Sunday, 21 April 2013

What Does it Matter What One Believes?

As a 'new atheist', Richard Dawkins has been subjected recently to a campaign by right-on lefties who want to stifle criticism of Islam. Their unfortunate modus operandi is to devalue the notion of Islamophobia; the reprehensible practice of unfair discrimination against Muslims.

Maybe first was Nathan Lean on, who said, with nothing to support it other than new atheist criticism of Islam:
The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.
He even immediately followed this crass accusation with an example proving himself wrong:
"Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”
Go figure. Murtaza Hussain produced a febrile piece on the usually more temperate Al-Jazeera website sensitively titled Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists that included this on Dawkins's fellow horseman Sam Harris:
Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of "Negroes". 
New atheists, of course, are the nasty and militant ones for objecting to the baleful influence of Islam, not Hussain for accusing of racism Harris and everyone who has been tarred with the new atheist brush. Go figure.

Then liberal commentator Glenn Greenwald tweeted this nonsensical article approvingly and got into a spat with Harris himself, who understandably thought that someone of a liberal persuasion would object to Hussain's wild speculations and mistaken inferences:
I’ve had pleasant exchanges with Greenwald in the past, so I wrote to him privately to express my concern. As you will see, I came right to the point. I was simply outraged that he would amplify this pernicious charge of racism so thoughtlessly. However, I am even more appalled by his response. The man actually has thought about it. And thinking hasn’t helped.
Other faitheists and theists have taken the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon: the laughable Theo Hobson, a mythicist called Neil Godfrey, and, one of the usual culprits, Andrew Brown, suggests Dawkins should stop pouring scorn on the Muslim belief in creationism:
However, this is where Dawkins' scorn does some real damage, even among people who have never otherwise heard of him. Because there is a self-consciously oppositional culture among young poor Muslims, who feel themselves stigmatised and disadvantaged, they can tend to embrace creationism simply because they know it's wrong by the lights of the majority. Dawkins' dismissal of Muslim creationism as "alien rubbish" was not only found as a YouTube clip on the EDL website for a while, but also used in the propaganda of Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist and self-publicist. The emotional logic is clear: if this rich, sneering white man is against it, it must be good for disaffected young Muslims who feel that they are themselves treated as "alien rubbish".
The logic here is stunningly thoughtless; presumably Brown thinks Dawkins should continue to ridicule Christian creationism (Brown did, after all, call creationists in Northern Ireland a 'crank group' and compared them to saucer-cultists and leprechaunists), but refuse to ridicule Islamic creationism? But that would indeed be discriminating against Muslims unfairly. To pull one's punches against one religion would be simply unfair on its congregation, who deserve, and should expect, to have their beliefs exposed to the same ridicule and scorn as everyone else's.

Today Dawkins tweeted about Mehdi Hasan who, apart from being a pretty good journalist in other respects, I understand, also believes in a winged horse. This is a belief worthy of ridicule; and scientific ridicule at that, since evolution shows that mammals have four limbs and such a horse is usually depicted as having six limbs. Oh, but of course it's a magic horse from heaven, so evolution is irrelevant, believers would say, which just increases the risibility of the belief for anyone who doesn't believe in magic horses from heaven.

So far, so Dawkins. But then Labour MP Tom Watson, stalwart of the anti-Murdoch campaign, replied:

On the face of it, Watson thinks that pointing out someone's silly belief makes one a 'gratuitously unpleasant man'. Watson, a man not known for his tenderness, thinks Dawkins could 'try a little tenderness'! Well, that certainly made me laugh. However, I guess Watson saw what a daft thing this was to say, so he changed his focus to Dawkins's second sentence:

His first complaint was clearly about Dawkins's tone, but now he straw-mans Dawkins by translating "And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist" to "people with faith cannot contribute to civic society with their journalism".

This is dishonest, but does show something important; the reason Watson feels free to defend the winged horse belief is because it's a religious belief. And, possibly more importantly given the recent hysteria, a Muslim belief. If Dawkins was ridiculing saucerists or leprechaunists, I doubt Watson would intervene. This is supported by a later tweet:
This is not what Dawkins said, of course, but it does raise interesting questions of how much one's beliefs might discredit one. Plainly in society today, religious beliefs that are worthy of ridicule are nevertheless protected from ridicule because they are religious. Religious beliefs, particularly Christian ones, are given credibility by society's attitudes to them. They are still afforded platforms in the press and television media, including the BBC; religious leaders bypass democracy and are allowed a central role in law-making; the Church of England is central to the UK's constitution. Given this, it would bring the entire establishment into disrepute if Dawkins's attitude became the norm, in Parliament, the press and the broadcast media. But that is really the aim of the so-called new atheism; to strip religion of its privileged position, and let its ideas swim in the free marketplace of ideas.

Add to this the unfortunate conflation by left-wingers of Islamophobia with valid criticism of Islam, and we can see why Watson felt the need to intervene. He is a political animal, and prioritises protection of Muslim individuals because he sees politics as more important than religion. On this he may be right, and his aims are laudable. It seems plausible that some racists do adopt the pose of Islamic criticism as a route to the othering of Muslims. Sadly, these recent articles are attacking the wrong target, so they will make the task of combating genuine Islamophobia more difficult.

Interestingly, Watson actually thinks that what one believes should disqualify one from the public forum; this is what he said about shock jock Glenn Beck:
The Glenn Beck show in no way achieves those vitally important aims. That type of journalism is dangerous and can have wide-ranging negative effects on society. The kind of material broadcast by Glenn Beck is not unique; a number of other "shock jocks" operate in the States. However, none has displayed intolerance on such a frequent and irresponsible scale as Glenn Beck. It is vital that that kind of "news" is not made or broadcast in the UK. However, the proposed acquisition of BSkyB by News Corp means that there is an increased threat of its becoming a reality. (my emphasis)
Now to be fair, Watson is attacking the content of Beck's journalism here, not his beliefs directly. But the content is informed by Beck's beliefs, and I think Hasan's recent interview with Dawkins shows that his beliefs clearly influence his contributions to the public forum (negatively). My feeling is that it is fair to point out when someone believes something ridiculous; Bill Maher has curious ideas about vaccines, Michael Shermer is way too libertarian for my liking, and Sam Harris is just plain wrong on gun law and, probably, moral objectivity. Does this discredit their other pronouncements? Yes, I think it does to a degree, but not necessarily fatally; it depends on the belief. Some beliefs are just sillier than others. Creationism is sillier than the (still silly) theistic evolution. Winged horses are sillier than golden plates, even.

Given that, I think it's fair to wonder aloud if a reputable organ like the New Statesman should publish Hasan as if he were a serious thinker, which I think a serious journalist should be.

Look at it this way; Dawkins is suggesting that if Mehdi Hasan believed in alien lizards, like David Icke, the New Statesman would not continue to publish his journalism without comment. Does Hasan's credibility suffer by his beliefs? I think, like Beck's, and Icke's, it does.


Blimey, true to form Andrew Brown writes another incoherent piece with the Islamophobic slur in the URL, in which he says "On Sunday afternoon [Dawkins] was at it again, wondering why the New Statesman employs an imaginative and believing Muslim". Dawkins did not wonder that, of course, as anyone who reads the tweet can see. Brown's attack is confused - he wants to call Dawkins Islamophobic but admits:
Anyone who follows him knows he is an equal opportunities bigot who is opposed to Christians of every colour as well.
So a person is a bigot now even if they don't discriminate in their opprobrium! Someone contact the OED. As I say above, the insidious effect of this sort of nonsense is that language becomes debased and we cannot identify genuine bigots for what they are.

Read more »

Friday, 12 April 2013

Walk in the Dark with a Mystery, or Walk in the Daylight Alone?

Friendly Atheist has this video up in a post by Paul Fidalgo. As Paul says, it's quite heartbreaking, especially given the recent news. In it Kay Warren, wife of Rick, says:
I would rather be in relationship with a god who in many ways remains a mystery. And walk in the darkness with a god who in some ways remains a mystery, than to try to walk in complete daylight without him.
That seems to me to be such a sad thing to say, although maybe many people identify with it; who wants to be alone in the universe? But wanting something does not make it so, although we are excellent at conjuring beings out of thin air.

I remember as a kid growing up on an estate with dark, rather forbidding woods behind the houses. I used to gather the kids together and we would go down into the wooded valley where the foundations of an old hut remained, and play in the mud and the streams and the trees. The foundations of the hut had the look of a footstep. A large one, obviously, so I used to regularly scare the other kids by telling them how it was a giant's footstep, and that I had seen the giant once. In fact, I would say, looking nervously about, I think I can hear him coming now. With not much more than that, I would put the heebie-jeebies up the gang and a rushing, stumbling, all out retreat from the woods would ensue.

And here's the odd thing; I would get caught up in the panicky evacuation too, just as frightened as the others! I was excellent at invoking beings with completely bogus emotional manipulation, and I don't doubt that everyone else is too. There we were running in the dark with a mystery (and quite thrilling it was too), and we have at least one believer who would rather remain in those woods than escape to the daylight.

But what we prefer does not determine what is true. We would prefer the universe to be one of innate justice and goodness, but as Kay Warren appears to have noticed, sadly, that does not appear to be the one we live in.

Read more »

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Craig Slips Down the Fallacy Slide

William Lane Craig's serious response to same sex marriage advocates is to say that if marriage is treated as a social construct (which it is) rather than something with an essence (which it is not), this means 'anything goes', including goat marrying.

In his latest Question of the Week in which he allows that the law should be blind to the sexual orientation of those who want to marry, he says:
Marriage is by its essence a relation between a man and a woman.
The real question here, it seems to me, is whether marriage has an essence or is merely a social construct akin to driving on the right- versus left-hand side of the road. Those who espouse same-sex marriage want to deconstruct marriage so that what counts as marriage is just a matter of convention. Once we start down that route, anything goes: a man and two women, a man and a child, two men and a goat, etc. I see no reason at all to start down that road.
This is obviously the slippery-slope fallacy. There really is no more reason for the law to change to allow inter-species marriage after same-sex marriage is recognised than before it. It's revealing that one of the leading apologists for Christianity would resort to such a poor argument.

The history of marriage is the history of a social construct, although to say it is 'merely' a social construct is akin to saying that religion is merely a social construct. Of course it is, but there is more to it. The word represents a vast range of real world activities past and present, and normally it would hardly matter about the word, because it would simply come to also represent marriage between two men or between two women - which it has, for many of us, as a matter of fact. It's interesting that Craig considers the phrase 'gay marriage' misconceived, yet still says:
Laws permitting gay marriage would be clearly unconstitutional, since they would not be blind to the sexual orientation of the persons involved.
It's entirely clear what this means; Craig understands that the phrase is readily understood, even if he thinks it misconceived because he thinks marriage has an essence. But, of course, 'marriage' represents something that is going on in society, and it already exists, whether he likes it or not.

So the battle is not to stop marriage from changing; it has changed before and will change again, so the start down the road that Craig so fears has already happened - and it was nothing to do with same sex marriage, note.

The opposition here is just down to good old fashioned religious bigotry, I'm afraid.

Read more »