Ethical disagreement

Jun 26th, 2009 11:55 am | By

So this Ramsey fella is still at it, so now it’s six days instead of five. He is, clearly, getting some kind of jollies out of goading me – and of course he is succeeding at goading me. I find him highly irritating. But then – that is because he is being so 1) belligerent 2) dishonest. Snake swallowing tail. He succeeds at irritating me by being so obviously determined to irritate me. Naturally that does succeed (unless one is a Buddhist monk, of course). Somebody making a big point of a repeated personal attack is naturally bound to be irritating (except to a Buddhist monk).

At any rate – Ramsey is having himself an enjoyable time, but at the price of displaying himself as a dishonest troll with a vendetta. He is insisting on claiming that he can tell that the book is bad on the strength of four paragraphs. Like today for instance – Jeremy told him, “And lastly, READ THE BOOK, then criticise it. It’s much better that way around.” Ramsey replied:

Stangroom: “And lastly, READ THE BOOK”

With all due respect, I prefer to read books when I see signs that they are likely to be good. Every quote that I’ve seen from it so far–and quotes cited by the authors at that–show problems, and not just in tone but in content.

Jeremy didn’t say, ‘read the book,’ period, of course, he said ‘READ THE BOOK, then criticise it‘. In other words, don’t criticize the book when you haven’t read it. Criticizing a book you haven’t read is dishonest and unethical. Ramsey’s way of carrying on is disgusting.

Let me count the ways

Jun 25th, 2009 11:00 am | By

What’s the problem with J J Ramsey’s last comment on Un-der-stan-ding met-a-phor?

I am trying to find a way to say this in a way that avoids sounding too accusatory, but for now I can’t: Don’t even try to use the murder of a little girl to shield your own ideas from scrutiny. I’m sorry to put it so harshly.

That is, why does it seem not just wrong, and obnoxious in the usual routine internetty way, and beside the point, and belligerent? Why does it seem even more than that?

Let’s see…Partly it’s the absurdity of saying he is trying to find a better way of saying it, but can’t. Of course he can. He said it the way he did because he wanted to say it the way he did. (Just as we said what we did in the final pages of Does God Hate Women? because that was what we wanted to say.) That kind of pseudo-regret is just a way of saying ‘Your offense is so foul that there simply is no other way to say this.’ It’s a way of underlining the aggression rather than diminishing it, but at the same time it’s a way of pretending to be attempting to be decent but being simply too overcome by outrage. It’s a bit of rhetoric embedded in a prolonged (for days and days, and thousands of words) attack on my use of rhetoric. It’s also a self-administered pat on the back.

Then the ‘Don’t even try’ – as if he’s the cop on the beat, shoving my arm up behind my back until my shoulder breaks. The bossy note. That adds an extra level of deliberate offensiveness, as if he’d caught me picking his pocket or molesting his child.

Then there’s the ‘use’ and the ‘murder of a little girl’ – which of course pisses me off more than all the rest combined and cubed, as no doubt it was meant to. I’m not using anything; I’m calling attention to a horrible outrage, and there is nothing wrong with doing that. The murder of a little girl indeed – would he even be aware of that murder if I hadn’t called it to his attention? Who is using what here? Where does he get off telling me not to ‘use’ it?

Then there’s the ‘to shield your own ideas from scrutiny.’ The brazen insultingness of that is obvious enough without my spelling it out – but it is worth noting that I wasn’t doing that; I wasn’t saying don’t scrutinize my ideas; I was saying that Madeleine Bunting has a warped sense of priorities because she gets in a fury at my use of language while skipping right over the incident that prompted it. It has to do with proportion, not with non-scrutiny. Bunting strains at a gnat and swallows a camel.

Then finally there’s the ‘I’m sorry to put it so harshly.’ That’s just more self-flattering having it both ways – saying the most grossly offensive thing you can think of, then pretending to be sorry for saying it. What nonsense – what mealy-mouthed, devious, self-serving nonsense.

I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s been at this, unbelievably, since last Saturday. Five days! Would you credit it? It’s so important that it’s worth five days of repeated lengthy posts, all to quarrel with some deliberately emotive metaphors. What was I just saying about proportion? Oh yes: that some people could use a better sense of it.

Once upon a time Jesus was resurrected

Jun 25th, 2009 8:28 am | By

Chris Mooney takes issue with Sean Carroll.

[I]s a claim like “Jesus died and was resurrected” really falsifiable by science in the same way that a claim like “The Earth is 10,000 years old” is falsifiable? I’d submit that at least as held by some sophisticated believers, it isn’t.

The fact that it isn’t falsifiable is actually a reason not to believe it rather than a reason to believe it. Freudian psychoanalysis isn’t falsifiable either, and that’s what makes its claims so dubious. But Mooney isn’t really talking about falsifiability, he’s challenging Carroll’s ‘The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look.’ He’s asking something more like ‘is it really the case that a claim like “Jesus died and was resurrected” is incompatible with empiricism?’ He then quotes John Haught talking a lot of wool about that there resurrection, then he says we’re allies so why worry about what Haught believes.

Because that’s what the discussion is about. The discussion isn’t about preventing Haught from believing what he believes – it’s about whether religion (the epistemology of religion, if you like) and science are genuinely compatible, so the question of why one would believe that Jesus died and was resurrected is right in the middle of it. It’s not possible to give evidence that demonstrates that Jesus was not resurrected – but that is not a reason to believe that Jesus was resurrected. The salient point here is that there is no good reason to believe that Jesus was resurrected. None. Zero. There are no records, no physical traces, no contemporary accounts, no eyewitness accounts, nothing. All there is is a story, composed decades after Jesus was executed. There is no more reason to believe the story is true than there is to believe that Athena really appeared to Odysseus. That’s what Carroll means by ‘perfectly evident.’ He doesn’t mean anyone can brandish a slide that demonstrates the non-resurrection of Jesus, he means there’s no good reason to think the story is anything other than a story. Carroll is talking about epistemology and Mooney is talking about all getting along, and those two subjects are also somewhat incompatible. Then again, one could simply be more interested in getting along with people who don’t automatically believe stories than with people who refuse to be skeptical of certain stories. We can’t have everything, after all.

Butter no parsnips, whatever you do

Jun 24th, 2009 11:50 am | By

Jerry Coyne did a post on the Templeton Foundation a couple of days ago, and Templeton’s ‘Chief External Affairs Officer,’ Gary Rosen, offered a reply. I call your attention to one thought in particular:

[W]e do like to include philosophers and theologians in many of our projects. Excellent science is crucial to what we do, but it is not all that we do. We are a “Big Questions” foundation, not a science foundation, and we believe that the world’s philosophical and religious traditions have much to contribute to understanding human experience and our place in the universe.

I asked Gary Rosen

What exactly do you ‘believe’ that the world’s religious traditions have to contribute to understanding human experience and our place in the universe? Can you specify one theory or explanation or bit of evidence that a religion has contributed to understanding human experience and our place in the universe?

But answer came there none.

Of course I didn’t really expect an answer – but if Gary Rosen really wanted to persuade anyone of anything, it would have been sensible of him to give one. That’s because his comment is highly unpersuasive precisely because what he says is so carefully vague and empty and meaningless. This is what pro-woolly people do, and it is why anti-woolly people can’t take them seriously even if they try.

Note the wording. ‘The world’s philosophical and religious traditions’ first of all. He puts ‘philosophical’ first, so that we start out by thinking something rational is afoot, and he attaches religion to it so that we will associate religion with philosophy, and also so that we will think the two form a natural and reasonable pair. Then, he says ‘religious traditions’ rather than just religions – which is a much more shifty, evasive, vague, deniable way of saying religions have much to contribute. Saying ‘religious traditions’ have much to contribute could just mean something about music, or stained glass, or calligraphy, or community feeling. It could mean anything or nothing. Then ‘much to contribute’ is carefully vague too – one can ‘contribute’ sheer nonsense, or fairy tales, or a bowl of macaroni and cheese. And finally ‘understanding human experience and our place in the universe’ can also mean anything or nothing. Understanding human experience is a broad, vague, capacious project, and so is ‘understanding our place in the universe,’ and almost anything can ‘contribute’ to it. So in a sense Templeton is perfectly right to ‘believe’ what Rosen says it believes, but then, that’s just like saying Templeton believes ice cream is nice. It’s not very disputable, and it’s not worth disputing – because it doesn’t say much of anything.

Yet Rosen thinks it’s worth saying things like that on anti-Templeton blog posts. Why? It’s just a kind of advertising language, a kind of PR speak. It’s worse than useless when arguing with people who are actually thinking critically, because they will recognize it for what it is. It’s funny that he doesn’t recognize that.

I was treated to a similar bit of PR boilerplate a few days ago from someone at an ad agency. Bacardi rum ran an ad in Israel based on the suggestion ‘Get an ugly girlfriend.’ Funnily enough some feminists objected to this, and a VP sent one such feminist a kind note which she shared with the Women’s Studies list. The note concluded:

Bacardi proudly celebrates diversity and we do not endorse the views of
this site. We sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by this
site and thank you for bringing it to our attention.

Bacardi proudly celebrates diversity – what’s that got to do with running a sexist ad?! Women aren’t ‘diverse’ – we’re the majority! Proudly celebrating diversity has nothing whatever to do with running a sexist ad, but it’s the stock bit of ‘we’re good people please leave us alone’ for such situations. So language is used for not saying things.


Jun 23rd, 2009 2:54 pm | By

Russell Blackford asked an important question on Jerry Coyne’s post on Andrew Brown and Michael Ruse:

It’s true that science teachers in public schools should not draw inferences, when talking to their students, about whether some scientific findings cast doubt on some religious positions. But is Brown really going to say that NO ONE should draw such inferences in public debate? That would go a long way towards putting philosophers of religion out of business. Does he really think that the whole question is one that should not be debated honestly in the public sphere?

Yes. Here is how he puts it:

Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion…[T]he footnote on page four of Judge Selna’s ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that

the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

And Brown is indeed saying that no one should draw inferences about whether some scientific findings cast doubt on some religious positions in public debate because if people do then the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional, and Judge Selna said so.

The trouble with that, of course, is that Judge Selna was ruling on what can be said in the public school classroom, not in public debate in general. The quoted passage from Selna’s ruling doesn’t show what Brown wants it to show, but he thinks it does. That’s rather careless.

This is a big, and sloppy, mistake, and it matters because it seems to be at the heart of what Ruse and Brown keep insisting on. Judges are very likely to rule that atheism cannot be taught in public schools. It does not follow that judges are very, or at all, likely to rule that public discussion of the incompatibility between science and religion makes science a branch of atheism and therefore forbidden in the public schools. That outcome is in fact vanishingly unlikely. (One reason for that is simply that another important part of the First Amendment guarantees free speech, and judges are pretty well aware of that.

I suspect that Ruse has been making this claim because he enjoys irritating his colleagues. (He has said this freely many times.) I’m not sure why Brown is backing him up. Anyway – the claim is just nonsense, a kind of joke. It has no legs.

Un-der-stan-ding met-a-phor

Jun 22nd, 2009 6:19 pm | By

Here’s a stupid remark. On a post of Russell Blackford’s on Bunting’s encounter with the hostile commenters there’s a guy defending Bunting’s reading of the book (despite not having read the book himself, but never mind). He said some really point-missing stuff about the whited sepulchre etc, and I tried yet again to explain it, saying that

The point is that religion is ugly because it is used to dress up ugly things. Is that not obvious? The white tie and tails on an executioner are themselves ugly because of what they are doing. This is vastly more true of religion precisely because religion is supposed to be the heart of a heartless world, the fount of compassion, etc etc. Religion is made ugly by the many people who use it to justify cruelty.

He replied, astonishingly

Oh, please. Cruelty can be justified in the name of love, science, freedom, and so on. That hardly makes any of the latter ugly.

Are you kidding me? Of course it fucking does! If someone is being cruel and justifies it by talking of love – that’s a very ugly version of ‘love.’ It’s not unknown, either. OJ Simpson made a career out of it. That love is another wart hog in a party dress.

It’s so hard to abandon internet arguments when people are being obstinately stupid, you know? I’m hopeless at it.

Teaching people to think may have the ancillary effect of destroying their credulity

Jun 21st, 2009 4:17 pm | By

Jerry Coyne says why it’s nonsensical to say that atheists have to be quiet or else the Supreme Court will rule the teaching of evolution unconstitutional:

And yes, it’s likely that teaching evolution probably promotes a critical examination of religious beliefs that may lead to rejecting faith. But teaching geology, physics, or astronomy does that, too. In fact, education in general leads to the rejection of faith…What Brown is really saying is that we should be worried about promoting rational values of any type, or any notion that beliefs require evidence. He doesn’t seem to realize the difference between cramming atheism down people’s throats and teaching them to think, which may have the ancillary effect of eroding faith…I repeat, so that Brown can get it: teaching evolution is not promoting atheism, it’s promoting a scientific truth. And the promotion of any scientific truth may have the ancillary effect of dispelling faith. This is almost inevitable, for the metier of science — rationality and dependence on evidence — is in absolute and irreconcilable conflict with the with the metier of faith: superstition and dependence on revelation. Too bad.

Jason Rosenhouse points out how helpful Michael Ruse has been to the fight against creationism and ID:

In 2004 he edited a book with William Dembski called Debating Design, published by Cambridge University Press. In doing so he effectively cut the legs out from under those fighting school board battles on the ground. It’s pretty hard to argue that the evolution/ID issue is a manufactured debate when Ruse has one of the most prestigious university presses in the world certifying that it is, indeed, a real debate. Making matters worse was the fact that the four essays Ruse chose to represent “Darwinism” added up to a very weak case for the good guys…More recently Ruse said, in a public debate with Dembski, that the book The Design Inference was a valuable contribution to science…When the ID folks were putting together a book in honor of Phillip Johnson, Ruse was happy to contribute an essay to a section entitled “Two Friendly Critics.”

Oh…really? How odd then that he emailed Jerry Coyne just the other day to say: “I don’t know who does more damage, you and your kind or Phillip Johnson and his kind. I really don’t.”

Strange fella.

Down on your knees

Jun 21st, 2009 11:15 am | By

The Church of England is gearing up to give the BBC a damn good scolding for being so mean to Christianity and so nice to Islam.

Concerns over the appointment of Aaqil Ahmed, who was poached by the corporation from Channel 4 last month, will be raised in a Church document to be published tomorrow…Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, met with Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general, in March to challenge him about the issue. Now a motion prepared for the Synod calls on the corporation to explain the decline in its coverage of religion and its failure to provide enough programming during key Christian festivals.

Sorry to be clueless, but what’s the deal here? Is the archbishop of Canterbury the boss of the BBC? Is the BBC a branch of the church of England? Is the church of England the boss of everything that happens in England? What is all this? Why does the archbish get to challenge the BBC’s director-general about the BBC’s appointments? Why does the Synod get to call on the corporation to explain things? How does all this work? What kind of power, exactly, do they have? Apart from all those bishops in the House of Lords, of course. What kind of temporal political power do they have? What entitles them to be so bossy and so explain-yourselfy?

“BBC 3 tackles religion rarely but does so from the angle of the freak show, and many of the Channel 4 programmes concerned with Christianity, in contrast to those featuring other faiths, seem to be of a sensationalist or unduly critical nature.”…The main Christian documentary broadcast for Easter [last] year, called The Secrets of the 12 Disciples, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Pope’s leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

Yes…But you guys are Protestants, remember? You’re supposed to have some doubts about the legitimacy of the Pope’s leadership of the Roman Catholic Church yourselves! Have you forgotten all this? Have you forgotten your own history? Bloody Mary? Foxe’s Book of Martyrs? Latimer and Ridley? We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out? Ring a bell, any of that? It had quite a lot to do with the pope. Surely you remember.

Ah yes but that was then; now the pope is a bulwark against secularism, and the enemy is everyone who doesn’t want to grovel to religion, like that god damn atheist BBC.

Nigel Holmes, a General Synod member and former BBC producer, who has tabled the motion and who wrote the paper, said that the Church needed to tackle the issue at a time when the future of religious broadcasting was under threat…”Religion is higher on the political agenda than ever before and we are crying out for programmes that give a moral view.”

And religion alone can do that of course because religion alone is moral while everything else is inherently and adamantly anti-moral. This is common knowledge.

A spokesman for the BBC said…”The BBC’s commitment to religion and ethics broadcasting is unequivocal. As the majority faith of the UK, Christians are and will remain a central audience for the BBC’s religious and ethics television and other output.”

See? Religion and ethics are the same subject, they go together like waffles and syrup or god and bothering. Got that? So no worries: the church of England will harmoniously combine with the Roman Catholic Church and Islam to impose religion and theocracy on everyone else. Can’t say fairer than that can you.

A little epistemic humility would go a long way

Jun 19th, 2009 4:10 pm | By

Jerry Coyne quoted Tom Clark the other day; I want to quote another passage from the same article, ‘Reality and Its Rivals: Putting Epistemology First’.

Of course, many non-empirically based convictions are relatively harmless as guides to behavior so long as they’re confined to our private lives. Beliefs in god, astrology, psychic powers, cosmic consciousness and so forth can be the epistemic equivalent of victimless crimes. But the presumption of such beliefs – that there are reliable alternatives to empiricism – isn’t so benign when carried into the public arena…To imagine that one’s worldview, whether religious or secular, is beyond disconfirmation helps to license an absolutism which brooks no dissent and countenances the demonization of those with different ideas…A little epistemic humility would go a long way toward reducing the ideological tribalism underlying the culture wars. (What’s ironic is that populist suspicion of bi-coastal know-it-alls gets it precisely backwards: empiricists are just those who realize they don’t know it all.

The whole article is an excellent antidote to all the muddle about naturalism and supernaturalism and methdological versus philosophical naturalism that’s been splashing around lately, ever since Chris Mooney got the urge to lecture Jerry Coyne on civility to theists. Enjoy.

About that book

Jun 19th, 2009 10:59 am | By

Meanwhile, there is this book we wrote. Bunting purports to be criticizing it, but in fact what she is doing is yanking out particular sentences that caught her attention and flailing at them in isolation, as opposed to understanding them in context. This is stupid, and uninformative, and misleading. That’s why I call her reckless. It’s so easy to point out how thoroughly she misrepresents the book. (How does she square that with her Catholic conscience, one wonders?)

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar. How about this from the conclusion to her book: “religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide…” ?

The page in question is 177, the penultimate page of the book; it’s the peroration. The final chapter is intense, but it is intense in a context. It starts, as mentioned, with the public murder of a raped child by people who said ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. It goes on to point out that that is a kind of God that all too many people believe in, and that that’s a terrible thing. It then says

Religion doesn’t necessarily originate ideas about female subordination and male authority, but it does justify them, it does lend them a penumbra of righteousness, and it does make them ‘sacred’ and thus a matter for outrage if anyone disputes them. It does enable and assist and flatter moods of intolerance for all those who seek to challenge cultural and religious values and religious abuse of power. It does turn reformers and challengers into enemies of God.

Used in this way religion is like a matrix, a nutrient, a super-vitamin. It doesn’t necessarily invent, but it amplifies, and nourishes, and protects. Religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide that destroys some insect species only to let others, freed from predators and competition, explode. It’s like an antibiotic that kills some strains of bacteria only to help resistant strains thrive and flourish.

You see? Bunting ignored the first paragraph and thus distorted what was being said.

Or from the same page, “Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals.”

Again (and on the same page, too) she has left out the paragraph that precedes the line she doesn’t like. The preceding paragraph leads into the whited sepulchre bit.

It’s also a kind of protective colouring. There is no very compelling reason left to treat particular groups of people as inferior. It used to be possible (just barely) to think that human groups were literally and essentially different in some way profound enough to justify inequality, but it isn’t possible any longer. All that’s left is a literalist idea of God’s will along with a conviction that God’s will must not be disputed or disobeyed. Without that, a defence of unequal rights just looks like what it is – a frank defence of injustice. This puts religion in the uncomfortable position of being that which puts lipstick on a pig.

That is uncomfortable but it is exactly the position religion is in. Religion, in the hands of the literalist defenders of God’s putative will, is in the business of dressing up what would otherwise obviously be tired old prejudices and hatreds and plain exploitation, and making them seem vaguely respectable. Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals, the executioner in white tie and tails.

One could still think and say that that’s too strong or harsh or intense, but with the context at least it’s clear what is being claimed. Bunting’s quote-mining just makes it look like vulgar abuse, which of course was the idea.

It’s not that Benson doesn’t have a point, it’s that she overstates it with such crudeness and lack of insight that I’m staggered anyone wants to publish it. Except that I know publishers with a keen eye on the bottom line will publish anything and atheism sells – it feeds a public appetite for outrage. I just think it’s profoundly intellectually dishonest to feed that kind of outrage – there is no attempt here to open people’s minds, only fuel their indignation.

Publishers will publish anything, and so will newspapers, apparently. Be that as it may – the significant point here is that we did indeed want to arouse, if not feed, public outrage. You bet we did. That was the goal. That goal is not at odds with opening people’s minds – we wanted to open people’s minds to some neglected facts and to some connections among things. Bunting perhaps means by ‘open people’s minds’ something more along the lines of ‘persuade people that all religions are kind and compassionate really and all the cruelty and injustice is just a superficial dusting on top that can easily be swept away’ – but we don’t see it that way, so we didn’t want to open people’s minds in that particular way. But then Bunting doesn’t seem to want to open people’s minds in the sense we mean it, either. We did and do want to arouse outrage, and we do not think there is anything remotely intellectually dishonest about that, and I at least would love to know why Bunting thinks there is.

I think, rather, that she is the intellectually dishonest one. I think she is intellectually dishonest for instance when she says of course religions can change, the Anglican church has begun ordinating women – when she herself is a Catholic and the Catholic church not only does not ordinate women, it treats the ordination of women as a crime deserving excommunication. That’s intellectual dishonesty if you like.

I just wanted to set the record straight. Of course Bunting distorted the record on a large forum and I’m setting it straight on a small one – but we do what we can do.

Bunting replies

Jun 18th, 2009 5:59 pm | By

Well, the discussion was winding down (or I thought it was), and I was going to leave Bunting in peace…but then she finally posted a comment (and the discussion didn’t wind down after all), so the peace idea was premature. What did she say? Did she admit that she had quote-mined? Did she explain why she is so furious at my (our) putative stridency instead of being furious at the men who murdered a raped teenager while saying ”We will do what Allah has instructed us’? Did she explain what has happened to her since she was so shocked by the Ryan report? Did she apologize for calling me strident, preposterous, crude, lacking in insight, profoundly intellectually dishonest, hysterical, and bizarre?

No. She didn’t do any of that. On the contrary – far from apologizing for calling me a long list of bad things, she complained of ‘personal abuse’ herself. It seems it’s all right for her to call me rude names but not okay for other people to call her rude names. Why would that be, exactly?

For those who loathe my writing I suggest you don’t read it. That’s the point about a newspaper/website. You get to choose what you read… so I don’t understand the personal abuse. Of course there are plenty of people who think I write rubbish – I got that message off CiF long ago. So what.

So what…Well, so they’re right, that’s so what. ‘Plenty of people’ aren’t always right, of course, but they are about this. Bunting does write rubbish, and not only that; she writes personally vituperative, inaccurate, sloppy, careless, reckless rubbish. Bunting writes badly and behaves badly and my opinion of her sinks lower all the time. There is no floor under this opinion, it turns out; it can just keep on sinking forever.

I think outrage about injustice is entirely appropriate, and Benson and I would be completely on the same side about the despicable way patriarchal societies have treated women the world over. But I strongly argue that in a small world where we are jostling up against all kinds of different belief systems, we need to understand something of why religion is still such a powerful impulse in human nature, why it is such a major influence in many parts of the world – as John Mickelthwait’s new book, ‘God is Back’ argues. Does Benson bring insight into that urgent task? I fear not.

That’s interesting, but as I said in reply, she didn’t argue that on Night Waves or in her article, so it’s a bit late to bring it up in a comment two days later.

So that’s that. As I’ve said – I knew she was as woolly as any flock of sheep you might want to meet, but I didn’t know she was so malicious or so reckless. Now I do.

If only it were Lyme Regis

Jun 17th, 2009 9:54 am | By

Imagine being confined to a flat in Bournemouth for 24 hours.

Gordon and Dena Coleman said they cannot leave or enter their Bournemouth flat on the Sabbath because the hallway sensors automatically switch on lights. The couple’s religious code bans lights and other electrical equipment being switched on during Jewish holidays. They have now issued a county court writ claiming religious discrimination. They also claim breach of their rights under the Equality Act 2006 and Human Rights Act 1998 and the case is due to be heard at Bournemouth County Court next month.

Religious discrimination – how does that work? People trying to live in a reasonably efficient way (using light sensors instead of having the lights on 24 hours a day) amounts to religious discrimination simply because two other people have some inane antiquated meaningless pettifogging stupid interfering tedious code that says they can’t switch the lights on? Why is it not religious discrimination for the people with the stupid code to interfere with the convenience of everyone else for the sake of a stupid code? I would like to know.

In a letter to the other residents, the couple said they sought legal help because the sensor lights meant they would never again have full use of their flat.

But that’s only because they choose to be childish and slavish and fat-headed enough to obey an inane antiquated meaningless pettifogging stupid interfering tedious code instead of just ignoring it like sensible rational adults. They could act like grown ups, or they could go on acting like children but only as it affects themselves – but to insist on acting like children at the expense of all their neighbours is just…presumptuous.

Piety in action

Jun 17th, 2009 9:40 am | By

Time has passed. Clocks have ticked. The sun has set and then risen again. Meals have been eaten and digested, tv shows have been watched, teeth have been brushed, dogs have scratched, water has flowed under the bridge. Time has passed and people have urged Madeleine Bunting to answer the many criticisms her article has received. No answer has been forthcoming.

All this really is quite interesting. I knew Bunting was a determined apologist for religion and that she was not very good at making her case – but that was all I knew. It has now been forced on my attention that she’s really a fairly unpleasant character. She is, at least, willing to call someone a long string of harsh names on a public forum and then refuse to reply to dissenters. She has sunk herself in my esteem. She has not behaved well. She is not a good ambassador for her religion.

Bunting expands on her point

Jun 16th, 2009 12:25 pm | By

Madeleine Bunting returns to her claim that I am strident, adding a good deal more abuse for good measure.

But the kind of strident atheism which Benson epitomises intrigues me. It’s driven by a curious intensity which is really peculiar.

No, it isn’t. It isn’t peculiar at all. I think theism and theistic ways of thinking do real and terrible harm. I think it’s Bunting’s blindness or indifference to that which is really peculiar. In order to be so mystified by my intensity, she has to simply ignore or disbelieve the horrors in the book which are explicitly and avowedly done in the name of a god. She has read the book, apparently, since she quotes some bits that she considers ‘strident’ – so she can’t claim that she was unaware of the incidents. To take just one – the one that leads up to the bits she quotes – there is the stoning to death of a 13-year-old girl who said three men had raped her, in Kismayu, Somalia, last October.

A witness told the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme that the girl had been crying, pleading for her life, and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning.

“When she came out she said: ‘What do you want from me?'”

“They said: ‘We will do what Allah has instructed us’. She said: ‘I’m not going, I’m not going. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’

“A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.”

The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was “awful”.

So – in light of the fact that the executioners said ”We will do what Allah has instructed us,’ what exactly is it that Bunting finds peculiar? How would she like people to react to that? Casually? Ironically? Temperately?

I don’t know. I don’t understand Madeleine Bunting. I don’t understand her show of incomprehension. I don’t understand what she’s playing at.

But the most extraordinary claim was “religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion which backs them up”. Really? Surely the “last great prop” is overstating it? Injustice is rife all over the world and much of it makes no reference to religion. Take North Korea: where’s the religion there? Or Burma last autumn: there, religion, in the form of hundreds of Buddhist monks were leading the protests against the rule of the Burmese generals. It was precisely the opposite of what Benson is claiming: religion proved the most effective inspiration to resist arbitrary injustice. And that has been true of many other places in the world – does Benson not study her history books? – how can she make sense of the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Archbishop Desmond Tutu without the religions which inspired them to campaign against arbitrary injustice? I simply don’t understand how someone can claim to be a serious philosopher (as Benson does) and who writes books on subjects such as Why the truth matters can make such preposterous statements.

It would help if she had kept in mind the sentences that immediately precede the one she quotes –

It is true, of course, that sometimes good things are done in the name of religion. There were religious motivations for opposing the slave trade (although that required ignoring many instructions in the Bible, New Testament as well as Old), and no doubt people get something out of going to church once in a while…Nevertheless, religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion that backs them up.

In other words we make exactly the point she accuses me (us) of failing to make immediately before the passage she takes exception to. I simply can’t understand how someone can claim to be whatever it is that Bunting claims to be and still distort a quotation in such a flagrant manner. I especially can’t understand how someone can do that in the process of defending the indefensible.

She misunderstands what is being claimed in the guilty sentence. It’s the ‘prop and stay’ bit and the ‘arbitrary’ bit. The sentence doesn’t say ‘religion remains the last great example of injustices’ – it says it remains the last great prop and stay of them. The Burmese generals don’t have any such prop and stay; all they have is naked power. North Korea has a kind of ghost of Marxism, but it doesn’t convince anyone. Religion convinces people. That’s the difference. The book is full of reeking examples of people convinced by religion that it is okay for them to do horrible things. Bunting should re-read the story of Rand Abdel-Qader.

Are religions corrupted by their patriarchal history – yes of course, as I’ve written on this site before. Does much of that patriarchy still survive – yes, in many places but in many others it is being challenged. Does it sometimes become misogyny – yes. So there is much common ground between Benson and I. It’s just that I would argue that the root of this problem is men – and they have used religious traditions to restrict the freedom of women.

Yes…that is rather the point. I won’t say more, since Bunting’s failure to get the point is obvious enough. (I will say it should be ‘between Benson and me’ though.)

In the debate, Benson didn’t sound as hysterical as her prose but it’s odd listening to someone who has created a caricature of religion and then pours her scorn on it. She talks about the nature of God a lot with a confidence that is bizarre – as if she had inside knowledge yet she is an atheist so all she is really talking about is her image, her understanding of God. And this is where I heartily agree with her final sentence “That is the God who hates women. That God has to go”. Hear, hear Benson.

I didn’t, actually. I don’t (of course) think ‘God’ has a nature. What I talked about was the fact that God is not available or accountable and that therefore God’s laws are fundamentally arbitrary in a way that secular laws are not. This isn’t my image or understanding of God – when’s the last time the pope reported God chatting with him about the new encyclical?

There’s another, less substantive aspect to this. Bunting in general presents herself, I think it’s fair to say, as a consciously ‘nice’ gentle ‘feminine’ kind of person – but in practice, at least in this case, she’s been strikingly aggressive. At one point on Night Waves she interrupted me in the middle of a sentence and the middle of a thought – when she had already done a lot more talking than I had, and Rana had cued me to go ahead, and I fairly obviously had a point I wanted to make – and she didn’t just say one thing and then let me go on, she simply grabbed the conversation away from me and kept on talking. I could have followed suit, but I hate shouting heads discussions; I’m willing to break in during pauses, but I’m not willing to cut people off in the middle of a sentence. But Bunting is – despite the sweetly girly voice and despite the conspicuous Christianity, she’s perfectly willing to cut people off. And she’s also willing to use quite strong language. ‘Strident…preposterous…crudeness and lack of insight…profoundly intellectually dishonest…hysterical…bizarre.’

I find that interesting.

Say anything

Jun 15th, 2009 11:17 am | By

James Hannam re-states his case in a comment on It’s not a majority vote issue.

[L]ooking back, a clear lesson seems to be that the accommodationists got things done. So even if Coyne and Myers are right (and of course, I don’t think they are) about the incompatibility of religion and evolution, prior experience suggests that they should nonetheless respect differences and even hold their noses for the good of science. No one would expect them to hide their views. But at the moment, they give the impression that they are partisans for atheism rather than for evolution.

The first question is: what things did accommodationists get done, and what connection did the accommodationism have with the getting things done? What exactly is the claim here? That accommodationists got things done that they would not have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? And that the things they got done were more important or valuable than any other things they might have gotten done if they had not been accommodationists? In other words, there are a lot of variables here, and a lot of counter-factuals, and it’s simply not clear that ‘the accommodationists got things done’ says anything as clear-cut or useful as Hannam thinks it does (or rather, perhaps, hopes it does). In other other words it’s a very loose, vague claim, which does not justify that ‘So’ in the next sentence. No, prior experience does not suggest that they should ‘respect differences,’ much less that they should ‘hold their noses for the good of science’ – which in this context has to mean ‘hold their noses and conceal what they take to be the truth for the good of science.’

Of course, one can’t make one’s whole case every time one says anything – but one can avoid making large empty claims such as ‘the accommodationists got things done’ in order to back up a further claim that scientists should conceal what they take to be the truth. One can be more careful than that.

Here’s the problem: You have a group of people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs. You have a mission to educate these people. Do you:

a) explain that many of their learned co-believers have thought carefully about this issue and don’t think there is a contradiction;
b) say nothing to these people and let the likes of Coyne, Dawkins and Myers convince them that they are right to be scared through other channels.

Now, if you care about evolution, this looks like a no-brainer to me.

Well, that’s because you haven’t thought about it carefully enough. One, the ‘mission to educate these people’ is not the only mission. There are a lot of ‘missions’ in play; educating people who reject evolution because of their religious beliefs is only one of them; it is not self-evident that that one ‘mission’ should trump all the others; it is in any case not self-evident that the only or best way to ‘educate these people’ is by concealing what one takes to be the truth.

Two, a) and b) represent a false dilemma. There are (as so often) more than two possibilities here, and a) and b) are very crude tendentious versions even of the two possibilities they purport to represent. One can, for instance, do a) and do other things too, one of which would be to explain why there is a contradiction, or, if you want to hedge, why many other people think there is a contradiction.

There is a whole range of possibilities, and narrowing it down to 1) talk soothing communitarian wool about what lots of learned people have thought or 2) let those pesky fundamentalist atheists scare everyone into church school, is neither productive nor interesting.

The fundamental blankness behind this way of arguing seems to be a complete blindness to the fact that some people prefer trying to get at the truth to trying to manipulate other people. Over and over we keep coming back to this ‘whatever you think the truth is, you should say that science and religion are perfectly compatible, for purely instrumental short-term reasons’ idea. It’s depressing. It’s tawdry. It’s as if all of life were an endless US presidential campaign, where the only goal is to win and no lie is too gross if only it might win West Virginia.

It’s not a majority vote issue

Jun 14th, 2009 12:42 pm | By

James Hannam is confused about accommodationism.

As the battle between creationism and evolution heats up, some atheists, like Jerry Coyne, have been insisting that it is really a battle between religion and science. Coyne resists any accommodation between religious and non-religious scientists…In order for his position to make sense, he needs to show that there is some sort of existential conflict between religion and science. So it is unfortunate for him that the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship.

No, that’s not right. It would perfectly possible for the historical record to show that and for the accommodation still to be philosophically incoherent. Coyne’s claim is not that accommodation has never happened but that it is not coherent.

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind…The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

What has happened in the past is fundamentally irrelevant to what Coyne is arguing, in the same way that a contemporary opinion poll would be. The historical record makes essentially the same claim as an opinion poll could make: lots of people think or have thought that science and religion can be reconciled. Coyne already knows that, and has stipulated that they can be reconciled in the trivial sense that a person can do both. His point is that the reconciliation is not coherent. Majority opinion, now or in the past, can’t decide that question.

Unfortunately for him, Hannam’s entire article rests on this irrelevant claim about the history of the conflict, which just isn’t what Coyne is talking about. Oh well.

Catholic thinking is rather different…

Jun 14th, 2009 12:10 pm | By

This is what I’m saying.

Tony Blair made much of becoming a Roman Catholic six months after he left 10 Downing Street, but senior figures in the Church appear reluctant to sign up to his fan club…Blair used an interview with Attitude, a magazine for homosexuals, to criticise the approach of the Pope towards gay rights. He argued that religious leaders must start “rethinking” the issue, but the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, said Catholic thinking was “rather different” from the kind promoted by Blair.

Precisely. Of course it is. So what does Madeleine Bunting mean by claiming she doesn’t understand when people point out that laws handed down by an unavailable unaccountable god are different from negotiable secular laws? Eh? Eh? What does she mean by it? If the new archbish of Westminster gets it (when defending his ‘thinking’ of course, as opposed to agreeing with secularist criticism of his ‘thinking’), why doesn’t she? Merely because it’s not convenient? Surely not…

Madeleine Bunting please note

Jun 13th, 2009 5:24 pm | By

Ha – eat your heart out, Maddy – here’s someone who understands what we mean by asking if God hates women. She understands it perfectly, and has been there.

An article from the UK’s Guardian, God is merciful, but only if you’re a man, reminded me of the subservient role women played in the fundamentalist Christian churches I came to know as a believer…[T]he church would make me shed bitter tears for my inability to be sweet, submissive, and sheeplike. Religious circles just aren’t friendly to a woman who thinks herself an equal. The Guardian’s article brought back the awful church memories. In those days and during my earlier de-conversion phase, I was just angry and couldn’t understand why fellow Christian women would often tell me, “You shouldn’t say that,” or “You shouldn’t do that.”…Is it any wonder that at some point during my Christian life I started to feel as if God hated me?

Told you so, Madders.

Read the whole thing, and the comments; it’s stirring stuff. Sing it, Lorena!

A pervasive climate of fear

Jun 13th, 2009 11:14 am | By

I’ve been reading the Goldenbridge chapter of the Ryan report again. (Reading the whole report will be the work of months, if not years.) One thing (among others) struck me anew…

Sr Alida recalls her early years in religious life as being dominated by fear. On reflection she cannot understand how she accepted so many demands and pressures without protest. (7.219)

Exactly. This is how authoritarian religions work, after all, and Catholicism is nothing if not authoritarian – still, now, let alone in Ireland in the 1940s. Sister ‘Alida’ was trained by fear and she passed it on to the children she was in charge of.

The religious sisters who subsequently held management responsibility lived in a tightly controlled and authoritarian world. Questioning was defined as arrogance and led to blaming of the individual…No distinction appears to have been made between being a ‘good’ religious and being a ‘good’ childcare worker. The characteristics that were valued appear to have been obedience and dedication…The unsafe world of Goldenbridge developed a very particular culture which could not meet the needs of children. Very powerless people had enormous and immediate power over troubled and troublesome children. The abuse of the power and powerlessness was almost inevitable. (7.224)

In other words, a recipe for a disastrous way to take care of desolate children: fear, control, authoritarianism, slavishness, sadism, all gathered together into ‘enormous and immediate power’: the perfect nightmare.

Overall, there was a high level of severe corporal punishment in Goldenbridge, resulting in a pervasive climate of fear in the Institution. (7.232)

Yes but not just a pervasive climate of fear…Along with that climate, and inseparable from it, was a pervasive climate of unlove, of hostility, of anger…of hatred.

This is perhaps too obvious to point out, but a pervasive climate of fear created by a harshly punitive regime is inevitably also a pervasive climate of unlove – and that’s what was truly corrosive about Goldenbridge (and the other industrial schools). Reading the report, you just can’t escape that; it jumps off every page. There was no love there, and there was abundant fury and violence and frank hatred. The witnesses all say the same thing – they all felt utterly alone there, they had no one to turn to, that was the worst thing.

Hatred needs to be recognized as such. The pervasive climate of fear at Goldenbridge wasn’t just a matter of excessively harsh discipline. It’s possible to be both loving and strict, even ‘strict’ in the sense of using some corporal punishment…but there is a cut-off point. There is a point at which quantity becomes quality, and the corporal punishment is no longer compatible with anything that can be called love. This applies, mutatis mutandis, to ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage too. Whether God hates women or not, some of God’s fans certainly do hate women, and act accordingly. That needs to be acknowledged.

You may think our rules are crap, but that’s tough

Jun 12th, 2009 5:39 pm | By

How obliging of Simon Sarmiento, right on the heels of Bunting’s incomprehension at my claim that laws handed down by an unaccountable god can be oppressive and difficult to change.

Anglican and RC church representatives, giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, were very concerned that a new definition of “the purposes of an organised religion” would curtail their own existing right to discriminate against lay people for reasons other than religious belief.

Oh were they. And yet I thought ‘that in any religious tradition there is interpretation’ and ‘the way Christian teaching has changed over two thousand years is enormous and it continues to change’ so surely there can’t be a problem with Christian teaching not having changed enough, because if there were such a problem then Bunting would have understood what I was talking about, and she said she didn’t, so there must not be a problem. Right? Or perhaps not.

Fittall said: “You might believe that some of our rules and disciplines are wrong, but our view is that that is a matter of religious liberty – a matter for the Church of England, Roman Catholics, the Jews or whoever.”

Right, and that’s how you get away with it – you talk pious boilerplate about ‘religious liberty’ so that you can go on treating people unequally. Well – this is what I was saying. Religious laws are very hard to change because religions get this kind of special dispensation called ‘religious liberty’ and because the rule-giver does not answer requests for judicial review. That’s not an unmixed blessing.

And whaddya know – a colleague of Humera Khan’s has a lot more sense than Humera Khan seems to have –

There also seemed to be little support for the churches from their religious colleagues on the witness panel. Indeed Maleiha Malik, speaking for the Muslim Women’s Network said:

“I do not think that there is any evidence that there is a narrowing, but, like the British Humanist Association, we would very much welcome and strongly support any narrowing of the exemptions, for the following reason. The way the exemptions strike the balance between the rights of organised religion to discriminate and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination is deeply unfair. It gives too much power to organised religions to police their internal members.”

Well said Maleiha Malik.