Ideology and violence

Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

“With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article “It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.” Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

“With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.”

Bait and switch?

So, returning to Matt’s post. One of the straw men he demolishes is the assertion:

“that if people who hold a belief commit atrocities then that belief is either false or should be avoided by liberal-minded people.”

I really don’t think that is common. After all we condemn fascism for its fundamental opposition to human rights – not just because of examples of atrocities. Nevertheless Matt launches his attack on this straw man with a strange dig at science:

“The belief that the atom could be split is one that has been used to kill thousands of people yet that belief is true and it is an important scientific discovery.”

Leaving aside Matt’s confusion between belief and scientific knowledge (which is important) this argument is a naive bait and switch. Of course a “belief” in, or the “knowledge” of nuclear reactions is not responsible for the deaths in Hiroshima or Nagasaki any more than our chemical knowledge was responsible for the greater number of deaths through carpet bombing of civilian populations in Japan and Europe during World War II (and Indochina in the 1960′s and 70′s) The responsibilities were clearly political and ideological. Human knowledge just made it possible to put into effect these political and ideological aims through such atrocities.

Similarly, simple belief or non-belief in a god (or similar supernatural manifestations) is not responsible in itself for atrocities. However, such beliefs can be used in religious, nationalistic, political and ideological mobilisation to encourage people to commit atrocities. They can be used to mobilise the dark side of human nature, the “them vs us” intuition we are so susceptible to.

History is of course crammed with examples of situations where ideological, political, national or religious beliefs have fueled atrocities. But I don’t know of one example involving a scientific “beliefs.” After all, we have ways of resolving differences between scientists over the nature of subatomic particles. These involve research and investment in devices such as the large hadron collider. Interaction with reality.

Rewriting history

Religious apologists are famed for their rewriting of history. I referred to the specific example of the history of science in my posts  Confronting accomodationism, The Galileo myths and others. So I am not surprised at Matt’s historical revisionism on this subject.

He pontificates on:

“research having discredited the portrayal of the early Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” brought about by Christianity. Similarly, research into Inquisition archives reveal that while such tribunals did exist, many popular beliefs are based on embellishment, exaggeration and propaganda rather than a sober assessment of facts. The picture of the Inquisition that emerges from these studies is significantly more benign than has popularly been thought. . . . The evidence suggests that much of what people believe today about religious history is based on discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes and consequent cultural prejudice.”

And:

“many atrocities cited by religious critics were not committed for religious reasons but for secular ones.”

Personally I think that blaming “discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes” is another current example of religious apologist myth making.  Often John William Draper’s book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science is quoted as evidence. But having read that book I can see how selective apologetics quote mining has is.

Historical honesty respects the victims

However, downplaying religious motivated atrocities is almost always accompanied by exaggeration of the atrocities committed by others, or attributing these to atheist beliefs. At least here Matt doesn’t resort to the silliness of calling Hitler an atheist. But he does claim:

“Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious — the very thing people who press the historical atrocities argument are trying to contend. Richard Wurmbrand, a victim of communist persecution in Romania, stated that “communist torturers often said there is no God, no hereafter, no life after death, we can do what we wish.” The fact that atheism was not the motivation for these actions seems to be news to those who actually witnessed them. . . . So, many atrocities were committed on the basis of atheism.”

Matt and others who attribute the atrocities of Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and Stalin (even Hitler) to atheism do an immense disservice to those who died or suffered in those atrocities. We owe it the victims to be honest about the causes of these evil activities, to understand why humanity does do such things and work to prevent their re-occurrence.  Matt should not be allowed to get away with the distortion that “Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious. “

A bit of historical research will show that perhaps the largest group of victims of the Stalin Terror were the Communists. The fact that some of these may have been believers had nothing to do with their deaths and imprisonments. A simple figure – more than half the membership of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated in the middle of the 1930s! Did any religious groups suffer such a culling? Surely this makes clear that the motives for these atrocities were more political and psychological (the paranoia of Stalin and his cohorts) than anything to do with religious beliefs.

True, the Church’s relationship with the Soviet State and Communist Party was strained. Hardly surprising – this is not the only situation where the church has sided with the old order in situations of social change. But in a situation where every other political group which could have opposed Soviet power were made illegal the regime still allowed the legal existence and activity of the church.

I will go so far as to suggest that many religious believers were members of the Soviet Communist Party. This seems obvious as that Party was the only mechanism of serious social and political involvement at the time.  Perhaps the feared KGB and its predecessors also contained Christian believers. After all Putin, the current Russian Prime Minister who these days wears a Christian cross, was a KGB member.

Matt may be shocked at the idea that there could have been Christian KGB torturers. But many Russian Communists where also shocked when they realised there were Communist torturers. Welcome to the real world. Life isn’t simple.

A fundamental problem wuith religion

Matt is more balanced in his conclusion:

“So the appeal to historical atrocities, on examination, seems often based on a fairly selective analysis of the evidence. The Bin Ladens and Hitlers of this world are clearly dangerous but so too are the Stalins, Pol Pots and secular groups like the Tamil Tigers who pioneered the practice of suicide bombing before Al-Qaeda came on the scene. People fight and kill for a number of reasons; sometimes these are religious, more often they are secular – sometimes both. When people care deeply about something, sometimes they will kill to protect it. Religion is not an exception.”

But this still ignores a fundamental flaw in religion which does make it susceptible to the judgementalism and mobilisation of the “them vs us” mentality which can lead to atrocity. This is the concept of “divinity,” “sacred” and “holy.” These concepts are foreign to atheism and science. it is no accident that the traditional motivations for war and atrocity – “God, King and Country” – have these similar characters.

These “sacred” concepts enable justification of almost anything on the grounds of faith and emotion. Evidence and reason can easily be ignored on distorted towards the divine ends.

This is clearly illustrated by a quote from the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

“In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this” ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

“God knows, but you may not” can be used to justify the worst sort of atrocity.

(This quote is from Paul Cliteur’s book The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. I reviewed this in Secularism is important.)

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40 responses to “Ideology and violence

  1. But this still ignores a fundamental difference flaw in religion which does make it susceptible to the judgementalism and mobilisation of the “them vs us” mentality which can lead to atrocity.

    The irony of New Atheist arguments to the effect that religion is uniquely equipped to creative divisive “us vs. them” dichotomies is that most such arguments are inseparable from attempts to draw similar distinctions between us (New Atheists) and them (religious believers). They are, then, antagonistic in their own right, and especially so since the implicit message is that something must be done to stop religious believers before their beliefs lead them to commit more atrocities.

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  2. I am not clear what argument you are making Aphaniptera..

    Surely I made it clear that the “them vs us” intution is a human one. We are all prone to it. It is not the unique preserve of relgionists.

    The flaw I was referring to in religion is it’s reliance on divine commands, sacred interpretations, etc., which effectively are so authoritative they trump reason and evidence. They can be used to justify anything.

    And of course this can also happens with other ideologies. That’s why we think of the Maoist Red Guards as being very similar to the religious in their behaviour.

    As for stopping nrelgious believers from repeating atrocities. Surely that is simply prudent and logical. We should stop anyone, whatever their beliefs, from repeating atrocities.

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  3. I don’t think “God” or “the Holy” is the only concept that people are willing to commit atrocities for – although it is clearly a big one. Even such nice concepts as “freedom”, “liberty” and “human rights” can be used as tools to motivate people into committing atrocities. Yes religious concepts create an us/them mentality that can justify all sorts of nastiness – but so can non-religious concepts. I don’t think the concept of divinity is as big a dividing line as you make out.

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  4. Ah I posted that before I read your latest comment. But rather than “the Maoist Red Guards as being very similar to the religious in their behaviour” why not say that “he religious as being very similar to Red Guards he religious in their behaviour”? Makes just as much sense. There is no need to put religious pricks ahead of non religious pricks… the prime category is “prick” which intersects with both religion and non-religion surely?

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  5. *why not say that “the religious as being very similar to Red Guards in their behaviour”?

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  6. 1: People are far more familair, these days, with religious violence and terrorism than they are Maoist violence. In the 60s and 70′s we were more familair with political terrorism of the Red Army group in Europe and the hysteria of the red guards in China. Today people would ask who are the Red Guards?

    2: I think we need to recognise possible differences between vionece motivated by, eg., patriotism, politics and religion. Precision is required for proper understanding.

    3: Because of the huge problem of relgious violence today it is worth zooming in on it. Recognising that faith and revelation tied in with extreme cofnidence that one has the truth is boith a danger and a characterstic of religion.

    4: And I am responding to Matt who has concentrated on relgious violence but attempted to argue it away.

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  7. “I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.”

    Ken, do you realise that if some atheists do use this line of argument – as you state they do – then to criticise them for doing so is not strawmannery?

    Do you see that?

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  8. “That’s why we think of the Maoist Red Guards as being very similar to the religious in their behaviour.”

    Whaddaya mean “we,” paleface?

    No surprises here.

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  9. That’s right Glenn. I am not guilty of straw mannery in making that criticism.

    However – put that into context. Dawkins is someone who used the quote in his book but clearly he is not guilty of the restricted interpretation.

    I criticized his use of the quote but recognize it does not really represent his argument – as my other quote makes clear.

    Now let’s discuss the stupid claims of Matt that atrocities committed by Stalin and Pol Pot were committed solely because they were atheists (or he thinks they were – my understanding is that Pol Pot was Buddhist – rather than a committed proponent of atheism).

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  10. Open your book to pg 19. It says so right there in the Atheist Worldview and Lifestyle Manual.

    “Atheism makes you a Communist and makes you kill people.”

    It’s right before “Atheism makes you sit in trees and fling poo at passersby” and just after the “How to make Roast Baby Pie” recipe.

    We might as well admit it people. There’s too many of those manuals printed already.
    Dawkins must have dozens of bodies buried in his backyard by now. ;)

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  11. Cedric I follow @DawkinsDog on twitter. He is Richard Dawkins dog, lives in Richards study and gets on the computer when Richard is out.

    He knows where all the bones are buried.

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  12. “Now let’s discuss the stupid claims of Matt that atrocities committed by Stalin and Pol Pot were committed solely because they were atheists”
    Ken, you quoted Matt making a limited claim:

    Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious

    So you’ve already agreed that Matt didn’t make a claim about every bad thing these guys ever did. Instead, as you acknowledge by quoting him, Matt was talking about why Stalin and Pol Pot “persecuted religious groups.” The reality is, Pol Pot and Stalin did see religion as socially pernicious, and because of their rejection of such dangerous and unsettling views (views that threatened the stability of their empires), they persecuted such groups.

    If you’re attributing a different claim to matt, then the Strawmannery is yours Ken.

    But then, there’s nothing new here. Same old. Nice catching up with you again Ken!

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  13. Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious

    No.
    Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted groups. Some of those groups were religious.
    Stalin and Pol Pot may well have seen religion as socially pernicious.
    It doesn’t matter with regards to atheism.
    Atheism doesn’t get you there.
    It’s got nothing to do with persecuting (or being nice to) anybody.

    The persecution part came from Stalin and Pol Pot themselves. Stalin and Pol Pot could have been fanatically religious and happily persecuted religious groups.
    Atheism is neither here nor there.
    Atheism can’t be logically used to justly any action either good or bad.
    No more than not believing in Santa can be used to justify any action either good or bad.

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  14. It’s very noticeable that Matt was unable to support his claims about Pol Pot or Stalin. He instead quoted an opinion of a Romanian religious apologist! I suspect Matt is actually ignorant on this specific subject.

    Can you do any better, Glenn, evidence-wise? It is one I notice religionists mouth off about a lot but either distort evidence (eg numbers) or ignore evidence completely.

    I mention that the data suggests the major targets of Stalin were communists. Those of Pol Pot were actually Vietnamese, intellectuals and city dwellers. Of course religious people were included in that – but they were hardly the whole target of his campaign.

    Can you provide evidence, references, for the claim that these guys saw religion as “socially pernicious”? Any more so than the communists or others (who may or may not have been religious) they killed and persecuted?

    Or any more so than McGrat’hs acceptance of the problem religion has with violence?

    I think there is a lot of ignorant crap written on this subject and Matt’s pontification is an example.

    Reality is not as simple as you myth makers like to think.

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  15. Richard Christie

    Meanwhile we still don’t know why Matt and Glenn have guns featured on their webpages.

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  16. Meanwhile we still don’t know why Matt and Glenn have guns featured on their webpages.

    Well, I wouldn’t want to read too much into that but it is a bit odd that both of them do it.
    Not my personal taste but…(shrug).
    Blocks of wood used for torture and execution?
    Now that’s creepy!

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  17. Richard Christie

    Well, I wouldn’t want to read too much into that but it is a bit odd that both of them do it.
    I think it is more than odd.
    In my mind, hand guns are obscene devices and those who glorify or seek to normalize their use are either mentally sick or suffer from arrested development.
    Anyhow, although the observation is related to topic’s headline, I’m not really adding to the discussion so I’ll desist.

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  18. I think the guns are more telling than you may think. I know that Glenn of Matt would say something like “it is a metaphor for fighting for the truth” or something similar… but of all the possible metaphors they could have chosen (a man winning a race/a wrestler/a naked man jumping from a bath/a politician winning a debate/ etc etc) BOTH of them chose a gun. Ken: do you know of any atheist/humanist websites that have used a deadly weapon as a symbol to represent their effort to spread (their version of) the truth?

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  19. On a related note did you see that absolutely disgusting cartoon of an atheist debated being shot repeatedly in the head while he lay in a pool of his own blood that Matt had up on his webpage… he removed it I think – but it displayed the same basic mentality that putting an image of himself with a gun displays. I wonder if he is on a terrorist watch list yet?

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  20. Yes, I saw that silly video, Max. I think I may have even commented but it was removed – without any explanation I could see.

    I think it was from one if the off siders they allow to contribute. Perhaps they weren’t vetting these contributions then.

    I don’t know of any atheist or humanist site using such aggressive symbols off hand. Then again I am not familiar with many such sites – not a big interest of mine.

    I know some ultra left groups (and ultra right) use aggressive symbols sometimes.

    Reminds me of the Salvation Army who used to sell their “War Cry” in the pubs. We always knocked them back with a “No thanks, I’m a pacifist!”

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  21. Yes… I was at a Christmas parade one year and there was a salvation army float, and next to it about 6 salvation army men all wearing sunglasses. I said as I walked by them “I just can’t trust a church that dressed up like the gestapo”

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  22. …do you know of any atheist/humanist websites that have used a deadly weapon as a symbol to represent their effort to spread (their version of) the truth?

    I know the question wasn’t directed at me so I apologise in advance but…

    No. I can’t think of a single one. Further, I would be disturbed by such symbolism and would probably comment on it. I don’t approve at all of someone having a gun fetish. I would find it tastless to say the least.

    On the other hand, tideb does have a pen as his logo at the top of his web page.
    As we all know , the pen is mightier than the sword so…clearly tildeb is escalating the violence and deadly weapon theme. ;)

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  23. “Meanwhile we still don’t know why Matt and Glenn have guns featured on their webpages.”

    Richard, that’s only because you don’t read those blogs. if you did, you’d know the answer.

    It’s a bit daft to refuse to read the very source where you’d expect an answer to your question to be given, and yet complain that you don’t know what the answer is. I find that bizarre, I really do.

    It’s a pattern though. people not bothering to try finding an answer to something, so assuming that there isn’t one, or that there’s no good answer. Ah well….

    If you ever want the answer, it’s sitting right out in public for all to see in the blog entry where I discuss that very thing.

    Still, daft!

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  24. I really don’t see the justification in that blurb. In fact the association with guns (and the word “whack” which has horrible connotations) comes across as very unpleasant. And the comment: “I like to ruthlessly “whack” bad ideas (and hopefully promote a few good ones along the way)” comes across as arrogant. Completely divorced from how one determines if an idea is good or bad.

    Still, I guess the image is consistent with your aggressive and hostile attitude in your discussions. Even in this response to what I think was a justified question.

    Now I wonder how Matt justifies his firearms?

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  25. Ken, you mightn;t have warm feelings to the idea of a person deciding for themselves that an idea is a bad one and deciding to “whack” it. But of course, you know as well as anyone that this doesn’t stop you doing the very same thing. After all, you decided that some of Matt’s ideas counted as strawmannery, and as such you’re trying to “whack” them. Does that make you arrogant?

    But it seems even a reasonable explanation is being met with a hostile reception. I have to say Ken, given that I think you’re one of the most hostile commenters ever to have visited my blog, I’m bemused by your comments about hostility. But no matter, a testament to the fact that people are usually virtuous in their own eyes. :)

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  26. Richard Christie

    Glenn, you remind me of Wishart, little respect for truth or accuracy.

    It’s a bit daft to refuse to read the very source where you’d expect an answer to your question to be given, and yet complain that you don’t know what the answer is. I find that bizarre, I really do.

    I asked you about the firearms on your blog, directly and more than once . You refused to answer the question, instead you edited my comments to distort them in order to bolster your own comments.

    Don’t falsely imply that I “refuse” to read your blog. I did so once, and was disgusted at the way you edited and then distorted my comments. It’s hardly likely that I’ll go back.

    I doubt many will find my reaction bizarre.

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  27. “instead you edited my comments to distort them”

    Excuse me? The only times that I ever moderate comments is when they violate my clearly stated blog policy. The policy is reasonable and very easy to follow. If you violated it, then you would have done so willingly. If you’re alleging that I have done more then this then you’re making it up.

    You say that you choose not to visit the blog, fine. But then don’t be amazed if you don’t know why I do things there. It is indeed bizarre to say “I don’t know why Glenn says/does X at his blog” when you state quite clearly that you avoid going to my blog. No need to tell porkies as well.

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  28. Well, I just located the one time when Richard visited my blog: http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2010/how-not-to-do-business/

    Feel free to point out which comment I edited, Richard. Not holding my breath for an apology…

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  29. Richard Christie

    That’s right, that’s the edited version of my comments.
    Edited to remove argument and comment I supplied as to why I was asking the question and why I was doing so in that thread, edited by you so as to make your refusal to answer the question appear more reasonable.
    Disgusting, dishonest tactics.

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  30. Wow… just making it up eh? Your comments are all there, but you resort to this to imply that really you said something insightful, but the evil Glen removed it?

    Maybe you can find an online cached version of your vastly superior comments. Oh wait… you can’t find what doesn’t exist.

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  31. Hey Ken, I don’t know about you – but I have a policy about libel at my blog. Do you require that accusations against people need to be backed up in some way? Or is unsubstantiated accusation OK with you?

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  32. Incidentally, I notice a slow retreat setting in. First it was ““instead you edited my comments to distort them.” Now it’s a more modest claim that I removed some of your comments. What will the next version be? Maybe that nothing happened and you’re making it up, Richard?

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  33. Yes Richard – I have had comments edited and deleted on Glenn’s blog too.

    I think he considers it justified “whacking”.

    And that is the trouble with guns and uncontrolled anger.

    Never had such treatment on Matt’s blog though. Can’t work out why he has a thing about guns though.

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  34. Ken, when I deleted your massive wall of text that you copied and pasted from another person’s website at my blog (i.e. not your own comments) – even when you provided a link to that very same information, I stated immediately that I had done so, and pointed readers to that website that you linked to so that they could read that very large piece of writing for themselves as I didn’t think it appropriate for it to be reproduced at my blog. I explained at the time what i was doing and why.

    Other than that, I have not removed your comments from my blog, and you know this full well.

    To now use this fact to lend support to Richard’s claim that I secretly edit people’s comments to make them less effective is as dishonest as Richard himself. A bit of a pattern here, it seems.

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  35. And “that is the trouble with guns”

    Wow… Random linkage of ideas. Yeah… obviously, because editing blog posts is exactly what’s wrong with guns. Whatever you’re on, I don’t want any.

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  36. Funny thing though, Glenn, I actually enjoy being “whacked” by you. It gives me some laughs – although the word does have unpleasant connotations regarding guns. I guess I would worry if this was the USA.

    But I have the honour of being “whacked” alongside some great people like Galileo (remember your “Galileo was wrong!” posts), Richard Dawkins (such a nice man), Stephen Hawking (I wish I had his writing skills), our NZ climate scientists and indeed climate scientists in general (I guess you are a bit ashamed of those posts now).

    Although I must admit you whacked those people quite gratuitously. In my case I have had to do a little provocation. But you are easily provoked.

    Just as well those guns are really just am affectation in this country.

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  37. climate scientists in general (I guess you are a bit ashamed of those posts now)

    You’d think there would be quite a few people felling a bit silly about that episode, but I guess having laid their biases so bare it’s hard for them to back track.

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  38. Max Whitaker

    Ken and Richard. I offer the vital third witness to your case against Glenn. I too have had my comments on Glenn’s blog altered to give them new meaning. Are we ALL liars Glenn? Or are you?

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  39. Hi Ken, I thought it was just me. :-)

    Great to see Glenn over here too. I wonder where Peter Byrom is ?

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  40. Ken and Richard. I offer the vital third witness to your case against Glenn. I too have had my comments on Glenn’s blog altered to give them new meaning. Are we ALL liars Glenn? Or are you?

    Never seen a trifecta before.
    :O
    Getting rid of spam I can understand. Sheer bad language and abuse? I can see that. Yet editing comments to cast the poster in a bad light is pathetic.
    Look like this is most definitely not a one-time thing but a nasty habit.
    I’m very glad Ken has higher standards.

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