Go on, kick us again

Mar 16th, 2010 12:09 pm | By

Damian Thompson, a Catholic, is in a frothing rage – not at the pope or the all-male hierarchy of his authoritarian church, but at the Times for reporting on it.

There is international outrage in Catholic circles over a headline in The Times this morning that many people regard as utterly misleading and part of the newspaper’s reliably biased coverage (reinforced by vicious cartoons) of anything to do with Pope Benedict XVI…A universally admired Catholic journalist contacted me this morning and accused The Times of (and I am toning this down for legal reasons) an extremely serious error of judgment.

A universally admired Catholic journalist? There is no such thing. There’s no universally admired anything, and certainly not a Catholic journalist. Thompson is clearly very keen to give the impression that the outrage he is describing and attributing is widespread. It may be, but his heated rhetoric doesn’t convince me of that.

Another respected commentator, the American journalist Phil Lawler, takes the headline to pieces on CatholicCulture.org.

There it is again. He’s citing Catholics as authorities for the unfairness of coverage of a Catholic issue, without so much as acknowledging the potential for bias, but instead simply announcing that his chosen Catholics are admired and respected. Admired and respected by whom? Other Catholics? Other loyalist Catholics? Other Catholics so loyal that for them the church can do no wrong? Other Catholics so loyal that they are more worried about the coverage than they are about the reality of what the church has been doing all this time? That’s the appearance he gives, at least.

Thompson quotes the ‘respected’ Lawler (ironically named, he turns out to be):

Here’s what we know: While the Pope was Archbishop of Munich, a priest there was accused of sexual abuse. He was pulled out of ministry and sent off for counseling. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in the decision to remove the priest from his parish assignment – got that? remove him.

Yes, got that. But what he wasn’t, was ‘pulled out of ministry and sent off’ to the police. Got that? The police. What he was accused of was a crime, and not no victimless crime, neither, but a peculiarly nasty crime against people. Ratzinger was involved in this failure to report a crime to the police. Got that? To report a crime.

Several years later, long after Cardinal Ratzinger had moved to a new assignment at the Vatican, the priest was again accused of sexual abuse. A grievous mistake was made in this case; that much is clear now, and the vicar general has sorrowfully taken responsibility for the error. Could you say that the future Pontiff should have been more vigilant? Perhaps. But to suggest that he made the decision to put a pedophile back in circulation is an outrageous distortion of the facts.

Is it? Really? In particular, is it really an outrageous distortion? In a sense it’s more of a distortion not to put it that way. Lawler is an American, so he should be aware of the crime of reckless endangerment. He’s right that we don’t know, and it’s not likely, that Ratzinger said ‘let’s not report this priest to the cops so that he can go back into circulation as a pedophile later on.’ But the fact is that that’s what happened, and the not reporting the priest to the cops wasn’t the best way to prevent its happening.

Thompson finishes up by shouting at Ruth Gledhill for saying, ‘The Pope is pretty unassailable. He is not elected…’ Thompson points out, acidly, that there is such a thing as a conclave. Well yes, but ‘elected’ is commonly used to mean ‘democratically elected’ – elected by the people as a whole, not elected by a tiny powerful exclusive secretive body of celibate men. The pope is not ‘elected’ by Catholics, he is ‘elected’ by some cardinals. That makes a difference.

Thompson continues the theme later.

Fr Tim Finigan, one of the most respected traditionalist priests in England and certainly its most influential priest-blogger, described it as a “Disgraceful attack on the Holy Father in The Times”…There is a wider perception that The Times’s entire coverage of the scandals in the Catholic Church, including Peter Brookes’s revolting cartoons, has the flavour of an anti-Catholic crusade…Let me quote my colleague Cristina Odone, former editor of The Catholic Herald: “I have been shocked by the Times’s anti-Catholic coverage.”

Same stuff, see? Loose references to respected and influential and wider perception, and citation of Catholics without mention of the possibility of pro-church bias.

What I’d like to do is put The Times’s elder statesman, Lord Rees-Mogg, on the spot. How can he, as a former editor of the paper and a devout and distinguished Catholic, stand by as the paper he loves traduces the Holy Father?

And there you have theist slavishness at its most revolting.

Who cares

Mar 16th, 2010 11:11 am | By

Too bad for you if you’re Irish and you want to leave the Catholic church – the church is so dominant in public life that you can’t leave without making life difficult for yourself. Sor-reeeeee.

[T]he church is so deeply woven into the fabric of Irish life, it is difficult for many ordinary Irish people to distance themselves from it. The church is involved in education and health care, and its imprint on the Irish national identity is deep…Ninety-two percent of primary schools are still run by the Catholic Church and most of the best schools are Catholic.

So parents who want to leave are screwed. But hey, the remaining fans of the church are having a hard time too.

“It’s a very difficult time to be a committed Roman Catholic in Ireland,” says Breda O’Brien, who teaches religious education at a Roman Catholic school in central Dublin, and also writes a column for The Irish Times on religion. “There has been scandal after scandal, compounded by mismanagement within the church,” O’Brien says. “The church has not covered itself in glory…No one can deny the problems the church has had, but that does not make everything the church does wrong,” she says.

No, it doesn’t (though that certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that everything the church does is wrong), but what it does do is drive a hole the size of a tank through the church’s claim to moral superiority and insight and scrupulosity. What it does do is make a laughing stock of the idea that Catholic clergy have some sort of extra-highly-developed moral awareness. What it does do is make a mockery of the church’s ostentatious concern for foetuses and for suffering people who want to escape their suffering in the only way left to them, given that the church has made it so blindingly obvious that it does not care in the slightest about the minimal well-being and safety of actual living conscious feeling children in their care who have been raped or enslaved or savagely punished or systematically deprived or all those, for year after year, decade after decade. What it does do is show up the Catholic clergy as a benighted self-protecting insular pack of men with all the moral sensitivity of a rock. Given what the church claims to be, that showing up is fatal to its pretensions. This isn’t Wal-Mart, or a bank, or an accounting firm, or a hamburger chain. This is a different kind of enterprise altogether, and now that it has become abundantly, lavishly clear that its first concern is always for itself and never for helpless victims in its power, how can it possibly continue to pretend to be better than everyone else?

I don’t think there’s a good answer to that, but I also expect that it will nevertheless go on pretending. Fewer people will buy the pretense, but some still will.

Thermal pope

Mar 14th, 2010 4:41 pm | By

Things are getting hot for the Catholic church.

The pope, meanwhile, continues to be under fire for a 2001 Vatican letter he sent to all bishops advising them that all cases of sexual abuse of minors must be forwarded to his then-office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the cases were to be subject to pontifical secret…But canon lawyers insisted Friday that there was nothing in the document that would preclude bishops from fulfilling their moral and civic duties of going to police when confronted with a case of child abuse. They stressed that the document merely concerned procedures for handling the church trial of an accused priest, and that the secrecy required by Rome for that hearing by no means extended to a ban on reporting such crimes to civil authorities.

Right…that’s the issue we discussed last month – concluding that it was so damn ambiguous and woolly and evasive we couldn’t be sure what it was saying.

Well guess what.

Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore in Northern Ireland, told a news conference this week that Irish bishops “widely misinterpreted” the directive and couldn’t get a clear reading from Rome on how to proceed. “One of the difficulties that bishops expressed was the fact that at times it wasn’t always possible to get clear guidance from the Holy See and there wasn’t always a consistent approach within the different Vatican departments,” he said. “Obviously, Rome is aware of this misinterpretation and the harm that this has done, or could potentially do, to the trust that the people have in how the church deals with these matters,” he said.

Interesting, isn’t it. They knew perfectly well that the document was hard to interpret, and they gave no help.

An Irish government-authorized investigation into the scandal and cover up harshly criticized the Vatican for its mixed messages and insistence on secrecy in the 2001 directive and previous Vatican documents on the topic. “An obligation to secrecy/confidentialtiy on the part of participants in a canonical process could undoubtedly constitute an inhibition on reporting child sexual abuse to the civil authorities or others,” it concluded.

In the United States, Dan Shea, an attorney for several victims, has introduced the Ratzinger letter in court as evidence that the church was trying to obstruct justice. He has argued that the church impeded civil reporting by keeping the cases secret and “reserving” them for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “This is an international criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice,” Shea told The Associated Press.

Hotter and hotter…but still never hot enough. Yet.

Aquinas, Calvin and Buckminster T Fuller

Mar 13th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

Oh, Texas, Texas, Texas.

The Texas school board has been fixing up the standards for the curriculum.

9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present…9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.”

That’s wonderful, isn’t it? From a list that makes sense to one that’s just a demented ragbag. But they got that horrid Enlightenment thing out, and that’s the main thing.

You have got to be kidding

Mar 12th, 2010 5:42 pm | By

Oh Jesus – I give up. Taner’s taken leave of his senses. He’s not ambivalent about liberalism, he’s ditched it entirely.

I don’t know if the institutional forms that constrain communities have to have to take the shape of an external arbiter, a Bureau of Individual Rights in Communities or something. Quite possibly, given our governmental habits. Say it’s so. But then, I would also expect such a Bureau to be sensitive to political negotiations between particular communities concerning what kind of exit procedures will be realized. It wouldn’t just be imposition of a liberal individualist superstructure.

Fucking hell. The human rights body has to be ‘sensitive’ about whether or not the communities will let people leave…

It’s crazy. It’s crazy and it’s scary. People like this would let me be locked up for life if they could! They would demand ‘senstivity’ and ‘negotiation’ before I could be allowed to escape – and maybe they would reluctantly say that the community simply wouldn’t have it, and I couldn’t be permitted to leave. This is madness!

And it gets even worse.

Presumably a multicultural regime in modern times would try to negotiate a balance between (partial, permeable) community autonomy, and (nonabsolute, constrained) individual autonomy. That is, short of life and limb, a community would still be able to impose significant costs on members violating internal norms. (Again, the extent of these costs would presumably be up to particular political negotiations.)

I should stop commenting, because I’m really disgusted, and I’ll get myself in trouble.

Taner – here’s a thought. Just read Shirley Jackson’s famous story ‘The Lottery.’ You need it.

The fresh air of the explicit

Mar 12th, 2010 12:35 pm | By

And another thing. I replied to Taner’s “We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs…” with “But again, that treats ‘communities’ as if they were people. ‘Communities’ don’t have affairs; people do, one at a time.” Taner replied with “I find it perfectly sensible to talk about the interests of a corporation, the affairs of a university, or the internal rules of a bridge club. And so with communities.”

Ah yes – but there is a difference. It’s not ‘and so with communities,’ because ‘communities’ are different from corporations and universities and even bridge clubs. The difference is part of what makes them so risky, so difficult to deal with, so potentially and sometimes actually oppressive. The difference (the one I’m thinking of anyway) is that corporations and universities are specifiable, and precise, and explicit; they have rules and contracts, in writing; you know where you are with them. ‘Communities’ are not any of those things, they don’t have any of those things, you don’t know where you are with them. Communities are all about the tacit, the implicit, the understood, the unwritten – which means they are opaque to outsiders and unaccountable to insiders. This means that if you decide that ‘communities’ should be free to make and enforce their own rules, you’re left with no real way to call them to account, and you’ve left their members helpless.

And ‘communities’ are different from corporations and universities in having no real borders or definitions, too. ‘Communities’ are notional, and it’s really anybody’s guess who belongs and who doesn’t. Who decides who belongs to what community? Who decides who doesn’t belong? Is everyone allowed to decline to belong to any particular community?

The answer to that last question, at least, seems pretty obviously to be ‘no’ – especially in the case of ‘the Muslim community,’ which does not encourage leaving Islam. Some people are going to be considered to belong to some communities whether they consent or not – and they will be treated accordingly. Corporations and universities don’t operate that way. The ‘communities’ Taner has in mind are non-liberal and non-secular ones, since liberal secularism is exactly what he is departing from in this series of posts. But in that case, he is arguing that non-liberal non-secular ‘communities’ should have power over people who might very well have no desire whatsoever to belong to said ‘communities.’ This isn’t a contrived worry, either, to put it mildly – secular Muslims decidedly are subject to social pressure from ‘the Muslim community.’ If they don’t have the liberal state to turn to – they’re sunk. This ain’t no game of bridge.

Three times more than you-oo

Mar 12th, 2010 11:23 am | By

Good old Beeb – make sure not to be too polite to atheism, won’t you. Yes of course you will.

Headline: ‘Atheists meet in Melbourne to celebrate lack of faith.’ Subhead: ‘More than 2,000 atheists from around the world are gathering in Melbourne, Australia, to celebrate their lack of religious belief.’ They couldn’t be there to talk about it, to explore issues related to it, to meet people who are interested in it; no, they’re there to celebrate it, and the thing they are celebrating is a lack, which makes them doubly stupid and pathetic.

All 2,500 tickets were sold out earlier this year, but a religious gathering at the same venue in December attracted three times as many delegates.

So there! Everybody hates you, you poxy whiny lacking stupid celebrating unpopular faithless losers! Neener neener neener. The Beeb had space to mention that, but not to mention that the ‘religious gathering’ got state funding while the atheist gathering did not.

There is a determination to avoid what one session calls Atheistic Fundamentalism, says our correspondent. Participants will be urged to avoid “missionary zeal” in their determination to promote their non-religious message to the world.

Same old atheism, the Beeb says with a sneer. Only people who don’t ‘lack faith’ are allowed to show missionary zeal, one gathers.

No more than elements of ‘bourgeois’ ideology

Mar 11th, 2010 5:39 pm | By

And also – Danny Postel on the role the Iranian Left played in its own immolation:

An account of this self-defeat can be found in Maziar Behrooz’s book, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, a salutary and, indeed, definitive reconsideration of the history of the pre-revolutionary Iranian Left.

As Maziar explains, the Iranian Left, or at least certain key fractions of it, helped fashion the noose the Islamists ultimately hung them with. According to Behrooz, the Khomeinites were able to do this in large part because the Tudeh party, the Fadaiyan Majority, and many other Iranian Marxist parties, whatever their differences with the Islamists, shared with them a profound hostility toward liberalism. Like [Ruhollah al-Musavi] Khomeini’s followers, dominant trends on the Iranian Left viewed democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights as no more than elements of what they described interchangeably as “western,” “colonial,” or “bourgeois” ideology.

Oh did they – well how familiar, and how reckless, and how insane. Do democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights seem like no more than elements of “western,” “colonial,” or “bourgeois” ideology now? There’s nothing like seeing democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights yanked violently away to make one realize what nice things they are to have. Of course the first two, at least, weren’t abundant under the shah, but that’s a different story.

For the genuinely leftist project of internationalism and human emancipation, the profoundly authoritarian, repressive, reactionary, and proto-fascist regime that emerged out of the Revolution and has ruled Iran ever since is certainly tragic but also, and more accurately, catastrophic

Khomeini’s gang may have disdained professedly secular, rational socialists, but on the Left the argument went that, because they were anti-American and anti-imperialist, the Khomeinites were “objectively progressive.”
We now know that the Left’s was a demented, disfigured, ultimately catastrophic argument, one that had lethal consequences for those who propounded it. There was nothing progressive about Khomeini’s anti-imperialism. It was authoritarian and regressive, as is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s anti-imperialism today. Whether Khomeini’s rhetoric was truly anti-imperialist is open to debate—but to the extent it was, it amounted to no more than an anti-imperialism of fools.

Quite. Let us have no messing around – no anti-imperialism of fools, no anti-secularism of fools, no anti-liberalism of fools, no multiculturalism of fools. There is nothing progressive about authoritarian regressive theocratic communalism. The hell with it.

Via Norm.

Too few questions were asked

Mar 11th, 2010 12:09 pm | By

Further to the discussion of multiculturalism and autonomy for ‘communities’ and family law – Martha Nussbaum’s ‘The Feminist Critique of Liberalism’ is relevant throughout, and particularly relevant in this bit (Sex and Social Justice, pp 63-4):

[A]s many feminists have long pointed out, where women and the family are concerned, liberal political thought has not been nearly individualist enough. Liberal thinkers tended to segment the private from the public sphere, considering the public sphere to be the sphere of individual rights and contractual arrangements, the family to be a private sphere of love and comfort into which the state should not meddle. This tendency grew, no doubt, out of a legitimate concern for the protection of choice – but too few questions were asked about whose choices were thereby protected. This means that liberals too often failed to notice the extent to which laws and institutions shape the family and determine the privileges and rights of its members.

Compare that to, again, Taner’s

[The state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?

Because families, especially in ‘communities’ that feel that the ability to communally follow sharia or ‘Catholic teachings’ or other religious ‘law’ is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, can have differences in power and hence in rights, freedom, ability to choose, and all such liberal shibboleths.

Furthermore, family law, which is what Taner specifies, is not a private sphere of love and comfort; it’s what people resort to when there is disagreement. If all is well, family law is not needed, and it’s beside the point. Family law is there to adjudicate who gets what. It’s there for when the members of the family can no longer agree – so it is no longer an area of voluntary agreement or commitment or choice – it’s an area of coercion. People have a cognitive bias to be over-optimistic; people can be blithe about agreements and commitments when starting out to establish a family, but that doesn’t mean they stay blithe forever. A liberal state will attempt to treat all members fairly; religious law is a different kind of thing. That’s ‘why interfere.’

Remember that story on ‘Islamic marriage contracts’?

Why do Pakistani women agree to marriage contracts without scrutinizing them first and making sure they won’t be sorry later?…My soon-to-be husband had been briefed by the religious scholar presiding. He had also read the marriage-contract papers in detail, making the additions and cancellations he wanted. But I hadn’t seen the document. When I had asked to, my mother had rebuffed my request, saying there was no need, since she had already gone through it. When I told my fiance I wanted to discuss the contract with him, he wondered why I didn’t trust him to do what was best for us.

Nussbaum goes on (p 65):

Liberal reluctance to interfere with the family has run very deep; dispiritingly, many liberal thinkers have failed to notice that the family is not always characterized by a harmony of interests. No model of the family can be adequate to reality if it fails to take into account competition for scarce resources, divergent interests, and differences of power…

But notice that, as Mill already argued, what we see here is not a failure intrinsic to liberalism itself. It is, in fact, a failure of liberal thinkers to follow their own thought through to its socially radical conclusion. What is wrong with the views of the family endorsed by [Gary] Becker, Rawls, and others is not that they are too individualistic but that they are not individualistic enough…[T]hey fail to ask rigorously their own question, namely, how is each and every individual doing?

Taner is making the same mistake.

They shape their traditions in turn

Mar 10th, 2010 1:12 pm | By

The latest from Taner Edis on multiculturalism.

Liberal language about “choice” and “force” is very misleading here. No one chooses who they are. Our choices take place in a context of unchosen circumstances, and unchosen but organically acquired loyalties. Particularly conservative religious people (a pretty large chunk of the human species) are very much embedded in unchosen traditions and communities. It’s not so much that they are forced into anything as that belonging to a community is an integral part of who they are.

Yes, but again, they don’t all simply accept everything that results, and they don’t all want simply to accept everything that results. We’re not obliged to just assume that everyone is happy with whatever slot she was born to. On the contrary, it’s better, more humane, more progressive, more just, more reasonable to assume that other people are like me and are capable of wanting more, or less, or better, or different. This applies doubly or triply to people who are ’embedded in unchosen traditions and communities’ that consider them underlings. That is, obviously, not to say we should kidnap all such people and force them to be more like us, but it is to say that we should be concerned about their ability to choose what to be.

A good number of secularists seem to have a model of religion as an authoritarian, top-down imposition. Devout religious people who perceive themselves as freely living their faith do not see things the same way. Not because they are brainwashed, but because they routinely experience their community as a place full of negotiation and give-and-take. Religious people are agents. They are shaped by their traditions, but they shape their traditions in turn.

Some are; some do; but not all. Some can’t, because they’re not allowed to. Some don’t, because they’ve never had the opportunity even to develop the thought. Not all religious people get the chance to ‘shape their traditions in turn.’

[G]iven the much fuzzier boundaries between communities than persons, I would expect any sane communitarian view should make plenty of allowances for interference. Slavery, for example, may well be a point where enough is enough.

‘May well be’??

Here is some nice community life for you.

A woman Muslim councillor says death threats and sexual harassment calls have made her change the way she dresses and reconsider being in politics…The mother of four said: “It’s really horrible. A male voice said ‘We are going to get your parents out of their grave and put you there’ and ‘We know where you and your kids live and we are going to show you!’…One talked about how he liked my western clothes, my tight jeans, my body parts and sexual acts he would like to do to me.”…Last year Rania Khan, another of Tower Hamlets’ women Muslim councillors, received hate mail after photos were taken of her without headscarf at an Eid party.

Well? So? The councillors and their tormentors are all ‘in a context of unchosen circumstances, and unchosen but organically acquired loyalties’; they ‘routinely experience their community as a place full of negotiation and give-and-take’; they are agents; they are shaped by their traditions, but they shape their traditions in turn; so there is no problem, right? They live in a community, and living in a community is good, so if women who have the gall to be councillors and dress as they see fit are subject to sexist sexual threatening phone calls, that’s just part of community life.

I don’t actually think Taner thinks that – yet it is what he’s saying. What can I tell you?

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood

Mar 9th, 2010 11:20 am | By

No, I don’t agree with Taner Edis, and I agree even less as he clarifies. This is all the odder in that he doesn’t even agree with himself – he prefers secular liberalism himself, but says he can’t defend it. Yes you can, Taner! Try harder! It can be done. It can’t be done absolutely, or permanently, or in such a way that no one anywhere will disagree – but it can still be done.


My political preference is very much the opposite. I would, personally, consider a multicultural regime a dystopia…My reasons for all of this, however, have almost everything to do with my particular interests and aspirations, and next to nothing to do with any claim that these are universal considerations applicable to all reasonable people.

Well you can fix that. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights again. Read Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ Read the first few articles in Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice. Read some Amartya Sen. Re-read Mill.

How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs…

But again, that treats ‘communities’ as if they were people. ‘Communities’ don’t have affairs; people do, one at a time. The affairs of one person may be different from those of another person, and it just isn’t safe to assume that ‘communities’ as such treat all their members equally. We know that some ‘communities’ don’t treat all their members equally, and that that’s why it’s dangerous to give communities certain kinds of autonomy.

[The state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?

Because ‘devout Muslims’ aren’t identical to one another, and because one cannot assume that putative ‘Muslim communities’ contain only ‘devout Muslims,’ and because even devout Muslims don’t necessarily agree about what it means to ‘communally follow sharia law.’ Isn’t this obvious? Consider a teenage daughter who wants to refuse a marriage for instance – the community’s autonomy to regulate its own affairs is not in her interest! Consider a married woman who wants to work or go to school; consider an adult daughter who is seeing a man from some other ‘community,’ against the wishes of her parents; consider any girl or woman who has had or is having non-marital sex; consider any girl or woman who doesn’t want to wear hijab; consider anyone at all who wants to leave Islam. Autonomy for their ‘community’ is slavery or death for them. Sorry but it’s just callous to say ‘why not?’ and ‘why interfere?’.

This is not theocracy—Christians, Buddhists, or even secularists can live according to their own law regulating their interactions within their own communities.

No they can’t. That must mean something much more limited than the actual words say, because the actual words are just wrong. There are a very few religious exceptions in US law, for instance (most of which should be repealed), but there’s certainly no blanket right for people to ‘live according to their own law’ even within their darling communities.

Groups are real, they shape and serve their members’ interests, and it is only practical to arrange state institutions to recognize this reality.

Sure, groups are real in some sense (though not in all senses – they are after all an abstraction in many senses), but they do not necessarily or automatically serve the interests of all their members. This is the thing that is absolutely crucial to remember about groups and communities and even families – they are made up of individuals and it is not safe or fair to assume that all those individuals have the same interests all the time. That is precisely why the state should not treat communities as homogeneous and putative community ‘leaders’ or ‘representatives’ as genuinely representing everyone in the notional community.

Now, there are all sorts of practical questions that arise. How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order. Still, especially since massive oppression itself can threaten the peace, we would need institutional arrangements to help ease such problems.

Oh, god, Taner – there you go right off the rails. That’s a horrible thing to say! Shrug? I’ll be god damned if I will! There’s plenty of that as it is, we don’t need more of it. And do you really mean to minimize the inherent badness of oppression itself, even if it doesn’t ‘threaten the peace’? If so, why on earth? Oppression is bad – humans treating other humans like crap is the curse of our species – it’s the nightmare from which we can’t awake, to adopt Joyce’s phrase – it’s our horrible dreadful heritage, from the Armenian genocide to the corpses in Jos to the misery of generations of children in Irish industrial schools to the tens of thousands of girls kept out of school in Afghanistan. It’s not something to shrug at.

Liberalism can be defended

Mar 8th, 2010 11:38 am | By

Taner Edis thinks Gary Bouma is right about secularism and that Russell Blackford is wrong. I think Taner is mostly wrong that Russell is wrong that Gary Bouma is wrong. Still with me?

Note that, as often in the liberal tradition, the main pragmatic argument Blackford uses to promote a secular regime is that it helps keep the peace between rival sects…Such arguments tend to overlook how such reasoning is difficult to generalize beyond the context of Western European Christianity in the modern era.

Possibly. But then…this may sound crude, but the reality is, Western Europe is a pretty good place to live, and it and its descendants are better places to live than most of the rest of the world. Yes, that does sound crude, but it doesn’t sound exactly fictitious, does it. There aren’t great waves of migrants going from France or Canada or New Zealand to live in Pakistan or China or Nigeria, and that’s not just some random accident. Yes Western Europe and its descendants are prosperous as well as liberal, but then it is generally thought that there is a pretty strong connection between the liberalism and the prosperity. So even if it’s true that secularism currently seems easier to defend in (let’s call it) the liberal world than outside it, that doesn’t really indicate that the illiberal world (to put it crudely) has a good case for theocracy.

But today’s multicultural urban environments are different. We have to deal with not one fragmenting religious tradition, but people thrown together from very different faiths, including various kinds of Muslims, Buddhists, African Christianities, indigenous traditions, etc. etc.

Well not exactly ‘thrown together’ – as indicated above, it’s more a matter of people going to such places on purpose, for reasons, because they want to. It’s a matter of mass migration, of large-scale immigration, of people who are drawn to these places because, for whatever reason, they prefer them to their places of origin. For at least some of those people, secularism and liberalism in general are among the reasons, are among the attractions that draw people from all these very different faiths into today’s multicultural urban environments. It is not necessarily the case that people who move from one place to another want their destination place to transform itself into a simulacrum of the place they left behind. People don’t generally leave home in order to find the same thing elsewhere, so the fact that the new place has many unfamiliar aspects is not automatically a reason to change those aspects. For all anybody knows those are the very aspects that draw people in the first place.

[I]t is hard to say that individualist tendencies are clearly dominant over desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion. Governmental bodies, unless driven by an explicit secularism in the French style, can effectively deal with representatives of religious communities as intermediaries. Keeping the peace often means ensuring that South Asian Shiites and Korean evangelicals and so forth do not feel disrespected and disadvantaged.

Yes it’s hard to say, but it’s hard to say the reverse, too. It’s hard to say (for sure; without risk of being dead wrong; etc) that desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion are clearly dominant over individualist tendencies. And then with the next sentence, we get into the really bumpy territory. What does ‘effectively’ mean there? Sure in some sense government bodies can pretend that various self-appointed people can claim to be ‘representatives’ of all putative members of their putative community, and the two can agree between themselves what is to be done, but the reality is that that’s basically just lazy bullshit, and it gives away genuine representation to people who are not elected and not reliably accountable. It shouldn’t be taken at face value as a good way to ‘deal with’ various ‘communities.’

I think Taner is making the mistake here of treating groups as uniform blocs, when the reality is that all groups are made up of particular individuals, and no matter how instructed or persuaded or indoctrinated those particular individuals are, it cannot simply be assumed that they all think alike on any one question. Even the question of secularism, even the question of individual rights. Some putative members of the putative group may well simply disagree with their putative representatives or leaders – but those people are marginalized and ignored by any system that pretends that self-appointed leaders really can represent people who have no voice.

In a multicultural environment, you have to be careful where and with whom you voice criticism…Atheists will denounce the intellectual pathologies that support supernatural beliefs, but they will do it in academic circles or in small discussion groups. They won’t go to the mass media. That would be foolish, even dangerous.

Well if that’s true we’re screwed – and it’s not true, at least not yet. There is a huge amount of social pressure on atheists to confine our atheism to some small closet or other, but there is also a pretty robust resistance to that pressure. If what Taner says really does describe ‘a multicultural environment’ then I don’t want to live in one – but fortunately I don’t think that’s the only possible understanding of ‘multicultural.’

[A] broader historical experience has made the darker, coercive aspects of liberal politics more obvious. Postmodern multiculturalists legitimately ask why a liberal individualist model, with its violent, anti-communitarian aspects, should remain dominant in the legal realm.

I don’t think so. I think compared to the darker, coercive aspects of communitarian politics, liberalism as such (not liberalism as a front for imperialism or cut-throat capitalism) looks pretty good. I’m not sure what Taner means by that passage, so I won’t belabor the point further, in case I have him wrong.

Now, I don’t particularly like all this. My particular interests drive me toward secular liberalism, even after repeated disenchantment. I dislike tight communities. Multicultural bullshit may be useful bullshit, but I still have an aesthetic dislike toward it that I cannot seem to overcome. But all of this is hardly a basis for public policy.

There I think he’s simply selling himself way short. What he’s describing is not a mere aesthetic dislike. ‘My particular interests’ are what drive people in general toward secular liberalism, especially when they’ve been able to develop a healthy sense of their own interests. People – women, in particular – who’ve been raised within ‘communities’ that see them as inherently and permanently inferior and subordinate are often inhibited from developing a healthy sense of their own interests, but that’s not a reason to raise that inhibition to a general principle. On the contrary. And people’s healthy sense of their own interests is indeed a basis for public policy.

Another vituperative demand for civility

Mar 6th, 2010 12:35 pm | By

Josh Rosenau has an unpleasant and in places inaccurate post about Mooney and his critics. In places it’s also just badly thought through, like here:

…we’ve had Chris Mooney winning a grant so he can write a book. In this day and age, any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations. But because Mooney’s funding comes from the John Templeton Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting a particular view on the compatibility of science and religion, that praiseworthy achievement has won opprobrium.

What, any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations no matter what, no qualifications or stipulations, no matter what the source of the funding is? So any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations even if the funding comes from the Tobacco Institute, or the oil industry, or a cabal of climate-change denialists? I really doubt that he means that – but if he doesn’t mean that, then his claim falls apart. If he does mean that, I disagree with him. I don’t think any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations no matter what the source of the funding is. I think that’s a ridiculous claim.

Some of the inaccuracy has to do with things he claimed I said. I commented on that and other things there, but my comment is being held in moderation, so I’ll repeat some of what I said here.

Ophelia Benson picked up not on that post but on Jerry Coyne’s bribery charges. Not, alas, to chide Coyne for his absurd double standard, but to pile on Chris. The question she poses is whether “Chris Mooney is a man more sinned against than sinning.”

That’s not true. I did not ‘pick up on’ ‘Jerry Coyne’s bribery charges’; my post has nothing to do with Jerry Coyne’s post; I neither linked to it nor mentioned it; my post was in response to one by Sheril Kirshenbaum, and that’s the post I linked to. I wasn’t ‘piling on’ Chris, I was stating my own view.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s wrong to equate getting a grant with taking a bribe. Maybe it’s wrong to demonize your critics just because they demonized you.

Maybe. But then again maybe it does matter, maybe it is worth asking who funds particular grants, and criticizing sources that seem to have a particular agenda or bias, maybe doing that does not equate to demonizing your critics.

I would say it’s the kind of thing Chris Mooney himself has done, and done well, and done usefully. I would say it’s an important and valuable thing to do. I would say Josh’s casual dismissal of it is deeply wrong-headed.

Ophelia is right that there were criticisms offered of their ideas as well, but the notion that their critics were focused only on the intellectual merits of the claims advanced in the book and at Chris’s blog is laughable in its revisionism.

Maybe it would be, but I didn’t say that. What I said was that Sheril ‘should consider the possibility that the personal attacks are actually not baseless – that people accuse Chris of saying things that he really has been saying.’ That doesn’t imply that there’s no personal anger, it states that the personal attacks are not baseless.

Whoever started it, it’s fair to say that Chris and Sheril have gotten their just desserts. Endlessly picking on them because they wrote a book, or criticized a book review before that, is unspeakably petty.

But they have gone on making their personal accusations against people, by name, with exaggeration and weak arguments and (to use Josh’s word) ‘demonization.’ Chris, in particular, keeps returning to the issue and his same old claims. We get to reply.

Ophelia argues (as PZ does implicitly as quoted above) that “Chris picked a fight.” But the idea that he originated the fight is, again, patent revisionism. It’s a fight that’s raged for a long time.

That really is very sloppy. I said Chris ‘picked a fight’; that is not the same thing as saying he originated the fight. Obviously. Of course I don’t think he’s the origin of the whole conflict, but he did pick this particular fight, so it is pretty whiny to claim now that he’s the one being picked on. Josh also fails to mention the huge advantage Mooney has in relative access to media – he fails to mention the fact that Mooney’s been (to use Josh’s language again) ‘piling on’ the ‘New’ atheists in mass media while the ‘New’ atheists have been replying on blogs. The advantage is his, not ours.

And if you aren’t capable of having a civil conversation with people you disagree with, you have no warrant to present yourself as arbiter of “science in its purest form” (sorry Ophelia).

I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.

Pesky pointy-headed pencil-neck geeks

Mar 5th, 2010 6:03 pm | By

It’s a funny thing, but there are people who think it’s worth pointing out that ‘atheists are no more rational than anybody else.’ Gosh, really? And here I was thinking that just by being an atheist, I automatically and indisputably occupied an Upper Level of humankind where the air is thinner and the rationality flows like wine.

No actually I don’t think anything so stupid, and I never have. I do think something much more limited and carefully phrased than that…but of course that wouldn’t be exciting to contradict, because if you make limited carefully-phrased claims then you’re probably not saying anything as obviously and risibly stupid as ‘atheists are more rational than anybody else.’ What would I say? That atheism as such is more rational than theism as such. That’s about it, really. There are plenty of atheists who aren’t atheists for particularly rational reasons, and there are rational people who are theists, though that one is trickier (because I don’t agree that being theist is itself rational). There are also plenty of atheists who are atheists for rational reasons but who still aren’t demonstrably ‘more rational than anybody else’; there are also atheists who are more rational than most people…but that’s so far away from the invented claim that ‘atheists are more rational than anybody else’ that it’s beside the point.

Maybe such claims don’t mean atheists in general but rather explicit or vocal atheists – ‘New’ atheists, in short. Maybe the jibe is really ‘New atheists are no more rational than anybody else,’ because the idea is that any atheist who is overt about it must be thinking she is more rational than anybody else. Maybe the idea is that being overt about it is the same thing as thinking one is more rational than anybody else. But that isn’t necessarily the case. One can want to be rational, careful, critical, thoughtful, reflective, questioning, skeptical, without thinking one is any of those things, much less that is more so than anybody else.

But it’s otiose to point this out, of course; jeers like ‘atheists are no more rational than anybody else’ are part of the Sarah Palinization of discourse. Nyah nyah, you read too many books; neener neener, you think you’re so smart; you New York latte-drinking elitists think you know everything.

I’m offended, call the cops!

Mar 5th, 2010 11:14 am | By

The BBC is tipping its hand again. Check out this bizarre subhead:

Anti-religious campaigners have condemned the conviction of a “militant atheist” who left rude images in Liverpool Airport’s prayer room.

‘Anti-religious campaigners’ being their hand-tipping tendentious hostile ill-mannered term for secularists and, you know, people who believe in freedom of speech – otherwise known as liberals. And what is up with that ‘militant atheists’ and what are the scare-quotes for? Who, exactly, is being quoted there? Anyone? Or is that just a very underhanded way of throwing more mud at atheists while pretending it’s someone else doing it. That’s what it looks like to me.

Anyway – what it’s reporting on is jaw-dropping to a Yank.

[Harry] Taylor, 59, of Griffen Street, Salford, admitted at Liverpool Crown Court religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress…The atheist admitted leaving images of important religious figures in sexual poses but said he was simply challenging the views of others. The chaplain at the airport, who was “severely distressed” by the discoveries in November and December 2008, immediately reported the images to the police, prosecutors said…The maximum sentence for such an offence is seven years in prison.

I can’t even think of anything to add to that – it’s so grotesque it speaks for itself. Is the UK a giant daycare center instead of a country, or what? Are you allowed to go outside without someone holding your hand? Do the police come along to check your underwear every couple of hours?

Please donate to clerical rapists’ defense fund

Mar 4th, 2010 5:10 pm | By

What was that I was just saying about the Catholic church presuming to lecture everyone on how to be good and what a flesh-crawlingly bad joke that is? Well spare a thought for the bishop of Ferns.

Dr Denis Brennan, the Bishop of Ferns, was inviting parishioners (and any individual priests who felt so inclined) to donate money to assist the church in footing a bill, the tally for which comes to more than €10m, to meet the legal costs of defending civil cases brought against the diocese in relation to clerical sexual abuse. In other words the Roman Catholic Church in Ferns is asking the victims of its own bitter failings to pay the price for the crime.

That’s pretty, isn’t it? Empathetic? Compassionate? Thoughtful? Sensitive? Self-aware? Humble? Remorseful? Other-regarding? Unselfish? Generous? Everything admirable?

The reports into clerical abuse in Ferns and Dublin have shown a distressing level of complicity within the wider community. How could the police, the health service, schools and many private citizens, have sat back and allowed such atrocities to happen? The priest who abused my friends was well-known as having a fondness for his altar boys, yet no one ever confronted him about it. And in its arrogance and lack of self-awareness, the church interpreted this as tacit approval.

And in its continued arrogance and lack of self-awareness, the church expects its victims to help it avoid the consequences of its generations of brutality.

Next up: Prince Cholls lectures on empiricism

Mar 3rd, 2010 11:36 am | By

Good old religion, well-known source of every virtue.

Since a Ugandan MP proposed the death penalty for some gay people, homophobia has been on the rise in other parts of Africa…Monica Mbaru, from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, describes these crackdowns as a ripple effect from the Uganda situation. She says many African leaders and communities remain hostile to gay people because of pressure from religious leaders. “Our politicians have great respect for religious leaders and are careful not to disagree with them, especially not on homosexuality,” she says.

So a bloc of people is tormented and hounded and persecuted for no good reason, on the say-so of ‘religious leaders.’

One of the most extreme examples of religious leaders advocating repression of gay people is Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa…In Kenya, too, religious leaders have been at the heart of anti-gay campaigns. In a statement last week, US-based Human Rights Watch quoted witnesses as saying Christian and Muslim leaders had joined together to call for communities to “flush out gays”.

Oh dear – well maybe the Templeton Foundation could set up an Institute to promote the intersection between religion and not persecuting people for no good reason, and then everything would get better.

Or perhaps there’s no need for that, perhaps it’s enough for the Catholic church to do more to lecture everyone on how to be good.

The Church says society will rediscover its ability to trust by practising virtue. It outlines the importance of marriage for couples, and says the country has had “an expansion of regulation”…The report goes on to say that trust has been “severely eroded”. It added: “Few need reminding of how major institutions have failed to live up to their calling.

It cites MPs and banks and even (belatedly) itself – but its own rather spectacular and protracted failure to live up to its ‘calling’ does not give it the slightest pause – it goes right on assuming it has possession of the moral high ground and the duty to lay down the law from that elevation. It doesn’t seem to grasp that among people who pay attention, it has no moral standing whatsoever. The Catholic church saying ‘Be good’ is exactly like the Mafia saying ‘Be good’ – it’s a harsh and horrible joke. The Catholic church has no grounds for claiming that it even knows what ‘being good’ is – the Catholic church is a hideously confused institution that officially considers homosexuality a terrible ‘sin’ and energetic abuse of children a mere byproduct not worth mentioning. It is not the place to go for lectures on morality.

I can haz viktimhood?

Mar 2nd, 2010 11:22 am | By

There is a view, however minority, that Chris Mooney is a man more sinned against than sinning – that he is a victim, the object of an unfair onslaught of criticism from a bunch of internet bullies. His co-author (not very surprisingly) takes that view.

Needless to say, while I was not surprised at the response to Chris’ announcement, I am extremely dismayed. Discussion of each post is anticipated, but baseless personal attacks demonstrate the trouble with blogging…In just the past few years, we’ve watched the number of science bloggers swell, while the tone of much of the commentary changed. Most disheartening, the relationships between bloggers fractured across once cohesive networks as small friendly communities chose sides in a growing culture war.

I’ve taken a robust (to put it one way) position on this particular war, so I am subject to the usual confirmation bias, so keep that in mind, but my view is that Chris is not a victim here. Here’s why.

It is because Chris picked a fight, and he picked it not just on The Intersection but also in Unscientific America and in many mainstream media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, and National Public Radio. He said some very harsh things, and some of them were incomplete or exaggerated or both. This by itself is enough to show that he is not a victim – the fact that he initiated the ‘culture war’ and the fact that he has access to major media, or at least he did for a few months after the book was released. It’s not really convincing to claim that he is a victim when he has far more access to major media than his putative victimizers do, and when he’s been using that access to say harsh and not entirely accurate things about his putative victimizers, in some cases before any of them had done any of this putative victimizing.

Now, he comes by the access honestly – he has it because he wrote a best-seller, and a good one. That’s fine. I don’t in the least begrudge him the access as such (I know, big of me); I begrudge the use he’s been making of it lately.

Sheril complains of ‘baseless personal attacks’ – but then she should address herself to Chris first of all, and indeed to herself, since she co-wrote Unscientific America. Or to put it another way, she should consider the possibility that the personal attacks are actually not baseless – that people accuse Chris of saying things that he really has been saying. She complains of a ‘culture war’ – but then she should ask herself why she and Chris elected to set one off. The ‘new’ atheists are not the Gavrilo Princip here – we didn’t shoot no Archduke.

And then, once the Archduke was shot, we’re not the ones who refused to discuss anything. We’re not the ones who kept just issuing unilateral declarations while steadily refusing to let the ambassadors come in and discuss. We’re not the ones who told some ambassadors they couldn’t even set foot across the frontier. So…all in all, I just don’t believe that Chris and Sheril are victims; I think they’re agents.

And in conclusion

Mar 1st, 2010 12:19 pm | By

A little more on Monsieur Poisson. I know – it’s silly – it’s a waste of time – it’s just ol’ Stash – who cares. But it’s also the New York Times, albeit only its blog, and ol’ Stash is a Name, and it’s interesting to notice how pervasive his tricksiness is. There is tricksiness in every paragraph, and often in every sentence. It’s interesting that a reputable academic allows himself to be so…disingenuous. He sets up a strawman version of ‘secular reasons’ in the first sentence and then gives variations on it throughout the rest of the article – thus vitiating the whole piece.

A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command.

It’s interesting that he chooses stealing – when the more obvious choice would of course be murder. But with stealing he gets to frame it as a matter of property rights, whereas if he chose murder he would be forced to admit that there are secular reasons that do not boil down to economics. He doesn’t want to admit that, and by god he never does admit it.

Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons.

‘Secular reasons’ pertain just to ‘good order and prosperity’ – nothing more ambitious than that. No equality, no freedom, no rights, just useful but minimalist order and prosperity.

And that is how he gets himself to the all-important claim:

This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular reasons and secular discourse in general don’t tell the whole story; they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.

Well naturally – if secular reasons and secular discourse were as Fish described them, I too would contend that they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life. But secular reasons and secular discourse are not as Fish describes them! His description is grotesque – he seems to have secular reasons and secular discourse confused with the most autistic kind of economics. Or rather, he seems to be pretending he does – I doubt that he is really as confused as he pretends to be.

He goes on doing the same thing until the end, naturally, but I won’t bother quoting every place he does it; it’s obvious enough.


Feb 27th, 2010 6:30 pm | By

I was rushing the other day so my look at Stanley Fish was general; I’m still rushing today but I want to look at a couple of details. Fish starts off:

In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.

That’s one of the tricksy items – the inclusion of morality and ideology along with religion. Secular reasons are supposed to be separate from religion, not from morality or ideology. Right in the first sentence Fish stacks the deck in favor of himself by pretending that secularists claim and want to have no morality and no ideology when it comes to policy decisions. That’s a ridiculous claim – and the whole piece relies on it.

Later, for instance, we get

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.

Yes, but so does Fish’s claim, because in fact ‘secular discourse’ doesn’t confine itself to ‘statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees.’ Fish needs to pretend it does in order to end up where he does, with the lack of a leg for secularism to stand on, but his pretense is just that.

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles…” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”

Note the ‘says Smith,’ as if Fish doesn’t quite want to own such a reactionary and silly claim. If he’d said something like ‘it is difficult to look at it and answer normative questions in such a way that no one will ever disagree,’ then he’d have a point, but he said something much more sweeping than that, and the leg he is standing on is made of marshmallow fluff.