Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

God is merciful, but only if you’re a man

Posted in News by Skepdude on June 8, 2009


There is plenty to criticise in Islam‘s view of women. Last year, the Observer told the story of a man in Basra who stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed to death his 17-year-old daughter for becoming infatuated with a British soldier. The relationship apparently amounted to a few conversations, but her father learnt she had been seen in public talking to the soldier. When the Observer talked to Abdel-Qader Ali two weeks later, he said: “Death was the least she deserved. I don’t regret it. I had the support of all my friends who are fathers, like me, and know what she did was unacceptable to any Muslim that honours his religion.”

This was clearly extreme, but the truth is that the God many people believe in – whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish – hates women. Take America’s Southern Baptist Convention, which declares in its faith and mission statement: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” That’s fair enough, isn’t it? After all, he’s probably stronger than she is.

Or there’s the Catholic church. The Pope put things more suavely in an address in 2008: “Faced with cultural and political trends that seek to eliminate, or at least cloud and confuse, the sexual differences inscribed in human nature, considering them a cultural construct, it is necessary to recall God’s design that created the human being masculine and feminine, with a unity and at the same time an original difference.” The insistence on difference is the necessary first step to insisting on inequality and subordination and it is a step that popes have been taking at regular intervals for decades.

In November 2006, Nicaragua enacted a ban on all abortion, with no exceptions, even to save the mother’s life. The law was ratified by the National Assembly in September 2007. Both the original enactment and the vote in September 2007 were widely attributed to the influence of the Catholic church. In a report this month, the United Nations Committee against torture called Nicaragua’s total ban on abortion a violation of human rights.

Then there is Judaism. In one neighbourhood in Jerusalem, religious seminaries flank streets with yellow signs that warn: “If you’re a woman and you’re not properly dressed – don’t pass through our neighbourhood.”


Mothers hacked in albino attacks

Posted in News by Skepdude on November 14, 2008

Two mothers in western Tanzania have been attacked by gangs who were after their children who have albinism.

The women were hacked with machetes when the attackers failed to find the two children.

Albinos have been targeted in a series of killings around the country due to a belief their body parts can make magic potions more effective.

At least 30 people with albinism have been killed since March, including a seven-month old baby.

On Wednesday, attackers forced a woman to take them to her home, looking for her nine-year-old daughter in Kibondo District, close to the Burundi border.

The girl was not in the house and so the men attacked the mother.

In the second attack, a gang of four men broke into a house at the Lugufu camp in Kigoma, which hosts refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, looking for a child with albinism.

The child, aged two, escaped kidnap after falling under the bed unnoticed.

The women are undergoing treatment for their injuries.


‘Child-witches’ of Nigeria seek refuge

Posted in News by Skepdude on November 10, 2008

Mary is a pretty five-year-old girl with big brown eyes and a father who kicked her out onto the streets in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. Her crime: the local priest had denounced her as a witch and blamed her “evil powers” for causing her mother’s death.

Ostracised, vulnerable and frightened, she wandered the streets in south-eastern Nigeria, sleeping rough, struggling to stay alive.

Mary was found by a British charity worker and today lives at a refuge in Akwa Ibom province with 150 other children who have been branded witches, blamed for all their family’s woes, and abandoned. Before being pushed out of their homes many were beaten or slashed with knives, thrown onto fires, or had acid poured over them as a punishment or in an attempt to make them “confess” to being possessed. In one horrific case, a young girl called Uma had a three-inch nail driven into her skull.

Yet Mary and the others at the shelter are the lucky ones for they, at least, are alive. Many of those branded “child-witches” are murdered – hacked to death with machetes, poisoned, drowned, or buried alive in an attempt to drive Satan out of their soul.


Public schools become focus of gay marriage ban

Posted in News by Skepdude on October 22, 2008

A girl in pigtails bounds into the kitchen after school and asks her mother to guess what she learned that day. “I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess,” she exclaims to her mortified mom.

This television advertisement for a ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage in California urges voters to “protect children” by approving the measure.

There’s not a word about education in Proposition 8, but what public schools will be required to teach about same-sex marriage has emerged as the central issue in the campaign.

The measure’s supporters warn that teachers will be forced to tell young children about gay marriage if the measure fails on Nov. 4.

Opponents of the measure say that’s deceptive because schools already are required to teach tolerance of gays and lesbians, and the ballot measure won’t change that.


Does faith healing really work?

Posted in Edger by Skepdude on October 17, 2008

This is a follow-up to a previous post.

Ever wondered why people supposedly get out of their wheelchairs and run about on stage during a healing crusade; but no one has ever regrown an amputated limb?

There are a few possibilities:

1. God is not omnipotent. Regrowing an amputated limb is beyond what he can do. (Remember, this is the same ‘god’ who flooded the whole earth, parted the Red Sea, created humans from dust, etc). This obviously does not make sense even if you look at it from the theological side.

2. God refuses to regrow limbs due to reasons that we, being humans, are not supposed to comprehend. As the popular apologetic argument goes: We cannot understand god’s ways. Most Christians that I have spoken to love using this cop-out.

However, this runs contrary to the Bible:

(Matthew 7:7) Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

(Matthew 21:21) I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.

Uh-oh. That argument doesn’t seem to work either.


Why I Am a Humanist

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 14, 2008


A few months ago Mark Rowlands, over at Secular Philosophy, wrote a  twopart essay, followed by an update, on why he is not a humanist. Several people have asked me to respond, since this question comes up often, for instance whenever I say that I am more comfortable with the label “humanist” than “atheist” (although I am most certainly both, and proud of it). So let’s reconstruct Rowlands’ reasoning and try to see where, I think, he goes astray.

Mark begins by listing a series of definitions of humanism, mostly from dictionaries, all taken from the website of the Institute for Humanist Studies (full disclosure: I collaborate regularly with IHS and have designed an online course for their continuum of adult education). Arguably the best definition of those cited by Rowlands comes from the Merriam Webster:

“[Humanism is] a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.”

What is wrong with this? According to Mark, “humanism is simply an article of faith, akin to many religions.” Wow, slow down! All definitions of humanism include a clause about its rejection of supernaturalism, and religions (as opposed to, say, philosophies) do include a supernatural component. This is akin to the oft-heard, and quite silly, refrain that atheism is a religion. Atheism is a philosophical or epistemological position about the world. When it is militant and intolerant (as it sometimes is), it becomes an ideology. But most certainly not a religion. To call humanism or atheism a religion is a fundamental category mistake.

Why does Rowlands make this extraordinary claim, sure to astonish any self-reported humanist (such as yours truly)? He says that “the unquestioned article of faith contained in all of these statements is obvious: humans are the most important thing there is — at least in the known universe.” He then goes on to argue (quite appropriately) that there is no objective way to establish that humans are either “better” or “more important” than any other life form in the universe, case closed.

But wait, this may very well be a case of simply setting up a straw man for the pleasure of bringing it down with little effort. I don’t think for a moment that most humanists think of human beings as better or more important than anything else in the universe, and this position absolutely does not follow from, nor is it implied by, the tenets of humanism.

Let’s go back to the Webster definition, piece by piece: “[a] doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values.” Just because someone centers her values or way of life around X it doesn’t follow that she thinks X is objectively the best thing in the world. Think, for instance, of your family. Very likely, if you are a parent, you will concentrate your efforts, time, and resources on the welfare of your family. Most people, possibly even Rowlands, would grant that this is a perfectly good and honorable thing to do. But it absolutely does not follow that therefore you think your family is intrinsically more important than any other family on earth. It is most important to you, because it is your family, and that suffices to justify, socially and morally, your efforts on its behalf (though you should still set aside some of that effort and resources to help other people or causes outside your family).

Rowlands sees this point, but dismisses it with a rather forced example. He rewrites the various definitions of humanism by substituting “white people” for “human,” as in “a way of life centered on white people’s interests or values.” He wishes to show that one could pick any arbitrary group and the same philosophy would apply, showing that humanism is therefore a faith, and possibly a pernicious one. But as my example of your family should indicate, not all groups are equally worthy of special consideration, subjectively or objectively. “White people” is a biologically spurious and socially pernicious grouping, while “family” is a biologically natural and socially constructive grouping. There is a difference, and to ignore it is to fall for the postmodernist fallacy that anything goes.

Back to Webster: “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” “Usually” here probably refers to the fact that humanism started out during the Renaissance, when one simply could not profess atheism, until independence from religion began to be asserted three centuries later, culminating in the Enlightenment . It is precisely because of the rejection of supernatural nonsense and an emphasis on human dignity, worth and ability to pursue self-realization that I think humanism is the best positive philosophy we have. How can Rowlands not consider himself a humanist?

The real answer, I suspect, emerges from the third part of his commentary, the one where he addresses miscellaneous objections from his readers. Mark states “Matt m [one of his blog’s readers] wouldn’t extend the social contract to animals who can’t understand it. Well, my twelve month old son is an animal who can’t understand the contract. Should I not extend it to him? More generally: I’ve written two books on this – Animal Rights (1998, 2009) and Animals Like Us (2002).” Ah, that’s where the rub hits the philosophical pavement, so to speak. Rowlands has a problem with humanism because it is too parochial, it does not extend to the rest of the animal (but what about the vegetable and bacterial?) world. Some of my good friends are vegetarians (no kidding), and at least one close friend of mine has always pointed out to me that she doesn’t consider herself a humanist precisely for the reason implied by Rowlands’ comment on animal rights: it is too restrictive a notion.

But I wish to make the argument that it is the animal rights perspective — as laudable as it is — that misses the point here. First, let’s take care of Mark’s twelve month old son: it really should go without saying that there is an objective difference between an animal that is in the process of developing toward a full grown human being, with good chances of becoming a person, and an animal — say a wolf, to use Rowlands’ own example, who simply does not have the biological ability to do so. It does make a difference whether a being has the potential to understand the concept of rights or not: this clearly and objectively separates (without making them “better”) human beings from all other animals (including our closest primate cousins). It also makes human beings the proper recipients (and negotiators) of rights — an inherently human concept, incidentally.

Second, and more importantly, my example of why — and within what limits — our own families are more important than others to us shows the fallacy in Rowlands’ argument: humanism, with its centering on the human condition, does not imply the negation of the ethical status of other living beings, just like our justified but admittedly subjective interest in our own family does by no means imply that other families are not important in an absolute sense. Indeed, many humanists are supporters of animal rights, and they base their support on their compassion as well as their logic, not on the whims of imaginary supernatural beings (at least some of whom allegedly tell us to do with animals what we wish, since they were created to serve our needs).

This is why I am a humanist.