Manufactured outrage

Sep 2nd, 2009 5:26 pm | By

About Jytte Klausen’s book and the cartoons and other images of Mohammed that have been removed on the advice of various people who gave that advice.

Director of Yale Press John Donatich made the decision after consulting with a “couple dozen” diplomats, intelligence and academic experts. “I didn’t feel this was a censorship issue,” Donatich told AFP. “It had become a security issue,” he said, adding he was concerned for the safety of Yale Press employees.

Well, like it or not, it decidedly is a censorship issue, even if the motivation for the censorship is concern for security. The two can’t be separated when things are being removed from books because of real or perceived threats of violence. That is some heavy-duty censorship.

I listened to the BBC’s World Have Your Say on the subject on Monday, and Jytte Klausen there said that the people who gave their advice were all security experts or diplomats and they always advise against taking any risks. Apparently the advice Yale University Press got was distorted by the kind of people they decided to ask.

Klausen disputes the grounds for cutting out the cartoons. “Security experts were asked to provide advice without having the manuscript, without having the context in which these illustrations were going to be reprinted,” she said. “I think it’s very serious to suppress illustrations when not a single Muslim has protested the book and there were some Muslim reviewers.”

Exactly. This was what seemed to be about to happen with Does God Hate Women? – worries about projected Muslim reactions when not a single Muslim had protested the book – anticipatory silencing. Fortunately our publishers are stalwart and sensible, and the book went ahead, and no protests materialized – unless we count a laughable little Facebook group, which we don’t, any more than we count a Facebook group about Pluto.

Mona Eltahawy knows what’s what.

The controversy that many might recall as “Danish newspaper publishes cartoons of the prophet; Muslim world goes berserk” was actually much more complex. What occurred across many Muslim-majority countries in 2006 was a clear exercise in manufacturing outrage.

And now we’re stuck with it. What a horrible joke.

You will fry

Sep 2nd, 2009 4:16 pm | By

Italy’s drug regulation agency has authorized the use of RU-486 even though the Vatican says it will excommunicate doctors who prescribe the drug and patients who use it – so for one thing Italy’s drug regulation agency perhaps has the sense to realize that not all Italians are Catholics and thus not all Italians should be governed by what the Vatican threatens to do to Catholics. Well done Italy’s drug regulation agency.

The Vatican, which opposes all forms of abortion in the belief that human life is sacred from the point of conception, says the pill is no different from surgical abortion. “There will be excommunication for the doctor, the woman and anyone who encourages its use,” said Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, emeritus president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the pope’s top expert on bioethical issues.

Good old Vatican, doing its level best to mess up more people’s lives ‘in the belief that’ something completely meaningless mumble mumble. Grazie, Monsignor Sgreccia.

Serious people

Sep 1st, 2009 12:30 pm | By

Sean Carroll has kissed Bloggingheads good-bye.

It’s important to understand exactly what the objections are…Namely: if has something unique and special going for it, it’s the idea that it’s not just a shouting match, or mindless entertainment. It’s a place we can go to hear people with very different perspectives talk about issues about which they may strongly disagree, but with a presumption that both people are worth listening to. If the issue at hand is one with which I’m sufficiently familiar, I can judge for myself whether I think the speakers are respectable; but if it’s not, I have to go by my experience with other dialogues on the site.

What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.

That’s why mixing respectable interlocutors with crackpots is so insidious and destructive – because the respectability bleeds into the crackpottery, lending it a veneer of seriousness that it can’t aquire on the merits. That is not a useful situation! (That’s why Michael Ruse never should have teamed up with William Dembski on that book and why Cambridge shouldn’t have published it.)

Carl Zimmer also said so long.

In my job as a science writer, I try my best to convey an accurate picture of where science is at the moment. That means I do not write about just anything. I write about research and ideas that have held up under scrutiny. Sometimes that means writing about an important new development in a line of research that has emerged from peer review. Sometimes that means writing about a fierce debate between scientists who all have made a lot of important discoveries on the topic. It doesn’t mean writing about creationism–or medical quackery, or any other non-science–in a way that implies it really has scientific merit. I have sometimes blogged about creationists, but chiefly to explain why scientists do not take them seriously.

I brought these standards from my writing to my work at Bloggingheads. So I was not happy to find a creationist holding forth there (and never even being challenged about a 6,000-year-old Earth).

More from Jerry Coyne.

First, distinguish between catatonia and rumination

Aug 31st, 2009 6:20 pm | By

Jerry Coyne took a look at a hypothesis that depression is an evolutionary adaptation.

in two new papers by Andrews and Thompson. In short, their “analytical rumination hypothesis” (ARH) proposes that the “malady” we call depression is actually an adaptive behavior built into our ancestors by natural selection. When facing difficult social problems, selection is said to have promoted behaviors that make individuals withdraw from life, ceasing to engage in formerly pleasurable activities like socializing, eating, and sex. This is all in the service of rumination: freed from other activities and commitments, the depressed individual is said to analyze the problems that led to depression in the first place, eventually solving them and re-entering society. This is “adaptive” because individuals who lacked the depressive syndrome would not be able to solve their life problems so easily, and would leave fewer offspring than individuals who shut down and ruminated.

Part of what’s so interesting about that is that it’s so strikingly implausible on the face of it. (There’s no surprise ending – Jerry doesn’t say aha but it’s more plausible than it seems, and commenters are nearly unanimous in being unconvinced.) It seems to be pretty common knowledge that depressed thinking is bad thinking – distorted in many ways, and monumentally unhelpful for any kind of functioning. (As Jerry points out, there is the little matter of suicide for instance.) Mind you, depressed people are better than non-depressed people at giving a realistic assessment of their odds of getting in a car crash and the like, and also at avoiding the Lake Wobegon effect – but that seems to be the only accuracy-enhancing payoff. Other than that…depressed thinking is crap! It’s not the kind of thinking that helps people analyze the problems that led to depression in the first place and then solve them. That kind of thinking depends on not being depressed. I’m aware of this just from common or garden bad moods, so I’m also aware the effect must be orders of magnitude worse in real depression. I’m also aware of that from having been around depressed people – they are not humming with useful rumination and problem-solving, to put it mildly.

All this seems too obvious to mention – like saying that rain makes things wet. So…it’s interesting that Andrews and Thompson think it isn’t.

The solar system

Aug 30th, 2009 6:00 pm | By

Russell wrote a terrific, exhilarating post about the solar system and Pluto and changing knowledge today. (It looks as if he wrote it tomorrow, but that’s because Metamagician is on Oz time even when Russell isn’t.)

Until very recently, astronomy needed no formal definition of a planet, but this has changed as our knowledge of the Solar System has increased. During the 1990s we discovered a toroidal region of space known as the Kuiper Belt, which contains not only Pluto but many other objects of similar composition and with similarly unusual orbits when compared to those of the eight larger planets. With a better understanding of the Solar System, astronomers came to understand Pluto as the largest of these Kuiper Belt objects, all of which are very different from any of the other eight planets, and much smaller. Astronomers began to find large objects even beyond the Kuiper Belt, all contributing to what I call the Grand Opening Up of the Solar System.

See…that’s interesting. In our own lifetimes, just in the past couple of decades, astronomers have expanded what they (and thanks to them, we, if we learn) know about the Solar System. It’s interesting that they discover new things, and the news things they discover are interesting.

There is an exciting story to be told about the Grand Opening Up of the Solar System, how it led to efforts in 2006 to develop a definitions of such categories as “planet”, and how it still goes on. A well-informed science journalist with good publishing connections could get a wonderful book out of this story, in the process telling the public much about contemporary astronomy and why the study of our own Solar System is currently in such a wonderful ferment. I’d like to read that book…Unfortunately, I can’t imagine Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum writing that book. Where I see excited astronomers responding rationally and reasonably to the Grand Opening Up of the Solar System – refining the categories and definitions that they use in their work – they see a bunch of mean scientists taking an opportunity to give the public a poke in the eye by taking away its beloved ninth planet. This is a pity. They could have done some positive communication here, in the opening chapter of Unscientific America. Instead, they produced a dull and inaccurate narrative that is meant to support their theory that out-of-touch (or even mean-natured and anti-populist) scientists are largely to blame for America’s alarming degree of scientific illiteracy. What a waste of a great opportunity to practice what they preach, and improve the public’s understanding of what is really going on in science.

Exactly. Isn’t it sad. That brief post of Russell’s is exactly the kind of thing that M&K want, if they only knew it.

Bleat bleat

Aug 29th, 2009 12:58 pm | By

This is an irritating piece of crap.

By Allah, we’re an arrogant lot. By “we”, I mean modern western feminists, a group among which I am generally proud to be included. Except when we’re full of ourselves. Western feminism is not the only ideology exquisitely sensible of gender injustice.

It’s not clear what that is supposed to mean – feminism is universalist, not ‘Western,’ and there are of course feminists all over the globe. But if Geraldine Brooks means that feminism itself is not the only (or best) way of talking and thinking about and demanding gender justice – well I just have no idea what she means, because talk of gender justice is feminism, and vice versa, so what other ‘ideology’ would there be?

Nor are western feminists the only ones willing or able to speak up about it. Muslim women have been doing this themselves for decades, loudly and often effectively.

That’s interesting, but ‘western feminists’ don’t claim to be the only ones willing or able to speak up about it, and we’re thrilled when non-‘Western’ (which here apparently means Muslim, which is a tad simplistic) women speak up. (And when they do speak up – they’re doing a feminist thing. That’s the ‘ideology’ that’s in play. There’s no point in looking around for a different one, because that’s the only one there is.)

In Iran, on the other hand, a young generation of Koranically-literate Islamic revolutionary women sparked a national conversation on personal status issues, using Islamic jurisprudence rather than legislative measures. By educating women in the use of Islamically sanctioned pre-nuptial agreements, for example, an Iranian woman can secure for herself the right to divorce in set circumstances, to continue study or work after marriage and to establish her share of property if the marriage is dissolved.

Oh wow – so if she uses an Islamic pre-nup she can get some very limited rights, and as for just being entitled to such rights and more simply because she’s an adult human – well that’s just some pesky Western ideology, so she doesn’t need it – according to Geraldine Brooks, who is all right Jack.

What I am recommending is a little humility. Western feminists with a genuine desire to raise the status of oppressed women in Afghanistan or elsewhere should call their nearest mosque and make an appointment to talk to the sisterhood there…[I]n the majority of mosques they will learn of efforts long afoot to reclaim the positive messages about women’s rights in the Koran, messages obscured for too long by patriarchy and oppressive social customs. It is those efforts that we western feminists should support if we care about the women, and not the sweet sound of our own politically correct bleatings.

Our own politically correct bleatings – politically correct where, exactly? In many circles what Brooks says is far more politically correct than what universalist feminists say, so bleatings yourself, comrade.

The prodigal atheist

Aug 29th, 2009 12:18 pm | By

You may remember that Julian Baggini wrote a piece about the destructiveness of the ‘new’ atheists a few months ago and then another urging them (or us) to turn down the volume at Comment is Free. I disagreed with him at the time in more than one post. He sounds like a new atheist himself in a new piece for C is F.

It’s another C is F ‘belief’ question: how did you find or lose your faith? Julian starts off by saying that people who lose their faith ‘do come to see as absurd beliefs which once seemed clearly true, or deeply mysterious.’

That was certainly true for me. As a teenager, I increasingly had questions about religion to which I found no good answers. For example, I was baffled by the role of intercessory prayer in church services. Surely, if God were good, and it was good to help someone recover from illness, he wouldn’t wait until someone asked him to do so. Yet no one gave me a decent answer to even this simple question…Questions like these tend to be dismissed as simplistic, but that kind of response is no answer at all. It’s like when people roll their eyes when you raise the problem of evil: how can a good God allow so much suffering in the world? Yes, the problem is old, but it’s not the challenge that’s tired: it’s the person who has given up trying to give it a decent answer.

Yes, quite. But isn’t this Basic ‘New’ Atheism? Isn’t this just the kind of thing we keep being chastised for?

Julian went to some kind of Methodist youth jamboree at the Albert Hall and it started making him feel sick as soon as he got off the bus, so he was feeling ill and out of it while he watched the Sunday worship.

Instead of being caught up in the emotion, I was observing at a distance. That confirmed the perceptual shift from believer to non-believer was now complete. For what from the inside had looked like the holy spirit at work, looked from where I now stood like a humanly-constructed exercise in mass hysteria…To simplify a little, the convert adopts a religious faith because he or she comes to inhabit it from the inside. The infidel rejects it because she or he comes to see it from the outside. And the further you zoom back from religion and see the big picture, the more absurd it seems.

Again – yes, quite, and isn’t that just the kind of thing that ‘New’ atheists are scolded for saying? So…welcome aboard, or welcome back, Julian, but do admit – either the ‘New’ atheists aren’t all that naughty after all, or you are yourself a ‘New’ atheist.

The bliss of harmony

Aug 27th, 2009 5:50 pm | By

The beauty and compassion of religion:

A new family law in Mali is causing a furore, partly because it no longer stipulates that wives have to obey their husbands…[Article 312] says that, once married, husbands and wives owe each other “loyalty, protection, help and assistance”. Mali’s current law specifically states that a wife must obey her husband, and that is the way things should stay says Mahmud Dicko, president of Mali’s High Islamic Council.

You bet – because that has to be a matter of national law so that if a wife is disobedient she can be arrested, charged, and imprisoned (or do they whip them?).

“We’re not trying to make women slaves. Not at all,” he says. “It’s just the way our society is organised. The head of the family is the man, and everyone in the family has to obey him. It’s like that to create harmony.”

No – it’s like that to create a situation in which everyone in a family has to obey ‘the man’ – which in other contexts is recognized as inequality and tyranny rather than harmony.

Hadja Safiatou Dembele, president of the National Union of Muslim Women’s Associations (NUMWA), says the Koran is clear that a wife has the obligation to listen to her husband. “A man must protect his wife. A wife must obey her husband,” she says. “It’s a tiny minority of woman here who want this new law; the intellectuals. The poor and illiterate women of this country, the real Muslims, are against it.”

And of course laws that illiterate people prefer are obviously much better than laws that intellectuals think are a good idea. God damn intellectuals – they should all be smothered.

But it’s no good complaining, there were giant protests and Mali’s imams made a big fuss and that’s that. No women’s rights for Mali! No pesky secular government for Mali! No sirree. That would be too modern and intellectual and unIslamic.

A god who makes no difference

Aug 26th, 2009 1:57 pm | By

HE Baber explains something but I’m not exactly sure what.

[L]ike most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in “guiding” evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.

So Baber is saying that most educated Christians don’t believe that God had some hand in “guiding” evolution or that the wisdom literature included in the bible is a suitable guide to life or that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live? That’s an enormous claim, and on the face of it it looks like an absurd claim. I would think that most educated Christians do believe the last two items at the very least, and in fact that most of them probably believe all but the first two items – at least if they really are Christians as opposed to deists who attend Christian churches. That’s where ‘on the face of it’ comes in – maybe Baber has some such stipulation, or several of them, in mind when making that enormous claim. But then – if she does, she should spell it out. Making enormous claims that are actually not as enormous as they look because of various unstated stipulations is…not respectable.

But maybe she has no such stipulations in mind; maybe she really does think most educated Christians don’t believe all those claims. If that’s the case I think she’s just wrong, and overgeneralizing wildly. We’ve disagreed about this before – I think Baber overgeneralizes about hostility to theists, about what atheists say and do, about what critics of atheists say and do and want, and various other things. I see this pattern in a lot of the critics of the “New” atheists – which is interesting.

Theists, like myself, claim that there is a conscious being, who is omnipotent and omniscient, who is not a part of the natural world and not to be identified with the cosmos in toto, but is incorporeal and transcendent…[E]ven if it is not meaningless to claim that there exists a God who makes no difference to the way in which the natural world works one may ask: what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives “meaning,” or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values. I can only speak for myself, though my answer is hardly original. God is an object of contemplation. It is remarkably hard to discover by introspection what one really thinks about these matters because they are so overlain by conventional pieties. I suppose what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure.

But that’s not theism, it’s deism. That’s certainly not Christianity – and it’s not even theism. So what exactly is being claimed here? I can’t quite tell.

Mr Faulks? Could we have a word?

Aug 25th, 2009 5:16 pm | By

The Telegraph, with slightly cruel mockery, has poor Sebastian Faulkes saying in the headline that he really can’t put down the Koran – giving us the irresistible impression that he can’t put it down because he has been wired to explode if he does.

While we Judaeo-Christians can take a lot of verbal rough-and-tumble about our human-written scriptures, I know that to Muslims the Koran is different; it is by definition beyond criticism. And if anything I said or was quoted as saying (not always the same thing) offended any Muslim sensibility, I do apologise – and without reservation.

Well there you go. Some people (though not all ‘Judaeo-Christians,’ whatever the hell they are) can put up with criticism and joking about their ‘scriptures’ but Muslims have defined the Koran as beyond criticism and so everyone else has to defer to the way Muslims have defined the Koran, or else. Or else what? Faulks of course is careful not to say, but we know he has it in mind, poor bastard. Anyway – however obvious it is, it’s still worth pointing out that the fact that People X have defined something as beyond criticism does not impose an obligation on all people in the world to agree with People X and not ever criticize the thing that has been defined as beyond criticism. It’s also worth pointing out that the whole idea is pathetically childishly stupid and a hindrance to reasonable thinking.

One of the books I read as background to my novel was Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong. She writes movingly of how Arabs in the Peninsula longed for a voice-hearing prophet of their own to match the many Jewish prophets, famed for hearing the voice of God over many generations…

Yeah, that’s very moving – but can we move on now? Fourteen centuries later? We have other forms of entertainment now – we can even hear voices! Arabs in the peninsula have other things to do, we have other things to do, everyone has other things to do – so can we get over it already?

A few last pops from the shut up wars

Aug 24th, 2009 6:23 pm | By

I find this quite funny – The Smiling Ones, apparently pleased by the reception of that LA Times article, have offered it up all over again, this time at Comment is Free. What’s funny about it is that the comments are scathing. This line is not working for them.

Just one sample out of many:

I’m amazed by the sheer hostility shown by the Guardian to the “New Atheists”. I don’t agree with everything Dawkins says but I would rate him well above pseudo- intellectuals such as Karen Armstrong and her laughable thesis that religion is about practice rather than belief (contradicted by the Nicene Creed). However the Guardian prefers the “spiritual” Armstrong over the rational Dawkins. Now we are being told that the best way to persuade people of the truth of evolution is for the “New Atheists” to shut up.

Why shouldn’t Atheists pronounce their beliefs in the marketplace of ideas? Dawkins, Dennett & co. have some very powerful ideas and some very powerful arguments. Their arguments have won on the internet because their opponents arguments are quite often rubbish. Why should we sustain rubbish arguments just for the sake of appeasing the religious types?

Why indeed? Your guess is as good as mine.

Strike up the band

Aug 23rd, 2009 5:03 pm | By

Karen Armstrong says God is like a melody.

Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof…Hence all art constantly aspires to the condition of music; so too, at its best, does theology.

If you say so (and of course ‘at its best’ covers a multitude of sins – at my best I am a paragon of wit and virtue, but my best is oddly elusive). But that is (I can’t help assuming) because the ‘the’ in ‘theology’ is so flexible, so adaptable, so shape-shifting, so all things to all people, that it makes just as much sense to say that theology at its best aspires to the condition of poetry, or rock climbing, or cookery, or sex, or being drunk. In any case theology at its less than best seems to aspire to the condition of a strange combination of story-telling and scholarship. It makes stuff up but uses scholarly-looking language to talk about the stuff it makes up. If Armstrong wants to think that’s a kind of art form…I’m not going to send her a telegram urging her to stop.

A modern sceptic will find it impossible to accept Steiner’s conclusion that “what lies beyond Man’s word is eloquent of God”. But perhaps that is because we have too limited an idea of God.

Right…because God is neither this nor that, neither here nor there, neither short nor tall, neither immanent nor transcendent, neither animal nor vegetable (I can go on like this all day) – God is not something that can be pinned down by our puny words nor grasped by our tiny little minds – God is not a toaster nor my left foot, neither is God Chekhov nor is it J K Rowling. God is not a lug wrench, nor a rainy afternoon, nor a blue whale with a headache, nor a petunia, nor a song, nor a sneeze – yet God contains elements of all those – and then again –

In other words it is always possible to spin words about God (or to be silent about God and consider that a branch of theology) – but we live in the real world, where people think God is a literal person who makes rules that we have to obey (no condoms – flog that woman for showing some hair at the edge of her hijab – kill all the infidels – no stem cell research for you – don’t do any work on Saturday and that includes flipping a light switch – slaughter that goat by cutting its throat in the approved way and no other). The world would be a much better place (which is not to say it would be perfect – no, the “new” atheists don’t think everything would be perfect if religion vanished) if the Armstrong idea of God were the only idea of God – but that’s not how it is. She seems to be telling us we’re confused about what God really is – but that’s a mug’s game. Nobody knows ‘what God really is’ – whatever anyone says is made up, so it seems futile to try to say one version is right while another is wrong.

The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion.

No they don’t. They insist that the God that makes rules and answers prayers and prefers one set of people to another set of people and hates atheists is the God that most people mean by the word ‘God’ and the one that the rest of us have to deal with. They insist that pretending that real religion is really something much more sophisticated and ethereal and poetic and music-like and loving and compassionate is just delusional. They insist (to the extent that they insist anything) that it is the bossy intrusive punitive kind of religion that causes problems and so it’s no good trying to pretend it out of existence.

Because “God” is infinite, nobody can have the last word.

See – there you go: how does she know God is infinite? How does she know God doesn’t expire in 357,941,826,098 years plus a week? How does she know God isn’t the size of ten universes laid end to end and not one bit bigger? How does she know God isn’t smaller than a bread box? She doesn’t – but she says things as if she does (and putting scare quotes on “God” won’t save her – we can still see that she’s saying things).

But a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West.

Well if Armstrong can persuage people to go back to that there deliberate and principled reticence about God – I for one will send her a big thank-you letter complete with coupon for a large pizza with 3 toppings for $8.99.

A novelty item

Aug 23rd, 2009 11:47 am | By

We’re in luck – we have a whole new barrage of clichés to set us straight.

David Adams Richards is angry. The acclaimed novelist and essayist is raging at atheists, the self-righteous ones. The writer with the tough New Brunswick background believes anti-religious people are as bad as fundamentalists in their fashionable absolutism.

Does he! How exciting! How novel, how original, how refreshing, how ground-breaking.

Not that I can talk – I don’t break new ground. I think there’s a place for saying things that have been said before, because the mere fact that something has been said before doesn’t mean that everyone knows that, so there is always room for popularizers to help circulate that which has been said before – but there is a limit. Helping to circulate is one thing but people saying the exact same thing nine thousand times in one week is another.

Richards is adamant about what he considers the intellectual laziness behind so much religion bashing today. People who like to attack religion think they’re being risqué, Richards said, but most of their arguments are just “conformist” and “insipid.”

No, people who like to attack religion don’t think they’re being risqué, we just think we’re saying things that have been marginalized for no very good reason and need to be brought back into the public realm. Most of the arguments may well be conformist (see above) but they still (in our view) need to be re-circulated. I don’t think any of the “New” militant lazy atheists think they’re/we’re saying anything new, much less risqué – but it’s a little foolish to pretend what we’re saying is completely bland and conventional given all the outraged shouting and name-calling it’s received.Surely Richards himself wouldn’t be ‘angry’ about mere insipid milk-and-water.

Richards has always been blunt and cranky. So he starts off the book by throwing Josef Stalin in the face of proud atheists. Stalin, the world’s most famously egregious atheist, was a nihilist of the highest order, Richards says. To the Soviet dictator, murdering people was a thrill.

Blunt and cranky perhaps, but not what you’d call imaginative. Apparently it would come as a surprise to him to learn that every atheist-hater brings up Stalin – in order to refute the claim that all atheists are perfect. If only we had never made that claim, we would have total world domination by now!

…when Richards habitually refers to his rhetorical foes and friends only as an “intellectual,” or the “physicist,” the “academic,” a “feminist” or the “CBC host,” I want to know who he’s actually talking about.

Ah yes – the Chris Hedges problem – the wild accusation accompanied by a total lack of citation or quotation. Yeah that is a bit of a drawback.

…as Richards cheerfully testifies, the so-called secular world has nothing to be smug about when it comes to human frailty. Academic and literary circles, he says, are also full of annoying, “pious” people.

Therefore God exists. Or something.

The tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling

Aug 22nd, 2009 11:41 am | By

Often, when one cites Millian views on liberty, open discussion and the like, it emerges that people think Mill was talking only about legal rights. He wasn’t.

The fourth paragraph of On Liberty:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant–society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it–its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

Wot’s it matta?

Aug 21st, 2009 4:46 pm | By

What does it all matter? I’ve been engaging in a couple of blog discussions of that question – about why people get so riled about Mooney and Kirshenbaum, what’s at stake, whence comes all the heat. (I’ve also lost a friend over it, a price I resent paying.)

One way of explaining is to quote a little of the preface to The God Delusion. It starts with Lalla Ward’s misery at school and her parents’ asking why she never said she wanted to leave and her reply: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

Lots of people don’t know they can, and it is worth letting them know: you can. (You can even invoke ‘Yes we can’ if you want to. Why not?)

Dawkins goes on to talk in particular about the US and its religiosity:

There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves. Partly, this is because the very word ‘atheist’ has been assiduously built up as a terrible and frightening label…The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago…The reason so many people don’t notice atheists is that so many of us are reluctant to ‘come out’…Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them. [pp 3-4]

There: that’s part of why. It’s because of that. It’s because of social pressure, majoritarian pressure, the pressure of public opinion and rhetoric and ‘framing.’ It’s easy for me to be an atheist, but I’m a nerd living in a big coastal city; the fact that it’s easy for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone. It’s not. It’s hard for a great many people – it’s not a live option – or if it is it’s one with a huge price tag attached. And that’s bad because there is nothing wrong with being an atheist. It’s not a crime, not even a thought-crime. So Dawkins is right – people in the US at least need to know they’re not weirdos marooned on Planet Theism, and the only way for them to know that is for it to be true, and the only way for it to be true is for more and more atheists to be openly atheist as opposed to bashfully apologetically silently atheist.

This has started, partly thanks to Dawkins’s book. Sure, there’s a lot of irritating bluster along the way – but that’s not the end of the world. There is also a fair amount of worthwhile discussion of what we know and how we know it, and that makes a nice change from legless chat about what ‘God’ wants us to do. M&K have a fixed idea that all this will cause Americans to hate science, or to fail to stop hating science, or to hate science more than they already do, or something like that – but M&K have yet to offer a coherent argument for exactly why they think that and why the rest of us should think it too. Nothing daunted by the lack of an argument, they are trying very hard to persuade everyone that they are right and that atheists should go back to being bashfully apologetically silent. But we don’t want to do that. That’s the whole point – we want to stop doing that and do the other thing instead. We think M&K need a much, much more compelling argument than anything they’ve offered yet to convince us to go back into our little pens.

So that’s what it all matters.

Modern radical theology

Aug 19th, 2009 5:20 pm | By

From David Lodge’s novel Paradise News. The protagonist is a theologian who was once a believer but is not any more.

‘He sat at his desk and took out his notes on a book about process theology he was reviewing for Eschatological Review. The God of process theology, he read, is the cosmic lover. “His transcendence is in His sheer faithfulness to Himself in love, in His inexhaustibility as lover, and in his capacity for endless adaptation to circumstances in which his Love may be active.” Really? Who says? The theologian says. And who cares, apart from other theologians? Not the people choosing their holidays from the travel agent’s brochures…It often seemed to Bernard that the discourse of much modern radical theology was just as implausible and unfounded as the orthodxy it had replaced, but nobody had noticed because nobody had read it except those with a professional stake in its continuation.’ [p 29]

That’s good, isn’t it? The quoted bit sounds exactly like Terry Eagleton drivelling away about his left foot and Chekhov and toasters, and the commentary sounds exactly like – well, me, asking how the hell Terry Eagleton knows all that about ‘God’ and what it’s supposed to mean anyway.

And the good news is that now somebody has noticed, lots of people have, because Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong and Madeleine Bunting and other windbags have been telling us about it.

A bit more, later on. He’s musing on the Penny Catechism and reciting it to himself then gets creative.

When did you cease to believe in this God?

Perhaps when I was still training for the priesthood. Certainly when I was teaching at St Ethelbert’s. I can’t remember, exactly.

You can’t remember?

Who remembers when they stopped believing in Father Christmas? It’s not usually a specific moment – catching a parent in the act of putting your presents at the end of the bed. It’s an intuition, a conclusion you draw at a certain age, or stage of growth, and you don’t immediately admit it, or force the question, is there a Father Christmas? into the open, because secretly you shrink from the negative answer – in a way, you would prefer to go on believing in Father Christmas…

Are you equating belief in God with belief in Father Christmas?

No, of course not. It’s just an analogy. We lose faith in a cherished idea long before we admit it to ourselves. Some people never admit it.’ [p 47]


An ideal world

Aug 19th, 2009 4:55 pm | By

Michael Rosch at Examiner suggest that Mooney and Kirshenbaum suffer from a problem he calls ‘the paradox of paradise’:

They call for a non-confrontational approach to things and desire an ideal world where everyone just gets along, but they themselves create conflict with their own critics because they realize their ideal world can’t co-exist with dissenting views. So those most advocating non-confrontationalism pick fights with those who disagree with their philosophy and see merit in certain conflicts. Hence the fact that in addition to criticizing Dawkins, M&K go after their other favorite targets, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, each of whom wrote scathing reviews of M&K’s book. So they gave your book bad reviews because they found your conclusions superficial and naive? Get over it already.

Actually in their case I think it’s not so much a paradox as just not noticing their own inconsistency. As several people have been pointing out, they’re saying something along the lines of ‘God damn it be nice and get along you miserable piece of crap!’ They’re talking about peace and harmony but they’re performing combativeness and truculence. But anyway, it’s the part about the ideal world being unable to co-exist with dissenting views that’s the kicker, I think. It’s sad and alarming that they don’t know this, but that really is the fascist dream. But it’s the liberal nightmare.

Thanks to Jerry Coyne for the link.

Veto power

Aug 19th, 2009 1:04 pm | By

And here we go again.

Cowing under pressure from the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS), the police on Monday served notice on reputed Goan artist Subodh Kerkar to “desist from getting involved in such activities which may insult religious feelings or religious beliefs”. SP (North) Bosco George said Kerkar “should keep in mind the sentiments of the community and avoid creating a law and order problem. We will soon take a decision on whether or not the artist’s graphics hurt sentiments. If it is found to hurt religious sentiments, we will initiate legal action against him,” he said. HJS had petitioned the police last week alleging that Kerkar had published “drawings of Lord Ganesh in various positions”, thereby insulting religious beliefs.

So that’s how it is in India – it is, in practice if not in law, illegal to ‘insult religious feelings or religious beliefs,’ and the police can order people to ‘keep in mind the sentiments of the community’ and can make it their responsibility to ‘avoid creating a law and order problem’ meaning not do anything which religious zealots might take amiss and might get violent about. If somebody draws something, ‘thereby insulting religious beliefs,’ then you call the cops.

What more is there to say?

Gubbar, Gud och kvinnor

Aug 18th, 2009 3:54 pm | By

Oh look, people are reading Does God Hate Women? in the rest of Europe. Someone in Sweden and someone in the Netherlands – in Trouw no less.

I can kind of tell that Elma Drayer in Trouw likes it – she calls it a hilarious pamphlet, which in my book means she likes it. If I’m not mistaken she likes the point we make about the Vatican’s justification for saying all clergy have to be male, which is that all Jesus’s disciples were male; we point out that they all spoke Aramaic, too, but that’s not a requirement for being a priest, and it’s not obvious why maleness should be either, apart of course from the fact that clerical males want to retain their monopoly. I see Jesus and all men and disciples and something about speaking Aramaic in there, so that must be what she’s referring to. But I know some of you out there are Dutch-speakers, so if you would like to translate for me, do go right ahead!

Are any of you Swedish-speakers? I’m not sure – I know there are some readers in Norway, and some Danish-speakers, but I’m not sure about Swedish. I have no idea what the Swedish review says – it probably hates it. Luther’s revenge.

Threats that hadn’t even been made yet

Aug 18th, 2009 3:40 pm | By

Sound familiar?

The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn’t even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism—particularly Muslim religious extremism—that is spreading across our culture.

Oh yes the capitulation to threats that haven’t even been made yet – that’s what happened with The Jewel of Medina, and it’s what seemed to be about to happen (but, happily, and to the credit of our publisher, didn’t) with Does God Hate Women?.

A book called The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Danish-born Jytte Klausen, who is a professor of politics at Brandeis University, tells the story of the lurid and preplanned campaign of “protest” and boycott that was orchestrated in late 2005 after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a competition for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. (The competition was itself a response to the sudden refusal of a Danish publisher to release a book for children about the life of Mohammed, lest it, too, give offense.) By the time the hysteria had been called off by those who incited it, perhaps as many as 200 people around the world had been pointlessly killed.

And Yale UP has decided not to publish the cartoons in the book, or any other images of Mohammed either. I have a high opinion of Yale University Press, but this is unfortunate, as is the explanation Hitchens quotes – ‘[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence.’ No – as he points out, ‘all’ have lost track of the meaning of ‘instigate.’

If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it’s a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it’s a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it…After all, there are people who argue that women who won’t wear the veil have “provoked” those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that “logic” as its own.

In a turnabout which in other contexts is robustly condemned as blaming the victim, but in this context – well it depends on who is talking.

This is all rather like the witch-hunt against the “New” atheists, and the meta-witch-hunt against people who resist the witch-hunt against the “New” atheists. First the “New” atheists are called all sorts of names merely for doing something that ought to be perfectly legitimate and unremarkable, then when the “New” atheists retort, they get accused of a whole new round of crimes for having the audacity to retort to an unprovoked (uninstigated) attack. Heads I win tails you lose. Ho hum.