"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

“I disapprove of what you say, but..."

The breakout of riots, violence and murder throughout the Middle East in response to the anti Islamic film “innocence of Muslims” has shone a spotlight once again on the rights and responsibilities of free speech in democratic countries and the extent to which the reactionary nature of Islam should be allowed to impose its own boundaries upon those who do not share its beliefs and taboos.
I would say from the outset that I have not seen the film at the heart of the current controversy and on the basis of reports feel no inclination to do so. There seems to be a general consensus that as well as being amateurish, made with actors co-opted under false pretences and subsequently overdubbed it is also inaccurate and deliberately designed to enflame and enrage members of the Islamic faith. However it is also clear that however egregious and lacking in merit the film may be, the engendered response is far in excess of anything that should or will be tolerated by western democracies.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that religions, when allowed to impose their orthodoxy on a population will resort to the most violent of punishments for any criticism of its gods, prophets or articles of faith. This was true of Christianity during the middle ages and it is certainly true of a large part of the Islamic world today. It is easy in the west to forget that Islam is in effect still stuck in the mindset of its own cultural middle ages where it has festered in a bubble of theocratic protection and isolation from the reforms of the enlightenment and progress in human thought and human rights.
For many Muslims the idea that a country like the U.S.A could have unfettered freedom of expression built into its constitution, allowing almost anything including racist hate speech to be expressed in the public sphere is a massive culture shock. It is, to them, insufficient reason for the legal protection of a person who would be at best prosecuted and at worst executed for defaming Mohammed and their religion in such a way in an Islamic society. U.K law has caveats and restrictions on the extent of free speech that would probably have allowed the film’s producer to be prosecuted here. But the fact that this film is so insulting and that freedom of speech is so protected in America is not the whole story. For one thing Islam (that is some Muslims) has shown an ability to become outraged over criticisms that in the west we would not even have to tax our brains to defend. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ for example, which presents a fictional alternative history of Mohammed’s “revelation” in the context of magical realism, or the Dutch cartoons, or Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’ about women in Islam. Even a recent Channel 4 documentary questioning the accuracy of the accepted history of Islam attracted sufficient criticism to alert Ofcom.
We must not let ourselves get distracted by the idea that a particularly mean minded bit of film on the Internet seems to be the present cause of events. Partly because there are other political and historical tensions at play here, but mainly because Islamists want the west to feel the need to treat their religion with kid gloves, they want us to be afraid to make the slightest criticism however valid or pertinent. They want, in short, to be able to protect their faith from rational enquiry lest it be found wanting and the hegemony broken.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Eric Pickles reminds us we are all Christians in Britain

Eric Pickles has a piece in the Telegraph this week about how we are a Christian nation and how it’s good for society and how it shapes our morals and blah blah blah! It’s a bunch of pious nonsense that relies on the old tropes of Christians as victims of “aggressive secularism” that completely ignores the unwarranted privilege we still award to this state sponsored superstition.

Eric Pickles

Christianity in all its forms has shaped the heritage, morality and public life of Britain; and Christian belief continues to influence our society for the better.
“Christianity in all its forms” Really? are we including the Puritan witch hunts here, or the Catholic inquisitions? Are we including Irish sectarianism? I will grant that certain liberal interpretations of Christianity are very much on a par with the moral sentiments of the British people at large, but the influence is in the other direction. Christianity’s putative tolerance and inclusiveness (confined to a particular strain of Anglo-catholicism incidentally and not a feature of Christianity otherwise) is derived from the civilising and moderating influence of the enlightenment and secular morality, without which it would be imposing its intolerance and excercising its control unchecked.
Christians continue to be positively involved in public life, from the role of Anglican bishops in scrutinising legislation in the House of Lords
Yes they do: why is that? What is it that gives twenty-six purveyors of sophisticated fairy tales the right to pronounce on the laws and policies of a democratic nation. Let’s stop them doing that shall we?
Religion is the foundation of the modern British nation: the Reformation is entwined with British political liberty and freedoms, the King James Bible is embedded in our language and literature, and the popular celebrations of the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee placed the Church side by side with our constitutional monarchy.
For a start the Reformation in Britain (more properly in England) had a lot more to do with Henry V111’s sexual and financial ambitions than it did to political liberty and freedoms. In fact when the Church of England did emerge other reformist groups were penalised and the Catholic Church was made illegal. Again it is secularism that protects political and religious freedoms, not religion.
As the for the King James Bible, sure some of the more florid and poetic passages have entered and enriched the English lexicon, so has Shakespeare and Chaucer, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the sayings of Confucius. So what? Just because this particular translation of the bible, which in any event was more a political and literary exercise than a divine one, has spawned a million clich├ęs doesn’t make it a foundational document or morally relevant.
Pointing out that royal events are associated with the monarchy is circular reasoning par excellence . We have a constitutional monarchy and a constitutional religion, of course they coincide, the rules are set up that way.
To suggest that Christians in our country are literally persecuted would be to demean the suffering of those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death. We should, however, recognise that long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion have been undermined in recent years by aggressive secularism, especially in the more politically correct parts of the public sector.
Well I’m glad that Eric Pickles understands the difference between persecution and legitimate criticism but it’s a shame he doesn’t make the distinction between freedoms and privileges. Once again secularists are “aggressive” for trying to maintain religious neutrality in government and public life. But, what are these freedoms we are so aggressively denying Christians?
We are committed to the right of Christians and people of other beliefs to follow their faith openly, including by praying in public and promoting their beliefs – as well as wearing religious symbols. Employers, especially in the public sector, should not stop employees wearing visible religious symbols except where there is a common-sense reason, such as a genuine safety risk. Banning discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness is not acceptable. We should challenge the nonsense that religious displays could “cause offence” and therefore should be hidden from view.
Ah! This again, because of course Christians all over the country are being prevented from praying and wearing crosses and crucifixes for no reason other than it might "cause offense". As pointed out before, none of the recent stories involving religious attire have been anything other than about resricting jewellery for practical or corporate policy reasons, and as far as I know people can pray in public wherever they like on their own time and this “aggressive” secularist has no desire to stop them. However…
 We have resisted a legal challenge by the intolerant National Secular Society to ban town hall prayers. We have changed the law to safeguard and entrench the right of councillors to pray at the start of council meetings should they wish, as has been the British tradition for centuries.
…this I do object to. Praying to Jesus at council meetings is not the freedom to pray in public, it is privileging one religious worldview over others on taxpayers' time and money, it excludes the many people in all communities who have either no interest in the Christian God or who actively appeal to other deities. Christian councillors who want to make public affirmations of their Christian belief are free to do so on their own time and out of their own pockets, but not on my dime thank-you very much. It may have been a “British tradition for centuries” but that was in the days when being religious and Christian was a default position (largely because we didn’t know any better) and before significant portions of our society were Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Druids, Jews,Jedis, Jains, Buddhists, Hindus etc.
Talking of which
The interpretation of human rights laws cuts both ways: just as we have resisted gold-plating made in the name of religion, so we must resist spurious legal challenges against religion. Nor should we allow equality laws to open the door to moral relativism and reduce established religion to the equivalent status of any other belief. We should not be bashful about asserting that the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church have a greater role to play in the public life of our nation than the Church of Elvis or the Church of Scientology.
And why not? It sounds a reasonable argument when you frame it in terms of Elvis and Scientology, both obviously made up religions, but where do you draw the line.? Mormonism is a made up fringe religion, but claims to be Christian, do LDS groups not get a say? There are many pagan groups out there following made up versions of older religions, what about them? Or the Calvinist protestant traditions that made up their theology of presuppositionalism when it split from Roman Catholicism, do they count? What about the Muslims and the Jews and and the Hindus, many from the regions of former British Empire, why should we not value their viewpoints?
I know this is a reductio absurdum but the point is all religions are made up, some of them were just made up longer ago than others and the fact that we have traditionally followed (or enforced) one religion over another is no reason to continue to do so.
We live in a society that contrary to the rhetoric of conservatives, is more inclusive, more tolerant, more peaceful and more equal than ever. It has not got this way because of Christianity: the last bastions of state approved bigotry are only still there because the Church is fighting reform tooth and nail, as it did against abolition of the slave trade and universal sufferage. We are not the nation we are because we are a Christian nation, but in spite of it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pro-choice and pro-abortion

Largely ignored by the U.K media, American Republican Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rapes” and his poorly informed opinion that women rarely get pregnant from them have once again put abortion centre stage in the culture wars of the U.S.A.
All of this is part of the wider debate about contraception and abortion provision under ‘Obamacare’ and the bleating of the Christian right and Catholic Bishops about maintaining religious freedom privilege. But actually there is a danger of the pro-choice side of the abortion debate being backed into an ideological corner if they allow the concept of “legitimate” reasons, rape or otherwise, to become part of the argument.
If asked where I stand on this issue, my response is usually “pro–abortion” rather than pro-choice as not only does the former imply the latter it is a stronger statement about the right of a woman to choose. To be pro-abortion is to imply not only that a woman who wants a termination should be able to have one, but also that having one is the correct and moral thing to do if she wants one.
The problem with arguing with the incongruously named pro-life lobby about whether abortion is warranted on the grounds of rape is to miss the point entirely. A woman, if she is to enjoy autonomy over her own body and reproduction should be able to abort a pregnancy, certainly an early term one, for whatever reason she likes. Whether she was raped, had a one-night stand or a contraceptive failure with her long time partner is irrelevant. If she finds herself to be pregnant and she doesn’t want to be, she should be able to terminate that pregnancy without having to justify that decision to anyone else
To insist that a conceptus, blastocyst or early foetus has rights that trump the rights of a conscious adult to her own body is not only ludicrous it is deeply immoral if human rights and gender equality are to have any meaning whatsoever. The science is clear that such abortions are not the murder of sentient human beings and stripped of unwarranted religious assertions of ‘ensoulment’ and similar unverifiable nonsense need carry no stigma or shame whatsoever. It would, in fact, be more reasonable to question the ethicality of bringing an unwanted pregnancy to term
I am in sympathy with the principle that the longer a pregnancy is allowed to progress the more justification is required for termination. But at the point where a woman becomes aware that she is pregnant no other justification than her own desire need count and it seems to me that the less stigma there is attached to that decision, the earlier a woman is likely to make it. Late term abortions are usually only performed on medical grounds as it is, but even here the principle that the woman’s right to health supersedes the foetus’ right to be born should not be sacrificed to some deontological presumption that abortion is an intrinsic evil that should only ever happen in extremis.
Pandering to the politically correct labels of pro-life and pro-choice is an unnecessary confusion. By being pro-abortion you can affirm that it is not only a choice, but a morally neutral choice that will not allow the anti-abortion lobby to hide behind obnoxious concepts like “legitimate rape”.