Archive for March 2009
Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy in Afghanistan, has been told he will spend the next 20 years in jail after the country’s highest court ruled against him – without even hearing his defence.
The 23-year-old, brought to worldwide attention after an Independent campaign, was praying that Afghanistan’s top judges would quash his conviction for lack of evidence, or because he was tried in secret and convicted without a defence lawyer. Instead, almost 18 months after he was arrested for allegedly circulating an article about women’s rights, any hope of justice and due process evaporated amid gross irregularities, allegations of corruption and coercion at the Supreme Court. Justices issued their decision in secret, without letting Mr Kambaksh’s lawyer submit so much as a word in his defence.
The notion that a bright line can be drawn between ‘Science’ and ‘Politics’ is as often used to mislead as to enlighten. The stem cell controversy was always about more than the science and it was typically disingenuous of President Obama to pretend otherwise. Quite how disingenuous is highlighted by this piece in the Economist, which notes the irony implicit in the fact that the president has also taken it upon himself to condemn human cloning for reproductive purposes as “profoundly wrong” (indeed he has said that it should be prohibited). Now Mr. Obama may or may not be right about this (the answer, I suspect, is that it rather depends…) but his own comments show that when it comes to this whole field, the debate will be anything but just-the-science. It would be a great deal healthier if everyone could just admit it.
Mr. Hume’s post on “Religion & Age” left hanging the question whether there might be a general trend for individuals to get more religious as they get older. The Inductivist has taken up the issue. He says no.
Many other bloggers besides ourselves noticed the absurd and unconstitutional proposal floated in Connecticut’s Judiciary Committee to order the Roman Catholic Church to turn its governance over to boards of laypeople. Prawfsblawg carries the text of a stern letter written by one leading law-and-religion scholar, Douglas Laycock, and signed by a dozen others, including Eugene Volokh and Kate Stith. Following a loud outcry which quickly went national, the lawmakers identified with the bill have agreed to table it, and it’s dead for the session.
Many traditionalist Catholic commentators, like Kathryn Lopez at National Review, have promoted the view that the bill somehow constitutes “retribution” for the Catholic Church’s Culture War stands, specifically its promotion of Proposition 8 in California. (William Lori, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, has made the same claim.) “The bill is believed to be an act of political retribution for the Catholic church’s opposition to gay marriage,” Lopez writes, and then spends an entire interview eliciting vigorous assent to that proposition from her interviewee, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.
Reports from news organizations that have looked into the Connecticut controversy, however, tell a different story. (more…)
This report in Christian Science Monitor is getting some air time. It seems speculative & data-free to me, but I really don’t know much about evangelicals.
A follow up to Bradlaugh’s post. In the GSS you can look at religious identification as a function of age. Below the fold is a chart where each bar is a year from age 18 up to 88. 89 and up are aggregated as the last bar on the right. Nothing surprising, but the clarity of the trend is bracing.
From the news wire this morning:
A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the Roman Catholic population has been shifting out of the Northeast to the Southwest, the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and more people say they have no religion at all.
Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.
Northern New England surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region, with Vermont reporting the highest share of those claiming no religion, at 34 percent. Still, the study found that the numbers of Americans with no religion rose in every state.
“No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state,” the study’s authors said.
Sadly this fascinating piece by Lydia Aran on how Tibetan Buddhism has been rebranded for western consumption is trapped behind Commentary’s subscription wall, but this extract gives a good flavor:
Catering to the tastes of Western academics and New Age adepts alike, the diaspora establishment led by the Dalai Lama also began stressing the elements of the sacred and the mystical in Tibetan discourse. For both internal and foreign consumption, it selected for publication mostly religious texts, especially hagiographies, while barring critical historical analysis and allowing very few translations into Tibetan from other languages. For a long time, contact with foreign cultures was limited to a small, English-speaking elite…
…And yet, despite the achievements of recent scholarship, the Shangri-La image continues to enjoy wide currency in the West, and not only among activists and partisans but among reputable scholars as well. To illustrate, let me briefly focus on the quality perhaps responsible more than any other for Tibet’s popularity in the West: namely, its allegedly deep-seated cultural affinity for nonviolence. Even a cursory look at history reveals that nonviolence has never been a traditional Tibetan practice, or a societal norm, or, for that matter, a teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Before the present Dalai Lama’s encounter with the Gandhian concept of ahimsa, no Dalai Lama had ever invoked nonviolence as a virtue. Nor does ahimsa—meaning the abstinence from causing injury to any living creature—have any equivalent in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
True, compassion (Tibetan snying rje, Sanskrit karuna) is an important religious and philosophical tenet, but it denotes above all the wish to save others from suffering by imparting to them Buddhist wisdom. In any case, it is not known ever to have been applied to political life in the way that, for instance, Gandhi took ahimsa as mandating a strategy of passive resistance to evil.
Pre-modern and modern Tibet engaged in many offensive campaigns against its neighbors, all of them sanctioned by Dalai Lamas. Domestically, too, Tibetan monasteries maintained private armies that were deployed in conflicts with the local government, with other monasteries, and sometimes even among schools within the same monastery. Fighting “dobdos” were known to constitute 15 percent of the monks of the great Gelugpa monasteries in and around Lhasa. Political rivalries were often settled by assassination. Some Dalai Lamas may have been kind and compassionate in person, but the historical record before 1960 unequivocally contradicts the image of a Dalai Lama preaching or practicing nonviolence.
Yet here is Robert Thurman, the well-known professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University—and a leading pro-Tibet activist—declaring that the great 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) was “a compassionate and peace-loving ruler who created in Tibet a unilaterally disarmed society.” And here, by way of contrast, are the instructions of the 5th Dalai Lama himself to his commanders, who had been ordered to subdue a rebellion in Tsang in 1660:
“Make the male lines like trees that have had their roots cut; make the female lines like brooks that have dried up in winter; make the children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against rocks; make the servants and followers like heaps of grass consumed by fire; make their dominion like a lamp whose oil has been exhausted; in short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.”
Yet another religion of peace, it would seem.
Interesting thread on abortion. Just a few at random.
• In Mr. Hume’s post and the comments threads we’ve so far turned up Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin as having carried out legislative actions suggesting that, at the least, they didn’t/don’t mind abortion very much. I’d add Margaret Thatcher, who IMS voted in Parliament for the 1967 bill that liberalized British abortion law, and certainly who as Prime Minister never made any move against the newly-liberalized abortion regime. So … tell me again how
you can’t be a conservative if you’re not anti-abortion?
[I can speak to the liberalization of the abortion laws in Britain in more detail, from observation and countless conversations in that country through the pre-1967 controversy. The two driving forces were (a) class, and (b) our old pal disgust. The class angle was the one most often heard in conversation. Under the old, quite strictly anti-abortion regime (still in force in Northern Ireland last time I looked), it was perfectly easy for well-off women — not rich, just upper-lower-middle-class and above — to get a hygienic abortion in a decent clinic. Everybody knew this. Even the price was well-known: it cost £200 in 1963-4 (about three months wages for a working-class man at the time). Working-class girls, however, had to resort to "back-alley" abortions: older women of the same class wielding bicycle pumps and shirt hangers. (Frank Sinatra's mum was in this line of business, I believe, so things were probably much the same over here, at any rate in Hoboken.) This was regarded as grossly unfair class-wise; and in post-WW2 Britain that was sufficient to get a political movement airborne. The disgust was directed at the biddies with the bicycle pumps. If people are intent on having abortions, as they obviously are, always and everywhere; and if, as is the case, it is rather easy for a doctor to write up the procedure as something else, at least for early abortions ("dilatation and curettage" was the usual formula, making it sound like a sort of gynecological house cleaning — "… and to my great surprise, there was an embryo in there!"); then at least let's make sure the thing is done to some medical standards. Those were the talking points behind abortion law reform in Britain. British people don't go in much for metaphysics. At least they didn't used to, when they were a sane nation.]
• Isn’t there any way to wean people off the silly, prissy, dishonest terminology of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”? What’s wrong with “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion”? That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it? Does anyone think the homicide rate among “anti-life” abortion liberalizers is higher than it is among “pro-lifers” (My guess would be, it’s lower.) I understand the marketing strategies here, but there is great clarification to be got from just using plain names for things.
• The whole idea of ensoulment is a fascinating topic in cognitive psychology. Doug Hofstadter has witty things to say about it in his 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop. The common human perception seems to be, though — contra one of the commentators here — that souls come in different sizes. Doug notes, for example, that the English word “magnanimity” and the Hindu (Sanskrit?) title “Mahatma” both mean “great-souled.” He attempts a quantification of soul-size, based on a unit called the huneker — you have to read the book to get that reference. There is a two-page discussion about the size of a mosquito’s soul, coming up at last with 10–10 hunekers, the average human soul size being of course 100 hunekers. Says Doug:
I have never been specific about the kinds of traits a high-huneker or low-huneker soul would tend to exhibit. Indeed, any hint at such a distinction risks becoming inflammatory, because in our culture there is a dogma that states, roughly, that all human lives are worth exactly the same amount.
You thus have one of those doublethink situations that cog-sci types get excited about: on the one hand, the intuition, universal and embodied in language, that some souls are bigger than others, on the other hand, a cultural dogma that all human souls are equi-capacitous. Prof. Pinker, call your office.
• Still on the cog-sci beat, I think the other reader is right that we have, as part of our mental equipment, a module that, for any other human being, computes a sort of “potential-for-accumulating-experience” quotient, and assigns the human being a value on that basis. This module likely only kicks in when confronted with an observable human being, though. Probably our brains just didn’t evolve to have valuation modules for embryos and fetuses, which we didn’t much encounter until recently. Following on from that, I’d guess that much of the salience of the abortion issue in modern life is driven by the good-quality medical imaging that’s become available in recent decades. I’d guess, in fact, that really good quality imaging of fetuses, if cheaply and widely available, would lead to public demands for earlier limits on legal abortion terms. The theocons can metaphysic all they want, but further policy/legal changes in this zone will likely be driven by things we can see and hear, and by the effects those things have on our emotions. Metaphysics butters no parsnips.
• I remember Nat Hentoff all right. He wrote the cover notes for the first British LP issue of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Sixties survivors don’t forget stuff like that.
Catholic sites are up in arms, and rightly so, about a measure called S.B. 1098, introduced March 5 in the Connecticut legislature, which would by law remove control of Roman Catholic parishes from bishops and place them instead in the hands of lay panels of not less than seven nor more than 13 members, who would be legally assured full control over most aspects of church management other than religious doctrine itself.
It’s still far from clear who’s sponsoring or promoting this measure; it’s a “Raised Bill”, a bit of local terminology with which I’m unfamiliar. The National Rifle Association, discussing an entirely different bill in Hartford the other day, says the “raised” terminology “means the concept was discussed and the committee voted in favor of drafting a bill for consideration”. Whoever is responsible for it, Rick Hills is right in dismissing it as “preposterous” and so obviously unconstitutional as to raise no issues of legal interest. The issue it raises instead is: how can lawmakers in one of the nation’s most highly educated states understand so little about America’s basic premises of religious liberty? Despite cries of anti-Catholicism, incidentally, there are a number of hints in the coverage that the bill may reflect the views of disgruntled lay Catholics, not persons affiliated with other religious traditions or with none at all. So there isn’t necessarily anything paradoxical in the fact of this proposal coming up in one of the nation’s most Catholic states, any more than there is a paradox in the prevalence of anti-clericalism in countries of overwhelming nominal Catholic affiliation like Mexico and Italy.
Speaking of legislative idiocy, Rep. Todd Thomsen has introduced a resolution in the Oklahoma legislature deploring the University of Oklahoma’s extension of a speaking invitation to Richard Dawkins (via Ron Bailey).
P.S. According to former Connecticut resident Dave Zincavage of Never Yet Melted, the meaning of “raised bill” is that “no individual member took the responsibility for sponsoring it, but rather a legislative committee (in this case the Judiciary Committee) discussed the idea and the committee then voted in favor of drafting a bill.” And more: The Greenwich Time (via Christopher Fountain) reports that Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, introduced the bill “at the request of members of St. John Church on the Post Road in Darien, where the former pastor, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, was convicted of stealing from parishioners over several years.”