Condoms deliberately infected with HIV, says Catholic leader

In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens invites the reader to “close your eyes and try to picture what you might say if you had the authority to inflict the greatest possible differing in the least number of words”. I’d suggest ‘the sins of the father are passed onto the child’, while Hitch goes with something similar to the words of the head of the Catholic church in Mozambique:

Condoms are not sure because I know that there are two countries in Europe, they are making condoms with [HIV] on purpose

This is why it’s vital to deny authority to organisations founded on falsehoods and incapable of change. This man did not start out ambivalent and come to the conclusion that condoms are being deliberately laced with HIV, he’s clearly looking for a way to justify Catholic teachings. The belief comes first, all thought second – that the hatred of condoms could be morally vacuous and exist only to induce guilt and thereby create more devotees is not a possibility.

Sure, this is some nutter in Mozambique. A UK priest wouldn’t say such a thing, it’s true, but why not? It’s obvious: they’re probably better educated. But all the UK priest does is find another, less obviously nonsensical, reason to think condoms are evil. If the Mozambique guy were in the UK, he’d be coming out with the regular nonsense about the social problems caused by casual, read: protected, sex. The error is exactly the same: belief, then justification.

This isn’t a unique flaw, of course. Most people, including me, instinctively migrate towards information that supports their point of view, and will ignore competing evidence up to a point. It takes an effort of will to avoid this inclination. But the nature of religious institutions is that they cannot change their core beliefs – if condoms were shown to directly cause world peace, the Catholic church would still hate them. A priest who saw reason and acknowledged that condoms are a force for good would be rejecting his entire belief system, and it’s (not surprisingly) incredibly difficult to do such a thing.

It’s tempting to make comparisons with political beliefs. What’s the difference between the Catholic church and a political party, if both have core beliefs? It’s that the latter should (and, I think, do) base this upon evidence, and would, on average, be prepared to change its ideas should they not pan out in practice.

Any system which has core beliefs set in stone (not to mention based on particular historical events that may or may not have actually happened) shouldn’t have any say over public affairs. Differentiating between the systems is another reason the most important education goal should be teaching children how to think.

By the way, I look forward to the Pope stepping in to put the matter straight.

Friday Limericks

I’m over in Solihull and, according to the radio, all roads into Stratford are flooded. I doubt I’ll get home this evening. I’m on a Potter-induced media blackout, so most of my regular websites are out-of-bounds. So, there is only one thing for it: dirty limericks! Most as recited by limerick connoisseur Christopher Hitchens on the Skeptics’ Guide Premium Content #2. And they are really quite dirty, so be warned…

(The entire old testament in 5 lines)
God’s plan made a sporting beginning,
till Eve spoilt his chances by sinning;
we trust that the story
will end with God’s glory
but at present the other side’s winning.

A vice both obscene and unsavory
holds the Bishop of London in slavery;
with lascivious howls
he deflowers young owls
that he lures to an underground aviary.

The Anglican Dean of Hong Kong
has a thing that is twelve inches long;
And he thinks that the waiters
are admiring his gaiters
when he goes to the loo. But he’s wrong.

The Bishop of central Japan
used to bugger himself with a fan.
And when taxed with these acts
he replied ‘it contracts
and expands rather more than a man’.

There was a young hooker from Crewe
who filled her vagina with glue;
Said she with a grin
“since they’ll pay to get in,
they can pay to get out of it too.” 

Charming, yes? He apparently knows more than 500.

The Guardian outdoes itself on faith

So apparently the Guardian printed something nutty today. I don’t think anyone’s had the strength to fisk the whole thing – every few paragraphs there’s something jaw-droppingly stupid – but Shuggy, Ophelia and The Labour Humanist have good responses, mainly concentrating on the idea of ‘fundamentalist’ atheists being as bad as ‘fundamentalist’ religious crazies who like blowing things up.

I’m rather tired and shall try to read the article properly tomorrow, but right now I fail to see how this made it past the editor’s desk:

Neuberger is to take on Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling when she speaks at a debate against the motion We’d Be Better Off Without Religion next month. The debate has been moved to a bigger venue. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest. ”

This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.”

Tamimi’s words also resonate with what the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said last November: “The aggressive secularists pervert and abuse any notion of diversity for the sake of promoting a narrow agenda.” They also parallel the chilling remarks of Richard Chartres, Bishop of London: “If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow.”

Quote complete crap all you like, but some kind of reasonable response would be nice. There’s no counter-argument pointing out that the whole point of everything Grayling, Dawkins or Hitchens say is that there is doubt. Or even mentioning the tiny bit of irony in the above quotes.

The author starts from an H.L. Mencken quote:

We must accept the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

And comes back to this throughout the article:

The gay adoption issue also outraged many non-believers, among them philosopher AC Grayling, author of Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life without God. “These groups are trying to be exempt from the effort to be a fair society, and we are faced with the threat of a possible return to the dark ages. We are trying to keep a pluralistic society, and elements in the Christian church and other religions are trying to destroy it.”

Why this departure from tolerant, if nicely ironic, Menckenism?

Yes, why? How strange that anybody would want to fight against bigotry using strong language. How strange that in a world where people who spout such vile opinions are taken seriously by newspaper columnists we should fight back with everything we have. How strange that we would be considered rude for doing so.

I was doing ok for a while, but this bit of commentary tipped me over the edge:

One example of this growing conscientiousness is a recent paper for the new public theology think-tank Theos, in which Nick Spencer concluded that in the 21st century, liberal humanism would face a challenge from an “old man” – God. “The feeble and slightly embarrassing old man who had been pacing about the house quietly mumbling to himself suddenly wanted to participate in family conversation and, what’s more, to be taken seriously.” Indeed, in Britain’s ethically repellent consumerist society, even some atheists might consider it would be good to hear from the old man again, if only to provide a moral framework beyond shopping.

Oh, grow up. I’m going to bed.

Two Great Minds

This afternoon I finally listened to the Stephen Fry / Christopher Hitchens debate on blasphemy and religious tolerance. It’s 1hr 20mins, but I’d say it’s definitely worth the time. It’s not so much of a debate as the participants only really differ on the extent to which they would fight back, but the points they make are, as you’d expect, intelligent and well articulated. The sheer level of knowledge between the pair of them is something to behold.

An MP3 of the full recording can be found here, but hopefully nobody will mind if I split the last few minutes into a separate file. The audience were allowed to ask questions at the end, and somebody raised the old argument that without religion there is only an ‘atomistic reductivist society’. There is no virtue in the claim, no matter how eleganty phrased, that without religion there is no beauty or wonder. It has been dismantled by greats such as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, but Stephen Fry’s response is quite something. The 2.8mb 6-minute MP3 is here.