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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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Richard Dawkins in a lecture in Reykjavík

The laughing face of smug, despicable EVIL. (Image via Wikipedia)

The Pope’s left us alone now, and the protest march is over. A comprehensive summary of the event, reportedly attended by 12,000 people, has been written up Noodlemaz, and it all sounds to have gone rather well. Benny Sixteen himself won’t have been swayed on anything, but the very real opposition to his dangerous and misguided policies was expressed, and a lot of people will have gotten to hear about why so many others find him objectionable, and perhaps been prompted to reconsider their own position.

But some people still don’t like all these people standing up and expressing their dismay at the evil actions of this global institution. And Daily Mail wankery aside, this piece in particular just pisses me off.

I tweeted earlier:

People continue to be more loudly outraged at the people getting cross about child abuse than at the people abusing children. Bewildering.

Which sums it up as well as I could manage in 140 characters. This is not the only lengthy, angry, disparaging diatribe I’ve seen online which talks about how “bigoted” all these atheists are, with much more fervour than it employs to decry the sexual abuse of children which has gotten these angry atheists so angry in the first place.

I think it’s the lack of perspective that’s most frustrating. It’s not just that the author disagrees with Richard Dawkins about something, it’s that this is apparently the most important thing to him about the whole business. The “glee” with which Catholicism is being attacked is what he’s “not comfortable with”, while the fact that thousands of children have been raped is breezed over in a cursory nine-word sentence in an introductory paragraph, with an air of tired impatience.

Yes yes, alright, the Catholic church has done some appallingly inhuman things – but never mind that now, some atheists are being smug

It’s still the cry of “smug” which is made against these deplorable, militant atheists with the most vitriol, as if the accuser could imagine nothing worse than a snooty attitude.

And yet the exact same self-assured smarminess is no less evident in those attempting to distance themselves from the “New Atheist” movement. All they seem able to do is sneer contemptuously at the people who actually have something to say, and are getting together to make themselves heard. Dismissive terms like “media luvvies” means he doesn’t even have to consider whether they might possess any valid arguments, from up on his high horse.

See how easy it is to make someone you disagree with sound like a twat by using ugly words like “sneering” and “smarmy” to describe what they do? I was being disingenuous there – the author of the post isn’t noticeably more smug than anyone else blogging snippily about something that’s annoyed them (hello!). But throwing that kind of word around is an effective and lazy way to make it seem like what your opponent’s saying isn’t that important, because their tone should be enough to make you dislike and disagree with them.

There are a lot of simply bad arguments in the middle of all this, too. If similar accusations were made against another group, we’re told – say, if “Catholics” was substituted for “Muslims” or “Jews” – it would likely come across as “Islamophobic, anti-semitic and downright racist”.

Well, perhaps. If you apply a derogatory term to a minority group, of course it has a different impact than when the target is a dominant force around the world. That’s just how language works.

A black person called me a “honky” once. I was outraged. If the roles were reversed and you simply substituted “honky” for “nigger”, people would have said I was racist.

My point being, it’s not a ridiculous double-standard when the cases you’re comparing are entirely different. Last I checked, neither Muslims nor Jews were running an immensely influential global institution that’s systematically covered up child abuse among its ranks.

Moreover, the criticism against the Pope is said to be largely “framed… in terms of the so-called ‘New Atheism'”. You must have been watching a very different set of protests than I was if you really think they were driven by any kind of atheism more than, say, the fact that our government is tacitly (or perhaps outright) endorsing an organisation than has repeatedly protected its members from justice for the abuse of thousands of children over the course of decades.

Which still sounds to me like a bigger problem than the attitudes of some non-believers who aren’t touching anyone’s kids.

I know I’m harping on this point, but I kinda feel like this point is worth harping on about.

And when the author cites some examples of anti-papal bigotry, it makes me wonder if I should try explaining the concept of humour from first principles. “Now, look at this line here: ‘I hate the Pope; the Pope’s folks grope’. This is a reference to a popular phrase that… oh, never mind.” If anything, jokes like “Abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers” are treating child abuse with inappropriate jocularity, and go far too easy on criminals who ought to be locked up.

He even cites this BBC article as an example of the irrational anti-Catholic hatred he so deplores, indicating that he clearly either hasn’t read it or has trouble understanding what words mean. It quite carefully lays out the Protest The Pope campaign’s criticisms of the Vatican’s policies, and everyone quoted in it is entirely reasonable in their care to target these policies and not every single member of the Catholic church.

And towards the end it just gets weird. He’s just as displeased about the “arbiters of political and moral rectitude who had a field day condemning people who thought Raoul Moat was ‘a legend’, were quick to castigate BNP voters in the European elections”, and so on.

I’m firstly perplexed at this use of the term “arbiters of political and moral rectitude” being used in such a derogatory fashion. Remember, kids: publicly expressing your opinion on the morality of other people’s actions is bad and you should feel bad. Obviously this blogger would never go so far as to call other people’s actions morally misguided, bigoted, or… oh.

But also, what exactly is your problem with these arbiters expressing the view that Raoul Moat was not, in fact, a “legend”? He shot three people, and not in any kind of self-defence. He may deserve sympathy for some kind of mental problems he may have suffered from, but criticising a loving memorial website maintained by his “fans” is wrong how? And criticising atheists yourself in exactly the same tone isn’t hypocritical why?

I’m honestly not against the idea of legitimate criticism against Dawkins, or the protest movement. I’ve disagreed with the man before, and there may well be ways the campaign could improve the effectiveness of its message, or adjust its tone. But I’ve not heard any of that from articles like this one. It’s all just whining about how terrible and obnoxious these atheists are being, the way they give a fuck about things like child abuse and are taking a stand against it. The cunts.

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If you didn’t have enough evidence yet that the Tea Party – the bizarre right-wing movement that’s been moving in from the fringes of American politics lately, determined to “take back their country” from the scary black man who somehow took charge – is actively dangerous, then here ya go.

Christine O’Donnell is the Republican nominee for the United States Senate in the state of Delaware, and could be elected into office this November. And she thinks distributing condoms will spread AIDS.

I know a lot of people probably like her mostly because she seems like one of them, and that she “shares their values”, whatever exactly that means. It’s hard not to make your initial judgments about someone on a sub-rational level, a gut sense on whether they seem like the right sort of person. I know I liked Obama based on how he looked and how he spoke, non-specific recommendations from other people I liked, and snippets of reputation, before I could tell you anything about his politics.

But it’s really kinda important not to let that continue to be the one driving force that defines how you see someone; to latch onto them as “one of us” and be forced to justify any other position they take, whether or not you’d normally agree with it. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned about Obama since his election. Maybe I’m still overly hopeful, maybe I’m being too quick to be cynical and should give him more of a break, I’m not really sure – but the important thing is that I’m trying my best to base my opinion rationally, on what he says and does.

I’m never quite going to get there, not perfectly. But it’s important to try. And it’s important to be aware when your preferred candidate has expressed support for a policy based on incorrect information, which will result in an increased spread of a deadly disease.

This kind of introspection is something the Tea Partiers don’t seem to be great at. They don’t seem to be basing their allegiances on actual policies or views on things, in any rational way, as there doesn’t appear to be much consistency as to what they stand for. O’Donnell has spoken out against pornography, and campaigned against masturbation. Carl Paladino used to email colleagues video clips of bestiality.

How much do the people who shout their support for the Tea Party movement actually understand the people they’re championing?

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Another thought regarding the Koran-burning thing.

Nobody’s disagreeing that Pastor Jones’s chosen form of protest was both metaphorically and literally incendiary. I imagine everyone shares the concerns that the Islamic extremists’ response would be violent, and would hurt people unnecessarily. As I’ve said before, these concerns are both reasonable and demonstrably correct.

One place where a difference of opinion comes in, though, is in whether Jones should be allowed to go through with it anyway. Is he acting within the boundaries of his own rights to free expression? Or do those rights not extend to a knowing incitement and provocation to violent acts?

I’ve seen more than one person comparing what Jones is doing to shouting fire in a crowded theatre, a classic free speech cliché intended to demonstrate that it’s sometimes necessary to place some restriction on people’s right to say any damn thing they want. A case can be made that, for instance, concerns for public safety overrule anyone’s first amendment rights to go raising a ruckus.

However, I don’t think this is a fair comparison.

The first distinction you might notice is that shouting fire would only be considered unworthy of protection under free speech laws if it is knowingly untrue. Of course you’d be justified in alerting people to an actual fire, and presumably if you had good reason to suspect that there was a danger then you’d be on safe ground too, even if it turned out to be a false alarm.

Burning a Koran, on the other hand, is not an explicitly declarative act. There’s no potentially untrue or defamatory statement being made.

But this might not matter, if the incitement is still predictable as a result of the act. There’s a more interesting point I haven’t seen being made yet though.

If you do raise some kind of alarm amidst a packed crowd in an enclosed space, you may cause people’s lives or health to be endangered as they charge towards the exits to get the hell out of there. You can reasonably expect that they’ll take your warning at face value, and might be harmed while responding reasonably to this.

However, the danger from Muslim extremists was not because Pastor Jones had provided them with a falsified threat, and they were reacting appropriately to a perceived danger. A violent reaction might be predictable, but you’d only cause violence and harm in response to someone else burning some books if you’re fucking crazy.

People should run for the exits if they’re stuck in an enclosed space and told that there’s a fire. If they’re sensible, they’ll be compelled to take action by a legitimate fear. But whatever reason the extremists might think they have for attacking the nearest standing structure in fury at someone’s disrespect, they are wrong.

In the case of the Koran-burning, then, people will only get hurt if other people behave like unreasonable shits.

Nobody’s entitled to shift the blame for their evil actions onto somebody else’s provocations, simply because they made threats or have a reputation for being dangerously irrational. Which is why I don’t buy Pastor Jones’s actions as an incitement to violence that should be censored.

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