"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, 28 January 2012

Why I won't beta test atheism 2.0

Alain de Botton is an atheist philosopher who has come to the conclusion that religion has, after all, got it right. Not in the sense that gods exist you understand; Botton is still an atheist, but in the rituals and institutions that he claims help us mark the passage of our lives and stop and recognise our humanity and place in the order of things. There is a certain appeal to this, but only I think because we are immersed in a society that still sees religion as the default custodian of the "spiritual" in our lives. Botton thinks it is time to develop Atheism 2.0 a less materialistic and confrontational atheism than the one epitomised by the Dawkins, Hitchens approach, which he sees as "destructive" and to build an atheism built on the religious model but without the inconvenience of gods. The problem with this as I see it Is that without the imperative of a religious dogma to demand the observance of a particular calendar of rituals, who is going to agree on what to do when and why. For sure we could be named, marry and die according to some secular creed I suppose, but Botton is also arguing for equivalents of lent or Diwali etc. And he is even suggesting building a temple
"Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that's positive and good," he said. "That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don't believe but aren't aggressive towards religions."
But defining atheism within a religious context is actually to miss the point. There are plenty of secular institutions and places that nourish our humanity; art galleries, museums, drama and music societies, football stadiums and theatres to name a few. Humanists are also already adept at organising their own naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals without recourse to a creed or prescribed ritual. Also there is a particular danger to building atheism as a secular religion, in that it would be vulnerable to actually becoming a religion with its own dogmas and heresies and "priesthood" determining what freethinkers should actually be thinking, which kind of negates the point. So no thank you Alain, I won't be "upgrading" to atheism 2.0 just yet as my current version works just fine and doesn't require the investment in hardware that yours appears to need.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What should we mean by "Religious Freedom"?

Now, you see? You would think that this was an easy thing to get right, but it takes a theologian to get it manifestly wrong. Prof Roger Trigg of Kellogg College, Oxford has a book out in which he argues that the courts have gone too far in promoting the equality agenda above religious freedom.
Is religious freedom being curtailed in pursuit of equality, and the outlawing of discrimination? Is enough effort made to accommodate those motivated by a religious conscience? All rights matter but at times the right to put religious beliefs into practice increasingly takes second place in the law of different countries to the pursuit of other social priorities.
Well one of the problems with this is the definition of the word “freedom”. It is a word increasingly appropriated by religion worldwide; Catholic hospitals in the U.S want freedom to refuse reproductive health care, Muslims want the freedom to stifle criticism of Islam, Christian registrars want the freedom not to perform civil partnerships and Christian proprietors want the freedom to discriminate against homosexual clients. When society and the courts don’t allow this they say it is an attack on religion and religious freedom. It’s a superficially appealing argument, after all who doesn’t approve of freedom of conscience, freedom of action and freedom of speech? Freedom is a human right after all. But let’s deconstruct this emotional appeal to freedom and see whether the demands of religion and the religious are really on a sound ethical footing.
So, here is a selection of definitions of Freedom from Dictionary .Com
1. The state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial. 2. Exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc. 3. The power to determine action without restraint. 4. Political or national independence. 5. Personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.
I’m guessing that in this context most of us would see definitions 2 and 3 as most relevant, and as they are similar in effect I will treat them as one.
The obvious thing to say is that nobody in any stable society anywhere in the world, no matter how liberal or democratic has freedom according to this definition. We are all subject to external control, interference, regulation and restraint in many aspects of our lives. We are all subject to laws and injunctions that in the main (at least in a democracy) we agree are necessary for the good order of society. Personally, I would love to drive at 120MPH on the outside lane of the motorway, but apparently I can’t, not even if Jeremy Clarkson were my personal god and saviour. Neither can I smoke myself into oblivion on homegrown skunk, nor would professing myself a Rastafarian change that.
Now in a democratic society we can argue for and against the laws we abide by and we can apply whatever philosophy we like to those arguments; secular, religious, liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian or whatever floats your ontological boat. But, if we find ourselves on the losing side of that argument at any given time we still have to abide by the laws.
Many of us are in “pursuit of other social priorities” some liberal some conservative, but we all have to live within the constraints of the status quo even while trying to change it. I am on record as disagreeing with the drug laws as they stand; I would like to see them repealed not just for Rastafarians or MS sufferers but also for everyone else. Either society accepts that using narcotics is a legitimate personal choice or it doesn’t and at the moment the law is against me and equally against those who think they have a special case for being exempt.
Similarly the current situation in our society is that we are moving towards legislation that ensures equality for people previously marginalised by the law. It is illegal in our society to discriminate on the grounds of race or gender and most of us appear to be accepting that our institutions should be colour and gender “blind”. This means for example that now  any two individuals can enter into an institution legally equivalent to marriage regardless of their respective genders. I of course think this is a good thing, however I accept that there are many people who disagree and they are entitled to do so. But, they are not entitled to break those discrimination laws any more than I am, whatever their personal justification.
So there we have it! Religion and the good theologian Roger Trigg are not just demanding religious freedom; they are demanding more freedoms than the rest of us. What they really want is religious privilege, protecting them from the laws that the rest of us will be subject to.
My definition of religious freedom would be the “freedom to believe and worship in any way you want commensurate with the norms and laws of the society you inhabit.” As a religious individual you have the right to avoid professions that put you in conflict with your faith, and if you are in such a profession and it becomes incompatible with your beliefs, you can negotiate with your employer to protect you from the conflict, but if that fails you can capitulate or leave. This is no different from any other person in society. If in my profession my employer insisted I source components made by third world child labour, I would either leave for a company whose world view was more compatible with my own or compromise while arguing for change. But I wouldn’t expect to refuse to do my job and not get fired.
If the religious want to live in a society that is commensurate with their beliefs, they must argue for it. They must argue in the public forums, in the media and in our political institutions. But, in engaging in that debate they must expect their ideas, their rational and yes, even their sacred doctrines to be as open to scrutiny and criticism as any other. For this is another privilege religion demands for itself (or should I say wants back?); the freedom to be beyond censure and critique, for their beliefs to be sacrosanct in a way not afforded to any other philosophical view.
Freedoms of this kind if conceded to religion, would become the links in a chain for the rest of us.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

LSE Student Union attacks free speech.

Here is an object lesson on how to be on the wrong side of an argument about the balance between religious tolerance and free speech. To cut a long story sideways, the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society posted cartoons, published by the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, depicting the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus "sitting in a pub having a pint" on their society Facebook page This attracted complaints from Muslims who are under the impression that those of us lucky enough not to be cursed with their delusions are nevertheless obliged to respect their taboos and not make visual representations of the prophet. So instead of defending the society’s rights to free expression, on a private forum aimed at their own members they decide to pander to the intolerance of a few Muslims instead.
"Upon hearing this, the sabbaticals officers of the LSESU ensured all evidence was collected and an emergency meeting with a member of the Students' Union staff was called to discuss how to deal with the issue. During this time, we received over 40 separate official complaints from the student body, in addition to further information regarding more posts on the society Facebook page […] The offensive nature of the content on the Facebook page is not in accordance with our values of tolerance, diversity, and respect for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religious affiliation. There is a special need in a Students' Union to balance freedom of speech and to ensure access to all aspects of the LSESU for all the ethnic and religious minority communities that make up the student body at the LSE."
It was only “offensive” to oversensitive religionists who apparently have so little faith in their own deity to look after itself that they felt the need to censor a society that owes nothing whatsoever to their sensibilities. And, why is there a “special need” for students’ unions to decide whose freedom of speech is acceptable and whose isn’t, where do they get that mandate from? And why do they feel the need to bring up race or ethnicity? Presumably, it is meant to suggest that the evil atheists are racist, whereas this is just a perfectly valid jibe at religion, not at race at all. Religion is an opinion, like any other opinion (though with less rational than most) and is there to be discussed, challenged, ridiculed, defended and debated just like any other opinion. If you don’t like a political position, nobody would censure you for caricaturing it or the politician that promotes it so why should religion and religious figures be any different. Look! If you’re a Muslim by all means do your funky Muslim thing, it’s no skin off my nose. But don’t go telling me what I can and cannot say draw or publish about your religion and beliefs, and I won’t complain if you want to criticise mine.
This pandering to religious and in particular Islamic demands to restrict free speech is something that needs to be halted as a matter of urgency. On February the 11th atheists and secularists from all over London and the UK, (including ex-Muslims), are holding a rally with the One Law for All campaign at 2pm in the Old Palace Yard, (opposite the House of Lords) to defend free expression.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ribbing the Rabbi

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie has a piece in the Huffington Post entitled Religion Is Divisive and Conservative -- and a Very Good Thing. It begins with
I am a person of liberal convictions, and I spend most of my time with other liberals. Many of my friends share my liberal political views but recoil from my liberal religious beliefs. The reason that they give most frequently is that "religion is divisive and conservative."
He goes on
Religion, I tell them, is divisive because it deals with important matters -- above all, the search for holiness and God and the struggle to determine the ultimate values that guide our lives.
Which strikes me as extremely niave as religion as it is practiced rarely attempts to deal with important matters. In fact it seems to dismiss them with the assumption that it already has the answers preserved in aspic from some dusty tome penned by the inhabitants of iron age cultures totally divorced from the present. But lets assume for a moment that religion really does try to debate the all important questions in life, is it really the best vehicle for doing this? Yoffie seems to think think so
Theology, precisely because it deals with weighty and difficult subjects, is a discipline of hard edges… …You are stuck, I go on, in a childish, simplistic mindset that sees religion as a gentle, "let's all get along" affair. But no one needs religion for that. And any religion that, from time to time, is not intellectually ferocious in asserting its idea of the good -- as opposed to someone else's idea of the good -- is not a religion to be taken seriously.
Well yes and no, some aspects of religion play the cosy-up ecumenical game, while some beat the living crap out of each other, but it’s rarely about “asserting ideas of the good” but more about asserting one dogma over another. Anyway he then goes on to usefully anticipate what he believes the liberal argument will be.
[That] Ferocious intellectual arguments about what is moral and what God expects of us can take an extremist turn. They can become an instrument to separate those with our beliefs from the despised "other" who thinks differently. They can become a rationale to hate and even to kill.
Well, yes they can and often do, but the reason is not just because of opposing views, it is because no religious views on “wrong” or “right” can ever be empirically proved to anyones satisfaction. Religious disagreement is not on a par with political debate. Although politics can get equally ugly, there can in most cases be a fact of the matter that can be demonstrated (whether or not both parties accept the evidence is beside the point, many substantial political disagreements could be resolved in principle). Competing religions have no fact of the matter, It’s one scripture against the other, one sect's interpretation of the same scripture against another's and one person’s personal belief against another’s. It is an unreconcilable situation so whether they really “struggle to determine [the] ultimate values” or not, religions will never do anything useful to actually enlighten us. But Yoffe then appeals to the wisdom of the ages
I argue that religion is conservative because it resists the tyranny of the new and the culture of now. It asserts that when we decide on the matters of greatest consequence, we must give a hearing to the sages of old and to the sacred texts that record their voices.
To which I offer in repost Tim Minchin’s line “Just because ideas are tenacious doesn’t mean that they’re worthy” and listening to either fundementalists insisting on the rigidity of the texts or liberals searching for relevant metaphores is in both cases a waste of everyones time. Neither Moses, Jesus or Mohammed had to contemplate the ethics of contraception, voluntary euthanasia, safe abortion, global warming, peak oil or nuclear proliferation. Neither did they have the scientific knowledge to usefully inform their opinions if they had. Yoffie’s liberal chums are correct, religion is divisive and will uselessly remain so since no evidential basis is available to bridge the many divides and it is conservative because at root it relies on dogmas set in tablets of stone that require theologians to indulge in absurd post modern pseudointellectual contortions to make them appear even vaguely relevant today.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Setting the record straight:Jessica Ahlquist and the Daily Mail

This is a story from the US that I have been following closely but probably would not have commented on as I try to keep this blog mainly UK focussed. However since that stalwart of liberal British journalism the Daily Mail has seen fit to report and comment inappropriately on the outcome I’ll make an exception. Jessica Ahlquist is a sixteen-year-old atheist high school student at Cranston High School West in Rhode Island where the banner pictured here had been on display for sixty years. Now, in the UK where most of us have been to schools with morning assemblies and compulsory acts of worship, a banner phrased as a prayer to God probably wouldn’t even register on most people’s radar. But in the US the first amendment to the constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion. Jessica knew this and as her high school is a public school (not in the perverse way we use the term over here) and therefore an arm of government she complained to the school administration and asked that it should be removed. The school refused and so Jessica took her complaint to the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) which, on her behalf asked for the banner to be removed or face a lawsuit (which the school would inevitably lose). Stupidly the school again refused and a lawsuit followed. As was always going to be the case the ACLU prevailed and the school has been ordered to remove the banner and I suspect the school district has also wasted a lot of US tax dollars in the process.
Jessica has received a great deal of abuse from her school and community over this, and there are some reports that since the court judgment someone has even published her address on the internet along with death threats in a clear attempt to invite further retribution, bullying and worse from the ever tolerant Christian community. Jessica has been an incredibly brave and articulate advocate for the defence of human rights in her community and weathered the months of abuse from Christians to uphold the principles she believes in. So, in case anyone thinks this was a frivolous and mean spirited attack on a cherished and harmless school tradition, look at it this way. In a multicultural society where one religion dominates it is all too easy for those of other faiths or none to be marginalised by the propaganda of the majority. It’s not just atheists who don’t want Christian proselytising in their schools, work places or public space; it’s also Jews, Muslims, Hindus and adherents of the many other religions that litter the world. After all, if the banner had begun “In the name of Allah” the school would never have put it up in the first place, so why should the Christian God get a free pass.
Anyway I mention all this only because the Daily Mail’s supercilious trivialising of Jessica Ahlquist’s bravery and well deserved victory (H.T Ophelia Benson) may be the only publicity this case gets in the U.K mainstream media, and I’d hate anyone over here to get the impression that her school is in some way the “good guy” in this story: it isn’t and it does the Daily Mail no credit to suggest otherwise.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Ultra Orthodox Jew assaults "immodest" eight year old schoolgirl

If you want some proof that the more religious a person is the more warped their morality becomes, look no further than the increasing and increasingly vocal population of Haredim Jews in Israel. This ultra orthodox sect believes in the strict segregation of men and women in public places, including public transport where they insist women should sit at the back of the bus so that these pious men don’t have to sit next to, or even look at them. A large number of these Mosaic misogynists are effectively parasites on the state and their families having no paying job but Instead study scripture all day at a yeshiva, which entitles them to welfare payments and excuses them from military service. This may be one of the reasons their numbers are on the rise (cynical old me eh?). In a recent incident, one Haredi spat on an eight year old girl as she walked to school and called her a prostitute because, although she was conservatively dressed by any reasonable standard, he considered her clothing “immodest”. So how twisted does your sense of morality have to be before you assault a child and harangue her with highly sexualised words because you find her sexually arousing so therefore in some way immodest? I’ll tell you how morally twisted you have to be; you have to have religion and you have to have it really bad. No other mental deficiency short of psychotic paedophilia would lead a rational person to the conclusion that this behaviour to a child is right and proper. Steeped in a tradition that believes Abraham was doing a good thing when he agreed to sacrifice Isaac to Yahweh, no doubt a child’s sensitivities are irrelevant compared to what the Haredim think their ancient tribal god requires of women. But here’s hoping that the more secular citizens of Israel can put them straight on that.