May 28th, 2008 6:33 pm | By

Ah, Buddhism – so spiritual, so compassionate, so deep.

Sharon Stone says the Chinese earthquake was bad karma.

“I thought, ‘Is that karma?’ When you are not nice, bad things happen to you.”

Ah right – we see that every day. Cosmic justice is dealt out with unerring accuracy and gratifying speed, day in day out. Well spotted, Ms Stone.

“I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” Stone said in footage widely available on the internet. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma?”

Yeah, that’s what it is all right. All those schoolchildren crushed under their schools, all their teachers, all their parents; they were all unkind to the Tibetans; China’s policy toward Tibet is of course decided by schoolchildren among others. All the children left orphans by the earthquake; they were unkind too. The people at the other end of China are of course a different breed entirely, and have never been unkind in their lives. Oh and Katrina happened because of all the whores and faggots in New Orleans, too. Glad we got that straight.

A different kind of thing

May 28th, 2008 1:36 pm | By

Oh, please.

From this week, astrologers, palm-readers, mediums and the like must display a kind of rationalist health warning. Wherever they sell their services, new consumer protection regulations require that they declare “for entertainment only”, because not “experimentally proven”…[I]t is tempting to raise a scientistic cheer. At last the quacks have been foiled, their bluff called! Until, that is, one asks what else in the marketplace of goods and services could pass a similar test.

Well nothing could, because ‘proven’ is the wrong word, which is not Mark Vernon’s fault if that’s really what the regulations themselves say and not just some journalist’s sloppy paraphrase. But the things that astrologers and mediums do or rather claim to do are not backed up by evidence, and there’s really nothing particularly silly about expecting people who sell services for money to provide evidence for claims they make about those services, and if they can’t, to warn consumers that they’re not actually, literally, offering the services – they’re just pretending to by way of entertainment.

And Mark Vernon is, perhaps, pretending to think that lots of things are on the same kind of footing as astrology and mediuming.

Consider a housing development that bills itself as a provider of “beautiful homes”?…Science has developed no Geiger counter for aesthetic measurements, a device whose clicks become a purr as it draws close to good taste…So it is actually quite tough, and often impossible, experimentally to verify many of the things that we take for granted in life.

Yes yes yes, but claiming these houses are beautiful is a different kind of thing from claiming to be able to talk to a consumer’s dead child. Thinking or assuming or pretending to think or assume that everyone thinks a particular kind of house is beautiful is a different kind of thing from thinking a medium can talk to dead people. The first is not all that outlandish, especially since tastes in beauty are largely social and manufactured, so what developers say helps to shape taste in houses over the years. The second is very outlandish indeed. So…Vernon’s comparison is just kind of…beside the point.

Strengthening the hand of the theocons

May 27th, 2008 11:05 am | By

Jeff Sharlet has some of the same qualms I have about Nussbaum on religion and freedom.

More worrisome are those liberal defenders of religious equality such as Nussbaum and Waldman, who actually do know better and yet strengthen the hand of the theocons by underestimating and even minimalizing the scope of the Christian nationalist challenge…The overlapping consensus model extends an assumption of good faith to all parties. That’s fine. But it fails when it rests too easily on assumptions about just what good faith is.

Precisely. That’s exactly what Nussbaum does – she backs up these assumptions about just what good faith is by citing easy examples, like Quaker non-violence, instead of hard ones, like raising girls to be subordinate and marrying them off at 14. By doing that, she minimalizes the scope of the problem with, for instance, closed fundamentalist sects that subordinate women and don’t allow them to leave. Not that she supports such things, but by talking about Quakers rather than Mormons on Bill Moyers’s tv show, she gives a distorted picture. That’s worrisome.

Ethically dubious

May 25th, 2008 6:10 pm | By

I sometimes notice an odd and unpleasant phenomenon: people on blogs and forums and discussion boards and the like will accuse other people of lying, and more than that, when shown to be wrong, will not withdraw the accusation, much less apologize. This is odd because in what is jestingly called real life, at least in my experience, that’s not done lightly. One doesn’t go around accusing people of lying when talking nose to nose; it doesn’t go down well. But when typing words on screen – people just step right up. Then if you tell them they’re mistaken and that they ought not to throw that accusation around so blithely, they simply vanish. Many of them do it anonymously, too, which is even more…dubious.

There was a discussion on Aaronovitchwatch last April, for instance. Jeremy commented there (to say, amusingly I thought, that Group-Schadenfreude is just a little distasteful), and Daniel Davies, whose post it was, quickly retorted by snarling, irrelevantly, at Butterflies and Wheels. Jeremy pointed out that he’s not responsible for the content of B&W. Daniel came back.

Jeremy is of course fibbing when he claims not to be responsible for the content of Butterflies & Sneers. [then he linked to the B&W About page, where it says Jeremy is Associate Editor/Webmaster] Why would anyone try to bullshit me about something a) which they know I know and b) which is so easily proved?

Jeremy was bored by then and so didn’t see the accusation, but I did, so I told Daniel he had it wrong and that I am indeed responsible for all the content of B&W. Dave Weeden pointed out that the About page doesn’t make that clear and that Daniel might have been wrong but he took his evidence from the best source available; I agreed with him –

That’s what I said. I said Daniel was wrong – I didn’t say he was “fibbing.” But he did in fact announce as a fact that Jeremy was “fibbing,” and he was wrong about that. It’s bad form to announce that people are lying when they’re not.

And that was the end of that as far as Daniel was concerned. No withdrawal, no apology, no anything.

And another (and much more protracted and insistent) example just in the last few days. Shiraz Socialist linked to an interview of me by the Freethinker and quoted one bit.

FT: Is it true that your upcoming book, Does God Hate Women?, was turned down by the first publisher because in was too critical of Islam?

OB: Yes, a publisher did turn it down for that compelling reason. It wasn’t exactly the first publisher since it never actually accepted it, but it was very interested, got Jeremy [Stangroom, the co-author] in to have a chat etc (I live six thousand miles away or I would have gone along for the chat too, whether they’d invited me or not) – then said they’d decided no because one mustn’t criticize Islam.

FT: How did you feel about that at the time?

OB: A mix of amusement and disgust, I think – amusement at the docile predictability, disgust at the crawling. I also felt even more convinced that the book was needed, precisely because a publisher would turn it down for such a reason. What publisher, you wonder? Verso.

A small cabal of anonymous people, including one who makes foolish comments here occasionally, decided to make all sorts of claims about what really happened, what Verso really said, what Verso really meant, what Verso would have said if it hadn’t been being tactful, and so on and so on. In short, they suggested that I was not telling the truth. There were a lot of sensible readers who were unimpressed by their arguments (some are regulars here, and make comments that are not foolish), but the arguments kept rolling in all the same. This went on for days; Jeremy joined in yesterday, which made sense since he’s the one who actually talked to Verso; in the end the last accuser made an awkward retreat, of the ‘all I said was’ variety. But no one bothered to withdraw the accusations, much less (as I mentioned) apologize. This is interesting.

A common objective?

May 24th, 2008 11:05 am | By

Tom Clark argues with the theologian John Haught. He starts out with some common ground – or perhaps not.

As much as their worldviews differ, both naturalists and anti-naturalists share a common objective: getting the nature of reality right according to their best lights.

I don’t really think that’s true – at least not of anti-naturalists of the type discussed in the article. I thought that as soon as I read it, then as I read the rest of the article I found places where Clark makes points that are (at least) in tension with it. It seemed to me as soon as I read it, and then thought about it, that anti-naturalists are motivated in their anti-naturalism by something other than getting the nature of reality right. I think what they want to do is get the nature of reality into alignment with their wishes, and that getting it right is subservient to that goal.

And what comes after that passage simply bears that out.

From Haugh:

Do our new atheists seriously believe …that if a personal God of infinite beauty and unbounded love actually exists, the ‘evidence’ for this God’s existence could be gathered as cheaply as the evidence for a scientific hypothesis?

But why should anyone think that, even if there is a ‘God,’ it is one of infinite beauty and unbounded love? If your goal is to get the nature of reality right, you start by taking an impartial look (to the best of your ability) at reality, at the world as it is; if you do that, do you think that beauty and love describe the world? Not if you really take a look. Not if you know anything about it. If you really look, you know very well that there is a lot of ugliness and misery too, and that a god of beauty and love seems at the very least incomplete as a god of this world and this reality.

Haught further says that to decide the question of God’s existence it is necessary to open oneself ‘to the personal transformation essential to faith’s sense of being grasped by an unbounded love.’ Clark comments:

[W]e see that detecting the object of knowledge – infinite Love, should it exist – requires receptivity to the possibility of its existence on the part of the knower. But of course being receptive is patently to be psychologically biased in favor of the possibility, to be susceptible to a certain interpretation of one’s experience, namely that one is being embraced by god. So right away we encounter a stark contrast between Haught’s theological mode of knowing and ordinary empirical inquiry, in which subjective biases in favor of certain hypotheses are seen as threats to objectivity. For those concerned about whether their preconceptions and desires might be distorting their grasp of reality, that is, anyone interested in truth as opposed to wishful thinking, the theological requirement of receptivity raises a bright red flag.

Exactly. Which is why I’m not sure naturalists and anti-naturalists do share the common objective of getting the nature of reality right.

It’s an excellent article; read the whole thing.

Goodness, what’s the rush?

May 22nd, 2008 5:27 pm | By

A Texas appeals court rules that the state CPS acted too hastily in removing all the children from the FLDS ranch.

In the decision, the 3rd Court ruled that CPS failed to provide any evidence that the children were in imminent danger. It said state acted hastily in removing them from their families. The agency had argued that the children on the ranch were either abused or at risk of abuse. The Texas Family Code allows a judge to consider whether the “household” to which a child would be returned includes a person who has sexually abused another child. Child welfare officials alleged that the polygamist sect’s practice of marrying underage girls to older men places all its children at risk of sexual abuse.

And there’s another thing – the fact that the children in question are not free to leave. To put it mildly. Make no mistake: they are locked in there, and the doors are not open. And, it goes without saying, they don’t go to school. If anything is wrong, there is no one they can tell.

The court wrote, “Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse as the Department contends, there is no evidence that this danger is ‘immediate’ or ‘urgent’ … with respect to every child in the community.”

Even though they can’t leave? Even if there is no way for anyone from outside to make sure all the children are all right? Sorry; I don’t buy it. I’ve read and heard enough accounts from some of the few people who have escaped to have good reason not to buy it.

Scott Dixon, a CPS regional director, said some shelters and facilities were already getting calls from parents asking when they could pick up their kids…Carolyn Jessop, who fled the sect in 2003, was leading the training. She called the decision “a shock. I am just hoping that enough people will come out and protest it,” said Jessop. She is an ex-wife of Merril Jessop, the assumed leader at the Eldorado compound.

An ex-wife who as a teenager was married to Jessop at the command of her father. She was raised FLDS, she couldn’t say no, but she was shocked and horrified. No; sorry; men shouldn’t be allowed to marry off their daughters like so much livestock.

Scott McCown, a former judge and executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said…protective services could still remove the children after a full trial. McCown said there is a very real risk that if the children are returned to their parents they will be moved to another state, Canada or Mexico and be outside the jurisdiction of Texas’ protective custody. “One of the real dangers is flight, and the court doesn’t address that at all,” McCown said.

Oh well. So a few hundred kids have crappy lives, and raise their own children to have crappy lives, and so on forever; no big deal.

You have the right to remain silent

May 21st, 2008 4:41 pm | By

Free speech? Wozzat?

A teenager is facing prosecution for using the word “cult” to describe the Church of Scientology. The unnamed 15-year-old was served the summons by City of London police…Officers confiscated a placard with the word “cult” on it from the youth, who is under 18, and a case file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Uh – right. Because that’s obviously a crime. Saying Scientology is a cult is self-evidently a crime. Uh…what? In what universe?

Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church’s £23m headquarters near St Paul’s cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was “abusive and insulting”…A policewoman later read him section five of the Public Order Act and “strongly advised” him to remove the sign. The section prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.

Which covers, if the police so choose, pretty much all words. Except maybe ‘nice’ – maybe the sign would have been permitted if it had said ‘Scientology is nice.’ Or maybe not, in case it was sarcastic.

The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a “cult” which was “corrupt, sinister and dangerous”. After the exchange, a policewoman handed him a court summons and removed his sign.

Justice me no justices, Teenager; public order requires that things not be said on signs no matter how many justices have said them beforehand. Public order is a very fragile thing. All of London could be reduced to screaming anarchy and bloody warfare in a heartbeat if a sign were allowed to call Scientology a cult – so hand it over, and here’s your summons.

Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, said: “This barmy prosecution makes a mockery of Britain’s free speech traditions. “After criminalising the use of the word ‘cult’, perhaps the next step is to ban the words ‘war’ and ‘tax’ from peaceful demonstrations?”

Might as well. Best not to risk it.

Running women

May 21st, 2008 3:50 pm | By

Ali Al-Ahmed points out an anomaly.

The procession of the Olympic torch drew protests from Paris to San Francisco over China’s treatment of the Tibetan people, but no one has protested another tragedy that is afflicting millions of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim countries. Many Muslim women dare not even dream of the Olympics because their countries ban female sports altogether or severely restrict the athletic activities of the “weaker sex.”…[T]he slogan of the 29th Olympic Games is “One World, One Dream.” This dream, however, will not be realized by women in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries that ban women from sports domestically and internationally. The International Olympic Committee charter states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” But the Olympic Committee is failing to adhere to its own standards. While the hypothetical example of participating countries barring black athletes from the Olympic Games would have rightly caused international outrage, the committee continues to allow the participation of countries that do not allow women on their Olympic teams.

Yes well you see…barring women is different from barring black people because…because…because nobody owns black people (it took a bit of a fuss, but we have that pretty much settled now), but women are owned. So countries are allowed to say that women can’t do sports because women all belong to someone, but countries aren’t allowed to say that black people can’t do sports because no one owns them (except the women, but don’t confuse me).

It must be something like that, you know. Otherwise it wouldn’t fly. It does fly, so the thinking must be something along those lines. Rules about women are Special because they cut close to the bone because women belong to other people, so nobody has the right to say they ought to be allowed to do things.

Or else it’s just the usual disgusting craven unwillingness to say ‘boo’ to Saudi Arabia.

It’s a matter of ‘religious conscience’

May 21st, 2008 12:38 pm | By

And while we’re on the subject…more religious interference.

A civil registrar who refuses to officiate at partnerships between same-sex couples, claiming that it is “sinful” and against her religion, has brought a legal case that could have implications for ceremonies conducted throughout the country. Lillian Ladele, 47, a Christian, said yesterday that “as a matter of religious conscience” she could not perform civil partnerships for gay couples…[S]he told the employment tribunal in Central London: “I hold the orthodox Christian view that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others and that this is the God-ordained place for sexual relations. It creates a problem for any Christian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful. I feel unable to facilitate directly the formation of a union that I sincerely believe is contrary to God’s law.”

It doesn’t matter how ‘orthodox’ the view is, it doesn’t matter how ‘sincerely’ she believes something is ‘contrary to God’s law.’ If she chooses to see harmless things as ‘sinful’ because somebody told her that God said it was sinful, that should be her problem, not her employer’s.

“There was no respect whatsoever for my religious beliefs,” she said.

Good, I’m glad to hear it. There shouldn’t be. Even religious people ought to be able to sort genuinely wrong, harmful, cruel actions from morally neutral ones that are not a problem unless one decides to make them a problem. Mere settled prejudices adorned with the name of the local god don’t deserve respect, so I’m glad Ladele’s didn’t get any. (I’m not glad she was shunned, if it’s true that she was, because that’s painful, but respect for beliefs is a different kind of thing.)

Interference by meddling cardinals

May 21st, 2008 12:08 pm | By


Politics and piety are becoming increasingly entangled as the human fertilisation and embryology bill passes through parliament…Brown put the interests of the Christian few over the rights of the many. Most people obviously disagree with a Catholic morality that puts the rights of the non-extant over those of the living…Brown’s about-turn has led many to conclude that the government’s front benches are becoming increasingly religion-led…The vice-like grip of Catholicism holds fast across large parts of the continent. Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland are just some of the countries in Europe that have been subjected to interference by meddling cardinals. Abortion is still outlawed in Ireland and was only recently legalised in Portugal. Anti-abortion campaigns have, almost without exception, been led from the pulpit. Catholicism has never taken a back seat; it has always actively interfered in democratic politics.

And there’s an oddly deferential tone to at least some of the press coverage of this fact, as I mentioned a couple of days ago. It’s treated as normal and uncontroversial and unexceptionable that ‘the Roman Catholic Church’ should be telling the UK government what to do. This is a very bad mistake. When the Catholic church interferes it does it in aid of a nasty reactionary agenda. It shouldn’t be politely curtsied to as if it were some benign foster parent.

Ruth Kelly’s contention, supported by other religious politicians, that she can separate her private morals from public policy does not stand up to scrutiny. During the passage of the legislation to ban discrimination in the provision of goods and services in 2007, she is reputed to have fought hard for Catholic adoption agencies to opt out of the requirement to place children with same sex couples. When it came to the crunch, her Catholic faith won the day. Should devout Catholics such as Kelly, Browne and Murphy be allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the government’s?

In a word: no.

The church this, the church that

May 19th, 2008 11:47 am | By

The effort to ban hybrid embryos failed.

The Roman Catholic Church has branded the use of hybrid embryos as “monstrous” and says tinkering with life in this way is immoral.

So what? Who cares what the Roman Catholic Church says? The Roman Catholic church says a lot of things, and many of them are morally execrable. The Roman Catholic Church also does a lot of things, and many of those stink too. The Roman Catholic Church worries far too much about cells in dishes and far too little about existing, thinking people. The Roman Catholic Church gets too much respectful attention, and it gets this respectful attention by staging moral panics about things that are not morally significant. That’s a foolish arrangement.

And of course the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t think ‘tinkering with life’ is immoral. It has no objection to agronomy or antibiotics, for instance. It doesn’t mean ‘life,’ it means ‘what it chooses to think of as human life.’ It gets a rhetorical boost by calling it just ‘life,’ and it shouldn’t get away with it.

Foul beliefs no barrier

May 18th, 2008 5:27 pm | By

Nick Cohen looks at what happened with ‘Undercover Mosque,’ specifically the interesting question of why the police and the Crown Prosecution service saw fit to accused channel 4 of making stuff up.

Its undercover journalists infiltrated radical mosques. They recorded assorted preachers calling for the subjugation of women, the murder of homosexuals and Jews, the replacement of the ‘man-made’ laws of a democracy with the religious edicts of a theocratic state and the eternal damnation of Muslims who did not follow Wahhabi doctrine and infidels who did not accept the true faith.

Well…that’s racist stuff, right? That must be why the cops got involved.

Haras Rafiq of the Sufi Muslim Council, said: ‘Wahhabis and their offshoots are teaching Muslim youngsters that America and Britain are against them and therefore they need to get up and fight with them. The radicalising power of this ideology is extremely dangerous.’ Abdal-Hakim Murad of Cambridge University described Saudi influence as ‘potentially lethal for the future of the community’.

Oh. Maybe not exactly racist then.

The many who were foolish enough to believe the police’s accusations must have accepted that, for instance, Ijaz Mian, who preaches in Derby, was a good democrat. Only trick camerawork and sly editing had turned him into the man who appeared in the film raving: ‘King, Queen, House of Commons. If you accept it then you are a part of it. You don’t accept it but you have to dismantle it. So you being a Muslim you have to fix a target, there will be no House of Commons.’ Similarly, when Abu Usamah of the Green Lane mosque in Birmingham bellowed on air: ‘Take that homosexual man and throw him off the mountain’, his apparently murderous homophobia was not a genuine expression of his prejudice, but a Truman Show illusion.

No but – but – they’re just blowing off a little steam. They have genuine grievances. They’re upset about western foreign policy. So – exposing them is a crime of some sort. Has to be.

In the case of Channel 4, however, the CPS and West Midlands police have never condescended to explain their behaviour to the public. The National Secular Society wants an inquiry to force them into the open. Until we get one, the best explanation lies in Patani’s title: assistant chief constable (security and cohesion).

Oh, gawd – cohesion again. Cohesion and community, the dread words of the contemporary UK. (Over here it’s faith and family. Different alliteration, you see.)

Since 9/11, not only police officers, but New Labour ministers, the Home Office, Foreign Office and pseudo-left journalists and councils have sought to promote ‘cohesion’ by appeasing Islamist groups which aren’t quite as extreme as al-Qaeda…Elements within the government thought that if they could co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami and ignore their foul beliefs, they would isolate the terrorists to their right.

So you got years and years of sucking up to the all-male ‘leaders’ in the MCB. What. a. trainwreck.

South Asian and Middle Eastern women’s groups reported an increasingly widespread trend. Officials who should treat all women equally were deciding that where their community’s religious and cultural practices conflicted with the law, the law had to give way…A worker in a women’s group in the north, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, added she had been ‘appalled’ by an Asian ‘chief inspector who had offered to help a family track a girl down’. The report’s authors noticed that women’s groups appeared to have problems with one force in particular. It was the West Midlands police.

All for cohesion, nothing for women’s rights.

Community, inclusive, commitment, all who

May 16th, 2008 4:50 pm | By

I suppose university administrators are simply legally barred from talking sense? I suppose they’re contractually bound to talk formulaic soothing dribbling beside-the-point feel-good bullshit? They can do no other?

I suppose when they take the job they are issued with a box full of the correct words, and when they have to write a statement about something, they are strictly forbidden to do it without relying on the box for at least 60% of the content? The rest being taken up with neutral and necessary words like ‘is’ and ‘you’?

What’s in the box? Oh come on, you know.

…fully support the rights of our students and others within this community to express their concerns on this issue…many in the University community…the tolerant and inclusive values of the Washington University community…apologize for the anguish this decision has caused to many members of our community…a broad impact on American life and have sparked widespread debate and controversies…commitment to strengthening diversity and inclusiveness and to improving gender balance…students and faculty from all walks of life, from most systems of religious belief and political thought, and from all corners of the world…widely diverse individuals…stronger because disagreement…opportunity to speak as individuals…widely divergent agendas…dialogue and discourse…an institution that nurtures debate and tolerance…deeply committed…rebuild damaged relationships with members of our community…to make this a community so open, tolerant and inclusive…work together…all who live, learn, discover and create here.

It’s deeply moving stuff, isn’t it. So why does it make me want to kick someone?


May 15th, 2008 11:42 am | By

Sneer sneer sneer sneer.

The tendency to lump together Muslim females in exile who have rather unsavoury views about Islam makes the voices of moderate females difficult to hear…Male exiles from the faith do not seem to attract the same sympathetic open-armed treatment as the damsel in distress…The most prominent of the “refuseniks”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Wafa Sultan have caused a stir for allegedly being “brave enough” to criticise Islam and nail their colours to the west’s mast of values.

Interesting scare quotes on ‘brave enough’ – since all three women mentioned receive regular (and sincere) death threats. What exactly is Nesrine Malik expressing incredulity about, one wonders?

Wafa Sultan’s debut on al-Jazeera , where she bleated hysterically about the irredeemable retardation of the Islamic faith…[I]n marketing oneself as a Crusader speaking on behalf of the mute Muslim millions…[M]edia-courting one-woman-roadshows pitting themselves against the Muslim world do little more than create western media darlings…I should have a natural synergy with these women but I am appalled at how cavalierly they have appropriated the very limited opportunity to capture attention and raise awareness…

Aw – diddums – did the bad nasty talkative women grab your chance to ‘capture’ media attention? Well no wonder you have such a nasty way with words, then. No wonder you’re so full of sneers. Poor poor you.

Their personal histories exhibit a disturbing ruthless tendency to twist half-truths into a media-friendly tale of woe…This chameleonism offends me. Their abuse of the religion and its mores is unconstructive and gratuitous…when voices are heard, it is a tragic waste that they are pitched at a hysterical shriek supporting an irreconcilable “clash of civilisations” paradigm. What do these enlightened, brave souls hope to achieve?…[T]hey have robbed the Muslim woman of her independence and free will, pigeonholing and victimising her as a “Caged Virgin”…[T]elegenic articulate women cynically exploiting the naivety and polarisation of a terrorised post-9/11 world.

Unsavoury views, “brave,” bleated hysterically, Crusader, media-courting, cavalierly, ruthless, abuse, gratuitous, hysterical shriek, victimizing, telegenic, cynical. Nesrine Malik has a taste for shameless vituperation, and sexist vituperation at that. Sexist vituperation coming from women is doubly disgusting.

Wifey feminism

May 13th, 2008 1:07 pm | By

Wait wait wait wait – I don’t get it. I think this is exactly backward.

Clinton has benefited from a favorable gender dynamic that won’t exist in the fall. (In the Democratic primary, female voters have outnumbered males by nearly three to two.) Clinton’s claim to being a tough, tested potential commander-in-chief has gone almost unchallenged. Obama could reply that being First Lady doesn’t qualify you to serve as commander-in-chief, but he won’t quite say that, because feminists are an important chunk of the Democratic electorate. John McCain wouldn’t be so reluctant.

…What? Why is it supposed to be ‘feminist’ to think that being a first lady does qualify you to serve as commander-in-chief? What the hell is feminist about that? What is feminist about thinking ‘I am married to an important man’ is a qualification? That’s not feminist, it’s anti-feminist. Feminist is running on your own merits, not someone else’s. Parlaying wifehood into a career is not my idea of feminist. Using family connections and second-hand fame is not my idea of feminist. Riding on coat-tails is not my idea of feminist. Clinton is doubtless qualified, but the nepotism question makes her one of the last people in the country who should have tried for this particular job. I don’t feel one bit ’empowered’ as a woman by the fact that another woman is trying to use her marital arrangement as an elevator to the top.

The stupidity of dignity

May 12th, 2008 5:56 pm | By

Steven Pinker notes that Bush’s Council on Bioethics has put out a 555-page report called Human Dignity and Bioethics.

This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Yes where have we heard that before…from the archbishop of Canterbury, from the pope, from lots of meddlesome priests.

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.”…Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

Just what I said! Last November. Twice.

Macklin of course says it much much better.

To invoke the concept of dignity without clarifying its meaning is to use a mere slogan…Why, then, do so many articles and reports appeal to human dignity, as if it means something over and above respect for persons or for their autonomy? A possible explanation is the many religious sources that refer to human dignity, especially but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings. However, this religious source cannot explain how and why dignity has crept into the secular literature in medical ethics.

Well, maybe it can, actually; words and concepts can cross borders.

Pinker goes on.

Goaded by Macklin’s essay, the Council acknowledged the need to put dignity on a firmer conceptual foundation. This volume of 28 essays and commentaries by Council members and invited contributors is their deliverable…And what it reveals should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to improve human welfare. For this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing.

Just like the archbishops and cardinals. Never mind what the research could do to end horrible diseases, instead focus on the threat to ‘human dignity’ of research on cells in a petri dish.

Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.

And then he goes into the details. It’s infuriating stuff; don’t miss it.

The last paragraph makes the obvious and devastating point.

Theocon bioethics flaunts a callousness toward the billions of non-geriatric people, born and unborn, whose lives or health could be saved by biomedical advances. Even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos (to say nothing of the threat of criminal prosecution), millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die. And that would be the biggest affront to human dignity of all.


A loving father

May 11th, 2008 1:15 pm | By

Read it and scream.

For Abdel-Qader Ali there is only one regret: that he did not kill his daughter at birth. ‘If I had realised then what she would become, I would have killed her the instant her mother delivered her,’ he said with no trace of remorse. Two weeks after The Observer revealed the shocking story of Rand Abdel-Qader, 17, murdered because of her infatuation with a British solider in Basra, southern Iraq, her father is defiant. Sitting in the front garden of his well-kept home in the city’s Al-Fursi district, he remains a free man, despite having stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed his student daughter to death. Abdel-Qader, 46, a government employee, was initially arrested but released after two hours. Astonishingly, he said, police congratulated him on what he had done. ‘They are men and know what honour is,’ he said.

What honour is – something that makes it not only acceptable but actually praiseworthy to stamp on, suffocate, and stab to death a 17-year-old girl who is your daughter, a girl who hasn’t killed anyone or hurt anyone but has simply developed an affection for a male person.

It was her first youthful infatuation and it would be her last. She died on 16 March after her father discovered she had been seen in public talking to Paul, considered to be the enemy, the invader and a Christian. Though her horrified mother, Leila Hussein, called Rand’s two brothers, Hassan, 23, and Haydar, 21, to restrain Abdel-Qader as he choked her with his foot on her throat, they joined in. Her shrouded corpse was then tossed into a makeshift grave without ceremony as her uncles spat on it in disgust.

Oh, god, it’s so ugly I can’t stand to read it. I can’t stand it I can’t stand it – this world where men get together to murder women then treat them like garbage then spit on them. It’s so ugly. The hatred, the contempt, the disgust – for a young girl – their own relative. It makes me crazy.

‘Death was the least she deserved,’ said Abdel-Qader. ‘I don’t regret it. I had the support of all my friends who are fathers, like me, and know what she did was unacceptable to any Muslim that honours his religion,’ he said…’I don’t have a daughter now, and I prefer to say that I never had one. That girl humiliated me in front of my family and friends…I have only two boys from now on. That girl was a mistake in my life. I know God is blessing me for what I did,’ he said, his voice swelling with pride. ‘My sons are by my side, and they were men enough to help me finish the life of someone who just brought shame to ours.’

Men enough? What does he mean men enough? Because it took strength? No – she was down, her father’s foot was on her neck, they were three against one. Because it took courage? No – they were in no danger. What then? That men are supposed to hate women enough to kill them for no good reason, apparently.

He said his daughter’s ‘bad genes were passed on from her mother’. Rand’s mother, 41, remains in hiding after divorcing her husband in the immediate aftermath of the killing, living in fear of retribution from his family. She also still bears the scars of the severe beating he inflicted on her, breaking her arm in the process, when she told him she was going. ‘They cannot accept me leaving him. When I first left I went to a cousin’s home, but every day they were delivering notes to my door saying I was a prostitute and deserved the same death as Rand,’ she said. ‘She was killed by animals. Every night when go to bed I remember the face of Rand calling for help while her father and brothers ended her life,’ she said, tears streaming down her face.

And that’s just one of many.

O for the simple life

May 10th, 2008 5:51 pm | By

Is there a problem with closed religious groups (and with closed groups in general)?

I commented on – or intruded on – a blog post about the Amish the other day. I didn’t set out to intrude, I thought I was just offering some data, but I got called a militant atheist and compared to Leninists (!) and generally told to fuck off, so clearly I was intruding. Must do better. But about the Amish…

I think there is a problem with closed religious groups (and closed groups in general). I think closed religious groups are incompatible with many of the rights in the UDHR. I think that’s why they are closed – and that’s the problem. Why are some religious groups closed? 1) So that outsiders won’t come in and 2) so that insiders won’t leave. There is secrecy, and there is restriction. Secrecy can cover up treatment of people that would not be acceptable in the larger (open) world, and restriction can make people unable to escape that kind of treatment.

What are closed religious groups like? What are they? Jonestown. Yearning for Zion Ranch. Heaven’s Gate. (I’m not sure how closed Heaven’s Gate really was. It was secretive, but I don’t think it was forcibly closed. It also didn’t have children. That makes a large difference.) Branch Davidians. The Amish.

They don’t let children go to school. Most of them subordinate the women, and keep them under observation. They don’t want their members to leave.

Not being able to leave is the key, I think. It’s the key because it is a violation of rights in itself, and because it motivates other violations of rights. Amish children who stay in school are much more likely to leave than those who quit school after the eighth grade. What does this mean? That children who know more about the world, and who have some qualifications beyond primitive farming, often choose not to stay, while children who don’t, don’t. In other words children who are handicapped – deliberately handicapped – for life in the larger world are more likely to stay, and the Amish want those children to be handicapped. Children who do stay in school have a choice; they can leave or they can stay. Children who quit school at age 14 don’t have a choice (or have much less of a choice); they have to stay.

Universal education is based partly on the idea that children should have choices of that kind. Closed religious groups that prevent their children from having choices of that kind are highly dubious.

So I think the decision in Wisconsin v Yoder was unfortunate. Douglas wrote the only dissent (and it was only a partial dissent; the decision was unanimous).

The Court’s analysis assumes that the only interests at stake in the case are those of the Amish parents on the one hand, and those of the State on the other. The difficulty with this approach is that, despite the Court’s claim, the parents are seeking to vindicate not only their own free exercise claims, but also those of their high-school-age children.

Well exactly, except that should have been a real stumbling block, not just a gesture at one. The Amish (adults) want the Amish to continue, and a lot of Americans who like the idea of having a few buggys and bonnets around want them to continue too. But the price of doing that is allowing generation after generation of children to be handicapped. We don’t fancy that when it’s Yearning for Zion Ranch. Why do we think it’s okay for the Amish?

Ruth Irene Garrett doesn’t think it’s okay.

To many outsiders Amish life seems simple and peaceful – but for Ruth Irene Garrett it was a prison with rules based on fear…Born into an insular Amish community in Iowa, Ruth says she always felt trapped by the rigid way of life which avoids all dealings with the outside world and keeps boys and girls apart…She went to an Amish school until she turned 14 — the age when most Amish children leave their studies to begin working on their families’ farms. Boys work in the fields while the girls focus on quilting, sewing, cooking, milking, cleaning and gardening…Ruth said women were second-class, subservient and discouraged from speaking their minds…Ruth said the Amish rarely smile or laugh, and believe if something is funny then it is bad. She explains in the book: “They take their religious, agrarian life seriously, living by the motto that the harder it is on earth, the sweeter it is in heaven.”

So they make life on earth nasty on purpose, thinking that will make it sweeter in heaven – an unfortunate misunderstanding.

I think pluralism is good up to a point – but I think human rights are one good way to determine what that point is. (I think smiling and laughing is another. Imagine life without laughter. Just imagine it. Imagine finding nothing funny, ever. Imagine thinking funniness is bad. Imagine hell on earth.) I think it’s fine for people to light out for the territory, to run away from home and have adventures (provided they don’t leave their own children behind, like Pilgrim), to drop out of the mainstream, to simplify, to set up communes, to join a kibbutz. I don’t think it’s fine for people to subordinate women, and I don’t think it’s fine for them to handicap their children.

The Cardinal loses the thread

May 9th, 2008 2:09 pm | By

Priestly wisdom.

[I]n Britain today there is considerable spiritual homelessness…Many people have a sense of being in a sort of exile from faith-guided experience…To some extent this is the effect of the privatisation of religion today: religion comes to be treated as a matter of personal need rather than as a truth that makes an unavoidable claim on us.

Yes. That’s because it’s not a truth that makes an unavoidable claim on us. It sounds pretty to say that, but it isn’t true. (The ‘unavoidable claim’ is largely a matter of childhood imprinting. People who aren’t imprinted don’t experience the claim as unavoidable.)

The Cardinal loses the thread quite easily, and quickly.

‘Pope Benedict knows,’ he said, ‘that religion is about truth and not social cohesion.’ A very accurate remark I think. TS Eliot once observed that it was a dangerous inversion to advocate Christianity not because of its truth, but because of its benefit.

Then in the next paragraph –

One of the aims of the Christian religion is to create and foster a culture and society in which human beings flourish and God is glorified by his presence in a holy people.

So, it’s a dangerous inversion to advocate Christianity because of its benefit, but one of the aims of the Christian religion is to create and foster a culture and society in which human beings flourish. Ooooookay. Just throw everything and hope that something sticks, eh.

I wanted religion to be seen to be open to the questions of those who do not believe; those who call themselves agnostic or atheistic. As always, the interesting question about atheism is ‘what is the theism that is being denied?’ Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in? I usually find that the God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don’t believe in either. I simply don’t recognise my faith in what is presented by these critics as Christian faith.

Which bits? The Resurrection? The Trinity? God as all-powerful and perfectly benevolent? Which bits don’t you recognize? But there’s no point in my asking because (of course) he doesn’t say. He’s like Chris Hedges that way – atheists do this that and the other, with never a shred of documentation offered.

God is not a fact in the world, as though God could be treated as one thing among other things to be empirically investigated, affirmed or denied on the basis of observation. Many who deny God’s existence treat God in this way, and they simply don’t know how to ask the proper question about God. God is why the world is at all, the goodness, truth and love that flows into an astonishingly complex and beautiful cosmos…

What, exactly, does that mean? Is it anything other than pretty but empty talk? What does he mean? Does he mean just that God is the fact that the world is at all? If so then I believe in God. If he really means ‘God is why the world is at all’ then what does that mean? Why would it not be just a nice phrase that’s easy and pleasant to say but doesn’t actually mean anything?

I know it seems tediously village-atheist to say things like that, but what can we do? People – priests and theologians – will say things like that, and get respectfully reported by the BBC for doing so, so what can we do other than try to figure out what is meant, and if we can’t figure it out, ask why people say things that don’t seem to mean anything? If you say ‘God is why the world is at all,’ then what is ‘God’? If I said ‘Ranesh Pronunu is why the world is at all,’ you’d wonder what Ranesh Pronunu was, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t think that sentence explained what Ranesh Pronunu is – you would think it created a new mystery rather than solving an old one. So why is that supposed to tell us what God is? You tell me.

Is human identity and purpose a clue to God’s reality? Yes, because in our response to truth and love we are what God brings about as the expression of his overflowing goodness…

Oh, crap. Tell that to the people in Burma, tell it to the people in Zimbabwe and DR Congo and Darfur and Somalia and Bangladesh and Gaza. Tell it to the women of Saudi Arabia and Iran and Afghanistan. Tell it to sick people, people in pain, bereaved people, frightened people. Tell it to animals being torn apart by leopards or foxes or rats. Overflowing goodness nothing.

If Christians really believed in the mystery of God, we would realise that proper talk about God is always difficult, always tentative. Why are atheists so clear about the God who is rejected? A God who can be spoken of comfortably and clearly by human beings cannot be the true God.

Why? No, really, why? If this God is overflowing with goodness, why does it want to make a mystery and a secret of itself? If it’s such a good thing, why does it hide? I’m dead serious about that. (I’m dead serious about all of it.) If it’s such a good thing, why does it hide? There’s no reason for it. The only reason, of course, is because it’s not there, so the priests have to say it’s hiding. That’s a rather cruel hoax, I think.

God 1 or god 2

May 7th, 2008 12:30 pm | By

I kept going on arguing in that discussion at CfI yesterday, and in doing that I tried to boil down the point of contention to make it as clear as possible.

There are two possibilities for theists here.

1) There is a god who is transcendent, outside of nature, outside of the universe.

2) There is a god who is descendent, inside nature, inside the universe, and who makes things happen in our world.

There are different things to say about each. About 1, nearly everyone would agree that it’s not possible to offer evidence that such a god does not exist. But theists fail to draw the rest of the obvious conclusion: for the same reason that it’s not possible to offer evidence that such a god does not exist, it’s not possible to know anything at all about such a deity, therefore there is literally nothing to say about it. If it’s outside, it has nothing to do with us, and we have nothing to do with it, and there’s just nothing to say. There’s fantasy, of course, but fantasy can be about anything and everything, and most theists don’t consider theism to be fantasy.

About 2, agreement is much less likely – but that’s mostly because theists smuggle in aspects of 1 in order to defend their belief system. They hang on to 2 by claiming (literally nonsensically) that 2 has the attributes of 1 but is still the god of 2. Well, that’s a cheat. You can have 1, or you can have 2, but you can’t have both in one. You can’t combine them. It’s not like blending carrots and ginger to make soup. Your god has to be either 1, or 2; it can’t be both.

Once that is realized (and that of course is the snag, because theists and pretend-skeptics simply refuse to realize it), then it becomes clear that 2) is in fact entirely subject to all sorts of empirical inquiry. It’s also subject to common or garden skepticism, in which one declines to believe every blagger who claims there is an invisible magical being up in the sky answering prayers and punishing sinners.

That was yesterday. What I want to know is, is it wrong? The guy I was arguing with seemed to think that you can combine them – and that puzzles me; I don’t see why it’s not obvious that you can’t. G. probably knows, but he’s busy with other things.

The only reason I can think of for people to think you can combine the two is that they are thinking of ‘outside of nature’ as analogous to outside a house, or a room, or a city, or a country. You can be outside all of those and still make things happen inside them. You can be outside a house and throw rocks at it, or set it on fire, or paint it, or shout at people inside it.

But I don’t think that’s relevant to this god stuff because when theists say god is outside, beyond, transcendent, they don’t mean something analogous to outside a house or a city. We know this because they also say that god therefore can’t be tested by the methods of science, and that doesn’t apply to outside a house or a city. This outsideness is a special kind of outsideness that (usefully) confers total immunity from testing and questioning on this god. Well if it’s going to do that, it has to be a kind of outsideness that can’t be combined with being in the world and acting on it – because if it can be combined with being in the world and acting on it, it’s no longer some special magical kind of outsideness, it’s just geographic outsideness which is compatible with occasional (or frequent) visits. And a god that pays visits is back to being one that can be tested. So we still (as far as I can make sense of all this) have the same incompatability. If the god is ‘transcendent’ and permanently beyond human knowledge and testing – then it’s 1, and it can’t also be 2.

Can it? I don’t see how it can; am I missing something?