Respect is another one-way valve

Apr 5th, 2010 12:49 pm | By

That interview with Ayala in the New Scientist

They are two windows through which we look at the world. Religion deals with our relationship with our creator, with each other, the meaning and purpose of life, and moral values; science deals with the make-up of matter, expansion of galaxies, evolution of organisms. They deal with different ways of knowing. I feel that science is compatible with religious faith in a personal, omnipotent and benevolent God.

Religion deals with an imaginary or projected relationship with an imagined or projected ‘creator,’ which is a somewhat special kind of relationship, and not really a window through which we look at the world – more like a window through which we conjure a world more to our liking. Religion is far from alone in dealing with our relationship with each other or the meaning and purpose of life or moral values, while science is alone in dealing with the items on its list. Things are blurry and fuzzy and confused from the outset. Sure, science is compatible with all that, but only in the sense that one can always just compartmentalize. It’s not compatible in the sense that one can really combine the two in action. In fact it’s like multitasking that way. Teenagers love to tell adults in a condescending way that they really can text and check email and listen to a biology lecture all at the same time. Yes; we know it’s physically possible to do all three at once, the point is that they are all done badly. That’s what the teenagers don’t get, and it’s what the compatibilists don’t get either. Either you separate the two, in which case you’re tacitly admitting that they’re not compatible, or you don’t, in which case your science will be not so good.

I made a similar point in my piece on Templeton for TPM.

And yet, there are limits even to Templeton’s attempts to bring science and religion together, and that fact seems to indicate that there may be real reasons to be wary of that project, as opposed to simply being “allergic to religious thought”. Even Templeton-funded scientists don’t actually apply religious thought at the coalface – in the lab, in the field, in peer-reviewed journal articles, as the University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, author of the best-selling Why Evolution is True, confirmed.

“Indeed, none of us bring religion into our work,” he told me, “for the same reason that Laplace mentioned: ‘I have no need of that hypothesis.’ Using God or the supernatural never got us anywhere, so we gave it up. And no, nobody, not Francis Collins, or Kenneth Miller, nor anyone uses religion in their own scientific work – not that I know of!”

Anthony Grayling agrees that this is a real stumbling block. “The Templeton strategy is about trying to borrow the respectability, the lustre, the seriousness, the gravitas of proper science for its apologetical agenda. It is an entirely cosmetic matter, and doesn’t reach anywhere near any coalfaces of science. (When science reaches the coalfaces of biblical history etc it tends to have an uncomfortable result for the goddies; which is perhaps why Templeton doesn’t seem to fund much in the way of Palestinian archaeology or dating of the Turin Shroud.)”

The fact that even Templeton-funded scientists don’t actually apply religious thought at the coalface kind of gives the game away, if you ask me. It seems to reveal that all the guff about harmonization and interface is just some polite fiction that everybody ignores in practice.

New Scientist asks Ayala why there is still conflict then, and he says, ‘Religion and science are not properly understood by some people, Christians particularly.’ In other words he is right by definition, because he gets to define what religion and science properly understood are, and the fact that they are not like that in practice is not evidence that he is wrong but just…that pesky Scots fella again.

How can mutual respect between science and religion be fostered?

People of faith need better scientific education. As for scientists, I don’t know what they can do: not many argue in a rational and sustained way that religion and science are incompatible.

Nonsense. Lots of them do. Funny way to foster mutual respect.

Bunting pulls out the ‘new atheist’ file yet again

Apr 5th, 2010 11:34 am | By

Another consignment of rebarbative truculent inaccurate wool from Madeleine Bunting. About…? The Vatican’s petulant cries of ‘petty gossip’ in response to revelations of its settled habit of concealing and protecting child rape? No. The ‘new’ atheists – that’s what’s got her worked up: the endless unappeasable horror of the ‘new’ atheists. Their wrongness. Their violence. Their ignorance. Their deafness to the overwhelming arguments of Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton.

…in the years since the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2006 and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in 2007, there has been an addition every few weeks from enraged philosophers, theologians, historians and journalists, all trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the New Atheists.

Indeed there has. There has been, in fact, a reaction; there has been a classic backlash. There has been a prolific, energetic, often very hostile and very inaccurate backlash. Bunting herself is a part of it – she has written piece after petulant piece complaining of the ‘new’ atheists. This is another. She is part of the very loud and populous chorus trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the shoddiness of the ‘new’ atheists. They could all be right, of course, but the mere fact that they exist doesn’t show that they are right. The wild inaccuracy that so many of them resort to tends to make me think they aren’t right, at least in their overarching assumption that there is something obviously illegitimate about explicit argumentative atheism. Bunting of course takes this assumption entirely for granted.

Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens convey the fury of Old Testament prophets, while their opponents struggle in various well-mannered ways to contain theirs.

Ohhhhhhh no they don’t. Bunting doesn’t, for one. Chris Hedges doesn’t for another. Eagleton doesn’t.

And then, what reason do they have for fury anyway? Why should two or three or four atheist books fill so many people with such fury? Bunting doesn’t say – she just assumes it, because as mentioned she assumes that there is something obviously illegitimate about explicit argumentative atheism.

From my rough survey I would suggest those with philosophical training are the most irritated by New Atheism, while the journalists seem to enjoy the opportunities the row provides…What staggers the “philosophers” (I use the term loosely to indicate writers who use philosophical arguments) is the sheer philosophical illiteracy of Dawkins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution…

Stop right there. Eagleton is in no sense as writer who uses philosophical arguments. Eagleton doesn’t argue at all, he simply announces. There is no argument in his book. I looked for it; it isn’t there. Bunting was fooled, as she was meant to be, by Eagleton’s unearned air of omniscience.

Faced with such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought, there are two options. Either start from the beginning – Charles Taylor’s 800-page A Secular Age or Karen Armstrong’s speed history of western thought, The Case for God – or go for clever brevity, elegantly skewering the argument in the style of Eagleton or John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel. The problem with both genres is they don’t offer the kind of bestselling strident certainty that brought Dawkins such handsome financial rewards.

What such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought? Bunting hasn’t shown us any, she has only asserted it. And as for strident certainty – what, exactly, does she think she is offering in this piece and the rest of her body of work? And then the snide remark about Dawkins’s book sales, as if they too were obviously illegitimate.

She gives us several more paragraphs of warmed-over Armstrong, and finishes by rejoicing that God is being discussed again. (Because there was a time, pre-Dawkins, when God wasn’t discussed? Has she visited the religion section of any bookstores lately? Some of the rows upon rows of books there pre-date 2006.) Then she gets savaged by CisF readers.

The Mafia doesn’t give Easter sermons

Apr 4th, 2010 6:01 pm | By

Sholto Byrnes, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t entirely buy Peter Hitchens’s line on atheism.

For while Stalin’s atheism may have been a necessary condition for the atrocities he committed — I completely agree with Hitchens that “without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order” — it is not a sufficient one. I part company with him when he claims that his preceding sentence proves that which follows it: “Atheism is a licence for ruthlessness, and appeals to the ruthless.”

Good about parting company, but I part company earlier than that. Atheism is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for committing atrocities, and it isn’t necessarily the case that ‘without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order.’ Given holy wars, the inquisition, religious massacres, the revolting ubiquitous cruelty of the Irish church, it just isn’t obvious that atheism permits atrocities any more than theism does. It’s clear that atheism doesn’t rule out horrendous savage murderous violence – but it’s clear that religion doesn’t either. It’s clear that religion doesn’t necessarily make people more compassionate or generous or fair or kind – just as atheism doesn’t. It could be that one or the other tends to do better, but it’s simply not possible to argue that either one reliably prevents – makes not ‘possible’ – any extreme of human brutality.

In as much as the absence of God leaves any system of morality floundering when it comes to unarguable proof of its truth, Hitchens is on to something. An atheist society does not have the in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority that religion would supply, for instance.

Would, if what? Would, when? The trouble with that thought is that there have (to put it mildly) been theist societies that had no built-in defences against the will of a tyrannous majority, at least none that worked. This is a massive stumbling block for the whole ‘belief in God makes people good’ idea. If belief in God really did make people good – good in the sense that people tend to mean it nowadays: compassionate, non-violent, kind – then there wouldn’t have been so many Christian supporters of slavery in the 19th century US. If belief in God made people good then sharia wouldn’t include so many savage punishments and such relentless limitation of women’s rights and freedom. (Sharia as practiced in the real world. People like to point out that various nasty things are not really part of sharia. Maybe they’re not, but that’s not much help when the relevant people think they are.)

Atheism too, of course, has no in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority. In truth nothing does, apart from constitutions and bills of rights. That’s why such things are needed. Depending on the good will or the religious or atheist conscience of millions of people is a terrible idea. Neither religion nor atheism reliably makes people good, or bad either. On the other hand, religion does give a gloss of pseudo-goodness to bad actions, in the minds of people who have been raised on harsh religious beliefs. Atheism can’t put that kind of gloss on things.

I was thinking all this earlier today while I read the piece, and then I suddenly bumped into my own name. That’s an odd experience!

Last summer, I found myself in the middle of a minor fuss after I wrote a scathing review of Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s Does God Hate Women? for the Independent on Sunday. Put simply, my objection was that they detailed terrible barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people, chiefly Muslims, and then pretty much laid the blame on religion, again, chiefly Islam, for those crimes.

Actually it wasn’t the analysis we disagreed with, it was the wild inaccuracy of many of the factual claims, but never mind. Let’s consider the analysis now. I’ll just say what I said there:

We do lay the blame for certain kinds of barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people on religion, for the reason that the perpetrators of the crimes themselves cite religion as the justification for the crimes. We take them at their word. We quoted people saying things like “We will do what Allah has instructed us” (p 174). Without that, a bunch of men stoning a young girl to death in front of a crowd of people would be universally seen as a criminal act; with it, it is seen by some as pious, and not only permitted but mandated. This fact really does make a difference. It makes the same difference that the phrase “church teachings” makes when the pope and bishops fight equality legislation in the UK.

We don’t claim that all religion always makes people act like that, or that some religion makes all its adherents act like that. We do claim that religion makes brutalities that would otherwise be obviously unacceptable into pious acts, and that that fact makes a major difference.

That’s what I said there. Well it’s undeniable, surely. It’s not an all or nothing claim, it’s a something claim. That ‘something’ is not an invention or a fantasy. Just look at the self-righteous way the Vatican hierarchy is carrying on. You don’t see the Mafia acting that way! They don’t give sermons in huge churches saying all this fuss about child rape is just ‘petty gossip.’ They just shoot their way out, or bribe everyone in sight, or both. At least with them there’s no confusion.

What kind of interface?

Apr 3rd, 2010 4:25 pm | By

Michael Ruse says why the Templeton Foundation is a good thing.

More recently, the award has been given to academics working on the science-religion interface. It was therefore appropriate that this year the Prize went to Francisco Ayala, a Spanish-born population geneticist at the University of California at Irvine. Ayala (a former Catholic priest) has long been interested in the science-religion relationship…

The science-religion interface? What’s that? That’s the kind of thing that Templeton always talks about, but what exactly is it? And what does Michael Ruse think it is?

It could just mean, or be intended to mean, scientists and religious believers talking. That would certainly be unexceptionable. The trouble is, that doesn’t really seem like a very plausible understanding of what it means. One doesn’t hear about a history-mathematics interface as a way of referring to historians and mathematicians talking, nor does such an activity seem worth millions of dollars of foundation money. As far as I know, Templeton’s idea of the science-religion interface or relationship or whatever is that they are supposed to contribute to or enrich each other. But that’s just what’s contested. Critics think the two don’t have anything to contribute to each other, especially in the direction religion—>science. Ruse seems to be endorsing or at least taking for granted Templeton’s project, without spelling out exactly what he’s saying.

The Templeton Foundation…is essentially devoted to the promotion of the interaction and harmony between science and religion.

But interaction in what sense? Just chatting in the halls? Or substantive, disciplinary interaction? It does make a difference, to put it mildly.

But it’s useless to repine. Ruse goes on to say a lot of wholly irrelevant things, so it turns out that actually this jumble of a piece was just an excuse to tell the world yet again about his expert witness gig in Arkansas and, more amusingly for him, to say rude things about Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and especially (wait for it) PZ Myers. The closest he gets to explaining why Templeton is all right is to say ‘I don’t see anything morally wrong with someone trying to reconcile science and religion. Clarifying that a little, I don’t see anything morally wrong with religion as such.’ Morally wrong isn’t the issue! The point is that it’s epistemically wrong.

But all of a sudden at the very end he simply agrees to that, or at least seems to.

I don’t want to reconcile science and religion if this implies that religion must be true. At most, I want to show that science does not preclude being religious.

Well – quite. So what did – oh never mind. Ruse just likes to mouth off. It’s pointless to expect him to make sense.

Cardinal attends to what really matters

Apr 3rd, 2010 11:34 am | By

Ratzinger gave his old job to an American when he (Ratz) was bumped upstairs. Cardinal William Levada now heads Ratzinger’s old Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This week he expressed his sorrow and sympathy for what the church has enabled priests to do to generations of children by…writing a long article saying how awful the New York Times is.

He starts by singling out Laurie Goodstein.

Only after eight paragraphs of purple prose does Goodstein reveal that Fr. Murphy, who criminally abused as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school in the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 1950 to 1974, “not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims.”

But in paragraph 13, commenting on a statement of Fr. Lombardi (the Vatican spokesman) that Church law does not prohibit anyone from reporting cases of abuse to civil authorities, Goodstein writes, “He did not address why that had never happened in this case.” Did she forget, or did her editors not read, what she wrote in paragraph nine about Murphy getting “a pass from the police and prosecutors”?

Oh dear god – he doesn’t even get it. He doesn’t even get a point as glaring as that. Why does he suppose Murphy got a pass from the police and prosecutors? Does he think all rapers of children get passes from the police and prosecutors? Does it not occur to him that Murphy got such a pass because he was a priest? Does it not occur to him that this hints at the level of undue deference paid to religion even by secular law enforcement, and does it not further occur to him to feel searching anguish at the thought of the kinds of advantage this has given predators? No, it apparently doesn’t, not for a second. He’s apparently much too busy concentrating on His Gang to feel any sympathy or concern for anyone else. And this is all too typical of the selfish self-centered clueless blind morally bankrupt outfit he helps to run.

As a believer, I have no doubt that Murphy will face the One who judges both the living and the dead.

And that lack of doubt perhaps helps to explain why your organization does such a crappy job of preventing harm to its subjects right here on planet earth. You have no doubt that everything will be all fixed up later on after everyone is dead. Well how convenient! Meanwhile, let them eat brioche.

…about a man with and for whom I have the privilege of working, as his “successor” Prefect, a pope whose encyclicals on love and hope and economic virtue have both surprised us and made us think, whose weekly catecheses and Holy Week homilies inspire us, and yes, whose pro-active work to help the Church deal effectively with the sexual abuse of minors continues to enable us today, I ask the Times to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on.

The pope is not our ‘leader.’ He is not ‘a leader.’ He is the head of an archaic reactionary authoritarian religious organization. He is not a leader and he is in no way a leader that ‘the world can and should count on.’ We do not want your leader, Mr Levada.

Shed a tear for the sufferings of the Vatican

Apr 2nd, 2010 5:30 pm | By

Un.Be.Lievable. They still don’t get it. They still think they are the victims. Still! Half the world has explained it to them with one voice, and they still don’t get it!

The Pope’s preacher today likened recent attacks on the pontiff over the Catholic sex abuse scandal to the “most shameful acts of anti-Semitism”.

Not ‘attacks by priests on children’ but ‘attacks’ meaning criticism by victims and observers on the pope who helped conceal and perpetuate those very attacks by priests on children – that’s what they’re comparing to anti-Semitism! It’s – it’s – it exhausts my capacity to revile it. The self-pity, the world-blotting egocentrism, the blank inability to grasp the misery of people outside their own circle, the moral imbecility – I lack the words to express my disgust.

Father Cantalamessa, noting that this year the Jewish festival of Passover and Easter fell during the same week, said that Jews throughout history had been the victims of “collective violence” and drew a comparison with current attacks on the Church over the scandal. Speaking during a ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica commemorating Christ’s Passion, he read to the congregation, which included the Pope, part of a letter that he had received from an unidentified Jewish friend, who said that he was following “with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the Pope and all the faithful of the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.”

Tell that to the Magdalens, to the little girls who tore up their hands making rosaries every day, to the children who were raped by the guy who was supposed to be (as Joseph Hoffmann tells us) ‘another Christ.’ Tell them you’re being treated the way Jews were treated in Poland and Germany and Russia from 1942 to 1945. Go ahead. We dare you.

The least of these

Apr 2nd, 2010 11:16 am | By

Would you believe it – Gordon Brown is saying Catholicism is often the conscience of the UK. He’s saying it in a new magazine with the rebarbative title “Faith Today.” He’s also spitting on secularism while he’s about it.

Asked if religious faith is essentially “a private, personal pursuit” or has a role in the wider community, he says: “Our common realm is not and cannot be stripped of values – I absolutely reject the idea that religion should somehow be tolerated but not encouraged in public life. Our equality bill is specifically designed to protect religion and belief on exactly the same terms as race or gender or sexuality.”

God, what a dog’s breakfast. First he conflates religion with values, then he emphatically rejects secularism, then he puts religion and belief in the same category as the unwilled qualities of race and gender and sexuality. Vote Labour, vote for theocracy!

“I welcome the role that people of faith play in building Britain’s future – and the Catholic communion in particular is to be congratulated for so often being the conscience of our country, for helping ‘the least of these’ even when bearing witness to the truth is hard or unpopular.”

Total, pure, unadulterated bullshit. Could not possibly be more wrong. Flat opposite of what is the case. The ‘Catholic communion’ in particular has (in case there was any lingering doubt) been decisively revealed for throwing ‘the least of these’ to the wolves for the sake of its own reputation and ability to tell everyone else what to do, for decade upon decade upon decade. ‘The least of these’ are exactly the people the ‘Catholic communion’ has been defecating all over in Ireland for generations. ‘The least of these’ are, precisely, single mothers who lack money and status and so were imprisoned and enslavedand deprived of their own children in Magdalen laundries. ‘The least of these’ are the children of the poor and the unmarried who were imprisoned and enslaved in industrial ‘schools,’ there to be called names and humiliated and deprived and tormented in every way possible by the fucking Catholic communion. ‘The least of these’ are the children who were raped by priests and then if they complained were threatened and bullied into silence. Where does Gordon Brown get the colossal gall to call ‘the Catholic communion’ any kind of conscience? How brutally obtuse can you get? You might as well call the Mafia ‘the conscience of our country.’

Next year in Darwin City

Apr 1st, 2010 5:10 pm | By

At last, at last I get to go to a conference, yee-ha. I feel so included. Plus it will be so much fun – networking, and drinks in the bar, and staying up all night, and sexual gossip, and putting disgusting things in people’s beds, and singing, and sitting around the campfire – wait, I think I’m getting confused. This will be all grown-up and serious, not like summer camp. Which is good, because I hated summer camp – both day camp and go away for two weeks camp. Sending me to camp was I think part of a half-hearted effort to make me more normal and extroverted, but it never worked. If anything it made me less extroverted, being forced to spend a lot of time with a bunch of unchosen strangers.

Oh excuse me, I didn’t mean to lapse into reminiscence. Anyway the Very Big Atheist Conference of 2011 won’t be like that. No lanyards and no marshmallows, for one thing; that will mark a difference right away. And then the exciting opportunity to explain about Etiquette and Comportment for Atheist Ladies – I have so longed to do that, and I am so ideally suited for the task. Never mind the business about not being normal and extroverted, that doesn’t matter – I’m great on the theory. I’m a student of the subject. I’m nerdy and sullen and quick to take offence, but I can say how to be polite and comportful as well as anyone in the business.

So see you all in Darwin City next year! No bed hair please – no deliberately torn jeans – no tongue studs. No pyjamas – no thongs – no baggy falling-down pants – no – wait, where are you going? Come back!

The sole test of a good priest

Mar 31st, 2010 12:40 pm | By

Hitchens coldly observes that the pope is not above the law. ‘The pathetic excuses of Joseph Ratzinger’s apologists evaporate before our eyes.’

So now a new defense has had to be hastily improvised. It is argued that, during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, Ratzinger was more preoccupied with doctrinal questions than with mere disciplinary ones.

So we read that New York Times article and we learn more about the pope’s preoccupations.

Cardinal Ratzinger ruffled feathers almost upon arrival in Munich by ordering priests to return to celebrating First Communion and first confession in the same year, rather than having the first confession a year later, a practice that had become established over the previous decade, and which its advocates considered more appropriate for young children. One priest, the Rev. Wilfried Sussbauer, said he wrote to the archbishop at the time questioning the change, and said Cardinal Ratzinger “wrote me an extremely biting letter” in response.

Hitchens draws out the implications.

So it seems that 1) Ratzinger was quite ready to take on individual priests who gave him any trouble, and 2) he was very firm on one crucial point of doctrine: Get them young. Tell them in their infancy that it is they who are the sinners. Instill in them the necessary sense of guilt. This is not at all without relevance to the disgusting scandal into which the pope has now irretrievably plunged the church he leads. Almost every episode in this horror show has involved small children being seduced and molested in the confessional itself. To take the most heart-rending cases to have emerged recently, namely the torment of deaf children in the church-run schools in Wisconsin and Verona, Italy, it is impossible to miss the calculated manner in which the predators used the authority of the confessional in order to get their way. And again the identical pattern repeats itself: Compassion is to be shown only to the criminals.

So the whole notion that it is invidious to hold the pope responsible for what some priests and bishops do is shown (more shown, re-shown, shown with even more emphasis) to be absurd, because the whole point of the pope is unwavering (and apparently rather aggressive) commitment and loyalty to this deeply sinister reactionary all-male closed organization and its warped way of viewing the world and its inhabitants. In the same manner a high officer in the Mafia would keep his underlings in line.

For Ratzinger, the sole test of a good priest is this: Is he obedient and discreet and loyal to the traditionalist wing of the church?…This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain “confessors,” who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck. Nor can it afford to admit that the church regularly abandoned the children and did its best to protect and sometimes even promote their tormentors. So instead it is whiningly and falsely asserting that all charges against the pope—none of them surfacing except from within the Catholic community—are part of a plan to embarrass him…This grisly little man is not above or outside the law.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

Not to be missed

Mar 30th, 2010 12:13 pm | By

Josh Slocum suggested that I should flag up Alaina Podmorow’s retort to Melanie Butler’s article here, so that people who read just this page wouldn’t miss it. Good idea. So if you read this page and no other – well one, you’re a chump, because the front page is updated every day, so you’re missing news items and the occasional Flashback goody as well as a lot of very good articles – but two, don’t miss Alaina’s piece. Alaina is 13, she founded Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan when she was 9, she has raised a lot of money for women in Afghanistan and has seen the money matched by the Canadian government. She doesn’t agree with Butler’s strictures on ‘Western’ feminists who try to support women in Afghanistan.

No one will ever tell me that Muslim women or any women think it’s ok to not be allowed to get educated or to have their daughters sold off at 8 years old or traded off at 4 years old because of cultural beliefs. No one will tell me that women in Afghanistan think it is ok for their daughters to have acid thrown in their faces. It makes me ill to think a 4 year old girl must sleep in a barn and get raped daily by old men. It’s sick and wrong and I don’t care who calls me an Orientalist or whatever I will keep raising money to educate girls and women in Afghanistan and I will keep writing letters and sending them in the back pack of my friend Lauryn Oates as she works so bravely on the ground helping women and girls learn what it is to exercise their rights. I believe in human rights so I believe everyone has the right their own opinion, I just wish that the energy that was used to write that story, that is just not true, could have been used to educate a girl in Afghanistan.

I’m happy to see that several blogs have linked to Alaina’s article; Terry Glavin’s for one. So don’t miss it.

Pharisee? Moi?

Mar 29th, 2010 5:40 pm | By

And now, for a different take on the whole ‘why are you telling atheists to shut up when we’ve barely had time to open our mouths?’ question, we can consider how these things should be done. With a little panache, that’s how.

[F]reethought thrives on contrarian impulses. The whole “Who says so?” attitude of many secular humanists leads to purist rigor, one-upsman-ship, even soteriology: The God I don’t believe in is bigger than the God you don’t believe in. The harm religion did me was more serious than the harm religion did you. The full-frontal unbelief I represent is truer and purer than the unbelief you’re espousing. Reason saves, faith enslaves. (That’s pretty good: try it on a coffee mug.) In the past, I’ve used the word “Pharisaic” humanism to describe this posture, but because the culprits don’t know who the Pharisees were the allusion has not become…code.

That’s pretty funny, and it’s not made any less so by the fact that I can’t entirely repudiate the picture.

I once repeated a Woody Allen joke in front of a heavily atheist audience, having just told it the week before at a local, liberal temple. “I don’t believe in an afterlife but just in case I’m taking a change of underwear.” My Jewish audience was tickled pink. My atheist friends looked at me as though to say, “Are you saying you do believe in an afterlife”? Twice-born atheists can make an outsider feel as unwelcome in the Temple of Bright as a secular humanist would feel in a tent meeting down in Tuscaloosa. (You know, where Groucho says they take the elephants because it’s easier to remove the ivory there).

Well I can entirely repudiate that picture, because that joke and that kind of joke always makes me laugh. But the whole thing is still pretty funny. If only all critics had that much wit.

Joe sticks it to the man

Mar 29th, 2010 5:11 pm | By

The pope is such a rad rebellious dude – he doesn’t take any shit from anybody, you know? He’s his own man. He makes up his own mind. He doesn’t let the vulgar herd tell him what to say or do or think. Odi profanum et proceo kind of thing.

Addressing crowds in St Peter’s square during a Palm Sunday service, the pope did not directly mention the scandal spreading though Europe and engulfing the Vatican, but alluded to it during his sermon. Faith in God, he said, led “towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion”.

Yeah, man! Sing it! The pope is like Holden Caulfield or somebody – fighting the phoneys all the way. He’s got faith in God, so he’s got the cojones to not let himself be ground down by the petty trivial itty-bitty gossip about priests fucking children and bishops keeping it secret that dominant opinion keeps making such a big stinking deal about. Awesome, dude! The pope totally rocks. (You can make a Peter-petrus-rock-on this rock I will found my church joke here if you want to.)

Not possible to stick with the programme

Mar 28th, 2010 1:07 pm | By

India Knight on the other hand is not accepting the bluster. She’s not interested.

It is simply not possible, having read the papers or watched the news over the past couple of weeks, to stick with the programme. Like many of my generation, I could hardly be described as a good, or even decent, Catholic, but I’d managed to hang on in there, in the vaguest way imaginable.

Vague because it’s hard to pay lip-service to a faith that you feel hates you; a faith that would rather let you die in childbirth than have an abortion, won’t let you take the contraception necessary to prevent said abortion, hates gay people despite having many homosexual priests; a faith that talks ignorant nonsense about HIV and Aids, that would rather watch people die in Africa than let them use a condom; a faith that is unbelievably slow to say sorry about the fact that some of its members are habitual rapists of children.

Quite. And from that point of view, horribly enough, the child abuse scandal is a good thing. Damian Thompson is right in that sense. Because for a lot of people, as Knight indicates, all that other stuff isn’t enough. The fact that it isn’t enough means it just goes on. Since all that other stuff is seriously bad, it’s a good thing that some people are giving up on the church that perpetuates it.

I mean, you know, at some point you just give up. Not one of these things is defensible taken individually. Collectively, they are beyond comprehension. A faith based on central authority and infallibility must understand that failure immediately to condemn the rape of children — in Ireland, in America, in Austria, in Germany, in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Brazil, so far — is essentially to allow it.

And that therefore they have no moral standing. Period. They have been exposed for what they are, which is just human beings like the rest of us, who are more interested in their own-well being than that of outsiders. Their role in their religion hasn’t given them some special moral alertness or sensitivity that goes beyond what the rest of us have; on the contrary.

Religion — all religion, not just Catholicism — is supposed to be good for the soul, but everything I’ve written about here pollutes mine. You can’t take lessons in morality from people who disgust you.


Liberals are stitching up the pope

Mar 28th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

Damian Thompson is still at it – still insisting that it’s all a diabolical plot against that nice man Joe Ratzinger.

There is still no good evidence that Pope Benedict XVI is seriously implicated in the atrocious child abuse scandals that are – rightly – blackening the reputation of the institutions of the Catholic Church. But still the attempts to join the dots continue.

But even if it were true – and there is apparently a lot of evidence that it isn’t – that Ratzinger wasn’t personally ‘seriously implicated’ (what would non-seriously implicated be?) in the church’s furtive way with crimes against children, he still wouldn’t be radiantly blameless, because he is the head of the organization, and one who worked his way up over a period of decades. He’s not a new head brought in from the outside to clean up the rot, he’s someone who has been part of the church machinery for a long time.

I have to ask myself: if a liberal, liturgically wet Pope was castiagted unfairly in this way, would I stick up for him? I can’t be sure, but how shameful if I did not. If I was Benedict XVI, I’d be asking myself if I even wanted to visit Britain this autumn.

Tangential point – what is it with the British and the subjunctive? Two refusals to use it in that short passage; what’s that about? If I were his editor I wouldn’t let him get away with that. If a liberal pope were castigated; if I were Ben 16. Could do better.

Turn the other what?

Mar 27th, 2010 1:34 pm | By

The LA Times notices that the pope has a problem. The problem is that instead of just saying ‘We did a terrible terrible terrible thing, and we did it for decade upon decade,’ the Vatican is lashing out at 1) news outlets that report the terrible things the church has been doing and 2) other institutions that do terrible things. This is infantile and disgusting, and it is unworthy of an institution that (to repeat a point I’ve made a few hundred times) purports to have a higher and better morality than anyone else. It is unworthy because it persists in caring more about the self than the object of the terrible actions. This fact all by itself shows that they are if anything morally worse than the majority of reasonably good people. There’s a reason for that. The reason is this: if you become convinced – if you have good reason to realize – that you have caused appalling harm and suffering to another sentient being, then the only thing you should be feeling about that is agonized repentance. That’s all there is to it. Your angushed empathy and regret should simply inundate all self-concerned feelings, blotting them out of your awareness. This is all the more true if you’re a huge powerful age-encrusted institution that is able to command deference and obedience – right down to literal kneeling – from millions of people and even from heads of state, and the sentient beings are underage, small, weak, and defenseless. You should be grinding your head into the dirt with remorse, in the intervals of doing everything you can to repair the damage to your victims. The last thing you should be doing is even thinking about how all this will affect you. Yet the church is doing exactly that. It’s not surprising, but it damn well is shocking.

Earlier in the week, New York’s archbishop, Timothy Dolan, used his blog to dismiss the New York Times’ reports and defend the pontiff’s record by arguing that authorities outside the church also are culpable…Sadly, this latest everybody-is-responsible-so-nobody-is-to-blame defense is of a piece with a little-noticed section of Benedict’s letter to the Irish church in which he seemed to blame the crisis, in part, on “new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society.”

Ah – it wasn’t little noticed around here. I noticed it, I can tell you. Jumped right on it, I did.

Behold the archbishop of New York, if you can bear to. He certainly has no problem forgetting all about the powerless victims of his powerful church, nor any hesitation about talking like a petulant nine-year-old rebuked for punching a smaller child. Moral squalor at its finest.

What adds to our anger over the nauseating abuse and the awful misjudgment in reassigning such a dangerous man, though, is the glaring fact that we never see similar headlines that would actually be “news”: How about these, for example?

– “Doctor Asserts He Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since Dr. Huth admits in the article that he, in fact, told the archdiocese the abusing priest could be reassigned under certain restrictions, a prescription today recognized as terribly wrong;

– “Doctor Asserts Public Schools Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since the data of Dr. Carol Shakeshaft concludes that the number of cases of abuse of minors by teachers, coaches, counsellors, and staff in government schools is much, much worse than by priests;

And so on and so on and so on, through Judges, Police, Lawyers, District Attorneys, Therapists, and Parole Officers. There’s Love for you, there’s Charity, there’s Agapë. There’s compassion, there’s generosity, there’s giving the shirt also. Yes we did it but so did all those other people so why don’t you yell at them too? Beautiful.

Knock the corners off

Mar 26th, 2010 5:37 pm | By

Michael De Dora has replied to his critics. He’s much more responsive than Mooney, but I still disagree with him. I disagree with the underlying ideas.

I see that we are right, philosophically speaking — but I also care about collective, democratic, evidence-based discourse and progress (just as, say, Chris Mooney cares about scientific literacy). To that end, I think rallying around atheism presents problems both inherently (the word doesn’t say much) and in presentation and interaction with the 95 percent of the public who are not atheists.

One, ‘rallying around atheism’ isn’t really the issue, or an issue. I don’t know of any atheists who are atheists to the exclusion of everything else. I suppose attending conferences could be considered ‘rallying around’ – but it shouldn’t, really, because again, it’s not to the exclusion of everything else. The idea seems to be that if too many atheists are too interested in atheism then…the other 95% of the (US) public will not like atheists. That idea appears to me to be too flimsy to be worth worrying about. Two, what is all this about presentation and interaction with the 95 percent of the public who are not atheists? Presentation of what? I’m not presenting anything. I don’t have to hone and shape and style my ideas so that they come across better to 95% of the US public. I have no ambitions to make myself acceptable to 95% of the US public. They can take me or leave me; I don’t care. I’m not interested. They’re not my problem. I’m not running for office, I don’t work in advertising – I just don’t have any occupational or social need to file myself down to a more conforming shape. Not everyone does. De Dora seems to assume (he’s like Mooney in this) that we all do. Well why? What business is 95% of the US public of ours? Most people don’t meet 95% of the US public, we just meet people we know. We don’t creep around consulting polls in an attempt to figure out if the people we know will be able to put up with us. De Dora seems to think like a very hardened and worried politician, but here’s the good news: nobody other than politicians and their helpers has to think like that. We get to just think what we think and get on with it. We don’t have to be thinking about some amorphous ‘strategy’ all the time.

I murmured some of this, and Michael answered:

I am admittedly thinking about all of this through the eyes of a diplomat (that’s at least what I’ve been called), so that might be creating the room of disagreement between us. I have no interest in trying to stop people from critiquing beliefs; I do have an interest, however, in trying to set the conditions in which that is best done.

Aha; a diplomat. That could explain it. But why? Why think about atheism through the eyes of a diplomat, unless you are in fact a diplomat? We don’t all have to act like consular staff. We don’t have to tiptoe around, we don’t have to apologize for opening our mouths, we don’t have to placate and mollify and soothe. And as for trying to set the conditions in which people critique beliefs – that seems to me to be merely presumptuous. It’s not up to anyone to set the conditions in which people critique beliefs; we get to do that ourselves, each of us.

It’s a mug’s game. It’s just conformity and majoritarianism, that’s all. 95% of people don’t like the kind of thing you say, so stop saying it. No. One, 95% is way too high, and two, I don’t care anyway. We really are allowed to say things even if the majority dislikes them.

In a country plagued by ignorance and superstition

Mar 26th, 2010 9:12 am | By

I like what Jack Szostak, Nobel laureate, wrote to the NAS about its hosting of the Templeton prize party.

It is inappropriate and counter-productive for the NAS, a scientific organization, to interact in this way with an overtly religious group such as the Templeton Foundation.

We are not a faith-based organization – we ask questions and seek the answers in evidence. In a country plagued by ignorance and superstition, the NAS ought to be a beacon of coherent rational thinking and skeptical inquiry. If science is, as George Ellery Hale stated, our guide to truth, then religion is clearly incompatible with science, as should be apparent from considerations of faith versus inquiry.

But since it’s one of their own who won, they probably won’t be much moved. That’s unfortunate.

No cigar

Mar 25th, 2010 12:35 pm | By

Religious belief thought experiment still stuck in the same place. The author isn’t dealing with the real objections.

…is it “reasonable” for the fella to believe in the monster (if it is then it shows that epistemic warrant is not a necessary condition of reasonable belief). Too right it is… You say that the perception is real, but it does not follow there’s a physical correlate to that perception. Well, of course, it doesn’t follow (how could it given the possibility of hallucination, etc). Our fella is well aware of this point (he is a good sceptic, after all). But the point is that it also doesn’t follow that something doesn’t exist simply because there is no epistemic warrant to support a belief in its existence. And this, of course, is crucial. Our fella believes because his experience is verdical, the monster is not ruled out by logic, and the belief is of pressing and utmost personal sigificance (he cannot take evasive action unless he believes). This is reasonable – i.e., not contrary to reason.

Suddenly ‘you’ are a fella, which is odd, because in the post ‘you’ are just ‘you.’ But anyway – all of that simply ignores the distinction between whether it is reasonable to believe the monster is real during the experience of its crashing through the bathroom window, and whether it is reasonable to go on believing the monster is real after the experience is over. (We were never told how it ended, by the way. What happened? Did it crash back out the window? Did it fade from view? Did it open the bathroom door and exit, closing the door behind it? Did ‘you’ swoon dead away and awake to find it gone? Did ‘you’ simply close your eyes and open them to find no monster, no broken window, no smell, no nothing? This all makes a difference, frankly.)

Over here, at least, I think we’ve all agreed that it’s reasonable to believe the monster is real while it seems to be sharing the bathroom with you – not that anything really deserving the name ‘belief’ is involved, but call it belief for the sake of argument. We get that. But what we don’t buy is that it goes on being reasonable afterwards. As I said, apart from anything else, it would be a good deal more reasonable to worry about a giant brain tumor and try to find a good neurologist. All the questions about physical evidence and inquiry and what floor the bathroom is on and whether, on reflection, ‘you’ might not wonder if a real monster would have avoided contact – all those have been ignored.

I guess ultimately people might just have different intuitions about what’s reasonable in that situation.

No. It’s not a matter of just having different intuitions – it’s a matter of perfectly reasonable (yes reasonable) questions about physical evidence and objections about believing hallucinations forever as opposed to at the instant they occur.

As a side-note: two or three days ago (I can’t remember if it was before I wrote the first post on this or not) I was reading an old New Yorker from last August and found a Barsotti cartoon that might as well have been done to illustrate the thought experiment. Two little guys are racing down the street followed by a large toothy monster; the guy in front is saying, ‘You’re the therapist – you make it go away.’ Is that apt or what?!

And now – heeeere’s Spivak!

Mar 24th, 2010 5:19 pm | By

Aha – you’re in luck. I assumed the postcolonial article on (re)production of bullshit was unavailable online, but in fact it is, so you get to find out who the author is and you also get to read the whole dang thing if you want to.

So. Since a flood of people, which is to say, two people, have requested more extracts, I shall oblige.

At the heart of the relationship between feminism and imperialism is an
Orientalist logic that posits Western women as exemplary and emancipated in relation to
“Other” (Afro-Asian/colonized) women, thereby charging the former with the
responsibility of saving the latter from their backwards (i.e. Muslim), uncivilized

Right. Tell that to the little girls in Ethiopia who don’t want to be raped into marriage at age eight. Tell them it’s an Orientalist logic that thinks they should have something better. Tell Boge Gebre.that – if you have the gall.

By deliberately
attempting to mask the problems that are always associated with representation, 9and the
inconsistencies that inevitably arise within categories of experience, CW4WAfghan’s use
of personal anecdotes both confirms and conceals their own ideology. Reproducing the
oppressive gesture of imperialist feminism, their homogenous image of Afghan women
reduces them to the role of “generalized native informants”, who Spivak asserts, “sometimes appear in the Sunday supplements of national journals, mouthing for us the answers that we want to hear as our confirmation of the world.”

I repeat. Tell that to the little girls of Ethiopia, and the women who used to be little girls and remember what happened to them. Tell them they are ‘mouthing for us.’

There. That’s only page 16, and it’s only a selection. It’s all like that. It’s arrogant patronizing crap. It’s insulting. I wish you joy of it.

Say anything you like as long as it’s inoffensive

Mar 24th, 2010 12:05 pm | By

Once again, some people in the UK seem to have a shaky grasp on the concept of free speech.

A Tory MP was investigated by police after he said in Parliament that the niqab and the burqa is the ‘religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes.’ He was questioned over the telephone by officers and a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, but he was later told that no action would be taken.’ That’s nice, but how odd that he was questioned at all. It was the Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council that thought he needed to be shopped.

Anjona Roy, the REC’s chief executive, said she contacted police by email after her organisation received complaints about the MP’s comments. She also said that the incident had been raised at a meeting of the County Hate Incident Forum, whose members include local authority and police representatives, and it had been agreed that a complaint was appropriate. Ms Roy said she took offence at Mr Hollobone’s likening of the head-to-toe Muslim covering known as a burka to a paper bag. “I think the majority of people would find that quite offensive. If you disagree with people wearing burkas, there are other ways of putting it.”

[through gritted teeth] Yes but ‘quite offensive’ is not a police matter. Mere ‘offensiveness’ is not illegal. The fact that the majority of people would (according to one person) find something ‘quite offensive’ is not enough to make that something a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service. If the only free speech is speech about which no one will say ‘I think the majority of people would find that quite offensive’ then there is no free speech at all. Speech that has to pass the test that no officious head of a so-called Rights & Equality Council will call it offensive is about as far from free as speech can get. ‘Quite offensive’ speech is not against the law except in benighted oppressive stupidity-ridden theocracies and tinpot dictatorships.

When people who don’t get that, but in fact think the very opposite – think that speech that they find ‘quite offensive’ should be reported to the police – are the heads of Rights & Equality Councils, then there’s a problem.