Nov 9th, 2006 8:06 pm | By

One comment I heard more than once in election analysis yesterday was that corruption was a big factor, and that what are (somewhat sickeningly) called ‘values voters’ here had somewhat shifted their concerns from abortion and gay marriage to corruption. Thank you Jack Abramoff. Well about damn well time, is what I thought. That’s been bugging me for years – why are people who consider themselves concerned about ‘values’ so worked up about such comparatively trivial matters (even if you accept their attributions of wickedness) and unconcerned about, you know, massive bribery? Why is gay marriage such a big whopping deal while retail government is just fine? That’s what I was always asking. So I was very pleased to hear that that worm has turned. Now, will anyone do anything about it? That seems highly unlikely, and the Supreme Court seems highly likely to throw out anything that is done. But – who knows.

And another thing. Pombo is out. Brilliant.


Nov 8th, 2006 10:04 pm | By

Yikes again. No wonder those comments are not light reading. I Googled Marie-Therese O’Loughlin – with results.


At some point during her second year in the Regina Coeli hostel, her mother was admitted to hospital with TB…When Marie Therese’s mother was ill in hospital, Marie Therese’s high chair fell into an “open blazing fire”. She sustained injuries that have left her with scars on her face, hand and leg…Marie Therese went to Goldenbridge, a childcare home, when she was five years old. “There was a lot of name-calling (one of the names they called her was “scarface”), children were frightened of me, and deformity was used against me.” During her time in Goldenbridge, Marie Therese made rosary beads: “nobody ever questioned throughout all my years in Goldenbridge [about] my deformity or whether I should or should not be making rosary beads… no child should be making rosary beads but especially not a child with a deformity… as far as I am concerned it did untold damage to the tissue”. She describes her time in Goldenbridge as very lonely and unhappy, “I don’t remember every getting close to anybody, I just can’t remember… it had a cold atmosphere, I don’t ever remember people saying nice things.”…She had grown up believing that her mother was dead as this was what the nuns in Goldenbridge told her. She returned to Dublin to find her mother’s grave. It was then that she discovered that her mother was alive.

Sad, sad stuff.

Ireland’s Past Revisited

Nov 8th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

Yikes. I’ve just accidentally found a couple of comments on a post from August 2005 – one comment last June, the other yesterday. The post was about the tragic mess of what happened to children of single mothers in Ireland; the comments are from one of those children. Because the post is so old, they’ll naturally go unread; so you should have a look. They’re not light reading.

Twelve long years later…

Nov 8th, 2006 7:35 pm | By

Well…that’s better. That was a good one. It’s been a long, long time since I listened to election returns with any pleasure. I’d forgotten what it even feels like.

Nothing like 1992, of course. That was one amazing evening. I was even surprised at how elated and hopeful I felt, and how unfamiliar that feeling was. (I was much less surprised at the disappointment later on.) This wasn’t like that, but it wasn’t bad. Pennsylvania! Go, Santorum! Ohio! Indiana. And so on. I wish Lieberman had lost. And, of course, I wish Webb had a bigger lead in Virginia. Looking down the road, I wish the Dems had much, much better candidates for president. But all the same, that was a good one.

I heard on the news last night that Republicans are much better at getting out the vote than Democrats are, but I have to say – they called me three times in the last couple of hours before the polls closed to urge me to go vote. That’s not too bad, I thought.

Two really revolting regressive state initiatives were roundly defeated here: one repealing the estate tax, and one requiring government to pay compensation to property owners for all regulations that could decrease the property value. Yesssssss. Not just defeated, but thoroughly defeated.

That was a good one.

We’re not even paying close attention

Nov 7th, 2006 6:12 pm | By

Women – they’re old news, right? That battle was won long ago, right? No..

Bride burnings, honor killings, female infanticide, sex trafficking, mass rape as a weapon of war and many other hideous forms of violence against women are documented in a report released last month by the United Nations. The report, a compilation of many studies from around the world, should have been seen as the latest dispatch from that permanent world war — the war against women all over the planet. Instead, the news media greeted its shocking contents with a collective yawn.

Because…? The news media have other things to do? The subject isn’t important? Women don’t matter? Women deserve what they get? Those places are all far away and we’re fine over here? It’s too boring? We don’t care? We have to wash our hair that day?

The litany of serious abuses against women and girls can seem endless: child marriages, forced marriages, kidnapping and forced prostitution, sex slavery. According to the U.N. report, “A study in India estimated that prenatal sex selection and infanticide have accounted for half a million missing girls per year for the past two decades.”

Well, that will help; eventually there won’t be any women to rape or enslave or mutilate or beat up; problem solved.

Not only are we not doing enough to counter this wholesale destruction of the lives of so many women and girls, we’re not even paying close attention. There are women’s movements in even the smallest countries fighting against the violence and other forms of abuse. But they are underfunded and get very little support from those in a position to help…There was a time when activists cried out for our consciousness to be raised. It’s not too late. We can start by recognizing that the systematic subordination and brutalization of women and girls around the world is, in fact, occurring — and that we need to do something about it.

We’re not even paying close attention. When we do pay close attention, snappy observers like Wonkette rush to tell us we’re ‘fixated.’ What is that about? Why don’t we pay attention, why do people consider the subject beneath their notice? I don’t know, but let’s change that. Let’s do what Bob Herbert suggests and start by recognizing that the systematic subordination and brutalization of women and girls around the world is occurring and that we need to do something about it. Ladies, start your engines.

Thanks anyway

Nov 7th, 2006 4:55 pm | By

Oh good, more calls for mandatory religion and against public atheism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, are introducing a new think-tank report that challenges the secular dream of taking Christ out of Christmas or anything else…In a joint foreword, they welcome the conclusion of the report that faith is not just important for human flourishing, but that society can only flourish if faith is “given space” to contribute and challenge.

Really? Is that true? ‘Flourish’ in what sense? According to whom, by what lights, according to which criteria? And what kind of ‘space’ has to be given, and how much of it, and to whom? Can society ‘flourish’ only if, say, Fred Phelps is given space to contribute and challenge? Or does society do a better job of flourishing if Fred Phelps is thoroughly ignored. Can society ‘flourish’ only if the pope and the archbishop of Westminster and Catholic clerics in general tell everyone in the world not to use condoms? Is that ‘flourishing’?

“Many secularist commentators argue that the growing role of faith in society represents a dangerous development,” the archbishops say. “However, they fail to recognise that public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position.”

Could that be because that’s not true? Could these many secular commentators fail to recognise that public atheism is an ‘intolerant faith position’ because it’s not a ‘faith’ or a ‘faith position’ at all and because it’s not inherently intolerant any more than not playing the saxophone or not watching football or not eating pizza?

The report argues against confining faith to the private sphere, and says that religion will play an increasingly significant role because of the return of civil society, research about the role it plays in happiness and the politics of identity.

The politics of identity is one big reason to hope religion won’t ‘play an increasingly significant role’ in the public sphere; the politics of identity is…tricky and often reactionary stuff.

“We should not react with bewilderment when a public figure does ‘do God’. We should be less scared of public figures citing religious texts in mainstream contexts. We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of the liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

No we shouldn’t. Religious texts, like so many things, are only as good as they are; many of them are revolting; the less revolting ones are less revolting for human secular ethical reasons that don’t need religion to ground them; so why should we be encouraging ‘public figures’ (which looks like a tricksy euphemism for political figures) to cite them? And we shouldn’t be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent and reasonable unless they in fact are coherent and reasonable – we shouldn’t be subject to blanket instructions to treat all other value systems as coherent and reasonable. Some are, some aren’t, and they should be evaluated on their merits, not on generalized instructions to accept and respect everything.

So archbish me no archbishops.

Unearned access to the microphone

Nov 7th, 2006 12:11 am | By

Tony’s been teasing Chuck. Excellent.

Tony Blair attacked the “anti-science brigade” yesterday for threatening Britain’s path to the future. He condemned the “outrageous distortion” of campaigners against pioneering technologies, insisting that they had to be defeated. His remarks at the King’s Centre, Oxford, will be taken as a thinly-veiled swipe at the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles has dismissed GM-food trials as unethical…Scientists would have a role in all the “big questions of our time – climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, water supply, biodiversity, terrorism,” said Mr Blair who confessed that he was a science “refusenik” at school. But he stressed the need to win the “irrational public debate” often surrounding scientific research. Without referring to Prince Charles or other campaigners by name, Mr Blair condemned the “powerful and vocal lobby, with access to all the media channels” that opposed technological breakthrough.

Exactly – with access to all the media channels. That’s the part about P. Charles that is so annoying. (Applies to P. Bush, too, as a matter of fact.) He has, because of an accident of birth, access to media channels that scientists (and architects and other assorted victims of P.C.’s whims) can only dream of. If he had any sense, it would occur to him that therefore he ought to take massive care not to abuse the privilege, instead of which he abuses it up one side and down the other. He makes the world a present of his uninformed opinions on technical subjects, instead of realizing that his influence and ability to mouth off are out of all proportion to his merit, his knowledge, his expertise, his insight, his ability to judge – and he does it on subjects with life and death consequences. It’s really quite revolting (as it is in the case of P. Bush, who also has every reason to be modest and careful).

The Christian conscience

Nov 5th, 2006 7:45 pm | By


In a startling warning to the Government, senior church and political figures have backed a report advocating force to protest against policies that are “unbiblical” and “inimical to the Christian faith”.

The Telegraph cites the ‘menacing language’ of the report and says ‘Lord Mawhinney, the Tory peer, Andy Reed, the Labour MP, and the Rt Rev Peter Forster, the Bishop of Chester, helped to produce’ it.

The report from the Evangelical Alliance says “violent revolution” should be regarded as a viable response if government legislation encroaches further on basic religious rights. The church is urged to come to a consensus that “at some point there is not only the right but the duty to disobey the state”…Proposals to ban proselytising in publicly-funded Christian projects could ultimately lead to Christians being prevented from teaching others about the Bible. This would “be unambiguously recognised by Christians as perpetrating evil that has to be resisted by deliberate acts of defiance”, the report says.

Interesting, the idea that a ban on proselytizing in publicly-funded Christian projects would be unambiguously recognized by Christians as perpetrating evil. Christians unambiguously recognize it as evil for governments to refuse to fund Christian proselytizing? So Christians think governments are absolutely obliged to fund Christian proselytizing? That’s intriguing, isn’t it? It’s almost American in its presumptuous aggressiveness.

Significantly, it comes from the Evangelical Alliance – a mainstream organisation representing 1.2 million Christians…”If, as most Christians accept, they should be politically involved in democratic processes, many believe this may, where necessary, take the form of active resistance to the state. This may encompass disobedience to law, civil disobedience, involving selective, non-violent resistance or, ultimately, violent revolution.” Mike Morris, the executive director of the Evangelical Alliance, said that the report reflected the breadth of submissions they had received. “It is not as if Christians are going to take to the streets, but we need to be able to stand up to things that are challenging the Christian conscience, regardless of the consequences.”

And the things that are challenging ‘the Christian conscience’ are things like…oh, civil rights for gays, and legal abortion, and female equality. So if people who want those things don’t submit to people in the Evangelical Alliance, well, maybe they’ll start to kill us. Jolly good; something to look forward to. And then people wonder why some of us think secularism is a good idea!

We feel special today

Nov 5th, 2006 6:47 pm | By

More pondering on this question of what is good and for whom. Compassion is an important human virtue, but would it be an important virtue, or a virtue at all, if humans were different kinds of entities? If we were conscious but immortal and perfect, if we never suffered, if we had no vulnerability of any kind (and didn’t know of any entities that did), would compassion be a virtue? Would we see it as a good thing? I tend to doubt it.

I had similar doubts and questions about some things Keith Ward said in a discussion with Anthony Grayling in Prospect last year.

The scientific perception of the cosmos is that it is an intelligible, law-like, mathematically complex structure, which produces intelligent moral agents by a process of increasingly integrated complexity from an initial state of extreme simplicity (the big bang).

Um – is it? I don’t think so, I think Ward stacked the deck a little there, sneaking in that ‘intelligent moral agents’ – I don’t think that is a particularly scientific perception. It’s not a terribly precise description, frankly, and it’s certainly not a complete one. Bipedal language-using primates would be a more precise description – which is not to disagree with Ward that our (inadequate) intelligence and (frighteningly inadequate) moral agency are much the most interesting (at least to us) things about us, but it is to say that’s more a moral perception than a scientific one.

Contemporary religious thought sees the purpose of creating such a cosmos as the production of finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another, take partial responsibility for the world and be fulfilled by knowing the supreme mind of the creator…Is this the best of possible worlds? It is the only one that could have us in it, and while we are not the best of possible beings, we are perhaps – each one of us – of great intrinsic worth.

Well, perhaps, but perhaps not. But I have to say that it strikes me as unpersuasive. Why would the purpose of creating the cosmos be the production of finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another? If it were, why would it take a cosmos like this to do that? Wouldn’t something smaller, simpler, and less expensive have done the job? And also if it were, are we the best, or a very good, example of minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another? If it is, why do we do so much entering into hating relationships with one another?

But the ‘why would that be the purpose of the cosmos’ question is the most basic one, because why would that be anyone or anything’s purpose? Suppose a world (a pre-cosmos world, which is tricky) without any finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another, and a creating entity of some kind (of what kind, we don’t know). Why would it want them? Why would it think they ought to exist, and so have the purpose of creating them when it decided to create the cosmos? That’s not clear, to say the least. So isn’t this kind of thing just more of the same? Just more of the starting from human assumptions and wants and needs and likes, and trying to make them cosmic absolutes? We think compassion is good because we suffer so we need it; we think beings like us are good because we are us and we think we are (sort of, more or less) good. It’s all local, it’s all particular, it’s all about us. It’s intuitively appealing, of course, and it may all be true, but there doesn’t really seem to be any compelling reason to think it’s true. The localism is kind of a giveaway of that.

Whither virtue?

Nov 4th, 2006 10:21 pm | By

I’ve been pondering (off and on, mostly off) this question of suffering and compassion – this idea that you can’t have one without the other, or that the one makes the other worthwhile, or acceptable, or the world that includes it more attractive. Swinburne said, as we saw:

Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes – for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives – allows us to suffer pain and disability. Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering…Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character.

As noted before, I think that’s disgusting, but it’s also true that I see what he’s getting at, especially in the last sentence. But that’s the part I want to question, and perhaps object to. The traditional theodicy view, if you like: that god wants us to have free will and wants us to have (meaningful, free) good (or holy) characters, which will include such virtues as patience and compassion and generosity, and that therefore suffering is necessary.

But the trouble with that is that, if there were no suffering, would patience and compassion and generosity be virtues? Would they be part of a holy or good character? We think they would, of course; we think they are intrinsically good, and attractive; but if we didn’t need them, would they be? I’m not sure they would. If there were no suffering, which would include hunger and deprivation of all kinds, then what would patience and compassion and generosity even be? What would they even mean? We wouldn’t need them, we’d have no use for them, they wouldn’t even have a context that would make them meaningful. Which sounds horrible – a world where we couldn’t be good in ways that we recognize, where there would be no scope for active energetic effortful goodness, sounds like an appalling flat affectless world, a world of cardboard dolls. But then – that’s because this is the one we know, so we’re conditioned to need it and expect it. We do have suffering and deprivation, so we do consider patience and compassion and generosity to be virtues. But if we didn’t, we wouldn’t. Which amounts to saying we would be completely different kinds of entities, and can’t even really imagine what goodness and badness would be in such a world. But that’s just it. What Swinburne is talking about is a very human idea of what a good or holy character is, because it’s one that matches up with our needs and lacks and all-too-familiar miseries. But why assume that if there is a god, that is god’s idea of a good character? What if god has a quite different idea of good character, one that we wouldn’t even recognize or understand, and one that doesn’t depend on suffering to make it either meaningful or possible?

In fact most of our virtues, perhaps all of them, depend on our mortality and other limitations. They wouldn’t be virtues if we weren’t fragile and needy. Courage, kindness, dedication, loyalty – we wouldn’t need them, so wouldn’t see them as virtues.

That’s another objection I have to Swinburne’s take – it’s just too local, too limited. I think it’s more interesting to try to figure out if there are any virtues that don’t depend on our condition, that really are inherent goods, even if we don’t need them. I can’t say I’ve been able to think of any. If there aren’t, we’re left with a circle, it seems to me. We have to have suffering so that people will be compassionate, but we wouldn’t need or even like compassion if we didn’t suffer, so why do we have to have suffering so that people will be compassionate if we wouldn’t want compassion if we didn’t suffer? I can’t say I can see why.

Swinburne Recycled

Nov 2nd, 2006 12:15 am | By

We’ve been having this lively discussion of Swinburne on suffering, so I thought I’d temporarily re-post this old comment from last June.

Richard Swinburne is interesting. I’ve said so before. So has Mark Fournier at Tachyphrenia. And now it’s time to say it some more. Because the things Swinburne says here are truly revolting, and yet they are, of course, what you get if you try to reconcile the omnipotent omnibenevolent God with the existence and abundance of suffering in the world – just what Darwin couldn’t manage to reconcile himself to. There’s an irony of sorts in the fact that it’s Swinburne’s view that is considered by many – by surprisingly many – to be the ‘devout’ and ‘holy’ and therefore (why? why therefore?) ‘good’ one, and Darwin’s that is considered the impious and wicked one. The approval of the deliberate causing and continuance of pain and suffering to billions of sentient beings is considered good, and the disapproval and rejection of that is considered wicked. That’s interesting, and it is, if you ask me, a sign of something badly corrupt at the heart of the whole swindle.

Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes — for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives — allows us to suffer pain and disability.

Good? Good explanations? Good in what sense?

Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering.

Well why stop there? It also provides pharmaceutical companies with the opportunity to develop pain medications, and nurses with the opportunity to apologize for the fact that the pain can’t be alleviated, and vicars and priests with the opportunity to pray that it will be alleviated, and God with the opportunity to refuse to alleviate it, and the funeral people with the opportunity to dispose of the corpse after the victim has committed suicide. Lots and lots of opportunities. Good. So – we should all act accordingly? We should all rush outside with our carving knives and soldering irons and distribute injuries generously around the neighborhood so that there will be further abundance of such opportunities? Suffering is a good thing because it creates these good opportunities so there should be lots more of it so we should all bend every nerve to create more of it?

No. We don’t actually think that’s the case. So why does Swinburne get to claim that it is the case, and that that’s a ‘good’ explanation? Why doesn’t everybody for miles around just tell him ‘That’s disgusting’ until he’s so embarrassed he stops saying it?

That’s a real question. I find it baffling.

Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable.

Oh, godalmighty. That is such crap, and such transparent crap – so carefully arranged to get the conclusion he wants (God is okay really even though it seems to be an awful shit) with that last little escape hatch – for other people, illness not so useful. Give me a break. Swinburne looks at the world: sees that some people get ill and suffer, others don’t; needs to make this harmonize with ‘a good God’; explains that suffering is good for some people and not for others; job done.

An analogy will show that what I have written is not an ad hoc hypothesis postulated to save theism from disconfirmation.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Oh, that’s a good one. He’s not only interesting, he’s also a comedian. A sadistic comedian, but a comedian.

Odious beliefs

Nov 1st, 2006 12:53 am | By

Oh yes – this sounds familiar.

Richard Dawkins once took part in a debate with the distinguished theologian and philosopher Richard Swinburne. The Holocaust, Swinburne suggested, had a positive element because it gave Jews an opportunity to be noble and courageous. Swinburne’s ‘grotesque piece of reasoning’, Dawkins writes in his new book, is ‘damningly typical of the theological mind’, and an attitude that reveals not just the redundancy of religion but also its immorality.

We’ve had a look at Swinburne’s grotesque reasoning before, more than once. Stuff like that gives philosophy of religion a bad name, I should think. David Attenborough is a useful counter to that kind of thing.

People sometimes say to me, “Why don’t you admit that the humming bird, the butterfly, the bird of Paradise are proof of the wonderful things produced by Creation?” And I always say, well, when you say that, you’ve also got to think of a little boy sitting on a river bank, like here, in West Africa, that’s got a little worm, a living organism, in his eye and boring through the eyeball and is slowly turning him blind. The Creator God that you believe in, presumably, also made that little worm.

It’s the devil’s chaplain. Darwin to Hooker: ‘What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of Nature!’

Kenan disagrees with Dawkins about religion as abusive to children though. But I in turn disagree with Kenan.

Parents indoctrinate their children with all manner of odious beliefs. That is the nature of parenting. And the nature of growing up is that young people decide for themselves, often rejecting the views of their parents. Dawkins’s argument seems to reveal less about the nature of religion than about his own pessimistic view of the human capacity for change and independent thought.

Well, no, not all parents, not necessarily, and to the extent that they do, that’s not desirable. One could make a similar sort of generalizing reply – parents beat their children, parents abuse their children, parents deny their children education, parents neglect their children. Some do, but when they do the state sometimes intervenes, and that’s a good thing. That’s not to say the state ought to intervene when parents pass on their odious beliefs, it’s just to say that it’s not necessarily desirable or okay or tolerable simply because it happens. Some children reject the views of their parents, but some don’t; the world is full of people who have odious beliefs, and the rest of us have to live with them. That’s not to say we should all zoom around indoctrinating one another and creeping into one another’s basement windows in order to murmur into the ears of one another’s children – it’s just to say the problem is not so easily dismissed.

Kenan’s amusing though.

Dawkins steamrollers over such complexities. The result, ironically, is that he ends up sounding as naive and unworldly as any happy clappy believer. ‘Imagine with John Lennon a world with no religion,’ he writes.

Hmmm I think I’ll start smaller. A world with no SUVs. That will do for a beginning.

Cosmic variance

Nov 1st, 2006 12:52 am | By

What I keep saying! But Sean Carrol says it a lot better in a review of Eagleton’s review of Dawkins.

Okay, very good. God, in this conception, is not some thing out there in the world (or even outside the world), available to be poked and prodded and have his beard tugged upon…The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves…But – inevitably – Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all…And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

This is (she enunciated with quiet intensity) what I keep saying. You can’t do both.

The problematic nature of this transition – from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth – is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.

That’s exactly it. Takes a cosmologist to say it so clearly. It’s not just a minor bump, it’s a deal-breaker. So Eagleton’s blithe one minute having God be ineffable and not like Gore or an octopus or his foot and the next minute having it be all kinds of specific and particular and just so and not otherwise – won’t work, and makes him look silly. Pick one and stick to it, but don’t pretend it can be both.

Let’s start with vocabulary

Nov 1st, 2006 12:52 am | By

A very interesting discussion last week at the Valve. Similar to many discussions we have, but also different, on account of different people conducting it. It’s about Dawkins and what the Valve poster, Bill Benzon, finds ‘bothersome’ about him. He puts it this way:

As far as I can tell, my target is a certain kind of discourse, a kind which Dawkins exemplifies particularly well, but others participate in it as well. And what bothers me about this discourse is not that it is against religious belief, but that it is against the religious as well.

That’s not as clear as it might be, but I think what he’s saying is, people who are sharply critical of religious belief are ‘against’ (attacking, hostile to, unfair to, aggressive toward, offensive to, unkind to) religious believers themselves. In other words it’s yet another voice swelling the already deafening chorus saying ‘shut up about religion because it is offensive to be critical about it because it’s not possible to be critical about it without attacking the people who believe in it.’ It’s saying that it’s not morally respectable to discuss religion in frank terms because there is no way to do that without insulting – without ‘being against’ – religious believers. I dislike that chorus, for several reasons, which I’ve referred to now and then: among them are the fact that that doesn’t apply to other beliefs, and the fact that it simply adds to the already very heavy social pressure to be extra extra extra-special kind about religion.

Most commenters, I’m happy to say, share my dislike, and do an excellent job of arguing. A biggish chunk of the morning flew away while I read the comments; I recommend them. John Horgan – the ‘end of science’ guy – drops in; so does PZ; so do other interesting people. Dan Green (a Valve author who is also a B&W author) notes:

It’s puzzling to me that otherwise smart, non-mystical people like Bill Benzon, Jonathan Derbyshire, and, indeed, Thomas Nagel have come down so hard on Dawkins’s book and its “deperate arrogance.” It suggests that atheism is still far from acceptable even in “intellectual” circles.

Just so; and that’s why this kind of thing is annoying and depressing. There shouldn’t be all this pressure to closet the atheism even in ‘intellectual’ circles. It shouldn’t be a consensus. It’s a consensus even among people who claim not to like consensus. Very odd.

Muriel Gray at the Herald is not silenced.

…a nutcase Britain utterly obsessed with religion. People were threatening Jack Straw with violence; some woman (we think – for all we know it could have been Paul Gascoigne under that niquab) was claiming her right to mumble lessons at children while wearing a bag over her head, and the pope had made the hilariously Monty-Python esque declaration that he was “considering” abolishing limbo for unbaptised babies, no doubt making intelligent Catholics squirm with embarrassment at the screaming silliness of heavenly admission by human whim.

Yes, but also giving me something to write a teasing N&C about. It’s an ill wind, etc.

Let’s start with vocabulary. Let’s stop describing these tax-funded establishments as faith schools. They are superstition schools, for that is what they teach. Alongside hard facts, innocent children are hoodwinked into accepting as real the mythology of virgin births, gods who regard women with bare heads as wicked harlots, that Noah’s Ark was real and that Darwin was wrong. It’s clear that, given the rising tide of superstition sweeping our country, no politician will help end this state-funded child abuse, and so it is time to try and fight back.

But be sure to do it without being, or appearing to be, ‘against the religious.’ Thass forbidden.

Once we got our schools and started churning out multiracial youngsters free from any kind of manipulation, save that of being taught to question everything, we could start our political lobbying. Why should religious concerns be put above ours? Why shouldn’t we have the right to be appeased when we are offended by religion, the way the religious whine like toddlers when someone shakes a stick at their myths? Why shouldn’t we be consulted and treated with respect as a community? Why are the sincerely held beliefs I’ve outlined inferior to those of a Christian, Jew or a Muslim?

Why indeed. I would very much like to know.

Reclaiming your head

Oct 29th, 2006 10:59 pm | By

Here’s a great listen for you – Julia Sweeney on Fresh Air. She’s got a one-woman show called ‘Letting Go of God’ at an off-off-Broadway theater, and she gives a pretty good run-through of the journey from theism to atheism in this interview. In fact it’s pretty hilarious what a lot she manages to get into thirty minutes or so – religion as consolation in despair, Bible study, Abraham and Isaac, perverse excuses for Abraham and Isaac, a wink-wink priest who explains that we sophisticated believers know better but myths are for the people, the anger and sense of treachery at being told that, withdrawal from the church, turn to New Age, in particular Deepak Chopra, being stimulated by his talk of quantum mechanics, which he cites to subvert science but she didn’t realize that at the time, reading about quantum mechanics because of Chopra-stimulus, being excited by science and the scientific way of thinking, seeing everything through that filter, that skeptical filter – that’s about the first five minutes. It’s good stuff.

There’s one bit where she talks about the way she used to have God in her head; she would talk to him, tell him about her problems, discuss things – he was very compassionate about my problems, she says with a cackle. So, Terri Gross asked, wasn’t it lonely when you didn’t have God in your head any more? I answered for Sweeney: maybe, but also freeing. Sweeney said yes but it was also liberating.

That’s exactly it, you see. It’s liberating. I think people underestimate that – people who emphasize the consolation of religion. It is consoling, of course I see that, but it is also – something the absence of which is liberating. It’s surveillance. The constant presence of someone you take to be real inside your head is (can be) consoling and companionable but it’s also relentless. Sweeney talked with some passion about realizing that her thoughts were her own, that what went on inside her head belonged to her and no one else. Well exactly.

And she explained, with some eloquence, how she finds skepticism and an interest in science themselves actually consoling. A great listen.

Misogyny rules ok

Oct 28th, 2006 6:13 pm | By

All this kind of thing is useful in a way. A way one wishes we didn’t need things to be useful, but useful all the same. Useful in the sense of being an extreme and conspicuous form of a pervasive bad thing that one wishes were not there at all, so not useful in any ultimate sense, not inherently desirable; quite the contrary; but useful in educational terms; useful in making clear what we’re up against. Useful, to spell it out, in making it clear how deep misogyny really does go. It goes so deep that a lot of people think women have exactly two choices: lifelong confinement to a room, or deserved rape followed by stoning to death. It goes so deep that a lot of people think that when it comes to a choice between women’s lives and the lives of their fetuses, their lives are worth precisely nothing. (Which is odd in the case of female fetuses. Highly valuable in utero, and worthless once pregnant. But then misogyny is odd.)

Under the new law, abortions will no longer be permitted for rape victims or women who risk death during childbirth. Doctors and women who try to abort for any reason will face four to eight years in jail.

But that’s not as bad as it sounds, because women who risk (or face certain) death during childbirth who try to abort and fail will often not face four to eight years in jail, because they’ll be dead. Convenient. Saves expenses.

Members of the Left-wing Sandinista party which, in the past, has campaigned to legalise abortion, joined conservatives to approve a tightening of the abortion laws to prevent rape victims and women who risk dying in childbirth from terminating pregnancies. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader, was thought to have fallen into line to avoid alienating church leaders ahead of the election.

Dear church. Dear kind compassionate loving church.

Rights groups say the new law would be a death sentence for women who suffer ectopic pregnancies. In an ectopic pregnancy, a fertilised egg develops outside the uterus. “They are forcing women to die. They are not pro-life, they are pro-death,” said Xiomara Luna, a protester.

Yeah, but only pro-death for women, so that’s okay.

The line was busy

Oct 28th, 2006 5:47 pm | By

This is quite funny. It’s from an article on Alan Johnson’s U-turn on quotas for ‘faith’ schools.

The Guardian yesterday attempted unsuccessfully to contact Tahir Allam, an education spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. Earlier he told Radio 4″s Today programme: “This assumption that faith schools are divisive is a false one because there is no evidence to support this.”

Actually I think that’s downright hilarious. The Guardian is so eager to check in with the MCB, and to be seen to check in with the MCB, that it even lets us know about its failed attempts. What – did it think we would be annoyed and ‘offended’ if it wrote a story on government policy on ‘faith’ schools without at least attempting to contact someone at the MCB? Does it think it is in some sense mandatory to check in with the MCB on pretty much all subjects that touch on ‘faith’?

Hey, yesterday I attempted to contact the Pope to ask him about ectopic pregnancies in Nicaragua, but, inexplicably, he ignored all my emails. Strange guy.

Getting the message

Oct 27th, 2006 7:56 pm | By

Sheik Hilali clarifies things.

Australia is a multicultural society. Whoever wants to, let them take their clothes off. Whoever wants to go naked, let them go naked. Whoever wants to get drunk, let them get drunk. Whoever wants to smoke hashish, let them smoke hashish. It’s a free country, it’s none of our business. But it is our right to tell our women (that they dress appropriately).

And, presumably, that they stay home and stay in their room, since that’s what he said the first time. So anyway – who’s the ‘our’ in that sentence? Who is the ‘we’ who get to tell ‘our’ women what to do? Men, of course. It always is. ‘We’ are people and ‘we’ own ‘our’ women and ‘we’ tell them what to do; women are not people, so they are not included in ‘we’ and ‘our’; women are objects that are owned, and men are people who own them and tell them what to do. And it is their right to do that. And it is, presumably, not the right of the women to refuse to obey – because they are a wholly owned subsidiary.

After learning the mufti would not be sacked, John Howard urged the Muslim community to act against Sheik Hilali or risk a backlash from mainstream Australians. “If they do not resolve this matter, it could do lasting damage to the perceptions of that community within the broader Australian community and that would be a tragedy,” the Prime Minister said.

Thus getting thoroughly entangled in the various communities, poor guy. What about the perceptions of that community within the broader Australian community within the broader international community within the broader galactic community within the broader cosmic community within the broader possible worlds community? Lotta communities to keep track of these days. Lotta communities and mainstreams and backlashes. It’s all a bit dizzying sometimes.

Caroline Overington thinks the mufti meant every word of it, and she’s not the only one.

Tanveer Ahmed is a Sydney-based psychiatrist who is writing a book about Islam in Australia. He says the great shame is that “many, many” Muslim men, young and old, regard women – particularly Western women – as “less than ideal”. “The mufti meant exactly what he said, and those views are widely held,” Dr Ahmed said…”It comes from households, where young Muslims get the message that white girls are different, and that women in general are a corrupting influence.” Dr Ahmed said it was “an opinion I’ve heard throughout my life, that women can tempt you into trouble. Even otherwise sophisticated people will say this, and slur white women.”…Dr Ahmed rejects the argument that women wear the veil because “it’s their choice”. “You see children aged five wearing it. Are we seriously arguing there is an element of choice, when you sexualise a child in that way?”

Some are, but we disagree with them.

For Karen Green, the debate over the status of women is both personal and philosophical. She has a sister who converted to Islam. Dr Green, whose Phd in philosophy is from Oxford, said she initially accepted her sister’s view, when she argued that women were liberated by the veil. But over time, Dr Green concluded that women were so sexualised within Islamic society “that it is assumed that any private encounter between a woman and a man will be sexual. Women are thus assumed to have two functions, and these are sex and child-bearing. “By submitting to headscarf, chador or burka, women allow men to divide and conquer. Women are either ‘good’ – which is to say obedient – or they are ‘bad’.”

And that’s the context in which some women ‘choose’ to wear it. Sure, it’s a free choice in a sense, but it’s made within a particular context – that’s not a free choice. That context is there, and it can’t be chosen away.

Entitlement and tyranny

Oct 26th, 2006 7:52 pm | By

More on Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal and consensus, agreement, universalism, and how to think and argue about them. I basically agree with it, but there are places where I think it could use some expansion, or some further stipulation, or both. I think there are some lurking unacknowledged tensions; once they’re pointed out all will go swimmingly. Page 260:

I don’t think I’m asking for all that much in the way of intellectual conformity, consensus, or (gasp) tyranny. The version of universalism I’m proposing does suggest that it might be good and useful to say, “No matter how or what you think, you fellow human, you are entitled to food and shelter and health care and education and political representation.” You can be a Christian Scientist, a secular-humanist professor, or an avant-garde poet/sculptor/dancer, and we can let all those language games flourish. But underlying that commitment to parlogy and dissensus, let’s imagine provisional agreement about human entitlements…

Yes, let’s, but there’s a problem there, an unacknowledged tension. It’s helpful of Michael to have placed the Christian Scientist so close to health care in that passage, because that’s the tension. We can say “No matter what you think, you are entitled to health care,” because that doesn’t amount to forcing health care on the reluctant Christian Scientist. But what about the Christian Scientist’s minor daughter? That’s where the tension bites. We can tell the Christian Scientist “you are entitled to health care” without being coercive, but we can’t tell the Christian Scientist “your daughter is entitled to health care” without being at least potentially coercive. The Christian Scientist, if she is a dedicated Christian Scientist, won’t want her daughter to get health care as commonly understood – she will in fact want precisely to deny her daughter the entitlement to health care that we have in mind when we talk about entitlements to health care. And that’s a problem. That’s the problem.

Because of course it applies to a lot of cases. Not just the Christian Scientist who doesn’t want her daughter to be entitled to health care, but also the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to education, the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to freedom, the parents who don’t want their daughters to have the right of refusal in marriage, and so on. It also applies to men who don’t want their wives to have various entitlements; it applies to men who don’t want their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers to have any entitlements. It applies to people who have power over intimates and dependents, because such people generally do have both de facto and de jure power to deny entitlements to said intimates and dependents, a power which it can be anything from difficult to impossible to interfere with, especially without coercion – without what the people in question would indeed see as tyranny. That’s the problem. That’s the problem and it means that saying “No matter what you think, you are entitled to [various things]” won’t untie this knot between universalism and difference.

It’s a knot that keeps turning up in the newspapers day after day. It turns up in the father who wouldn’t let his daughter have surgery to drain an abscess in her head because ‘traditional healers’ advised him not to. It turns up in a new domestic violence law in India:

Every six hours, a young married woman is burned, beaten to death or driven to commit suicide, officials say. Overall, a crime against women is committed every three minutes in India, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Despite the scale of the problem, there had been no specific legislation to deal with actual abuse or the threat of abuse at home.

Again, this is coercion – depending on which person we’re talking to. If we’re talking to women, we’re saying “No matter what you think, you are entitled not to be subject to violence.” But if we’re talking to men, we’re not saying anything parallel, we’re saying something opposite – we’re saying “No matter what you think, you are not entitled to subject your wife to violence.” And Michael says so very clearly on p. 254 – a student asks if we can’t just say denying education is wrong, and the answer is yes, it’s just that it’s not helpful to say it in a foundationalist way. All this boils down to, I think, is perhaps a small disagreement about how much we’re asking for in the way of intellectual conformity, consensus, or (gasp) tyranny. I don’t think we’re asking for too much, certainly, and I think we’re asking for it on good grounds, but I also think that some of the people we’re asking it of are indeed going to think it’s tyranny.


Oct 26th, 2006 4:50 pm | By

Okay so what’s the big deal. Everybody lighten up a little. So the guy compared women to uncovered meat, so what – it’s his sincere opinion, and that’s his culture, so take a chill pill. Anyway is he wrong? Is he?

If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside…without cover, and the cats come to eat it…whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.

Obviously he’s not wrong. Come on, be honest – you know he’s not. The analogy is watertight. If you take out a piece of chicken, and put it outside stark naked with nothing on top of it, and the cats sashay over and eat it – it is of course the piece of chicken’s fault. Who would say otherwise? No one! Not the most Eurocentric Westoxic secularized modernized colonialist heretic infidel would say otherwise. There lies the piece of chicken on its plate, swaying seductively back and forth, twitching its hips, flicking its hair, pouting its lips, goggling with its eyes, rubbing its thighs together, waving its legs in the air, showing off its cleavage – doing everything it can to seduce those innocent honest godfearing hardworking cats to come over there and nibble and suck and lick and eat. That piece of chicken is a harlot, that piece of chicken is out to ensnare and deceive cats and distract them from their duty to Allah. That piece of chicken should be beaten by its brothers and then stoned to death, not pleasantly gobbled up by cats.

So, of course, it’s exactly the same with women. Identical. Because they’re like meat. Cat smells meat, cat wants to eat it; man smells woman, man wants to fuck it. It’s exactly the same. A woman outside is exactly like a plate of chicken with nothing on top of it: wide open, smellable, unprotected, rape bait. Who can deny it? No one. So if the woman is outside and some men come along and rape her, it’s her fault – because she’s not supposed to be outside any more than the meat is, is she! Meat belongs inside the house, inside the fridge, or inside the stomach of the men who have eaten it; it’s not supposed to be outside, walking up and down and doing whatever it likes. It’s only men and cats that are allowed to be outside doing what they like. Meat and women are supposed to be locked up. Got that? Of course they are. Women are supposed to be in their rooms, at home, in their hijabs, just as Sheik Hilali said. Each woman is allotted a room, in a home, where she is supposed to spend her entire life; if she comes out, she does it to entice rapists, and she deserves everything she gets. Am I right? Okay I know it’s not popular, but you know it’s true.