Monday, June 29, 2009

God Look-a-Likey

If there is a God I imagine he looks and sounds alot like this ...

Those curious numbers and letters in the backgrounds spell out the meaning of life - if you can decode them.

Friday, June 26, 2009


The journal Religious Studies is going to publish this paper. Thanks to everyone who commented - it was very useful. Final version of the paper is available here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sign Sense About Science statement on libel law

Please sign this petition if you can, and encourage others to do so - it's a critical moment: the Government needs to see momentum is building behind this campaign, that it is not going away.

Go here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alister McGrath vs Stephen Law: Does The Natural World Point To God?

Debate - With CFI UK Provost Stephen Law and Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion, Dawkins' God, and A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest For God In Science And Theology.

Thursday October 29th, 2009. 7pm.

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn London WC1R 4RL - Main Hall. 7pm. £5 on the door (£3 Humanist organizations) Free to Friends of CFI.

Friday, June 19, 2009

UFO speakers

I am looking for good UK-based speakers knowledgeable about alien-related matters - UFOs, SETI, etc. Can anyone recommend anyone?

No wackos obviously - I need credible people with some genuine expertise...

Gig on Sunday

I am playing with Ropetrick at the Perch pub in Binsey, nr. Oxford (by Port Meadow) this Sunday (21st June), 1 o'clock. It's part of an all-day music thing going on at the pub.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gig on Thursday night

I am playing at the Bullingdon Pub (in the Backroom), Cowley Rd Oxford on Thursday night (Ropetrick - last of three bands on, about 10pm-ish I think).

Incidentally, does anyone know how I can contact Christina Odone (religious journalist)? Or any other suggestions whom I should invite to Oxford Lit Fest to debate faith schools with me (Jonathan Sacks cannot do it - I asked)?

For your interest - I have set up a debate between John Polkinghorne and philosopher David Papineau for the Oxford Lit Festival (title: Does the Universe Reveal The Mind of God?). This should be excellent. And also have booked Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Richard Wiseman and also maybe someone v famous that I cannot confirm yet (I am really trying hard to sell this, I admit).

More CFI UK events about to be announced too...

Monday, June 15, 2009

God, Poetry and Emotion

[I am repeating this post from earlier, as becoming increasingly relevant to recent discussions of "sophisticated" theology]

Following on from the previous post on God and indefinability, I have been thinking a bit more about Sam’s sophisticated theology.

I have been suggesting, rather bluntly (!), that Sam is (unwittingly) falling for, and applying, several rhetorical devices in order to try to deal with the problem of evil. These include:

(i) Playing the mystery card (See my The God of Eth)
(ii) Now you see it, now you don’t
(iii) Pseudo-profundity

I think there are lots more sleights-of-hand and rhetorical devices in play here, too. Perhaps I should go right through them all in detail at some point. My view (again, to state it bluntly) is that, once you’ve unpacked and disarmed all these various ploys and manoeuvres, what remains – the actual content of theism (to the extent that there actually is any content left in “sophisticated” theism once all the sleights-of-hand, etc. have been exposed) - is pretty obviously a load of cobblers.

But perhaps there isn’t any content at all? I’m not sure.

I just read the Book of Job and have been thinking about the poetic and inspirational use of language. Religion makes very great use of it, of course. Lots of “Lo!”s and words ending “-eth”. Here’s a bit:

9:4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?

9:5 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger.

9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

9:7 Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.

9:8 Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.

9:9 Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.

9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.

You get the idea. But, other than bigging up God, what is actually said here? Well this:

“Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?”

It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly supposed to be “No one! So fear him! He gets angry!” It’s a veiled threat. But the actual answer is pretty obviously “Loads of people (me included!)”

And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.

Now the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left? Just the expression of a sort of reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude. This text is designed to press our emotional buttons and get us reverberating in tune with it (three key emotions being awe, reverence and fear).

Being reasonably emotionally literate, I know when my buttons are being pressed. Spielberg is a master, of course. At the end of E.T., I can see exactly how Spielberg is manipulating me emotionally through very careful control of the music, script, etc. It’s almost formulaic. Yet I still start blubbing.

I get exactly the same feeling reading the Bible - and especially this passage from Job. The emotional and psychological manipulation is pretty transparent, I think. You can almost feel your buttons being pressed.

There is a mystery about why there is anything at all. We are awestruck by nature. And rightly so. Religions take these basic feelings of awe and mystery and build on them – using poetic, inspirational language.

But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?

Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.

Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., - in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion. Their likely reaction would be, “You believe that? Why?!" The claims just don't work any more once stripped of all the emotional and other psychological packaging.

On the other hand, remove these claims from a religion and what's left? No content as such: just the reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude (which may also be happy-clappy or self-loathing, etc. etc. depending on which sect you end up in).

It seems the sophisticated theologian who rejects the ridiculous stuff is then just left with little more than the attitude. Of course, they think there’s something more. There still a sort of content left, they suppose. But when you ask them what the content of their belief is, they say – “Well, I can’t say, exactly – you see, it’s, um, ineffable, it’s a mystery.”

Hmm. My suspicion is they have simply projected an ineffable “something” to be the focus of all the emotional, psychological baggage they still find themselves left with.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Are the 'New Atheists' avoiding the 'real arguments'?

Great article here from Edmund Standing on the "new Atheists" and how they are shot down by sophisticated theologians.

Seems to me Standing has caught Rowan Williams out in a flagrant use of what I call: "now you see it, now you don't".

P.S. "great" should not to be taken to indicate I agree with everything in said article - I don't. But the central point is good, and well made, I think.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The case of the sixth islander

The case of the sixth islander

[another extract from a paper I am writing, this time a thought experiment related to the preceding post].

Suppose five people are rescued from a large, otherwise uninhabited island on which they were shipwrecked ten years previously. The shipwrecked party knew that if they survived they would, eventually, be rescued, for they knew the island was a nature reserve visited by ecologists every ten years.

As the rescued party recount their stories, they include amazing tales of a sixth member of their party shipwrecked along with them. This person, they claim, soon set himself apart from the others by performing amazing miracles - walking on the sea, miraculously curing one of the islanders who had died from a snakebite, conjuring up large quantities of food from nowhere, and so on. The mysterious sixth islander also had striking and original ethical views that, while unorthodox, were eventually enthusiastically embraced by the other islanders. Eventually, five years ago, the sixth islander died, but he came back to life three days later, after which he ascended into the sky. He was even seen again several times after that.

Let’s add some further details to this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the five islanders tell much the same story about the revered sixth member of their party – while differing in style, their accounts are broadly consistent. Indeed, a vivid and forceful portrait of the sixth islander emerges from their collectively testimony.

Interestingly, the stories about the sixth islander also include a number of details that are clearly awkward or embarrassing for the remaining islanders. Indeed, they all agree that two of the surviving islanders actually betrayed and killed the sixth islander. Moreover, some of the deeds supposedly performed by the sixth islander are clearly at odds with what the survivors believe about him (for example, while believing the sixth islander to be utterly without malice, they also attribute to him actions that are clearly cruel, actions they then have a very hard time explaining). These are details it seems it could hardly be in their interests to invent.

Such is their admiration for their sixth companion and his unorthodox ethical views that the survivors try hard to convince us that both what they say is true, and that it is important that we too should also come to embrace his unorthodox views. Indeed, for the rescued party, the sixth islander is a revered cult figure, a figure they wish us to revere too.

Now suppose we have, as yet, no good independent evidence for the existence of the sixth islander, let alone that he performed the miracles attributed to him by the rescued party. What should be our attitude to these various claims?

Clearly, we would rightly be sceptical about the miraculous parts of the testimony concerning the sixth islander. Their collective testimony is not nearly good enough evidence that such events happened. But what of the sixth islander’s existence? Is it reasonable to believe, solely on the basis of this testimony, that the sixth islander was at least a real person, rather than a delusion, or deliberately invented fiction, or whatever?

Notice that the evidence presented by the five islanders meets three criteria discussed above.

First, we have multiple attestation: not one, but five, individuals claim that the sixth islander existed (moreover, we are dealing with the alleged eye-witnesses themselves, rather than second or third hand reports, so there is no possibility of other having tampered with or amended the story to suit themselves).

Secondly, their reports contain details that are clearly highly embarrassing to (indeed, that seriously incriminate) the tellers. This raises the question – why would the islanders deliberately include such details in a made-up story – a story that e.g. is clearly in tension with what they believe about their hero, and which, indeed, also portrays them as murderous betrayers?

Thirdly, why would they attribute to the sixth islander unorthodox ethical and other views very much discontinuous with accepted wisdom? If, for example, the sixth islander is an invention designed to set them up as chief gurus of a new cult, would they attribute to their mythical leader views unlikely to be easily accepted by others?

Now there’s no doubt that there could have been a sixth islander who said and did some of the things attributed to him. But ask yourself: does the collective testimony of the rescued party place the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable doubt? If not beyond reasonable doubt, is his existence something it would at least be reasonable for us to accept? Or would we be wiser, at this point, to reserve judgement and adopt a sceptical stance?

[nb. the following is for Sam's interest]

Sticking to the story despite the threat of death

Another difference between the two scenarios that might be exploited is: Those who made such claims about Jesus were prepared to, and on occasion did, die for their beliefs. No such threats are issued to the six islanders. Some may claim this is a key difference between the two sets of testimony that gives the testimony about Jesus much greater credibility.

Let’s suppose at least some of those with whom the Jesus testimony originated were prepared to die for their belief. That would at least raise the credibility of their collective testimony somewhat. But by how much?

Again, let’s adjust our hypothetical scenario so that the islanders are now threatened with death if they do not renounce their claims about the sixth islander (imagine, if you like, that they are unlucky enough to be rescued by a brutal totalitarian regime highly unsympathetic to such tales). The islanders stick to their story, and are executed as a result. How reasonable is it, now, to suppose that there was a sixth islander?

Still not terribly reasonable, I would suggest.

It is, of course, deeply puzzling why the islanders would be prepared to die for their beliefs if those beliefs were not true. If the islanders made the story up, surely they would have renounced it to save their own skins. But if they did not make it up, and yet the story is not true, then they would have to have collectively been the victims of some sort of deceit or delusion about the miraculous sixth islander. Yet that is scarcely credible either.

And yet – given the highly miraculous nature of much of what they recount about the sixth islander, surely it is still not clear that he existed, let alone performed any of the miracles attributed to him.

The fact that it is deeply puzzling why the rescued party would go to their deaths defending beliefs that they knew not to be true, and no less puzzling how they could collectively have become deceived or deluded about a miraculous sixth islander, still leaves us largely clueless about what really happened.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Extract from paper I am writing on Jesus' historicity

Here is an extract for comments...

A skeptical argument

I want now to show how our two principles - P1 and P2 - combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion that very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept.

Let me stress at the outset that I am not endorsing the following argument. I present it, not because I am convinced it is cogent, but because I believe it has some prima facie plausibility, and because it is an argument that any historian who believes the available evidence places Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt needs to refute.

1. (P1) Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be skeptical about those claims.
2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there's good reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative about an individual that combines mundane claims with a large proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be skeptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a large proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there's good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.

This argument combines our principles P1 and P2 with three further premises - 2, 5 and 6 - concerning the character of the available evidence. These are the premises on which historians and Biblical scholars are better qualified than I to comment upon.

However, premise 5, is, I take it, uncontentious. Clearly, many historians also accept premise 2 (there is a significant number of Biblical historians who remain sceptical about the miracle claims made in the New Testament, and most will surely accept 2) . What of premise 6? Well, it is at least controversial among historians to what extent the evidence supplied by Josephus and Tacitus, etc. provides us good, independent evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus. Those texts provide us with some non-miracle-involving evidence for the existence of Jesus, of course, but whether it can rightly be considered good, genuinely independent evidence remains widely debated among the experts.

So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. Premises 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, I suggest, and 6 is at the very least debatable.

I suspect a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude to Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

The most obvious answer to this question is that while many Biblical historians probably would accept that our three empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most of them probably also accept something like P1, few of them accept P2. Indeed, as we shall see below, many of them do in fact reject P2.

Assessing P2

Are there cogent objections to P2? Presumably, some sort of contamination principle is correct, for clearly, in the Ted and Sarah Case, the dubious character of the extraordinary, uncorroborated parts of their testimony about Bert does contaminate the non-extraordinary parts.

However, perhaps, as an attempt to capture the extent to which testimony concerning the extraordinary parts of a narrative can end up undermining the credibility of the more mundane parts, P2 goes too far, laying down a condition that is too strong?

After all, Alexander the Great was said to have been involved in miraculous events. Plutarch records, for example, that Alexander was miraculously guided across the desert day and night by flocks of ravens that waited for his army when it fell behind. Plutarch also suggests Alexander was divinely conceived. Should the presence of these extraordinary claims lead us to reject all of Plutarch’s claims concerning Alexander as untrustworthy? Of course not. As historian Michael Grant notes:

That there was a growth of legend round Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend around pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious (200)

Indeed, no one of note is skeptical about Alexander’s existence.

However, noe of this should lead us to abandon P2. For P2 does not require that we be sceptical about the existence of Alexander. To focus just on Plutarch’s history – the miraculous claims made by Plutarch constitute only a small proportion of his account of Alexander’s achievements. Moreover, regarding the miracle of the ravens, it is not even clear we are dealing with a supernatural miracle, rather than some honestly misinterpreted natural phenomenon. Further, there is good, independent evidence that Alexander existed and did many of the things Plutarch reports (including archeological evidence of the dynasties left in his wake).

So the inclusion of a couple of miraculous elements in some of the evidence we have about Alexander is not much of a threat to our knowledge about him – and P2 does not suggest otherwise. The problem with the textual evidence for Jesus’ existence and crucifixion is that most of the details we have about him come solely from documents in which the miraculous constitutes a very large part of what is said about Jesus, where many of these miracles (walking on water, etc.) are unlikely to be merely misinterpreted natural phenomena, and where it is at least questionable whether we possess any good, independent non-miracle-involving evidence of his existence and crucifixion.

Other reasons for rejecting P2

Even if P2 does not require we be sceptical about the existence of Alexander, perhaps it still sets the bar for reasonable belief too high? In a culture in which miracle claims are rife, perhaps the inclusion of even a significant number of miracle stories within an historical narrative should not necessarily require we adopt a sceptical attitude towards what remains, even if we possess no good independent evidence for its truth. I return to this concern about P2 below (in “Does the cultural difference matter?”).

Historians may also reject P2 on other grounds. They may suggest there are particular features of textual evidence that can still rightly lead us to be confident about the truth of some of the non-miraculous parts, even if the evidence involves very many miracle claims, and even if there is no good independent evidence for the truth of the non-miraculous parts. Several criteria have been suggested for considering at least many of the non-miraculous claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents to be accurate and indeed to be established beyond reasonable doubt.

The three most popular criteria are the criterion of multiple attestation, the criterion of embarrassment, and the criterion of discontinuity.

The criterion of multiple attestation

Several historians (such as Michael Grant and John Meier) suggest that the fact that a number of different New Testament sources make similar claims in different literary forms gives us some reason, at least, to suppose these claims are true. C. Leslie Milton goes further - he argues that the New Testament gospels draw on three recognised primary sources (Mark, Q and L), and concludes that:

If an item occurs in any one of these early sources, it has a presumptive right to be considered as probably historical in essence; if it occurs in two…that right is greatly strengthened, since it means it is supported by two early and independent witnesses. If it is supported by three, then its attestation is extremely strong.” REF P82.

Milton cites a list of claims that pass this test of “multiple attestation”, insisting they have a “strong claim to historicity on the basis of this particular test, making a solid nucleus with which to begin.” REF P83.

If we already know that Jesus existed and is likely to have said at least some of what he is alleged to have said, this criterion might provide us with a useful tool in attempting to determine which attributions are accurate and which are later fabrications.

But what if we are unsure whether there was any such person as Jesus existed? How useful is Milton’s criterion then? How can we know we are dealing with reports tracing back to the testimony of handful of independent eye-witnesses to real events, rather than, say, a skilled band of myth-makers? Consistency between accounts can indicate the extent to which their transmission from an original source or sources has been reliable, but it cannot indicate whether the source itself is reliable. As Grant notes about the homogeneity of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus:

one must not underestimate the possibility that this homogeneity is only achieved because of their employment of common sources, not necessarily authentic in themselves. REF p203

In fact, even if we are dealing with largely consistent reports from several alleged eye-witnesses themselves, the fact that their reports contain a large proportion of extraordinary claims will normally make us highly suspicious even about the non-miraculous parts of their testimony. If, in the Ted and Sarah case, we increase the number of alleged witnesses to Bert’s miraculous visitation from two to ten, we would still, rightly, remain rather sceptical about whether there was any such person as Bert.

The criterion of embarrassment

One of the most popular tests applied by historians in attempting to establish historical facts about Jesus is the criterion of embarrassment. The Jesus narrative involves several episodes which, from the point of view of early Christians, would seem to constitute an embarrassment. C. Leslie Milton asserts that

those items which the early Church found embarrassing are not likely to be the invention of the early Church.

Milton supposes that reports of Jesus’

attitude to the Sabbath, fasting and divorce (in contradiction to Moses’ authorization of it in certain conditions), his free-and-easy relationships with people not regarded as respectable

all pass this test.

Michael Grant also considers Jesus’ association with outcasts, his proclamation of the imminent fulfilment of the Kingdom of God (which did not materialize), and his rejection of his family “because he was beside himself” embarrassing to the early Church, and concludes these attributions are unlikely to be inventions of early evangelists. Meier too, considers the criterion of embarrassment a useful if not infallible criterion. Regarding the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist – which raises the puzzle of why the “superior sinless one submits to a baptism meant for sinners” (REF p 168) - Meier says,

Quite plainly, the early Church was “stuck with” an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing, that it tried to explain away by various means, and that John the Evangelist finally erased from his Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment” (p169)

The criterion of embarrassment is related to a further criterion – that of discontinuity (they are related because discontinuity is sometimes a source of embarrassment).

The criterion of discontinuity

Many historians assert that if a teaching or saying attributed to Jesus places him at odds with the contemporary Judaism and early Christian communities, then we possess grounds for supposing the attribution is accurate. Again, Jesus’ rejection of voluntary fasting and his acceptance of divorce are claimed to pass this test. Historian Norman Perrin considers the criterion of discontinuity the fundamental criterion, giving us an assured minimum of material with which to begin . C. Leslie Milton concurs that this criterion gives historians an “unassailable nucleus” of material to work with (REF p 84). John Meier considers the criterion promising, though he notes that it may place undue emphasis on Jesus’ idiosyncracies, “highlighting what was striking but possible peripheral in his message” (p173).

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Message from Simon Singh

I am passing on this message from Singh - please sign statement of support.

1. Court of Appeal and Campaign Launch

I am glad to say that on Monday I will apply to the Court of Appeal in an attempt to overturn the recent negative ruling on meaning in my libel case with the British Chiropractic Association.

Also, Sense About Science have launched a campaign linked to my libel case and focussing on the need to overhaul the English libel system, which is deeply flawed and which therefore has a chilling effect on journalism.

The campaign has issued a statement of support, which has already been signed by an incredible list of people, including James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, Sir Martin Rees, Penn & Teller, Stephen Fry, Martin Amis and Steve Jones. It would be terrific if you would also sign up to the statement and (better still) encourage others to sign up. It is conceivable that this campaign could help reform the English libel laws (which unfortunately affect overseas journalists too). Please help us move closer to having a free press.

You can find the statement and sign up at:

2. Fighting Fund

I have had many kind and generous offers of financial help, but at the moment I am able to fund my own legal costs. However, if you would like to help, then please make a donation to Sense About Science, who will need funding to maintain what could be a long battle to reform the libel laws. You can find out how to donate at:

3. Cheltenham and Oxford

I will be speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday 6 June and at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub on Monday. More information at:

And finally, a massive thanks to everyone who has been so supportive over the last month. You have genuinely played a crucial role in my decision to go to the Court of Appeal.


Ps. You can find plenty of press coverage about the libel case at the Sense About Science website, but some highlights include:

PPs. If you need to email me, then please do not reply to this address, as
your email will not reach me. Please go via the website and click the contact button. It takes me ages to
answer emails, as I am struggling to keep up with my correspondence, so
please be patient.

PPPs. To unsubscribe, please send a blank email to For further help with subscribing and unsubscribing, please visit

Friday, June 5, 2009

Hubertus Stelzer

A friend in Bavaria. Other photos on my flickr site.

The Evil God Challenge

My paper The Evil God Challenge - the long, academic version of The God of Eth, has been accepted by Religious Studies.

As it has now been accepted for publication, I am also posting it for anyone to look at. The copyright now belongs to CUP.

Go here.

Be warned - it is 10K words!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

CofE spokesman misleads on Today programme

This from philosopher Simon Blackburn (passed on with his permission):

Some of you may have heard on yesterday's Today programme a C of E
spokesman, George Pitcher, say and repeat that there is no palliative
care in Holland as a result of their legislation on euthanasia. He
was not challenged by the presenter or by Lord Falconer, who is
seeking a change in the law governing assistance (which at present
renders a carer liable to up to 14 years in prison).
For interest, I gave evidence for the BHA to Lord Joffe's committee
who looked into this matter when he was seeking to change the law in
2004 - 5. I have the extremely thorough and impressive report and
evidence volumes in front of me. The evidence from Dutch professionals
was unambiguous that palliative care increased massively in Holland
from 1995 onwards, and partly as a result of their euthanasia
legislation has continued to develop. Palliative care is not a
speciality in Dutch medicine but is part of all health professionals'

Incidentally. George can be found wriggling about this here - read comments, especially Peter51, to whom George responds by making an irrelevant and (it turns out further down - see Peter51's response) misleading statement about 1,000 people year being killed against their will in the Netherlands. What a wanker.

P.S. Someone suggested I clarify that the above insult comes from me not S.B. Which of course it does. I don't normally issue insults - don't think I ever have on this blog. So the should be taken to indicate just how awful Pitcher's comments were. But perhaps this was a lapse and he is otherwise an nice, honourable chap. For all I know he is.

Virtual world lecture and Q&A on Second Life this Saturday

This Saturday I'll be presenting a lecture and a short Q&A thereafter about my book, "The War for Children's Minds", at The Open Habitat Project, a Second Life programme promoting science, reason and critical thinking.

I'll be discussing my book at Open Habitat on Saturday, 6 June, from 19:30 to 20:15 GMT (or 11:30 to 12:15 PDT). If you are familiar with Second Life then you can follow the SLURL link below to reach the island. If you are unfamiliar with how Second Life works, please see the information below:

Open Habitat Amphitheatre SLURL:

The organizers have provided the following information:

Second Life is 3D interactive ‘world’ in which you are represented by an avatar. If you have ever played a computer game, or an X-Box or something to that effect where you have a character/avatar within the game that you control – that is essentially what it is like in Second Life – the main difference being that you interact with other ‘real’ people within a virtual world.

Second Life is full of interesting and exciting places to explore and interact with.

1. To start with you go to and sign up (it’s free) and create an avatar. Be careful in what name you choose as this cannot be changed!

2. Once your avatar is set up, click on the following link to go to Open Habitat ( or simply run a search using the Second Life in world group search using the terms “The Open Habitat Project” and you will find a link to the island.

3. If you have any problems, please email Maria Hume ( and/or get in touch with her in world by running a search for Marya Blaisdale (Second Life name) and she will help you get to the right place at the right time.

NB: It is important to note that you do need a broadband/cable connection to use Second Life and a ‘decent’ graphics card. You can find more information on specifications on the Second Life web site link above.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Andrew Brown on secularism

I have only just noticed this old piece by Andrew Brown. Brown writes (slightly patronizingly) about disagreements at a meeting of the Council of Ex-Muslims at Conway Hall:

"The only time these disagreements were overcome was when someone made a little speech about how no one minded religion as a private activity: it was only obnoxious when the religious tried to force their opinions on everyone else. The whole hall joined in applauding this sentiment, so obviously and unarguably right.

Perhaps it's just my limited tolerance for high-mindedness that gave me a sudden flash of insight that this doctrine was in fact obviously and unarguably wrong."

Actually, I think Brown is wrong and the applauded doctrine was largely right. In this article it becomes clear that Brown (though perhaps also his target) is muddling up the kind of secularism (my kind) that makes equal public space for religious and non-religious views without privileging either [and which says you shouldn't, by state or by other means, compel others to adhere to your specifically religious, or atheist, views], with the kind of secularism that insists that only atheist and/or non-religious views can be publicly expressed. The religious must bite their tongues. This is a muddle that anti-secularists promote and trade on.

Shame Brown is perpetuating it (incidentally, how many secularists do you know who believe people should not be allowed to publicly express a religious point of view? I have only ever come across one. Yet that's how opponents of my kind of secularism typically caricature it.)

The bit about "forcing doctrines on everyone else" is interesting. But of course secularists don't typically want to force secularism on society, but to persuade society to embrace a religiously-neutral, secular position (which is not to say such a society is officially neutral on everything of course - it clearly isn't [it's not neutral on the value of secularism and freedom of religious belief, for a start).

True, as a result of a society being secular, some freedoms will be curtailed. I won't be free to send my child to a state-funded school promoting atheism, for example. Good thing too.

Tim Chambers on rape and sex


Timothy Chambers

Here, Timothy Chambers argues that rape is not a sex act. In a piece further down, I suggest that it is.

I guess my first feminist role-model was Marilyn Sokol. She played ‘Stella,’ the boisterous best friend to Goldie Hawn’s ‘Gloria,’ in the 1978 blockbuster, Foul Play.
I first saw it when I was eight or nine years old.

There’s a scene where Gloria reveals that she gave a ride to a hitchhiker.

Stella is incredulous. ‘Really, Gloria! Do you know the percentages of rapes from hitchhikers?!...And look at you, with no protection.’ (By ‘protection,’ Stella means mace or brass knuckles, both of which she owns.)

‘Well,’ Gloria considers, the hitchhiker ‘didn’t seem to be after sex.’

‘Rape is not an act of sex,’ Stella booms. ‘Rape is an act of violence! Remember that.’

I can’t speak for Gloria, but I surely remembered it. I’m reminded of it every so often. In her tantalizing attempt to define sex (entitled, ‘Are We Having Sex Now Or What?’),

Greta Christina declares what should be a deal-breaker for any candidate definition. ‘Even the conventional standby—sex equals intercourse—has a serious flaw,’ she writes. ‘[I]t includes rape, which is something I emphatically refuse to accept. As far as I’m concerned, if there’s no consent, it ain’t sex.’

And yet, I’m unsure whether this truth has percolated into society at large. I’m reminded of this every so often, too. Sometimes it’s a careless phrasing, which I spotted in the New York Daily News in 2005 (‘…who lost her virginity at gunpoint in 1991 when a gang of thugs…’). Or else it’s a potentially misleading headline, compliments of a 2007 article in the London Daily Mail (‘Doctor rejects evidence of patient who says that he hypnotized her and took her virginity’). And then there was the Aug. 17, 1999 story in the New York Times, citing a rising demand for ‘virginity tests’ in South Africa. The article never notes the obvious: if a woman had been assaulted, then the ‘test’ would yield a false negative. The list goes on and on.

All of these cases, which describe rape survivors as having had their virginity ‘taken,’ get matters dead wrong. To me, it’s axiomatic: a survivor who was raped didn’t thereby ‘have sex’; a person is not a virgin only if they have ‘had sex’; ergo, it’s conceptually impossible for a rapist to ‘take’ or ‘rob’ his target’s virginity.

Now, I’m an academic philosopher by training and temperament. This means I can only tolerate cognitive dissonance and mixed messages for just so long. At last, I find myself needing to sit somewhere comfy, put some jottings on paper, and sort out the truth once and for all.


Why does Stella find it obvious that rape is not an act of sex? And why has society been so slow on the uptake of this obvious truth?

It helped me to notice how many amorous activities require reciprocity before we credit the act as happening. Take holding hands. It’s not enough that my hand comes into contact with another’s hand—otherwise, I’ve held hands with everyone whose hands I’ve shaken.

Hand-holding also seems to preclude coercion, however subtle. Suppose I spot my friend, Grace, on a date at an uptown bistro. The next day, I remark to her, ‘It looks like your date went swimmingly.’

Grace scowls. ‘As if.’

‘But you were holding hands,’ I protest.

‘We weren’t ‘holding hands,’’ Grace corrects. ‘He took my hand—practically grabbed it. The feeling wasn’t mutual. I didn’t pull away because I already sensed the guy was a jerk, and I didn’t want him making a scene in my favorite restaurant.’

Dancing provides another activity with links to reciprocity. I once witnessed a friend of mine, Cerrisa, at a dance-party. Some young guy, dripping with desperation, approached her. She declined, politely.

Then the man starts to dance in front of her.

My friend was unmoved. ‘I’m not dancing with you,’ she said, and stalked off.

Did Cerrisa and her wannabe suitor dance? Obviously not. He danced for her. But since she didn’t join his motions, it would be false to say they danced. (Just curious: would it be possible for two people to dance for one another, simultaneously, without thereby dancing with each other? With mirrors, maybe?)

The situation grows more nuanced with kissing, though. I’m reminded of the 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons. There’s a scene where the villain, Valmont, calls upon a young woman, Cecile, very late at night. She asks him to leave.

Valmont promises to go on one condition: ‘I just want you to give me a kiss.’

Afterward, the villain still refuses to leave. ‘I promised to go when you gave me a kiss,’ he explains. ‘You didn’t give me a kiss. I gave you a kiss. Not the same thing at all.’

Valmont’s dastardly designs aside, his semantics ring true. If I kiss you on the lips, but you don’t ‘kiss me back’ (as we say), then we didn’t kiss.

At the same time, we do have phrases like ‘stole a kiss,’ as in ‘Valmont stole a kiss from Cecile when she was distracted.’ This sends a different message: the coercive or deceptive kisser got a kiss from the victim. After all, I can’t very well ‘steal’ something unless I somehow take possession of it.

This is most unfortunate. One wants to protest that speaking of ‘stolen kisses’ sins against the very institution. Kisses are meant to be tokens of shared affection—between parents and children, buzzes between friends, linkings of lovers. The very idea that someone could ‘steal a kiss’ seems a contradiction in terms. Yes, a man can extort certain bodily movements from a woman. But this cuts completely against the freedom of choice implied in saying, ‘We kissed.’

In other words, you can speak of coercing (or deceiving) a woman into kissing, but only if you turn a blind eye to the woman’s autonomy and consciousness. ‘Stolen kisses’ can only make sense if you view the woman’s participation as purely passive—as if ‘she acquiesced and allowed him to kiss her’ still means ‘they kissed.’ But the image this suggests is eerily asymmetric. Eerie, too, is how the myth of the ‘stolen kiss’ commodifies a woman’s gestures of intimacy, parsing them as if they were property which could be ‘stolen.’


All of this helped me illuminate the two questions which puzzled me at the outset.

Why isn’t rape an act of sex? Because, as Stella knew well, having sex (like holding hands or dancing together) presumes reciprocity. A rapist coerces a person into certain bodily motions. But to term these forced motions as ‘having sex’ adds insult to the initial assault. It only makes sense if, as we saw with ‘stolen kisses,’ our image of sex is seriously stunted: an image which renders irrelevant a woman’s state of mind and whether she exercised her autonomy. But that’s just obscene.

Why hasn’t society grasped this fact yet? I’m not sure. Call it the Inertia of Unchallenged Falsehoods. The very idea that a rape-survivor thereby had sex, or that virginity can be ‘stolen,’ seems to stem from a deeply-entrenched myth which casts women as ‘passive recipients’ in intimate transactions. In her insightful essay, ‘Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis’, Lois Pineau points to ‘a number of mutually supportive mythologies which see sexual assault as masterful seduction, and silent submission as sexual enjoyment,’ including ‘belief [in] the natural aggression of men and natural reluctance of women’ in intimate encounters.

How might we correct this marred image? For starters, we’ll need to call out the false picture when it makes media-appearances (which, as Lexis-Nexus assures me, is quite often). We would also do well to replace the image of sex which deserves discarding with an image of sex we can cherish. Towards this goal, Pineau makes excellent strides: ‘In honest sexual encounters,’ she writes, ‘this much is required. Assuming that each person enters the encounter in order to seek sexual satisfaction, each person…has an obligation to help the other seek his or her ends….But the requirement of mutuality means that we must take a communicative approach to discovering the ends of the other, and this entails that we respect the dialectics of desire.’

Sex, in this sense of the word, is a dialogue. It doesn’t happen when I only care about raising the points I want raised. It doesn’t happen when I ignore the points you want treated. It happens when we invite one another to perceive our most personal perspectives, with the hope that it will enhance the empathy we share.

Timothy Chambers teaches philosophy at the University of Hartford.