Monthly Archives: September 2012

The most important place you didn’t know about

Book review: Ice, Mice and Men: The Issues Facing Our Far South by Geoff Simmons & Gareth Morgan

Price: NZ$35; Epub/Mobi NZ$15.
ISBN: 9780987666628
Barcode: 9780987666628
Published: 12 July 2012 by Public Interest Publishing Ltd

Antarctica brings to mind nature documentaries and penguins. Beautiful snowscapes and adventure. Maybe even of science and scientists working in harsh conditions.

But what about its ecological and political importance? Well, some climate change deniers/contrarians/sceptics/cranks have lately turned their attention to Antarctica in an attempt to “balance” the record breaking summer ice loss in the Arctic. I guess that’s a start – but what role do the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean really play in climate change. What about its natural resources and unique species? What are the governance issues – so many countries are interested in the area and many have a presence? And what does this all mean for New Zealand?

The first figure in this book (see below) shows our political and economic territorial interests in this area and suggest why we should perhaps pay more attention. Especially as the rest of the world is.

Territory of our Far South (All figures from book)

But there is also climate change – which interests all of us. Geoff Simmons & Gareth Morgandescribe the Southern ocean as:

“the engine room of the global ocean, and of the world’s climate. That is what many of us don’t realise and in our ignorance we’re complacent about the changes it is undergoing.”

So it’s about time the world, and New Zealand in particular, learned more about this region because the political, economic and ecological changes will eventually effect all of us. That makes this book very timely.

The book proves to be successful in its aim. It provides a very readable overview of the important issues: the history of the region; its resources and the battle to exploit them; international governance – the nature of the treaties covering the region and their problems; the ecology of the region – the threats to rare species, management of fisheries and problems with introduced species; climate change – the key role of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) in circulating nutrients around the world’s oceans and as an important sink for heat and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Climate change

The book describes the formation of the ACC this way:

“Some 34 million years ago, Australia and Zealandia separated from Antarctica, and along with a mobile South America created a passage of deep water all the way around the Southern Hemisphere. The opening of this last gap, between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula (known as the Drake Passage) allowed the westerly winds and currents an unimpeded romp around the globe. This accident of geography created the world’s greatest current system – the ACC. And it was the inauguration of the ACC that directly contributed to a massive shift in the Earth’s climate from hot to cold, . . “

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current –
The ACC area is shaded orange (All figures from book)

This current, together with churning of the sea by wind, resulted in removal of carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere as well as transport of nutrients from the sea bed. The result, a cooling of the global climate, appearance of ice sheets in Antarctica, and a key role for the ACC in nutrient supply to the world oceans. As the authors say: without the ACC “we would have a much warmer planet, which means higher sea levels, and less land – and frankly, it’s quite likely we wouldn’t exist.”

The key role of the ACC in global climate, the world’s weather systems and insulation of the Antarctica continues today. The churning of sea by the wind and the low temperature of the water enables the current to carry heat and CO2 to middle depths and transport them around the world. The result: “40% of the carbon stored in the ocean is taken in between 30 degrees south and 50 degrees south.”

The ACC needs to be monitored closely – it’s important and climate change seems to be changing the workings of the ACC itself. There have been changes of wind and current speed and of location of the ACC which could have global consequences

Simmons and  Morgan summarise it this way:

Our Far South “is a place of incalculable importance to New Zealand and to the entire world. The ecosystem, climate and the actions of humankind are irrevocably intertwined – maybe here more than anywhere else on the planet. . . having a continent on our southern pole, surrounded by ocean and carrying an immense quantity of ice is part of what makes our planet’s current climate so hospitable”

Even from the perspective of climate change alone we need to be more aware of what is happening in our Southern Oceans.


Although the sea floor of the Ross Sea and similar places are exceptions, most of Our Far south is not very diverse biologically. This makes it sensitive to losses of even a few species. Differences between the Southern Ocean and Northern Hemisphere add to this sensitivity. For example the lack of land mean there are no terrestrial sources of iron, no dust blowing of deserts. Algae require iron and even trace amounts make a huge difference to biological production. Circulation of nutrients to the global ocean by the ACC means conservation and study of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica is important. Unfortunately scientific research is under pressure to support commercial exploitation of the resources, rather than conservation.

One area New Zealand scientists has had success is in eradication of introduced pests from islands to our south. And this work is continuing. One of the authors, Gareth Morgan, supports this work through a charitable trust. So it’s fitting that he gives an invitation to readers at the end of the book:

“If you would like to help make a difference to Our Far South you can contribute to the Million Dollar Mouse project at”

The rush to exploit resources

Antarctica and the Southern Oceans have probably fared better than the Arctic region in the race for territory and resources. Nevertheless, there has been a rush here and New Zealand has contributed to this, as well as benefited from it:

“Thanks to our rapacious sealing, whaling and farming in the subantarctic islands (a legacy from which they are still recovering), New Zealand was able to secure sovereignty over those rocky isles. This in turn gained us one of the largest areas of EEZ (Extended Economic Zone) in the world.

I am old enough to remember the scientific activity and the cooperative spirit behind it during the International Geophysical Year in 1957. This enthusiasm provided political support for an international agreement on management of Antarctica and a Treaty was signed in 1959.

The Antarctic Treaty temporarily resolved territorial disputes on that continent by agreeing to disagree over sovereignty. This Treaty has proved incredibly successful at ensuring the continent is dedicated to peace and science. This is in our interest: we are just too small to get into a turf war. It left New Zealand with the Ross dependency. That, together with our EEZ, one of the largest in the world, and our extended continental shelf (see first figure) makes us an important player in the region, politically and economically. But the Treaty simply froze the status quo from the 1950s and the balance of world power is changing.

Of course this means New Zealand also has huge responsibilities in the political future of the region and exploitation of its natural resources. We really should be paying more attention here.

Whaling, and the threat of extinction to some species, has reached the attention of the New Zealand public which has an awareness of its relevance to our region and the Southern Ocean. While international negotiation and political protest action concentrate on whaling itself, and those nations which still kill whales, there is also a threat to whales in the region from climate change. The subtle change in nutrient flows influence the populations of species which whales feed on.

Many of us are also vaguely conscious of an ongoing struggle between conversation and exploitation of fish in Our Far South.* This is hugely controversial because science is used to manage fisheries, but also to exploit the same fisheries. It’s often hard to know who is winning – but most of us suspect commercial and not conservation interests prevail. On the other hand it is true that sensible conservation must often allow for controlled exploitation.

Toothfish in the Southern oceans has been very much in the news lately. Some scientists are very critical of it’s commercial exploitation because so little is known about the species. However, others believe it to be one of New Zealand’s  success stories. The authors discuss the controversy and their sympathies lie with the fisheries. They say

“Our fishing industry is by no means perfect, but the toothfish fishery really is an example of them at their best”

Despite the success of the Antarctic Treaty it does present problems because of the presence of so many countries and interests in the region and unresolved differences over sovereignty. The book discusses these current problems as well as the future problems we must grapple with as treaties and agreements are renegotiated.


This book provides an excellent resource for information on the Southern Oceans, our subarctic islands and Antarctica. It will provide students and layperson New Zealanders with an access to wide-ranging material on the history, politics, economics, ecology and natural and mineral resources of the region. References provide avenues for deeper study.

But it’s also very readable. There is an absolute minimum of technical language – and what there is often gets treated with humour. Mind you, it’s Kiwi humour so some overseas readers may miss the occasional digs against the Aussies.

Some advice for the reader, though. I read this book on an eReader and learned again that such devices are currently not always suitable for technical books, even those written in a popular style like this one. In this case only because many of the figures are colour coded. I can see a real need for colour eInk screens in eReaders – which can’t be far off anyway. And tablets such as the iPad are ideal for this book.

In summary, this book is important because it’s about an important region of the world which influences the globe. It’s especially important for New Zealanders because it’s our backyard – we have territorial rights to large parts of it. And finally it’s important because most of us, including most New Zealanders, are ignorant of the important role it plays.  It’s the most important place you didn’t know about.

Fortunately this readable and informative book will help overcome that problem.

*See also:
Prime TV: The Last Ocean  Next Tuesday 8:30 pm
“The Ross Sea, Antarctica, is the most pristine stretch of ocean on Earth. But the fishing industry is targeting the lucrative Antarctic toothfish, and unless stopped, will destroy its ecosystem.”

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A useful map of the human body

Here’s an interesting idea – a human body map along the schematic lines of Metro or Subway maps. I came across it somewhere on Twitter.


The paradoxes of theological gullibility

Dr Maarten Boudry

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher I will certainly read more of. His review of Alvin Plantinga‘s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, get’s right to the point – and clearly. Boudry responds to Plantinga’s argument that scientific theories need no more justification than logical possibility:

“But if the bar for rational belief is lowered to mere logical possibility, and the demand for positive evidence dropped, then no holds are barred. Evolution (or gravity, plate tectonics, lightning, for that matter) could as well be directed by space aliens, Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster.”

My feelings exactly. Philosophers like Plantinga should be kept well away from science. “Remarkably,” as Boudry comments, Plantinga’s “entirely gratuitous suggestion has received the support of no less a philosophers than Elliot Sober.” Perhaps scientists have really got to work harder to get through to some philosophers just what the scientific process really is.

Boudry’s review is online at Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?

I am impressed with Maaten Boudry’s clear thinking and clear writing. But, Jerry Coyne at Evolution is True reveals that Boudry can also write very unclearly and express ideas which are, to say the least, muddled (see A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher). But only as a joke.

Boudry wrote and submitted abstract on sophisticated theology to two theological conferences using an invented name (Robert A. Maundy) and institutional affiliation (College of the Holy Cross). Despite the abstract being a load of old rubbish it was quickly accepted at both conferences.

This brings to mind the Sokal Hoax in which Alan Sokal, a Physics professor at New York University  submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. His paper was ” liberally salted with nonsense, . .   sounded good and . . .  flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” It was a parody on post-modernism and despite being rubbish was published.

Boudry’s paper is:

The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.
Robert A. Maundy,  College of the Holy Cross, Reno, Nevada

Jerry has reproduced the abstract in full – go to his blog to read it. It includes little gems like:

“By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility.”

And finishes with:

“Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself. Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around, as crude materialists such as Dawkins suggest.”

I think Jerry sums it up succinctly when he says:

“I defy you to understand what he’s saying, but of course it appeals to those who, steeped in Sophisticated Theology™, love a lot of big words that say nothing but somehow seem to criticize materialism while affirming the divine. It doesn’t hurt if you diss Dawkins a couple of times, either.

This shows once again the appeal of religious gibberish to the educated believer, and demonstrates that conference organizers either don’t read what they publish, or do read it and think that if it’s opaque then it must be profound.”

Yes, this little trick was probably relatively easy to perpetrate as less care would be taken with acceptance of conference papers than with publication of journal articles. Perhaps there is a challenge there – maybe some devious atheists should write some “Sophisticated Theology™” papers and submit them to the suitable journals.

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The internet – Yeah, right!

Here’s something I picked up on Twitter from Tim Hart (@Timwellspent).

As he said “This is quite brilliant. What The Sun newspaper wrote about the internet 20 years ago.”

Brings back memories.


Thanks to HappyEvilSlosh we have the origin of this page at Hold Ye Front Page. This provides more information on the history of the Internet.

US air traffic on a typical day and on September 11, 2001

Here’s a short video which drives home how busy air traffic is these days – especially in the United States. It presents several representations of air traffic in the US on a normal day – and on September 11 2011 – a very abnormal day.

US Air Traffic on a Typical Day Shows Need for NextGen Air Traffic Control 2012 NASA 6min.

Finish the sentence . . .

I like this idea from Jerry Coyne (see OMG: Jesus was married!)

Here’s the problem. This old scrap of papyrus refers to Jesus – Unfortunately bits are missing and the conversation is cut off at an intriguing point.

Apparently it goes:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

So here’s the question – what do you suggest comes after “wife?”

Jerry, having the one track mind of an evolutionary biologist, suggests:

“. . . is unable to bear children because, being haploid, I am unable to produce sperm.”

What do you reckon?

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People saying stupid things on the Internet

I saw this young Muslim women on the TV news last night. She was demonstrating against the US over that silly video. The interview asked her _”but don’t you believe in freedom of expression.

Her answer – “Yes, but not when it comes to religion!”

My response – grow up!

That’s why I like this little skit on the current situation (thanks to YouTube video mocking Atheism greeted with global disinterest by Atheists).-  I think there are some lessons in it:

A YouTube video mocking followers of science and those who discount the probability of omnipotent deity, has resulted in complete indifference throughout the Atheist community.

Theist comments on the video claim that the video will see “atheists burning down churches the world over!” have been met with blank stares by people who consider themselves ‘atheist’.

Non-believer Simon Williams told us, “I’m not sure what reaction they were expecting, but I’m afraid people saying stupid things on the Internet doesn’t really bother me.”

“What with me being a grown adult and everything. Tantrums haven’t really been my thing since puberty.”

“Do I want to kill the people behind it? No, of course not.”

“Though I would like to give them a few science lessons that didn’t end with the conclusion ‘God must have done it’.”

“But I’m not hopeful.”

Youtube video protests

The maker of the video has gone into hiding claiming that Atheist disinterest in his film has infringed his religious freedoms.

The unnamed producer explained, “It says quite clearly in a passage of one of my holy books – a passage that is definitely open to interpretation in the way that I want – that I must take the fight to non-believers – and yet here you all are refusing to fight.”

“You are oppressing my religious freedom to claim religious oppression.”

“What will it take?! Why can’t you at least throw a rock at me or something?”

“It’s almost like you’re suppressing the evil inside each of you in order not to look like dicks.”

“I’m guessing you get the strength from the Devil himself.”

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Another anti-science attack on Mann fails – but the lies continue

Michael Mann

Once again legal action by climate change deniers/contrarian/cranks has failed. In the US attempts by the  American Tradition Institute, a climate change denial think tank, to obtain personal emails and documents from  the University of Virginia. These documents belong to well known climate scientist Michael Mann and the court action was part of a fishing expedition by climate change deniers to repeat the “climategate” scandal. To obtain emails from which cherry-picked material could be used in the ongoing campaign to discredit climate scientists. See University of Virginia prevails against climate science attack groupfor further information on this case.

But Michael Mann is certainly the scientist that the climate change deniers/contrarians/cranks love to hate. Just recently I was assured by a local climate change deniers/contrarian/crank that Michael Mann had been thoroughly discredited. That his so-called Hockey Stick image, which had appeared in the 2nd to last IPCC review (AR3) had been dropped from the most recent IPPC review (AR4). This local denier/contrarian/crank asserted, for example:

“You’re going to have to come up with someone other than Mann, to be taken seriously.”

“I don’t need to prove Mann wrong, plenty of far better people have already done that.”

“Mann has been so often deprecated he is without authority.”

“The Mann saga is over, even the IPCC has dropped Mann’s hockey stick graph.”

This attempt to discredit Mann and his work is a lie – but its not a new lie. It’s one I had dealt with almost three years ago in my post Climate change deniers’ tawdry manipulation of “hockey sticks”. I am repeating that post here, with slight amendments. Hopefully this will at least lead to some climate change sceptic who may have accepted that lie getting some of the real facts.

The “infamous, discredited” hockey stick

The charge is:

“Mann’s hockey stick has been thoroughly discredited and the IPCC has dropped it from its reports.”

But it’s simple enough to check the IPCC reports – they are on-line for all to see. If you do check you will find this figure below in the 2007 reports. The original data from Mann (MBH 1999) is included with, of course, more recent data. Here is the reference for anyone doubting my claim – Figure 6.10, page 467,  Chapter 6: Palaeoclimate,The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), WG I The Physical Science Basis.

And far from this work being “thoroughly discredited” or abandoned, it has been expanded with more, recent, data. The graph below is from Mann’s 2008 paper (Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia).

National research Council report vindicates Mann

In this paper Mann was responding to suggestions made by the National Research Council in its report  Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years. This thorough and rigorous investigation formed part of US House of Representatives Committee hearings on Mann’s “hockey stick” figure arising from criticisms made by climate change sceptics. It is very authoritative.

Anyone who has ever had their work reviewed knows that a reviewer worth their salt will always find your weaknesses and suggest amendments, even though they endorse your work. And climate changer deniers/contrarians/cranks have hunted out the criticisms, taken them out of context and are usually well versed in those cherry-picked quotes. They must be repeated ad nauseum in those unreliable books deniers rely on as sources. But the fact is the National Research Council report basically supported Mann’s findings:

“The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on ice caps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years.”

In fact the NRC produced their own “hockey stick,” using more than just Mann’s data, in the report (see figure below):

Lord Monckton’s lies about the “hockey Stick”

These false assertions on the “hockey stick” graph are, unfortunately, very common. It’s one bit of mudslinging that has found purchase with most deniers repeating the lie. Even some sceptics believe the story.

Lord Mockton has been a prolific propagator of this lie. He even appears in the infamous “climategate” emails saying of the “hockey stick”: “the US National Academy of Sciences has described as having “a validation skill not significantly different from zero”. In plain English, this means the graph was rubbish.”

Problem is – search through the NRC report and you just won’t find those words (“a validation skill not significantly different from zero”). Nevertheless this allegation has been repeated innumerable numbers of times in conservative newspapers and websites. Some of these also claim that the IPCC had abandoned the data (see for example the policy Brief from the Commonwealth foundation – Climate & Penn State – demanding a McCarthyist-style investigation of Mann). But even Mockton acknowledges that the UN continues to use the defective graph.”

I guess it just makes a good story so these conservative sources tack it on. But  where is the integrity in that?

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See also:
Journalist thinks world climate-science publications are controlled by cabal
Analysis of stolen CRU emails by NZ blogger shows tawdry manipulation of facts – Poneke’s credibility now in tatters — Hot Topic


Secularism – its internal problems

Book Review: How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by James Berlinerblau

Price: US$15.29
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 11, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0547473346
ISBN-13: 978-0547473345

Secularism makes the headlines these days – if only because of attacks on it by militant religionists. So I welcome media articles and books which help counter this misrepresentation. It’s necessary to encourage the proper understanding of what exactly secularism is and why “far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, is its guarantor”.

Berlinerblau describes secularism as “a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways.” Especially by today’s “Christian ‘outrage machine.'”

So it’s worth quoting in a little detail Berlinerblau’s own definitions of secularism:

“Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion and (2) a state’s need to maintain order. . . it may create or actualize certain dispositions and world-views in us all. Foremost among these are the “secularish” qualities, such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and a willingness to be self-critical about one’s own faith.

It ensures that your child is not forced to join a “voluntary” prayer circle in the school cafeteria.

And if you fancy being able to think about God in any way you see fit, then once again, a little gratitude is in order. This type of freedom is secularism’s essence. This is secularism’s promise. This is the end to which all genuine secularisms aspire.”

But, my feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand Berlinerblau does clarify the meaning of secularism and criticises those who use the word too loosely. He also delves into the history of secularism in the USA and proposes his own advice on the future strategy and tactics required by the US secularist “movement.” On the other hand I have doubts about the historical accuracy of some of his claims. And while there may be value in some of his suggested tactics, I think the advice sufferers from his own ideological biases and his idealisation of the concept of a secular “movement.”

Atheists need to pay attention

While Berlinerblau criticises the extreme distortion of secularism by strident Christians and other religionists he also takes a well-deserved biff at those atheists who often uses secular as another adjective for atheist. Sure, I can understand the need, particularity in the USA, to make use of words other than “atheist”, given its demonisation. But it does no good to co-opt “secular” – especially as this plays right into the hands of the religious militants and the “Christian ‘outrage machine'” who want to equate “secular” with “atheist.” It’s bad enough when those people play the old “bait and switch” trick. When they take text using the inclusive meaning of secular (neutral about religious belief) and dishonestly argue assuming it means atheist. But atheists who use “secular” as meaning “atheist” or non-religious” only fuel militant religious arguments against secularism.

So we should criticise anyone who uses the term “secular” in such a misleading way – especially in the names of organisation or benign references to people, organisation or media. On the other hand, the English language is full of confusing words and people should always take context into account. No amount of action from “language Nazis” can really influence common usage. Nor will our arguments instil sudden honesty into those religious militants and leaders intent on maintaining their privilege. Perhaps we just have to carefully make out context clear when we use these words.

History of secularism

I won’t comment on how accurate the author’s presentation of the history of secularism in the US is. Its outside my areas of expertise. I do think he makes interesting comments relevant to the tactics of people today wishing to prevent undemocratic encroachment of religion into government and state issues. But my concern is that Berlinerblau’s presentation of the history of secularism in the USSR and of the current attitudes of the so-called “New Atheist” is just not objective.

Quoting Stalin on “reactionary clergy” when he says “Anti-religious propaganda is the means that ought to bring to a head the liquidation of the reactionary clergy.”  Berlinerblau adds “Liquidating clergy? Needless to say, this is not a legitimate aspiration of secularism.” No, but he should recognise that “liquidation” of hostile, even armed, reactionary elements – in terms of removal from power and influence – is the “legitimate (even if undemocratic) requirement” for a regime that wishes to stay in power after a bloody civil war. And yes, sometimes that liquidation became physical as well as political.

Berlinerblau’s error in equating political and military actions during an extreme period of social upheaval with “legitimate aspiration of secularism” make me a bit suspicious of all the history he presents.

Personally I think the experience of religious groups after the 1917 revolution up to the present is a rich area which could teach us a lot. It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.

After the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil war all political organisations, except the Communist Party were made illegal. The outstanding exception was the Orthodox Church – a little surprising as it had lined up against the revolution and had previously supported Tsarism. The new regime obviously accommodated the church, seminaries operated during much of the time and priests were even members of the Supreme Soviet. Clearly, as the only legal political organisation, the Communist Party would have included members of all sorts of ideology and religious belief – it was the only way to take part generally in society. I think that, and the integration of the Communist Party into state and commercial structures helped decide the relatively peaceful transition to the post-communist society. It probably also influenced the nature of post-communist institutions and power.

In particular – I think there is a fascinating story behind the current Russian power structures with strong influence from a nationalistic Orthodox Church and the security forces on the one hand, and the roles and situations of these organisations before 1990 on the other.

Still, Berlinerblau history of secularism in the USSR has some value and his comments on secularism without democracy are worth consideration for the lessons they provide. They seem especially relevant to the current struggles in the Middle East where undemocratic secular regimes are being swept aside by the very religious forces they were meant to control. They were not able to solve the problems presented by militant religions and surely do not represent the future we wish to see for secularism in the West.

Then again the political situations and maturity of the various political and religious forces are very different. As are the societies themselves. So the history of secularism in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes maybe interesting but is of little relevance to our political situations. Despite the attempts of the local religious extremists to paint today’s democratic secularism in the colours of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (let’s not mention Hitler).

Those nasty “New Atheists”

This is a major obstacle for me. If an author presents an obviously distorted, and motivated, description of current phenomena we are familiar with, what trust can you place on their presentation of, and interpretation of, past histories? And what value can you see in the strategy and tactics they advocate for supporters of secularism today? Very relevant because the book is a “Call to Arms.”

Berlinerblau declares he desires that “secularists and atheists can pursue their legitimate and worthy agendas and work together when their interests overlap (which is often).” However, he belongs to the groups of non-believers who think that vocal atheists should STFU. Which makes me think his valid request for atheists not to equate “secularism” with” atheism” sometimes transforms into a wish for atheists not to be too public about their presence in any secularist movement, or in their demand for secularist policies. I wonder if that is what really motivates his desire to “disarticulate secularism from atheism.”

This agenda also prevents him from understanding lessons drawn by others. He ridicules the point made by Richard Dawkins and others that even “mild and moderate religion . . helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” I think it’s a valid point but Berlinerblau’s agenda-driven misunderstanding raises questions in my mind about his objectivity and ability to understand issues he deals with. How does he possible get to this?:

“Surely a school of thought that can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism.”

This distortion reveals his wish to exclude vocal atheists from his secular “movement” – purely because they are vocal (he describes it as  “sound and fury”). As does his assertion:

“It is very clear that extreme atheists would rather that the church not exist, and this makes their inclusion in the secular camp problematic. New Atheists tend to make grand rhetorical gestures toward that goal, though little indicates they seriously plan on bringing their ideas to fruition. We now turn to some extreme atheists who did precisely that.”

This is followed by his chapter “How not to be secular” where he considers the experience of the USSR! Isn’t that “gleefully tarring” today’s vocal atheists with the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot” myth? (I am borrowing a term he used in the book against these vocal atheists).

I think this emotive reaction to vocal atheism displays a political naivety that undermines his “call to arms”. How can we build an inclusive secular movement by excluding important sections  – just because these people are vocal about their beliefs and understandings? After all, it is the nature of beliefs that people keep them despite uniting in the common actions. Unity of action does not mean denial of freedom of belief or removal of political rights and freedom of expression.

Do we need “manifestos” or honest appraisal of political realities?

I disagree with Berlinerblau’s apparent assumption that we need a “Secular Movement” – for which his book is a “Call to arms.” Politics is rarely that simple – especially when unity of action  from diverse groups around abstract aims is involved. Personally I see that issues will be dealt with and resolved on an ad hoc basis. People will unite and act on specific demands, often local and not national issues. Even where they are motivated by grander concepts such as freedom of (and from) religion, equal rights and opposition to discrimination.

Also participants in a (lower case) secular “movement” bring their own understandings, ideas and skill to that movement. We are not rank and file soldiers unquestioningly following a “Call to arms.” Some people are activists, others are armchair supporters. Some people will follow a lead, others will lead. Some people are preoccupied with today’s struggles, others have longer term vision and aims.

That is why I think Berlinerblau and others who rant against today’s vocal atheists make a big mistake. They try to fit everyone into their own concept of what an atheist should be without recognising the reality faced by today’s atheists. There are a multitude of requirements. Unified political action for secularist aims isn’t the only game in town. Another important one is education – consciousness raising. How can atheists take part in a political movement if they don’t even recognise that they are atheists, are afraid to acknowledge that fact or inhibited in their political actions by their social surroundings.

In his rather biased criticism of the “New Atheism” Berlinerblau loses sight of fact that the practical role of Richard Dawkins and some others is consciousness rising for atheism – not coalition building for secularism. Concentration on consciousness raising does not mean opposition to coalition building by any means – as a simple reading of pronouncements by these people will make clear.

Frankly, I see consciousness raising as an important factor in any secularist movement. Denial or exclusion of that function, as Berlinerblau appears to want, actually weakens the movement.

And that is my main objection to this book.

Some readers will no doubt find value in the book’s description of the history of secularism in the US and the mistakes it may have made. The history of secularism and religion in the USSR and post communist Russia needs further analysis. (A general criticism of today’s historians as the ideological “perspective of the victor’ makes objectivity difficult). And the history and problems of secularism in authoritarian Middle East state needs further analysis. it’s a topical issue.

The book is of value for those reasons but I don’t think it should be taken as a “Call to arms.”

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Politics and economics of Arctic ice loss

The unprecedented loss of sea ice in the Arctic this northern summer has made the news lately. The images below from the Guardian article Arctic sea ice shrinks to smallest extent ever recorded show the problem.

But this second figure brings it home to me. What we are seeing is the possibility of future commercial sea navigation through the Arctic circle – initially seasonal but eventually throughout the year. And increased exploitation of natural resources. Already major powers are lining up to take advantage of improved access and international political conflicts are emerging.

The article says:

“The shrinking of the ice cap was interpreted by environment groups as a signal of long-term global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. A study published in July in the journal Environmental Research Letters, that compared model projections with observations, estimated that the radical decline in Arctic sea ice has been between 70-95% due to human activities.”

It looks like the first major political and economic effects directly attributable to human caused climate change will probably emerge around the Arctic. And in the not too distant future.

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