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Archive for September, 2010

I somehow missed that it’s International Blasphemy Day today until pretty late in the evening. Just for the sake of keeping up appearances, I’ll repeat a few things from last time:

– I deny the divinity of the holy spirit.

– Here’s a picture I made of the prophet Muhammed doing a dance: O-Z—<

– I believe in and worship your preferred god/gods, and fully subscribe to your belief system of choice. And now I don't, they're all fake. Universal apostasy FTW.

– That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.

– The flying spaghetti monster is rhetorically useful, but entirely fictitious. And pirates aren't that interesting.

Nothing is sacred. Night night.

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They were bad.

Reel ’em in with a bold, controversial statement. I sure know how to keep a captive audience.

Let’s trying something a little more specific:

The Nazi movement had a strong religious component, and strong ties to the Catholic Church. Most Nazis were Christians.

However: The Nazis were bad for reasons almost entirely unrelated to Christianity.

Similarly: Many Christians are good. Those who are bad are, almost universally, bad for reasons entirely unrelated to Nazism.

My point is this:

When atheists bring up the fact that Nazi Germany banned books which promoted Darwinism or disparaged Christianity, it’s not because we’re claiming that all Christianity is evil and all Christians are evil because of some Nazi connection.

It’s because people won’t stop doing exactly that to us.

‘Kay?

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Some things in brief, easing myself back into this slowly after a few more days of uselessness:

– Bill Donohue believes that the Catholic Church has “less of a problem with the issue of sexual abuse” than any other institution in existence. Can we please stop acting as if the Catholic League isn’t just this one loon in his basement?

This is a link to a news website article about a scientific finding. This is a pithy remark summarising my feelings about it. This is a weary sigh about how it will be inevitably misunderstood and widely misrepresented.

– If you trust in watchdogs of honesty to keep tabloid newspapers in check – to enforce some kind of repercussions when, say, the Daily Mail spreads misinformation about dangerous substances, potentially putting people in harm’s way by giving them reassurances of safety, which are explicitly contradicted by the science and have been directly rebutted by experts – then apparently your optimism is foolish and must be crushed. The facts were always there in plain view, but it was months before the Mail were obliged to print a retraction acknowledging that asbestos is in fact quite nasty stuff.

– It’s not all bad, though. Sometimes the quacks go down.

– Two out of three political party leaders in the UK don’t believe in a god. Which I guess is nice. The Deputy Prime Minster has been an open non-believer for a while, and now the new Labour leader has followed suit. The way he qualifies it seems entirely reasonable to me, too; it’s a shame that some people probably do still need to be dissuaded from making the link between “atheist” and “baby-eating monster”, but it sounds like he’s doing a bare minimum of pandering on the subject. And hey, I’m with him on the thing about respecting people with different views. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about a backlash if I want to be more vocal about the active disrespect I have for some things those people believe.

More tomorrow.

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Russell Blackford sums up the problems I had with that piece by Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist, about the state and direction of New Atheism.

Which is handy, because it means now I don’t have to.

Well, okay, just a bit. Here’s one bit which resonated with me:

Melville seems to think there is something “dangerous” about any degree of solidarity among people who are “critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation”.

This is what’s annoyed me before about certain anti-Dawkins atheists, who not only like to describe him as some sort of frothing fundamentalist, but pick up on any instance of more than one person agreeing with him simultaneously, and paint it as some kind of sinister rally.

Many of Dawkins’s fans are sensible people. When they agree with him, it’s because they agree with him, not because he is the Leader Who Must Not Be Questioned. He can be fairly criticised, and often is even by those within “the Dawkins camp”.

Of course, not every member of every demographic will always succeed in acting rationally, or arguing without resorting to misplaced emotion and fallacy. No doubt he has supporters who are more fanatical than most of us would see as entirely healthy, and for whom fair criticism might not always get through and be taken on board as it should. But that doesn’t make us all a rabble of fundamentalist sheep.

Caspar wasn’t going that far, certainly. But he seems to be on the verge of siding with those who call it dangerous groupthink whenever there’s a group of people who, well, think the same. The fact that a crowd have gathered to foster a sense of community and express their shared views is not, in itself, antithetical to rational thinking. People are capable of holding onto themselves, even in the midst of other people shouting. Give us some credit.

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An attempt to change the damn record already is edging into sight. To that end, I’m just linking to a few things tonight, some of which will continue the Popey protesty theme, but with strictly limited accompanying ranting from me:

– It’s annoying when the Guardian gets stuff really wrong. It has many excellent regular columnists, a political stance largely not far from my own, and a clearer interest in at least making an effort at things like impartial fact-checking than I’ve come to expect from most tabloids.

It doesn’t render the whole paper worthless or deplorable whenever they simply print something I profoundly disagree with, but it is frustrating. This column by Andrew Brown especially so, for the reasons Greg Laden explains.

You don’t have to like or agree with Richard Dawkins about everything, or about anything much – I’m not going to link to that Neil deGrasse Tyson clip again, but it can certainly be done. But to think that he was really “comparing every Catholic in Britain to Adolf Hitler” is just bafflingly wrong-headed. It makes me wonder how badly someone would have to want to hear Dawkins expressing unadulterated contempt for all religious people (because it’s such a convenient narrative to suppose that that’s what he always does) for them to so completely misconstrue his point. It’s almost like something you get from creationists who’ve taken half a fact about evolution out of context to make it sound ridiculous.

I said something about limiting the ranting, didn’t I? Sorry.

I’m with Jerry Coyne. There, much pithier.

– Also, when the Pope was here, you may have recalled the terrifying conspiracy that was bravely foiled, in which foreigners had been scheming a devilish plot to explode the Pope to bits.

Except none of it was ever really happening. There was a massive furore, with incredibly blatant speculation about “Islamic terrorists” with “links to Al Qaeda” that seem to have been entirely fictionalised by the tabloids. And then, depending on what papers you’re reading, you get a tiny paragraph on page nine later on, explaining that no charges were ever made against anyone.

Mark Steel’s summary of events is excellent.

– Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell is the latest prankster comedian to hit the headlines with her wacky in-character antics. Forget Borat and Joaquin Phoenix – she’s been doing this full-time for years. And the results are hilarious.

– There already was a Mosque at Ground Zero (neither of which was true about the “Ground Zero” “Mosque”, remember). It was there before it got that name, though, back when the site was called the World Trade Centre.

– Apparently it’s offensive to suggest that some Muslims aren’t terrorists. A newspaper recently apologised to its readers for printing a photo which implied that sometimes Muslims are just pretty ordinary people who pray – on September 11th, of all days – without even bringing up all the mass murder they’re probably thinking about. This was clearly a grave error of judgment. Muslims aren’t a diverse, complicated demographic encompassing much of the variety to be found in humankind as a whole; 9/11 is the only thing that there is about them, and it’s important that we never ever forget that. Or let them forget it.

– Finally, there’s one point I’ve seen raised by detractors of the Protest The Pope campaign which deserves highlighting. It was still couched in “stop banging on about the Pope and his pedophile army” whining, but aside from that it’s worth considering.

Not everyone who’s been tormented or abused as a child was suffering at the hands of a religious authority figure. Without looking up any actual numbers, I believe sexual and other kinds of abuse are likely more prevalent among families than churches.

So, while highlighting the crimes of the Catholic church, don’t let’s end up inadvertently marginalising victims of abuse from other directions, whose needs aren’t served by waving signs at a man in a dress. I’m not saying this has been happening, but it’s worth being careful about. And I wanted to give the protest-bashers partial credit for getting something nearly right.

That’ll do for today. Comment with your thoughts on any of this. Or say something about the protests to piss me off again, if you prefer the way things used to be.

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People are still going after Richard Dawkins and the Pope’s protesters for all the wrong reasons.

I commented yesterday on Buffy’s article about her objections to Dawkins, in which she disavows the entire atheist movement, and the very word “atheist”, because of the way some prominent non-believers are behaving. The parallels to the things she’s criticising Dawkins for in the first place – condemning all of religion and lumping in moderate believers with the extremists – seem strikingly hypocritical.

It’s sloppy, lazy, ignorant, and offensive to imply that simply because extremists exist that everyone who believes anything (even if that belief is no belief) agrees with the extreme views.

Yes, it is. I’ve never seen Dawkins do this. But in the way she disassociates herself from atheism because of what she sees as an extremist fringe, it looks like this is exactly what Buffy’s doing.

The latest swathe of anti-Dawkins criticism kinda reminds me of that SciencePunk piece I had a go at a while back. His problem was that he was taking other skeptics to task for being hostile and unapproachable communicators, but he communicated this message in a really hostile and unapproachable manner. Similarly, those deriding Dawkins for his smug tone usually manage to achieve comparable levels of self-satisfaction themselves.

I really want to hear some criticism of Dawkins’s style, from someone who doesn’t essentially shout that all those “New Atheists” are as bad as any religious fundamentalists, using exactly the kind of broad generalisation for which they’ve supposedly taken a dislike to him in the first place. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a good point well, for instance. I know it’s simply not reasonable to expect people to be quite as awesome as Neil deGrasse Tyson, but it’s worth at least giving it a shot, guys.

But the criticism of the protest that I’ve seen so far just seems eager to make assumptions about the zealous irrationality of the people involved, using emotive language (“brawling mob”, “unholy crusade”) to paint a diverse group as a monolithic ideological force, blindly following a self-elected despotic leader. (Again, doing exactly what they claim to be fed up with when the other guys do it.)

@violet_towers said to me yesterday:

So many reports paint the protest as Peter Tatchell’s baby, in a dismissive way, like ‘oh, it’s a gay thing, it’s not for us.’

I hadn’t even thought of this, or really been aware of Peter Tatchell’s involvement at all – but this says a lot about the perspective some of us were coming at this from. I and the people I follow tended to be involved with the atheist/secularist side of things, but a lot of the protesters might not have even known that Dawkins was there. Or maybe they were attending as part of a campaign for gay rights, and gave Dawkins a cheer in passing when they saw him standing up for what seemed important. The idea that this entire crowd was there just for him, hanging dogmatically on his every word with some sort of divine fervour, is an assumption at least as unjustified and bigoted as anything I’ve heard from Dawkins himself.

This comment excellently sums up a lot of the problems with the anti-protest criticism, particularly that described in the post it responds to. I’ll defer to that in lieu of banging on about this any more, for now.

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On Twitter yesterday, Graham Linehan raised some concerns about the tone of the Protest The Pope campaign. He was more careful, measured, and reasonable than most complainants, and raised some points worth considering. I still don’t think there’s anything to panic about myself, but he mooted the question in a way that expressed the possibility of legitimate concerns.

Ben Goldacre responded, in part, as follows:

not sure if there were others, but the one i spoke at was focused on equality and diversity, and challenging discrimination…

coverup of child rape, and campaigns against condoms. it was misrepped as anti religion by bbc and others, which is sad.

if antipope protests consist only of atheists, thats because christians failed to speak out about these problems. source of sadness

There’s definitely a place for a discussion about the role of the atheist movement in protests like this, and making sure that a campaign against widespread child abuse doesn’t turn into some sort of atheist crusade. None of my recent moaning about this should be interpreted as an attempt to quash dissent.

As it happens, the impression I get is that atheism was far less of a theme for most protesters than you might be led to believe by much of the campaign’s media coverage. But there’s nothing wrong with being kept on our toes to make sure we don’t wander too far down that path in future.

However, even given that secularist or atheist sentiment might have been running strong in places, how much is it really on non-religious shoulders to make protesting the Pope “accessible” to those who aren’t part of the atheist crowd?

Even people who don’t support the atheist effort claim to abhor the actions of many high-ranking members of the Catholic church. But if those actions are more important than the smug tone of some atheists (which I think would be hard to deny), what’s stopping them from protesting anyway? Why have Christians apparently failed to speak out about this, in such large numbers?

Personally, I’d welcome some Catholics standing up to condemn atrocities perpetrated by members of their church. And for all that some commentators have tried to paint him as the manic leader of a band of zealots, I’m convinced that Dawkins would too.

But if the religious majority aren’t willing to take a strong position against child abuse, just because some atheists are getting a little rowdy, how much do they really care?

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