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Archive for June 2010



An Agnostic Manifesto

Judging by this entertaining new piece in Slate, I suspect that Ron Rosenbaum may have been spending a little too much time thinking about this whole God-or-not thing (a fruitless debate, if ever I saw one), and his idea of a “new agnosticism” doesn’t delight, but there’s still plenty in Rosenbaum’s “manifesto” to enjoy.

This was a good start:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

And then there’s this, half a sentence written by an agnostic which proves that Hell does indeed exist:

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers…

Read the whole thing.

Thomas Huxley




Belgium and the Vatican

Was there something a little theatrical about the raid by the Belgian police on church premises in that country? Perhaps, but the Vatican’s reaction is, to say the least, curious.

First there was this (via the Daily Telegraph) from the Pope:

“During this meeting, amongst other things, aspects linked to the abuse of minors by members of the clergy were to have been discussed,” the pope’s message said. “I have myself repeated numerous times that these serious facts must be dealt with by civil law and by canon law, in reciprocal respect of the specificity and autonomy of each.


What exactly does he mean by that?

And then there was this:

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said the detention of a number of bishops during the raid was “serious and unbelievable”, comparing it to the practices of communist regimes.


As absurd comparisons go, that takes some beating. Bertone should do some homework, beginning, perhaps, with the life of a true prince of his church, the late Cardinal Mindszenty.




Enforcing Orthodoxy

The idea of a state church does not necessarily fill me with horror. It rather depends on the state. And it rather depends on the church. Given the history both of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, this story (via the Economist’s new, must read, Eastern Approaches blog) is, however, more than a little worrying. Here’s a key extract:

IT WAS bad enough that an art exhibition attracted the attention of Russia’s criminal-justice authorities. It was worse that the exhibition was in Moscow’s Sakharov centre and museum, one of the few institutions in Russia that stands squarely behind the tradition of human rights, exemplified by the saintly physicist and dissident for whom it is named. Now prosecutors have said that they want the organisers of the 2007 “Forbidden Art” exhibition, the director of the centre, Yuri Samodurov, and Andrei Yerofeev, an art historian…, to be sentenced to a three-year jail term for “debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred”. Many say that the exhibition’s real crime was to highlight the overlap between official orthodoxy and the religious version.


Read the whole thing.

Sergiyev Posad, Russia, March 1992

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Free will and morality

In light of recent comments, I thought readers might find this discussion between Joshua Knobe & Roy Baumeister of interest. Please keep in mind that broad swaths of humanity, such as Calvinists and most Sunni Muslims, have nominally rejected free will (most American Baptists are Calvinists):



The Joy Of Obnox

Mr. Hume:  I’m pretty much with you on all that.

Casting around for book ideas a while ago, I thought of writing a nihilist’s handbook, with a title something like You’re A Smart Ape, There Is No God, And Your Thoughts Stop When You Die.  After mulling it over, though, I discarded the idea.  No market.

I wish, by the way, that the English language had a more euphonious word for “the quality of being obnoxious.”  I keep wanting to say “obnoxity,” but it’s not in any dictionary.  “Obnoxiousness” is clumsy to the point of being … obnoxious.

“Not nostrums but normalcy” — Warren G. Harding.

“Not obfuscation but obnoxity” — Bradlaugh.

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The value of obnoxious

From the comments:

As to the question of obnoxiousness, of course it’s obnoxious, which is to say nothing more than ‘polite society considers it obnoxious’, and for quite the same reason as it’s considered obnoxious to point out that life is wholly meaningless, ends with finality and that anyone who can of free conscious murder a stranger (and get away with it) for a hundred dollars but doesn’t do so is a fool with no mind of his own.

These are anti-social truths and therefore rude to mention in public. This isn’t to say that I don’t love you for saying them….

There are myths, and there are myths. I do for example think that ‘free will’ simply understood is a myth. In fact, people of many persuasions, whether they be religious or irreligious, also concur on this point. But prattling on about this is fruitless, and there’s a strong consensus that there are no returns on discussing the issue outside of narrow circles of highly intelligent and philosophically oriented sets. Arguments about ethics, and ‘rationality,’ and mental states require some subtly and a threshold of self-aware sentience which most of the human race is unfortunately incapable of.


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Caring About Strangers

Our affinities fade with distance.  Towards our immediate families, they are very strong; towards our extended families, less so; then outward ever more feebly to the broadest kinships (nation, race) and fictive kinships (religion, ideology, language, civilization).  The math must be very complicated — much more so than a simple inverse-square law.  I am sure that affinity can “pick up” strength for a while even as distance increases, just as there will be uphill stretches when walking down a mountain — that there are, for example, people who care more about their co-religionists than about their extended families.  And I’m ready to believe that there are some individuals who honestly feel the same warm affinity for the remotest strangers as they do for their own kin.  You might call those people “saints,” though personally I’d prefer something in the zone “half-crazy misfits.”

In low radius-of-trust societies affinity barely extends beyond kin.  One can only imagine the difficulty Mussolini’s army recruiters had getting Sicilian peasants to fight for their country.   Societies that can afford a more expansive view of the world typically have affinites that go out further.  And of course the individual personality factors in.  Joe may feel genuine distress thinking about the poor brutalized Congolese; Jane may not give a damn, or see why she should; and Joe and Jane might both be stalwart citizens, good spouses & parents, etc., indistinguishable in all the social virtues that matter. 

In the broad generality, though,  human affinities diminish with perceived distance (I don’t, of course, just mean geographical distance).  Most people’s affinities are at effectively zero at some point well short of the Congo, as the Earth’s gravitational field is undetectable well before Alpha Centauri. 

All this seems as obvious to me as 2+2=4.  If there is something obnoxious in saying it aloud, I wish I could understand why.

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Why not Congo?

John in The Corner:

While the horrors in the Congo were going on (i.e., from 1998 to the present) I was a busy worker bee, mixing with Americans of all classes, races, and stations in life, certainly including a good many Roman Catholics and, I am sure, at least a few evangelicals. Until 2004 I was also attending my own (Episcopal) church, though I’ll admit less and less often.

In all those years, with all those people, in all those venues, I don’t recall hearing anyone speak of the Congo massacres, not once. That seems to me like a pretty darn good empirical foundation for the remark you took objection to: “North of five million people have been slaughtered in the Congo this past twelve years, and nobody much (no, not me — how about you?) has lost a wink of sleep over it.”

The Congo Wars didn’t even rise to the level of occasional water-cooler chat that, as I remember, the ructions in ex-Yugoslavia did at the earlier part of that period. Interesting contrast.

Empirical-foundations-wise, I believe I’m in good shape.

New-clothes-wise, the Emperor of Universalist Humanitarianism hasn’t got any.

One can argue over the numbers here, but the reality is that the largest loss of life due to political and military conflict since Rwanda over the past generation has been in the Congo river basin (Zaire, which became the Democratic Republic of Congo). I do not begrudge the concern of pro-Israel and anti-Israel factions in their preoccupation with that particular conflict, but when the arguments shift toward abstract and universalizable principles then I think it is important to ask: why not Congo? There are many plausible reasons, but far too often the reasons are not aired for all to comprehend. Let’s make the implicit explicit.



Hugh Trevor-Roper, Secular Rightist?

One of us? Yes, he made his mistakes (not least that whole Hitler diaries thing), but so do we all. In any event, read this extract from a splendid review in the New Humanist of a collection of writings by the great British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) and judge for yourselves.

Here’s a key extract:

Trevor-Roper may have been a deep-dyed conservative, but he loathed reactionary small-mindedness, and could hardly have objected to the description “Tory Marxist” that has been applied to him in recent years. He always maintained that that the political dramas of early modern Europe were part of a structural crisis of legitimacy that could never be comprehended by those (like most of his professional colleagues) whose historical knowledge was confined to one country or a single language. And when he attacked Christopher Hill and other Marxist historians it was not for their materialism but for their “sentimentality”, meaning their habit of ignoring structural analysis and scouring the past for moral martyrs with whom they could identify. If he defended British institutions, it was not because he considered them sacrosanct, but because he saw them as glorious monuments to human folly.
He was flabbergasted at anyone who claimed to believe the “quaint, superannuated doctrines” of Christianity, but he was happy to participate in the observances of the Church of England, if only to relish the insouciance with which it clung to its zany beliefs – a grab-bag of legacies drawn, as he put it, from “the fanatical Bedouin of ancient Judaea, the hooligan clergy of Byzantium or the Roman Maghreb, the scholarly Anglican bishops of the 17th and the snivelling Methodist hymnologists of the 19th century.”

It’s not often that I laugh aloud while reading an article, but this was one of those moments.  A little later in the piece the author,  Jonathan Rée, comes to the point that is, perhaps, most relevant today:


He was not interested in the rather threadbare notion (doted on by some humanists) that the lights of truth were suddenly switched on in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, revealing that the demons which people had spooked themselves with in the past were mere figments of their superstitious imaginations. The Enlightenment that Trevor-Roper celebrates is historical rather than philosophical: it is marked by Gibbon’s creation of a new kind of history, dedicated not to pointless facts or edifying examples but to “sociological content” – in other words, to the revolutionary notion that “human societies have an internal dynamism, dependent on their social structure and articulation.” By bringing history “down to earth”, Gibbon and the other Enlightenment historians had contributed more to the discombobulation of know-nothing theologians than any number of philosophers would ever be able to do.
Gibbon mocked religion, but he never underestimated it. He recognised that religious experience involved, as Trevor-Roper put it, “a set of values related to social structure and political form”, and he could therefore understand why people cared about it so much they were prepared to kill one another or die for its sake. And he railed against his old ally Voltaire for allowing his rage at clerical infamy to turn him into a mirror image of his enemy – a “bigot, an intolerable bigot”, as Gibbon put it. Gibbon made his case beautifully, as Trevor-Roper did too: and if sceptical secularism is to get a new lease of life, perhaps it needs a little more history and a little less philosophy, more explanation and less indignation.

I’d prefer no philosophy, but that’s to quibble. What a terrific article…

Hugh Trevor-Roper (The Daily Telegraph)



Israel’s Fundamentalist Problem (ctd.)

More on this topic, this time via the Jerusalem Post (June 7, 2010):

Hundreds of haredim were involved in violent riots in Jaffa on Wednesday, in Rehov Louis Pasteur around the site of an archeological dig.  Fifteen haredim were arrested.

The haredim maintain that the work desecrates the sanctity of ancient bones at the site. Rabbi Tuvia Weiss, the senior rabbinic leader of the Eda Haredit Badatz (rabbinical court), was on the scene to encourage the protesters and lead a curse against those working at the site.

Police said the demonstration was illegal. Demonstrators attacked police officers with bricks and rocks and also set fire to trash cans. There were attempts to knock policemen from their horses and five policemen were reported injured.

Two photographers were also injured and an Israel Radio reporter was forced to seek protection inside a police van.

The demonstrators broke into the old Jewish cemetery, which is close to the site of the dig.
Louis Pasteur and Yefet Street were closed to traffic.

A couple of days ago, two hundred haredim protested near the site and three demonstrators were arrested.  Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) reported that vandals had ransacked an archaeological excavation of buildings from the late-Ottoman period in Jaffa on Sunday night.

“The damage done to these impressive buildings from the late Ottoman era is irreversible,” said Dr. Yoav Arbel, director of the excavation. The archaeological dig is taking place before the construction of a high-rise building.

Haredim have demonstrated against archaeological digs in the area several times because of their opposition to disturbing Jewish graves on the site. 

“Lead a curse”. Good grief…



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