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Archive for January 2012



Okey Dokey (2)

Via the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

Ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking by phone Wednesday to Faith Coalition supporters, described same-sex marriage as an example of “the rise of paganism” in America.




Okey Dokey

Via the Guardian:

Plans to build a £1m “temple for atheists” among the international banks and medieval church spires of the City of London have sparked a clash between two of Britain’s most prominent non-believers.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

“Atheists don’t need temples,” the author of The God Delusion said. “I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence…

The temple features a single door for visitors who will enter as if it were an art installation. The roof will be open to the elements and there could be fossils and geologically interesting rocks in the concrete walls.

“Fossils and geologically interesting rocks.” Feel the excitement.

And then the “humanists” chip in:

Humanists said it was misplaced for non-believers to build quasi-religious buildings, because atheists did not need temples to probe the meaning of life.

True enough, I suppose. I’ve never really understood the attraction of “probing” the meaning of life in the first place. It’s fine if you like that sort of thing but…

De Botton has insisted atheists have as much right to enjoy inspiring architecture as religious believers.

“The dominant feeling you should get will be awe – the same feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral,” he said. “You should feel small but not in an intimidated way.”

But according to the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles’ Cripplegate church, in the Barbican, where the temple is likely to be located: “Awe is not enough.”

She said: “You need a welcome, a sense of belonging and of wanting to return. It might make you feel so insignificant you wouldn’t know how to start. What would this say to somebody who is mentally frail or nearing the end of their life? How does that really speak to the human condition?”


Another Anglican, the Rev George Pitcher, a priest at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and a former adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury, “rejoiced” in the idea. “He is referring to a sense of human transcendence, that there is something more than our visceral existence,” Pitcher said.

“Building a monument acknowledges that we are more than dust. Whether we come at that through secular means or a religious narrative, it is the same game.”

In a way, yes. And that’s one reason I’d give this temple a miss, but build away, Alain. Architectural follies are often good for a laugh and a gawp. And in a grim old world that’s worth something.

Proposed cenotaph for Newton by Étienne-Louis Boullée



“A Gift in a Very Broken Way”

Via Think Progress (I know, I know), here’s Rick Santorum explaining why a woman left pregnant should be compelled to give birth:

Well, you can make the argument that if she doesn’t have this baby, if she kills her child, that that, too, could ruin her life. And this is not an easy choice. I understand that. As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child. And whether she has that child or doesn’t, it will always be her child. And she will always know that. And so to embrace her and to love her and to support her and get her through this very difficult time, I’ve always, you know, I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life. We have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible. But, nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.


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Against Self-Government

The Council of Europe is, in theory, meant to be some sort of bulwark for the citizens of its member countries against the power of the overreaching state.

That’s the theory. But here’s how it really works. The Daily Mail reports:

The Council of Europe has ruled that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be banned in every country across the Continent. In a declaration that will have huge implications on human rights laws in its 47 member countries, the Strasbourg-based organisation announced that such practices ‘must always be prohibited’.

The move will represent a major setback to assisted dying campaigners in the UK who want Britain to follow Holland, Belgium and Switzerland in allowing doctors to help to end the lives of their patients. The explicit condemnation of euthanasia was inserted into a non-binding resolution entitled ‘Protecting Human Rights and Dignity by Taking Into Account Previously Expressed Wishes of Patients’.

The resolution had originally simply focused on the human rights questions of ‘advance directives’, or ‘living wills’, in which people set out how they wish to be treated if they became mentally incapacitated.

But members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe argued that living wills, which became legal in the UK under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act, were inextricably connected to euthanasia. They successfully moved an amendment forbidding euthanasia by 34 votes to 16 with six abstentions.

The amendment said that ‘euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit must always be prohibited’.

Among those fighting for the amendment was British member Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough.

It’s that “always” that sticks in the craw. What it means (thankfully the resolution is not binding) is that Leigh, and those like him, are insisting that their prejudices should prevail over an individual’s power to decide his or her own fate. The consequences of such absolutism can, of course, be grotesque suffering. A patient with locked-in syndrome, for example, who wishes to end it all has no need to worry about some “slippery slope”. He is already a prisoner, imprisoned in a body that has become its own dungeon, guarded by doctors who have thrown away the key.

And quite why Leigh, a Tory supposedly, a euroskeptic allegedly, believes that a transnationalist body should have the power to police Britons in this way escapes me. He is, it appears, an opponent of the right of Britons to govern themselves — and in more ways than one.


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A Test of Civilization

Count me skeptical whether there is a ‘right’ to die, or a right to very much else for that matter, but a truly humane society would not force this helpless man to go to the courts for the relief he seeks:

LONDON (AP) – Former rugby player Tony Nicklinson had a high-flying job as a corporate manager in Dubai, where he went skydiving and bridge-climbing in his free time. Seven years ago, he suffered a paralyzing stroke. Today he can only move his head, cannot speak and needs constant care.

And he wants to die.

To try to ensure that whoever ends his life won’t be jailed, the 57-year-old Nicklinson recently asked Britain’s High Court to declare that any doctor who gives him a lethal injection with his consent won’t be charged with murder. This week, the court will hold its first hearing on the case


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More Guidance Needed?

The New Atheists are much too shrill for my decidedly agnostic tastes. In many respects, they are on a hiding to nothing. The religious impulse will always be with us and so will be a belief in the supernatural. But not all atheists are new atheists: It’s also quite possible for an atheist to admire much of the structure, cohesion and sense of tradition that some religions bring to society, not to speak of the happiness they can bring to many of their adherents.

Nevertheless these comments by Alain de Botton, an atheist playing nice, go too far:

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of moral instruction.

Oh come on: I suspect that there are many secular folk who are very far from convinced that “all adults are mature”.

De Botton continues:

But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet the modern education system denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control.

Really? Has he any idea about the stifling speech codes, the numbskull impositions of zero tolerance, and, to name just one more example, the endless environmentalist nagging that pollute today’s schools and universities.

Wait, there’s more:

We are far more desperate than secular modernity recognizes. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognize this.

Who is this “all”, I wonder? I do agree that religions recognize that profound anxiety can be part of the human condition. But then so do pharmaceutical companies, and for many people their remedies will be a better route to take, either with the additional help of religion, or without.

De Botton:

Religions are fascinating because they are giant machines for making ideas vivid and real in people’s lives: ideas about goodness, about death, family, community etc. Nowadays, we tend to believe that the people who make ideas vivid are artists and cultural figures, but this is such a small, individual response to a massive set of problems. So I am deeply interested in the way that religions are in the end institutions, giant machines, organizations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.

A pity? Nope, I would say that it is a cause for celebration. There was plenty of talk about engineering the soul back in the old Bolshevik days. No-one needs that lot back in town. For those who are looking for the sort of guidance de Botton is discussing, but who believe that the religious route is not for them, there are many other places to look, from family, to tradition, to history, you name it. But to be able to look in that way does require a broadly rational education. And a broadly rational education ought never to deny our own immense capacity (for good or bad) for irrationality.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

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Twisting Thomas Jefferson

Occasions such as the National Prayer Breakfast are not the sort of thing that I spend a lot of (or any) time worrying about. If that’s what politicians want to show up to a harmless, by now somewhat traditional, civic ritual, that’s fine. It’s a free country. But it seems like the people organizing this event are not above bearing a little false (or misleading) witness, and that’s a shame:

Doubting Thomas at Secular News Daily takes up the story:

This year’s invitation…is festooned with quotes from presidents lauding the role of the Bible in public life.

Among those quoted is Thomas Jefferson.

“In extracting the pure principles which Jesus taught,” the Jefferson quote says, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled…. there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

If you read the quote without knowing its origins, it looks like Jefferson is praising the teachings of Jesus. And in the context of the prayer breakfast program, there is the implication that these teachings should be integrated into government policy.

Jefferson was praising Jesus – sort of. He was praising his personal interpretation of Jesus. And that Jesus is one the Family and its Religious Right allies would never acknowledge or accept.

On Oct. 13, 1813, Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter to his friend John Adams, outlining his latest project. It involved cutting up copies of the New Testament and tossing all of the stuff about Jesus that Jefferson did not accept – mainly claims of his divinity and the miracles.

“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught,” Jefferson wrote, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus…. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Jefferson went on to write, “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.”

The Prayer Breakfast invitation – currently circulating on Capitol Hill — thus selectively edits Jefferson’s passage to remove his criticism of greedy, power-hungry clergy and cover up his Bible-cutting project…

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Re: 72% of Egypt’s parliament is Islamist

Inspired by Razib’s earlier post, I put this up on the Corner:

Via the New York Times:

CAIRO — Egyptian authorities confirmed Saturday that a political coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old group that virtually invented political Islam, had won about 47 percent of the seats in the first Parliament elected since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. An alliance of ultraconservative Islamists won the next largest share of seats, about 25 percent.

The tally, with the two groups of Islamists together winning about 70 percent of the seats, indicates the deep cultural conservatism of the Egyptian public, which is expressing its will through free and fair elections for the first time in more than six decades.

This result only goes to underline the mistake made by Mubarak (an American ally now on trial for his life, a fate that must send an interesting message to other leaders in the region still prepared to work alongside the US) in ceding so much of Egypt’s cultural space to the men in the mosque. Turkey’s Ataturk knew better.

Over at Secular Right Razib Khan has an acid response to this news:

Nevertheless I do recall back in the heady days of the Arab Spring some commenters infected by revolutionary fervor would scoff that the purported Islamist sympathies of the people. What this goes to show is that enthusiasm and hope does not translate into reality. If secular liberals in Egypt bow before the principle of popularity, then they accept that it is right and proper that their present their throats to their new overlords. I don’t view this as an apocalypse. It is what it is. But it was predictable.

The Times notes:

A coalition of parties founded by the young leaders of the revolt that unseated Mr. Mubarak won only a few percent of the seats…

Predictable indeed: revolutions have been devouring their children for a long time.

If there is any glimmer of hope, however faint, it lies in the divisions between Muslim Brotherhood and the ultras.

The two groups have described very different visions and appear to be rivals rather than collaborators. The Brotherhood has said it intends to respect personal liberties and will focus on economic and social issues, gradually nudging the culture toward its conservative values. By contrast, the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, put a higher priority on legislation on Islamic moral issues, like the consumption of alcohol, women’s dress and the contents of popular culture.

Even if we accept the Muslim Brotherhood’s reassurances at face value (a stretch, to put it mildly), something (not least their own history) tells me that it will see the greater threat to its position as coming from the Salafists, and will thus tack strongly in their direction.

I hope I’m wrong.

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Somebody Up There Loves Obama

After Gingrich’s disastrously strong win in South Carolina, I can only repeat what I wrote over on NRO as one of my predictions for 2012:

Let’s start with a prediction that will make me as miserable as it might make you mad: Barack Obama will win thoroughly undeserved reelection, because none of the possible GOP candidates has what it takes (politically) to beat him. The Republicans should, however, hang on to the House and grab hold of the Senate. They will not, however, achieve the latter if the GOP’s presidential nominee is someone whom a large number of voters will go out of their way to vote against. My second prediction is that most NRO readers will know to whom it is that I am referring.

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The end of the Reformation

Am I the only one to note the relative lack of salience of the Catholic-Protestant divide in the Republican primaries? Commentators routinely ignore the fact that the two candidates with the greatest appeal to evangelical Protestants are Roman Catholic. Not only that, but one, Rick Santorum, is a staunch Catholic affiliated with an organization which is not ecumenical in the least. But all that doesn’t matter now. It goes to show how abstract labels and sectarian divisions which are stark to those prone to over-rationalize religion melt away in the face of historical forces.

The American Republican party is the faction of white Protestants. And yet currently the only white Protestant candidate, Ron Paul, has no particular appeal to that demographic.

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