The spirited atheist

I’ve just discovered that Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason, also has an online column, “The spirited atheist”, at The Washington Post.  You might want to look in on this from time to time: she’s a good writer and a provocative one.  Some recent pieces are on the pre-obituaries for Christopher Hitchens,

My guess is we’re not going to get this propaganda about positive attitudes and self-esteem from Christopher Hitchens. What we are going to get, judging by his first article, is a continuing, badly needed report over the next few months or, hopefully, years by a man of reason from the frightening country we all fear but must all enter one day. Christopher Hitchens and I are not personal friends but respectful professional friends. He can tell his story better than anyone else. So my colleagues should stop with the pre-obits and start listening to a man who knows what he’s talking about and isn’t about to abandon reason and start bargaining with any gods.

(By the way, for the full Charlie Rose interview of Hitchens, go here. It’s pretty good.)

the theodicy of bedbugs:

Bedbugs are also very, very hard to get rid of, in that they have developed a resistance to pesticides that were once used to kill them. After an exterminator has gone over an infested site, and you have either thrown out or washed every bit of cloth in your apartment, the final step for many New Yorkers is to bring in a bedbug-sniffing dog to find any survivors. New York writer Alan Good, in “The Bedbug Theodicy,” views bedbugs as an indicator of cosmic hostility. “Either God doesn’t exist, or God exists and hates us (or at least isn’t fond of us),” he writes. “I cannot accept that a loving God would create a creature whose sole purpose is to feast on the flesh of his so-called children.”

and the “ground-zero mosque” controversy:

I wrote a column about the proposed Muslim community center within sight of Ground Zero in May, before right-wing Republicans who hate everything about New York City got into the act and started lecturing us about what we ought and ought not to do to respect the 9/11 victims. I had not planned to write any more about this subject, but the past week’s debate has revealed an astonishing obduracy on the part of both sides. On the one hand, right-wing Know-Nothings are displaying their ignorance of the First Amendment for all the world to see; on the other, many liberals–including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg–seem incapable of distinguishing between what is legal and what is wise. . .

This eruption of base passions could so easily have been avoided by advance planning and compromise. But if and when this center is finally built, it will stand as a monument not to tolerance but to utter political stupidity and to a religious correctness devoid of common sense.


  1. Posted August 20, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Ugh, I’m really disappointed to see how many in the atheist community are get suckered by Christianist theocrats into thinking the “Ground Zero mosque” is something it’s not.

    It is not “within sight of Ground Zero” as the usually erudite Susan Jacoby writes. In fact, if one were on a pilgrimage to Ground Zero, one would pretty much have to go looking for it to find the brand new YMCA Park51 community center.

    The right-wing demagogues have conjured up a false image of a towering minaret casting its shadow across the ashes of the World Trade Center. That’s not even fucking close to the truth, and yet otherwise sensible liberals and atheists are buying it.

    This would be like if somebody wanted to stop the YMCA from building a new facility half a mile from the reform Lutheran church in Witchita. Supporting it is not “religious correctness devoid of common sense” — it’s a refusal to be bamboozled by false images and false associations.

    I am deeply, deeply disappointed.

    • Posted August 20, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty much with James on this one. It’s a non-issue that’s been greatly distorted by the right-wing, and unfortunately we (lefties) didn’t check it out properly.

  2. Kevin
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    For expression the exact same opinion about the “GZM”, I was branded an anti-Muslim bigot.

    No. A realist. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

    How hard is that to understand?

    If the organizers were more interested in actually doing something for the community, rather than taking credit for doing something for the community, this project could have been designed in such a way as to make a real statement about tolerance and peace.

    That it is a symbol of exactly the opposite is the fault of the organizers. No one else.

    And before I get a lecture about the First Amendment: the First Amendment does NOT give religious institutions the right to automatic approbation of any project they care to build – whether it be a church or a community center. The First Amendment right is the right to have the project reviewed WITHOUT REGARD TO the religious implications. That’s it.

    In other words, projects that are proposed and funded by religious groups cannot be DENIED because of its religious implications. But there is no such thing as a First Amendment right to approval. If you think so, you’re wrong.

    • Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      How far away should it have been built, then? Give me a number.

      I don’t think you are a bigot, and I realize you understand the First Amendment. I just think you are seriously misinformed about the what and where of this building.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        Did I say anything about “far away”? You assume facts not in evidence.

        Take your knee and jerk it somewhere else.

    • Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Or I know, you aren’t objecting to the distance, you’re objecting to the nature of the project. Why build a mosque that is only for that purpose, and if it has any other facilities, is closed to the general public? Shouldn’t they have planned to build a sprawling community center open to all New Yorkers, where youths could go to play basketball, people of any faith (or none) could go to get a culinary education, where parched New Yorkers can go to take a swim if they don’t know anyone with a pool? Yes, that would have been a symbol of “tolerance and peace”.

      Oh wait. That’s what they are building. My mistake.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        Did I say anything about the “nature of the project”?

        No, I did not.

        Take your knee and jerk it somewhere else.

        • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          Then what the fuck are you opposing?!?!?!??!?

          If it’s not where it is, and it’s not what it is…. when, then? Why? Who?

          You’re the one with the jerky knee, my friend.

          You can’t jsut say it’s insensitive without saying what is insensitive about it.

        • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          And to reiterate, I don’t think you are a bigot and I don’t think you misunderstand the First Amendment. I just think you’re either a) misinformed, or b) haven’t thought very hard about this.

          • Kevin
            Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

            And you would be wrong in both assumptions.

            The project was practically designed to create exactly the kind of controversy that it has gained. If I were a tin-foil-hat kind of person, I would suggest that it was done deliberately. But, being a believer in Hanlon’s razor, I do not attribute to a conspiracy to that which can be explained by incompetence.

            Anyone with half a brain could see this coming 3000 miles away.

            Had the organizers *truly* wanted to do something good for the community, they could have worked together with a wide range of local community groups to make the project something other than a shining beacon of Islamic single-mindedness.

            The first thing *I* would have done is call George Bush. The imam in question worked with the FBI in the past; I assume Mr. Bush knows him, and maybe even personally. And then I would have called Rudy Guiliani. I could have gotten them on board with the idea in 3 minutes by establishing the project as a co-funded and sponsored project with a wide range of sectarian and non-sectarian groups.

            Ham-handed, naive, and blindly single-minded does not begin to describe how badly the organizers performed.

            • Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

              What you suggested they ought to have done is what they did.

              I don’t wish to discuss it further. You are just being obstinate.

            • Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

              Do you think this facility around the corner from my house is a “shining beacon of Judaic single-mindedness”? It has a synagogue after all. For shame!

    • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      And the community voted unanimously (I forget the exact board or council that had jurisdiction, but it was a unanimous vote) to allow it. Open and shut case. So what are you bitching about?

      • Kevin
        Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        The board in question was the Landmarks Commission. The question before them was whether the building was a historic building deserving of landmark status (in other words, could not be torn down or substantially altered).

        There were no grounds to establish landmark status for this particular property. Had the commission acted in the opposite direction, that would have been actionable in Federal Court. It would have taken no more than a few seconds for a judge to issue a permanent injunction.

        I’ll bet you’re one of those people who protested the local Wal-Mart coming into town. Please tell me how this is ANY different? And if you mention the First Amendment and the religious rights of Muslims, you lose the argument. There is no First Amendment right at stake here; other than the right of the project to be considered by public officials without regard to the religious funding.

        And you can’t have it both ways by claiming “it’s a community center” on the one hand and then claim religious privilege with the other.

        • Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

          Um, I’m not claiming religious privilege. Any person who owns a private building and gets the relevant legal permission can do what they want with it.

          Nice strawman with Walmart by the way. I’ve actually never done any such thing, even if I wasn’t happy about it; they did drive down my community’s wages by 20% though, but they didn’t do anything illegal (discounting the labor violations that they wiggle out of). So fuck off.

        • Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          I also have not protested a Walmart, or anything of the kind. I try to avoid shopping there for a number of reasons, but I am not strict about it.

          I actually think the problem of big box stores “killing Main St” is a very challenging multi-dimensional problem with no clear-cut answers.

          Just to take one dimension of the problem: The big box stores would not have been successful in their conquest over the American small business if they didn’t deliver at least some perceived value to the consumer. And I think much of that value is real. But small businesses deliver a complimentary value as well. In a perfect world, both options would be available — but because of the nature of the complimentary values offered by each, people end up needing the value offered by small businesses a whole lot less.

          This is illustrated starkly in my choice of hardware stores. There is a small hardware store about 5 minutes from my house. There are both a Lowes and a Home Depot about 10 minutes away. I like to support the small store, both because of the “support local business” ethic, but more apropos to my current line of discussion, because they are ridiculously helpful and knowledgeable. I recently had managed to damage a part (that I bought at Home Depot, I admit) and they were able to help me find a replacement screw and retap the hole, all for like three bucks.

          But unfortunately, their hours suck and their selection sucks. Too often I have driven out there and found that, oh crap, it’s 6PM, they’re closed; or found that they didn’t have the part I wanted after all. This store is also in the opposite direction of the big box stores, so going there and failing to find what I need adds an extra 15-20 minutes onto my trip. As a result, unless it’s a part I am certain the small store will have, and it is in the middle of the day so I am certain they will be open, I just go to one of the big box stores.

          That’s only one dimension of the problem. Then there’s the effect on the local economy, the total number of jobs generated, worker benefits, progressive employment practices, yada yada yada, all of which have pros and cons for the small business vs. big box stores.

          Just wishing the big box stores away is most definitely not a solution.

          Sorry for the tangent, but I just wanted to illustrate just how made-of-straw that accusation was.

        • tomh
          Posted August 20, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          Kevin wrote:
          I’ll bet you’re one of those people who protested the local Wal-Mart coming into town. Please tell me how this is ANY different?

          It’s very different. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, was passed for the express purpose of exempting religious institutions from local zoning and land use laws of the kind that Wal-Mart is subject to. There have been dozens, if not hundreds of cases around the country upholding religions’ privileges in controversial land uses, where people object to buildings just as strenuously as some people do to this one. This building has less to do with local zoning or the First Amendment than it does with this federal Act. So what if people are offended? Religious privilege supersedes all insensitivity or offensiveness.

  3. Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    By the way, it’s not a mosque, and it’s not located at Ground Zero. It’s a YMCA located in downtown Manhattan.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Obviously not. Which is precisely the point. Had the organizers spent three seconds working together with others in the community, there would be no controversy. None. Zero. Nada. Bupkis.

      The whole thing is moot anyway, since it appears they don’t have any funding to go ahead with the project.

      Who proposes a multi-million dollar project with $18,000 in the bank? Someone not interested in actually doing the project, that’s who.

      • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        The community is fine with it. It’s a bunch of ‘Real Murkins’ from other places that are all hot and bothered by it.

        Maybe we should stop the atheist bus sign campaign. After all, people objected! It’s created a controversy! We should have politely asked the religious community and worked with them so there wouldn’t have been a controversy.

        • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          In fairness, there are plenty of people in Manhattan who oppose it.

          There are also plenty of people in Manhattan who watch Fox News. So this should come as no surprise. 🙂

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          I’m afraid you have a point.
          “Just because it’s legal
          doesn’t mean you should do it”. That is exactly the argument not just against the bus campaign but against atheists coming out in any conceivable way.
          And gays too.

          • Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            Yeah, I mean gays coming out of the closet, come on… they have every right to do it, but they should have seen the controversy coming a mile away. If they really wanted to be a part of the community, they should have worked with a broad range of community leaders and came out with a message of being totally straight, rather than gay single-mindedness.

            • Posted August 20, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

              It is like cursing, it is not necessary, one can communicate without it; gays do not have to come out, they are still gay even if they don’t, so it is not necessary for them to come out.

              The Iman’s focus is not to cause a fuss, to trigger the insane wingnuts, but to make it a point, close to ground zero, that a Muslim center can be open to all, regardless of which brand of religion or not. It is Kevin who is insensitive, in not accepting the drive and motivation for such a focus.

            • Posted August 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

              I prefer to think he has been bamboozled. He keeps asserting that they should have worked with the community to get broad interfaith support for it. But uh, they did…?

              (Granted, they didn’t ask any atheists what they thought, but what else is now… the fact that we get shit on as a matter of standard procedure doesn’t necessarily mean we should shit on somebody else for following the standard procedure)

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

              what else is now [sic]

              Uh, I think you wanted to say “what else is gnu” there.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          Again I can’t decide the pain limit for others. But I think this is a telling point. There is often a slippery-slope argument embedded in this type of discussion.

          Recently Plait has been doing a promotional series on his “don’t be a dick” talk on his “Bad Astronomy” blog. If his posts are exposing the best of his argument, it is exactly a slippery-slope fallacy. [Combined with anecdote instead of data. Btw, remember Mooney anecdote fail making the fallacy explicit? It is ironic here.]

          Of course, religious special pleading makes the “criticism of subject is criticism of person” fallacy poignant. But Plait’s insisting on telling “don’t be a dick” instead of “if you are a dick it makes me unhappy” makes the dickishness of such claims clear. The fact is that there are no quick-and-easy qualitative limits here.

          Reverting to the over all sense (strategy) of a situation clear such things up.

      • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        “Three seconds working with the community”? What are you even talking about??? They talked to the town board, they got support from local religious leaders of multiple faiths… were they supposed to go door-to-door like a registered sex offender? “I’m legally required to inform you that I am a Muslim and I plan to renovate an abandoned building in your community, but I might accidentally blow you up instead.”

    • Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      In any case, thanks Kevin, you inspired me to finally sit down and write this post.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        But: I smell a rat.

        The link to the center has a “Why now?” exposition. By having that, the project itself tell us it isn’t uncorrelated to what happened in the name of a religion a few year back. (Even if it is in the form of an otherwise unwarranted point.)

        That post can be read as if all of that (no correlation) was attempted in the bamboozle.

        Also such a correlation makes the argument on the topic a bit more believable.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

          Oops. To be clear, the rat is not in the post, but in the project.

          Also I don’t mean that the post intended to leave anything out. It is _a lot_ of detail in these situations.

    • Posted August 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      James: “By the way, it’s not a mosque, and it’s not located at Ground Zero. It’s a YMCA located in downtown Manhattan.”

      OK, all I can think of is the Village People singing,
      “It’s fun to stay at the
      It’s fun to stay at the …”

      (Although it’s not really a mosque and not too close to “Ground Zero”.)

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    She lost me on that last one.

    But if and when this center is finally built, it will stand as a monument not to tolerance but to utter political stupidity and to a religious correctness devoid of common sense.

    Be wary of appeals to common sense. Usually it’s just a way of saying “I don’t have to supply evidence and reasonable argumentation. It’s just obvious that everyone else should agree with me.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Thank you! I can’t (or rather shouldn’t) discuss a US internal affair, then there is nothing much international to compare with. This must be decided by the locals.

      But analysis I can always analyze. “Common sense” is not useful outside of the, often moral, tradition where it was founded. (It is certainly useless in science!)

      So besides the shortcut, I would beware of this, I believe, unique situation. It calls for “uncommon” sense.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Oops. “besides the shortcut” – besides the mentioned shortcut.

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Bedbugs are also very, very hard to get rid of, in that they have developed a resistance to pesticides that were once used to kill them.

    Or, as the meme goes, resistance to resistance is futile. Translated from natural to supernatural language, this becomes “gods-of-the-gaps is a shrinking business”.

    Evidently theology of bedbugs contains more than theodicy.

  6. Posted August 20, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Ah, well. Jacoby lost me too on the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” maneno. It may help to replace one tragedy, one place and one religious group by another and see what “common sense” advocates, as the Slacktivist did in his last post:

    Don’t miss the post-scriptum for full effect.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      It’s not just a relief it’s a … oh, what’s the word? …


  7. Filippo
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Just curious – does anyone know – have the supporters of this proposed center publicly and vehemently condemned the recent murder by stoning of the young couple in Afghanistan – by relatives (instigated by the Taliban) who tricked them into returning to their village for that express purpose?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Non sequitur.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      … or perhaps you are just trolling on Irenés comment #6 right before this? The linked post indeed a brilliant reply to your fallacy.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 21, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Thank you for the link. It is well-written and I agree with its theme, that one is not entitled to presume to expect another to feel compelled to have to offer knee-jerk statements in response to the actions of others.

        However, it is permitted, is it not, to be curious about others opinions about, and perspectives on, a given subject?

        I do assume that the stoning of the couple was at least partly motivated by the religious views of the murderers.

        Any right thinking person should condemn the stoning, if only silently.


        Per the above link, at least one other person is similarly curious about others opinions about such atrocities, and about those others declining to offer said opinions:

        “I don’t like anything much about the Cordoba Initiative or the people who run it. The supposed imam of the place, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is on record as saying various shady and creepy things about the original atrocity. Shortly after 9/11, he told 60 Minutes, “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” He added, “In the most direct sense, Osama Bin Laden is made in the USA.” More recently, he has declined to identify the racist and totalitarian Hamas party as being guilty of the much less severe designation of terrorist. We are all familiar by now with the peddlers of such distortions and euphemisms and evasions, many of them repeated by half-baked secular and Christian spokesmen. A widespread cultural cringe impels many people to the half-belief that it’s better to accommodate “moderates” like Rauf as a means of diluting the challenge of the real thing. So for the sake of peace and quiet, why not have Comedy Central censor itself or the entire U.S. press refuse to show the Danish cartoons?”

  8. MikeN
    Posted August 21, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Have the supporters of your local Young Men’s (or Women’s) Christian Association publicly and vehemently condemned the murder of chldren in Africa by Christian witch-hunters? NO?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink


  9. DicePlayGod
    Posted August 21, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    “… a monument not to tolerance but to utter political stupidity and to a religious correctness devoid of common sense.”

    No, no, no!

    A monument to the first amendment, and only the first amendment. Religious freedom is the sole issue here.

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