) desperately trying to show how these areas can happily cohabit. In his essay, “Darwin goes to Sunday School”, Crews reviews several of these works, pointing out with brio the intellectual contortions and dishonesties involved in harmonizing religion and science. Assessing work by the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, the philosopher Michael Ruse, the theologian John Haught and others, Crews concludes, “When coldly examined . . . these productions invariably prove to have adulterated scientific doctrine or to have emptied religious dogma of its commonly accepted meaning”.

Just so. Anything can be made compatible with anything by changing the meanings of both sides of the equation, but that’s not an honest or, in the long run, helpful way of proceeding. Fred Crews does a great job of pointing that out.

Seyran Ates

Sep 7th, 2006 7:37 pm | By

This is horrible news.

Seyran Ates, lawyer, writer, and human rights activist was attacked at the beginning of June…by the screaming husband of one of her clients. “You whore”, the man shouted. “What ideas have you been putting into my wife’s head?” No one intervened when Mehmet O. lashed out at Ates, her client and another woman. Now Ates is facing the consequences. She has handed in her law licence and also her membership of the women’s rights organisation Terre de femmes. “This acutely threatening situation has brought home to me once more how dangerous my work as a lawyer is, and how little protection I have had and have as an individual,” Ates explains.

Great. The bullies win, the human rights activists lose. Spiffy.

The “ideas” to which the jealous husband was referring form part of the biographical adventures that bind the writer Seyran Ates with her colleagues Necla Kelek, Serap Cileli and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Long before she used the term “feminism” to describe the thing that so preoccupied her, she had had an urge for freedom that was nothing less than a small miracle. Who can explain why of all the girls from Anatolia who headed off to the Eldorado of Germany with their mothers and fathers, this one would decide to throw overboard everything she knew and had learned? Suddenly becoming appalled by things that had been utterly normal for generations – boys’ circumcision and wedding nights with blood-soaked sheets which were endured by all involved with fear and horror, beatings, sadistic excesses, forced marriages, humiliations and bad jokes? How does individuality suddenly awaken out of a collective?

How indeed. A question I’ve been pondering for a long time. What does it take for people to push away the carapace of habituation just a little, just enough to look at things a little bit slant?

Her gratitude towards German society in which one can become a student rep, write essays and then go on to study law, even against the wishes of one’s parents, was construed by the politically correct as betrayal. “Aren’t you frightened,” Ates was asked in an interview with die Tageszeitung, “of being cited by conservative politicians as the chief witness for repressive measures?” No she was not. She answered that it was essential to think about sanctions against forced marriages, and that she had nothing against the questionnaire (compiled by the state of Baden-Württenberg for Muslims applying for German citizenship) in which 17 of the 30 questions concerned women’s rights…

It takes nerves of steel not to be frightened of that.

Ates, like her fellow fighters, gets furious with people who romanticise immigrants and are willing to pass off their brutality as a “cultural feature.” “Kreuzberg…is colourful because the Germans there are colourful; the Turkish culture there is grey. No one looks upwards. That’s where the women are who are not allowed to participate at any cost, they look out from behind the curtains. Women who sometimes don’t even know where they are, locked away.” And the Green party, which could have got the Turkish feminists on board as the “true patriots” also preferred at their “Future Congress” on September 1 to stick with female immigrants keen to talk about German racism. German courts have long passed only manslaughter sentences for honour killings – because cultural influences qualify as mitigating circumstances.

And now German courts have lost Ates. Bad, very bad.

Do come in, the door is wide open

Sep 6th, 2006 5:01 pm | By

So what is the British Association for the Advancement of Science up to?

Organisers of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) were accused of lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal by allowing the highly controversial research to be aired unchallenged. Leading members of the science establishment criticised the BA’s decision to showcase papers purporting to demonstrate telepathy and the survival of human consciousness after someone dies. They said that such ideas, which are widely rejected by experts, had no place in the festival without challenge from sceptics…Critics including Lord Winston and Sir Walter Bodmer, both former presidents of the BA, expressed particular alarm that the three speakers were allowed to hold a promotional press conference.

So what did the organizers have in mind? Were they just trying to get more media attention? Were they trying to be more “fair”? Or what? It would be interesting to know.

Other scientists said that while discussion of the subject was acceptable, the panel’s lack of balance was like inviting creationists to address the prestigious meeting without an opposing view from evolutionary biologists. Several members of the BA said that they would raise the matter with its ruling council…Lord Winston, the fertility specialist, said: “It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It’s something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists.”

It should be peer-reviewed, in other words. Other researchers should try to replicate Sheldrake’s results. Inquiry should be properly conducted. You know – the usual boring routine.

The Indy gives a suggestive comment by one of the organizers of the panel.

Helen Haste, a psychologist at the University of Sussex and the organiser of the paranormal session, said:”We at the British Association feel we should be open to discussions and debates which are seen as valid by people generally inside and outside the scientific community.”

Ah. Ah yes. Do you. Notice all the wiggle language there – feel, open, seen, as valid, outside, community. In other words, the issue is not cognitive but emotive; it’s political and moral, about being open and inclusive as opposed to closed and excluding; it wants to include what people see “as valid” as opposed to, say, what they legitimately consider valid; it (again) wants to be open and inclusive to people outside the “scientific community” as well as inside it; and it wants to treat the whole thing as an exercise in community-building or expansion or cohesion as opposed to an epistemic one. “We at the British Association feel we should be open to fuzzy woolly wishful ideas that are seen as valid by people outside the cold excluding rejecting overintellectual elitist scientific community, and we want to join their community and make it bigger and more accepting and democratic and warmer and better.” That’s what that sounds like. More of the old “science excludes ideas that millions of people see as valid and that is fascism” routine. No wonder Atkins and Winston and the others are furious.

The overwhelming majority

Sep 5th, 2006 10:36 pm | By

A little more on that BBC article about attitudes to ‘honour’ killing and its evasiveness about who exactly gets killed in such killings.

Sometimes it is men; Dsquared provided the link to this nightmare.

A university student was murdered to “vindicate a family’s honour” after he fell in love with their daughter and made her pregnant, a court was told yesterday.

Student was Iranian, daughter and family were Bangladeshi, father disapproved of student, said there was already a marriage arranged for daughter; she was forbidden to see student, confined to house, phone taken away; they met anyway, she got pregnant, they planned to marry.

On November 20 Mr Ghorbani-Zarin was found dead in his car, a green Renault, in Spencer Crescent, Oxford, which is close to his home…He was found with 46 stab wounds, mainly to the chest, the trial was told. His head had been tied to the headrest of the car following his death.

Sometimes it is gay men: Jeremy talked about one such case on Little Atoms last month. Sometimes it is children. But it’s usually women. The BBC should have said all that, instead of just vaguely saying ‘people’. As for instance Rajeshree Sisodia did in this article:

A family’s reputation is considered paramount in several cultures. And ‘honor killing’ is a centuries-old practice by which people – predominantly women – are murdered by relatives for behaving in a way that is perceived to destroy the family’s honor within the wider community.

That’s easy enough isn’t it? Just say it’s predominantly women. Or, go into more detail, as Sanchita Hosali does in this interview at AWID, Association for Women’s Rights in Development:

Research in the UK and elsewhere has shown that the overwhelming
majority of victims of ‘honour killings’ and ‘crimes of honour’ in general,
are women and girls, and the greater proportion of perpetrators are male.
The ‘Honour Crimes’ Project works from the basis that ‘crimes of honour’
encompass a variety of manifestations of violence against women including
‘honour killings’, assault, confinement, imprisonment, and forced marriage,
where the claimed motivation, justification or mitigation for the violence
is attributed to notions of ‘honour’ (related to family (natal), conjugal or
community ‘honour’) requiring the preservation of male control of women,
particularly women’s sexual conduct whether real or perceived.

There, that’s not so difficult. That’s how the BBC should have done it.

Resistance is Futile

Sep 5th, 2006 6:09 pm | By

More Bruce Hood.

Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive — despite the lack of evidence and advance of science — because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, said Bruce Hood…This evolved credulity suggests that it would be impossible to root out belief in ideas such as creationism and paranormal phenomena, even though they have been countered by evidence and are held as a matter of faith alone.

No, it doesn’t suggest that. It may suggest it would be difficult, but it doesn’t suggest it would be impossible. Just for one thing, if it suggested that, then the existence of any skeptics would be ruled out.

People ultimately believe in these ideas for the same reasons that they attach sentimental value to inanimate objects such as wedding rings or Teddy bears…Similar beliefs, which are held even among the most sceptical scientists, explain why few people would agree to swap their wedding rings for replicas. The difference between attaching significance to sentimental objects and believing in religion, magic or the paranormal is only one of degree, Professor Hood said.

Well I think that’s quite wrong: I think the difference is one of kind, not of degree.

This innate tendency means it is futile to expect that such beliefs will die out even as our scientific understanding of the world improves, he said…“No amount of evidence is going to get people to take it on board and abandon these ideas.”

Well, that’s obviously not true of all people (unless one accepts his equation of sentiment about rings* with belief in the existence of a deity), so that statement is much too sweeping.

“I want to challenge recent claims by Richard Dawkins, among others, that supernaturalism is primarily attributable to religions spreading beliefs among the gullible minds of the young. Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces.”

It’s both (and more). Why not just say it’s both? Why try to claim that it’s all one and that that one rules out any change of mind?

Compare Hood’s claim with this look at ‘Jesus Camp’.

Through Kids In Ministry International, she conducts conferences and operates a summer camp for children and teens designed to instill a deeper devotion to God and their brand of Evangelical Christianity, in addition to unleashing a call to activism. Scenes of children proselytizing and learning about creationism in addition to a host of conservative principles engendered some unease amongst the generally liberal New York audiences during the Tribeca Film Festival…

I’d love to think that that’s a futile endeavor and that those children don’t become one bit more evangelical-fundamentalist than they would have been without all this training, but I can’t quite manage it.

A particularly inflammatory scene that heightens the political overtones for viewers takes place at a revival meeting lead by Fischer and her associates, in front of well over 100 children. In the scene, Fischer takes a life-size standup photo of President George W. Bush to the stage, and with a large American flag in the background, asks the crowd to raise their hands towards him in prayer. “I didn’t realize how the secular world viewed what we were doing,” Fischer said…

That’s not particularly relevant; I just threw it in because it’s so grotesque. She didn’t realize how the ‘secular world’ viewed the activity of praying to a life-size picture of Bush. She didn’t realize how we funny secularists view the deification of George W Bush. That’s quite funny, in a terrifying way.

*What kind of evidence could there be that would falsify sentimental attachment to a ring or a Teddy Bear?

Some People

Sep 5th, 2006 2:09 am | By

About this survey that says 1 in 10 Asians think ‘honour’ killings can be justified. Did you notice something peculiar? The article left something out. It left a few things out, but there was one huge thing. And it so obviously matters that you’d think it wouldn’t have, but it did.

It just says ‘young Asians’ and ‘the 16 to 34-year-old age group interviewed.’ See it? It doesn’t say what the gender breakdown was! Duh. It doesn’t even say whether or not it was all one gender. Now, you might think that surely the BBC wouldn’t be as silly as that, it wouldn’t say ‘young Muslims’ if the interviewees were absolutely all male. But it would. Just the other day I listened to a rather interesting show on Radio 4 called Taking the Cricket Test, which was described on the A-Z page as ‘Sarfraz Mansoor gets into the mind of young British Muslims’. It was interesting, as I say, but it was about a cricket team, and there were absolutely no women or girls from start to finish. So Sarfraz Mansoor didn’t get into the mind of young British Muslims, he got into the mind of (a few) young British Muslim men. So I don’t feel a bit confident that that survey included any women at all, let alone that it included at least half. And on a subject like this…gender probably makes a fairly large difference. In fact I would say it makes such a large difference (on account of how, to put it bluntly, only one gender is subject to the ‘honour’ killing under discussion) that any survey on the subject really needs to separate the genders in order to be informative.

The whole article is in fact bizarrely and rather annoyingly evasive about the very subject it’s talking about. If you don’t already know what ‘honour’ killing is and how it tends to play out, you don’t find out much from this article.

What constitutes dishonour can range from wearing clothes thought unsuitable or choosing a career which the family disapprove of, to marrying outside of the wider community.

Who? Who? Who? Who wearing clothes thought unsuitable, who choosing a career, who marrying out? What a conspicuous absence of subjects in that sentence. Lots of verbs, but no one performing them; all action and no agents. Why so damn evasive? If the BBC is nervous of the subject, why did it report on the survey? And it’s all like that. ‘Kidnaps, beatings and rapes have also been committed in the name of “honour”.’ Of whom?

Figures show 13 people die every year in honour killings, but police and support groups believe it is many more…Honour killing is a brutal reaction within a family – predominantly Asian and Middle Eastern – to someone perceived to have brought “shame” upon relatives.

People. Someone. (Many more than) 13 women die; honour killing is a brutal reaction to a woman perceived to have brought “shame”. Come on, Beeb, do it right.