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Archive for March 2010

Of the great mid-2000s tranche of “celebrity atheists,” each has his own distinctive style: the professorial Dennett, the street-fighter Hitchens, the smartypants Dawkins, and so on. For me at least, Sam Harris is the least distinctive of the crowd, the one who leaves the blurriest image in one’s mind.

Here’s Sam giving a presentation at the TED conference in California. It de-blurred the image some for me.

It did other things, too: fortified my suspicion that modern liberalism is a kind of religion, or at least draws on some of the theogenic modules of the human mind for its inspirations. It also left me thinking that the word “scientism,” as used pejoratively by believers, may not be as empty of semantic content as I’ve supposed.

Tremendously compressed précis of Sam’s talk: “There are indeed moral facts, but they are nothing like as relativistic as you’d infer from a study of anthropology or comparative religion.”  

Even more compressed précis: “There are indeed moral facts, and I know what they are!” 

Child-beating, for example, is wrong, according to Sam; that’s a moral fact, whatever the Bible says to the contrary.  (And presumably notwithstanding that child-beating has been routine practice for 99.99 percent of human history.)

It’s still a style of magical thinking, an appeal to the Transcendent — a claim to know the Transcendent in fact. (That the Transcendent exists in some style, I could easily be persuaded; that anyone knows anything about it, seems to me improbable at a very high order.) Yes, religious, really.

Contrariwise, the view of morality I myself find most plausible is the “grammar of action” notion put forward by (I think) Rawls. We have the capacity to react instinctively against some classes of acts, just as we have a capacity to react instinctively against some classes of utterances. A man clubbing his child to death is wrong in our perception, in the same kind of way that a sentence like “The house be on fire” is wrong.

As with actual language, the whole business is mightily confused by the peculiarities of particular communities’  “languages” and the weaknesses or habits of individual “language” users: this one muddles up his tenses carelessly, that one winces at a split infinitive. Also by one of those “good enough” principles so common in human affairs, yet so shocking to intellectuals.  If the house actually is on fire, “The house be on fire!” is a good enough warning.  

Those instinctive reactions are there, though, in our nature — in our brains, most likely — not in the sky — and they have some kind of phylogeny in the history of social animals. All our ethical systems are built on them.

I have a dim memory of having reviewed one of Sam’s books somewhere … Yep.

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The unchurched president

Should Obama Attend Church?:

Tonight NBC Nightly News aired a clip from Matt Lauer’s interview with President Obama, in which he asked the President why he has not chosen a church to attend. He was told that so doing would create too much of a distraction for fellow parishioners, and that the President, instead, receives a daily “devotional” email from a group of pastors nationwide.

The author is a liberal mainstream Christian, not an evangelical. She seems concerned that Obama has not integrated himself into what liberals would call a “faith community,” as opposed to adhering to a specific religion which manifests exclusive Truth, as many conservative Christians might be. But the question itself is a sign of the influence of evangelical Protestantism on our public culture, where details of one’s religious stances are held up to scrutiny if one is a public figure. But America has a long, though one somewhat in disrepair of late, tradition of heads of state who have ambivalent or weak relationships to organized religion.

In any case, I assume most readers of this weblog don’t care one way or another. It’s just a commentary about our culture that this is even an issue when the current president has pushed the passage of the most significant legislation of the past generation, for good or ill. When it comes to political leaders I think this statement attributed to Confucius is appropriate:

We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know what comes after death? We do not yet know how to live. Do not trouble with another life before you know how to live a good life with men on earth. Live in one world at a time.

Our presidents are profane figures, not priest-kings. They have four to eight years to affect the present in profound ways, they can spent their retirement contemplating transcendence (as figures as disparate as Chandragupta Maurya and Lee Teng-hui have).

Note: A reasonable religious objection is that the god(s) will show favor to nations if the powers that be give them their due. The problem which this statement from a “rational” stance is which gods does one pray to? It may be that a stance of neutrality is more rational than picking a particular set of god(s) if those god(s) turn out to be false, and one ends up angering the real god(s). On the other hand, if the god(s) are indulgent then I think they would indulge presidents in focusing on matters of earthly import when they have so much power to wield.



Apocalypse Postponed

The reason that stories of apocalypse run through so many religions is partly due, I suspect, to the persistent and widespread belief that this wicked old planet needs a sharp sheep-and-goats moment and, also, to the fact that the end of the world is a rattling good yarn. As for those who believe that this exciting event will occur shortly, a certain vanity is also at play – the belief that their time is somehow special.
One of the ways in which (for some) a belief in AGW has taken on the characteristics of a religion is that it caters to this millennial craving, promising catastrophe and promising it soon. The film The Day After Tomorrow was a striking example of this phenomenon at work. It offered viewers a devil (a Dick Cheney-like vice president), the redemption of a chosen few and, best of all, the prospect of imminent catastrophe, in this case based on the idea that the Gulf  Stream would suddenly be “switched off” with pleasurably destructive consequences.
Unfortunately, this scenario may have run into a snag. The Daily Mail has the details:

Fears that global warming will shut down the Gulf Stream and plunge Britain into a mini-ice age are unfounded, a study shows. There is no evidence the phenomenon – which brings a constant flow of warm water and mild weather to northern Europe – has slowed down over the past 20 years, climate scientists say. ‘The changes we’re seeing in overturning strength are probably part of a natural cycle,’ said researcher Josh Willis, from Nasa…The idea that a slowdown of the ocean currents would trigger such a rapid change in climate is pure fantasy, explained Dr Willis.


That doesn’t end the scientific discussion (many climate studies suggest that the Gulf Stream will slow over the next century, bringing a gradual cooling effect to Europe) but it does make a nonsense of the filmmakers’ apocalyptic vision. Luckily for them, this will make little difference to true believers. The lesson of history is that the Big Day can be postponed almost any number of times without too much damage to the faith that spawned it.  Oh well.




More Healthcare/Taxpayer Money Down The Drain

One of the dangers of extending the reach of the federal government still further into healthcare is the way that it will enhance the ability of politicians to pursue their own particular hobby horses at taxpayer expense. We were given early warning of this when (as mentioned earlier) Senators Hatch and Kerry attempted to ensure that Obamacare should cover Christian Science ‘prayer treatments’.
Now, it seems, there is this:

A little-noticed provision of the health legislation has rescued federal support for a controversial form of sex education: teaching youths to remain virgins until marriage. The bill restores $250 million over five years for states to sponsor programs aimed at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by focusing exclusively on encouraging children and adolescents to avoid sex. The funding provides at least a partial reprieve for the approach, which faced losing all federal support under President Obama’s first two budgets.


Note that “exclusively”. There’s nothing wrong with teaching ‘abstinence’ within the context of a more general sex education course, but despite (to be fair) some recent data to the contrary, preaching it in isolation doesn’t seem to be particularly effective. Note too that once again Orrin Hatch appears to have been involved in throwing other people’s money away in pursuit of, well, let’s just call it a long shot.

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No More New Moore

Here’s how a contributor to the Skeptic’s Dictionary defines confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will take notice of admissions during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.

This tendency to give more attention and weight to data that support our beliefs than we do to contrary data is especially pernicious when our beliefs are little more than prejudices. If our beliefs are firmly established on solid evidence and valid confirmatory experiments, the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that fit with our beliefs should not lead us astray as a rule. Of course, if we become blinded to evidence truly refuting a favored hypothesis, we have crossed the line from reasonableness to closed-mindedness.


And that’s a definition that brings me to the curious case of New Moore Island:

A tiny island claimed for years by India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal has disappeared beneath the rising seas, scientists in India say. The uninhabited territory south of the Hariabhanga river was known as New Moore Island to the Indians and South Talpatti Island to the Bangladeshis. The BBC’s Chris Morris in Delhi says there has never been a permanent settlement on the now-vanished island, which even in its heyday was never more than two metres (about six feet) above sea level. In the past, however, the territorial dispute led to visits by Indian naval vessels and the temporary deployment of a contingent from the country’s Border Security Force. “What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming,” said Professor Sugata Hazra of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Calcutta.


And so the story goes – and is spread by the faithful. But, as always, adding a dose of the skepticism that ought to be an essential element of an environmentalism of doubt is called for.

 Turning to Watts Up With That (to be sure, a skeptic site) we read that such “temporary estuary islands and sandbars appear and disappear all the time worldwide. Sometimes it can take a few years, sometimes a few centuries. Note that most of the area near South Talpatti Island is only 1-3 meters above sea level anyway, which means that such low lying islands made of mud and sand are prone to the whims of tide and currents and weather.”

 Fair point, I reckon. And its importance is not that it disproves the idea that this lump of mud and sand was a victim of AGW. It doesn’t. What it does show, however, is that claims that the disappearance of New Moore can definitely be put down to climate change have to be treated with a fair degree of skepticism. And for some people that skepticism seems to have gone missing.

Well, religions are like that.




Spreading the Poison

This story (from the London Times) comes as no great surprise:

SAUDI ARABIA is pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into Islamist groups in the Balkans, some of which spread hatred of the West and recruit fighters for jihad in Afghanistan. According to officials in Macedonia, Islamic fundamentalism threatens to destabilise the Balkans. Strict Wahhabi and Salafi factions funded by Saudi organisations are clashing with traditionally moderate local Muslim communities.
Fundamentalists have financed the construction of scores of mosques and community centres as well as handing some followers up to £225 a month. They are expected not only to grow beards but also to persuade their wives to wear the niqab, or face veil, a custom virtually unknown in the liberal Islamic tradition of the Balkans. Government sources in traditionally secular Macedonia (official title the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), said they were monitoring up to 50 Al-Qaeda volunteers recruited to fight in Afghanistan…
…Sulejman Rexhepi, leader of the Islamic community in Macedonia, said a number of mosques had been forcibly taken over by radical groups. Four in central Skopje are no longer under the control of the official Islamic authorities. New imams claim they have been “spontaneously” installed by the “people”. “Their so-called Wahhabi teachings are completely alien to our traditions and to the essence of Islam, which is a tolerant and inclusive religion,” said Rexhepi…
…Macedonia’s law enforcement agencies warn that the European Union and America have failed to recognise the growing problem of Islamic extremism in the Balkans.


The phrase “asleep at the wheel” comes to mind.

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Won’t Be A Minute



Obamacare & Religious Privilege

I don’t know what eventually happened to the curious  proposal  (via Senators Hatch and Kerry) that Obamacare should cover Christian Science prayer ‘treatments’, but it does appear that the notion of religious privilege is alive and well elsewhere in the new healthcare legislation:

Fox News has the details (a phrase that always fills me with anticipation):

Most Americans would have to prove they have insurance or face a fine under the health reform legislation that is now nearing the finish line in Congress, but at least one group won’t have to worry, on religious grounds. Democrats are planning to exempt the Amish and similar religious groups from the health insurance mandate in the final health care bill. That’s because when the Amish need medical care, they go to regular doctors and hospitals and pay in cash often with financial help from their church and neighbors. They rely on each other, not the government or insurance companies as a tenet of their faith. “The Amish believe it’s the fundamental responsibility of the church to care for the material needs of the members of the church,” said Steven Nolt, a professor at Goshen College who has written books on the Plain community of Amish.

“And so they don’t buy commercial health insurance and they don’t participate in public assistance programs.” So while most Americans would be required to sign up with insurance companies or government insurance plans, the church would serve as something of an informal insurance plan for the Amish. Law experts say that kind of exemption withstands scrutiny.

“Here the statue is going to say that people who are conscientiously opposed to paying for health insurance don’t have to do it where the conscientious objection arises from religion,” said Mark Tushnet a Harvard law professor. “And that’s perfectly constitutional.”

This would not be the first time the Amish received this type of special accommodation. Congress exempted this and other communities from Social Security and Medicare taxes since 1965 for the same religious reasons.


I have little doubt that all this is constitutional, but it still leaves the impression that some forms of belief are more equal than others.

Via American Thinker, where there is also speculation that this exemption could also apply to some Muslims. At least on some interpretations of Islamic law health insurance is apparently forbidden.

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David Frum’s unstable equilibrium

It looks like David Frum has been purged from the conservative mainstream. I can’t but help find this ironic insofar as Frum was the drawer of bright lines himself in years past. Additionally, though Frum is moderate on social issues, and skeptical of libertarianism in economics, he is arguably more populist than many elite conservative intellectuals when it comes to immigration. In relation to foreign policy Frum seems to exhibit neoconservative sympathies. As a descriptive matter I think Frum’s current “position portfolio” does not fit well anywhere in the current coalitions.

At ScienceBlogs I defend free speech as an American cultural peculiarity which should be defended, not a human universal right (it simply isn’t empirically):

… Though seriously, I’m expressing a very cultural biased viewpoint here, an American one, and I’m of conscious of this. I really don’t see a point in castigating Canadians for being Canadians, they’re not China or Syria, but neither are they the United States. Even the British have insane libel laws which stifle speech operationally, though there’s a chance that the law might be tightened up. We alone should be the City upon a Hill where the blasphemers and peddlers of bigotry can take refuge, because we’re already the last best and only hope.


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