Saturday: Hili dialogue

I am home for a few days and my schedule is hectic, with podcasts both days this weekend and little time to rest. Posting again may be light, but I’ll do my best. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili takes a break from her status as the Furry Queen of Poland and watches the wide Vistula River behind her domain.

Hili: I can’t decide: to admire or to be admired?
A: OK, I will take a picture of you, doing some admiring.


In Polish:
Hili: Sama nie wiem, podziwiać, czy być podziwianą?
Ja: O.K., zrobię ci zdjęcie jak podziwiasz.


Once more with feeling: final thoughts on Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum #MarRef

by Grania Spingies

Terry Pratchett once wrote:

“Words have power, and one of the things they are able to do is get out of someone’s mouth before the speaker has the chance to stop them.”

Pratchett was right, of course. I don’t think the Vatican can help it much, for Terminal Foot-In-Mouth Disease seems to be afflicting many high-ranking members of the clergy. Hot on the heels of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin denouncing Ireland’s “Yes” result in its Marriage Equality Referendum as a “disaster for humanity”, we have another senior cardinal, Raymond Burke, pronouncing Ireland as “worse than Pagans and “defying God”.

I’m at risk of appearing obsessive about the subject, so I will try to make my final points and then bow out as gracefully as possible.

First, yes, they really believe this stuff.
These men may represent the Old Guard of the Catholic Church, but as Cardinals they can hardly be called radical outliers. Yet their pronouncements are fairly extreme. Whether the issue is born of a desire to arbitrate morality or to maintain a position of power over peoples’ lives; the result is the same: they are aghast at the notion that anybody – let alone a nation of mostly Catholics – could even contemplate same-sex marriage as an issue of equality. The legal rights aspect of the recent Referendum is something that doesn’t appear to register at all in their counter-arguments.

The vote comprehensively rejected the Church position. That ought to cause concern among the clergy, and it clearly does in the case of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin as it doesn’t bode well for the future of the religion. But even Martin’s comments didn’t show that he might be reconsidering whether his Church’s position was wrong, merely that it had clearly failed to impress its position on its members.
Its official position, lest we forget, is this:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

This quote is not from some hard-line lunatic fringe. It is from the Catholic Catechism on the Vatican’s own website.

This is why weirdly offensive letters were written by Bishops to be read to the faithful of Ireland at Mass during the Sunday Homily. However progressive and liberal the local parish and its priest may be, there is no getting around what the Church actually has to say about homosexuality.

Second, they are so out of touch with people that they have no idea how unintentionally funny and simultaneously insulting they are.
I think I can speak for everybody here when I say being called “worse than a pagan” is not the worst thing one can be called in life, nor is it likely to cause most atheists a moment’s pause. However, one has to remember that the overwhelming majority of people voting Yes in the Irish Referendum were Catholics. Those Catholics presumably do have an opinion about being told that they have defied God for ratifying the idea that people are entitled to equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation. These sorts of pronouncements do the Church’s reputation a great deal of harm, so it’s telling that even now the Vatican permits its leading men to tell the world how they really feel rather than instructing them to maintain a dignified silence on an issue where they cannot fail to look archaic, intolerant and downright offensive. Gay Catholics who were hoping for the Church to start moving towards a more progressive and tolerant position must be profoundly disappointed and wary. 

Third, they fear the Internet
This is either because the Internet is the plaything of demons, or because it gives every Catholic access to opinions and ideas that may not coincide with those of the Church. With the Vatican going to enormous trouble to put an exorcist into every parish in the world, it is not impossible that it is the former that worries them the most as if the world were literally an episode of Supernatural, only with slightly less subtext.

Realistically, it is also because ideas have to fight hard for credibility when they are forced to go up against a world of alternative ideas. “Because the book says so” is a pretty useless argument when your opponents also have books that say different things. However, it is pretty hard to exorcise the Internet, so it seems that people will “imbibe this poison that’s out there” and will ask harder questions and make better arguments. Terrible stuff really.
Fourth, they have no intention of changing the Church’s position
In spite of recent papal soundbites along the lines of “Who am I to judge?”, the official Church position is going to be difficult to alter or undo—assuming of course that those in power have any intention of changing the status quo. Religions are not democracies, and popular vote is not generally an option. Liberal academic Catholics can point to sound analyses of scriptures that show the original texts are not a particularly good source for justifying the intense homophobia displayed in the official Catholic position. Unfortunately, the usual reaction from the Vatican on this sort of issue is to completely ignore the arguments made, or as last resort to point out: “There seems to be a certain element who think that the Synod has the capacity to create some totally new teaching in the Church, which is simply false.”

I’ve never been so proud of Ireland as when the Yes result came in on Saturday 23rd May; even though I think that equality is something that shouldn’t even have been put to the vote in the first place. Nevertheless, Ireland was wonderful in every possible way. It’s not going to change the Catholic Church’s position. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, because Ireland is already changed in the very best way and the battle about morality and equality has already been won. I’ll leave you with this quote from the  heart-warming piece by Irish blogger and journalist Donal O’Keeffe on his experiences canvassing for the Marriage Equality referendum.

Then two young men, walking close together, came toward me from Rory Gallagher Plaza. “Hello,” I said. “Are you voting on Friday?” They gave me the most beautiful smiles and held up their joined hands.
I thought that was a really mean thing to do, to make a grown man cry in public like that.

Woman/cat musical duo

To end the week (is it really Friday?), we have singer Ayleen O’Hanlon singing “Loverless” with the help of her cat, George, who provides fusses and even tries to help on guitar:

People Magazine explains:

Ayleen O’Hanlon is a singer-songwriter from Victoria, Australia. George is her cat. O’Hanlon says that George “gets a little needy” from time to time, which may explain why he’s “helping” her perform her tune “Loverless” by perching on her guitar, shoving his posterior in her face and batting at her guitar strings.

Then again, George’s presence has helped “Loverless” (which O’Hanlon has decided will be the lead single on her upcoming album) climb to nearly 250,000 views on YouTube. Turns out George – like a lot of managers – is as big a help as he is a hindrance.

You can find more of O’Hanlon’s music on her Facebook, website, orSoundCloud. If you like what you hear, be sure to keep an eye out for “Loverless”‘s official release as a single in November and O’Hanlon’s solo album in early 2015.

h/t: Blue

A godless French song

George Brassens (1921-1981) was a well known French poet, singer and songwriter who, as you can tell from this song about unbelief, was a renegade (he called himself an anarchist). He also loved cats, which are often mentioned in his songs.

The song was sent, and the English translation rendered, by a reader who describes herself as “grenouille à moitié”. If you speak even a bit of French, you’ll know what that means. It’s a lively and catchy tune, but also cerebral. Follow the words along with the song.

Le mécréant
(The unbeliever)

Georges Brassens (1960)

Est-il en notre temps rien de plus odieux
De plus désespérant, que de n’pas croire en Dieu ?

Is there in our time nothing more questionable, nothing more devastating than not to believe in God?
J’voudrais avoir la foi, la foi d’mon charbonnier
Qui est heureux comme un pape et con comme un panier
I would like to have faith, the faith of my coalcutter, who is happy like he  was the pope and stupid like a paper basket
Mon voisin du dessus, un certain Blais’ Pascal
M’a gentiment donné ce conseil amical
My neighbour from above, a certain Blaise Pascal, gave me this friendly advice:
” Mettez-vous à genoux, priez et implorez
Faites semblant de croire, et bientôt vous croirez “
“Kneel down, pray and implore
Pretend to believe, and soon you will believe.”
J’me mis à débiter, les rotules à terr’
Tous les Ave Maria, tous les Pater Noster
And so I mindlessly recited, kneecaps on the floor, all the Ave Marias, all the Pater Noster
Dans les rues, les cafés, les trains, les autobus
Tous les de profundis, tous les morpionibus
In the streets, in the cafes, the trains, the busses, all the de profundis, all the “morpionibus”
Sur ces entrefait’s-là, trouvant dans les orties
Un’ soutane à ma taill’, je m’en suis travesti
At that moment, in the nettles I stumbled across a cassock that fit me and I dressed up with it.
Et, tonsuré de frais, ma guitare à la main
Vers la foi salvatric’ je me mis en chemin
and, with a freshly shaved tonsure, and with my guitar in my hand, I went on my path towards salvation through belief
J’tombai sur un boisseau d’punais’s de sacristie
Me prenant pour un autre, en ch?ur, elles m’ont dit
I stumbled across a bushel of “sacristy bugs”.
They thought I was someone else and all together said to me:
” Mon pèr’, chantez-nous donc quelque refrain sacré
Quelque sainte chanson dont vous avez l’secret “
“My father, sing some sacred songs to us, some decent songs which are no mystery to you.”
Grattant avec ferveur les cordes sous mes doigts
J’entonnai “le Gorille” avec “Putain de toi”
Scratching my guitar strings fervently with my fingers, I proceeded to sing to them “Le Gorille” and “Putain de toi”
Criant à l’imposteur, au traître, au papelard
Ell’s veul’nt me fair’ subir le supplic’ d’Abélard
The women shouted I was a traitor, an imposter, a papelard
They wanted to make me suffer the torture of d’Abbélard
Je vais grossir les rangs des muets du sérail
Les bell’s ne viendront plus se pendre à mon poitrail
And thus I shall contribute to the ranks of the silent men of the “sérail”.
The beautiful women will not flock to my chest any more.
Grâce à ma voix coupée j’aurai la plac’ de choix
Au milieu des petits chanteurs à la croix d’bois
Thanks to my thus cut voice, I shall have a place of honour amongst the petits chanteurs à la croix d’bois
Attirée par le bruit, un’ dam’ de Charité
Leur dit : ” Que faites-vous ? Malheureus’s arrêtez
But another charitable lady was attracted by the noise
And she tells the others: “What are you doing?
Stop it, you miserables
Y a tant d’homm’s aujourd’hui qui ont un penchant pervers
A prendre obstinément Cupidon à l’envers
There are already enough men nowadays who have pervers tendencies stubbornly taking Cupide the wrong way around
Tant d’hommes dépourvus de leurs virils appas
A ceux qu’en ont encor’ ne les enlevons pas
So many men are destitute of their manly charms
To those who still possess them, let’s not take that away.”
Ces arguments massue firent un’ grosse impression
On me laissa partir avec des ovations
Those convincing arguments left a big impression
I was let loose with big ovations
Mais, su’l’chemin du ciel, je n’ferai plus un pas
La foi viendra d’ell’-même ou ell’ ne viendra pas
But, on the way to heaven, I will not make one more step
Either the belief will come my way on its own, or it won’t.
Je n’ai jamais tué, jamais violé non plus
Y a déjà quelque temps que je ne vole plus
I never killed, I have never raped, and it’s already been a good while that I haven’t stolen anything either
Si l’Eternel existe, en fin de compte, il voit
Qu’je m’conduis guèr’ plus mal que si j’avais la foi
If the Eternal exists, he must ultimately see
that I hardly behave worse than if I had faith.

George et chat

On my way home

I’m ensconced in Ronald Reagan Airport, better known (in both senses) as Washington National Airport. I noticed on my way in a brass statue of The Gipper standing in front, and it’s simply a travesty to name this airport after such a dreadful President. I hope some day they’ll change the name back again. The good news is that for some unknown reason I got a TSA “Pre-check” status, enabling me to skip the lines and pass through inspection without removing my belt, my computer, my liquids, and even my boots—or having my buttocks groped. I have no idea how the TSA confers this status, which I get sporadically.

At any rate, I spent last night at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, with a fine dinner of fresh strawberry daquiris, grilled chicken, cole slaw (made with my mother’s recipe), potato salad, and a fine 2010 Chateau d’Arche Sauternes for dessert (courtesy of PCC). It was luscious, but needs a few more years.

This morning I was asked to go through my old possessions recovered from my mother’s house after she died, as they want to give what I don’t want to the Salvation Army National Children’s Center, AMVETS, and Purple Heart. I decided to save my childhood copies of the Winnie the Pooh books (bought in England in 1955), letters from old friends, my high school and college yearbooks, and the two precious possessions shown below.


The vinyl copy of Sergeant Pepper, as many of you know, was responsible for converting me into an atheist (see the story here), and I’ve shown it before. I’m also holding one of my other beloved possessions: my high school letter (“H” is for Heidelberg American High School, a US Army school in Germany), which I got for wrestling. Athletic letters, awarded for being on varsity teams, were a Big Deal back then, automatically elevating you above nerd-dom and reputed to help you get girls (it didn’t prove too useful!). Does anyone remember the Beach Boys’ classic “Be True to Your School” song, which had this verse?

I got a letterman’s sweater
With a letter in front
I got for football and track
I’m proud to wear it now
When I cruise around
The other parts of the town
I got a decal in back.

(The “decal” would be a decal with the name of your high school, affixed to the rear window of your car.)

Sure enough, I had my mom sew that onto a white sweater, which I wore proudly. Eventually the garment became moth-eaten, and I recovered the letter.

I wrestled in the 103-pound class—can you imagine?

The vino (a half bottle: ideal for rich dessert wines like Sauternes):



Now it’s the Jews who ban women from driving

How are Jews like Muslims? Answer: in both cases some sects ban women from driving. We know about that ban in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, but now one group of Jews—British Jews—have done the same thing. According to the Jewish Chronicle, a group of Orthodox Hasidic Jews has issued a Jewish fatwa against women driving. And the reasons are pretty much the same as those adduced in Saudi Arabia:

The British leaders of a major Chasidic sect have declared that women should not be allowed to drive.
In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that having female drivers goes against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions.

Not only that, but it’s now prohibited for mothers of this sect to drive their kids to school. If they do, the kids get kicked out!

. . . from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there.

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

As far as I can see, these are not government-supported “faith schools,” but are still monitored by the government:

Compared with some of the most conservative Chasidic sects, Belz are seen as relatively moderate and while some Charedi schools in London have struggled with inspections, both their main boys and girls schools, Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass and Beis Malka, are rated “good” by Ofsted.

Dina Brawer, a member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (now there’s a group with a tough job!) has correctly analyzed this as “the instinct behind such a draconian ban is one of power and control, of men over women. In this sense it is no different from the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia. That it masquerades as a halachic imperative is shameful and disturbing.” But of course the women themselves, indoctrinated in their faith, defend this as a good thing:

In response to coverage of the story, the local Belz’s women’s organisation Neshei Belz issued a statement to say that they felt “extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.”

They added,”We do, however, understand that there are many who conduct lifestyles that are different to ours, and we do not, in any way, disrespect them or the decisions they make.”

Seriously, “refinement, morality, and dignity”? What age are we living in? This reminds me of Muslim women defending their hijabs, niqabs, and burqas. The worst part is punishing children whose mothers want to drive them to school. What if the men are busy in shul, davening and praying? If you’re indoctrinated in the faith, you’ll internalize its values.

Just think of all the contributions that the men and women of this faith would make if they’d give up their silly superstitions, stop the incessant ritual and prayer, and let women follow their dreams instead of the lives dictated to them from the moment they’re born.

Jason on me in D.C.

As Jason Rosenhouse promised, he has a report on my book talk in D.C., a report tersely called “Coyne in D.C.“. It’s a Coyne-ian report, complete with pictures of cats and noms! Jason is no sycophant, and has a few words of constructive criticism, which I’ll ponder, about answering questions by angry people. He may be right, and my response to such people may be unduly testy because I’m picking up on their anger. As I said, I have to learn to understand where these people are coming from, and that understanding may lead to a more empathic response.

So thanks to Jason, and I hope he’ll write more about science and religion on EvolutionBlog in the future. I hear tell he’s got a good post coming up along those lines.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

A melange today: birds, landscapes—and a cobra!

First we have some lovely bird photos from Pete Moulton:

Unfortunately, my plans to get out and make some new images for you over the holiday weekend didn’t work out very well, so these are mainly somewhat older images that I had stashed in the sock drawer, as one of my photo buddies terms her archived material. There’s a little bit of a theme here because I’ve been thinking about a post biogeographer Alan de Queiroz published at his website, The Monkey’s Voyage, back in August. Alan’s post concerned the ‘New Nature’ expressed by naturalist/science writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt, as opposed to the more hardcore pro-conservation ideas of EO Wilson and others, and specifically dealt with the issue of introduced birds. Rather than rehashing the entire post, though, I’ll just give you the link because Alan’s a far more gifted writer than I am.

But I’ve come to realize that the issue isn’t strictly one of introduced vs native species; what about those species which once occurred natively in a particular region in small numbers, but which have increased along with–often because of–human activity? Surely those must count as ‘introduced’ in some sense too. So, here are some of the species which have increased in, or expanded into, the Phoenix area along with, and often because of, human development.
Surface water’s always prime real estate for both birds and humans. Some people like to fish, and now ponds and lakes exist where none did before. That’s increased our local population of Pied-billed Grebes Podilymbus podiceps, which are so water-adapted that they can hardly walk on land. This is one in its breeding colors last June at Papago Park. He’s the boss of the pond, and all the other birds know it.
PBGR_6-7-14_Papago Pk_2009
And, of course, we must have a Green Heron (Butorides virescens), just because. Under normal circumstances, Green Herons are fairly secretive, but at the Phoenix area parks they’ve become reasonably acclimated to humans, which makes them stellar photo subjects. This one wanted to primp a little before sitting for its portrait.
GRHE 8-3-14 Papago Pk 3184
The water attracts other herons too. This one’s an adult Snowy Egret, Egretta thula.
SNEG_11-10-12_Papago Pk_0535
And, now to the poster children for this effect. This one’s a male Anna’s HummingbirdCalypte anna. Before about 1960, Anna’s was a sparse migrant and winter visitor in Arizona, but with the development of the Phoenix area and the proliferation of backyard hummingbird feeders, it’s become our default hummingbird throughout the year. This increase has come at the expense of two other local species, the congeneric Costa’s Hummingbird C. costae and the Black-chinned Hummingbird Archilochus alexandri, because the Anna’s maintain territories year-round and get all the best spots for feeding and nesting, while the Costa’s and Black-chinneds only come in for the nesting season, and get marginalized to suboptimal areas.
And the Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus. When I moved to Phoenix in the mid-1980s Neotropics were quite uncommon in Arizona, and usually necessitated long trips to Painted Rock dam or Patagonia Lake on the off-chance of seeing one. Nowadays, this is the default cormorant at a number of locations around Phoenix and its suburbs, and the overall population is about equal to that of the Double-crested Cormorant P. auritus. To be fair about this, global climate change most likely has a lot to do with the Neotropic’s expansion into Arizona, as NW Mexico is suffering a drought even more severe than ours, and many of the Neotropic’s customary habitats in Sonora dried up just as humans were creating habitat for them in Arizona. The expansion isn’t finished yet, and Neotropics are now being found in southern Nevada and eastern Colorado.
Finally, Stephen Barnard demonstrates once again that he lives in paradise, which is apparently situated in Idaho.

I drove The Beast to Stanley and back yesterday, to open the cabin. Discovered that the tiny windshield wipers sort-of work when I hit a thunderstorm coming back. A fellow Cobra fan recommends Rain Shield and go faster.


Also, a colorful sunset this evening.


In London on June 11? Come and hear The Story of Life at the Royal Institution.

by Matthew Cobb

Professor Ceiling Cat is travelling, so I am using the opportunity to indulge in some shameless self-promotion. As regular readers will know, my book Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code is out in June in the UK (Profile Books) and in July in the USA (Basic Books). To launch the book I’m doing a talk with my friend and fellow-Profile author, Nick Lane, on Thursday 11 June at 7:00 pm. Nick’s book The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?, published last month, has rightly been gaining rave reviews all over the place. The talk is at the Royal Institution (motto: “Science Lives Here”) on Albemarle Street in the centre of town.

The blurb for the event says:

How was the code of DNA cracked? How did it confirm the theory of evolution? And why did life evolve the way it did? To celebrate their ground-breaking new books, Matthew Cobb and Nick Lane will come together to unravel the tangled story of DNA and answer the vital question: why are we as we are, and why are we here at all?

We will each give a short talk, with plenty of time for discussion. It isn’t free, I’m afraid (£12 with £8 for concessions – OAPs, disabled, students etc) and you need to book tickets at the RI website. Hope to see you there – please come and say hello!


Friday: Hili dialogue

Today I head back to Chicago for about five days before heading to Vancouver for the INR5 meetings, which I’m really looking forward to. Those people really know how to run a meeting: good speakers, schedule not too heavy, a great audience of interested and secular folks, and, last but not least, great noms! After that I’ll be speaking in Toronto for the Centre for Inquiry, and soon thereafter starting the Big Road Trip. It will be a busy summer. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is making a virtue of necessity about her role as a top predator in ecology and evolution (her latest weight is 4.8 kg, about the same as last year):

Hili: I’m a responsible agent of natural selection.
A: Do not overdo it, think of your figure.

In Polish:
Hili: Jestem odpowiedzialnym agentem doboru naturalnego.
Ja: Nie przesadź, myśl trochę o swojej linii.

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