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Comments by Cartomancer

Go to: Does Religion = Superstition? G-D Forbid!

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 8 by Cartomancer

I have articulated elsewhere my opinion that "religious" and "cultural" are not distinct things. Religion is a type of culture, and the word "religion" is so multifarious and vague as to be taxonomically useless.

This applies to all religion. It's just a kind of culture. Separate tools and mindsets are not required for understanding it. If you want to use the word "religion" to mean a specific thing, such as belief in things that don't exist, then fine, but that's not the entirety of the word's import. As I said, it is my belief that the word has so much import as to be essentially useless unless assigned an arbitrary and much narrower meaning.

So I find this argument a bit silly. Some people who call themselves jewish seriously believe in all kinds of nonsense. Some understand and feel affinity for the nonsense, but don't believe it, and some don't even feel affinity for it. That's how it is with all people and all cultures. That's how these things work.

Also, people who play fantasy role-playing games don't actually believe that fantasy monsters really exist...

Wed, 15 Aug 2012 23:10:46 UTC | #950845

Go to: Translating the British

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 17 by Cartomancer

Also, I find the whole idea of sporting competition somewhat counter-productive myself. Why not have sporting collaboration instead?

I mean, take the discus. What happens at the moment is that each competitor stands on the spot, throws their discus, then goes and gets it back for the next one, who throws it from the same spot. Think how much further it would go if each thrower threw it from where the last one had got it to.

Why don't they just do that, and see if everybody working together can get it further this time than they did four years ago? If they can't, back home and try harder next time, if they can, good work everybody and medals all round.

It's not like we need any encouragement for our tribalistic and antagonistic instincts after all. If we did something that fostered ideals of cooperation and equality instead then I think we would all be better off.

Sat, 11 Aug 2012 21:21:26 UTC | #950695

Go to: Translating the British

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 16 by Cartomancer

Oh, there was just as much jingoism and nationalistic sentiment at the ancient games. More so in fact, given that to the Greek city-states the competition for political power, prestige and alliances was much more cut-throat and practically valuable than it is today. The Olympics was THE chief arena for inter-state political posturing. During the Peloponnesian War, for instance, Athens and Sparta would use the games to announce their respective alliances and enmities and court the support of the lesser states in their military endeavours. Athletes would frequently switch their national allegiances from one Olympiad to another if bribed to do so, and powerful patron states would sometimes lend fledgling colonies their best athletes in order to shore up and elevate their clients' political clout.

And as for the artists and poets, they'd go to seek sponsorship from wealthy patrons. It was a big commercial enterprise for them, rather than some pure celebration of artistic merit. Money and sponsorship deals are hardly a modern phenomenon. The other big sporting festivals - the Isthmian, Nemean and Pythian games - were less commercial and significant, but still served as an arena for such activities between Olympics. Athens tried very hard to promote its native Panathenaic games as a rival in the Greek games cycle in order to accrue further prestige and influence. It was a big deal.

The games were also open only to free-born Greek-speaking males (well, until a bunch of very persuasive Latin-speaking males with sharp swords convinced the Greeks to let them take part). There may have been one or two female events on the fringes from time to time, and there are scattered records of female chariot team owners, but it was overwhelmingly a masculine affair. And forget runners-up - there were no silver or bronze awards, it was winner takes all.

Sat, 11 Aug 2012 21:14:23 UTC | #950694

Go to: Celebrating Curiosity on Twitter

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 8 by Cartomancer

As most left-leaning, liberal, European types do, I find myself in considerable danger of becoming rabidly anti-American most days. My solution is to pick two Americans you like and follow them now and again, to act as a reminder that they're not all Mitch Romford or George Bush. Avoid politicians if you can, because politics in America is far more right-wing than in any sane country. I chose PZ Myers and Carl Sagan myself, but there are others that work just as well. When you hear of an American doing something stupid, just go to your sponsored yank correspondent and see the other side of things. If you've picked a good one then they'll probably be frothing about it too.

Mon, 06 Aug 2012 16:08:49 UTC | #950434

Go to: Oxford Gift for Poor Students

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 14 by Cartomancer

Mark Ribbands, Comment #12

You are, of course, entitled to your opinions. But the evidence is very clear that this "the rich will leave if we tax them too much" canard is pure effrontery and nonsense. During the golden age of US industrialism in the 1950s the highest tax bands were close to 90%, but the Gettys and the Rockerfellers and Fords stuck around and did quite nicely out of it. Likewise in postwar Germany, with the Krupps and the Siemenses, and Japan has had high rates of tax on the wealthy for decades without noticeable loss of investment or prosperity. "They'll go if we tax them more" is a phantom conjured by the greedy to advocate for not doing their bit to support society.

Indeed, investment and entrepreneurship tends to come to countries which have highly educated workforces these days, and there is no better way to ensure that than free higher education and healthcare for all. This is one of the reasons the Scandinavian countries are doing significantly better than the rest of Europe in this time of economic crisis.

I find the accumulation of wealth by individuals beyond the necessities of life a deeply problematic thing. It magnifies the luck of birth rather than seeking to compensate for it, and causes deep societal instability if allowed to go too far. It is an almost universal law of social economics that countries with larger gaps between rich and poor have greater levels of unrest and violence.

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 00:31:04 UTC | #949148

Go to: Oxford Gift for Poor Students

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 8 by Cartomancer

I am ambivalent about projects like this.

On the surface, yes, it's a very generous gift. And very helpful too. I'm not sure what the qualifications for getting the reduced fees will be, but it does mean that rather than £9,000 a year these students (or, more likely, their families) will only have to find £3,500. That's about what I was paying in the early 2000s when I was still an undergraduate. It's still a considerable outlay, and I'd rather there was enough support to make all higher education free to everyone (like it is in Scandinavia), but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, such donations should not be necessary. Higher education is one of the most important public goods we have, and should be funded accordingly. We shouldn't need mega-rich benefactors because the government should be paying for it all from taxation, for the sake of our future. I worry that with people stepping forward to plug these gaps out of their own generosity, it will encourage the already uber-right-wing and desperately out of touch millionaires in government to assume that they can rely on this kind of thing. It will reduce the momentum for change, and make a profound reversal in policy all the less likely to happen.

Yes, get those who can afford to pay for it to pay for it, but do it as a matter of policy, through taxing the wealthy more, rather than leaving it up to individual will. Not all of the mega-rich are as generous as Michael Moritz or Harriet Heyman or Bill Gates or Richard Dawkins. Individual generosity is fluctuating, inconsistent, and patchy. Higher Education needs consistent, constant and secure funding.

Fri, 13 Jul 2012 09:19:44 UTC | #949042

Go to: The Dawkins Challenge

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 17 by Cartomancer

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This guy calls himself an academic? Academia should be ashamed...

Dawkins and Krauss would first have to see that there is more to what we know about the world than what the natural sciences tell us.

Is there? Like what for instance? What the social sciences tell us? Sure. What the humanities tell us? Yes, that too. But those are still rational, evidence-based disciplines. Everything we truly KNOW about the world comes from reason and evidence. Theology does not contribute anything to our knowledge of the world because it doesn't have a valid epistemological basis. It has no evidence and its reasoning is deeply flawed

there would have to be preliminary discourse about a richer sense of rationality, one not limited to the natural sciences. To say that only the natural sciences reach truth is to make a philosophical claim about truth, which goes beyond the sciences themselves.

Yes, and? That's very much a philosophical claim we'd like to make thank you. If you haven't got reason and evidence then you haven't got a valid epistemology, you haven't got a way of approaching truth. There is no "richer sense of rationality" because the evidence-based world view of science is already maximally rich in rationality. How can you get more rational than completely rational? What additional element could you incorporate into the pure rationality of science to improve its rationality? That's like trying to saturate an already saturated solution, kill someone who is already dead or teach someone a language they already know.

The vocabulary of faith, like that of physics, needs to be understood in technical terms. But Dawkins does not allow for the kind of specialized vocabulary in theology and philosophy that he is so willing to grant to physics.

Oh, Richard is more than willing to grant that theology has its own specialised vocabulary. Of course it does. What he is not willing to grant is that said specialised vocabulary is in any way consonant with the way the world actually works as revealed by methods which do have a valid, empirical, epistemological basis. Merely having a specialised vocabulary does not mean your vocabulary is of any use. Star Trek fans have their own specialised vocabulary, but that doesn't mean Romulan cloaking devices are real.

The specialised vocabulary of physics is constantly, minutely, incessantly and unforgivingly subjected to tests against reality to see if it is useful. Theological vocabulary is made up on the spot and left to fester, or else borrowed from other disciplines (Aristotelian natural philosophy for instance) and then left to fester just the same. The Aristotelian categories of substance and accident were cutting-edge science once, about 800 years ago. They really were. To a Europe working mostly on neoplatonic ideas they were a very promising and seemingly much more apt description of reality than what could be cobbled together from half of Plato's Timaeus and bits of Augustine, Macrobius and Martianus Capella. But science has moved on since the Twelfth Century.. Science has realised that there are much better, much more relevant, much more accurate ways to talk about reality - not by simple fiat but by examining that very reality in ever greater detail.

The body of Christ, present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, although real (neither symbolic nor metaphorical), is vastly different from the ordinary bodies subject to empirical analysis. It is sacramental presence and theology, aided by philosophy, that help to make intelligible what is believed.

The fundamental question here is still not answered though - how do you know that this is true? How do you know that the wafer on the altar cannot be fully understood by usual means? Theology makes it intelligible, apparently. But how does theology separate what is true from what is not? What valid method does a theologian bring in to settle this question? Many theologians don't believe there is anything more than symbolism to the Eucharist, so who is right and how do we tell? The answer is that they're all just making stuff up based on wish-fulfilment and make-believe. There is no compelling reason to believe that there is anything more to the Eucharist than ordinary matter behaving as ordinary matter does. All theology does is tell fantastical, unevidenced stories about what's happening. One might as well say that Danish history cannot be properly understood without Shakespeare's Hamlet, or the true nature of King's Cross Railway Station without Harry Potter.

The arguments in theology and philosophy may not seem compelling – or even worthy of rational attention – to Dawkins and his followers. But informed Catholics ought to be far better prepared to use reason itself to defend what they believe on faith.

And there's the rub you see - if there's a rational reason to believe something then you don't need and indeed can't have faith in it - you just believe it because it is rationally apparent. By definition, if you believe it on faith then you don't have a rational justification for it. Faith and reason are polar opposites. Reason precludes faith, faith is incompatible with reason. And until you realise this and stop trying to pollute the well of rational inquiry into the world with the poison of unevidenced fable there is no reason why we or anyone else should take your arguments seriously.

Thu, 14 Jun 2012 03:15:20 UTC | #947318

Go to: Church accused of 'scaremongering'

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 9 by Cartomancer

by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which includes, for many, the possibility of procreation

But why procreation? Or, rather, why procreation by coitic means, since procreation is eminently possible through other channels. Surely there are more important, worthier things to protect in law and culture, like love and respect and companionship. Things which don't harm the environment by clogging it up with yet more resource-guzzling people the planet can ill afford?

Yet this phrase amuses me. "underlying biological complementarity". What it means, I think, is that one party has a hole in the middle and the other party has a sticky-out bit (with both possessed of an equal number of additional holes and sticky-out bits in the form of nostrils, fingers and so forth). Which seems a very odd basis around which to construct one's social conventions to me, but then again I'm not an elderly addled bigot in a dress.

If we are playing at that game, though, then I think two men have much greater "underlying biological complementarity" than a man and a woman. After all, between them they have an equal number of holes and an equal number of sticky-out bits to put in those holes if so minded. Such a relationship is far more equal and complementary, because it gives rise to more potential hole / sticky-out-bit combinations and possesses a much greater symmetry in its construction, with both partners able to participate to the fullest in all ways. Furthermore, with both parties experiencing similar social, cultural, hormonal and phenoytpical conditions in their lives the psychological compatibility and mutual understanding is so much greater. How often do you hear men saying that they don't "get" how women think? Or women saying that men are a mystery to them? Men are from Mars, Women from Venus, as the books and songs tell us. Well same-sex relationships have none of that, both participants understand their own gender's psychology and biology intimately, making for a much closer bond.

So, you see, by the church's own logic same-sex marriage is much superior and should thus be fully endorsed in canon law and also the only form of marriage offered by the state from now on.

Tue, 12 Jun 2012 14:46:50 UTC | #947061

Go to: Dawkins calls for 'Catholic' honesty

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 119 by Cartomancer

The argument is really about transubstantiation. This is an answer to a how question. It is the answer provided by Aquinas.

Well, Aquinas did assent to transubstantiation, and worked out some of the more specific Aristotelian implications of it for the philosophical orthodoxies of his own time, but it wasn't his idea in the first place and he had nothing to do with its getting adopted as official church doctrine.

The idea that the body and blood are really, literally there in the Eucharist was affirmed by Paschasius Radbertus in the Ninth Century, and the discussions which led to the emergence of the theory of transubstantiation were stirred up by Berengar of Tours, Roscelin of Compiegne and Peter Abelard in the first half of the Twelfth Century. The earliest use of the term transubstantiation for this explanation of the phenomenon comes from Hildebert of Lavardins (d. 1133). The competing explanations at the time were consubstantiation and annihilationism, which I discussed at

The church adopted "transubstantiation" as its official doctrinal formula at the First Lateran Council of 1215. Aquinas was born ten years later in 1225.

It is a common mistake to make, attributing everything in Medieval theology to Aquinas. People tend to make it because Aquinas was elevated to something like chief theological authority of the Middle Ages by nineteenth century French catholics, and as a result he's pretty much the only major Medieval theologian or philosopher anyone has ever heard of.

Sat, 09 Jun 2012 19:30:50 UTC | #946613

Go to: Dawkins calls for 'Catholic' honesty

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 98 by Cartomancer

But that is nothing new, It, the catholic hierarchy, has always behaved in that way, certainly since the later middle ages.

Precisely. It has always behaved that way. It is high time somebody disabused it of the notion that it controls or dictates what its adherents believe and stopped it behaving that way. Or, more to the point, stopped the adherents believing that they really should pay attention (or even lip service) to what the hierarchs tell them.

But that does not mean that those who disagreed with them should not be considered catholic. Then and now. Richard is saying that Catholic dissenters are not Catholics. I am sure the Pope agrees.

It's a challenge. Either you agree with the pope and admit you're not a catholic by his standards, or you disagree with the pope and thereby question why his standards are at all relevant. The issue at hand is "what does it mean to be a catholic?" and by extension "why should I want to be a catholic at all?" What we want is people to rethink their knee-jerk allegiance to the catholic church and peel away, or if they won't then to take the church to task from within and assert a more democratic, less hierarchical, less authoritarian and medieval model of governance within it. The current state of affairs is based entirely on unthinking inertia rather than fulsome assent. That's how the hierarchs get away with the crimes they do. That's what needs to be challenged.

Sat, 09 Jun 2012 11:30:06 UTC | #946554

Go to: Dawkins calls for 'Catholic' honesty

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 74 by Cartomancer

But, really, it's a bit silly to upbraid Richard on his assertion that if you don't believe in transubstantiation (technically the actual presence of christ on the altar during the Eucharist, but that's a minor quibble I've made before) then you can't call yourself a real catholic.

What Richard is doing here is not denying the complicated realities of religious affiliation and belief, he's bringing them into sharp focus to expose the cracks. It's a pedagogical tool. It's almost socratic. Richard is merely pointing out that the hierarchy of the catholic church does indeed have this authoritarian ruling that its adherents should believe a specific set of very silly things. He's not making that up, it really does, and has had for centuries. According to the leaders of the catholic church, that's what you need to believe in order to be a catholic.

But clearly not all of them do believe it. Obviously there is a huge gap between what the hierarchs say you should believe and what most catholic people actually do believe. Richard knows this full well. But most catholic people don't really think about this gap, this disjunct. They still habitually afford the pope and the cardinals and the theologians a level of respect and deference that does not accord with their own beliefs and actions. They afford them unwarranted authority, and with that authority the hierarchs do horrible things and promote great social evils. And sometimes the adherents do follow the party line, on matters such as abortion and homophobia, exacerbating and spreading the evils.

What Richard is trying to do here is make the adherents think for themselves. He's trying to break the spell and challenge the notion that religion is something you just do because you just do it. If people sit up and explicitly articulate the situation regarding their belief in silly things like transubstantiation then they've made that crucial first step towards questioning the whole damned edifice. "Well yes, I suppose it does sound ridiculous, obviously I don't believe THAT" can quickly snowball into "Why do I listen to these hateful old men in dresses at all?" When unchallenged, people stagnate and let it pass, when actually challenged to define precisely what their religion means to them, most religious people quickly realise that it is a hopeless muddle that doesn't actually mean much more than a fondness for tradition and ritual.

The catholic hierarchy is behaving as if its rulings and pronouncements reflect the reality of its followers. It is allowed to get away with behaving like that because too many people believe that fondness for tradition and ritual somehow entails notional obedience to a central dogmatic authority. These two must be separated, and one of the most powerful ways they can be separated is to focus on the language used and bring the imprecision and its implications to light.

Sat, 09 Jun 2012 00:32:14 UTC | #946477

Go to: Dawkins calls for 'Catholic' honesty

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 73 by Cartomancer

Right, first of all there is a bit of incredibly pedantic housekeeping that needs doing. I dont expect anyone (least of all the catholics) to actually care about this, but I did do a bloody doctorate in this sort of stuff so I claim the crabby academic's universal right to butt in on a specialist subject and tell people what's what:

One problem with this question being viewed as a shibboleth is that most people misunderstand what the doctrine means. It is based on Aristotelian categories which distinguish the substance of something (its essence independent of all physical properties) from its accidents (all its physical properties). Transubstantiation means that the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance (spiritual presence is probably the best way to put this in contemporary terms) of Christ but the accidents remain the same i.e the physical properties of bread and wine remain the same and the physical properties of the body and blood of Christ are not involved, but Christ's essence i.e spiritual presence is.

This gets the Medieval Aristotelian metaphysics terminology somewhat wrong. It's a valid effort, but not quite what the scholastics meant.

"essence independent of physical properties" and "spiritual presence" are not good definitions of substance (substantia) in the context of transubstantiation, for several reasons. First of all the word "substance" (substantia) in Medieval Latin most usually means what we use it to mean in English today - stuff, a thing that exists with certain properties. What transubstantiation deals with is a specialised, distinct, technical use of the word substance, more properly expressed as substantial form (forma substantialis). Scholastic writers did use substantia on its own as a shorthand to mean substantial form, but it was usually clear from the context what they meant. In the same way modern evolutionary scientists might use "fitness" as a shorthand for "Hamiltonian inclusive fitness" or some such.

Anyway, "substantial form" is not "essence independent of physical properties" and "accidental form" is not a synonym for "physical properties". "Essence" (essentia) is a technical scholastic term in its own right, which means something like "the specific properties, characteristics or attributes of a thing that characterise it as that thing". Basically it's the metaphysical spec sheet. This is contrasted with being (esse) which simply means the property of actually existing in reality. The essence of a triangle, for example, is to be a closed plane shape that has three sides and three corners. That's true whether there are any actual triangles in the world or not, each actual example of a real triangle having esse on top of its abstract defining essentia.

Substantial and Accidental forms are components of a thing's essentia - what makes it what it is. A substantial form is a form it has to have to be the kind of thing it is, an accidental form is a form it may or may not have and yet still be that thing - an optional extra. For example, being alive would be considered an essential property of a man, because a dead man isn't a man, he's a corpse. But having white skin or blond hair is an accidental property of a man, because he could have black skin or brown hair and still be a man. Both substantial and accidental forms could be physical or non-physical in nature. You could quite easily talk about having the form of kindness or chastity or holiness for instance, as well as the form of redness or sharpness or being on fire. There is a term in the scholastic Latin vocabulary for the underlying substrate of the real world divorced from all form and characteristic, but that term is Prime Matter (materia primalis). Substantial and accidental forms are imprinted onto Prime Matter in order to make it into mundane things, and thereby imbue those collections of forms, those essentiae, with being, with esse. Prime Matter is thus not substantial form.

As for "spiritual presence", that doesn't get to the heart of substance under transubstantiation either. "Spiritual", to the Scholastics, was generally either a mode of existence lacking corporeal matter (i.e. not deriving its esse from union of form with Prime Matter but from something else) or a mode of existence with matter but matter so rarefied and fine that it flowed and behaved in completely different ways from normal matter. Neither of these describes the substantial form of the christ-bread on the altar - which most definitely did have corporeal matter and most definitely did behave in the usual way of solid stuff. Christ's body and blood weren't spiritual substances, they were corporeal substances. They did not have spiritual presence, they had actual corporeal presence. That's what the whole explanation was concocted to explain. Saying that the body and blood were there "spiritually" is pretty much saying that they weren't really and actually there at all.

What transubstantiation means is that you're eating real flesh and drinking real blood, they just happen to look and taste like bread and wine. They're flesh and blood in every way that matters to their being flesh and blood, it's merely the way they affect human senses that's different. Their sensory emanations, on this model, are not essential and necessary to their fundamental nature as flesh and blood.

Sat, 09 Jun 2012 00:12:12 UTC | #946475

Go to: Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 27 by Cartomancer

Am I the only one who has a sneaking admiration for Pastor Mack? He seems to have been someone who lived life on its own terms. If we hear that someone's parachute failed to open or they fell off a mountain, we don't call them stupid for having perished in an unnecessary way, and yet skydiving and mountaineering are easily as pointless as snake handling. We may even salute someone who dies in such a manner and say "ah well, he died as he lived" or "it's how he would have wanted to go".

This man presumably spent most of his life handling snakes (and panthers apparently) and made it to the age of 44. Respect.

I haven't even got the slightest admiration for this man. He devoted his life to a dangerous brand of ridiculous nonsense that eventually killed him. And, what's worse, he did so because he was inculcated with that nonsense by his own father - who died the same way. He has a grieving mother and wife and children. It's utterly stupid and pathetic.

Devotion is all well and good, if it's devotion to something worthwhile. But this kind of obsessive, reckless, unreflective faith is one of the most harmful aspects of human psychology there is. And this guy didn't just follow it, he actively PROMOTED it. He tried to instil and nurture and shore it up in others. As his father did before him. That's not admirable, it's monstrous.

And the photojournalist too - she isn't blameless here either. She's contributing to making this tragic madman and his nasty irrational cult into some kind of heroic feat that deserves respect. By choosing to document and publicise what goes on here, she's spinning it into something that is intended to provoke admiration and awe rather than horror at the senselessness and waste of it. The toxic mindset so graphically displayed here must be roundly condemned and shunned, not held up for freak-show gawping. The people who aided and abetted this should be charged with negligent homicide, since the man was clearly a risk to himself and in need of protecting from his stupid faith.

Fri, 01 Jun 2012 23:11:37 UTC | #945097

Go to: Sixty Years of British Science Innovation

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 9 by Cartomancer

This thread is an opportunity to celebrate science. It would be a shame to see that opportunity lost because people can't see past the very brief reference to the Jubilee.

It is interesting, though, that we have had so much scientific progress in the last sixty years, but the antiquated cultural mores of monarchism are still strong. You'd have thought that all the progress and scientific questioning would have made us think a lot harder about just accepting traditional social insitutions at face value. Surely there's a point here about the wider impact of science on society, or lack thereof?

After all, the first item on that list is the discovery of DNA, and the last is cloning. You'd think that concepts of inherited nobility and the mystique of hereditary leadership would be among the first casualties of actually understanding the mechanism behind inheritance and heredity. If we'd taken the importance of science truly to heart we'd be celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the discovery of DNA next year, not the death of an inconsequential aristocrat this year.

Fri, 01 Jun 2012 13:24:12 UTC | #944961

Go to: Sixty Years of British Science Innovation

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 1 by Cartomancer

I note that "discovery that monarchy is an outdated, anachronistic and embarassing institution that needs to be disbanded and forgotten about" didn't make the list. Oh well, I guess we need something to work on in the next sixty years.

Then again, British political scientists did propose the theory in 1649 and conduct numerous experiments to demonstrate it, so perhaps it just needs to be popularised.

Fri, 01 Jun 2012 11:12:28 UTC | #944941

Go to: Does Religious Liberty Equal Freedom to Discriminate?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 32 by Cartomancer


It must offer them to those who are willing to play ball; it doesnt have to offer them to those whose views are antithetical to its own. If what you propose were the case, how would political parties or trade unions, both of which receive money from members, operate? Political parties expel members all the time if they dont toe the party line, and trade unions...well, I wont even go there!!

No, a public service must be offered to all who can make use of it or to nobody. Anything else is unjust and unfair. The ideological position of the vendor or the benificiary is irrelevant. The service a political party offers is campaigning for specific political ends - it must be open to all who wish to promote those ends. If you do not wish to promote those ends, it's a bit silly to join the party. The system polices itself. Indeed, political parties are not allowed to discriminate on arbitrary ideological grounds in their membership - as the recent news that the BNP are legally compelled to admit ethnic minority members despite their overtly racist policy shows. Trade unions, likewise, are there to represent the interests of their members, and should be open to all employees in the relevant profession who can benefit from that representation.

The 'venue hire' is not analogous to, say, a nightclub hiring its dancefloor to a certain group of revellers; a church, AA, or Weight Watchers is offering a 'package' or an 'idea', of which the venue is just one part.

Yes, that's true. Though a nightclub is also offering a "package", an "idea", in the form of its own particular aesthetic, branding and ambience. But it's still a service. It's still something that people can pay for and use. Therefore it should still come under goods and services non-discrimination regulations.

But that's the mistake you're making(at least in relation to the church): it is not offering services to the general public; it is offering them to those who share its views and beliefs, i.e. those who voluntarily seek to be a part of the 'package' that is on offer. If one doesnt like the package....

No, a church offers its services TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC for MONEY in the same way as any other shop or service provider. There is no relevant difference. A person who chooses to shop in a department store voluntarily chooses to share in and be a part of that shop's "package", and the shop isn't allowed to discriminate. You aren't allowed to set up "White Power Stores" and claim that because your shop is founded on racist principles you are therefore allowed to refuse to sell to black people. Churches are no different. If a gay couple wants to buy in to the package they should be allowed to. There is nothing about the package that HAS to exclude gay people, so putting together a package that does is arbitrary, bigoted, discriminatory and should be prohibited.

And who judges what is a 'personal foible'? The state, i.e. the political group that happens to be in control of state agencies at a particular time?

Yes, that is the relevant power. Which is why we must try hard to construct our states as well as possible to ensure they are maximally just, egalitarian and objective in their provisions, and not at the mercy of partisan ideology. And while "personal foible" is largely undefinable (and irrelevant), "equality" and "harm" can be objectively quantified.

Of course he shouldnt be 'compelled'; but neither can he, or the state, compel others to do what he wishes!

Of course the state can compel people to do things. States do that all the time. The state compels people to pay taxes, to obey laws, to live up to certain responsibilities. If a black person wishes to shop in a supermarket whose owners want to refuse him service then the state can and does compel them to do what he wishes, and punish them if they do not. That's all fine and good. That's what states should do to combat injustice, inequality and bigotry.

And why isn't there 'elsewhere' to go? If enough people share your view, or the view that you feel is so compelling that the state should impose it on its citizens, there should be loads of options for 'dissenters'.

For a start, it's not the role of a just state to impose what the majority want, it's the role of the just state to impose what is just and equal and fair and prevent what is not. If only one person wants it it should be just as available as if everyone wants it, otherwise it all descends into majoritarianism and mob rule. And there are plenty of reasons why there might be nowhere else to go. A gay couple might want to be married in the same church as their parents and their friends and the rest of their community, because it is important to them. They might even fervently believe in the god that church peddles and think that's important. Why should the bigotry of the church's current management trump their earnest desires? That's the only game in town as far as this scenario goes, nowhere else has such resonance for them, nowhere else is as special, nowhere else is close by. The only reason this venue might be unavailable is unacceptable discriminatory bigotry. In such a case it behoves the state to step in and remedy this.

No. AA sells a package...sobriety, 'higher power', solidarity, comradeship, support, space to talk, etc etc. The venue is irrelevant. Nobody has the right to say, 'ah here, that's a load of nonsense. You must listen to my views on alcohol, which are " go out and get locked whenever you want; there's no such thing as alcoholism. We should be sitting around here drinking" . Thats the equivalent.

An AA meeting is specifically for a certain purpose. If one attends an AA meeting in such a way as to frustrate that purpose they are in breach of the contractual obligations implied in the transaction. That's not discrimination, that's simple frustration of contract. A church service in general, and a marriage in particular, is not frustrated by the participation of gay people, because nothing about a person's sexuality frustrates the purpose of marriage or public ritual. There is no relevant operant factor that is being compromised, just the personal ideological foibles of the hierarchs and priests. Those are not relevant to the service being provided.

The reason we still have states is that they allow for peace, security, and arbitration of disputes.

which are prerequisites for justice, equality and fairness. Without this suite of higher-order ideals states can become very unpleasant places to be.

They can be strong, fair, and well-governed without interfering in the private lives of citizens.

Yes, but not without interfering in the PUBLIC lives of citizens, which is what we're talking about.

Actually, where does it get this right from?!

We endow our societies with the right to interfere with people's public lives. It's part of the social contract.

All these are motivated by self-interest, i.e. to impose one's view of what's best for society on society. That the measures might benefit others doesn't mean that they aren't prompted by self-interest in the first place.

Nonsense. We are capable of great selflessness as well as great selfishness. We do things that are not in our own interests but very much in the interests of other people all the time. Genuinely altruistic behaviour abounds - why do we pay all those taxes into social welfare programmes to make the lives of the unfortunate better and give people greater opportunities? Yes, we benefit personally from happier, more stable societies, but we aren't the only ones who benefit. When everyone benefits, why should we only concentrate on that narrow part of the benefit that accrues to us?

In any case, it's been my experience that few people really do things that conflict with their own self-interest; usually there is a happy coexistence of their interests and the interests of others they are trying to 'help'.

You do realise that you've just accused the vast majority of people of being sociopaths there? Of course people do things that don't benefit them but do benefit others. People give blood, donate to charity, avoid stealing even when they can get away with it. Our moral sense is far more sophisticated and far more profound than you make out.

But, eh, the state already does discriminate in many parts of life, particularly marriage. Not too much polygamy in the UK or US, is there?!

I said it SHOULDN'T, not that, as a matter of fact, it doesn't. We don't live in perfect societies, but the principle still stands. The state should not discriminate unfairly and arbitrarily, and where polygamy does not cause harm, it should be available.

Churches(there are some exceptions, of course) aren't commercial enterprises; they have to charge fees to cover the costs involved. Otherwise, who is going to pay? The state?!

An institution that charges fees to cover the costs of what it does is a commercial enterprise. Commercial means takes in money and provides services for that money. Shops do this too. They take in money to pay for the goods they give you! Where money or similar consideration changes hands, you have a commercial transaction. If a church gave away its services for free, it would not be a commercial enterprise.

Take one of those 'member-owned' golf courses. It charges fees so its members can enjoy their hobby in a quality of surroundings that is to their collective liking; it's not really a 'commercial enterprise', even though money is exchanged for the upkeep of the course etc. Let's say they decide on a dress code or a code of etiquette...should someone be allowed show up, spit on the ground, and say, "fuck y'all...I'll play my round in a pair of Speedos while swiging from a flagon of cider"?! No...if they want to do that, let them organise a club that's to their liking; if such a club doesn't exist, bad luck.

If the golf course is the private property of the people who own it then they can do what they like with it between themselves (within the law, obviously). But if they take fees, pay taxes, and admit members who are not the owners themselves then they are a commercial enterprise. Like a shop or church. The people who use the church are not the people who own the church. A church is not a private meeting of friends, it is a commercially available service available to the general public. Anyone can go to a church and ask to be married, and the church has to do it, because the marriage is a legal instrument of state. It has to abide by health and safety law and it should have to pay tax on this too (it is specifically exempted under charity law, so currently, it's a charity, which is not a private thing).

But neither of those were private organisations, were they?

And neither are churches. But private organisations of legal standing are also bound by non-discrimination laws, and rightly so. You cannot set up a legally recognised Racist Private Members' Club to exclude black people.

If they're harming others...

At the very least. A strong case can be made that the state is also responsible for stopping people harming themselves, for their own good.

No. Thats {discriminatory harm} up to people to sort out for themselves, without the threat of state coercion.

Why? Why should the state only involve itself with certain types of harm and not others? Discrimination can be just as harmful, often much more harmful, than any of the other harmful things the state concerns itself with. Excluding it from the state's beneficent remit is arbitrary and unjust. If the state is there to prevent you assaulting people, it's also there to prevent you making their lives a misery with bigoted discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

Anyway, what is this state you talk about as though it were an authority on what's wrong and right?

It's the collective repository and executor of our laws. It's a social technology that we invent specifically for that purpose. The rightness and wrongness of actions is objectively determined based on rational ethical and moral principles, chiefly related to harm.

The state is an abstract entity, remember; it has no values, ambitions, desires, foibles, traditions, skills, money or relationships....people have those things.

But what the state does have is laws and the means to enforce them. And through the rule of law society can be made more just and fairer. It is up to the lawmakers to ensure that the laws are fair and just - the state is nothing more than our collective attempt to regulate our society. It is us. It is people.

If you dont like what a church is offering, go somewhere else. If you think a church is bigoted, form your own church.

The church is offering what everyone else is offering - marriage services. It's just not offering them to everyone as it should do. As a non-religious service provider must. A registry office cannot refuse to conduct a gay wedding, why is a church allowed to? Why is bigotry a valid reason not to obey the same laws as everyone else?

You dont have the right to impose your views on others, nor they their views on you....

This is not about what you believe in the privacy of your own head, it's about how you behave in public, and how your public behaviour harms others.

that's what true liberty is about, not the travesty of some state approved version that dictates when and how you can make choices for yourself.

Liberty in a population of more than one is always conditional and compromised, to the extent that one person's actions can and will impose on and limit the choices of others. Absolute freedom is simply not possible in company. We have two conflicting "liberties" here - the liberty of gay people to get married where they choose, and the liberty of bigots to stop them. A decision must be made here. We must come down on one side or the other. There is no neutral compromise here. So it behoves us to choose equality over bigotry, because equality is a far more important value than bigotry.

A very good defence of statism, which I find utterly depressing[!] and the antithesis of personal liberty. It will only end up in one place, I fear: a state which controls absolutely the actions of citizens.

Oh grow up! The idea that there is some slippery slope from civilized reduction of harm in society to absolute state control of all actions is about as silly as the idea that fashions which reveal more skin will eventually lead to everyone being absolutely naked all the time. It's an absurd reduction to extremes entirely unevidenced in reality. With that kind of silly logic you might as well argue that we shouldn't have any laws at all - even murder laws - because the state has already started controlling people's murderous actions for the benefit of all, and hence we're already on the slope, and where will it all end? The principle here is harm, which can be quantified. If you admit that society should intervene to prevent harm to others, there is no valid argument against compelling religious institutions to obey the same goods and services non-discriminaiton regulations as we expect everyone else to obey.

Wed, 30 May 2012 02:12:11 UTC | #944355

Go to: Does Religious Liberty Equal Freedom to Discriminate?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 28 by Cartomancer

RJ Moore

Really? The Holocaust Memorial Centre in Hungary must offer its facilities to a group of neo-Nazis? The NAACP must facilitate White Power advocates? Seriously, come on...

Yes. If it offers its services to the public it must offer them to all the public. When you're in the business of venue hire, you're not allowed to discriminate.

I think anyone is entitled to refuse to do business with those who dont share the ethos of the business in question.

Privately, yes. But where the provision of goods and services to the public is involved, no. Equality is far more important than personal foibles.

If the person looking to use the services of a particular organisation has a problem with the raison d'etre of the organisation, he/she should simply go elsewhere.

And he usually will. But he should not be compelled to go elsewhere. Particularly if there isn't an elsewhere to go to.

Otherwise, what next? Binge drinkers demanding that AA allows them use its hall to promote the delights of Happy Hour drinking? Weight Watchers putting aside a section of its room for those who wish to extol the benefits of eating McDonalds twice a day?

Neither the AA nor McDonalds are in the business of venue hire for meetings. The AA hires venues, McDonalds sells food. If the AA refused membership to a gay person or McDonalds refused to sell food to a black person, that's the equivalency we're talking about.

The law shouldn't even come into it. The state shouldn't have the right to dictate how and why people come together voluntarily to form groups or businesses, whether the groups are religious or not.

Rubbish. There are copious laws governing the formation and conduct of businesses and societies. Business law is very complex, and it has to be to mitigate the kinds of injustices and advantage-taking that might otherwise occur. Businesses have to abide by anti-discrimination law, there's no reason why religious businesses should be exempt.

Rubbish. Do you think the Association of Intuitive Palm Readers must do business with those who make it clear that they think the service on offer is silly make-believe? Because the state says so?

Yes, I do. If they're a commercial business then they must abide by the same rules as everyone else.

Thats absolutely not why we have states in the first place...but the relationship between state and citizen is rapidly moving in that direction, Ill grant you that.

And a jolly good thing it is too. That's the main reason we STILL have states, and the most important reason to keep them strong and fair and well-governed. there any other kind of interest?

Communal interest? Interest in the welfare of others? Of humanity at large?

No such right exits in the 'private' world. No person has the right to be 'treated equally'.

But it very much does exist in the PUBLIC world, which is the world in which the state and commercial enterprises operate. The right to equal treatment before the law is pretty much the fundamental building block of the modern nation state, and the essential cornerstone of any just and moral society. And there is plenty of legislation backing up that right. And there should be more.

You can certainly make the argument that the state shouldn't discriminate, although that is fraught with problems too.

What problems would those be then? Seems an absolutely straightforward truism to me.

Of course they charge money; how else would they pay for all the wafers and incense?

And thus they are a commercial enterprise like any other, and should obey the same anti-discrimination laws. A candle shop or a biscuit manufacturer isn't allowed to refuse gays his services, why should a church that provides the same things?

If people dont like the service on offer, they should organise their own group and run it how they see fit.

If Rosa Parks doesn't like the bus service on offer then she should organise her own bus service and run it how she sees fit. If the black people of South Africa don't like the racist schools on offer they should organise their own schools and run them how they see fit. We could do it that way, where the state takes no action to ameliorate injustice or harm, and leaves it entirely up to private individuals, but then what a patchy, inconsistent and ultimately unjust picture we would get. The state has a positive duty to step in and regulate the harmful behaviour of its citizens, including discriminatory harm.

Humans are not equal and never will be, thank Jesu.

In terms of fundamental rights and dignities, yes they are. Thank the generations of enlightenment thinkers who demonstrated to us how important this insight is as a basis for good governance and social progress.

Individual freedom should trump everything, providing others' rights aren't being violated.

I think prevention of harm is a much more laudable prime directive, but even conceding that your premise is true for the sake of debate, the rights of others ARE violated by discriminatory trading practises and bigoted religious privilege. Specifically the right to be treated fairly, equally and in a just manner before the law.

Absolutely, in the same way as Nazi morons should be able to deny the Holocaust til the cows come home. It doesnt mean I dont find them and their views repugnant; but liberty is about consenting adults' having the right to do what they please whether I approve of their actions or not, whether it be porn, cosmetic surgery, gambling, bare-knuckle boxing, tattoos, praying to an imaginary god, or taking drugs.

This is not about what people do and believe privately. It's about the actions they take that affect society at large. And it's not about approval, it's about harm caused to themselves and most especially to others. No man is an island, our societies are so much more than just the conflicting whims of individuals. Communal living, society, civilization itself, are all products of the need to regulate and order the conflicting actions and desires of individuals. Were we all solitary hermits your point would work, as it is we need structure to regulate how we interact with each other, and make the whole project work.

Tue, 29 May 2012 20:40:40 UTC | #944314

Go to: Does Religious Liberty Equal Freedom to Discriminate?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 23 by Cartomancer

RJ Moore,

If they offer to marry anyone then they must be compelled to marry everyone who asks

Even satanists?!

Yes, even them. If you offer a service to the public you must offer it equally to all. A shopkeeper or employer isn't allowed to refuse satanists business, or blacks, or gays, or women. Why should a church be any different? Just because you don't like someone that's not a good enough reason to have a legal right to discriminate against them.

All you're doing is removing the liberty of people to form voluntary groups free from state interference. If a church wants to admit only red-haired, left-handed vegans...what's that got to do with the state?

If the church is providing commercial services then it has everything to do with the state. A shopkeeper might want to serve only red-haired, left-handed vegan customers, but he doesn't have the right to do that. That's what anti-discrimination laws are all about, and they're necessary to ensure fairness and equality of opportunity. That's why we HAVE states in the first place - to place checks on the unfairnesses, inequalities and harm caused by the law of the jungle and rampant inconsiderate self-interest.

If all the church did was hold private meetings of friends then it would not be subject to anti-discrimination laws, just as the shopkeeper wouldn't if he was only conducting a private transaction with a friend rather than offering his goods for sale. But this is not the case. Churches are businesses, with incomes, products and turnover. They charge money for marriage services and conduct them as a commercial transaction (and, in most cases, as a legal instrument of state also).

They do not have the liberty to murder who they want, steal what they want, rape who they want or set what they want on fire.

Of course they don't, since such actions violate the rights of others.

Refusing marriage services to gay people violates their right to being treated equally and their right to be free from harmful discrimination.

What you seem to be suggesting is that groups of people who voluntarily come together should have to acquiesce, faced with the threat of state coercion no less, to the wishes of those outside the group, a blatant infringement of the members' liberty.

When the matter at stake is the fundamental equality of all human beings, damn right that's what I'm suggesting. Individual freedom to cause harm cannot trump universal equality. They're not at liberty to murder who they like, they shouldn't be at liberty to discriminate against who they like in the provision of services to the public. Because this isn't just a group of friends meeting in each other's living room - it's a commercial business that provides services to the public - marriage services. The florist isn't allowed to discriminate, the photographer isn't allowed to discriminate, the venue for the reception isn't allowed to discriminate. Why should this one service provider be permitted to discriminate on spurious and irrelevant grounds where none of the others can?

Also, would you extend your same concern for "liberty" to a church or shop that refused to provide its services to black customers?

Tue, 29 May 2012 16:44:42 UTC | #944258

Go to: Does Religious Liberty Equal Freedom to Discriminate?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 6 by Cartomancer

After all his statement was about the right to marry, which is a secular legal issue. Even if the state were to recognize same-sex marriages, churches, mosques or synagogues or other places of worship would not be required to hold wedding ceremonies within them or sanction such marriages because the no legal standing is attributed to such ceremonies or sanctions.

That may be so in the US (in the UK most churches and some other religious centres do act as legal instruments of the state when they marry people) but even if it is true, I don't think that covers it sufficiently.

Even if there is no legal service conferred by a church's marriage ceremony, a service is nevertheless offered - the use of the church building, the services of an officiant, and perhaps a musician. Usually this service is paid for. The florist provides the flowers. The limo hire people provide the transport. The photographer provides his or her photographic services. The catering company provides the food. The church provides a venue and a speaker. These commercial services are pretty much equivalent.

If you're saying that a church should be allowed to discriminate in its service provision against people because they're gay (or, by extension, black, Mexican, disabled, female...) then you're implicitly saying that a shop or business should be able to discriminate thusly too. In Britain we have the 2007 Provision of Goods and Services Regulations which make that illegal. I don't know if there is equivalent legislation in the US, but even if there isn't, the principle is still sound. It is morally wrong and should be illegal to discriminate unfairly in the proviison of goods and services. And there is no reason why churches should be exempt from this. Being run by conscientious homophobes is not a good reason. If they offer to marry anyone then they must be compelled to marry everyone who asks.

It is my firm conviction that this fight will not be over until the churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious institutions are compelled to provide their services fairly and to all without discrimination. They do not have the liberty to murder who they want, steal what they want, rape who they want or set what they want on fire. Those "religious liberties" are denied to them, and for good reason. The "liberty" to discriminate is similarly unacceptable in a modern, civilized and morally upright society.

Tue, 29 May 2012 01:41:27 UTC | #944123

Go to: Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing Gay ‘Cure’

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 3 by Cartomancer

Is it just me who finds the phrase "psychiatry giant" somewhat amusing? As if you have to climb up a beanstalk to get to his offices, then sit on a massively oversized couch next to a golden goose.

Fri, 25 May 2012 00:10:17 UTC | #943389

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 6 by Cartomancer

How do identical twins affect the working out of this Hamiltonian equation then? Surely in the case of twins who share 100% of DNA factor r is 1 and any genes for altruistic behaviour towards siblings will be selected for on a simple one to one cost/benefit analysis if the recipient benefits more than the donor loses out?

Obviously human beings do not produce twins very often, so perhaps there is only a minor effect from this in humans, which gets swamped by regular sibling-strategy genes. But am I correct in thinking that some species (Polar Bears?) pretty much always produce twins, and therefore are much more likely to exhibit sibling-altruism phenotypes than species that don't?

Thu, 24 May 2012 17:17:13 UTC | #943315

Go to: Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 9 by Cartomancer

Clarity. I see.

Though this guy clearly doesn't.

He makes a big fuss of separating out various ways of talking about ethics, and says it is important to get them straight, but then goes right on to confuse meta-ethics with metaphysics.

He seems to be utterly incapable of realising that other people base their ethics on something other than his stupid divine fiat model. To him morality is a metaphysical absolute, a real property of the universe, and he can't go beyond that. If someone says it's something else (like, for instance, an intersubjective social coping strategy) then he hears that as "it isn't anything at all". What all this boils down to is "Richard Dawkins doesn't have the same beliefs about where human morality comes from as I do, therefore he has no justification for being moral".

What any rational person would do at this point is to say "well we disagree on where human morality and ethics comes from, why don't we look for some evidence that might settle the issue". But of course he knows full well that his posiiton is woefully unevidenced, so that option is out.

Tue, 22 May 2012 10:30:22 UTC | #942791

Go to: UPDATED: Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 137 by Cartomancer

In a fascinating piece on his website, my friend Matt Ridley is sceptical that anything so well-written as the King James Version could really be the work of a committee. And indeed, he follows Brian Moynihan's Book of Fire in arguing that the KJV (or at least the well-written bits) is actually the work of one man, William Tyndale,

It is quite interesting (well, pretty much what one would expect, but still reasonably noteworthy) that the most popular and well-used translations of the book tend to be the ones done largely by a single author and not the ones done by committee. In Latin the Vulgate gained considerable prominence over the much less highly regarded Vetus latina version, which was only really cited by academic scholars in the later Middle Ages and rarely used for liturgical or preaching purposes. Almost all of the prominent French bible translations were either the work of a single translator or the result of successive redactions each by a single translator (Jaques Lefevre, Pierre Olivetan, Antoine Lemaistre), and the mass of anonymous, probably committee-produced late-Medieval German bible translations were swept comprehensively away by Luther's bible in 1534 (which had a similar influence on German language and literature to that had by the KJV in English).

The one exception seems to be the Greek Septuagint, although the precise authorship of that is somewhat lost in myth. But even there it is venerated more for its antiquity and the fact it was the Old Testament that most of the gospel writers knew than for any intrinsic literary merits or close proximity to the original Masoretic Hebrew text. Which is why Augustine liked it and Jerome didn't.

Mon, 21 May 2012 12:34:04 UTC | #942602

Go to: Texas's war on history

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 28 by Cartomancer

It seems to me that there is a fundamental unease at the heart of pre-university history teaching which opens it up to this kind of thing.

Academic history writing is, or at least tries to be, an attempt to get at the truth of what was really happening in a particular historical period. In this it is forensic and empirical, just like science is. When such is one's only aim then ideological concerns are irrelevant and, when the subject pertains directly to those concerns, actively damaging. One would not trust a committed neo-Nazi to perform a study of the rise of European fascism, or a devoted catholic apologist a study of the inquisition.

But history teaching in schools is subtly different. Yes, it usually involves much by way of source-criticism and evidential reasoning, but there has always been and is still a pervasive idea that history should teach us something beyond what actually happened.

This began with history writing itself. Herodotus put in his Histories much by way of political philosophy and social commentary, and Thucydides even explicitly began with a preface describing his method, in which he openly admitted to making up bits of reported political speeches so that his version described not just what he or his witnesses remembered but what should have been said in that situation. Later Greek and Roman historians and biographers justified their efforts as works of moral instruction and national pride. It is no accident that Arrian chose to chronicle the conquests of Alexander, or Livy the history of Rome from the beginning to his own day. Neither, as far as we know, was deliberately mendacious, but their projects were definitely nationalistic ones. Polybius's history of Graeco-Roman interactions in the second century BC was also a pro-Roman work, aimed at staking out a place for Greek statesmen and intellectuals like himself in an increasingly Roman-dominated mediterranean world. Plutarch, with his Parallel Lives, was less directly involved in national politics, but even that was explicitly a work of moral guidance. Tacitus's Annals subtly bemoaned the changed world of his own, Imperial, times, and made tentative commentary on how different the rhythms of ambitious upper-class families were compared with what those described in Livy got up to. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote his histories from a pro-Julian, anti-christian standpoint, Augustine tried to convince christian Romans that the sack of Rome wasn't an eschatologically significant event, Bede tried to give the English a sense of naitonal identity, Gerald of Wales did the same for the Welsh and Irish, and so on...

I don't know a lot about American history teaching, but from the English history teaching I do know it is plainly apparent that the topics chosen have much more to do with a modern sense of morals and ethics than a dispassionate attempt to inculcate the niceties of source-criticism. Almost everyone does the Nazis, usually in the context of twentieth-century dictatorships. State schools almost always do the Industrial Revolution as well, while private schools often do The Tudors (the class-based divisions here are particularly shocking, but nothing new - I suspect these are chosen with the intention of making the material seem more relevant, but all it succeeds in doing is reinforces class stereotypes). We get the Holocaust as a warning against bigotry, racism and totalitarian tyranny. We get the Chartists and Suffragettes as an exhortation to political reform and moral progress. We get the Great Depression as an example of what can happen when unrestrained capitalistic greed is given free reign. All relevant, yes. All morally sound lessons that really need to be taught. But is history class the right place to teach them, and does this attempt to put them there not distort the nature of the enterprise?

By contrast, Medieval history is covered poorly, if at all. Not because it isn't interesting, but because it isn't considered relevant to the modern world, and doesn't have some kind of overall perspective-setting moral and ethical message to give. This wasn't always the case. Victorian thinkers were keen to paint England's medieval history as the basis and bedrock of its Imperial success and constitutional stability - Domesday Book, Henry II's Common Law, Magna Carta, Parliament, etc. But these days, although there is much in the Middle Ages that really did lay the foundations of the modern world, the romanticised Victorian idyll and the enlightenment scorn of medieval thought still hold sway, and the Middle Ages is a kind of irrelevant dreary otherworld that doesn't matter. After all, what moral messages relevant to today can one derive from the Becket affair or the Peasants' Revolt or the Crusades? Ancient history is slightly less overlooked in Britain, but only slightly. That tends to get its own curriculum, but fortunately it is generally taught as the history of somewhere else, a long time ago, and hence does not suffer from being corralled and distorted into a moralising lens or a source of nationalistic pride. That's one of the reasons I teach it. Or would if anybody thought I was up to the task anymore.

I suspect that the focus on the enlightenment and its role in shaping the US constitution, the slave trade and the like, are chosen for exactly the same reasons. A mixture of "relevance" and moral guidance.

Of course, nobody ever considers teaching what are arguably much MORE relevant historical topics, like the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the legacy of 1980s Thatcherism or the fortunes of the EU after the war. But those stop smelling like history after a while, and there's only so much concentrated piss Mrs. T's grave can take before it washes away entirely and she has to find somewhere else to recover her vampiric powers in peace.

But the fact remains that history teaching is shot through with ideas of national consciousness, moral instruction and "relevance" as a matter of course. Hardly anybody studies much of other people's history - we get the French Revolution only inasmuch as it is considered a seminal event in pan-European history. The Albigensian Crusade or the French Wars of Religion hardly get a look in, and the Meijii Restoration or Mughal Empire might as well have happened on Mars. The only reason Classical history still has any foothold is because there is still a strong association between the Classics and European high culture. Is is any wonder that in such an environment the ideologues of the political right see history as an important battleground for the promotion their ideas?

I doubt we'll ever stop history being used as the football of the nationalists, ideologues and people with an agenda. Indeed, to some extent everyone who looks at it will bring baggage of that sort. But surely it behoves that we admit to the degree of not-strictly-empirical fervour with which history teaching in general is imbued, remain as aware of it as possible and take steps to minimise it?

Fri, 18 May 2012 23:37:25 UTC | #942244

Go to: Just Say Yes…To Sexist Stereotyping?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 25 by Cartomancer

One problem with discussions of this topic, it seems to me, is quite what people understand by the term "abstinence".

I find it somewhat unhelpful to define "abstaining" from something as simply "not doing it". Abstinence, surely, is not doing something in the specific case that you actually could do it and want to do it.

It would sound incredibly peculiar to say that I abstain from mountain climbing, speaking Spanish or having sex. I have no interest at all in mountain climbing, I can't speak Spanish, and although I want sex I am too repulsive to get any. I don't do any of these things, but I don't abstain from them either.

Which, I think, is an important distinction to make in terms of sex education. What we should be aiming for is to teach people the facts and help them to develop healthy decision-making and critical faculties when it comes to deciding whether, when and how to tackle the sex thing. Young people shouldn't "abstain" from sex, they should have the confidence and understanding of the situation to decide that it's not something they feel comfortable doing until the time is right. Choosing not to have sex because it might be risky is not "abstaining" from sex, it's not actually wanting that sex in the first place. Yeah, people get horny, but that's not the sole contributor to their decision-making.

So yes, I do think "abstinence" is not a helpful word in this context. Particularly given the unfortunate connotations the word has with such creepy religious practises as fasting, monastic asceticism and the lauding of poverty and punishment.

Fri, 18 May 2012 01:01:30 UTC | #942121

Go to: Just Say Yes…To Sexist Stereotyping?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 1 by Cartomancer

Why are so many American social progressives so mealy-mouthed and insipid in their campaigning? "Lets stop federal money going to fund this" is not sufficient, what the message needs to be is "abstinence-based sex education programmes are dangerous, dishonest, religious and make the problem worse, lets get these horrible misinformation drives banned and prosecuted completely". It should be a criminal offense to teach children harmful lies, whatever money is being used to do it.

Thu, 17 May 2012 13:25:38 UTC | #942021

Go to: Queen 'should remain Defender of the Faith' - BBC poll

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 7 by Cartomancer

I am quite happy for the monarchy and the church of England to remain closely allied and interconnected. That will make it easier to get rid of the both of them in one fell swoop.

Tue, 15 May 2012 11:23:57 UTC | #941566

Go to: Do Atheists Understand and Appreciate Black Bodies?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 74 by Cartomancer

Even I will admit that this article veered disagreeably towards the verbose idiom of the 1970s-80s new academy, but that's not a failing we need dwell on. Racism, discrimination and inequality are too important an issue not to look beyond all that for.

In essence I kind of agree with what the article says. Albeit the piece is phrased as an exhortation to a different way of thinking about political atheism, where it is my impression that a large number of atheist campaigners actually do think that way already. PZ Myers, for example, is hardly a fringe figure in American atheism, and his approach seems to embody quite well the proposed emphasis on promoting critical thinking skills first and foremost, forging wider ties and alliances where they are needed, and actively fighting the assumptions that underlie inequality of privilege every step of the way. If the message is "we need to use our critical and analytical skills more widely, such that we can remake society into a fairer place for all" then I don't think that's a radical suggestion in any way. In fact it's one I hear from humanist and atheist campaigners all the time.

But perhaps the atheists that Pinn encounters all the time are of a different cast of mind. I don't know. If they are then perhaps such an exhortation is timely in those circles.

What I would take issue with is his approach to vocabulary. Pinn seems to think it would be a good idea to co-opt the word "religious" and use it to mean some general sense of human psychological meaning-making activity. He seems to be suggesting that if we water down and widely disperse what terms like "religious" mean then perhaps we can challenge the largely unchallenged presumption that faith groups get to own and have exclusive or primary use of certain important words and concepts in our communal vocabulary. I agree that there is such a presumption, and that it needs to be challenged, but my solution would be the polar opposite. What we need to do is make the precise, limited, narrow and extremely unhelpful nature of words like "religion" and "faith" more apparent to all. We need to show "religious" people that there's nothing general, warm, fuzzy and psychologically universal about their "religious" convictions. There is already a language that can be used to describe universal psychological dispositions like the search for meaning in life. Religious people do that, so do non-religious people. The additional bits that religious people add are not necessary. They're superfluous, and can be dangerous. Fiction and literature are somewhat analogous meaning-weaving activities, but nobody opposes gay equality on the basis of Flaubert novels they've read, or uses their commitment to Steven Segal films as platform from which to limit women's access to reproductive healthcare. There's something else in the mix that qualifies religion for those nasty things, and it's that something else that we need to focus on, not what religious activities have in common with other activities.

"Religious" is a mindset. It comes from the Latin re- and ligare meaning to bind back to or onto. But it's not about binding people together with other people - social institutions of all kinds do that - it's about binding people to ideas and rituals and concepts. It's about conditioning people to value ideas and institutions more than they otherwise would. It's about making ideas and institutions special and important and entrenched in people's affections such that they are treated differently from the rest of the ideas and phenomena in the world. It's about circumventing precisely the critical thinking skills that Pinn and others are so keen we promote. By saying "yes but all this other stuff can be religion too" we don't attack the dangerous bit of religion - the convenient label that gives people a free pass to do irrational, discriminatory things - we implicitly acknowledge that religion is a supernally valid and legitimate thing and try to arrogate some of that assumed supernal validity and legitimacy for other psychological phenomena.

It's like trying to stamp out witchcraft by saying "yes, but science and technology, too, are in many ways, also a kind of witchcraft, and we should widen our definition of witchcraft to encompass them as a way of taking back the word from the people who make potions from the hacked-up limbs of albino children".

Sat, 12 May 2012 00:33:27 UTC | #941110

Go to: Family Battle Offers Look Inside Lavish TV Ministry

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 5 by Cartomancer

Clearly Hell does not exist. If it did then there would have been no need to build this ghastly abomination in Florida.

Sun, 06 May 2012 01:15:25 UTC | #940024

Go to: Protest against the “Punch your gay kids” Pastor – Sean Harris.

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 9 by Cartomancer

An interfaith effort is in the works


This is not an "interfaith" effort. If religion has nothing to do with it then this is a SECULAR effort to stand up against homophobic child abuse. Atheists do not have faith, and thus do not march under "interfaith" banners. Secularism is what both we and the religious want here, that is the banner we march under together.

"Interfaith" is one of those pathetic weaselly nonsense words that attempts to promote religion as valuable just for being religion. "Faith" is the enemy. Faith is belief without evidence. There is nothing good or noble or worthwhile about faith, and it is not a tent in which atheists should feel comfortable working.

Opposing homophobic child abuse from under the banner of faith is like opposing corporate greed from under the banner of far-right politics - it strikes at the symptom while legitimising the cause.

Sat, 05 May 2012 19:11:45 UTC | #939951