Rowan Williams pipes up again

Feb 17th, 2009 11:07 am | By

The archbishop of Canterbury seems to be incapable of taking in new information that is inimical to what he already wants to believe. Perhaps this is not even worth pointing out, in an archbishop – except of course it is, however obvious it may be, because archbishops in the UK unfortunately have a huge amount of temporal power and also a considerable amount of influence.

On the anniversary of the interview in which Dr Rowan Williams said it “seems inevitable” that some parts of sharia would be enshrined in this country’s legal code, he claimed “a number of fairly senior people” now take the same view. He added that there is a “drift of understanding” towards what he was saying, and that the public sees the difference between letting Muslim courts decide divorces and wills, and allowing them to rule on criminal cases and impose harsh punishments.

Yes of course there’s a ‘difference’ but that does not mean, and it is not the case, that the difference in question is between harmful and harmless or cruel and benign or harsh and mild or irrationally fundamentalist and sweetly reasonable. There is a ‘difference’ but it remains the case that letting Muslim courts decide divorces and wills is a way to treat women grossly unequally.

The odd thing is that Williams must have been told this. He must have been told it a thousand times, in the strongest possible terms. So why can’t he take it in? What is the matter with the man? Apart from the fact that he’s an archbishop, of course. What is wrong with him? Why is he so determined to persuade the great British public that unequal rights for women is quite all right as long as the women in question are ‘members of the Muslim community’?

However critics insist that family disputes must be dealt with by civil law rather than according to religious principles, and claim the Archbishop’s comments have only helped the case of extremists while making Muslim women worse off, because they do not have equal rights under Islamic law.

Well duh. So how does Williams manage to ignore what critics say for a period of twelve months? Has he eaten of the multicultural lotus, or what?

Douglas Murray, the director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, said: “He has started a process which is deeply dangerous, damaging to Britain and to Muslim women in Britain. It was a wicked move because it undermines the progressives and gives succour to the extremists. How does the Archbishop of Canterbury know, sitting in Lambeth Palace, that a woman in Bolton has volunteered to give up half her inheritance to her brother?”

I would love to know, but I doubt that the archbish will be explaining any time soon.

Indulge me for a moment

Feb 16th, 2009 5:24 pm | By

Well I needed something really ridiculous, I was getting worn down by the smug giggling defenders of religious censorship.

In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin…According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

Well no wonder dioceses want to remind Catholics of the church’s clout when it means the talent to do magic like that – it can give out a thing called ‘an indulgence’ which when cashed at the other end actually slices a bunch of time off a person’s sentence in Purgatory. Is that cool or what?! (Yeah I know Luther didn’t think so, but he hasn’t been around for a long time.) It’s like magic. You do certain ‘devotions’ and in exchange, just as if you’d handed over $19.27 at Target, instantly X of days or years vanish from your punishment.

How do they do it, exactly? Don’t you wonder? Or is it all automatic, and they don’t have to do anything, it’s all arranged somewhere else? The Times doesn’t say. Dud journalism, I call it.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.

They really have the details figured out, don’t they. They’re not amateurs – they don’t leave any loose ends. I admire that. It’s funny about the limit to one a day on plenary ones though – if you can do such a red-hot devotion that you can get rid of all your time in Purgatory in one shot, why can’t you just do it again an hour later after you’ve re-sinned? Why do they make you wait until midnight? (Or is it the next morning? Do they make you have a night’s sleep first? So if you have insomnia do you have to wait another day? Or will a nap do?) Don’t they care that you might get hit by a bus first? And what’s it to them anyway? If they don’t mind letting you have one a day, why can’t they let you have one an hour, or all you want? What’s the big deal? They have the exchange system all worked out, and it’s not as if they’re going to run out, so why not just hand them out as needed and earned? Bastards. They’re so fussy.

“Confessions have been down for years and the church is very worried about it,” said the Rev. Tom Reese…In a secularized culture of pop psychology and self-help, he said, “the church wants the idea of personal sin back in the equation. Indulgences are a way of reminding people of the importance of penance. The good news is we’re not selling them anymore.”

Ah, I see – the culture is too secular, so people aren’t going into little boxes to tell a priest about their sex lives, so the church wants people to start thinking everything is a sin again. Yeah, that will be useful, and healthy. And great that they’re not selling them, they’re just giving them out in exchange for some magic rituals. Much better.

The latest offers de-emphasize the years-in-Purgatory formulations of old in favor of a less specific accounting, with more focus on ways in which people can help themselves — and one another — come to terms with sin. “It’s more about praying for the benefit of others, doing good deeds, acts of charity,” said the Rev. Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese.

Really? Then why not just do that instead of talking about indulgences? Make up your mind, dude. (I suppose he remembered he was talking to the New York Times. Once the reporter is gone it’s back to the ‘five years for ten hail-marys.’)

If you can’t say something nice, shut up

Feb 15th, 2009 12:24 pm | By

Minette Marin on New Labour and Geert Wilders and Fitna.

Admittedly the film does not try to distinguish between Islamist terrorists and ordinary law-abiding Muslims, or to show how Muslims have lived together peacefully with others all over the world for centuries. So Fitna is extremely unbalanced and, in that sense, misleading. However, what the film does show are precisely the things, I believe, that deeply worry a lot of non-Muslims. Again and again we are told that Islam is a religion of peace and equality; how does that tally with some of what the Koran says?


What makes such anxieties really toxic is the feeling that they are suppressed and ignored by our government. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, know they are likely to fall foul of the many new Labour laws against freedom of expression, in particular against incitement to religious hatred, which was enacted under Muslim pressure.

Precisely. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, also know they are likely to fall foul of people who have, as Kenan Malik says, internalized this idea that criticism of Islam is 1) taboo and 2) in and of itself ‘defamation.’ As I mentioned, the copy editor for Does God Hate Women? flagged up ‘possible defamation’ in eight places. What I didn’t spell out (but you probably guessed) is that all the items cited were simply criticism, with arguments and evidence, of a kind that is utterly taken for granted in ordinary public discourse. They were not in any normal sense ‘defamation’ – it’s just that they were not flattering. The copy editor seems to have made exactly the leap that some protectors of religion would like everyone to make, and equated frank criticism of religious ideas and practices with ‘defamation.’ The copy editor seems to have drawn the conclusion that frank criticism of Islam (as I noted, there were no such queries about other religions, which got their share of criticism) is somehow illegitimate.

The fact that this even comes up is, it seems to me, a very bad sign. Even if nothing comes of it, even if everyone concerned decides ‘no problem,’ there’s still something dreadfully thought-stifling in this queasy anxious nit-picking readiness to make criticism and defamation the same thing.

(It’s also, of course, a very funny joke that this readiness, this internalized censorship, is precisely part of the subject of the book. It is very funny that the copy editor read the book and nevertheless proceeded to enact the very kind of befuddled censoriousness that is under discussion. ‘Defamation,’ indeed! Give me a break!

Clarence Center

Feb 14th, 2009 10:52 am | By

Terrible about Alison Des Forges.

The court trying alleged perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide was stunned Saturday at the death in an air crash of the top expert on the 1994 massacres, Alison Des Forges. Des Forges, 66, an expert advisor to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and human rights groups, was among the 50 victims of Thursday’s plane crash near Buffalo, New York. “It is with deep shock that the tribunal has learned of the tragic disappearance of Alison des Forges, “a spokesman for the UN tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania, told AFP. “It is a great loss for the world of human rights, international justice and all humanity,” Roland Amoussouga said. “Alison was not only an expert but also a very committed militant.”

I was just re-reading Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell a week or two ago, including this passage:

America’s best-informed Rwanda observer was not a government official but a private citizen, Alison Des Forges, a historian and a board member of Human Rights Watch, who lived in Buffalo, New York. Des Forges had been visiting Rwanda since 1963…Half an hour after the plane crash [that killed Habyarimana] Des Forges got a phone call from a close friend in Kigali, the human-rights activist Monique Mujawamariya. Des Forges had been worried about Mujawamariya for weeks because the hate-propagating Radio Mille Collines had branded her “a bad patriot who deserves to die.”…Now Habyarimana was dead, and Mujawamariya knew instandtly that the hard-line Hutu would use the incident as a pretext to begin mass killing. “This is it,” she told Des Forges on the phone. For the next twenty four hours, Des Forges called her friend’s home every half hour. With each conversation Des Forges could hear the gunfire growing louder as the Hutu militia drew closer. Finally the gunmen entered Mujawamariya’s home. “I don’t want you to hear this,” Mujawamariya said softly. “Take care of my children.” She hung up the phone.

She survived, though, and escaped Kigali, and she and Des Forges did their best to get the Clinton administration to act – to no avail.

Des Forges appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the ICTR, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. Her book “No Witness Must Survive” is regarded as the reference work on the Rwandan genocide…Des Forges was also a senior adviser to Human Rights Watch, whose boss Kenneth Roth called her “truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people.”

Stop right there

Feb 13th, 2009 12:49 pm | By

What was that we were saying about free speech? About internalized censorship? About the idea that laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘defamation’ of religion make genuine free speech impossible?

I am in receipt of notes from the copy-editor of Does God Hate Women? on the subject of “possible defamation/points of contention that could cause offence.” There are eight items; all but two ask about ‘defamation’ of or ‘inflammatory’ statements about Islam; none are about the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the FLDS, Hindutva, Orthodox Judaism, or any other religious outfit or religion discussed in the book. The passages questioned, like the book as a whole, is heavily referenced, while ‘defamation’ refers to false statements. In short – internalized censorship is alive and well and flourishing.

What we talk about when we talk about riots

Feb 12th, 2009 6:38 pm | By

Johann responds to the riots. He apologizes humbly; he explains that he only meant that free speech is a good idea in general but not of course if it offends anyone, or risks offending anyone, or might offend anyone if the wind were from the north, or could conceivably offend a very touchy person who hadn’t eaten in four days and had a hangover; he says it has always been his view that writers and journalists and thinkers and polemicists should always first consult with the community, and the leaders of the community, and the spiritual guides of the community, and every cleric within a five thousand mile radius, and Wall Street, and the tide tables, and a homeopath, before writing anything longer than a shopping list or more substantive than a signature on a check. He says he doesn’t know what got into him when he wrote that article that so offended some very nice people (men mostly, or entirely) in Kolkata that they rioted so enthusiastically that the central city was shut down. He says it must have been something he et. He says from now on he will write only friendly, indeed affectionate things about religion.

No he doesn’t. He does the other thing.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth — especially in a democracy of a billion people rivven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

Attaboy. Not that it so much as occurred to me that he would say anything else.

It’s also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these protesters, because they too aren’t going away. Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was “asking for it” by writing a “needlessly provocative” article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

Uh – no. We need to defend human rights, and we need to defend our right to defend human rights, as people rioting and arresting and threatening make all too horribly clear. It’s bottomlessly depressing that anyone thinks Johann did anything conceivably remotely wrong, any more than Sayed Pervez Kambaksh did, as Johann points out:

[C]ompare my experience to that of journalists living under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of people sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the fanatics — or charged for their “crimes.” They are people like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was sentenced to death for downloading a report on women’s rights. They are people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran’s leading reform-minded women’s magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah law.


At the end of the piece, as at the end of the Indy piece that so outraged the rioters, Johann urges people to read B&W. If I had a flag I would wave it.

Eight is nowhere near enough

Feb 11th, 2009 4:42 pm | By

Dear zany madcap Nadya Suleman was on tv again last night, in a nice extensive interview that she gave away for free. Like so many of my fellow Murkans, I find her morbidly fascinating. Her peculiar air of warm, even patronizing confidence is especially intriguing. I get the distinct impression that she thinks of herself as deeply wise, even wiser than Angelina Jolie. She was asked, right out in the open, if she had had a lip job, and she said no. I don’t believe her, and neither does anyone else. Of course she bloody did; she wasn’t born with those things! The mystery is why she thinks they’re attractive.

There were some funny parts. I just wanted to mention one or two. Frivolous of me, I know, but I like to let my hair down now and then. One was when the reporter asked if she had any income, and she said no except for student loans. She thinks loans are income! There speaks the American financial sense right there: loans are income. No no no no no, sweetheart, loans are minus income, on account of how you have to pay them back – that’s what ‘loan’ means. They’re really really not income in the sense you need income to be when you have 14 small children 8 of whom are in the ICU. Another was when she said proudly that she never used welfare, then when asked, cheerfully agreed that she was on food stamps to the tune of $490 a month. (This is my Reagan moment; this is where I start talking about welfare queens in Cadillacs driving up to their solid gold mansions in Beverly Hills.) Another was when the reporter asked if she didn’t feel at all concerned about depriving her children of a father and she said perkily ‘They have a father – he’s just not around.’ I suspect that being ‘around’ was what the reporter meant by having one. Another was when she said she believed the octuplets were God’s way of telling her to stop having children. Couldn’t he think of a less drastic way of telling her?! Like just messing up the IVF?

Frivolity over.

But only in the sense of tolerance

Feb 11th, 2009 4:05 pm | By

I like Evolving Thoughts but I think John Wilkins got the wrong end of the stick when he read Johann’s article ‘Why should I respect these oppressive religions?’ He quoted a bit on the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights and the UN and then commented:

There’s more, but I wanted only to discuss the UN-bashing here. There has been no such resolution by the UN, either by the General Assembly or the Security Council.

It’s not clear from the quoted passage exactly what resolution he means – it could be the Cairo Declaration, it could be the resolution on ‘defamation of religion,’ it could be the change in the role of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights – or it could be all those, or bits of all of them. But whichever it is, Wilkins is wrong; all three are very real.

Yes, Muslim leaders have asked the UN to ensure respect for religion, but only in the sense of tolerance for all religions, and at the same time they condemned the use of suicide bombers and attacking schools.

But the linked article doesn’t say that at all, it says something quite different.

SPEAKERS at a seminar urged the UN to take stringent measures to ensure respect of every religion and formulate laws to stop blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam (pbuh)…He said Muslims respected West’s freedom of expression but were deeply grieved and angered on the blasphemy of their Prophet (pbuh) and the Holy Quran committed with blatant callousness by the western leaders in the name of freedom of expression. He said freedom of expression had its limits in the West and it must never damage religious feelings of any human being, adding that Muslims would never tolerate the blasphemy of the prophet (pbuh) and other sacred personalities…He asked the UN to legislate to stop blasphemy and disrespect of religions which, he stressed, was essential for world peace. [emphasis added]

That is very far from ‘only in the sense of tolerance for all religions.’ Moreover, it is hardly mollifying that ‘at the same time they condemned the use of suicide bombers and attacking schools’; it’s not as if everything short of suicide bombers and attacking schools is perfectly all right.

Frankly it’s hard to see how anyone could read that passage as asking the UN to ensure respect for religion ‘only in the sense of tolerance for all religions’ when it says quite clearly that the request is for laws to stop blasphemy. Wilkins goes on to say that the UDHR protects religions in Articles 18 and 19 and that this ‘hasn’t changed’ – but the OIC would like it to change, and the Cairo Declaration is in direct opposition to Article 18 in many places. The UDHR protects various rights only as long as it is adhered to, and the OIC has explicitly repudiated it; that is the point of the Cairo Declaration. I think Wilkins perhaps should have looked into the subject a little more. (Most of his readers don’t seem to know the facts either. I keep saying how under-reported this whole subject is.)


Feb 11th, 2009 11:35 am | By

Good news, which so far I can’t find anywhere online apart from Facebook, so I can’t link to it in News, so for now I’ll just say it here. Pegah Emambakhsh has been granted refugee status in the UK.



Feb 10th, 2009 4:43 pm | By

I’ve transcribed a few bits of the Satanic Verses Nightwaves.

Kenan Malik talked about how different things were twenty years ago, and about the myth that all Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses. Twenty years ago radicals didn’t identify themselves as Muslim or even Asian, they were black, and that was a political term. But that was then.

When people talk about ‘radical’ in the Islamic context now, what they mean is usually somebody who is religiously fundamentalist; twenty years ago, it meant the very opposite, somebody who was militantly secular, somebody like me; so that whole thing has shifted completely now in the past 20 years.

Jo Glanville of Index on Censorship talked about The Jewel of Medina, and Denise Spellberg’s intervention, and Random House’s instant capitulation.

One of the extraordinary things in their decision was the reason they gave for not publishing; one was the fear of causing offense, but the other was they said that its publication might incite violence, and I thought that was such an extraordinary statement to make, and to show the mindset of a publisher today; you can compare it with Penguin and the position that they took at the time when they had all sorts of threats being made against themselves – to essentially say, not ‘there might be people who might react with violence’ but ‘this book itself might incite violence’ and I think that whole affair really encapsulated the journey that we’ve been on.

Priyamvada Gopal, while defending free speech for all kinds of writing, also made a distinction between Rushdie’s novel on the one hand and the Motoons and The Jewel of Medina on the other.

There are fundamentalisms of different kinds, and we must think about the relationship between discourses of purity, whether they are Western, race-based discourses of purity or Islamic fundamentalist religious discourses of purity – it’s asking us to think – and I would as a literary critic make a distinction between books that invite us to think in complex ways and works that are in some sense intended to titillate or provoke, although I would stand by the right of all of them to be published.

Jo Glanville made another good point.

I think what I’m most concerned about or disturbed by in this argument about offense is the demand that we respect. That we respect religion and we see the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for it, we saw the UN Secretary General calling for it, and actually the only thing that’s going to work is tolerance, not respect, and I think in a plural society that is what we have to push for.

I want to be Jo Glanville’s new best friend.

Keeping our sense of humour

Feb 10th, 2009 11:55 am | By

The Republican mind is a surprising thing at times. Sarah Palin’s sneer at community organizing, Sarah Palin’s sneer at fruit-fly research…and then their jokes.

‘A member of the Florida state Republican committee sent out an email to 8 people that said this:’

From: Carol Carter Friday, January 30, 9:30 AM Subject: FW: Amazing!

I’m confused.

How can 2,000,000 blacks get into Washington, DC in 1 day in sub zero temps when 200,000 couldn’t get out of New Orleans in 85 degree temps with four days notice?

Carol Carter


Somebody was unamused (so it’s not all Republicans, so I shouldn’t say ‘the Republican mind’ – except that’s obviously not a left-wing ‘joke’) and Carter was told to apologize.

From: Carol Carter January 30, 5:54 PM Subject: Earlier e-mail

I have been asked to send this apology for my earlier e-mail. I am sorry that it was received in a negative manner. I do hope that we are going to be allowed to keep our sense of humor.

As you can now see, it went to very few people. I did add Todd Marks in this apology, as he is in the mix now. I am also sorry to learn that some of these persons are not real team players. There really was no reason for this to go beyond those that I e-mailed (8 people). This was not an e-mail blast as I do not have that capability.

I’m fascinated by that ‘I do hope that we are going to be allowed to keep our sense of humor.’ Our sense of humor…about people who don’t own cars or don’t have enough money for gas or who are too terrified of losing everything to abandon their houses, being trapped by rising flood waters and drowning in their attics or surviving the floods only to die of dehydration and heatstroke two or three days later. This is something people should have a ‘sense of humor’ about? This is funny?

It’s a sick, sick, sick mind that finds that funny.


Feb 10th, 2009 10:52 am | By

As you may have noticed, comments are disabled. I think I know why. They were being bombarded by spammers for a few days, which I didn’t realize until yesterday, at which point I had to waste a vast amount of time deleting all the spam. I told Jeremy about the problem, which is to say I whined about it, without actually asking him to fix it in case it’s not convenient at the moment. I think he may have disabled them pending a less drastic fix (or perhaps, more depressingly, in the absence of a less drastic fix). I hope they’ll be restored eventually; meanwhile you can send comments to me if you like, and I will post them, though obviously there may be a delay.

Update: I spoke too hastily, I should have said I would try to post them; it turns out inserting them directly into the database doesn’t work either. Dratted spammers! Well…I’ll see what can be done, and let you know.


Feb 9th, 2009 12:33 pm | By

The Atlantic’s rather boring Wunderkind Ross Douthat tells Jerry Coyne what’s what. He breathes heavily for some time in order to come up with the obvious point that many disciplines make various kinds of claims that are not scientific claims and that that’s all right.

One can reason productively about questions that cannot be resolved through falsification tests. If this weren’t the case, philosophy departments, historians, polemicists, and many social “scientists” would be out of business in a hurry.

Yes indeed; very true; well spotted. But…is it relevant?

Now of course religion is not a thing like political philosophy. But there are similarities between the way that belief operates in both religion and in politics. In making their case, an apologist for Christianity and an apologist for, say, liberal democracy are likely to draw on a similarly hodgepodge-ish set of claims – some philosophical, some historical, some scientific, some anthropological and some personal.

Ah, so that’s where you went wrong. Yes, sure, there are similiarities (though frankly not many), but they’re not the point. The point is that religions really do make literal factual truth claims, often with much heat and emphasis; religions do make claims about facts as well as values, and the factual claims are based on…nothing; they’re sheer invention. That’s the point.

At the very end of the piece, Douthat did an incredibly stupid thing, a thing which is more common than one might expect in this day and age.

[T]he standards of scientific rigor simply aren’t the only standards that there are for holding warranted beliefs. And if you applied Coyne’s “method of disproof” standard to every important question in life, you’d end up paralyzed by indecision – you’d never cast a vote or marry a woman, let alone choose which God to worship, or whether to worship one at all.

Oh look, there I was foolishly assuming he was talking to everyone, people in general, which would include me, only to get to the last sentence and realize he was talking only to men. It appears I was intruding the whole time. How disconcerting.

Dude it’s totally quantum

Feb 8th, 2009 4:46 pm | By

My friend Claire told me about Zentangle. It’s way exciting, and apparently can pretty much change your life from top to bottom altogether. It’s timeless, it’s portable, it’s empowering. Also it has benefits, which the Zentangle people list for you. Among them are ‘journalling,’ self esteem, modify behavior (I don’t know, that’s what it says!), anger management (oh I doubt that), home schooling (in what?), stretching, team building. Yes but what is it, you wonder? Something about drawing patterns. Who knew that was such a miraculous type thing?

This is my favourite part, which is on the Theory page:


With no correct answer, Zentangle offers both a freedom and a challenge. Unlike crossword, jigsaw, or Sudoku puzzles, there is no predetermined right answer. You cannot fail to create a Zentangle. At first this freedom can be a bit unnerving. Soon it becomes a freeing and uplifting experience as you realize you can create never-ending, ever-changing “solutions.”

Did you know that was what ‘quantum’ meant? No, neither did I. But it is so.

Vatican capers

Feb 8th, 2009 1:04 pm | By

Eluana Englaro has been in a coma for 17 years; a high court in Italy ruled last week that doctors could reduce her feeding and allow her to die.


Silvio Berlusconi, after consultation with the Vatican, has issued an emergency decree stating that food and water cannot be suspended for any patient depending upon them, reversing the earlier court ruling…Justifying his campaign to save Englaro’s life, the prime minister added that, physically at least, she was “in the condition to have babies”, a remark described by La Stampa newspaper as “shocking”.

Yes, it is. It is in fact one of the most repellent things I’ve heard in some time. It is (perhaps – I don’t actually know this) physically possible to cause babies to grow inside her and then to remove them after nine months – but so what? What difference does that make to anything? It’s already known that part of her body is still alive, but it’s also known that the part of her that makes her what a person is has been dead for 17 years – so what difference does it make that she could still be used as an incubator? There’s a combination of sexism and morbidity in that thought that makes the blood freeze.

The case has deeply divided Italian society and raised concerns over the influence of the Vatican. Yesterday Pope Benedict indirectly referred to Englaro in a message delivered to mark the World Day of the Sick, stating that society had a duty to defend “the absolute and supreme dignity of every human being” even when “weak and shrouded in the mystery of suffering”.

Oh the blindness of sanctimony. What dignity?! Where is the dignity in being kept around as an animated corpse? Where is the dignity in occupying a bed while having no mind? Where is the dignity in being a mindless brain-dead thoughtless dreamless hopeless lump of flesh? That’s not dignity. And defending that idea is not compassion – it’s a perverted backwards distorted idea of it which actually promotes suffering instead of preventing it.


This is our Thought for the Day, god damn it!

Feb 8th, 2009 11:31 am | By

Giles Fraser demonstrates Christian generosity and clear thinking.

Contributors to Thought for the Day mustn’t attack the beliefs of others. It’s a basic BBC rule. This is not a place where Christians can fire pot shots at Hindus or Muslims have a go at Judaism. Which is why it’s just not appropriate for atheists. Not that they haven’t important things to say. The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism.

Even before we get to the substance, that passage is odd for a grownup writer. All those short sentences. When they could perfectly well be made into longer sentences. Surely Fraser is sophisticated enough to do that.

But leaving style aside, consider the content: the assumption 1) that atheism is fundamentally about theism as opposed to being about all kinds of things in the absence of theism and 2) that atheism has nothing to do but attack theist beliefs. That assumption is wrong on both counts, and especially so in the context of a program like ‘Thought for the Day’ which is about anything and everything, from a theistic point of view. There is no obvious reason why an atheist ‘Thought for the Day’ couldn’t be about anything and everything from an atheist point of view. Ronald Aronson’s book Living Without God is like that, for instance; it doesn’t attack theist beliefs, it discusses various issues and questions about life from a nontheist point of view.

As individuals, atheists may have opinions. But on TftD I speak as a representative of a body of opinion that has a definable literature, a major place in world history and billions of adherents.

The stupidity of that first sentence is so obvious (whether it means he’s allowing us to have opinions or is conceding that we may be capable of having them) that I won’t say any more about it. But as for the rest: we too speak as representatives of a body of opinion that has a definable literature and a major place in world history, and if we don’t have billions of ‘adherents’ that will be partly because atheism isn’t about ‘adherence’ any more than it is about submission or veneration or spirituality or transcendence or any other of the pious sludge that theists like to pour over their commonplaces – and partly because theists won’t allow it. So if that sentence is offered as a reason to continue to exclude atheists from ‘Thought for the Day’ it’s a train wreck.

Then he gets downright snotty – but no more cogent.

I wish atheists would get a life and stop following believers wherever they go, demanding to join in. Perhaps they are incapable of leaving us alone. For atheism is parasitic upon religious belief, united only by what it is against. Just as TftD should not include religious fundamentalists denouncing heathens, so it should not include atheists denouncing believers. This is a place for a very different, gentler sort of reflection – and that’s why so many people continue to love it.

Yes and I wish theists would get a life and stop telling everyone to believe that which there is no good reason to believe. We wouldn’t ‘follow them around’ (which I take to mean disagree with them and/or dispute theistic monopolies of public media outlets) if they weren’t always telling us what to do or how to think or both. And to repeat, atheists are perfectly capable of engaging in gentle reflection, and I would even say (since this is not ‘Thought for the Day’ and I am allowed to be ungentle here) that we do it better than theists do.

In any case, Fraser himself points out that it is ‘a basic BBC rule’ that Contributors to Thought for the Day mustn’t attack the beliefs of others, so the rule would take care of any putative atheist propensity to attack the beliefs of others, thus there is no need to exclude them as a category in advance. So…what’s his point? Nothing, apparently, except to be rude and muddled about atheism. Once again theism shoots its own self in its own foot.

I would have to contact my lawyer

Feb 7th, 2009 12:24 pm | By

And Caroline Petrie is the same kind of thing. She refuses to stop thrusting her religion on patients. The trust says she can pray over them if they ask her to – but that’s not good enough, she has to force it on them unasked, blind to the discomfort that this would cause people who don’t happen to be like her.

“It is me, it is a natural thing for me to do,” she said. “If I am nursing, I would offer prayer to somebody and I am not going to change.”…Yesterday the mother-of-two said she would behave in exactly the same way: “I cannot divide my faith from my nursing care, I have to be the person I want to be.”

Note the Telegraph’s none-too-subtle nudge – she’s a mother of two, therefore she’s a nice warm normal person, who shouldn’t be expected to divide her ‘faith’ from her nursing. Note also the self-centered appeal to Being Me and having to Be The Person I Want To Be – note that it’s about her, not about other people.

The trust said:

“It is acceptable to offer spiritual support as part of care when the patient asks for it. But for nurses, whose principal role is giving nursing care, the initiative lies with the patient and not with the nurse. Nurses like Caroline do not have to set aside their faith, but personal beliefs and practices should be secondary to the needs and beliefs of the patient and the requirements of professional practice.”

But no, that’s not good enough. It’s up to Nurse Petrie to decide what patients have to put up with from her, it’s not up to her employers. Nurse P has god on her side.

“If they said ‘please don’t ask patients to pray’ then I am sorry, I can’t promise that, so where do we go from there? I would have to contact my lawyer.”

Because theism is mandatory and freedom from theism is not allowed, and if you don’t agree, we’ll sue. Got that?

The fool hath said in her heart, oh do shut up

Feb 7th, 2009 12:00 pm | By

And believers keep wondering why non-believers get irritated with assertive religion. It’s because of the assertiveness. It’s because of the assertiveness combined with the lack of plausibility. The two together make an unpleasant combination. Having people always rushing around trying to compel us to believe nonsensical things that there is no reason to believe…gets to be wearing, and annoying, and something bordering on a grievance. If they kept it to themselves, that would be one thing, but since they refuse – we get sick of the sight and sound of them.

Three separate pro-God advert campaigns on the sides of London buses are set to hit city streets. Buses adorned with the slogan “There definitely is a God” are from the Christian Party…The adverts, which are unrelated, come a month after the British Humanist Association placed “no God” slogans on buses across England. Those adverts, which read: “There’s probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life” prompted complaints from the group Christian Voice and from individuals…The Trinitarian Bible Society…has chosen the message from Psalm 53.1, which reads: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”…The Russian Orthodox Church plans ads on 25 buses that read: “There IS a God, BELIEVE.”

Now…the atheist bus campaign was inspired by existing Christian ads on buses that asked “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8) and gave the url of a website that offers this pleasant warning

for anyone who doesn’t “accept the word of Jesus on the cross”: “You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits)” (Matthew 25:41).

In other words the atheist bus campaign was in response to a theist bus campaign that was at once dogmatic and vindictive, in other words it was in response to a combination of assertive falsehoods and vicious threats. The bus campaign was mildness itself, and it included no threats at all, yet believers greet it with outrage and ‘offense’ and all the rest of the panoply of truculent religious self-pity, and then they get busy supplying more assertive dogmatic falsehoods. There definitely is a God, it’s only fools who think there is no god, there IS a god, BELIEVE (implied: or else).

We hear a lot about what is ‘offensive’; well as far as I’m concerned this is offensive. It’s offensive in its aggression, its dogmatism, its willful blindness to the need for good reasons to believe things, its determination to force its unreasonable and punitve beliefs on everyone else. I’m getting more and more and more and more sick of believers forcing themselves on us at every turn; I’m getting more and more sick of this assumption that we have no right to be free of anti-rational truth claims anywhere we go. Next thing you know they’ll be at the door with arrest warrants.

Blair over the corn flakes

Feb 6th, 2009 4:47 pm | By

The Times tells us that at today’s ‘prayer breakfast’ in Washington Tony Blair said how d’you do to Obama and ‘spoke passionately of his own religious faith.’ Well I suppose people who go to something called a ‘prayer breakfast’ have to be prepared for that kind of thing, but really, can you think of anything more emetic first thing in the morning? Lolling about among the Froot Loops and pop tarts listening to Tony Blair speak passionately about his religious ‘faith’? Because I can’t. My idea of the right thing to do first thing in the morning is to drink coffee while scowling quietly and staring into space. I suppose one could get up early and get one’s coffee drinking and quiet scowling out of the way first – but even then, my idea of the right thing to do at that hour is to drink more coffee while reading in peace, it is decidedly not to go somewhere and see a lot of people and listen to a sentimental and credulous ex-prime minister talk nauseating eyewash about his ‘faith.’ Especially not if he does it with passion, godalmighty fetch me the sick bag.

Mr Blair…delivered an impassioned address to an audience of political and religious leaders, telling them of his “first spiritual awakening” when his father almost died when he was still a child…”‘I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God,’ I said. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ my teacher replied ‘God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return.’ That is what inspires: the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken. And in surrendering to God, we become instruments of that love.”

Oh, please. Of course ‘God’s love’ is ‘unconditional’; that’s because ‘God’ is imaginary so it is whatever anyone says it is because there is nothing to stop it being that because there is no real god to check such claims against. Blair’s teacher could just as well have replied ‘God believes in him and God hates him without demanding or needing hate in return.’ Or he could have said ‘God is a lobster and pickle sandwich.’ People say things about ‘God’; that doesn’t mean they’re true, and it’s a pretty ridiculous reason to get inspired – or at least it’s a ridiculous reason to stay inspired, and it’s a triply ridiculous reason to tell a bunch of adult politicians on the far side of the Atlantic about it, 45 years later. I can see how it would be very moving at the time, to a boy of 10, even if he didn’t believe it, because it was a compassionate and kind thing for his teacher to say. But then he should talk about his teacher, not about God. And at his age with his knowledge of the world he really shouldn’t talk crap about the unconditional nature of God’s love and a promise perpetually kept and a covenant never broken, because if God loves us all in that way then God has a funny way of showing it. Just ask some people in eastern Congo, or Zimbabwe, or Burma, or Darfur, or Gaza.

But even though he did not want to confuse “the realms of political and religious authority”, he now thought that faith, not secularism, held the key to inter-communal understanding. “Restoring religious faith to its rightful place as a guide to our world and its future is of the essence,” he said.

Back off, cowboy.

That’s so impertinent. So presumptuous. So backward. ‘Religious faith’ has no rightful place as a guide to our world because faith is the wrong way to think about the world. If you use ‘religious faith’ as a guide to our world then you set yourself up to get the world wrong, and how is that helpful? How is it of the essence? Why is it not rather of the essence to look at the world and see it as it really is, and then try hard to figure out how best to act in such a world?

Blair of course is the wrong fella to ask.

It is dangerous to all concerned, so go right ahead

Feb 6th, 2009 12:09 pm | By

Simon Jenkins seems to like to show off a certain unreflective quality in his opinions.

I find distasteful the process by which an American clinic agreed to insert eight embryos in the womb of a disturbed mother of six. It is dangerous to all concerned. But I would not ban doctors from offering multiple embryo transfer or women from seeking it. The world still remains free for human error, just.

But if something is dangerous for all concerned, and 8 out of 9 of the ‘all concerned’ are future babies then children then adults, why does Jenkins so quickly and breezily say he would not ban anyone from causing multiple births? If mulitiple births cause greatly increased risk of premature birth and various kinds of physical and mental damage, as they do, then why not ban it? And what good is it to say, cheerily, that the world still remains free for human error? Error is one thing, deliberately risking the well-being of multiple babies is another. Accidentally tearing a shirt is not the same thing as intentionally risking congenital damage for one’s offspring.