High Holy Devilry

by Barbara Fischkin

Is this one of Barbara Fischkin's ancestors, watching her wildflowers?

As the Jewish New Year 5784 unfolds, the late newspaperman Jimmy Breslin comes to mind. Jimmy was a great guy, an awful guy, and a Catholic guy. Channeling him now might be tantamount to sacrilege. Or, maybe not. My immediate ancestors, whose memory I honor this week, loved sacrilege. I imagine their beloved ghosts hovering over me in my unruly but spiritual garden of wildflowers and reminding me that they read Jimmy religiously, pun intended.

Fortunately, none of these relatives, many of them targets of anti-Semitism, were alive when Breslin was briefly suspended from his newspaper for unleashing a barrage of Asian slurs. Yes, that was the awful Jimmy. He apologized. During his long writing life he also published a trove of stories railing against injustice. Included among these were his December lists of  “people I am not talking to next year,” a journalistic winter wind. A bit childish but also fun and laden with messages. Embedded in these lists were cris de coer against inhumanity, selfishness—and snobbery. Jimmy Breslin had no patience for elitism and, in one offering, depicted his ejection from the elegant 21 Club for, it seems, the mere crime of looking like a schlump.

In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are asked to apologize to those they wronged during the past year. This week, like Breslin, I will also apologize. But first—and also in Breslinesque mode—I present a list of people to whom I will not be speaking this Jewish new year. I wish I could present this as original, but it has been done before—including by a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. We writers like to copy one another and a select number of us love to copy Jimmy, in particular. Read more »

The root of diverse evil

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Steven Weinberg

It wasn’t very long ago that I was rather enamored with the New Atheist movement, of which the most prominent proponent was Richard Dawkins. I remember having marathon debates with a religious roommate of mine in graduate school about religion as the “root of all evil”, as the producers of a documentary by Dawkins called it. Dawkins and his colleagues made the point that no belief system in human history is as all-pervasive in its ability to cause harm as religion.

My attitude toward religion started changing when I realized that what the New Atheists were criticizing wasn’t religion but a caricature of religion that was all about faith. Calling religion the “root of all evil” was also a bad public relations strategy since it opened up the New Atheists to obvious criticism – surely not all evil in history has been caused by religion? But the real criticism of the movement goes deeper. Just like the word ‘God’, the word ‘religion’ is a very broad term, and people who subscribe to various religions do so with different degrees of belief and fervor. For most moderately religious people, faith is a small part of their belonging to a religion; rather, it’s about community and friendship and music and literature and what we can broadly call culture. Many American Jews and American Hindus for instance call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Hindus.

My friend Freeman Dyson made this point especially well, and he strongly disagreed with Dawkins. One of Freeman’s arguments, with which I still agree, was that people like Dawkins set up an antagonistic relationship between science and religion that makes it seem like the two are completely incompatible. Now, irrespective of whether the two are intellectually compatible or not, it’s simply a fact that they aren’t so in practice, as evidenced by scores of scientists throughout history like Newton, Kepler and Faraday who were both undoubtedly great scientists and devoutly religious. These scientists satisfied one of the popular definitions of intelligence – the ability to simultaneously hold two opposing thoughts in one’s mind. Read more »

God Help us all: Fending off an American Theocracy

by Mark Harvey

The Crusades

The trouble with theocracies is that they generally lead to crusades. And the trouble with crusades is that if you’re not of the right sect or denomination, you’ll end up crucified. Theocracies lead nowhere, bring great suffering on peoples, stifle creative thought, and have women covered or in the kitchen. They do anything but lead to paradise on earth. But they do give people a taste of hell.

Whether it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Isis caliphate in Iraq and Syria, or The Islamic State of Iran, theocracies are inherently oppressive, and regressive. They subscribe to the idea that there is only one God, he is to be obeyed without question, and that those ruling in a theocratic government have some sort of manifest connection with that God.

James Madison

To some degree, Americans have been spared the ravages of theocracies. We are perhaps most indebted to James Madison for that. Madison, sometimes called the father of the Constitution, understood well in advance of 1789 when the framers met in Philadelphia, that the new nation being formed needed to be free and clear of the factionalism so often created by religious zealots. In letters to his close friend Thomas Jefferson, Madison wrote, “When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude….Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.”

I have no issues with religion per se. I think it genuinely helps some people navigate their lives and having a faith strong enough to maintain an unswerving optimism in the face of life’s hardships is even enviable. For the truly dispossessed and bereaved, a belief in God may be the last thing to cling to. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our great writers and a transcendentalist, called the religious sentiment “mountain air” and “the embalmer of the world.”

“It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the hills is it,” he said. Read more »

Religion, Legitimacy, and Government in America, A Just-So Story

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember when it was, but it was years ago, before religion had become such a prominent factor in American politics. Perhaps it was during my graduate school years, the mid-to-late 1970s. Whenever, it came as a shock to learn that America was more religious than Europe. It’s not so much that I had thought the reverse. I rather doubt that I’d thought much about it one way or another. The shock, I suppose, was simply that America was such a religions nation.

Religion has been much more visible in American politics of the last two decades and America remains more religious than Europe. This would come as no surprise to readers of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but I hadn’t read it and, to be honest, still haven’t (though I’d read The Ancient Regime and the Revolution years ago). I have, however, read The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, by the economic historian and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel. Fogel argues that American society and culture has been driven by cycles of religious revival. The first three cycles, starting in roughly 1730, 1800, and 1890, have been recognized in standard religious history, while the Fogel himself has proposed the fourth, dating it to the 1960s. He characterizes it as a “return to sensuous religion and reassertion of experiential content of the Bible; rapid growth of the enthusiastic religions; reassertion of concept of personal sin; stress on an ethic of individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life, and dedication to family.”

I rather doubt that either Tocqueville or Fogel would have predicted that one day the United States Capitol Building would be stormed in the names of a recently defeated President, Donald Trump, and God, with many of the belligerents believing Trump to be God’s instrument. They would have found that shocking. I did, as did many other Americans.

To put the question in its starkest form: How is it, then, that religious belief can be both foundational to American democracy and a profound threat to it? Read more »

The Scourge of Religious and Political Disinformation

by Thomas Larson

For those of us who classify ourselves as Nones—about 27 percent of the population, a broadminded, semi-coalition of nonreligious people—we must often remind the God-fearing that our goal is to live free from the fake martyrdom of those who say their right to worship and proselytize their faith is being denied. The allegation of censorship that many religions promulgate against the nonreligious has been a reliable untruth since the nation’s founding. But it seems never as hyped as it has been recently.

We know the tired, recycled charges. The “radical left” has started a war on Christmas, downgrading Christ’s birth to a “holiday.” College liberals so detest Christians that they try and denigrate their campus organizations or muzzle their speakers. Houses of worship and their arm-swaying congregants have been forbidden under Covid-19 lockdowns to gather. Christian film and music stars, especially country singers, have a tougher time getting gigs than their secular counterparts since the entertainment industry is biased against the faithful.

This is mumbo-jumbo. Just look at the cultural and historical force of Christianity in America where 70 percent are looped in: the massive voting blocs of Catholics and Evangelicals, the millions of crosses on church steeples seen everywhere, the two-dozen Christian channels that proliferate on my DirectTV, the solicitation of God on our money and in our pledge of allegiance, the Christ-adoring superstars from Reba McEntire to Chris Pratt, and the testimonials after Covid scourges or West Coast firestorms by those who survived, apparently, due to divine intervention. Read more »

Visual Histories: Peter de Swart and Rachelle Reichert

by Timothy Don

The current economic crisis is crushing artists, museums, and galleries everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, an exorbitant rental market made maintaining a practice difficult before this crisis hit. It’s even harder now. With 3QD’s permission, I’m going to use this column to talk about the work of some of the artists and art professionals I have met here. I ask you to support artists wherever and however you can.

Peter de Swart, works on paper: Triptych

The triptych form is associated with religious painting. It first appeared as a feature of early Christian art and became popular for altar paintings and devotionals during the Middle Ages. While Peter de Swart’s Triptych is not overtly religious, it emanates an undeniably religious or spiritual aura. It is, in a word, numinous. To encounter this painting is to witness a sacred transaction. You’d have to be a stone to look at it and not experience a yearning for the divine. Why, apart from its rearticulation of the history and symbolism of the triptych form, is that?

It must have something to do, first of all, with the simple purity of the object pictured, which appears to be a bowl of some sort. Bowls are one of those inventions (like scissors or chopsticks or the hourglass) that we got right the first time. They were perfect the moment they appeared. In the bowl, function lives harmoniously with form. Its shape is so ideal as to be almost Platonic. Furthermore, bowls are used to prepare and serve food and drink, which means that they give sustenance, enable shared meals, and consequently help to strengthen communal bonds and deepen human relationships. Finally, bowls are vessels. Like hands and pockets and ships, they hold and contain and convey things—but they are not grasping like hands, nor like pockets do they secret away their contents, and they don’t trade goods and gold like ships. Quite the opposite, in fact: Bowls are generous, open, gratuitous. They give away the things they hold.

All of these attributes (form, use value, ethos) lend bowls a quasi-spiritual redolence, but they do not make bowls sacred. If this triptych depicted a bowl no different from any other bowl, then its effect would be decorative rather than numinous. This bowl is special. Again we must ask: Why is that? Read more »

Gods: What Are They Good For?

by Thomas O’Dwyer

“There is no question I love her deeply … I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day with her, our bottle of champagne … She says she thinks of me all the time (as I do of her) and her only fear is that being apart, we may gradually cease to believe that we are loved, that the other’s love for us goes on and is real. As I kissed her she kept saying, ‘I am happy, I am at peace now.’ And so was I.”

The monk Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama.
The monk Thomas Merton and the young Dalai Lama.

These romantic diary entries of a middle-aged man smitten with a new love would seem unremarkable, commonplace, but for one thing. The author was a Trappist monk, a priest in one of the most strict Catholic monastic orders, bound by vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and silence. Moreover, he was world famous in his monkishness as the author of best-selling books on spirituality, monastic vocation and contemplation. He was credited with drawing vast numbers of young men into seminaries around the world during the last modern upsurge of religious fervour after World War II. Two years after this tryst, the world’s most famous monk was found dead in a room near a conference centre in Bangkok, Thailand. He was on his back, wearing only shorts, electrocuted by a Hitachi floor-fan lying on his chest. In the tabloids there were dark mutterings of divine retribution, suicide, even a CIA murder conspiracy.

So passed Thomas Merton, who shot to fame in 1948 when he published his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain. It was the tale of a journey from a life of “beer, bewilderment, and sorrow” to a seminary in the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. A steady output of books, essays and poems made him one of the best known and loved spiritual writers of his day. It also made millions of dollars for his Trappist monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson county, Kentucky. Because of him, droves of demobbed soldiers and marines clamoured to become monks. Read more »

Why should I respect your stupid opinion?

by Emrys Westacott
You have been called for jury service. The trial is complex and much hangs on the relative credibility of different witnesses, particularly those offering expert testimony regarding whether a certain medicine is likely to produce aggressive behavior as one of its side effects. A professional psychiatrist called by the defense testifies that in his opinion this effect is very likely. During cross examination, however, the wily prosecuting counsel manages to unearth a surprising, seemingly irrelevant, but nonetheless startling fact about this “expert”: he believes that aliens from space landed in the Nevada desert around 1965 and now effectively control all branches of government using advanced mind-control technology. The “expert” has in fact published several articles arguing for his views in the journal Alien Watch, and is a founding member of MASA (Mankind Against Space Aliens).
FondaWhen the jury eventually retire to deliberate, it is not long before these beliefs become the focus of attention. One juror refers to the expert as “that nutcase who believes in UFOs.” Another calls him a “crank.” A third describes him as “cuckoo.” Inevitably, his beliefs about aliens damage the credibility of his other testimony in the eyes of some jurors, even though he undoubtedly has the requisite qualifications to be considered a legitimate expert on the side effects of certain medicines.
One juror, however, playing the role of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, resists this wave of skepticism. “Did anyone notice,” she says, “that the expert called by the prosecution wore a crucifix around her neck? This ‘expert' may well believe that a man called Jesus walked on top of the sea, changed water into wine, came back to life after being executed, and ascended to heaven on a cloud. I hate to be awkward, but to my way of thinking these beliefs are even more incredible than the idea that space invaders landed in the desert. After all, the belief about aliens—unlike orthodox Christianity–doesn't assume anything supernatural or contrary to the scientific view of nature.”
Listening to the debate, you feel yourself pulled in two directions. On the one hand, you can't help agreeing with those inclined to question the judgment of someone who believes the government is controlled by aliens from outer space. On the other hand, supposing for the sake of the argument that your general outlook on the world is thoroughly secular, you sympathize with the view that many orthodox religious beliefs are just as implausible. So you find yourself astride a paradox.

Read more »

Karl Marx’s Guiding Idea

by Emrys Westacott


“Nothing human is alien to me.” This was Karl Marx's favourite maxim, taken from the Roman writer, Terrence. But I think that if Marx had lived a century later, he might have added as a second choice the famous phrase sung by Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so.” For together these two sayings capture a good deal of what I think of as Marx's Guiding Idea, the idea at the heart of his philosophy that remains as valuable and as relevant today as in his own time. Let me explain.

Human beings have been around for a few million years, and for most of that time most people's material and social circumstances have been quite stable. The experiences of one generation were pretty much the same as the experiences of their forbears. In this respect the lives of humans were like those of other animals. Unlike other animals, however, human beings reflect on their lives and circumstances; moreover they communicate these reflections to one another. The result is religion, mythology, philosophy, history, literature, and the performing arts (all of which can arise within a purely oral culture), and eventually the natural sciences, and social studies of various kinds, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political theory.

These diverse forms of reflection on the human condition perform various functions. One function is to explain why things are the way they are. For instance, the bible explains why the Israelites lived in Israel (God made a promise to Abraham, and kept it, enabling Joshua's army to conquer the land); the theory of the four humours purported to explain personality differences between individuals. Another function is to justify a certain order of things. Thus, the doctrine of the divine right of kings sought to justify the institution of a powerful executive who stands above the law. The doctrine that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression is often cited to justify a policy of religious tolerance.

These two functions are sometimes hard to disentangle. For example, the alleged cultural inferiority of a people might be taken both to explain why they have been conquered and to justify that conquest as legitimate or even desirable. The “laws” of market competition provide an explanation of why some individuals and businesses do better than others, and these same laws are appealed to by those inclined to endorse the the outcome of the competition.

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A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists

by David V. Johnson

UnamumoIn “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.

“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”

When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”

Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.

The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.

The question is why.

Read more »

Washed Away

by Gautam Pemmaraju

It is that time of year in Bombay when the city collectively awaits relief from the heat and humidity of the summer months. “The creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything” (see here) is but round the corner, and if recent newspaper reports are to believed, relief from the sweltering heat aside, we are to expect a graver visitation – “the ghost of 2005”. It was on July 26th of that year that the city witnessed an event of unprecedented magnitude. Lashed by rains in excess of 944mm within 24 hours, the flooded city came to a standstill, hundreds died, and the loss of property was enormous. Of biblical nature, much like the hurricanes and tsunamis that have wreaked havoc across the globe in recent times, the flooding was truly, a deluge. A dangerous combination of high tidal movements and higher than normal rainfall are anticipated in June and July this year, according to the city's civic authority, and this indeed was a primary cause for the dramatic 2005 flooding. The colonial era hierarchical network of storm water drains was overwhelmed, and the rushing waters that would have otherwise been carried out to sea, were spat back upon the city, and effectively, in the words of a civic official I spoke to more than a year ago, “the roads became the storm water drains”.

Turner-delugeI was amongst the lucky that did not venture out early that day, but instead saw the onset of the storm from my balcony. The skies darkened rapidly shortly after noon as if in a time-lapse shot, and as it began to rain, the light progressively failed till it became almost pitch dark past two in the afternoon. The electricity went out. I could barely make out the large rubber tree right across from me, and as for the neighbouring building Immaculata, I could no longer discern its shape. It appeared as if I were staring at an opaque curtain, so densely composed of water, that it seemed to be of one seamless form, rather than of discrete water droplets. It seemed, as I sat out watching in bewilderment, that everything around me was, “enchafed”, and I could only but darkly imagine the condition of the sea, a short walk away from where I was.

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The Industrious God

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Temple-balaji-7The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.

A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.

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On the Gods of Horses

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse 220px-Busto_Jenófanes

The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?

The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:

If horses or oxen or lions had hands

or if they could draw with their hands and

produce works like men,

horses would draw the figures of the gods as

similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,

and they would make the bodies

of the sort which each of them had.

The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:

Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;

Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.

The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.

To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?

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Dishonest to Whom?

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. TalisseWarnock Dishonest to God

Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010) is an ambitious book. In it, Warnock distinguishes religion from morality, demonstrates the dependence of religious reasoning on moral reasoning, and argues that religious perspectives are nevertheless crucial for social and political life. We have a review of the book forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine. For the most part, we are in agreement with Warnock. But we do have some disagreements, and we want to focus here on one aspect of Warnock’s view that strikes us as especially troublesome, namely, Warnock’s conception of the value of religion in a secular society.

Warnock’s case in favor of religion is broadly consequentialist. She holds that religious institutions and practices should be sustained because, on balance, they are socially beneficial. Warnock contends that – unlike morality and the rule of law – religion is not necessary for civil society; yet she insists that “there is no possible argument for holding religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or by any other imaginative exercise” (159). Surely this is overstated. No possible argument for the social dispensability of religion? Really? Actual arguments for this conclusion are easy to find. Consider Hegel’s argument at the end of the Phenomenology that religion must give way to art and philosophy in public life. Or John Dewey’s argument in A Common Faith that the social and experiential benefits of religious life can be detached from religion and subsumed under a more substantive conception of democratic community, leaving religion to wither away.

It is likely that Warnock means to claim that there is no good argument for the dispensability of religion; that is, Warnock means to deny that there could be an argument for the dispensability of religion which gives religion its due.

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Of Quislings and Science: Reflecting on Mark Vernon, The Templeton Prize and Richard Dawkins

by Tauriq Moosa

Richard_Dawkins_080430103832597_wideweb__300x375 Recently, Sir Martin Rees was awarded the most lucrative science-prize in the world, The Templeton Prize. Notice I said ‘lucrative’; not most respected or prestigious, though some indeed do think it is. This prize is awarded because it, according to its official website, “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” It is given to those “who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality” – a sentence worthy of a tacky Hallmark card.

Sir Martin is in the company of £1,000,000 sterling and Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. Indeed, I wonder if that amount is enough to sway anyone, so that he or she is mentioned in the same breath as these fanatics. The point being there is little that is, by definition, about science. The Templeton Foundation and Prize is about promoting notions of the Divine, in whatever loose language you can fathom, using something vaguely non-Divine in approach. If you can anchor your pursuits that effect the world, dealing with sick people (not aiding) like Mother Theresa, or probing the mysteries of the universe with an appreciation for its beauty or possible higher purpose, then you qualify. They’ve melted the solid idea of the theistic god down into liquid form, so it slips through any pretention even when the person awarded the prize is not religious. Like Sir Martin Rees.

If Sir Martin donates it all to Oxfam, I would have little to quarrel with it suppose, except I think any scientist who doesn’t think there’s a conflict between faith and reason or science and religion is wrong. But that’s another discussion. What interests me about this whole episode was not the prize itself but the views that arose concerning the atheist culture wars. I’m interested particularly in ex-Anglican-priest-turned-“agnostic” Mark Vernon’s ever-banal criticisms of Richard Dawkins, as seen here (an ad hominem attack), here (how Dawkins is doing nothing new even though Vernon keeps writing about him), here (when Dawkins praises fellow writer, Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins is promoting hatred), here (Dawkins… groupthink… bus… bad), here (I don’t even know).

I rather enjoyed Dr Vernon’s books 42 and Plato’s Podcasts, so it is disappointing to see this usually clear, clever writer putting on the same performance each time Dawkins is mentioned in an online discussion or in the media. This is especially so when Vernon reflects on Sir Martin’s recent prize and… Richard Dawkins’ stridency. Yes. You obviously made that connection as quickly as I did. Vernon, expert bar none on how Dawkins should conduct himself publicly, has to write something… and it might as well be as Dawkins’ media nanny.

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Accommodationism and Atheism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Atheist-advertising-campa-0011 Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with
accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect. The accusation runs roughly as follows: “Respect” is merely a euphemism for soft-pedaling one’s criticisms of religion; but religion is a force of great evil, and thus must be fought with unmitigated vigor. Atheist calls for respect in dealing with religion simply reflect a failure of nerve, and must be called out. Anything less than an intellectual total war on religion is capitulation to, and thus complicity with, irrationality.

In our case, the charge of accommodationism as a failure of critical nerve is misplaced; anyone who actually reads our book will find that we pull no punches. But we also think that, as it is commonly employed in atheist circles, the idea of accommodationism involves a conflation between two kinds of evaluation which should be kept distinct. Some clarification is in order.

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Some thoughts about Poe’s Law

The website LandoverBaptist.com has posted headlines that run from the goofy (“What Can Pastor-Fred-Phelps-001 Christians Do to Help Increase Global Warming?” and “New Evidence Suggests Noah’s Sons Rode Flying Dinosaurs”) to the chilling (“Satan Calls Another Pope to Hell” and “Trade Us Your Voter’s Registration Card for Free Fried Chicken from Popeye’s”). The site is designed to parody the racism, scientific illiteracy, and religious bigotry widely attributed to American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. But, judging from the site’s posted mail, it seems that the general public does not recognize that the site is parodic. Most email responses begin by chastising the authors for not knowing the true meaning of Christianity, for having misinterpreted some quoted Bible passage, or for being hypocrites with respect to some point of contention. Very little of the posted mail actually confronts the owners and writers at Landover with what they are doing: presenting a grotesque, overblown, and bombastic parody of Christian religious life. LandoverBaptist.com’s mail bag has entries from its first days, and there has been a consistent failure on behalf of the writing public to recognize that the site is a parody. What gives? Poe’s Law (Wiki).

Nathan Poe is widely credited for formulating the eponymous law. He first noted a particular difficulty in an entry on a Christianforms.com chat page regarding creationism:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake (it) for the genuine article.

This is to say that unless there are unmistakable and explicit cues that one is being ironic or sarcastic, many parodies are not only likely to be interpreted as earnest contributions, they will, in fact, be indistinguishable in content to sincere expressions of the parodied view. The law can be fleshed out in a few ways, but the following thought capture the core of the Poe’s Law: For any webpage which parodies religious extremity, if the webpage has no overt cues of its status as parodic, no appeal to the page’s content can distinguish it from that of a webpage with sincerely expressed religiously extreme views. That a webpage is filled with Biblically-inspired scientific illiteracy, racism, or sexism doesn’t mean that the poster sincerely believes such things; the page might be a parody. Yet the problem is that this works in reverse as well. Blatant errors and blinding ignorance may mean that the poster is truly an immoral idiot. For every crazy thing on LandoverBaptist.com, there’s something just as (or maybe more) crazy on Godhatesfags.com. Looking just at the content, one cannot tell the difference between them.

Now, our objective here is not that of determining whether Poe’s Law is true. Our interest rather is in the effects of accepting it as true. What happens to interpersonal argument when disputants generally accept Poe’s Law? What are the effects of believing that a parodic expression of an extreme view is indistinguishable from a sincere expression of an extreme view?

To get a handle on the issue, consider first the straw man fallacy.

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Women’s Freedom – A Short Introduction to Why I Care

Womensrights Why have so many stopped fighting for women’s rights? We fight for “human” rights and discuss them as if they were a natural element of being human; groups lobby and defend, almost diabolically and with much vitriol, the rights of “animals” (species that are not human). Yet women’s rights, that better half of our species, remain a neglected element of secular discourse. It surprises me that so few of those who consider themselves secular humanists do anything concerning this important issue. This does not mean that many secular humanists do not think it important but there is a great divide between simply thinking it important and doing something to make it so. Not only do I think it important, I believe in my lifetime the liberation of woman, all over the world, for all time, is the single most important goal that we must defend, increase and enhance. The other goals which many of us long for, freedom of speech, lack of coercion, and so on, all are part of, and tributaries within, this pathway. By fighting for women, we fight for free speech and liberty; by defending their rights, we defend human rights; by finding the cause for their oppression we cease the cycle of violence and poverty within families around the world. Reports have suggested that a decrease in women’s freedom correlates to an increase in religious fanaticism. This does not mean that once women are free, all over the world, religious dogmatism, backward political regimes and patriarchal bullying will be banished from the earth; but there is little debate that the fight in itself will lead to a greater amount of freedom, more happiness and will result in woman no longer being the fodder for the religious wrath of backward mullahs and reverends.

According to estimates, which have more than likely increased, 70 percent of the two billion poor are women; two thirds of illiterate adults are women; employment rates for women are declining after increasing (yes, of course, the world wars are now over). At the same time many women are forced into veils and burqas, burnt for merely looking at men, stoned to death or buried alive for adultery, forced into sex, pregnancy and delivering HIV-infected children because they were raped, but if they were to report it, they would either be raped again, executed, exiled from their village or town or family. While this happens, the fashion industry booms with make-up and high-heels and plastic models and girls as thin as the paper they are pictured on, presenting us with yet another contrast to whether women really are in control of their bodies even in supposedly liberated societies. That is an issue unto itself, which I am not focused on, but it certainly should give us pause considering the areas we are dealing with. Modern writers, in the secular West, tell women to go back to the kitchen, obey the husband, be a mother, tie an umbilical cord around the house and hang themselves from it. “Feminine is good,” says women’s rights author, Nikki van der Gaag, “feminism is bad.” A lot of feminist views, philosophy and political goals truly deserve scorn, since they replace one tyranny with another; are subject to faith-based, dogmatic adherence rather than calculated sex equality. The vengeful world of patriarchal accident has given birth to a malicious view toward its women. As this highlights, the malicious desire is one of control – but I do not wish to instil Orwellian fears in big governments and little men.

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Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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Between Wole Soyinka and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Lamenting the presence of Nigeria on the US government’s list of “countries of interest” (in the war on terror), Nigerian writer and first African Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka told British journalist Tunku Varadarajan, at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January: “[Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] did not get radicalized in Nigeria. It happened in England, where he went to university.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is the 23 year old Nigerian man whose arrest on Christmas Day 2009 while attempting to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound plane caused the country's blacklisting.


In 2005, at the age of 19, Umar Farouk enrolled in the University College London (UCL), for a degree in ‘Engineering with Business Finance’, after high school at a British-curriculum school in Togo. From all indications UCL kept the young man busy. In his second year he was elected President of the Student Union’s Islamic Society, organizing a “War on Terror Week” during his tenure.

Soyinka’s England

Five decades before Umar Farouk became a student in England, Wole Soyinka was admitted to the University of Leeds. In October 1954 the future Nobel Laureate left the sleepy city of Ibadan, Western Nigeria (where he was studying at the University College), for England. He was 20. Soyinka would spend the next six years in England, returning to Nigeria on the eve of the country’s independence from Britain.

Wole372ready It can be argued that England was the breeding ground for Mr. Soyinka’s genius; the playwright was, in a sense, forged between the stiff upper lips of Poundland. It wasn’t only Soyinka the playwright that was made in England. Soyinka the father was too. He would during his time in that country fall in love with an English woman, who in 1957 bore him a son, his first.

When Mr. Soyinka left for England, the Nigeria he was leaving behind was merely one colony in an Empire that stretched across the world, and Mr. Soyinka was a subject of the Queen of England. The England he was leaving for was not the one in which multiracialism had become the politically correct thing; this was still an England that wore its racism rather comfortably on its sleeves. One of Mr. Soyinka’s most anthologized poems dates back to that time, a cheeky send-up of racism, which to all intents may have been autobiographical:

It features a young black man in England, speaking on the phone with a potential landlady. The phone conversation is a prelude to a face-to-face meeting. But he feels the need to make a “self-confession”:

“Madam,” I warned, / “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.” / Silence.

The landlady’s interest is piqued.

“HOW DARK?”. . . “ARE YOU LIGHT / OR VERY DARK?” she wants to know. She repeats herself, for emphasis.

“You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?” the narrator suggests. Then he has a color-coded brainwave. “West African sepia,” he concludes.

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