by Greg Mayer

Jerry has been enjoying Bulgarian cuisine, and I’m he sure will continue his reporting, but I thought I’d report on a stateside culinary event. Southeastern Wisconsin is noted for its German heritage due to its large number of German immigrants. One of the traditions they brought with them is Oktoberfest, a fall celebration associated in the US with German beer and food. I’ve never been to an  Oktoberfest in Germany, so I can,’t say how authentic the American versions are. In the particular place in southeastern Wisconsin where I am, the immigrant heritage is actually more strongly Danish and Italian than German, but there are plenty of Oktoberfest events, so I went with some companions to Ashling on the Lough, an Irish bar, to experience their Oktoberfest.

Spaten Munchen at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha, Wis., 18 October 2014.

Spaten Munchen at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha, Wis., 18 October 2014.

Most important of course is the beer. As I had tried some of the beers they were featuring for Oktoberfest on previous visits, I decided to have a blind tasting of the two I had liked most, Paulaner Marzen and Spaten Munchen. The bartender poured two small glasses of each while my back was turned, and I then tasted them. The winner, by a nose: Spaten!

We actually began with Bloody Marys, which are a house specialty. The vodka comes from a large bottle of hot peppers, where it becomes infused with the pepper flavors. They also add a quick pull of Guinness to the drink. The garnishes are string cheese, pickle, beef stick (a Wisconsin specialty), pimento-stuffed olives, lemon slice, and lime wedge. In addition, one of my companions brings marinated asparagus and bacon (pre-cooked, of course), which we add to the mix. On the side there is a chaser of Harp, a Canadian beer (which was once made in Ireland, hence its use in an Irish bar).

Bloody Mary, Ashling

Bloody Mary, at Ashling on the Lough, Kenosha.

With the first drink having so much to eat in it, I did not require much more, but my companions ordered the “Munich burger”, a passable hamburger, made more German by having sweet German mustard and sauerkraut as the condiments. The sides, German potato salad (a common Wisconsin recipe– not sure how German it is) and potato pancakes (crispy, not the more traditional pancake-y kind) were good.

Munich burger.

Munich burger.


German potato salad.

German potato salad.

I went for something lighter than the full meal: German beer and cheese soup. The bartender gave us a taster, and it was quite good, so I went for the full bowl.

German beer cheese soup.

German beer cheese soup.

The beer was Hofbrau (not sure if it was the German original or made in US under license; there’s a mix of the two in the US, and most brewers with overseas operations try to make it hard to figure out exactly where the beer is coming from), and the cheese a mix of cheddar and Irish (naturally) white cheddar.

We had gotten there early, so the first of two bands, the Brewhaus Polka Kings, was setting up as we finished. The band members were wearing lederhosen. I had thought polka was more Polish than German, but one of my companions reminded me of the popular Liechtensteiner Polka with German lyrics, and Liechtenstein is a German-speaking principality. Perhaps a reader with more knowledge of the popular music of Mitteleuropa could enlighten us.

Francis Spufford, former atheist, defends his faith in a new book

Since this site began I’ve written a few posts about Francis Spufford, a Christian writer who can’t stop attacking New Atheists, and in the most insupportable and mean-spirited ways.

Spufford has just issued his recent book (which came out in March in the UK) in the US; it’s called Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.  Although I’m burnt out on reading apologetics (Spufford aspires, I think, to be the modern C. S. Lewis), I did read this week-old interview with Spufford on book Tumblr. The interviewer is Luis Rivas from the Spanish Catholic weekly Vida Nueva, so of course the interview is sympathetic. As we’re leaving this morning for parts unknown, I can only reproduce and comment on a bit of the interview.

Here is the Amazon blurb for the U.S. edition issued on October 15:

Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a wonderfully pugnacious defense of Christianity. Refuting critics such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the “new atheist” crowd, Spufford, a former atheist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, argues that Christianity is recognizable, drawing on the deep and deeply ordinary vocabulary of human feeling, satisfying those who believe in it by offering a ruthlessly realistic account of the grown-up dignity of Christian experience.

Fans of C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Mary Karr, Diana Butler Bass, Rob Bell, and James Martin will appreciate Spufford’s crisp, lively, and abashedly defiant thesis.

Unapologetic is a book for believers who are fed up with being patronized, for non-believers curious about how faith can possibly work in the twenty-first century, and for anyone who feels there is something indefinably wrong, literalistic, anti-imaginative and intolerant about the way the atheist case is now being made.

I wasn’t aware that many believers felt they were being “patronized” by New Atheists, although of course we’re all aware of the accusations that we take religious belief literally—that we make the mistake of thinking religious people actually believe to be true what they say they believed.  Here are five select questions from the interview and Spufford’s answers (all indented). My own remarks are flush left.

Does faith prevent Christians from being intellectuals?

That music you hear in the distance?  It’s St Augustine, St Teresa, Teilhard de Chardin, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Simone Weil all singing together, and what they are singing is that, as Christ commanded, we are supposed to love God with our minds, as well as with our hearts and our souls and our strength.  It is an illusion to think that there is any necessary conflict between a Christian commitment and free, adventurous thinking.  No-one ever does their thinking on a blank sheet of paper. Every intellectual of every kind is in a conversation with some set of ideas, doctrines, ways of seeing the world, and that’s what makes their own thinking serious.  The Christian conversation with Christian ideas, and with every other kind of idea, need not be defensive or imprisoning.  Why is there a stereotype that says you have to choose between faith and thought?  Two reasons, I think.  One, that people think belief means entering a kingdom of fixed answers — when, in my experience, it really means living with more and more questions.  Two, that people imagine religion must shrink as science grows bigger.  But they don’t do the same thing, or occupy the same space.  There is plenty of thinking room for both.  The great contemporary American novelist Marilynne Robinson says there is nothing like a subscription to Scientific American to fill you with wonder at Creation.

It is an illusion to think that you can reconcile rational thinking with a bunch of myths for which there is no evidence. When you hear the term “conversation with ideas,” you should run (just as you should with the word “nuance”), for what that “conversation” denotes is a contorted process to convince you to accept what your intellect tells you is unacceptable.

And really, if Spufford thinks that most of the faithful don’t think that religion provides “fixed answers,” he’s wrong. Sophisticated he may be, but if religion provides “purpose and meaning” for people, how can it do that without answers?

The history of science tells us that as science expands, religion shrinks, and we have numerous examples of that: evolution, free will, consciousness, the origin of the universe, and so on. And many of the faithful still make statements that there are scientific facts that can be explained only by God. (Example: “the Moral Law”—our “innate sense of right and wrong.” That, says National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, can be explained only by God.)  My new book has a large section of one chapter on (and a refutation of) this “new natural theology.”

. . . Does it make sense to go on being a Christian in the 21st century?

Yes!  And, what is more, the same kind of sense it has always made.  No matter where history takes us, we will still be sinners in need of redemption, prodigal daughters and sons hoping that God is running towards us on the long road, with His arms open wide.

Well, if by “sinners in need of redemption,” Spufford means, “nobody’s perfect,” he’s pretty much right. But somehow I think he means more than that. For there’s no evidence of any God running towards us with open arms. This is the kind of doublespeak believers use to conflate a perfectly aceptable statement into some kind of reason for belief in God.

Isn’t there a paradox here?  Impenitente is directed towards atheists and agnostics…

… and yet it is finding an audience among believers.  I think this is because I decided that the best way to try to explain us to atheists and agnostics was to lay out the emotional phases and qualities of faith, which can be recognised even by people who are very resistant to the ideas.  And so I tried to paint a kind of portrait of the Christian heart, using my own chaotic and imperfect heart, which I know best, as the model.  I meant to make us recognisable to others, but by accident I seem to have given some Christian readers the pleasure of recognising themselves.  Flatteringly, they seem to see their portrait in my portrait, their doubts and dilemmas in my doubts and dilemmas.  It’s an accident, but one I am very pleased by.

This is absolutely predictable. Spufford’s arguments against atheism, like all such arguments, are unconvincing, and his are particularly unconvincing because they’re (or have been) motivated completely by what he finds emotionally congenial. Of course such appeals will find their natural home with believers, not atheists.

Why did atheism disappoint you?

It turned out not to contain what my soul needed for nourishment in bad times.  It was not any kind of philosophical process that led me out from disbelief.  I had made a mess of things in my life, and I needed mercy, and to my astonishment, mercy was there.  An experience of mercy, rather than an idea of it.  And the rest followed from there.  I felt my way back to Christianity, discovering through many surprises that the religion I remembered from my childhood looked different if you came to it as an adult with adult needs: not pretty, not small, not ridiculous, but tough and gigantic and marvellous.

This is quite revealing. Atheism disappointed Spufford for, despite being the only credible intellectual response to a lack of evidence, it didn’t satisfy him emotionally. He had a rough time, and religion brought him the solace he needs. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean that there’s a God, or that the tenets of Christianity are true. Some find solace in the bottle or the joint, others in God.  The difference is that alcohol and marijuana actually exist.

. . . How can we reconcile the idea of a good God with the world’s suffering?

I can’t.  Can you?  All of the theological justifications have something valuable in them, but in the end, none of them seem complete.  But luckily we have something beside theological ideas: we have Christ crucified, joining with us in the sufferings of the world.  Like most Christians, I am not comforted by abstract ideas about God, but by Christ’s own presence, in the gospels and in bread and wine.  As I say in the book: we don’t have a justification, but we have a story.  A true story, of God redeeming the world.

I’ve always said that theodicy—the ineffectual religious rationalization of evil, particularly “natural evils” like childhood cancers or natural disasters—constitutes one of the best arguments against the existence of an omnipotent and loving God. This is nothing new, although the faithful continue to confect new explanations about why God would let kids get leukemia, or kill thousands in tsunamis.  Their explanations remain ludicrous and convincing only to those who want to believe. The existence of a crucified Christ who also suffered (and how does Spufford know that that happened?) doesn’t make matters any better.  Does a crucified Christ palliate the sufferings of children with cancer, or the grief of those who have lost friends or relatives in natural disasters?

The words “we don’t have a justification, but we have a story” should be the very motto of all theologians. If they can make something up, they’re satisfied. As for it being the “true” story that Spufford thinks, one involving God redeeming the world, well, how does he know that? Only because his emotions make him think it is true.

It’s no surprise that atheists would find such a book unconvincing, but believers would be drawn to it like flies.


Guest post: How to make a mess of modernity

Reader Grania Spingies, one of the founders of Atheist Ireland, has kindly consented to write about the blasphemy law that is still on the books in Ireland.

How to Make a Mess of Modernity

by Grania Spingies

Ireland should soon be having a referendum on whether to remove blasphemy as a criminal offence from the statute books. A lot of countries have a few strange old laws that haven’t been used in years, but are still on the books because no government has ever thought to remove them. What makes Ireland a little different is that the blasphemy law in its current form came into effect only in in 2009 in a blur of muddle-headed thinking.

The law is a source of both bemusement and merriment here, as it is in practice unenforceable as written. But the law is also an embarrassment as well as a potential danger. Michael Nugent, chair of Atheist Ireland summed it up succinctly:

“Islamic states at the UN have been citing Ireland’s blasphemy law as evidence that modern European states have no problem with outlawing blasphemy just as Islamic states do. You know you are doing something wrong when Pakistan is citing you as best practice for blasphemy laws.”

That’s Pakistan where the death sentence for a Christian woman found guilty of insulting Mohammed under its blasphemy laws has just been upheld by its High Court.

Most people in Ireland probably do not support the idea blasphemy as a a crime, so with a bit of luck the people of Ireland will vote to have this misguided piece of legislation removed. However, Ireland has a strange history when it comes to legislators trying to appease the Catholic church while simultaneously trying to to enact the will of the people.

The current divorce law is a case in point. When people voted to overturn the ban on divorce in 1995 (yes, 1995) the subsequent law made it legal but laborious and difficult by slapping a four-year moratorium on anyone seeking a divorce.

An even worse mess has been created in the most recent attempt to redress the inhumane abortion ban in Ireland, in which a ham-fisted piece of legislation enacted to ostensibly allow for abortion in cases when it would save the life of a pregnant woman has been shown to be brutal and ineffective even in the most desperate of cases. Women who are raped or have fetuses with fatal abnormalities are still required to remain pregnant or leave the country. Women who are suicidal as a result have to prove to a panel of doctors that they are suicidal enough.
The common theme here is this: the Catholic church opposes abortion under any circumstance.

In recent years, attempts have also been made to redress the bizarre situation in Ireland in which the overwhelming majority of schools are Catholic despite being financed by the tax payer. Needless to say, the Church opposes this as well, and issues statements explaining why secularisation of schools must be resisted:

“Since religion deals with matters of fundamental, ultimate concern it follows that the religious response has a priority in all one’s subsequent reasoning and deliberation.”

In case you think the speaker might be defending all religion, he is not: “To equate all religions is, in a real sense, to empty them of any significance.”

Similar solemn and dire warnings have recently been uttered about the potential excising of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution:

“When law enters the arena of morality, it nearly always runs into difficulties … How far can sexual behaviour or same sex marriage or blasphemy or the right of women for personal autonomy be dealt with by the law, except in the limited sense of protecting the vulnerable?”

I regret I can’t afford refunds for any irony meters that have just exploded.

Unfortunately, Irish politicians seem to be cowed by this sort of talk, perhaps because 84% of the population still call themselves Catholic. However, it is a fact almost universally acknowledged that very few Irish Catholics are truly Catholic these days.

Irish blogger Robert Nielson has painstakingly analysed a number or surveys and polls to show just how un-Catholic the average Irish Catholic is today. His findings are very interesting. Certainly very few Irish Catholics pay any attention to the Church’s teaching on sexuality (only 25%), and significant numbers don’t believe in Hell, sin, heaven, life after death or even God. An amazing 62% don’t believe in transubstantiation—or presumably know that they are in fact required to believe it. The most important figure for our purposes is that only 17% say that they would follow the Church’s teaching when making decisions.

So legislators and politicians who cringe at the thought of offending the Church, and by proxy the voters, are in effect flinching at ghosts and shadows. And every flinch costs the Irish people dearly in terms of human rights abuses.

In Ireland the people continue to move towards a more liberal and secular society. In remains to be seen how long it will take to convince timorous politicians to move along with them.



Readers’ wildlife photos

Today we have photos from reader Stephen Barnard in Idaho, sent on three successive days. First, a rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) with the note:

… about to eat what I think is a Mahogany Dun mayfly (Paraleptoplebia).


A Maxfield Parrishian landscape photo, color manipulated (I’ve lost Stephen’s notes):

Barnard 2

This was sent yesterday:

Moose in the foreground and a herd of elk back by the trees — taken a few minutes ago.



Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Today we head back to Sofia, stopping at various scenic places on the way, and then tomorrow I take off on my own into the wilds of Bulgaria for a few days. We’ll see how I function in a country with the Cyrillic alphabet.  Meanwhile, in Dobrzyn, Andrzej produces one of his more enigmatic Hili dialogues. I was warned that this was coming, and that I wouldn’t get it.

Provide your own explanation if you wish. There is no prize, but I’ll try to find out the answer.

A: What do you see there?
Hili: I don’t know, but you can rule out Little Red Riding Hood.

P1010822ab (1)

In Polish:
Ja: Co tam widzisz?
Hili: Nie wiem, ale to nie jest Czerwony Kapturek.

Cat Watch 2014

by Greg Mayer

The BBC has been running a new series Cat Watch 2014, which started on October 7. There are three episodes, all of which have had their first run, but there are still re-broadcasts and the full episodes are available online in the UK. They are not, unfortunately, available in the US, so readers will need to check their local availability. There are a series of video clips from the series, each a minute or two long, that should be viewable from any location. Much of the film uses “cat cams“, miniature spy cameras attached to the cats, which have been used successfully before in cat studies and a previous BBC program (which we also noted here at WEIT).

Cat watch 2014

Although the clips have embed codes, I can’t get them to work. However, if you click here, you will be taken directly to a full screen view of a clip from the “Cat Talk” episode– meowing (or miaowing, if you prefer). Speaking of talking, I couldn’t exactly place the presenter’s accent– does anyone recognize it? (She sounds like Emma Thompson to me.)



Here are a few holiday snaps from Sofia, just so you can see some of the sights of Bulgaria’s capital.

The most famous tourist site in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  It’s fairly new, having been completed in 1912. It’s rarely used for services, I’m told, but can hold 10,000 people and, before the Soviet era, was once was an important religious gathering spot. Its inside lacks any seating, but the walls are covered with icons and paintings. One of the sights I’ve gotten used to here is people actually kissing the icons on the wall and then crossing themselves, a custom of the Orthodox—and a good way to spread germs!

Nevsky church

The Saint Sofia church is the second oldest church in the city, with Christian worship beginning in the 6th century after the supposed Jesus-man but with Roman ruins underneath some 400 years older. When you visit the church, you walk downstairs through the successive ruins, winding up with the Roman foundations.

The city of Sofia is actually named after this church, which in turn is named after a Christian martyr (see below):

The photo below is not mine, but taken from Wikipedia. This structure itself dates back to the sixth century but has been extensively restored. It was also converted to a mosque during the Ottoman occupation.


Mosaics at one of the lower levels of the church. I don’t know if they’re Roman; perhaps an astute reader can tell me.

Old mural St. Sofia

Old wall painting in the church, inaccessible but visible through a window. I don’t know the date of this painting either, as the plaques were in Bulgarian.

Old mural

A sign outside the church, promising God’s blessing if you guy the religious geegaws on offer inside:

Church sign

Next to the church is apparently some headquarters of the Orthodox Church in Sofia. At the top of the building is a nice mural of three bearded Orthodox patriarchs (or priests):Patriarchs

The Bulgarian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

Tomb of unknown soldier

A flea market next to the Nevsky church sells all sorts of odds and ends, including some cool-looking Soviet-era cameras. Here’s a guy in his camera stall; perhaps photography buffs can recognize some of the arcane models:


Old signs from Sofia.  Those who can read Cyrillic can translate them, but I’m told one of them (the rectangular blue one below the triangular yellow sign with a wheel grinding something) reads “exemplary house.” Vassi told me that if you had a really nice house with a garden, you could put up one of these signs. They also had them for “exemplary apartment.” I have no idea what most of the other signs are supposed to convey:

Old signs

A street scene in Sofia, with trolleycar. It is a lovely town, at least the parts in the center I saw, and is well worth visiting. I don’t think many Americans come here.

Street scene sofia

Saint Sophia the Martyr, the patron saint of the city, atop a huge pedestal. As a goddess of wisdom, she’s holding an owl on her arm.

Saint Sophia the Martyr (died 137 AD) is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 17. Born in Italy, Sophia had three daughters: Faith (age 12), Hope (age 10) and Love (age 9), who were named after virtues mentioned by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

They are said to have been martyred during the reign of Hadrian (117–138). The guards took Sophia’s daughters one by one, from the eldest to the youngest and beat and tortured them to death. Sophia buried her daughters’ bodies and remained by their graves for three days until she died herself.

Lubo told me that when the made the statue, they discovered they’d given Sophia too much. . . er. . . pulchritude, and so she had a breast reduction before she was erected.

St. Sofia statue

One of the government ministries in the center of town is guarded by two soldiers wearing helmets festooned with eagle feathers. The guard is changed every hour on the hour.


In the middle of the complex of buildings is the oldest church—indeed, the oldest building—in Sofia, built by the Romans in the fourth century after the supposed Jesus-man died. It is the Church of St. George. It was closed, so we couldn’t go inside to see the famous frescoes.

Church govt blds

I love the old fascistic Soviet-era buildings. This one was once the Parliament. A big red Soviet star once crowned the steeple, but was removed by helicopter after the Russians left. The big steeple now bears a small (too small) Bulgarian flat:


Sofia has many lovely parks with big old trees. The locals, particularly older ones, were hanging out on the benches on this lovely day.


An old news kiosk (reminiscent of the ones in Paris), dating from 1874. Sadly, like too much of Sofia, it’s been defaced by graffiti.


The Russians built a National Cultural Palace: a huge building now used for various events and exhibitions. We were allowed to go into the lobby only, but it is cool, with a vaguely Art Nouveau look:

National cultural palace

Finally, Vassi told me that these statues are of the two inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet. Some judicious Googling suggests that they are Sts. Cyril and Methodius (written in Cyrillic on the base), two brothers and missionaries who devised the alphabet in the 9th century A.D.

Inventors of cyurillic


Monastery of the Transfiguration of God

Today we visited a famous monastery near Tarnovo (itself 2.5 hours from Sofia): the Monastery of the Transfiguration of God, reportedly dating to the 14th century. No monks were evident (the place seems to be undergoing a renovation).  Located in the woods up on a mountain, it was very peaceful, and I got a special treat, as you’ll see in the last photo.


I’m told the escarpment on the mountains, as you see above, is a special geological formation, but I’m not sure what it is or how it’s formed. The entire mountain range surrounding Tarnovo has a normal vegetated top, and then a layer of rock like the one above, and then the vegetation resumes Perhaps a reader can tell us how this happens.

This is where the monks live:


I believe this is the refectory:


It’s fall, and I like this picture:


And the best part: the monastery had kittens—friendly ones. They followed us around, and I got to pet them and, finally, carry them around with me (one at a time). They were friendly and purred, unlike most of the feral street cats of Tarnovo (more pictures to come). I named these Fyodor and Lev, though I didn’t know their sexes.



Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman: Atheists and Muslims have lots in common and should be pals

When I stayed in England in my younger years, I used to read the Guardian, which I was told was the only good liberal newspaper in the country.

But how low it’s sunk!  I find little of interest there, and what we find is polluted with the mush-brained and predictable rants of Andrew Brown, as well as a spate of ill-tempered and poorly argued pieces attacking New Atheism, “Islamophobia”, and the like. The paper must be desperate for clicks. Whatever. It is to kneejerk liberals as the Sun is to soccer yobs.

This latest accommodationist post, though, takes the cake, or, as the Germans say, “nimmt den Kuchen” (my grammar’s probably wrong). The piece is by the unholy duo of Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman, and is called, “‘Violent’ Muslims?’ ‘Amoral’ atheists? It’s time to stop shouting and start talking to each other.

Stedman, of course, is a religion-friendly atheist (head of Humanist Community of Yale University), whose book was called Faitheist; while Aslan is the premier apologist in America for the excesses of Islam, someone who pretends to be a credentialed religious scholar. Their joint article should really have been called “Why can’t Muslims and atheists be pals?”

Here is their argument:

1. Both Muslims and atheists are reviled in America, especially by Christians.
2. Both groups are also numerical minorities.
3. American Muslims are more critical of civilian “collateral damage” in wartime than are members of other American faiths, hence, they are not only benign, but appaarently more liberal than non-Muslim Americans—if one considers this single issue.

Their conclusion: Muslims and atheists should talk to each other, find common ground, and be friends.

As the duo write:

So why hasn’t there been more dialogue and solidarity between Muslims and atheists? Can’t we all just get along?

The divide has to do in part with our natural inclination to retreat into our own communities or get defensive when confronted with difference. As a result, stereotypes about both groups not only go unchallenged – they become amplified as each side clings to its preconceived notions of the other. While it’s certainly not the only cause, the amplification of this “us against them” attitude has contributed to large majorities of Americans labeling Muslims as “violent” and atheists as “amoral”.

The irony is that when atheists and believers get to know one another, they often discover that many of their values are not so different after all. That is something that we, a Muslim and an atheist, have learned from our friendship – even as we acknowledge our differences and disagreements.

This dialogue between Muslims and Heathens is supposed to be mutually beneficial:

When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both. But that won’t happen until we Muslims and atheists commit to spending less time speaking past one another and more time speaking with one another.

Sadly, their argument is utterly ridiculous, and for several reasons. First, who really wants that dialogue? Do Muslims hunger for dialogue with atheists? No. Perhaps they want to be accepted by atheists and others, but I doubt they want to talk to atheists with the aim of benefitting themselves. I suspect that if anyone wants dialogue, it’s accommodationist faitheists like Stedman (remember, he applied the term “faitheist” to himself). Even Aslan hasn’t shown himself to be particularly desirous of conversing with atheists. So far, his “discourse” has consisted of nonstop sniping at atheists who, he claims, simply misunderstand Islam, and impute to the faith perfidies that are really cultural in origin, or stem from colonialism. Does Aslan really want a dialogue? I’ll believe that when I hear him actually listen thoughtfully to what New Atheists say.

Second, American atheists don’t revile American Muslims that much, for that group, embedded in a liberal democracy that prevents obvious extremism, is indeed far less harmful than many of their extremist coreligionists elsewhere. Nevertheless, I deplore most of the doctrine of Islam, which includes institutionalized marginalization of women, calls for death of apostates, the imposition of repressive sharia law, and so on. To the extent that Muslims adhere to this kind of belief, I criticize those beliefs.  And I will criticize them in the U.S., precisely as much as I criticize the pernicious beliefs, of, say, Catholic.

My own quarrel with Islam is not with the actions of American Muslims, but with how Islamic belief is translated into action in other places. It is odd that the Guardian, a British paper, chooses to promote friendship between American atheists and American Muslims when the real quarrel is between worldwide atheists or liberals and worldwide extremist Islam—the form that is misogynistic, oppressive, and even murderous.  Do you have to know a jihadi personally to criticize him? I don’t think so.

And don’t forget that many Muslims in the U.S. and the U.K. while criticizing the barbarity of ISIS, fail to do so with respect to the other malevolent and unenlightened brands of Islam. So long as a religion oppresses the half of its members that lack a Y chromosome, I will oppose it. Do male Muslims in America allow their daughters and wives the same kind of freedom of opportunity as members of other faiths (I except here some of the Pentecostal Christians as well as some Mormon sects)? I hope so, but I’m not sure.

Now, what is the benefit of atheists talking to each Muslims? I may learn that some Muslims are nice people, but I know that already, having traveled in countries where Islam is prevalent (Turkey and Morocco, for instance). This is not news to me. But that doesn’t mean that I will become soft on Islamic theology, just as knowing Catholics doesn’t make me softer on Catholic theology. I do not hate Andrew Sullivan (in fact, I kind of like him sometimes), but I will criticize to my last breath the views of the Church to which he adheres. And I will never accept, in dialogue with Muslims, the widespread view that woman are like breeder cattle whose job is to produce nascent Muslims, and whose testimony is, in sharia court, worth but half of a man’s.

And shouldn’t atheists and Muslims be talking not to each other, but to the Christian majority who reviles both of us? Wouldn’t that effect more comity than friendship between two reviled groups? What is the point of two small minorities talking to each other rather than seeking acceptance from the majority. Aslan and Stedman don’t explain.

In the end, I see nothing substantive to be be gained by this conversation except getting to know our neighbors. What thoughtful atheists oppose is the pernicious effect of Islamic doctrine, not the existence of peaceable Muslims who live alongside us. If they embrace Islamic doctrine but don’t act on it (i.e., if they allow Muslim women complete freedom of dress, of opportunity, of mate choice, and so on), then that’s fine. But if they oppress women or gays in any way, that’s not fine, even if Muslims don’t like the killing of civilians in wars. Oppression of women and hatred of gays is also collateral damage: a byproduct of Islamic faith. And if they tacitly support coreligionist extremists by remaining silent about that excesses of Islam, that, too, is bad. Needless to say, there is no branch of atheism that supports killing those who revert to religion, or seeks to murder those who still believe in God or who have sex with someone of their own sex. Muslims don’t go around with bodyguards because they fear assassination by atheists. And atheists issue no fatwas.  You have to look hard to find any kind of “doctrinal” parity between atheists and Muslims. And there lies the problem. Finally, we have this quote from Aslan and Stedman:

“When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both.”
As a friend said who sent me this piece:
It is a complete non sequitur if you follow the implied course of actions to their logical conclusion: Muslims and atheists can become a group that is hated by the Christian majority together? How is that going to be useful or productive?

Two more points: atheists and Muslims have talked to each other, but both parties must rely on rational discourse and not extremist dogma. Productive discussion can be seen between, for example, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz, as a liberal Muslim who decries coreligionist extremists, is widely hated by both Muslims and liberals.) Unproductive dialogue can be seen between Richard Dawkins and people like Mehdi Hasan, who adheres to preposterous tenets of Islam and is certainly not interested in any kind of comity.

There are many comments at the Guardian, and lots of them highlight the inanity of Aslan and Stedman’s argument, but I’ll just post the latest two comments:

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 3.47.43 PM

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader John sends us oodles of photos from The Gambia, and I’ve stuck a lizard (my own photo) in at the bottom:

Having recently returned from NYC, the reported US cases of Ebola has prompted me to try and highlight the indirect impact of the virus on the West Africa country of The Gambia via your Readers’ Photo slot.

Gambia is the smallest country in Africa and despite being surrounded by countries affected by the ravages of the virus, it has remained free from the disease. However, it is now suffering adverse economic impacts because many who normally travel there during its relatively short tourist season, are staying away. This very poor country will find it very difficult with one of its main economic drivers so badly affected. I am in regular contact with friends in Gambia who are confirming their plight.

The Gambia has a terrible history associated with slavery – your older readers will remember Arthur Haley’s Roots story which begins in 1767 when his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, is kidnapped from the banks of the River Gambia at Juffura – and I have met some African Americans visiting to retrace their own ‘roots’.

On a brighter note, it is also known for its fabulous birdlife which makes it a popular destination for many European ‘twitchers’ because of the varied mix of resident African and Euro-Asian migratory species.

The most spectacularly colourful are the iridescent, and aptly named, beautiful sunbirds (Cinnyris pulchella) which appear to occupy the same nectar-eating niche as hummingbirds. The first three photos are of the brighter male with one of the drab female.

1 Beautiful Sunbird

2 Beautiful Sunbird

3 Beautiful Sunbird

4 Beautiful Sunbird

Sticking with colourful species, the yellow-crowned gonolek (Laniarius barbarous), red billed fire finch (Lagonosticta senegala) and two species of flycatcher, African paradise (Terpsiphone viridis) and black-headed paradise (Terpsiphone rufiventer), lurk in the rainforests adding bight flashes when they appear.

5 Yellow Crowned Golonec

6 Red Billed Firefinch

7 African Redbellied Flycather

8 Paradise Flycatcher

I have included two owls, Firstly the diminutive (only 6 inches) pearl- spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) and the catlike African Scops Owl (Otus senegalensis)

9 Pearl Owlet

10 African Scops Owl

There are many species of Roller; I have picked the ubiquitous Abyssinian Roller (Coracias abyssinica) and this one hunted the beach outside our hotel.

11 Abysynian roller

And of the many Kingfisher species, I include the spectacular Giant (Megaceryle maxima) and the agile hovering Pied (Ceryle rudis)

13 Pied kingfisher

12 Giant Kingfisher

 The last bird is a wader, the Senegal thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis)

14 Senegal Thick Knee

And Professor Ceiling Cat snapped this lizard yesterday at the castle at Vileka Tarnovo, Bulgaria. I have no idea what it is, but ten to one someone will tell me soon.




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