Who Needs God?

Creation-of-adam-handKenan Malik over at his blog (h/t: Zack Beauchamp over at Andrew Sullivan):

The difference between believers and atheists is not about whether either can explain the ultimate cause of the universe. It is about how we wish to explain it. I am happy to say, ‘I do not know what First Cause is, or even if there is one. It may be that one day we discover the answer to that. Or it may be that we never will. For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’. Believers are unwilling to say that. They insist that there must be a First Cause and that that First Cause must take the form of God. They cannot live with the uncertainty about First Cause that comes with non-belief. In Peter Stannard’s words they know – they have to know – that God exists. The difference between believers and atheists is, in other words, not simply a difference of philosophy, it is also a difference of psychological temper.

A similar distinction can be drawn between atheists and believers with respect to the second issue for which it is claimed that God is necessary – morality. ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘The elimination of God’, the theologian Alister McGrath writes, ‘led to new heights of moral brutality’. Though given the extent of brutality undertaken in the name of God, I am not sure that that is a particularly astute sentiment.

‘If God does not exist’, William Craig claims, ‘Objective moral values and duties do not exist’. There is a voluminous philosophical literature on the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists, that is between those who see moral values as akin to facts, and those who reject that idea. It is an intellectual swamp, and one into which I do not intend stepping, at least in this talk. All I would say is it is possible to believe that moral questions have non-arbitrary answers without conflating facts and values.

The Defeated: Sri Lanka’s Tamils After the War

DefeatedAn anonymous writer in Caravan:

ON THE AFTERNOON OF 19 MAY 2009, at around 1:20 pm, a ration shop accountant named Sivarajan ran to the front of the winding lunch queue in the Anandakumaraswami Zone 3 refugee camp to serve rice and sodhi, a watery concoction of chillies and coconut milk. Swarna, a former militant, sat in her tent nearby, yelling at her mother for having told an army man from the morning shift that their family belonged to Mullaitivu, on the northeastern coast, where the war between the Sri Lankan Army and the separatists—“Tigers,” she called them—was still raging.

At that moment, they got a text message on their mobile phones from the government’s information department. Addressed to all Sri Lankans, it proclaimed, in Sinhala—a language neither Sivarajan nor Swarna could read—that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the man who led a 26-year-long separatist battle for a Tamil Eelam (state), had been killed by the army in a lagoon just a two hours drive north of where they were. So when the news was announced in Tamil over a loudspeaker that evening, they did not believe it. When it finally sank in, they realised—neither with remorse nor relief, but mere wonder at its very possibility—that in an instant the war they had been born into had left their lives.

Nothing would ever be the same again.


IT HAD TO BE INAPPROPRIATE to want a bath when shells were raining from the sky. But for the fifth day in a row, it was all Siva could think of. Crouching with his wife, daughter and six others in a hastily dug five-foot deep hole in the ground that was dissolving in the nonstop downpour, he was going crazy with the thick layer of mud on his skin. It itched, and he was sure he could smell blood and shit on it.

Above Siva’s head, across the coconut orchard of Kombavil village in Puthukkudiyiruppu region of Mullaitivu district, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Army were exchanging gunfire. Aircraft ejected shells into the area, which had once been home to about 50 families; since April 2009, it had been transformed into a dizzying two sq km maze of felled trees and underground bunkers dug and redug by the army, LTTE and fleeing, hiding villagers. Below the rain rivulets and the rattle of machine guns, about 3,000 people cowered underground, packed like iron rods in a truck, judging danger and safety by the ebb and rise of the sounds of battle. They were petrified, but more unbearably, they were hungry.

America with one eye closed


Inevitably, it also contains within it two Americas. One is the America which develops and uses—not once, but twice—a weapon of a destructive capability which far outstrips anything that has come before, the America which decides what price some other country’s civilian population must pay for its victory. There is nothing particular to America in this—all nations in war behave in much the same way. But in the years between the bombing of Hiroshima and now, no nation has intervened militarily with as many different countries as America, and always on the other country’s soil; which is to say, no nation has treated as many other civilian populations as collateral damage as America while its own civilians stay well out of the arena of war. So that’s one of the Americas in Hiroshima—the America of brutal military power. But there’s another America in the book, that of John Hersey. The America of looking at the destruction your nation has inflicted and telling it like it is. The America of stepping back and allowing someone else to tell their story through you because they have borne the tragedy and you have the power to bear witness to it. It is the America of The New Yorker of William Shawn, which, for the only time in its history, gave over an entire edition to a single article and kept its pages clear of its famed cartoons. It is the America which honored Hersey for his truth telling.

more from Kamila Shamsie at Guernica here.

the last liberal


“The twentieth century,” Tony Judt asserts in this luminous book of conversations with the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “is the century of the intellectuals.” What does it say about intellectuals, then, that the century in which they exercised so much influence on policymaking and public opinion was also the bloodiest in history? There are some sobering answers—few of them flattering—in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Published two years after Judt’s death from motor neurone disease, this book contains his final views on politics and economics and on a range of thinkers from Keynes to Eric Hobsbawm. A relatively obscure British academic based in New York, Judt refashioned himself in the last decade of his life into a strikingly bold and prominent public intellectual. Published in 2005, his masterpiece Postwar, a panoramic account of Europe after the second world war, broadened his reputation as a scholar of French intellectual history. But Judt was to become even better known for his eloquent defence of the old values of good governance, social and economic justice, and his attacks on his peers—western liberal intellectuals—for having succumbed to the false consolations of dogma and the blandishments of power.

more from Pankaj Mishra at Prospect Magazine here.

A reflexive “aqua-nationalism”


Canadians are still “dead serious” about water. Coureurs de bois and the ghost of Tom Thomson haunt the misty lakes of our collective subconscious. The effect, too often, is to dissolve reasoned debate about the subject in a solution of mythic imagery infused with implied threats to our identity. A reflexive “aqua-nationalism,” clothed in environmental righteousness, is hostile to any suggestion that Canada’s water could ever become a tradable commodity. The animus is all the more implacable if the discussion involves trading water with Americans — an idea close to treason in some eyes. In this atmosphere it’s easy to ridicule visionaries who dream of replumbing the continent. Nonagenarian Newfoundlander Tom Kierans’s scheme to dike James Bay and pipe water to the US Midwest through the Great Lakes invites a check of the old man’s sanity, and it hardly surprises that right-wing American anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche is behind a plan to reroute water from the Peace and Liard rivers from northern BC deep into the United States. But our hostile reductionism is going to become difficult to sustain as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to heat up the planet. New patterns of wind, humidity, and ambient temperature are already dramatically altering the weather map. Some parts of the country are receiving more rain than ever before; other regions are drying up.

more from Chris Wood at The Walrus here.

Julian Barnes reviews The Iron Lady

Julian Barnes in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_19 Feb. 09 13.13Philip Larkin was one of those who adored Mrs. Thatcher. “I got the blue flash,” he reported after meeting her—that moment of what the diarist and Tory minister Alan Clark (who also adored her) described as Führer Kontakt. “Her great virtue,” Larkin told an interviewer in 1979, “is saying that two and two makes four, which is as unpopular nowadays as it has always been.” Later that year, he elaborated: “At last politics makes sense to me, which it hasn’t done since Stafford Cripps (I was very fond of him too). Recognizing that if you haven’t got the money for something you can’t have it—this is a concept that’s vanished for many years.”

Politicians are, inevitably, elected by people who know less about politics than they do, and Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite schtick was making out that a state’s fiscal responsibility was merely a scaled-up version of good housekeeping. Thrift, hard work, common sense: the housewife virtues were what she pushed, and she convinced many. Though of course whenever a government really wants to afford something—like the Falklands War—it does so; mysterious contingency funds are suddenly discovered (and their size kept from the public until much later). This is a bit like being attentive to the cost of a pint of milk while having a millionaire husband in the background—which was the case with Mrs. Thatcher.

More here.

If God Existed, He’d Be A Solid Midfielder

Aleksandar Hemon in Granta:

1328190265764German was not German – he was from Ecuador, but his father was born in Germany, hence the nickname. He was a UPS truck driver in his mid-forties, suntanned, wearing a moustache. Every Saturday and Sunday, he’d arrive by the lake around 2.00 p.m. in a decrepit, twenty-five-year-old van, on which a soccer ball and the words were painted. He’d unload goalposts and nets, bagfuls of single-colour T-shirts and balls, plus the flags of different countries – Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, the United States, Spain, Nigeria – and he’d distribute the shirts to the guys who came to play. Most of them lived in Uptown and Edgewater and were from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Belize, Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Eritrea, Ghana, Cameroon, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, France, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam, Korea. There was even a guy from Tibet, and he was a very good goalie.

Normally, there’d be more than two teams, so the games lasted for fifteen minutes or until one team scored two goals. The games were very serious, as the winner stayed on the field, while the losing team had to wait on the sidelines. German refereed and he almost never called a foul – it seemed he needed to hear the sound of a breaking bone to use his whistle. Sometimes, if a team needed a player, he’d referee and play.He was particularly hard on himself and once he gave himself a yellow card for a brutal tackle. We – immigrants trying to stay afloat in this country – found comfort in playing by the rules we set ourselves. It made us feel that we still were part of a world much bigger than the United States.

More here.

The Latest on The Orchid-Dandelion Hypothesis

David Dobbs in Wired:

ScreenHunter_18 Feb. 09 12.54As faithful readers know, I’m working on a book, provisionally titled The Orchid and the Dandelion and likely to be published next year, about the orchid-dandelion hypothesis: the notion that genes and traits that underlie some of humans’ biggest weaknesses — despair, madness, savage aggression — also underlie some of our greatest strengths — resilience, lasting happiness, empathy. If you’re used to the disease model of genes that are associated with mood and behavioral problems, this hypothesis can seem puzzling. The turn lies in viewing problems such as depression, distractibility, or even aggression as downsides of a heightened sensitivity to experience that can also generate assets and contentment.

I first wrote about the orchid-dandelion hypothesis in an Atlantic article two years ago. Last week, New Scientist published a feature I wrote about some of the research I’ve come across while researching the book. The article is behind a paywall now, so you’ll need a subscription to read it; I’ll post the whole thing here in a few weeks when the New Scientist exclusive-run period ends. In the meantime, I thought I’d excerpt here a couple passages of particular interest.

One is the opener, which describes how toddlers react to a clever test of their generosity and then lays out the gist of the hypothesis. The other is a multigenic study that sought to expand the hypothesis beyond single-gene candidate-gene studies.

More here.

Talking with the Taliban

Ahmed Rashid at his own website:

TalibanAfter eleven years of war the Taliban’s public declaration that they will hold talks with the United States in Qatar is a major breakthrough for the political process, for Afghanistan’s internal stability and for the relative peace that will be needed by the US and NATO in 2014 before they can exit Afghanistan in good order and without too much bloodshed.

The year-long clandestine talks brokered by the Germans, fostered by Qatar and eventually ending in direct meetings between US officials and Taliban representatives will hopefully lead to a major reconciliation with the Kabul regime. The Taliban’s present insistence that they will only talk with the Americans is not realistic in the long term, while Karzai’s recent policy flip-flops and contradictory statements belie the fact that he was kept in the loop every step of the way by the Germans. The talks will go ahead because there is no other alternative to ending the war.

The metrics of calculating how successful NATO forces have been on the ground combating the Taliban, despite heady announcements by NATO generals, are mired in considerable controversy and doubt. The ability of the Taliban, unlike al-Qaeda, to rebound from severe hits has proved them to be remarkably resistant to casualties, with a deep bench of commanders, logisticians, recruiters and administrators for their cause.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Old Lem

I talked to old Lem
and old Lem said:
“They weigh the cotton
They store the corn
We only good enough
To work the rows;
They run the commissary
They keep the books
We gotta be grateful
For being cheated;
Whippersnapper clerks
Call us out of our name
We got to say mister
To spindling boys
They make our figgers
Turn somersets
We buck in the middle
Say, “Thankyuh, sah.”
They don't come by ones
They don't come by twos
But they come by tens.

Read more »

Mary McLeod Bethune: 1875 – 1955

From Divinecaroline:

Speech: Mary McLeod Bethune (1939)

Mary-mcleod-bethune1In 1906, a teacher named Mary Bethune built the Daytona Literacy and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in Florida. Initially a one-woman operation, she enlisted the help of a few community members and sold baked goods to help raise funds for supplies and maintenance. After getting funding from one of the founders of Proctor and Gamble, the school joined forces with an all-boys school in Jacksonville and it became the Bethune-Cookman College. Later, she went on to found the National Council of Negro Women and worked with FDR on minority issues and youth policies.

Democracy is for me, and for 12 million black Americans, a goal towards which our nation is marching. It is a dream and an ideal in whose ultimate realization we have a deep and abiding faith. For me, it is based on Christianity, in which we confidently entrust our destiny as a people. Under God’s guidance in this great democracy, we are rising out of the darkness of slavery into the light of freedom. Here my race has been afforded [the] opportunity to advance from a people 80 percent illiterate to a people 80 percent literate; from abject poverty to the ownership and operation of a million farms and 750,000 homes; from total disfranchisement to participation in government; from the status of chattels to recognized contributors to the American culture. As we have been extended a measure of democracy, we have brought to the nation rich gifts. We have helped to build America with our labor, strengthened it with our faith, and enriched it with our song. We have given you Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. But even these are only the first fruits of a rich harvest, which will be reaped when new and wider fields are opened to us. The democratic doors of equal opportunity have not been opened wide to Negroes. In the Deep South, Negro youth is offered only one-fifteenth of the educational opportunity of the average American child. The great masses of Negro workers are depressed and unprotected in the lowest levels of agriculture and domestic service, while the black workers in industry are barred from certain unions and generally assigned to the more laborious and poorly paid work. Their housing and living conditions are sordid and unhealthy. They live too often in terror of the lynch mob; are deprived too often of the Constitutional right of suffrage; and are humiliated too often by the denial of civil liberties. We do not believe that justice and common decency will allow these conditions to continue.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).



A picture-perfect replica of the Hollywood sign shines in the clear, cool sunlight, a helicopter beside it and, down below, a city of fake fronts with signs advertising “Greg’s Pistol Ship,” “Bala’s Inn Bed and Breakfast,” and “Yogi Bear Bounty Hunters.” Not far away, in a square that’s closed to the public, a mob of children dressed in school uniforms is dancing and lip-synching furiously behind a pair of pouting lovers as cameras roll. I’m surrounded by 11 Indian men in matching white baseball caps, five young women in saris, and a screeching child. We’re seated in a minivan with whirring fans above every row, offering the “air-conditioning” that is part of the $25 V.I.P. “Ramoji Star Experience” tour. In the past few minutes we’ve seen a “Sun Fountain” that would fit in at Versailles, a Japanese “Sayonara Garden,” and an intricate hedge maze; at this moment we’re passing an “Arizona Cactus Garden” across from a town that could sit in the shadow of the Himalayas. Now, in the bright late-monsoon-season morning, I watch young women in shalwar kameezes—and black cowboy hats—sauntering toward the “Wild Western Days Shooting Gallery.” An Islamic woman clad from head to toe in a burka is approaching the Gunsmoke restaurant.

more from Pico Ayer at Vanity Fair here.

sincerely, charles dickens


Among the dozens of Dickens publications connected with the bicentenary of the author’s birth on February 7, it is hard to imagine one more necessary than this, a one-volume, generously priced selection of his letters. The Pilgrim edition from which the text is derived (published in twelve mighty volumes by Oxford University Press and the British Academy between 1965 and 2002) was a landmark in scholarship that had the unfortunate effect of shutting Dickens’s letters away from normal readers; exhaustive, definitive and taking up two-and-a-half feet of shelf space, a used set costs around £3,000. Cutting such a vast body of work down to less than a thirtieth, some 450 letters, makes it impossible for an editor to represent the whole very accurately, but Jenny Hartley has attempted to do something of the kind, producing a “taster” selection rather than a series of epistolary knock-out blows (with which she could, surely, have filled several volumes). Hence she has included in her selection brief business notes to Dickens’s colleagues and collaborators, tender missives to intimates, letters to fans, autograph collectors and aspiring writers, formal complaints and petitions, set-piece travel descriptions, letters to The Times and other papers, along with the longer, more discursive letters that the novelist delighted in writing to his closest friends. This varied texture gives a fine sense of Dickens’s range of tone, purpose and acquaintance and shows what an integral part of his life letter-writing was.

more from Claire Harman at the TLS here.

religious art from nonbelievers


Rarely have I seen a spectacle so disheartening as the cheerless, trash-strewn one-room flat that serves as the set for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s off-Broadway revival of John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger.” In this production, reviewed elsewhere in today’s Journal, the only hint of beauty comes from the radio on which the play’s unhappy characters listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s radiant Fifth Symphony. Small wonder that it should offer them a glimpse of comfort and joy in the midst of their emotional turmoil. Like so much of Vaughan Williams’s music, the Fifth Symphony, which was composed during World War II, is deeply spiritual in tone, and it’s no surprise to learn that it was based on themes from his operatic version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here’s the surprise: Vaughan Williams was a lifelong agnostic. Now that the boutique atheism of such aggressive secularists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens has become chic, you might well ask yourself why any unbelieving artist would bother to turn his hand to the making of religious art. Indeed, most of the modern novelists who have placed matters of faith at the center of their work have been, like Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, François Mauriac and Flannery O’Connor, believers of one sort or another. But in every other branch of art, great works of devotional art have been created by skeptics, not a few of whom were fire-breathingly militant about their doubt.

more from Terry Teachout at the WSJ here.

Using the body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer

From PhysOrg:

Shutterstock_46723585The relies on an intricate network of alarm bells, targets and safety brakes to determine when and what to attack. The new results suggest that scientists may now be able to combine DNA sequencing data with their knowledge of the triggers and targets that set off immune alarms to more precisely develop vaccines and other immunotherapies for cancer.

“We already have ways to identify specific targets for immunotherapy, but they are technically challenging, extremely labor-intensive and often take more than a year to complete,” says senior author Robert Schreiber, PhD, the Alumni Professor of Pathology and Immunology at the School of Medicine and co-leader of the tumor immunology program at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. “These difficulties have stood in the way of developing personalized immunotherapies for , who often require immediate care for their disease. To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies to show that the faster methods provided by DNA sequencing can help. That opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities.” Scientists have long maintained that the immune system can recognize cancer as a threat either on its own or with the help of vaccines or other immunotherapeutic treatments, which help alert the immune system to the danger posed by cancers. Once the cancer is recognized, the immune system should develop the capacity to attack growing cancer cells until either the tumor is eradicated or the immune system's resources are exhausted. Schreiber and his colleagues have shown that interactions between the immune system and cancer are more complex. Their theory, called cancer immunoediting, suggests that some of the in are very easy for the immune system to recognize as a threat. If the immune system detects these mutations in cancer cells, it attacks until they are destroyed. At that point, the cancer may be eliminated. But it's also possible that the cancer can be “edited” by the immune system, resulting in the removal of all the cells containing the critical easily recognized mutations. The remaining tumor cells can continue to grow or enter into a period of dormancy where they are not destroyed but are held in check by the immune system.

More here.

Why economic inequality leads to collapse

Stewart Lansley in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_17 Feb. 08 14.06During the past 30 years, a growing share of the global economic pie has been taken by the world's wealthiest people. In the UK and the US, the share of national income going to the top 1% has doubled, setting workforces adrift from economic progress. Today, the world's 1,200 billionaires hold economic firepower that is equivalent to a third of the size of the American economy.

It is this concentration of income – at levels not seen since the 1920s – that is the real cause of the present crisis.

In the UK, the upward transfer of income from wage earners to business and the mega-wealthy amounts to the equivalent of 7% of the economy. UK wage-earners have around £100bn – roughly equivalent to the size of the nation's health budget – less in their pockets today than if the cake were shared as it was in the late 1970s.

In the US, the sum stands at £500bn. There a typical worker would be more than £3,000 better off if the distribution of output between wages and profits had been held at its 1979 level. In the UK, they would earn almost £2,000 more.

The effect of this consolidation of economic power is that the two most effective routes out of the crisis have been closed. First, consumer demand – the oxygen that makes economies work – has been choked off. Rich economies have lost billions of pounds of spending power. Secondly, the slump in demand might be less damaging if the winners from the process of upward redistribution – big business and the top 1% – were playing a more productive role in helping recovery. They are not.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

One Day, Feeling Hungry

One day, feeling hungry, I swallowed the moon.
It stuck, like a wafer, to the top of my mouth,
dry as an aspirin. It slowly went down,

showing the gills of my vocal cords,
the folded wings in my abdomen,
the horrible twitch of my insect blood.

Lit from inside, I stood alone
(dark to myself) but could see from afar

the brightness of others who had swallowed stars.

by Gwyneth Lewis
from Zero Gravity
Bloodaxe Books, 1998

The crazy life and crazier death of Tycho Brahe, history’s strangest astronomer

Alasdair Wilkins in io9:

ScreenHunter_16 Feb. 08 12.56A solar eclipse in 1560 inspired Brahe to become an astronomer, and he quickly realized the burgeoning science could only progress if it had observations that were systematic, accurate, and, above all, nightly. To that end, he refined old instruments and built new ones, and spent the rest of his life assembling one of the largest bodies of astronomical data in human history…and more on that in a moment.

But Brahe was far from a dry scholar. In 1566 at the age of 20, he lost part of his nose in a duel with another Danish nobleman named Manderup Parsbjerg. The duel is said to have started over a disagreement about a mathematical formula. Because 16th century Denmark didn't have resources like the internet to figure out who was right, the only solution was to try to kill each other. For the rest of his life, Brahe wore a prosthetic nose. His fake nose was likely made of copper, although he probably also had gold and silver noses around for special occasions.

More here.