Book or no book?

Dec 1st, 2007 1:02 am | By

Ed Husain takes Ayaan Hirsi Ali to task.

Just as Wahhabites and Islamists bypass scholarship, context, and history in the name of “returning to the book”, Hirsi Ali and others such as Robert Spencer and Ibn Warraq commit exactly the same error…Let’s take the question of apostasy. At an Evening Standard debate the other night, Rod Liddle had no qualms in declaring Islam, with a barrage of other baseless abuse, “a fascistic ideology”. Why? Because the Qur’an commands the killing of those who abandon it…[T]here is no verse in the Qur’an that calls for the killing of apostates…There is no stronger argument against religious fanatics than to illustrate the scriptural weaknesses of their case.

Well, maybe so, when you’re dealing with religious fanatics, but that still leaves you with the problem of having to argue over what’s in a 1400-year-old book – it still leaves you with the problem of worrying about what ‘scripture’ says instead of about what is best for human beings in the light of current knowledge and accumulated understanding and moral insight.

When ex-Muslims such as Hirsi Ali ignore the nuances, complexities, and plurality inherent within Islam…then she plays into the hands of extremists and allows their discourse to dominate one of the great faiths of our world. Worse, it creates a public space in which attacking all Muslims and Islam becomes acceptable, even fashionable.

Attacking Islam is and should be acceptable, and even fashionable. Attacking all Muslims of course should not, but attacking Islam (and any other religion) should. Attacking people is bad, attacking ideas and beliefs is not.

Timothy Garton Ash is also pondering the issue.

When a Muslim letter-writer in yesterday’s Guardian tells us, with the aid of Qur’anic references, that Islam, properly understood, supports “the vital principle of freedom of speech”, what possible interest have we non-Muslim liberals in arguing against him?

None in arguing against his support of free speech, certainly…but there are risks in basing that support on claims that the Koran is really liberal after all, because there are always going to be plenty of people who will offer up different Koranic references to support the claim that it’s not.

Nick Cohen disputes Garton Ash’s view.

Garton Ash met Hirsi Ali at an electric meeting in London on Wednesday. Unlike Buruma he had the good sense and good grace to think again and he gave her a public apology. Nevertheless, he stuck to the argument that there was no point in liberals treating her as a heroine because her abandonment of Islam and embrace of atheism meant her arguments carried no weight with Muslims. Instead he told us to encourage those Muslims who reject the stoning of women because they dispute its scriptural authority. Religious debates about whether the Prophet Muhammad really approved of stoning may be ‘gobbledegook’, but, he cried, ‘We must support gobbledegook that is compatible with liberal democracy.’

Well there’s a stirring call. There are risks either way, so I’m not attracted to the ‘support bullshit’ version.

I’m not sure how he can be certain that Hirsi Ali has no influence. How does he know what seeds she is planting in the minds of Muslim women? I know one former jihadi who thought again after reading Salman Rushdie…Ayaan Hirsi listened to Garton Ash and had two questions. If liberal secularists, like my heckler, didn’t have pride and confidence in their principles, why should they expect anyone else to take them seriously? And if, like Garton Ash, they turned away from democrats and insisted on treating European Muslims as children who can only be spoken to in the baby language of gobbledegook, what right did they have to be surprised if European Muslims reacted with childish petulance rather than the broad-mindedness of full adult citizens?

Two damn good questions, if you ask me.

Like bread

Dec 1st, 2007 12:54 am | By

Just a little more.

First of all, I mostly agree with Norm here.

One thing we are saying is that the human worth of those prisoners in the camps was being denied. Making them stand naked and vulnerable in the circumstances I have described was a way of announcing that anything – anything at all – could be done to them…To put the same thing differently, the respect or status we normally hold to be due to people simply in virtue of their humanity has here been removed.

But then that is putting it differently, and that’s what I’m saying. I don’t really literally think ‘dignity’ is meaningless – but I do think it means too many things and that some of them are suspect or tricky, and that’s one reason I don’t like it for these purposes, although there isn’t really any substitute word that I do like. I do agree that degradation of this kind is special; I don’t mean to minimize that; but I don’t think humans have only two states: dignity or degradation. I think something is removed from people when they are degraded, but I don’t think dignity is exactly what that something is. Respect is closer. It perhaps doesn’t matter much…I think one reason I keep worrying it is that I’m curious about exactly what it is that’s removed. I keep coming back to the thought that it’s a feeling of normality – not dignity, not really even respect or status or worth (although those are all relevant), but just normality, just feeling ordinary, like everyone else, all right. And the other thing I keep coming back to when I think that is that that’s enough, and that it sort of matters that it’s enough. We don’t have to aspire to anything elevated, we just want to be all right, we don’t want to be treated like garbage. I prefer the minimalism of that. Why…?

Because it seems more reasonable, more like something we all get to expect; it seems…humble, human, everyday, commonplace, like bread, or air, or sleep, or peace. Not something inflated and puffed up, not something grand, not on stilts. Maybe that’s all it is: I just don’t want the stilts. We all, all, all have every right to expect to be left in peace and allowed to walk around without being bullied or stripped naked or bought and sold, and to me dignity doesn’t feel like the right word to describe that ordinary state of being. We love our lives and our ordinary state of being even if they have no great truck with dignity.


Dec 1st, 2007 12:47 am | By

And just a little more. I’m like a dog with a bone, you know. There’s a rather Kassian argument in comments on an older post (combined with some vituperation to make it go down more smoothly). It’s interesting.

One doesn’t need to be a Christian, or even a theist, to be extremely alarmed at some of the directions that secular ethical thinking seems naturally inclined to go in – especially in its common utilitarian and more generally consequentialist forms…The concept of human dignity is central to any attempt to articulate the strong feeling shared by many (including many atheists) that something has gone badly wrong with this sort of ethical thinking….It’s difficult to say what’s wrong with necrophilia (if anything is wrong with it), or with leaving one’s mother’s corpse out for the garbage collector, without appealing to this concept or something very like it.

Maybe so – but then I don’t think anything is wrong with those two things, given certain stipulations (no one else harmed, etc). These two items would fit perfectly well in ‘Taboo,’ which used to be on B&W as well as TPM (and for which I wrote an essay) but got taken down when the hacker struck, and which is now in the briskly-selling Do You Think What You Think You Think? which I see in good bookstores everywhere. I think necrophilia is obviously disgusting, but that doesn’t make it wrong, and I don’t think it is necessarily wrong. Mother’s corpse is interesting, because if you think about it, corpses are basically taken away by garbage collectors, just in a cleaner and more polite manner. Don’t get me wrong, I find the idea repellent and painful, but again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. (Leaving aside the law, and sanitation concerns.) Suppose a situation of total isolation, suppose the mother doesn’t know and neither does anyone else, suppose the offspring is untroubled by this arrangement and never regrets is; why would it be wrong? Wouldn’t it be Yuk rather than wrong? Taboo? It’s okay to heed taboos like that (some of them – others are about, say, untouchables, or people of Other Races), because the feelings matter, but if they’re not there and no one else is harmed…?

In the image of

Dec 1st, 2007 12:36 am | By

Dignity. We got an interesting discussion in the comments, and I suddenly realized (belatedly) that I could think of contexts in which the word ‘dignity’ wouldn’t repel me: contexts and situations in which people have managed to hang onto their dignity despite the assaults of other people or of nature. I probably still wouldn’t use it myself, but I would see the point of it.

But where this started was with Leon Kass; that’s why potentilla asked the question that prompted my series of them. I left Kass out of the dignity post, because I wanted to talk about the idea more generally and also (partly) more loosely. I wanted to free associate, partly. But now let’s look at Kass some more.

He uses the word no fewer than eight times in that speech, and it’s fundamental to his whole strawman indictment of ‘scientism’. He uses it to give force and weight and a kind of prestige to his alarmist fantasies about ‘soul-less’ scientism.

Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity…All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us—must understand that their own humanity is on the line…Instead, bioprophets of scientism…issue bold challenges to traditional understandings of human nature and human dignity…In order to justify ongoing research, these “humanists” are willing to shed not only traditional religious views but any view of human distinctiveness and special dignity, their own included…Here, in consequence, would be the most pernicious result of the new biology…the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike, and its replacement with a view of man, no less than of nature, as mere raw material for manipulation and homogenization.

The whole long speech is a textbook example of the attempted argument ‘this would be bad therefore it is false,’ and it also relies repeatedly and consistently on absurd false dilemmas. Every few paragraphs we’re given a choice between two alternatives as if two exhausted the possibilities when in fact there are myriad other possibilities. The whole ‘freedom and dignity or scientistic reductionism’ binary is the overarching false dilemma, of course, and the one between ‘ the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike’ and ‘mere raw material’ is one of the many supporting false dilemmas. And that string of adjectives hints at why I basically dislike the word. I don’t and don’t want to think of humans as noble, dignified, or godlike. Valuable (rather than precious), yes, but the other items, no. And that doesn’t force me to choose ‘mere raw material’ instead – why the hell would it? Leon Kass just says it would, he never explains why it would.

And that makes me suspicious of the word and its uses. I suspect that it’s the kind of word that people like Kass reach for when they want to snow credulous audiences with grand verbiage. People like Kass meaning people making fundamentally bad, sloppy, emotive arguments; people relying on rhetoric and tingly words to make their case for them because nothing else will do it.

Norm doesn’t agree.

One oddity of Ophelia’s argument, as it strikes me, is that it holds to the meaninglessness of ‘human dignity’ while at the same time insisting that humans shouldn’t be degraded or humiliated. But ‘degrade’ carries on its face that there is a standard in light of which some person is being reduced…But if we believe – as Ophelia does believe – that there are general standards valid for the treatment of all human beings and just because of their humanity, then it seems logical to say that there are general forms of human degradation and humiliation and that human dignity is the thing they assault.

I don’t think so. I think the standard in light of which some person is being reduced is that of the ordinary average ‘normal’ state of affairs – I don’t even think it necessarily has a name. It’s just how things ought to be, how we feel all right; degradation and humiliation are intrusions on that. I don’t think when we are humiliated or degraded we normally think of our ‘dignity’. I still think dignity is in a way asking too much – I think we can claim a right not to be degraded but I’m not sure we can claim a right to dignity. But it’s also true that I don’t object to that usage, whereas I do object to Kass’s. I think Kass’s really is meaningless, because I think humans don’t have dignity in the sense that he means it – dignity such that it’s a violation of it for a cognitive scientist to research emotions or morality. His idea of it depends, as he says all too frankly in the closing pages, on our being ‘in the image of God.’ I’m leery of the word because it seems to be all tangled up with nonsense on stilts of that kind.

Tell them we’re overflowing with respect

Nov 29th, 2007 12:15 pm | By

Joan Smith nails the problem.

In the past, Catholics and Protestants took turns to slaughter each other as Sunni and Shia are doing now, but Christianity has to a large extent been secularised…At the heart of this process is an alteration in the status of religious texts…The idea that a single book written centuries ago has unique authority – in effect, a veto over all other ideas – makes no sense in societies where intellectual curiosity is valued and encouraged. Yesterday Inayat Bunglawala, assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, criticised the arrest of Ms Gibbons in Sudan and described it as a “quite horrible misunderstanding”. But during a public debate in London two weeks ago, he refused my invitation to condemn unequivocally the practice of stoning women to death for adultery. It had happened during the lifetime of the Prophet, he said, “so you are asking me to condemn my Prophet”.

If that’s what it takes, certainly. If ‘your Prophet’ commands or condones stoning women to death for adultery (or anything else for that matter) then yes.

Bunglawala is not the guy to turn to for reasonable views.

Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, also said it appeared to have been a “quite horrible misunderstanding” and Ms Gibbons should never have been arrested. There was no apparent intention to offend Islamic sensibilities or defame the honour and name of the Prophet Muhammad, he said.

What if there had been? If there had been, should she then have been arrested? Should ‘defaming the honour and name of the Prophet Muhammad’ or ‘offending Islamic sensibilities’ be a criminal offense under the law? It’s good that Bunglawala said Gibbons shouldn’t have been arrested, but his reason for saying so is not so good, and the fact that the BBC is still automatically phoning the MCB for the obligatory comment is also not good. The BBC still needs to expand its Rolodex.

Notice that the government still feels obliged (understandably under the circumstances) to keep saying with nervous urgency that it respects respects respects.

After the meeting with Ambassador Omer Siddig, Mr Miliband said he emphasised Britain’s respect of Islam and the “close relations” between the two countries. “The Sudanese Ambassador undertook to ensure our concerns were relayed to Khartoum at the highest level. He also said he would reflect back to Khartoum the real respect for the Islamic religion in this country.”

Uh huh. That’s not respect, it’s fear.


Nov 27th, 2007 3:22 pm | By

Okay, you tell me – what does the phrase ‘human dignity’ mean? I don’t mean look it up, I can do that and that’s not what I’m asking anyway; I mean what does it mean as far as you know? What, if anything, does it suggest to you if you hear it or read it? A commenter pretended to find it scary as well as funny that potentilla and I both consider it meaningless, so I’m curious.

Why do I consider it meaningless? I suppose largely because it doesn’t seem to refer to anything real. What human dignity? I don’t consider humans to have much dignity. We’re too mortal, too fleshy, too fragile, too clumsy, too weak, too dim to have dignity. It’s not a word it would occur to me to use about human beings; it’s not even an abstract noun it would occur to me to attribute to humans. What would be? I would say human inventiveness, human creativity, human curiosity. Human adaptability, intelligence, flexibility, sense of beauty; also the fragility-related ones I indicated above. Cruelty, violence. But dignity? No. I just don’t see us that way. I see us as very complicated animals busily doing a million things; as fascinating, but not dignified.

But why is this either risible or scary? Especially scary? (The risible could be just because it’s so clueless of me – every fule kno what ‘human dignity’ means.) It’s not the case that because I don’t think human dignity means anything that therefore I’m in favour of humans being degraded or shamed or humiliated; I’m not. I think much of the content of B&W makes that pretty unmistakable. So why is it scary? Is the idea that one has to find ‘human dignity’ a meaningful phrase in order to treat humans decently? If so, why would that be? What I think instead is that humans hate being shamed and humiliated, that in fact it is acutely painful for us, and that that is why it should not be done. Why isn’t that adequate?

What’s wrong with the phrase? It’s grandiose, that’s what. It’s a bit of inflated sentimental rhetoric, and I have a real gut-level dislike of sentimental rhetoric. I like precision, and accuracy, and non-inflation. I don’t like parade-ground language or political campaign language or ‘faith community’ language. I’ve thought about it and I don’t think I ever even use the word ‘dignity.’ I dislike it. If someone told me ‘You’ll like Bill, he has a lot of dignity,’ I would know instantly that I would loathe Bill. What’s dignity? It’s an inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance, surely; it’s next door to pomposity. ‘She spoke with a certain quiet dignity.’ No thank you! Who does she think she is, talking like that? In fact I also hate fiction that has people say things ‘quietly’ – I always detest characters who say things ‘quietly.’ It’s meant to indicate that they’re very impressive and superior and Right About Everything, and they make me stop reading whatever it is forthwith. No really – if you’re pissed off, then squawk vulgarly like the rest of us, don’t go saying things quietly. Don’t try to intimidate us with your poxy quiet dignity.

Okay wait – I’ve thought of one exception, and I must say I’m a tad flummoxed, but there it is. The Queen can have her dignity. I much prefer that to the alternative she’s offered. I’m no royalist, but as long as she’s there, she can have her dignity. She did do her best to hang onto it when she had to give that awful speech to appease the baying tabloids after Diana’s undignified car crash, and that was all right. But anyone else? Her husband? Pff. That’s not dignity, that’s a combination of militarism and bastardism. The pope? The archbishops? The president? You’re laughing now, right? You could say Mandela maybe, but I wouldn’t call it that – he’s not pompous enough. Not nearly. That’s why the Queen gets the exemption, I guess: her job forces her to have to parade up and down and be looked at a lot, and given that, she does have to look like something, and at her age by gum she has the right to decide it will be dignified. I noticed it when she was on tv last week – she looked quite grim, quite stiff, quite plodding – and that’s all right. She doesn’t have to look as human as Mandela does.

All right but really now – what is ‘human dignity’? A way of saying that humans should not be degraded? But it’s not. We don’t say humans are immortal as a way of saying they shouldn’t be murdered. Humans just shouldn’t be degraded, that’s all, because they don’t like it, any more than they like being hit or run over or made to eat rotting lobster. They don’t have to be dignified first.


Nov 26th, 2007 4:24 pm | By

Jesus and Mo discuss the ‘personally offensive’ issue. I would love to think Bill Buckingham will see that – but perhaps if he did he wouldn’t realize that it was about people like him.

Richard Chappell also discusses it.

It’s so depressing how arbitrary subjective responses are presented in public discourse as though they were legitimate reasons…The underlying problem, I suspect, is that our public culture has become so infected with subjectivist assumptions that people don’t realize that there’s a difference between desires and reasons. Sentiments are taken as given; no-one ever stops to question whether their reactive attitudes are warranted. Any kind of negative emotion is not just evidence, but constitutive, of suffering injustice. You’re offended, therefore they’re in the wrong.

And all you have to do is say the magic words ‘I’m personally offended by _____’ and everyone is supposed to start clawing the air with eagerness to make you feel better and rescind whatever it was that made you personally offended. That’s clearly what Bill Buckingham was expecting from the world at large. ‘I’m personally offended by evolution’ – and? And someone very important should immediately issue a statement saying evolution has been withdrawn and we’re all very sorry and it will never happen again? Or what? What do people really think should be done about a great mountain of evidence dispersed among thousands of institutions and books and minds all over the world, that they find personally offensive? That it should all be, like, vaporized with one blow of the MagicVaporizerRing? Who knows.

Spinoza’s Lens has appeared in public.

Look out! It’s scientism!

Nov 25th, 2007 12:47 pm | By

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative ‘think tank’ in the US, declares its mission on each page:

The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

Oh yeah? Then what’s the latest piece of obscurantist theistic sciencephobic mystification from Leon Kass doing there? The ideas are so not new that they’re more like a putrefying corpse, they’re about closing down greater economic choice rather than fostering it, and they’re about irresponsible irrational scaremongering rather than about individual responsibility. Fucking typical of most US conservatives of the respectable stripe: they talk resounding bullshit but they line up obediently behind ‘ideas’ that ought to be anathema to them; in short, they’re just party hacks who make right-wing groupthink everything and careful rational thought nothing, while pretending to do something different. A pox on them.

And on the twice-curdled dreck that keeps spilling out of Leon Kass.

But beneath the weighty ethical concerns raised by these new biotechnologies—a subject for a different lecture—lies a deeper philosophical challenge: one that threatens how we think about who and what we are. Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it “soul-less scientism”—which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. The threat to our humanity today comes not from the transmigration of souls in the next life, but from the denial of soul in this one, not from turning men into buffaloes, but from denying that there is any real difference between them.

Impressive, isn’t it? In its ineffable familiarity, its staleness, its pathetic adherence to a formula, its witlessness? I especially admire that ‘let me call it “soul-less scientism”‘ as if all this bedwetting were original with him. Yeah sure Leon, let you and fourteen thousand other people call it that; it still won’t add up to anything useful. (Do you fret about ‘soul-less engineering much? Soul-less shoe repair? Plumbing? Dry cleaning?)

All we have here is yet another incarnation of the absurd strawman claim about a quasi-religious faith that believes biology can give a complete account of everything everything everything, including – would you believe it? – love! creativity! moral judgment! God! That’s a tremendously profound, illuminating, shrewd, cogent, perceptive observation except for the one tiny problem that it’s not true. There is no quasi-religious faith that biology can give a complete account of everything everything everything, that’s a ridiculous claim and it has no function except to rile up a credulous audience. Leon Kass should be embarrassed at himself.

The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West. All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us—must understand that their own humanity is on the line.

That’s a nice touch, isn’t it? Even the atheists among us – those unclean kafirs, those aliens, those Others, those bizarre beyond the pale monsters, whom we normally exclude but this time include, and who are inexplicably and frighteningly ‘among us.’ There’s a wealth of implication in that one nasty phrase, all of it unpleasant. And I’d much rather trust ‘my own humanity’ to an honest biologist than to a creeping hyperbolist like Kass.

Science seeks to know only how things work, not what things are and why. Science gives the histories of things, but not their directions, aspirations, or purposes…Science can often predict what will happen if certain perturbations occur, but it eschews explanations in terms of causes, especially of ultimate causes.

And religion doesn’t, and that’s because science understands the limitations of inquiry and religion doesn’t. The explanations that religion gives of ‘ultimate causes’ are worth precisely nothing, and the fact that it offers such explanations while science doesn’t is not a point in religion’s favor but on the contrary a demerit.

It’s a long piece. There’s a lot more of the same kind of thing – arguing from desired states to the truth of what is required for them to be true (Kass wants to feel dignified, therefore the selfish gene is all wrong; etc) and flinging epithets around the way the elephant’s child flung melon rinds. It’s got no connection with what the Manhattan Institute purports to be about, it’s wishful thinking mixed liberally with vulgar abuse, it’s tripe.

Offended in Dundee

Nov 24th, 2007 4:41 pm | By

How to get into the newspapers: say something fatuous and self-regarding and preeningly righteous.

Second-year dental student Emily Mackie said the university’s decision to call its inaugural Dundee Christmas Lecture “Why Evolution is Right … and Creationism is Wrong” is badly timed and insensitive to Christians.

And this makes it into a newspaper because…nothing ever happens in Dundee? Too chilly up there is it?

But since it did make it into a newspaper, I can’t resist looking at it.

The lecture is being given by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, who claims that all biologists support the theory of evolution and that “intelligent design”—the belief that life was created as part of a divine plan—is wrong.

He ‘claims’ that, does he? Goes right out on a limb and claims that? Imagine. (Steve Jones wrote a little something for B&W once you know – he contributed to the group article on the decision in the Kitzmiller case. ‘Up the Joneses,’ he said, amusingly, celebrating Judge John Jones, Bush appointee and sensible judge.)

Miss Mackie, who is also a member of Dundee University’s Christian Union—reckons the lecture will create divisions rather than bring the community together. She said, “I appreciate that the role of a university is to encourage academic debate on a wide range of sometimes controversial issues. However, as a Christian I am offended that the lecture purporting to coincide with such an important Christian festival has so clearly been chosen to antagonise Christians.

‘As a Christian I am offended’ – there’s one of the worst, most repellent formulas in the discourse of complaint we have today – but boy is it popular. Variations of it were all over Nova’s ‘Judgment Day’: one stalwart citizen of Dover after another talking about being offended. I think that was the first thing the awful Bill Buckingham said – ‘I am personally offended by evolution because the Bible etc etc etc’ – the ‘personally’ was a nice annoying touch. So you’re ‘personally’ offended by reality, so what! The world doesn’t revolve around you, so suck it up.

And by the way the ‘such an important Christian festival’ is codswallop, as Mackie ought to know. It’s an important shopping and eating and air travel festival, it’s not genuinely Christian at all; it has nothing real to do with Christianity (surely she’s heard about the ancient solstice festival?), so she has even less business being offended.

“I also feel that the lecture title allows no scope for a balanced debate on the subject. I call on the university to take a moral stand and choose a new title which better reflects the celebration of the birth of Christ.”

What would that be? “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus: Why Evolution is Right … and Creationism is Wrong”?

Dundee University said its decision to book Professor Jones for its Christmas lecture was “opportunistic” as he is a highly sought after speaker who could only be available at this time…“However, I would deny that we have put opportunism over sensitivity as I think this will provide an opportunity for all sides of the argument to be aired.”

That’s another one – it’s like the mirror-image of ‘offended.’ It’s what you’re supposed to run to the closet and fetch when someone is offended – sensitivity. They’re a co-dependent couple, those two words. Offended and sensitivity; they’re like egg and chips, apple and pears, Ben and Jerry’s. But all the same, there is something very stomach-turning about the idea that a university is supposed to deploy ‘sensitivity’ about the organ of offendedness in godbothering students when planning its lectures on academic subjects.

Spotting violence

Nov 23rd, 2007 12:30 pm | By

Timothy Garton Ash gets it wrong, I think.

He gets it wrong in one rather specific way.

In the form “Islamofascism”, and with the added spice of references to “totalitarianism”, the label elides two things that need to be kept separate. One is the mentality of death-seeking and death-delivering fanatics. The other is a totalitarian political system…Now, if nuclear-armed Pakistan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia fall the wrong way, we could be there sooner than we think – but at the moment the only serious contender for the title of Islamic-fascist state is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Has he been paying enough attention to Saudi Arabia? It’s not a whole lot more benign than Iran. In some ways it has a much firmer grip. I would say it’s a contender.

But the other way is broader.

Most Islamic terrorists are, in some sense, Islamists, but most Islamists are not terrorists. They are reactionaries. They propose a profoundly conservative religious vision of society which, in its attitudes to free speech, apostasy, homosexuality and women, is generally anathema to secular liberal convictions (including, emphatically, my own). But for the most part they do so through peaceful political means, not through violence.

It’s very hard not to make a cheap point about the sentimental views of people who are so sheltered and safe themselves that they can’t even see how things are for other people. It is ludicrous to say that religious reactionaries ‘propose’ their profoundly conservative religious vision of society through peaceful political means – of course they don’t! They don’t propose it, they impose it, wherever they have the power to do that, which is of course at home. They don’t just propose that their daughters shouldn’t see the wrong boys or that their sons had better not be fags or that ‘apostasy’ is forbidden to everyone; they impose all those mandates, and if they are not submitted to, the response is indeed sometimes violence. Surely it’s not a newsflash that religious reactionaries do coerce people when they can and do sometimes resort to violence when they’re resisted? In fact violence of that kind is quite explicitly celebrated in some Christianist writing – that’s an important part of what is affectionately called ‘traditional values.’ One of those traditional values is the importance of corporal punishment of children.

Garton Ash is dreaming if he thinks that peaceful political means are compatible with reactionary religion. Reactionary religion is first and foremost about coercion; that is the essential point of it; that is what makes it reactionary. It is not liberal, it is not about choice, it is not about reasoned debate and free speech and leaving each other alone as long as we do no harm; it is about the opposite of all of those. That’s why it’s hell; that’s why we hate and fear it; that’s why theocracy is anathema. It’s a mistake to minimize it.

Anarchy in the court

Nov 22nd, 2007 4:40 pm | By

And another other thing. Did you know there is no rule of law in Saudi Arabia? That judges get to just make it up as they go along? I sure as hell didn’t. But Human Rights Watch says it is so.

During the recent hearings, Judge al-Muhanna of the Qatif court also banned the woman’s lawyer, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, from the courtroom and from any future representations of her, without apparent reason…On October 3, King Abdullah announced a judicial reform, promising new specialized courts and training for judges and lawyers. There is currently no rule of law in Saudi Arabia, which does not have a written penal code. Judges do not follow procedural rules and issue arbitrary sentences that vary widely. Often, judges do not provide written verdicts, even in death penalty cases. Judges sometimes deny individuals their right to legal representation.

Well what fun, yeah? Courts run on the principle of ‘whatever the judge happens to feel like.’ Judicial reform sounds slightly overdue.


Nov 22nd, 2007 4:26 pm | By

And another thing, as long as we’re talking about things I don’t like (we are talking about that aren’t we?) – I don’t like this business of the BBC always calling Taslima Nasreen ‘controversial.’ It’s a sly way of disavowing her, of hinting that she’s not quite the thing. It’s like calling evolution ‘controversial’ – it is, of course, but it has no business being; it’s ‘controversial’ only with people who think the universe should be and therefore must be the way they want it to be as opposed to the way it is. Similarly with Nasreen: she’s ‘controversial’ only with people who like to pick fights, especially with women, especially with women who think women should have one or two rights. The BBC refers to Salman Rushdie the same way, presumably for the same toadying reasons; they shouldn’t.

Stop that woman before she gets away!

Nov 22nd, 2007 11:44 am | By

Another installment of ‘When you have nothing better to do, persecute a woman.’

In an interview in December, the rape victim described to Human Rights Watch her treatment in court:

“At the first session, [the judges] said to me, ‘what kind of relationship did you have with this individual? Why did you leave the house? Do you know these men?’ They asked me to describe the situation. They used to yell at me. They were insulting. The judge refused to allow my husband in the room with me. One judge told me I was a liar because I didn’t remember the dates well. They kept saying, ‘Why did you leave the house? Why didn’t you tell your husband [where you were going]?’”

Yeah why did you leave the house, you whore? Women aren’t allowed to leave the house! You’re a woman, you slag, so why did you leave the house? What the hell do you think you were doing outside the house? Rape is too good for you.

And as for that shameless woman Taslima Nasreen

Controversial Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen has been flown out of the Indian city of Calcutta after violent protests by Muslims…Rioters blocked roads and set cars alight. At least 43 people were hurt. More than 100 arrests were made. Critics say she called for the Koran to be changed to give women greater rights, something she denies.

Violent riots, arson, at least 43 people hurt, because ‘critics say’ she called for the Koran to be changed to give women greater rights. Well that’s a good reason to riot and injure people, and tell a woman what to do and where to live. The Koran must never ever be changed, and not only that but no one must ever even suggest it should be changed, nor must there be any allegations that someone has suggested it should be changed, and if there are any such, then it’s time to whip out the riot costume and get busy. And that’s before we even think about the idea of giving women greater rights, which is too disgusting and contemptible to be dignified with anything more measured than a nice vulgar street riot.

Wednesday’s trouble in Calcutta began after the predominantly Muslim All-India Minority Forum called for blockades on major roads in the city. The group said Ms Nasreen had “seriously hurt Muslim sentiments”. Many Muslims say her writing ridicules Islam.

Well there you go. She had ‘seriously hurt Muslim sentiments’ and therefore the right thing to do is to blockade the major roads. Obviously. Whenever my sentiments are seriously hurt I go out (without asking any judges) and set fire to a few schools and supermarkets. Doesn’t everyone?

The insulted and injured

Nov 20th, 2007 11:38 am | By

The letters in response to PBS’s ‘Judgment Day’ that the ombudsman publishes make depressing reading. They’re so infatuated, so wrong, and above all so narcissistic. It’s all about them. They’re offended, they’re insulted, they’re in a snit. Because of course a scientific theory is about them. It’s not about what it’s about, it’s about them. Religion my ass; vanity is more like it. I’m not related to monkeys, I’m special, and you better say so right now or I’ll stop watching PBS.

I realize that PBS has always treated the neo-Darwinian theory of Evolution as sacred and beyond question but last night’s dose of Darwin-worship was so strong and so contrary to any genuine search for truth that I can no longer consider support of public television a morally defensible practice. For years, I have defended public television among my fellow Christians for its many fine offerings for family viewing, but PBS has become so strident and so relentless in its disrespect for fair debate and dialogue on the subject of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, that I can no longer do so.

Because there are always exactly Two Sides to any subject; not three, not one, not eleven, but Two; and Both Must Be Heard. If, at the end of any given television program, one Side seems to have more evidence to back it up than the other seems to have, then The Fix Was In. It was a cheat, and it’s time to get out the old purple-with-rage stationery and fire off a note to those anti-family demons at wherever it is this time.

I have been a faithful watcher of PBS and the NOVA programs over the many years and have always stood up for those who would say that PBS was too liberal in its programming. Your program insulted me and my family with your very jaundiced view and recreation of facts that were slanted heavily towards Darwinism. You did have one science teacher who was pictured in a Roman Catholic Church, as a presumed Christian who said that IF GOD does exist — No more needs be said. Dan Fahey, Greenwich, CT

The program insulted him and his family. That was the point, of course – the Nova producers sat down and said ‘How can we go about insulting Dan Fahey of Greenwich Connecticut, and while we’re at it, insult his family too? Let’s be thorough here – if we’re going to go to all the trouble of insulting Dan Fahey, let’s insult his family. Otherwise our Victory would be incomplete.

The recent Nova special on Intelligent Design vs. Evolution was one of the most blatantly biased pieces of so-called “journalism” or scientific documentary. It was extremely insulting to the idea of Design. The whole tone of it was very sarcastic against Intelligent Design and completely victimized evolutionary thought by the evil villains of religious ignoramuses. It gave precious little air time to ID scientists who have plenty of legitimate research, but gave plenty of time towards evolutionary research…I propose that evolutionary thought is a religion in and of itself, and this program was its equivalent of a televangelistic sermon…Nova has lost all reasonable credibility through this piece. I have long known that they espouse Darwinian doctrine, however, this piece was biased, inaccurate, insulting, sarcastic and ultimately, due to its primarily cultural and political content, was outside of the scope of Nova’s “scientific” programming.

And did I mention that it was insulting?

I find the Nova episode that aired on Nov. 13 titled Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial was presented in a clearly biased manner. I was offended by this episode and I am a substitute for the public school system.

I was offended, I was insulted, I’m pissed off, I’m in a foaming frothing fury, and what do you atheist elitist snobs at PBS plan to do about it? Eh? Eh? Are you going to pay for my therapy? Send me an economy-size box of Prozac? Relocate me to Mecca? What? Awaiting your reply.

Don’t get a playwright to fix your wiring

Nov 19th, 2007 6:14 pm | By

Never take medical advice from a novelist.

There have been a number of articles in the press recently criticising homeopathic remedies as worthless at best, and potentially lethal at worst, if they are being taken instead of tried-and-tested conventional medicines for conditions such as malaria or HIV…The organisation Sense About Science and journalists such as Ben Goldacre and Nick Cohen are targeting a symposium in London in December that will discuss HIV and Aids and the homeopathic response to such diseases.

Are they? Well done Ben and Nick. (Both strong fans of B&W, I can’t resist pointing out. Winterson probably not so much.)

I admit it is hard to talk about what it is that homeopathy actually does, or why it works. For my part, I want to know more, not less, but I can’t dismiss the thing in the way that Sense About Science, many doctors, and some journalists are asking me to…This homeophobia is, I think, a genuine terror of what homeopathy is suggesting; which is that we think differently about the relationship between the cure and the disease.

Hmmmmmmyeah, and why would there be a genuine terror of that? Because it wouldn’t work perhaps? Because ‘thinking differently’ could land us back in the good old days when cholera and typhoid and tetanus and TB and yellow fever and typhus and polio were all incurable and unpreventable? Hmm?

Homeopathy, in common with other holistic approaches, asks that we look at the whole picture – the person, and not just his illness. Specifically, in the case of homeopathy, the remedy picture…follows the “like by like” premise – that tiny dilutions of the “problem” can prompt the body to effect its own cure…Homeopathy seeks to understand everything we are, everything we do, as a web of relatedness. The reason why I have a recurring sore throat will not be the reason why you have one, and what helps me may not help you.

And if the homeopath understands everything we are and everything we do (that’s understanding quite a lot, isn’t it) then the homeopath will know ‘the reason why’ I have a sore throat and also the very different ‘reason why’ someone else does? And then fix it? Izzat whacher saying?

As I understand it, homeopathy is not a linear medicine – a drug aiming for a target – nor does it seek to remove the human factor. The patient and the practitioner are both important and relevant when it comes to understanding how humans respond to treatment.

It’s all a matter of self-esteem, at bottom. Provided the homeopath really gets the patient, really sees the point of her and understands her very core of beingness, then the patient will be comfortable in her skin, and that is the secret of how homeopathy works. (The dilution is just to impress onlookers.)

Never take medical advice from a novelist.

The mendacity and sheer nastiness

Nov 18th, 2007 1:12 pm | By

So pointless obsessive punitive hostility and meanness can repel religious believers. Close-up acquaintance with the strenuously devout causes people to back away. That’s good to know.

Writing from New Orleans, where he was covering the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, [Stephen Bates] said: “Writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else.” Bates, who says he still regards himself as a Catholic, said he was turned off by the intolerance he saw towards gays and the self-righteousness of Christians who “pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those – always committed by other, lesser people – that are not.”

Interesting – Desmond Tutu has just been saying much the same thing.

“Our world is facing problems – poverty, HIV and Aids – a devastating pandemic, and conflict,” said Archbishop Tutu, 76. “God must be weeping looking at some of the atrocities that we commit against one another. In the face of all of that, our Church, especially the Anglican Church, at this time is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality.”…Archbishop Tutu referred to the debate about whether Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, could serve as the bishop of New Hampshire. He said the Anglican Church had seemed “extraordinarily homophobic” in its handling of the issue, and that he had felt “saddened” and “ashamed” of his church at the time. Asked if he still felt ashamed, he said: “If we are going to not welcome or invite people because of sexual orientation, yes. If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.”

Indeed. The thought has crossed my mind once or twice, that surely even Anglicans have better things to worry about than The Great Homosexual Menace.

Stephen Bates elaborates in the New Humanist:

The vehemence even in the mainstream denominations could be quite startling and bizarrely tunnel-visioned. Graham Dow, the Bishop of Carlisle, has come to public notice for suggesting that the recent floods were God’s judgement on a sinful nation, but not only is he not alone…but they are not his weirdest views. An earlier book he wrote on demonic possession shows he believes devils enter up the anus…and the signs of possession include wearing black, inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, Scottish ancestry or relatives who have been miners. You may laugh – inappropriately – but Dow used to be an Oxford college chaplain, indeed once prepared Tony Blair for confirmation, and has risen to be a diocesan bishop.

Blimey. This is the Anglican church. I’m…surprised.

What really surprised me was the mendacity and sheer nastiness with which the feuds were conducted and, of course, the certainty with which such people knew that God was speaking directly to them and – funnily enough – endorsing whatever action they had decided to take. It is a hermetically sealed, deeply insecure view of the outside world and it does not just infect Anglicans, but many denominations…The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe that those outside their inner circle will be ground to dust on the last day (remember this the next time you open your front door to them) and will only cooperate with the police in child abuse cases if the molestation has been independently and simultaneously witnessed by two elders, which may be setting the bar a little high.

The certainty is the thing I keep barking my shins on. The two-step. The carefree move directly from belief that God exists to confidence that the believer knows all about this God and what it wants the believer and everyone else to do – the complete failure to notice the rather obvious fact that even if there is a ‘God’ we know nothing whatever about it – that absence of evidence may (to the determined) be no bar to belief but is certainly an obstacle to pretensions of detailed and coercive knowledge. So what do you end up with? The combination of mendacity and nastiness with self-righteous certainty. You get a toxic brew, that’s what you get. Ask a religion reporter.

Don’t forget the waterfall

Nov 16th, 2007 4:15 pm | By

Check out the comments on Richard Francks’s Descartes and God. They’re all terrific but especially the one by gfelis, which is to say, our friend G.

Even if Descartes was right about our ability to doubt the existence of the material world when we really, really try very hard to doubt it, his insight merely reveals that absolute proof is a very stringent standard for knowledge (an ultimately unrealistic standard, sensible epistemologists now agree). It does not mean there is “no good reason to believe” in the existence of the material world, it merely means that even the very existence of the material world – as obvious as it is to us – cannot be proven absolutely beyond any shadow of a doubt…Whereas there are many good reasons to believe in the existence of the material world, albeit not conclusive proof beyond any shadow of a doubt, there are no good reasons to believe in the existence of God…It isn’t simply a matter of the existence of God lacking some absolute and irrefutable proof: It lacks any convincing arguments or solid evidence whatsoever. Believing in the existence of God really is very much like believing in that invisible, intangible, never observed no matter how often it’s looked for porcupine under Professor Franck’s bed.

What about the waterfall? This gfelis fella must be forgetting the waterfall. The waterfall is one knock-down argument; everyone knows that.

Such jeering

Nov 16th, 2007 3:26 pm | By

Yet another plea – or more like demand – that atheists shut up. Dave Hill foolishly comes right out and admits that’s what he’s demanding, in the very first sentence.

Even by writing this piece I risk perpetuating what I seek to end: arguments about religion that generate more heat than light.

He seeks to end arguments about religion – well at least we know where we are for a change. And where we are is (as so often) with someone who doesn’t think very clearly. He claims that ‘the critiques [AC Grayling and Polly Toynbee] offer, at least on this site, never develop beyond assertions that all religion should be got rid of because it’s always a bad thing,’ which is absurd (apart from anything else, that would make a one-sentence post, and Grayling and Toynbee don’t write one-sentence posts). Then he gets even more wild. He quotes Grayling on the influence of Catholicism:

Women enslaved to child-bearing, over-large families perpetuating ignorance and poverty, backward social policies and the iron grip of a clergy acting like the Stasi in controlling the minutiae of private lives.

Then he announces that he takes that personally because he ‘married into an Irish Catholic family,’ then he announces that he doesn’t ‘care for privileged British academics informing them that they were so supine as to have had their personal lives “controlled”,’ and then he ends with a flourish by saying ‘Such jeering at Irish Catholics has, of course, a long and ugly history.’

‘Such’ as what? What is that ‘such’ doing there? What jeering at Irish Catholics? There isn’t any, except in Dave Hill’s head! If he thinks the quoted passage about the influence of Catholicism is ‘jeering at Irish Catholics’ then he’s suffering from delusions of reference. That’s a cheap trick – doing a strained and highly subjective interpretation of a chosen passage so that it says something wounding to the self or the self’s relatives or ‘community,’ then moving instantly to treating the strained and self-centered interpretation as well-founded fact. (Then whining about the putative jeering or insult or offense or attack or sneer or abuse or other crime of reference.)

So, Dave Hill wants to end arguments about religion that he doesn’t like, and his method of choice is to accuse AC Grayling and Polly Toynbee of doing things they don’t do. And he calls himself liberal.

Pure as the driven snow

Nov 15th, 2007 11:28 am | By

Speaking of Saudi Arabia

“The essence of Wahhabism is purity,” says Lawrence Wright, author of a Pulitzer-prize-winning book about al-Qaeda. “They are only interested in purification – and that’s what makes them so repressive.”

So if you get a nineteen-year-old girl who gets herself raped fourteen times by seven men, that’s a lot of dirt that needs purifying. It takes 90 lashes, and if she yips about it, it takes 200.

I looked at the role of Wahhabi literature – used in Saudi schools and exported round the world – in promoting suspicion and hatred of non-believers. The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel Jubeir, assured me a series of steps had been taken to reform the country’s educational system to instil values of tolerance. Saudi educationalist Hassan al-Maliki remains to be convinced. “They are teaching the students,” he told me, “that whoever disagrees with Wahhabism is either an infidel or a deviant – and should repent or be killed.”

That’s purification for you. You have just two choices: agree with us (by agreeing with us in the first place or else by repenting and agreeing with us) or be killed. Thus pure societies come into existence: by killing everyone who refuses to agree with the locally-prevailing system of purity. Kind of makes you fond of dirt, doesn’t it.

A short way with sluts

Nov 15th, 2007 11:22 am | By

Well that’s nice. Reasonable; fair; compassionate; useful; sensible; impressive.

An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped. The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes – she was in an unrelated man’s car at the time of the attack.

She was raped fourteen times. The seven men who were convicted got prison sentences but

the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia’s laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other. She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the car of a strange man. On appeal, the Arab News reported that the punishment was not reduced but increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison sentence.

Two. hundred. lashes. For being raped fourteen times. What’s the punishment for being mugged? Being put in an acid bath full of piranhas?