Secular Right | Reality & Reason

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Nov/13

22

Finding order where there is none

jfk-assassinationVia Andrew Sullivan, Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ examination of American conspiracism in New York magazine:

The seduction of conspiracy is the way it orders chaos.

Hmmm, that sounds like another phenomenon I could mention, which makes this entertainingly ironic :

In the summer of 1964, the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell—past 90 years old then and possibly the most famously rational person on the planet—read the early accounts of the Warren Commission Report with mounting alarm. None of the important questions, he thought, were being answered. There was the matter of the parade route being changed without explanation at the last minute, so that the motorcade passed Lee Harvey Oswald’s workplace; the geometrically confounding arrangement of entry and exit wounds; the curious fact that an alibi witness who helped get an alternate suspect released from custody turned out to be a stripper at Jack Ruby’s club. The logician went to work. Meticulously, Russell documented the discrepancies between each first-person account and the divergences between each report in the media. He gave his document a modest, scientific-sounding title (“16 Questions on the Assassination”) and a just-the-facts tone….

Bertrand, Bertrand, Bertrand.

Just another reminder that the impulses that played such a part in the creation of religious belief will always be with us.

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Sep/13

29

Science and Economics

NooooCross-posted on Ricochet:

The Guardian:

One of Saudi Arabia’s leading conservative clerics has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom’s male-only driving rules.

A campaign calling for women to defy the ban in a protest drive on 26 October has spread rapidly online over the past week and gained support from prominent women activists. On Sunday, the campaign’s website was blocked inside the kingdom.

As one of the 21 members of the senior council of scholars, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan can write fatwas, or religious edicts, advise the government and has a large following among other influential conservatives.

His comments have in the past played into debates in Saudi society and he has been a vocal opponent of tentative reforms to increase freedoms for women by King Abdullah, who sacked him as head of a top judiciary council in 2009.

In an interview published on Friday on the website sabq.org, he said women aiming to overturn the ban on driving should put “reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions”.

Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister and a figure that The Economist persists in describing as “mildly Islamist”, reminds an audience that Turkish women are not, in his view, having nearly enough children (the birth rate in Turkey is a little over 2, a tally that has, mercifully, fallen by more than a half since the late 1970s);

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has urged a group of women in Mediterranean Turkish province of Denizli to have at least four children rather than his previously advised three…Erdoğan has noted in the past that Turkey’s annual population growth rate should be at least 2.5 percent and if Turkey continued with its existing trend, its population would rapidly become an aging one after the 2030s. Erdoğan has also linked aging populations and low birth rates in European countries to economic recession.

And that last sentence tells you all that you need to know about Erdoğan’s grasp of economics. The European recession has many causes, most notably a dysfunctional single currency, but the continent’s low birth rate is not one of them.

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Aug/13

17

Pastoral Care

Snake handlersThe BBC reports:

Some young HIV patients are giving up their medicine after being told by Pentecostal Church pastors to rely on faith in God instead, doctors warn.

Medical staff told the BBC a minority of pastors in England were endangering young church members by putting them under pressure to stop medication. Healing is central to Pentecostalism, a radical belief in the power of prayer and miracles. But one pastor denied people would ever be told to stop taking their medicine….

Pentecostal pastor Stevo Atanasio, from the East London Christian Church, said that among his congregation, blind people had recovered sight, deaf people had heard again, and what were considered terminal illnesses had been cured.

“We don’t say to people ‘don’t take your medication don’t go to the doctor’. I mean we never say that,” he said.

Pentecostalism is booming. The number of Pentecostal churches in London, for example, has doubled since 2005. The overall number of incidents of HIV patients being told to give up medicine is thought to consist of a minority of churches and a small group of people. But the Rev Israel Olofinjana, who is a former Pentecostal pastor and now a Baptist minister, said he had seen it happening.

“I’ve heard languages like that – ‘put your trust in God, don’t put your trust in medicine’.”

He said many of these churches served migrants with an exalted view of the authority of pastors.

“Within the context of African churches, if you’re coming from a culture where the pastor is like your fathers or mothers, like your community keepers, the word of your pastor becomes very important,” he explained.

“It becomes very significant… there is a minority who say ‘because God can heal absolutely… what’s the need for medicine?’.”

Dr Steve Welch, who is chairman of the Children’s HIV Association, said it found it difficult to engage with the faith leaders of churches where healing was an integral part of the worship.

Ah multiculturalism, working out well as usual, I see.

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Aug/13

8

Round and Round

2001Over at the American Conservative, Noah Millman is frustrated by the nature of the debate between scientists (or “science popularizers”) and theists.

I feel like we go around this track every other month. A scientist or science-popularizer writes an unpersuasive essay arguing that science “proves” that religion is bad for children and other living things; a theist responds with an unpersuasive essay arguing that without some grounding in the divine, we’re doomed to become Nazis.

Millman makes some leaps that I wouldn’t, but this is worth noting:

It’s almost as if neither side can accept the possibility that religion is a natural phenomenon. Steven Pinker wrote a whole book against the idea that we can simply ignore our innate natures when we concoct schemes for social improvement. How, then, can he blithely assume that we can, as a species, move beyond a phenomenon – religion – as old as our knowledge of ourselves?

Fair point. We cannot. Religion will always be with us in some shape or form. It’s that shape and that form—and how to house it—that should really concern us.

Anyway, read the whole piece. Food for thought.

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Jun/13

3

Science & Conspiracy

polio_vaccineDaniel Pipes:

The polio disease was on the verge of eradication when Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, president of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria and a physician, suggested at about this time in 2003 that the vaccination program in his country was part of a Western conspiracy to render Muslim children infertile. His call for an end to the polio immunization campaign touched a nerve and spread to other Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria, causing the vaccination process to slow down and incidences of the disease to pick up.

From Nigeria, this dual phenomenon of conspiracy theory and re-appearance of the disease then expanded to Muslims internationally. (For an outline of its progress over the past ten years, see my long weblog entry.) So closely connected have Islam and polio become that the Muslim-only pilgrimage to Mecca became a major mechanism of transmitting the disease to faraway places like Indonesia.

By now, Ahmed’s paranoia has sent the new wave of polio from Nigeria to Muslim populations in at least 17 other African countries and 6 Asian countries…

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Apr/13

22

Earth Day!

WhateverCross-posted on the Corner:

Over at AEI Mark Perry celebrates Earth Day with quotes from Steven Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist, including this:

[E]nvironmentalists — at least the ones I have met — have no real interest in maintaining the tree population. If they did, they would seriously inquire into the long-term effects of recycling. I suspect that they don’t want to do that because their real concern is with the ritual of recycling itself, not with its consequences. The underlying need to sacrifice, and to compel others to sacrifice, is a fundamentally religious impulse.

That took me to the chapter specifically cited by Perry, which is well worth reading in full. Here’s an extract:

As environmentalism becomes increasingly like an intrusive state religion, we dissenters become increasingly prickly about suggestions that we suffer from some kind of aberration. The naive environmentalism of my daughter’s preschool is a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious Fundamentalism. The antidote to bad religion is good science. The antidote to astrology is the scientific method, the antidote to naive creationism is evolutionary biology, and the antidote to naive environmentalism is economics.

Economics is the science of competing preferences. Environmentalism goes beyond science when it elevates matters of preference to matters of morality…. But in the…years since the first Earth Day, a new and ugly element has emerged in the form of one side’s conviction that its preferences are Right and the other side’s are Wrong. The science of economics shuns such moral posturing; the religion of environmentalism embraces it.

Amen.

Apr/13

22

Leon Kass is not alone (Sadly)

BreughelLepersVia Andrew Sullivan we have this piece by William B. Hurlbut, Consulting Professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University Medical Center, a man of science, who is, it turns out, also a fan of the benevolently deranged Francis of Assisi.

There’s plenty in the article for those with an interest in Francis himself, but I was more interested in this:

The traditional role of medicine, for example, has been to cure disease and alleviate suffering, to restore and sustain the patient to a natural level of functioning and wellbeing. The medical arts were in the service of a wider reverence and respect for the order of the created world: “the physician is only nature’s assistant,” as the Roman healer Galen explained.

But now, armed with the powers of biotechnology, medicine has found a new paradigm, one of liberation: technological transformation in the quest for happiness and human perfection. Slowly but steadily the role of medicine has been extended, driven by our appetites and ambitions, to encompass dimensions of life not previously considered matters of health, with the effect of altering and revising the very frame of nature. Increasingly, we expect from medicine not just freedom from disease but freedom from all that is unattractive, imperfect, or just inconvenient. More recent proposals, of a still more ambitious scope, include projects for the conquest of aging, neurological fusion of humans and machines, and fundamental genetic revision and guided evolution — for transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens.

The danger is immediately evident…

It is? Danger? This all sounds splendid, although count me skeptical as to how far we will get any time soon towards, uh, transhumans, posthumans, and technosapiens. I’m still waiting for flying cars and Moonbase Alpha (which was due sometime before 1999).

Hurlbut continues:

In the absence of any concept of cosmic order, where the material and the moral flow forth from a single creative source, all of living nature becomes mere matter and information to be reshuffled and reassigned for projects of the human will.

Well, that absence is what it is. Hurlbut may be uncomfortable with the consequences, but they are what they are—and they need to be faced. He may wish to believe in a “cosmic order” (a fantasy that takes many forms, in any event), but he ought not to be surprised that there are those that disagree that such a thing exists and are thus reluctant to comply with its supposed rules. But that is not necessarily cause for despair. Experience shows that humility and caution in matters of this type are a matter of commonsense, and commonsense has a way, quite often, of winning out. As, if less frequently, does kindness:

Genetically engineered featherless chickens for cheaper pot pies and leaner pigs with severe arthritis are a violation of basic kindness and courtesy.

Well yes.

There’s a great deal more from Hurlbut, and, much of it like the writings of Leon Kass, is, in its glorification or, at least, inshallah acceptance of suffering, as morbid, and, in its implications, as revolting as some of the more lurid iconography of Christian martyrdom. It’s sad to see such words flowing from the pen or keyboard of a doctor who will in his own career surely have done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of others. Such are the contradictions of religious faith.

And then there’s this:

[O]ne can sense a wisdom in the severity and self-denial that were, for Francis, inseparable from the source of his joy. He had rediscovered an ancient truth in the inversion of desire, not as a negation of being but as a positive passion. In the image of the Lord, he emptied himself and received all things back renewed, purified, and restored in their divine glory.

When I read that, I see only an expression of a millennial asceticism that in our modern era has found expression not in the kindly ramblings of an oddball hippy saint, but in revolution, gulag, and the emptied streets of Phnom Penh.

Compared with that, biotechnological advance is relatively risk-free…

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Apr/13

21

Such Sweet Suffering

galileotrial2The Wall Street Journal has interviewed “eminent bioethicist” (itself a contradiction in terms) Leon Kass. The trigger was the Gosnell trial, but it was this aspect of Kass’s remarks that drew my attention:

Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with [anti-abortion] advocates. The movement’s narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that “abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness.”

“Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology,” he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.

Not that, again. Of course, we need never to forget the terrible lessons of early twentieth century eugenics, but re-read those comments and what you see emerging beneath those soothing words about “dignity” is a morbid and sentimental attachment to suffering, and a profound contempt for the human mind:

“Killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story,” he says. “I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future.”

And the corollary of this paranoid, mystical nonsense about a “new threat” is that the state, aided and abetted doubtless by a self-appointed (and sometimes taxpayer-funded) coterie of wise men, will decide that they know best where scientific inquiry should go.

Galileo, phone your lawyer.

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Apr/13

7

“Islamophobia”

IslamophobiaIn an earlier post here, Mr. Hume and Jackson Doughart, reacting to an exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris, discuss (amongst many things) the way that the notion of ‘Islamophobia’ has been used to try to stifle those who have shall, we say, problems with hardline Islam.

The whole debate between Harris and Greenwald is in fact well worth reading in full (Harris easily has the best of it). I’d highlight this from Harris:

There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.

Did you happen to see The Book of Mormon? Do you know how the Mormons protested this attack upon their faith? They placed ads for Mormonism in the Playbill. Imagine staging a similar production about Islam: Would it be “bizarre and wholly irrational” for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to worry that the Muslim community might have a different response?

Quite.

And this (Harris is quoting himself from 2006):

Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.

While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.

The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.

That analysis was (and is) an overstatement, and in the seven years since Harris wrote that passage, awareness of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has broadened further, as has, in some-still too rare-instances, the willingness to push back. Nevertheless, the situation is still such that, for all their overreach and occasional nuttiness, we should still be grateful for the efforts of the made-in-Ukraine feminists of Femen. Writing in the Guardian here’s Jonathan Jones on their latest :

She’s topless. She’s angry. And she is, literally, taking liberties. The activist in this picture [link here] took part in a protest in Paris in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who has been targeted by Islamists after she put a bare-breasted picture of herself on her Facebook page in March with the words “Fuck Your Morals” and “My Body Belongs To Me, And Is Not The Source Of Anyone’s Honour” painted across her chest.

Both Tyler and this activist are members of Femen, the radical feminist group that originated in the Ukraine and specialises in topless politics. Hackers attacked Femen’s Tunisian Facebook page replacing pictures with texts from the Qur’an, while a prominent cleric has suggested Tyler might be stoned.

So here is a picture of Femen’s response – it declared 4 April to be International Topless Jihad Day, and protesters duly took their clothes off in Paris.

And you thought this stuff was complicated. Religious traditions, respect for cultural difference, fear of legitimating Islamophobia … You’d think twice about declaring a jihad on Islamic attitudes to women and their bodies, right?

Not Femen. This picture is gloriously crude. At a time of tight-lipped liberal relativism when even the president of the United States is damned careful what he says about Islam, here is a woman bearing her body, quoting Tyler’s anti-religious slogan, wearing a pseudo-jihadist black scarf over her face. Clearly, the protest is provocative – even in Paris, where this man who may be religiously offended, or just offended by women in general, appears to be kicking her.

Already, the New Statesman has weighed in with a critique of Femen’s “jihad”, arguing that it is naive to defend the rights of women in north Africa in this cheerfully secular way. But what is so wrong with stating a clear principle?

Tyler has asserted in her own words, on her own body, that she belongs to herself and is not an object of moral scrutiny or male honour. This is fair enough, no? She is claiming freedoms and rights taken for granted in most democratic countries – but which are frowned on and suppressed and violently denied by religious conservatives. If Christian conservatives ran things here, our society would be hobbled and distorted and modern freedoms denied. Femen has indeed attacked Christianity as well as Islam. But in western Europe the church has very little real power over public morals. Islam does exert such power in north Africa. Tyler objects to this moral control. Is she wrong to do so? Why does this activist for freedom not deserve the same support the Arab spring got? Or is freedom only worth supporting when there is no possible conflict with Islam implied by all the romantic Arabist rhetoric?

Does this picture look to you like a foolish and ignorant attempt to intervene in Islam’s private concerns? Please explain why. Because to me it looks like a blast of honesty in a dishonest age…

Indeed it does.

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Mar/13

4

Trickster Padre

Padre PioI happened to come across this 2011 piece by CSI’s Joe Nickell the other day:

…In fact, notwithstanding the claims in uncritical biographies, Pio’s stigmata devolved—from bleeding wounds that could easily have been self-inflicted (like those of many fake stigmatists before and after, as I described in my 2001 book Real-Life X-Files) to merely discolored skin that appeared to have been irritated by the application of a caustic substance. Indeed, a bottle of carbolic acid was once discovered in the friar’s cell, and Luzzatto cites letters from Padre Pio in which Pio requests that carbolic acid, and at another time a caustic alkaloid, be secretly delivered to him. Eventually Pio began wearing fingerless gloves, supposedly to cover his stigmata out of pious humility; however, to me, the practice seems instead a shrewd move to eliminate the need to continually self-inflict wounds.

Nor were the fake stigmata the friar’s only deception. Years before, Pio had written numerous letters to his spiritual directors describing his mystical experiences; however, it is now known that he copied these words verbatim from the writings of stigmatic Gemma Galgani (1878–1903) without acknowledging they were hers. And that is not all: Pio attempted to divert suspicion from his plagiarism by asking for help in procuring copies of Galgani’s books—saying he would very much like to read them!

…By the time of his death in 1968, Pio’s stigmata had disappeared, but that was effectively remedied in death. Although there was no need to cover his hands and feet—and indeed Capuchin rule forbids the wearing of socks—Pio’s “father guardian,” Father Carmelo of San Giovanni in Galdo, worried that the absence of stigmata might cause a faulty rush to judgment. Carmelo therefore had Padre Pio’s hands and feet covered, as if the covering still concealed his allegedly holy gift. And so the deception continued.

In 2002, the late friar was canonized Saint Pio of Pietrelcina—not for the stigmata he was so famous for but for his healings that were, with due illogic, assumed miraculous because they were said to be inexplicable. And when his remains were exhumed for display forty years after his death, those hoping his body would be found incorrupt… or that it would still exhibit the stigmata, were disappointed. The embalmed corpse had deteriorated sufficiently that it required a silicon mask—complete with bushy eyebrows and beard—fashioned by a London wax museum. Of the supposedly supernatural wounds there was not a trace.

Oh well.

That the friar was a fake is no great surprise, That the Capuchins forbid socks, on the other hand…

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