"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

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The ECHR couldn't have got this more wrong.

I am, unsurprisingly, a supporter of the European Court of Human Rights. But, this decision to overturn a previous ruling banning the display of crucifixes in Italian schools is wrong, wrong, wrong! In the first place the fallout of the latest decision doesn't just cover Italy, it is binding on all 47 countries that are members of the Council of Europe, which of course includes the U.K. But its reasoning is so illogical as to make me ashamed to be a supporter of this usually rational institution.
For example
11.6 Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify in the constant
central core of Christian faith, despite the inquisition, despite anti-Semitism and
despite the crusades, the principles of human dignity, tolerance and freedom,
including religious freedom, and therefore, in the last analysis, the foundations of the
secular State.
Which is an argument they use to justify a claim that the crucifix is a cultural symbol and not a religious one.
I call bullshit! Despite the inquisition? Despite anti-semitism? What person with any humanity would want to pin their cultural heritage on such a bloody symbol. Let's be clear, the enlightenment, as far as we have it, has no basis in christianity. If anything religion has fought against our instincts to be inclusive and co-operative since Adam was a non existent juvenile.
This is one of the areas where the U.S has a legal defence in the non establishment clause in their constitution. Admittedly it's a battleground over there but the legal precedents exist and can be defended by committed secularists. In Europe, a notionally less theistic region (particularly in the northern countries) those church/state separation clauses are not written into law, which is why bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights should be very, very careful in these cases.
Europe, all of it, is becoming more and more multi-cultural, so this is not about subjecting children to any old religion in the classroom, undesirable as that may be, but about the effect of having specifically Christian symbols around children who identify as Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or any number of other “cultural” religions. It sends a message to these kids that they are “other” and outside of the mainstream culture they find themselves in.
School is not the place for this sort of message and the court has got this badly wrong. I hope there is a route of appeal, this should not be allowed to stand.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The DfE replies to my concerns.

Back in February I wrote to the Department for Education regarding this story about the Everyday Champions Church, based in Newark, Nottinghamshire, who have made an application to open a free school in which evolution will be taught “as a theory”.
Anyway, I got a reply which reads as follows.
Academies and Free Schools will benefit from having freedom over the curriculum they deliver. However, we have been clear that creationism should not form part of any science curriculum or be taught as a scientific alternative to accepted scientific theories. The Department carries out a detailed assessment of the curriculum plans of all proposed Free Schools and we would not approve any proposals where we had concerns or proof that these provided for the teaching of creationism as science or any other areas of the curriculum outside denominational religious education (RE) and collective worship. We expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any such science curriculum. Once again, thank you for writing with your concerns.
Which on the face of it seems fine, but misses the point. Schools like the one Everyday Champions Church want to found, may well submit science curricula that pass muster. They may even be able to resist the temptation to sneak a little “Intelligent Design” in there when nobody is looking. But the fact remains that such a school will not be restrained from undermining the science in the rest of the curriculum. It would be exactly like the situation in some U.S schools where science teachers tell their pupils to learn evolution “as a theory” to pass the exams while making it clear they don’t believe it.
As my original post points out a teacher who does not understand the factual basis on which the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is founded, has no business teaching science. It is not good enough for the government to hope they can insulate science teaching from the rest of the curriculum and ethos of a school. It should actively prevent religious organisations from running free schools, or better still, scrap the whole misconceived notion altogether.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

This is a difficult one...

... a very difficult one! The background to this post is a petition that has been heavily circulated recently on facebook in response to a UK appeal court ruling that says sex offenders should have the right to appeal their inclusion for life on the sex offenders register. The home office rejects this and so understandably do victims and victim support groups of rape victims.
I am going to argue, not so much for the judgement of the court, as against the rational of the supporters of the petition opposing it.
The way the argument is usually framed is in the context of paedophiles who would also benefit from  change in the law. This again is understandable, but unfortunate, as it injects a level of gut revulsion into an argument that needs to be explored in a more thorough and nuanced way. There exists a whole spectrum of sex offenders, from flashers through rapists to paedophiles, and I sequence it in this way to reflect most peoples idea of the severity of the offence. In reality, the courts reflect this hierarchy of unacceptable behaviour in the goal sentences they impose and the length of time offenders are required to sign the sex offender's register.
On the face of it there is some logic to requiring serial rapists or paedophiles to be on the register for life. After all, some pathological sexual behaviour has a very high recidivist rate. The petition itself cites this statistic

If they have killed once, abused a child or viewed indecent images, they will do it again if they think they can get away with it – and they always believe they will. The re-offending rate of a convicted paedophile is estimated at around 70 %
O.K there is no citation or supporting evidence offered for the 70% number, but let's assume it is true. That still leaves 30% of such offenders who consider themselves able to rehabilitate.
As a principle, any penal code in a liberal democracy has to take into account the possibility that any offender has the ability or possibility to reform. That is why all democracies with the regrettable exception of the US no longer contemplate the death penalty, regardless of the crime.
Be assured, the requirements of signing the sex register are not trivial. They have serious impacts on employability, access to education, social interaction, freedom of movement and abode that no reasonable person would accept in a free society and while they may always be applicable to some, it is not equitable to assume they are always appropriate to every sex offender found guilty of even a serious offence at some point in their life.
So, here's the difficult bit: Paedophiles! We all have an understandable and probably justifiable revulsion towards people who exploit children for their own sexual gratification, and I am not here to defend the practice. However, there is a moral dilemma here that is infrequently addressed and is in need of consideration in the context of this ruling.
Those of us that defend sexual liberty on the grounds that sexual orientation is not a lifestyle choice but genetically or developmentally determined, have to accept that this does not necessarily just apply to homosexual or trans-gendered people. It may be true (sans research) of paedophiles too. If that is the case, both they and we have a problem.
Paedophiles, assuming they have a “natural” if marginal sexual orientation have to live with a moral zeitgeist that demonises their behaviour, a behaviour which to them seems reasonable given their inclinations.
We are arriving at a point, happily, where we accept homosexuality in consensual adult circumstances as acceptable and not within the sphere of moral condemnation. We do not accept rape, because it is explicitly non consensual, and we do not accept paedophilic sex for essentially the same reason. We consider persons below a certain age not to be morally responsible agents and therefore unable to give informed consent. I'm not about to argue against this presumption because 1) I'm not a competent enough moral philosopher and 2) because my gut tells me it is a “right” position (although that doesn't mean it is necessarily a “true” position).
So, stating unequivocally that the two orientations are not in anyway connected, what, from a moral perspective, is the difference between say homosexuals and paedophiles?
I would say that although both sexual orientations are innate, paedophiles have to make a moral decision about consent in respect of sexual partners in a way that homosexuals don't. It is perfectly possible and usual for a homosexual to choose a willing sexual/life partner without having to make a rational moral decision (assuming no religious deontology), however a paedophile cannot do this, and probably should not do this in our society.
So, can a paedophile be rehabilitated? I see no reason why not. They will always be a paedophile given my naturalistic assumptions, but can they reach a point where they accept the moral injunctions? I think so, as long as they are supported properly.
Whether any given individual reaches a point in their life where they can be released from the sex offender's register would have to be down to the individual judgements of brave and experienced experts. But to live with the expectation that there was no hope of release into normal society would be a gross travesty of justice for that percentage of people who despite their natural inclinations, are genuinely capable of accepting, and abiding by, what constitutes currently acceptable behaviour. After all, realistically the offence would be on their permanent record. It's not as if a convicted paedophile would ever get a job in a school or a youth club, given the requirement for police record checks for such positions. All it would mean is that such a person, rehabilitated to the satisfaction of experts, would be able to forge and live a new life, free of stigma and condemnation, in the same way any truly reformed criminal can, and should, be able to do.

If you disagree, feel free to sign the petition

Tick "No Religion" in the 2011 Census

If you’re a British adult, you will soon be asked to fill out the 2011 census. The data, collected every ten years, is used to inform government policy and investment based on the demographic revealed in the figures.
In every census there is a question about religious affiliation, which is often filled out unthinkingly by people of little or no religious faith. Either because they instinctively tick “Christian” because C of E or Catholic  was the religion they were baptised into, or they treat it as a joke and write “Jedi” or “Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster” in the “Other” box.
However this year the British Humanist Association is campaigning for all non-religious people to tick the “no religion” box.
Although, if you write atheist or humanist or Jedi in the “other” box, you will be counted as non-religious for census purposes, if you actually are non religious it would send a stronger more consistent message to tick the “no religion” box.
Why does all this matter?
After the 2001 Census, the figures collected were used to justify the following policies:
§ Increase in the number of faith schools
§ The continuation of collective worship in schools
§ The public funding and support of ‘interfaith’ and faith-based organisations above the support offered to secular organisations
§ Suggestions of an increase in the role of faith in Britain under the coalition government
§ The appointments of government advisors on faith
§ Contracting out public services to religious organisations
§ Keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as of right
§ Continued high number of hours dedicated to religious broadcasting
§ Specific consultation at government and local level with ‘faith communities’ over and above other groups within society
§ Continued privileges for religious groups in equality law and other legislation
I believe that the true number of non-religious people in this country is far higher than the government figures suggest, and so does the BHA. If you are non- religious and want to persuade the government to spend our limited resources differently tick the No Religion box in the 2011 census

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

More on "homophobic" fostering

Just an update on this story from yesterday. I heard the couple involved being interviewed on the Today programme this morning. They sound a very nice and sincerely Christian couple and I still think the judgement to not allow them to foster was wrong. However, they said a few things in that naïve way that the religious do that bear comment.
Eunice Johns, when pressed by the interviewer about what she would tell a child that thought they were gay, or raised questions about homosexuality, said
“I would love him…I wouldn’t tell him it was right… but I wouldn’t love him any less”.
Which is fine, unless her idea of loving is to tell the child s/he is wrong, which was a suggestion she had trouble refuting. She went on to give the usual “hate the sin, love the sinner” apologetic that Christians use thoughtlessly as a substitute for true tolerance which suggests that the couple may have a problem dealing appropriately with the situation should it arise.
However Mrs Johns did make another point that was very salient. Given the age group of children they wish to adopt, five to ten year olds, you would probably be more worried that they were having explicitly sexual and gender conscious questions at all. Not that an eight year old say, couldn’t self identify as gay, but the degree of sexualisation they would have had to be exposed to would be an issue in itself. One would hope that the Johns’ first reaction would be to involve the professionals at that stage and not try to deal with it by themselves.
Both Mr and Mrs Johns also went on to suggest the ruling was a discrimination against Christians saying it was fine for homosexuals to have rights, but Christians should have rights too. This is patent nonsense and they are doing their cause no favours by making this an issue of religious discrimination. The ruling was about their ability to support a child through issues of homosexuality, given their attitude to the subject. It strikes me that all this couple needed to resolve their conflict was a little counselling and advice, to the extent of just being honest.
It would be no compromise to their faith or harm to the child to be told that their religion considered homosexuality to be wrong, but that it is not a universally held opinion. They might also say that there are other people who can talk about these issues from other perspectives.
It is a shame that such an obviously well meaning couple have got themselves in this position and I could go on all day about the absurdity of their beliefs, but that is not the problem here. Neither side in this case seems to be employing common sense and by making religion the issue they are both missing the point and the opportunity.