Piety and wit combined

Nov 4th, 2009 7:53 am | By

An erudite thoughtful man by the name of Greg Craven, who is vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, has written an elegant, reasoned, careful piece on atheism and atheists in The Age. It would persuade anyone who read it with an open mind.

From time immemorial, this world has been troubled by plagues. From bogong moths in Canberra to frogs in biblical Egypt, unwelcome and unlovely creatures have the awkward habit of turning up in bulk. Just now, we are facing one of our largest and least appealing infestations. Somewhat in advance of summer’s blowflies, we are beset by atheists.

That’s a good beginning, don’t you think? Invoking plagues, comparing atheists to moths and frogs, saying we’re unwelcome and unlovely and turn up in bulk, calling us an infestation, then with a flourish comparing us to blowflies and complaining of being ‘beset’ by us.

Clearly I don’t keep up with the news from Australia as well as I should. Are atheists clogging all the sidewalks there, are they gnawing at the foundations of people’s houses, are they worming their way into the plumbing and turning it rusty and leaky, are they crapping on all the food? I had not heard.

[T]he great advantage of designer atheism is that you get to think of yourself as immensely clever. After all, you are at least much brighter than all those dumb-asses who believe in a supreme being, such as Sister Perpetua down the road, Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Well there is always that risk, yes, but is that really our fault? (And even though it’s a risk, it’s not an inevitable outcome – it is possible to be an atheist without thinking of yourself as immensely clever. One very easy way to insure this is just to read a page or two of a book by someone really clever.)

For some reason, contemporary Australian atheism seems to consider itself terribly funny. Its proponents only have to wheel out one of the age-old religious libels to lose control of their bladders. To outsiders, of course, it is a bit like watching a giggling incontinent drunk at a party.

Jeez – he’s really very vulgar, isn’t he. I think I’ve had enough.

A credit to his university, he is.

Lots of things

Nov 3rd, 2009 10:19 am | By

Austin Dacey considers ‘the latest critics of the new atheists: the old humanists’.

Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religion’s critics to organize a replacement.

Indeed not, especially since we wouldn’t know where to begin (which is part of Austin’s point). It’s not, after all, as if humanists and/or atheists are like theism turned inside out – carrying all the same baggage but with minus-signs replacing plus-signs; it’s not as if we come complete with our own atheist music and atheist prayers and atheist temples and atheist holidays and atheist hats. It’s also not as if the ‘more’ that there is to life is necessarily a peculiarly atheist kind of more. It’s just more. Most of it is every bit as available to theists as it is to us. (I say ‘most’ because there probably are various senses of freedom, liberation, autonomy, that are specific to atheism, in the same way that there are various senses of protection, companionship, cosmic love, that are specific to theism.) We can all revel in poetry, music, nature, landscapes, relationships, conversation, learning, dance, play; feelings of wonder, awe, joy; chocolate, ice cream, weirdly fascinating stupid tv shows about real people being neurotic, chocolate. Other kinds of more are harder to replace, as I said in answer to a ‘Comment is Free’ question, but that’s just how it is. You can’t change something and at the same time replace it so completely that nothing is missing, because then you haven’t changed it.

I’ve christened a new fallacy to give a name to this mistake in thinking: I call it the fallacy of decomposition. The fallacy of decomposition is the mistake of supposing that as the estate of religion collapses, there must be a single new institution that to arises to serve the same social functions it served—that the social space vacated by religion must be filled by a religion-shaped object. Instead, it could be that in the lot once occupied by faith there springs up a variegated garden, a patchwork of independent institutions, each of which fulfills one of those functions.

Exactly – partly because the closer the fit, the more religion-shaped the single religion-replacing object is, the more like religion it will be, and that rather defeats the purpose. But also partly because religion contains multitudes, and much of what it contains is great stuff that we can all enjoy. There are good songs! And I don’t want any dang humanist replacements for them, neither. On the other hand I decidedly do want non-religious versions of nearly all of it.

Thus, for our education, we attend the university; for cosmological clarity, we visit the planetarium; for therapy, the therapist; for beauty, the museum, the concert hall. Good stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also the good books.

Like that.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.


Atheists quarrel amongst themselves

Nov 2nd, 2009 11:01 am | By

Michael Ruse really could have been a good deal more careful. It’s only manners, and it’s also only sensible – flailing at an enemy that doesn’t exist is just a waste of time. (Never mind Don Quixote – he was fun at dinner but he was a bore about the windmills.)

There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling – I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical. First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.

See? That’s really careless. Of course ‘the new athesits’ don’t (all) think that. I’m not sure any of them think that, but we could grant Hitchens just on the strength of his subtitle; but anyone else? No.

I defend to the death the right of the new atheists to their views and to their right to propagate them.

Not really. Not exactly. Not when spending so much time and energy misrepresenting them (us).

Today, nearly a decade after 9/11, terrified as so many still are by the terrorist threat, the atheistic fundamentalists are finding equally fertile soil for their equally frenetic messages. It’s all the fault of the believers, Muslims mainly of course, but Christians also. But don’t worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.

That’s another hallucination. This, when he had just said ‘unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously.’ Really?! Is that an example?

I have a piece in this series too. I think I wrote a little more carefully than Ruse did.

No eggshells

Nov 1st, 2009 3:55 pm | By

Good stuff from Jason Rosenhouse.

The problem comes when outreach to religious groups becomes a euphemism for bashing people who take a less cozy view of the science/religion issue. Pointing to the diversity of religious opinion is fine, dismissing as fringe extremists people who dissent from NOMA is not.

What I keep saying. It’s othering, and it’s othering of people who are notoriously already The People It’s Right to Despise.

I believe a long term solution to this problem does not lie in moving people towards relatively more reasonable sorts of religious belief, but rather by moving towards a society in which religious belief is accorded far less respect than it currently is. Certainly that is a very long-term goal, and I do not know precisely how to achieve it. But I do know that making atheism highly visible is a big step in the right direction. Writing polemical books is one way of doing that. Yes, polemical books. Polite, nuanced philosophical treatises are good too, but they just don’t obtain the sort of attention that is needed.

Yes, polemical books, and polemical articles and blog posts, as well as more sedate and gentle ones.

[A]nother thing we can do is have vocal atheists and humanists stand up publicly, and with a bit of anger and confidence say we are not going to kowtow to a state of affairs where the dogmatic pronouncements of religious clerics are treated with crazy amounts of respect. We are not going to accept defeatist talk about how religion will always be with us and about how you can’t change people’s mind on this issue, and that we can only hope to adapt to this reality and work around it by walking on eggshells around their religious beliefs. We can make atheism and humanism so ubiquitous and commonplace that the younger generation does not find them weird and exotic.

Precisely. And that is what we are trying to do. And that is what we are going to go on trying to do, because we think it is already working and will go on working.

Sensibilities and sense

Nov 1st, 2009 3:54 pm | By

I’ve been having a long and interesting discussion with Jean about sensitivities and what one should defer to and how to figure that out.

I do think there’s a prima facie duty to defer to other people’s sensibilities. “Prima facie” means–at first glance. So the rule isn’t absolute, but it’s always in play. Sometimes a violation is “worth it” and sometimes a violation isn’t. Contrary to what Donohue evidently thinks, every transgression isn’t worth a big fuss.

After a lot of words and a lot of consideration, I’ve ended up (for the moment anyway) still fundamentally suspicious of the whole idea, albeit with exceptions for sensibilities that really do matter – around death, mourning, objects with sentimental value, that kind of thing. Beyond that, I think in general people’s sensibilities have to be judged on their merits and so shouldn’t really start with the benefit of the doubt. Harmless sensibilities can be handled with care, but then we nearly all agree with that anyway, so that doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Other kinds of sensibilities just have to settle for whatever handling they deserve because of what they are. Lots of people are very sensitive about other races, about women running around unsupervised, about blasphemy, about menstrual blood, about all kinds of things. I don’t think such sensitivities get to start from a position of extra deference merely because they are sensitivities.

What do you think, Linda?

Return of Steve Fuller

Oct 30th, 2009 4:47 pm | By

Perhaps you saw the unpleasant spectacle of Steve Fuller being more disgusting than one would have thought possible.

Norman Levitt has died…I imagine that Levitt as someone of great unfulfilled promise — mathematicians typically fulfil their promise much earlier than other academics – who then decided that he would defend the scientific establishment from those who questioned its legitimacy. Why? Well, one reason would be to render his own sense of failure intelligible…And yes, what I am offering is an ad hominem argument, but ad hominem arguments are fallacies only when they are used indiscriminately. In this case, it helps to explain – and perhaps even excuse – Levitt’s evolution into a minor science fascist…I believe that Levitt’s ultimate claim to fame may rest on his having been as a pioneer of cyber-fascism.

How about that? Impressive? A long stream of commenters have dropped in to say what they think of it, Ben Goldacre among them. Fuller augments his standing even further by sniggering, talking more trash about Norm, sniggering some more, and pretending to be a persecuted victim.

Nick Matske is as impressed as I am.

I taught them everything they know

Oct 30th, 2009 3:50 pm | By

Chris Mooney explains that journalists often get things wrong.

Why is Richard Dawkins, promoting his new evolution book, regularly being asked about his atheism, and why he is “strident,” “polarizing,” etc? Is it the media’s fault–or is it Dawkins’? I would actually say a bit of both.

Journalists can be quite irresponsible, and even when they’re not outright irresponsible, they love to be provocative and to stir up conflict. To them, Dawkins is “Mr. Big Atheist,” and thus instinctively seen as a polarizing figure. Many radio or TV hosts, and even print journalists that Dawkins encounters on his tour, will not have read his books carefully; instead, they will be going on impressions and what they’ve heard.

Ahhhhhh yes, that sounds quite likely. Many naughty journalists will be going on impressions and what they’ve heard. And what would those be? Why – partly, they would be impressions assiduously created by none other than Chris Mooney himself! It would be what they have heard from that indefatigable pursuer of Mr Big Atheists, Chris Mooney. As far as I know, Chris has done more over the last five months to create exactly that impression than any other single source of impressions – so it has the faintest whiff of crocodile tears for him to talk of irresponsible journalists going on impressions and what they’ve heard. Didn’t he want them to? Wasn’t that the idea? If not – why was he so dedicated about it? Why so many articles, in so many places? Flogging the book, of course, but he and SK could have done that by talking about Pluto, or Hollywood, instead – but it was atheists atheists atheists, and Dawkins leading the pack.

Finally, atheism is, to a trouble-making journalist, potentially a much sexier topic than evolution. It’s divisive. It’s controversial. It’s much easier to create sparks with culture war questions than it is to patiently allow Dawkins to explicate science…That Dawkins would, after The God Delusion, be framed as a scientist-atheist combo, or even the icon of atheistic science, was as inevitable as night after day. It’s the media equivalent of a law of nature.

Really? Nothing at all to do with the efforts of one Chris Mooney? Or is Chris Mooney writing about himself in the third person – yes maybe that’s it. He’s explaining that he’s part of something that is the equivalent of a law of nature so it was all inevitable and nobody should say he was being ‘divisive’ and ‘controversial’ himself while rebuking everyone in sight for being divisive and controversial. They could all do otherwise; Chris Mooney, being a journalist, was helpless in the onrush of a natural event.

Thank you, Doc, but we’ll just go with our instincts

Oct 29th, 2009 11:25 am | By

Scientists tell government some pesky facts about drugs; government brushes aside pesky facts, makes decision on other grounds, ‘having taken account of “public perception” and “policing priorities”.’

The refusal to accept the expert views of a council set up to judge the relative harms of different drugs went down badly with the scientific community in general, and Professor Nutt in particular. Today, he warns of the negative consequences of what he calls, a “highly politicised” process…The government view, though, is that they should adopt a precautionary principle. “Where there is… doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public,” as Jacqui Smith put it last year. Professor Nutt attacks the ‘safety first’ approach arguing that “it starts to distort the value of evidence and therefore I think it could, and probably does, devalue evidence”. He recalls the scare about the MMR vaccine. “People were concerned, on the basis of false science, that the triple vaccine might cause brain damage. This led to a reduction in vaccination uptake and now children are getting lung and brain damage from measles,” he states. “The precautionary principle with MMR has been clearly shown to be wrong,” he continues. “It has harmed more people than it has helped.”

In other words the precautionary principle isn’t really precautionary, it just seems to be. It seems to be because people so often forget to take into account the risks of doing whatever the alternative is. They think (apparently): MMR, risky; no MMR, no risk. But ‘no MMR’ itself has risks, so thinking all the risk is on one side of the ledger is a mistake.

The old school noose

Oct 29th, 2009 10:44 am | By

Nick Cohen takes a look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The FCO was not and is not standing up to the totalitarian ideas of the Islamist extreme Right, as it stood up to the totalitarianism of the socialist extreme Left in the second half of the 20th century. On the contrary, the establishment has appeased political Islamism abroad and interfered in the domestic affairs of its own country by mounting a covert operation to aid and abet it at home.

Well…perhaps they had some good reason?

The achievement of political Islam in Britain has been to suborn the liberal Left and cut off the most promising escape route for dissidents in the process. An abused woman, a young man fighting religious authoritarianism, an Iranian exile seeking to gain support for the campaign against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s and Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of Sharia law or a British Bangladeshi trying to bring the Islamist criminals who massacred civilians in the war of independence to justice, would once have looked left for succour. If they do so now, they will find that progressives take their cue from the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, rather than the best of the liberal Left’s traditions, and dismiss Muslims who fight for values they profess to hold as being at best irrelevances and at worst stool-pigeons for imperialism.

Ah. Well…perhaps it’s just a small enclave of loonies?

Do not make the mistake of believing that such attitudes are confined to the FCO. Only recently, the supposedly left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research was trumpeting “non-violent” Islamism as “the best organised and most popular opposition to existing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East”.

Ah. Oh dear. Well…I’m told the climate is nice in Antarctica.

Shh, be nice, it’s the Vatican

Oct 27th, 2009 3:38 pm | By

Randy Cohen points out an oddity:

Last week the Vatican invited Anglicans who are, as The New York Times put it, “uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops” to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church. If a secular institution, Wal-Mart or Microsoft, for example, made a similar offer – Tired of leadership positions being open to women and gay employees? Join us! – it would be slammed for appealing to bigotry.

To say the least – in fact it would also be in trouble with the law, and in this administration I daresay the law is likely to be enforced. But the Vatican, of course, is well known not to allow women to do the jobs that matter and to protect pedophile priests while banning adult males who would be attracted to other adult males. That’s not okay for a secular commercial enterprise but it’s quite all right for the dear old Vatican – not exactly a good thing perhaps, but absolutely not anything to make a fuss about, much less try to change. Why? Well because Jesus…erm…had twelve guys going around with him. That’s why. If women were supposed to be priests there would have been some Mariams and Esthers mixed in with the guys. There weren’t any. Therefore, that’s how things were meant to be forever.

Yet despite the risk of provoking the ire of believers, we should discuss the actions of religious institutions as we would those of all others — courteously and vigorously. This is a mark of respect, an indication that we take such ideas seriously. To slip on the kid gloves is condescending, akin to the way you would treat children or the frail or cats…My political beliefs, my ideas about social justice, are as deeply held as my critics’ religious beliefs, but I don’t ask them to treat me with reverence, only civility. They should not expect me to walk on tiptoe. It is not as if religious institutions occupy a precarious perch in American life. It is not the proclaimed Christian but the nonbeliever who is unelectable to high office in this era when politicians of every party and denomination make a public display of their faith.

Discussion should be free and open. That’s not to say it should be stupid or merely raucous or like sitting at the lunch table with the rowdy section of the third grade class – it’s just to say it should be free and open.

Don’t believe everything you’re told

Oct 26th, 2009 11:37 am | By

I’ve been tactfully silent about Chris Mooney lately, but I have to murmur a few words about stories and anonymity and credulity and skepticism and how we know what to believe and what not to believe and how necessary it is to pay attention to the difference between the two.

The background is a post a few days ago quoting an anonymous commenter at The Intersection saying

Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.

I saw it at the time, and was tempted to comment, but didn’t. But if I had commented I would have said that I find that anecdote highly incredible on its face (even before we get to the issues about the reliability of the witness). It just sounds stupid. It doesn’t sound like the way real people really behave in public places – it sounds like someone’s bizarro-world idea of how mean horrid nasty wicked ‘new’ atheists must behave because they’re so new and mean and wicked. It certainly doesn’t sound like the way academics behave in public gatherings with conservationists, even if the meetings are held in churches or temples or mosques. It sounds like the way children behave when they’re excited and acting up – but it does not sound like the way sane adults who have jobs in reputable universities behave.

And the commenter is in fact anonymous – but he insists that he is a biologist at “a large, well-known research university” and he expects everyone to take his word for it. But there is no reason for anyone to take his word for it, and it is not reasonable to expect people to do so, and people refused to do so. Hence Mooney’s new post on the subject today.

Last week, the New Atheist comment machine targeted the following post, in which I republished a preexisting blog comment from a scientist named “Tom Johnson” (a psuedonym). In the comment, Johnson had related how some of his New Atheist-inspired scientist colleagues had behaved toward religious folks at bridge-building conservation events. The comment obviously reflected one individual’s experience and point of view, and nothing more. But it struck me as worth highlighting, in light of my many well known concerns about the New Atheist movement.

No, that won’t quite do. The comment ‘obviously reflected’ one anonymous individual’s account of a purported experience, an experience which was implausible on its face. Chris Mooney is a professional journalist – surely he ought to know this very well indeed. Surely if someone phoned him and in a heavily disguised voice gave an avowedly false name and told an implausible story about a controversial subject – he would know that the story was not automatically reliable. Of course he would! Yet this is taken at face value, and not only that, but a group that Mooney dislikes is given a carefully offensive epithet for being skeptical about this story.

So we have a journalist, a member of a profession that is supposed to be trained to be skeptical of anonymous stories that don’t ring true, and one who has just co-written a book about science literacy. Basic science literacy surely ought to include knowing when skepticism is called for!

But mere credulity and verbal abuse (‘the New Atheist comment machine’) aren’t enough – there’s an even more sinister implication.

I’m a bit surprised how much hoopla the simple elevating of a comment into an individual post, with minimal additional commentary, has caused. Clearly, Johnson really touched a nerve. Accordingly, my post unfortunately subjected him to various attacks; fortunately his real identity remains unknown (though I am aware of it).

Geddit? Anonymous Johnson was subjected to attacks by those violent belligerent atheists, but fortunately his identity is still a secret, because otherwise those new atheists might go burn down Johnson’s house or kidnap and torture Johnson’s children or tear Johnson into little pieces while laughing their fiendish laughter.

Nasty stuff.

Don’t forget the supermarket

Oct 26th, 2009 10:32 am | By

I’ve had my disagreements with Steven Poole, but his review of three pop-philosophy books is really funny.

I put my theory of the dentist’s waiting room – at once social microcosm and place of interminable transition – to an attractive young woman beside me who was holding the side of her face and wincing. When she did not reply, I embarked upon a lecture on stoicism. The woman scowled and told me to piss off. She was quite ordinary after all.

It’s all worthwhile, because once armed with suitable wisdom, ‘one may face down absurdity and the inevitability of death in all those locations that irresistibly evoke them, such as airports, dentists’ waiting rooms, gyms, dog kennels, and hot-air balloons.’ Quite.

Come on in, the sharks are friendly

Oct 24th, 2009 5:33 pm | By

Mary Wakefield assures the nervous frightened Anglicans who can’t stand the thought of female bishops but aren’t quite sure about this Catholic church thingy either even though it does do an admirable job of keeping women in their place – Mary Wakefield assures them, I say, that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself. That, and the sharks, of course.

Well, come on in, I say. The water’s warm. I converted two years ago now, full of cowardly fear about what people might think, and to my surprise, I haven’t regretted it since. But though the water is warm, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few sharks around.

Ah. There are sharks around, but come on in? Er – thank you for the thought, but I’m busy that day.

As Catholicism seeps back into Britain (St Thérèse of Lisieux’s UK tour this year, the Pope’s in 2010, the probable beatification of Cardinal Newman, etc), so too our national rage against Catholicism is on the rise…Yes, the church’s history is bloody and corrupt, but so is England’s, and that doesn’t preclude patriotism. Like most other powerful institutions, the church has done some appalling things, but it has also championed women’s rights, campaigned to end slavery, opposed the Iraq war, fed and clothed the poor and sent more and more effective aid to Africa than any other charitable organisation.

Championed women’s rights? The hell it has! It has issued papal declarations that women are Special and Different and Must Not try to deny their femininity and be like men. That’s not championing women’s rights. And how much campaigning to end slavery has it done, when, where? It’s news to me that the catholic church has been prominent in this struggle – and I have a feeling Wakefield is making it up, or just assuming it must be the case. Everybody campaigned to end slavery, nobody supported it, it was all just a big fluke, so of course the catholic church must have been right out there on the front lines next to William Lloyd Garrison.

Anyway that breezy little skip past ‘Yes, the church’s history is bloody and corrupt’ won’t quite do, since a lot of the bloodiness is very very recent, not to say on-going, and the corruption isn’t altogether over either.

I inched towards the Catholic church, baulking like a nervy horse. From the outside, it looked crazy: a mix of dodgy doctrine and arcane ritual. But the closer I crept, the saner, the more light-hearted I felt, and once inside, even transubstantiation made perfect sense.

Once inside – well yes. That’s the problem with going inside.

Homo novoatheiensis

Oct 23rd, 2009 8:51 pm | By

Karen Armstrong is awfully bossy for someone who talks so much about compassion.

Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

That’s a terrible non sequitur, it seems to me – the quest for meaning continues, so God isn’t going anywhere. Eh? The quest for meaning doesn’t necessarily end up at God; God is not the only kind of meaning there is; one can ‘quest for’ or construct meaning without resorting to God. Besides – if the quest for meaning continues, then God must not be much of an answer to the problem, or the quest would have ended, because meaning would have been found.

Anyway, I always hate those ‘like it or not,’ ‘it’s always been this way and always will,’ ‘you might as well get used to it’ announcements. They piss me off. You don’t know what’s always going to be around, you don’t know what can or can’t be changed, and you don’t get to tell me what to get used to and put up with and quit struggling against. My quest for meaning involves fighting doomed battles, okay? You might as well get used to it.

I like PZ’s take.

In some ways, I’m always flattered by this argument that we need to define humans as a species by their religious beliefs, because I don’t have them…which means I get to claim that I, and my fellow atheists, are a new species. Let us go forth, my fellow Homo smartiepantsius, and take over the hominid niche.

Yeah! I’m a new species! Beats being a new atheist any day.

The Sisters of Cruelty

Oct 21st, 2009 10:24 am | By

Another pretty story from Ireland.

Kathleen, with her her sisters, Sarah Louise and Lydia, were taken from their mother in a dawn raid on their Dublin tenement home and found guilty in the children’s court of being “destitute” and “having a parent who does not exercise proper guardianship”…“The people who took us from Mummy were paid a bounty by the religious orders because the nuns in turn received half a man’s wage per week for every child they took. It was a business. They called us destitute and uncared for, but that’s what they condemned us to — we were loved and cared for, but they took us away”…The regime at Moate was unremittingly grim. “I learnt to be quiet and not draw attention, that’s how I survived. We were the O’Malleys from Dublin, dirty jackeens from the slums was how they described us…It was drummed into me that I was worthless. We had our own nice clothes taken away and we were put into rags and worked from dawn til dusk in the laundry. We never played, we were sterile, we were given nothing. There was a rusty tap in the yard where we were allowed out for half an hour a day. We got an egg a year, a sausage a year, the rest of our food was slop and bread. We were allowed one half-hour visit a year from our mother, who would make a three-hour journey to see us and they wouldn’t even give her a glass of water. The annual visit took place in what was called ‘the poor-man’s room’ and it was supervised, with a nun present, so nobody could say anything they really wanted to say. It was horrible; there were always tears.”

And even all that isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was even worse than all that.

“The worst part of the whole experience was how they actually poisoned my mind against my mother. The unforgivable part is that they told me and my sisters that my mother had given us up, that she didn’t want us. And we believed that for years. I only discovered in later life how hard she fought to get us back. She suffered so much. They bad-mouthed her to us, calling her a ‘streetwalker’.” One of Kathleen’s greatest regrets is having torn up the only photograph of her with her mother, at a time in life when she really did believe all the nuns had told her.

Yet Karen Armstrong would have us believe that compassion is central to all religion, and she never wearies of ordering us to agree with her about this. On page 307 of The Case for God, for example, she asserts that

The new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms.

We don’t mention it because we don’t believe in it. It’s that simple. We don’t believe it counts, because there is so much of the other thing. (Though there are exceptions. If Quakerism counts as one of the monotheisms, it’s an exception.) We don’t believe it’s good enough for religions to ‘espouse’ compassion while behaving like monsters of cruelty, and we also don’t believe that people should claim that religion stands for justice and compassion in the light of the history of Irish industrial schools, among other things. If it were really true that justice and compassion are central and important to religion, then the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and the ‘Christian Brothers’ could not have acted the way they did. They would have recoiled and revolted. They didn’t recoil and revolt; they fell to the work with energy and dedication. Justice and compassion were foreign to the whole enterprise. It’s hard to come up with anything less just and less compassionate than tormenting children for the crime of being poor and born to a single mother – so the Irish catholic church on its own falsifies the whole idea that religion, of its essence, teaches compassion.

That a millstone were hanged about his neck

Oct 20th, 2009 11:55 am | By

Behold the deep compassion of the Irish Catholic church.

[T]he Catholic Church in Dublin operated a jurisdiction within a jurisdiction based on one consistent rule: protect the institution at all costs. Those costs included the exposure, and indeed sacrifice, of vulnerable children, again and again, to predatory abusers…The Dublin inquiry has involved a sample of 46 priests and 19 bishops, including four archbishops. From what is known, its findings are damning. Bishops in Dublin moved priest abusers around from parish to parish, again and again, in most instances informing no one in the parishes, even its priests, of the newcomer’s proclivities. In most such instances, too, they moved the abuser priests into poorer, working-class areas, where people were more trusting and less likely to ask questions and where, as elsewhere, it was the children of the most devout who were taken advantage of.

Clever – but not noticeably compassionate. ‘Let’s see: how do we protect ourselves? I know – we do the dirty work in places where people are the least likely to challenge us and the most likely to let us do whatever we like on the grounds that we are god’s ambassadors on earth. In short we take advantage of poverty and inadequate education to allow those of us who like to sexually molest children stay out of prison, avoid exposure, and…not that we are happy about this, but it can’t be helped…still have the ability to molest children. God will surely smile in approval as we protect His church from exposure and shame at the expense of credulous human beings and their unfortunate children.’

NPR says ‘ew’

Oct 19th, 2009 11:08 am | By

NPR proudly joins the vast majority of good decent centrist moderate sensible okay acceptable Americans in saying how horrible atheists are, especially the ones who don’t keep their atheism a tactful secret.

Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

No, that’s wrong, and tendentious. What atheists celebrated on Blasphemy Day was the freedom to say anything we like (barring incitement to murder and similar) including but by no means restricted to perceived denigration and insult. NPR was careful to trash ‘atheists’ in the opening sentence, so that nobody would be in any doubt even for a second that NPR is opposed to atheism.

They quote Stuart Jordan, a science adviser at the Center for Inquiry, tutting about the painting of Jesus doing his nails.

Jordan says the exhibit created a firestorm from offended believers, and he can understand why. But, he says, the controversy over this exhibit goes way beyond Blasphemy Day. It’s about the future of the atheist movement — and whether to adopt the “new atheist” approach — a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers.

Well, there you go, you see. We don’t think ‘aggressive’ is the right word (let alone ‘belittling’). We don’t think we are aggressive, we think we are no longer silent, which is a different thing. That’s the rock on which these two streams always separate – what is aggression and what is perfectly reasonable non-secrecy. It’s the same rock in Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, obviously. It was the same rock in the Civil Rights movement, and in feminism, and in gay rights. We don’t think we are obliged to be quiet, so we speak up, and the people who think we are obliged to be quiet then call us ‘aggressive’ for not being quiet. Then we get annoyed that mere speaking up is called ‘aggressive’ so we speak up all the more – so this kind of labeling backfires when it comes to silencing us but it works a treat when it comes to making everyone else think we are bad aggressive people. It’s a very loaded word, ‘aggressive’ – it’s one of those words it pays to be suspicious of, in case it’s being used in peculiar and dubious and even sinister ways.

The reporter got Paul Kurtz to make some unpleasant accusations about nameless ‘new atheists.’

Kurtz says he was ousted in a “palace coup” last year — and he worries the new atheists will set the movement back. “I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”

Who are? Who are all these ‘they’? Dawkins, Hitchens? That would be odd, since both have been affiliated with the Center for Inquiry and written columns for Free Inquiry for many years. Ron Lindsay, who replaced Kurtz as CEO of CfI and disagreed with him about Blasphemy Day? Possibly. Everyone else who’s ever been called a ‘new’ atheist? Possibly – but does Kurtz really know that all of those people are mean-spirited? No of course not – and he should have been more cautious than to let the pious NPR reporter bounce him into making such a claim. I’ve been called a new atheist, and Paul Kurtz didn’t act as if he considered me mean-spirited when I was at CfI in 2007. He told me how terrific he thought B&W was, too. He did talk about wanting atheism and humanism to be affirmative, but he didn’t talk about it as contrasted with any kind of fundamentalist or aggressive or mean-spirited atheism; not that I heard.

But things change, of course. That was then, this is now. The Great Sorting continues.

In Oklahoma

Oct 19th, 2009 10:28 am | By

Misogyny gone wild.

Women seeking abortions in Oklahoma are to be forced to reveal an array of personal information, such as the state of their relationships, how many children they have and their race, which will be posted on an official website…Abortion rights groups have filed a lawsuit to try to block the new law, which requires women seeking abortions to provide doctors with answers to 34 questions including their age, marital status and education levels, as well as the number of previous pregnancies and abortions. Women are required to reveal their relationship with the father, the reason for the abortion and the area where the abortion was performed. Doctors are obliged to pass the information on to the Oklahoma health department, which will post it on a public website.

In other words…a pregnant woman has no rights at all, she is public property because she is pregnant and therefore everything about her is public property and nothing about her belongs to her and no one else. In other words she is not a real person – she is a vessel for a real person, not a real person herself, and her life and her wants and needs are of no significance. It’s everyone’s business whom she had sex with and under what circumstances, why she wants to end the pregnancy, and anything else that The State feels like asking.

Last month a judge struck down a state law requiring a doctor about to perform an abortion to carry out an ultrasound with the screen positioned in front of the mother and to then describe the developing limbs and organs of the foetus. The woman could not be forced to look at the screen but would have no choice but to listen to the doctor’s description. The law required that the ultrasound be carried out vaginally if the pregnancy was in its early stages in order to get a clear picture. Rape victims were not exempted.

In other words the state mandated that women be raped by a machine if they were getting an abortion.

Let’s close for David Koresh’s birthday

Oct 18th, 2009 10:36 am | By

Two councils in East London have irritated a lot of people (and perhaps pleased a few, though that looks doubtful) by instructing all schools under their control to shut for the annual celebrations of Eid-Ul-Fitr, Diwali and Guru Nanak’s Birthday. They have their reasons.

The council has said that the policy is intended to “raise awareness of different faiths and cultures within the school community, which in turn supports cohesion for the wider community”.

Dear god – do people just swallow nauseating bromides in pill form so that they will belch them for a stipulated period afterwards? Do they get them inscribed on the inside of their eyelids? Or am I over-thinking this – is it simply a matter of learning five or six key words and then just trotting them out on all occasions so as not to have to think at all ever under any circumstances? I ask because that sure is what it looks like – and it frankly makes me want to punch something. Community community community, pause, cohesion. Then again – community community different, cohesion community different. Let’s raise awareness of our differences so that we can have more cohesion. Are you sure about that? Are you sure that’s how it works?

Especially when, if the Telegraph is right, there are more Jews in Waltham Forest than there are Sikhs, yet ‘schools have not been told to close for any Jewish holidays.’ What’s that about?

I have a question, too. I don’t understand this usage:

Parents and teaching unions have joined in the criticism of the Waltham Forest policy, which affects all community primary and secondary schools in the borough, although not Church of England or Catholic schools.

What on earth does ‘community’ mean there? Is it a euphemism for secular? If so, why is a euphemism needed? It presumably doesn’t mean ‘state’ since C of E (and Catholic?) schools can be state schools…right? Or am I confused? Does ‘community’ just mean ‘without specific religious affiliation’? Is that the normal way of saying that? Is it new?

What the Vatican will allow us to say

Oct 17th, 2009 11:34 am | By

A priest who works for something called ‘the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’ doesn’t like the way secularists use the word ‘tolerance’. He says that ‘neutrality toward world views cannot be truly tolerant and respectful’ – which could be because he is inflating ‘tolerant’ to mean ‘respectful’ and ‘respectful’ to mean ‘obedient’ or ‘groveling’ or ‘slavish.’

When secularized citizens act in their role as citizens, they must [not] deny in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth.

Ah yes – you’d like that, wouldn’t you. You’d like us to stop – when acting in our role as citizens, which presumably means doing anything at all public, such as writing for magazines or on blogs – pointing out that there is no reason to believe that ‘religious images of the world’ have anything to do with ‘expressing’ truth. You’d like us to pretend that the Catholic ‘image of the world’ is just as reasonable as any other ‘image of the world’ – despite its long-established refusal to check its world-image against the real thing and its long-established habit of building up its world image out of authority and tradition and selected bits of a very old book and its long-established contentment with just asserting things about the world and human beings and ‘God.’ Of course you would like that, because then you could go on asserting things and laying down the law without any interference from people who think you don’t know what you claim to know. But you don’t get to have that. You get to have a huge amount of power and influence and authority, and money as well; you don’t get to have universal submission. Suck it up.