"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

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.

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