I’m waiting by my mailbox

The Vatican is reaching out to atheists. They are creating a foundation called “The Courtyard of Gentiles” to encourage discussion between Catholics and the godly — I can hardly wait. Except, alas, it turns out their invitations are only going to a select few.

But in an interview with the National Catholic Register, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, made it clear he would not be willing to give a platform to certain prominent atheists.

The foundation, he said, would only be interested in “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind – so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins”.

Such atheists, he added, only view the truth with “irony and sarcasm” and tend to “read religious texts like fundamentalists”.

There has got to be a cabal of atheists working within the church — I can’t imagine them being this incompetent by accident. So apparently they only want faitheists in their little clubhouse, because as we all know, the primary weapon of the atheists is irony and sarcasm…the two weapons of the atheists are irony, sarcasm, and ridicule…wait. Man, we are so danged vicious. We actually mock Catholics, so we’re just too mean to come to their party.

Except me, right? They didn’t mention that little guy in Minnesota as being on their blacklist, so there’s still hope…

Marshmallow reviews fierce book

Nicholas Kristof seems like a decent enough fellow, with a concern for humanitarian causes. He’s also something of a simpering apologist for religion — anything with a whiff of godlessness seems to put him on edge and start him whining about intolerant, obnoxious atheists.

He is definitely not the right person to have review Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book. He might be able to sympathize with the human rights issues she confronts, but at the same time he’s got a kind of willful blindness to the contributions religion makes to human misery, and is guaranteed to belittle the problem of Islam.

If you haven’t read Ali’s previous book, Infidel(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), get cracking; you’ve got to catch up. It was a harrowing description of the life of a Muslim girl in a poor country who managed to escape both poverty and her misogynistic faith. Her new book is Nomad(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), about her move to America. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the list.

Kristof’s review is aggravating, though, because it is so thick with — and here I’ll use a word often applied to atheists — condescension. He is a privileged white American male criticizing a black African woman…and he is completely incapable of appreciating her opposition to Islam.

Even now, she needs bodyguards.

That’s partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex. After her father’s death, Hirsi Ali connects by telephone with her aging and long-estranged mother living in a dirt-floor hut in Somalia. Hirsi Ali asks forgiveness, but the conversation goes downhill when her mother pleads with her to return to Islam. Near tears, her mother asks: “Why are you so feeble in faith? . . . You are my child and I can’t bear the thought of you in hell.”

“I am feeble in faith because Allah is full of misogyny,” Hirsi Ali thinks to herself. “I am feeble in faith because faith in Allah has reduced you to a terrified old woman — because I don’t want to be like you.” What she says aloud is: “When I die I will rot.” (For my part, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: “I love you.”)

Ah, it’s partly her fault. Kristof can’t bring himself to mention that the reason she is threatened with death, the reason she spoke out, is because she opposes the oppression of women under Islam, something radical Islamists find blasphemous and deserving of death. She holds a reasonable, rational position that has earned her a death sentence from fanatics, and all Kristof can do is make excuses for Islam, saying that they aren’t all bad (which we know; if we can’t criticize the ideology because some of those who hold it are kind to kittens and give flowers to their grandmothers, we’ll end up supporting some heinous regimes with our silence), and it’s better for the rude critics to learn some manners and shut up.

That’s really what that parting line above is about: an outspoken critic of Islam should simply silence herself and mumble consoling platitudes. What Ali wrote is honest and heartfelt: we hate to see loved ones trapped in the fearful web of superstition, and if we really care, we’re willing to tell them exactly what we think, without fear.

Not to the marshmallow man, Nicholas Kristof, though. Religion is exempt from dissent, for some reason — a strong atheist can reach out in concern to a family member who responds with more god-fueled terror and anger, and all he sees is someone who wasn’t sufficiently deferential to the superstition that has ruined people’s lives.

Irish meeting in a bar tonight

I know, unbelievable, isn’t it? They’re gathering to congratulate Paul Gill on completing his traverse of Ireland to protest the blasphemy law. It sounds like it’s been a successful consciousness-raising effort.

People all along the west coast have been incredibly supportive. Many people have refused to take payment for meals and staying at campsites, and comedian Tommy Tiernan met Paul to express his support. And you can give him a boost by joining him today, either on the final leg of the walk or later in Sandino’s bar, or else by texting him a message of congratulations to +35386 7325365.

We’re going to break his cell phone, aren’t we?

Australia is becoming more and more like the US

That’ll send a chill down Antipodean spines. They’ve got creationists just like us (please stop sending them here, we’re full up), and they’ve also got crazy anti-vaxers promoting dangerous public health practices in public libraries. Fortunately, they also have skeptics opposing the people who want to make babies vulnerable to disease — maybe we should put a positive, friendly spin on it and call the anti-vaxers pro infant mortality — and they’re busy gearing up with information to combat ignorance.

If you’re living near Perth, it might be a good idea to make some contacts, and maybe show up at the dead baby promotional event at the library in June to protest.

P.S. We’re full up on anti-vaxers, too. Australia sent us Ken Ham, I think it would be only fair to respond by sending Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy to the southern hemisphere.

A constructive suggestion for retribution against BP

Look at this: BP knew about problems at that burning oil rig 11 months ago. They screwed up with bad decisions in the short interval immediately before the explosion, but documents have come to light showing that they were worried about “loss of control” months before the disaster — and what they did in response was to ask for delays in testing (which they got), and then they fudged the tests by using a lower pressure.

This is basically criminal misconduct. But hey, what’s the point of getting upset over 11 deaths and a mere environmental catastrophe? We need the oil. Let’s just help the oil companies get beyond this.

Here’s a map of the approximately 4000 oil rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico.


Everyone is fixated on that one burning mess in the Gulf, which is probably exactly what the oil companies want — they are probably sweating pungent carcinogenic petrochemicals at the thought that someone might look around and notice all of those other rigs, which almost certainly have a paper trail of shortcuts and risks and shoddy management. While BP is struggling to catch up with its responsibilities and close off the well and clean up the poisons, I think a great thing for the Obama administration to do would be to descend on each of those other wells with a force of elite regulatory accountants, documenting all the potential and extant problems, and telling each company to fix them. Now. Without cheating, without getting any special dispensations. If they can’t fix them, shut them down or hit them with massive penalties.

I have a very low opinion of oil company executives. I doubt that they have any sincere regrets about the loss of life or the destruction of the environment. But having to fix every place where they shaved corners, and pay out money to bring everything up to legally mandated standards — now that will make them cry.

Hmm. Here’s another site with a count of US oil and gas rigs — it says there are about 1500. I can’t account for the discrepancy, unless there has been a rapid decline in the last few years (this site is more current), or there is some other criterion for inclusion in this particular list.

It doesn’t matter, of course — except that a smaller number makes it easier to review them all.

Another unpleasant discharge from the disreputable Terry Lectures

What is it with some English professors and their contempt for science? Some of the noisiest, most obnoxious, most self-indulgently prolix and goofy critics of the New Atheism are full-of-themselves pomposities like Eagleton and Fish, and now we can apparently add another, Marilynne Robinson. She’s a novelist — I have not read any of her books, but they have received quite a bit of critical acclaim — and she recently gave a series of lectures, now published as a book, Absence of Mind, in which she is going to give the godless a piece of her mind. Unfortunately for her, it seems to be a small sliver, very spongy and soft, and it bounces off like a bullet from a nerf gun. This review starts off promisingly:

“Absence of Mind” derives from the Dwight Harrington Terry lectures on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” [uh-oh, bad sign already: Eagleton’s awful book was also a product of the Terry lectures] As Robinson tells us in her introduction, her book aims to “examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion.” In particular, she wants to question the kind of authority claimed by certain modern scientists and to raise questions about the quality of their thinking. In her first chapter she focuses on what one might loosely call the sociobiologists, thinkers like E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who assert that our lives are ordered by overt or unconscious self-interest, that our minds are unreliable and constantly trick us, and that traditional religious belief is a primordial hold-over, certainly childish, sometimes deluded and generally embarrassing.

Yes, actually, I think she’s got it right. At least that’s how I feel about the matter. Charges accepted, officer. Now all she has to do is show that she can criticize the anti-religionists without demonstrating that her position actually is rather embarrassing.

Robinson argues strenuously that such thinkers grossly simplify religious thought and testimony — and they ooze condescension. “The characterization of religion by those who dismiss it tends to reduce it to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death, and this makes its persistence very annoying to them.” She notes that these same crusading debunkers consistently portray those who dare to disagree with them as intellectually dishonest, as naifs who refuse to face facts.

Ooooh, I don’t think she like us. But OK, show us that she can face the facts. Show us that religion is something more than the delusion we say it is.

In particular, Robinson says, these “parascientists” deliberately slight “the wealth of insight into human nature that might come from attending to the record humankind has left.” At the very least, “an honest inquirer” into the nature of religion “might spend an afternoon listening to Bach or Palestrina, reading Sophocles or the Book of Job.” We are not, she maintains, simply the instrument of selfish genes. Indeed, she suspects that the “modern malaise,” our sense of emptiness and alienation, can be attributed not to the “death of God” but rather to the widely promulgated, and reductionist, view of the self as wholly biological.

Bad start. Criticizing legitimate scientists by coining a new label for them, parascientist, while incapable of demonstrating that she has any grasp of science herself is a very bad idea. See this article on scientific impotence: what she’s doing is trying to pretend that the scientists who disagree with her aren’t doing science. But then, she’s no scientist herself, so if thinking scientifically is a virtue and unscientific ideas are grounds for insulting people, where does that leave her?

Scientists know about and appreciate art. Seriously, does she think we’ve never listened to Bach, and all we have to do is hear the Magnificat and presto, we’ll believe in God? We admire and respect the accomplishments of our fellow human beings — people of flesh and bone and nerve and sinew — and it is no surprise that they can create beauty. This is no argument against us.

If we are not the product of our genes (and many other natural and material influences, as any biologist will tell you), then what else? Does Dr Robinson have any component to add, other than supernatural, magical stuff for which she has no evidence?

And what modern malaise? I don’t feel empty and alienated, do you? Almost all the atheists I know seem to be enthusiastic and cheerful, with a real sense of optimism about the future. If it’s just the miserable god-botherers who don’t understand science who are moping along under the cloud of this imaginary malaise, I don’t think you can logically blame their psychological problems on being depressed about the conclusions of biology.

Sure, God is dead. But we aren’t at all sad about it — we’re dancing on his grave. Viewing the self as biological is a wonderfully liberating way to see the world, too, since it means we don’t have to rely on the whims of uncommunicative ghosts to find fulfillment in life.

As it is, she’s just a blustering babbler with a lot of resentment towards those darned scientists who keep on shaking up her comfortable illusions about her soul. She takes another step, though, and this is where she does embarrass herself — she uses her ignorance about a significant medical case in the history of science to bash away at “parascientists” some more, and she gets it all wrong.

Robinson assails Wilson and company most powerfully by accusing them of faulty, narrow-minded thinking. Take their frequent use of the story of Phineas Gage, the railway worker famous for surviving an accident in which a large iron rod was driven through his skull. Afterwards, according to contemporary accounts, his behavior changed dramatically and he was “fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.” For the parascientists, this proves that personality and character “are localized in a specific region of the brain,” a fact, adds Robinson, “that, by their lights, somehow compromises the idea of individual character and undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature.”

But Robinson asks us to actually think about Phineas Gage. How would you feel and react if you had had your upper jaw shattered, lost an eye and suffered severe disfigurement? Gage “was twenty-five at the time of the accident. Did he have dependents? Did he have hopes? These questions seem to me of more than novelistic interest in understanding the rage and confusion that emerged in him as he recovered.” In the parascientific writings about Gage, she asserts, “there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.” In essence, these scholars “participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind.”

Why, yes, Phineas Gage did have a very serious accident that almost killed him, and seriously damaged his brain, resulting in changes in personality and behavior. That’s a well-documented fact. But Robinson’s claims about the interpretations of this event are bizarre and wrong.

No one claims that “personality and character ‘are localized in a specific region of the brain'”. In the 19th century, phrenologists were all over the Gage story, but their claims are no longer accepted. Personality and character are diffuse in the brain, with different regions contributing different, interacting influences. The forebrain, for example, has (in very broad terms) a restraining effect on impulses — it’s a region involved in thinking ahead and recognizing possible consequences, and damage to this area, as in the case of Gage, can lead to the kinds of behavior he exhibited.

I don’t even know what she means by “compromises the idea of individual character”. Does she think scientists reject the idea that individuals have different personalities? Our minds are complicated ensembles of modules that generate our thoughts and behaviors; we’re all different.

As for “undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature”…no, that makes no sense. Actually listen to what those New Atheist scientists are saying, and you discover that they’re actually arguing that our ‘amiable traits’, like empathy, cooperation, morality, actually do have a biological foundation, as do some of our more hostile traits, like competition and aggression. She’s arguing that we hold a view that is the exact opposite of the one we actually endorse!

The rest of her account is equally fantastic. She seems to be implying that maybe there wasn’t a discrete change to the functioning of his brain, but that he was just rightfully upset about a devastating accident. This is absurd. The doctor who treated him happily reported that his recovery went well and that he seemed to have full return of his mental faculties — it was Gage’s friends and family who reported that his personality had changed to the point of unrecognizability. This is the report Dr Harlow published on the changes:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

In the “parascientific” writings about Gage, by which Robinson actually means the genuinely scientific writings, there certainly is a focus on fact and observation. Read Harlow’s account of the accident, for instance: what you will see is a dispassionate account by a doctor who was doing everything in his power to keep a seriously injured man alive. I’m not sure what Robinson expected in these writings; that they do not indulge in hysterics, that Harlow did not treat the patient with prayer or literary readings from the Book of Job, may disappoint her, but do not indicate that the doctor had a lack of feeling for Gage as a human being. That Harlow followed the case of his patient for at least twenty years suggests that perhaps there was more to it than Robinson can believe.

You can also read an account of the Gage accident here on Scienceblogs, and I can tell you that it is also a common entry in introductory biology textbooks — but the interest is precisely because this was a human being with hopes and fears and a unique personality who was tragically changed by a sudden accident. To claim, as Robinson does, that scientists have no sense of Gage as a person, that they lack a “compassionate imagination” is simply rank defamation and dehumanization. It is the vile bigotry of a provincial mind that substitutes prejudice and stereotype for actual knowledge of what scientists think.

It was a good review of her book, though. It convinced me that I needn’t bother reading anything she’s written.